Bicycle Touring Can Be Done on a Budget
From the mountains of Peru to the Australian Outback, from German forests to the Grand Canyon, long distance bicycle touring is one of the best ways to explore the world. There is a unique sense of liberty that comes from traveling by pedal-power, driven by nothing more than an intrigue for new cultures and surroundings. Self-contained touring brings as much freedom as you could ever hope to acquire in your traveling life. Like all forms of travel, there is a financial burden but it doesn't have to be expensive. With some careful planning and frugal living, bicycle touring can be done on a shoestring budget. Here are seven suggestions to get you started.
# 1. Seek Free Accommodation
After hundreds of miles at the saddle, and countless nights sleeping in a tent or under the stars, it's perfectly normal to crave the homely comforts of a cosy bed and a hot shower. Yet hotels are expensive and even the occasional night in a hostel can eat away at your touring fund. A great money-saving alternative is to seek out a free bed in the home of a welcoming stranger. Bicycle touring is a wonderful way to meet new people and with a little luck, you could find yourself overwhelmed with offerings of hospitality, especially if you learn how to drop the right hints. Another way is to join a hospitality exchange site like CouchSurfing or WarmShowers where you can hook up with people willing to lend you their guest room. But remember, always follow the site rules and try to return the favour one day by hosting a weary pilgrim in your own home.
Learn From My Mistakes
Are you about to set off on your trip? Check out my article, Bicycle Touring Tips: 10 Mistakes to Avoid, so you can dodge the same traps that caught me out.
# 2. Camp Wild
One of the strange mysteries of budget traveling is that we should willingly part with our money for the right to pitch our tent in a small field on a commercial camp site. Think about it for a moment. That camp site is often surrounded by a vast wilderness of forests, lakes, grasslands, hills and mountains with boundless opportunities to set up your own temporary camp for free. Who needs a dirty campsite shower block or a crowded laundry room when you can wash yourself and your clothes in a secluded lake? Just remember to take organic soap.
Although sleeping wild doesn't offer some of the relative securities of a camp site, it will save you money, especially on a long distance bicycle tour where stretching your funds is paramount to prolonging the trip. You'll also enjoy a firsthand experience of nature where you are nothing more than an odd curiosity to the local wildlife.
The legalities of wild camping differ across the globe so be sure to research this before your departure. If you're traveling through bear country, or the habitats of other potentially dangerous animals, then take necessary precautions. And choose a tent that blends seamlessly with the setting, dark greens and browns are more conducive to wild camping than the gaudy colors and hallucinogenic patterns that you might see on the canvas of a tent at a music festival.
# 3. Cook Your Own Meals
Like hotels, restaurants can be hideously expensive. Far wiser it is for the frugal traveler to invest in a small camping stove and cooking utensils. The initial outlay on equipment is easily recuperated, even on a short bike touring trip. If you're cycling with a companion, you could trade responsibilities; one of you erects the tents while the other cooks. Save even more money by foraging for wild food (see #3) and purchasing discounted meat nearing its sell-by date.
And food cooked by moonlight outside the door of your tent* after a hard day of bicycle touring will taste like the finest of meals, however simple the ingredients. That, I promise you.
* if you're camping in an environment where dangerous wild animals such as bears might be present, it isn't wise to cook near your sleeping spot. Prepare, cook and eat your food a few hundred yards away. Likewise, don't sleep in the same clothes you wore while cooking. Seal them in a bag, well away from your tent.
# 4. Forage For Wild Food
Cycling hundreds of miles through rural terrain means that you'll often encounter opportunities to pick food growing wild. Berries & fruits, mushrooms, herbs and edible plants can all be harvested with care for a gratis serving of nourishment.
Keep some plastic sealable food bags in your luggage so that uncultivated foodstuffs can be reaped, stored and consumed at a later time, perhaps cooked up on your camping stove at the end of the day.
There are a few caveats attached to foraging wild food. The dangers of picking something that you can't identify with absolute certainty need not be explained here (consider investing in a wild food guide book) and you should always strive to follow the local code of the countryside.
# 5. Avoid Paying For Water
When bicycle touring, the temptation to splurge on a chilled bottle of Evian during sweaty hours in the midday sun can sometimes be overwhelming. But practice constraint. Bottled water is a luxury that might seem harmless but it can quickly erode your savings.
We are surrounded by water and paying for the privilege to consume it exceeds even the bizarre inclination to pay for a small camping spot in the middle of a far-reaching wilderness.
A good touring bike should be equipped with two or three drinks cages and many pannier bags offer additional water storage room. Whenever you encounter a service station, public building or fast-food joint, use the taps in the restrooms to top up your bottles.
In rural areas, get water from rivers and streams. Use purification tablets, or a water filter to render it drinkable. Investing in tablets or a filter does require an initial outlay up front but will easily save money in the long run. Boiling water on your camping stove is another option, if slightly more time consuming and laborious.
Be careful. Sometimes the desire to save money can have adverse consequences. If you're touring in a developing country, or you can't be certain that you've established a drinkable source of water, avoid gambling with your health. All that money you've saved can quickly be negated by a nasty case of e.coli poisoning.
- Methods to Purify Drinking Water on Camping Trips
Want to know more about water purification? Check out this article.
Bicycle Touring Books Available on Amazon
# 6. Buy Good Quality Second-Hand Gear
Buying second-hand gear - touring bike, tent, pannier bags etc - is a guaranteed way to save money when preparing for your bicycle tour but it also produces a couple of less obvious benefits. A shiny new touring bike and pristine pannier bags are far more likely to catch the attention of opportunistic street thieves. Older touring bikes tend be more inconspicuous and if you're kitted out in used goods, you'll make a far less attractive proposition for criminals. As a general rule of thumb: the shabbier you look, the safer you are.
A pre-owned bike also often requires some work before it is roadworthy. By customizing and tweaking the machine to your own specifications, you'll greatly improve your knowledge of bike mechanics - knowledge that could prove priceless when you're out on the road.
Shop for second-hand goods with quality in mind. A touring bike by an established manufacturer like Dawes or Cannondale can last a lifetime, passing through the hands of several owners in the process.
Furthermore, if you know a thing or two about bike mechanics and really want to push the boundaries of frugal traveling, you might want to convert an old eighties mountain bike into a touring bike. For inspiration, check out this blog by a guy who cycled from England to Thailand on a second-hand £40 mountain bike!
Use Ebay or similar sites to find cheap bicycle touring equipment. You'll be amazed how much money you can save compared to buying everything brand new.
# 7. Make A List Of Everything You Need
As soon as you begin planning your tour, make a list of every item you will need for the trip. Make alterations if necessary but sticking to the list will prevent you from making impulse purchases that you don't really need. Sure, that inflatable bed might look and feel great in the camping store but do you really want to haul the beast for thousands of miles on the back of your touring bike? Once you've acquired each item, you can tick it off from your list and also keep a close eye on the progress of your budget.
For Further Advice...
For further advice on budget touring, join up to a forum such as BikeForums.Net or seek out experienced cyclists and ply them with questions. There are also hundreds of touring blogs on the internet where you can pick up little tidbits of parsimonious wisdom. See if your local library has any books on budget traveling or buy one yourself on online (second-hand of course). I can personally recommend The Essential Touring Cyclist by Richard A. Lovett. You can pick up a second hand copy for a few dollars on Amazon (see product link above).
If you have money saving tips related to bicycle touring that you'd like to share, feel free to write them in the comments section below.