10 tips for planning an epic bikepacking exploration
© Simon Parker
Want to turn an out-there idea into a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Broadcaster and explorer Simon Parker talks us through his advice for making your two-wheel travelling dreams into a reality.
With a day job that entails heading off to far flung locations, it’s fair to say journalist and broadcaster Simon Parker gets about a bit. In fact, he estimates that he typically spends a third of his time sitting in airports, and around 150 nights a year bedding down in hotels.
For his most recent challenge though – a five part documentary with a second season on the way – Simon found himself confronted without the modern luxuries of global travel. Titled Earth Cycle, the show promotes the idea of slowing down your adventures and taking in the wonders of nature.
The idea came to Simon while riding across the US as part of a trip sailing and cycling eastwards from China to London.
“I realized I hate sailing,” he says. “It made me unwell and I was lucky not to be killed on several occasions. However the cycling element was the best couple of months of my life, just being on my own, sleeping in a bivvy bag in a National Park under the stars, cooking dinner on a camping stove. I became hooked on that lifestyle.”
I started to realize I was becoming really in tune with the natural world in a way that I wouldn’t normally be able to perceive as a travel writer zooming around the planet
From that germ of an idea, Earth Cycle was born, and the first season sees Simon cycle from the northernmost to the southernmost peninsulas of Scandinavia.
“I started to realize I was becoming really in tune with the natural world in a way that I wouldn’t normally be able to perceive as a travel writer zooming around the planet. I was seeing plants come into bloom, farmers going out for the harvest, animals crossing the road,” he says.
All of which sounds like a pretty good way to spend your time.
Going from reading about bikepacking adventures to actually getting out there can be a whole different ball game, though. To help you get into gear, Simon shares his 10 tips for heading out into the great unknown without overthinking it.
1. Set your goals before you set off
“I like to come up with a defined beginning and end to my journeys,” says Simon. “I like adventures which go from one extreme point to the next. When I cycled across the US, I knew I was starting on one coast and finishing on another. I’m not motivated by being the fastest or the first to do something, or doing a route that’s never been done before; it’s about coming up with a concept of a beginning and an end point that will keep you motivated.”
2. It’s not all about getting to the end as fast as physically possible
“Everyone will have a slightly different approach; it depends how motivated you are by day-to-day achievements as opposed to just getting to the end point. I personally like to plot points along my journey that motivate me and provide a reward.
"If you start overthinking that you are going to cover 4-5,000 miles on a bike ride it becomes overwhelming. If you think, ‘Well, by the end of this week I want to cover 500 miles, and I’m going to meet this person and see this landmark and try this seasonal local food along the way,’ it makes things a bit more manageable and less daunting.”
3. Don’t get bogged down in your kit list
“Keep things simple. There are so many blogs out there that will give you advice on saving grammes on tents or sleeping bags. I wouldn’t let that deter you. You can overcomplicate your adventure but ultimately, it is just you on a bike with a couple of suitcases so don’t fret about spending an extra $200-300 on a lightweight tent if it’s going to be preventative to you going on the trip. When I cycled across the US, I had an old tent, an old camping stove, an old trailer I bought on eBay for £20 (approx. $35); you don’t need the most expensive, state-of-the-art stuff.”
4. It’s not all about having the coolest bike
“About 10 or 20 years ago, bikepacking became quite commercialized because it was all about weight – packing light, carbon fibre frames and lighter materials. As a result, everything became a lot more expensive and inaccessible to some people. People see these slick, expensive bikes and think that’s what they have to have. In reality it can be as simple as gaffer-taping a duffel bag to your bike and going out and getting on with it.
“When I cycled across the US, I did it on a £750 bike which was perfect for what I needed. After about 2,000 miles, I encountered the first other cyclists on my adventure. They were two German guys cycling from San Francisco to Chicago on their grandmother’s bicycles that they found in her garden shed. They had two and a half gears, baskets on the front and they were cycling across the Rocky Mountains and across America on them. The bikes were probably worth about £10 each.”
5. Don’t push yourself too far too soon
Your fitness levels have to reach a plateau in the first week – you won’t cycle 100 miles on the first day; you’ll end up worn out with pulled muscles
“I try to keep a reasonable base level of fitness, which isn’t to say I’m not prone to having a few pints and a pizza. With a 4-5,000-mile bike ride, who has the time to go on a 2,000-mile ride to train? It isn’t practical. I’ll try to tick over with 30 or 40 miles a day, four or five times a week, which I can do in a few hours each morning. Ultimately, the real training is in the first week of the adventure.
“Your fitness levels have to reach a plateau in the first week – you won’t cycle 100 miles on the first day; you’ll end up worn out with pulled muscles. I’ll aim for 50 miles on the first day, then creep it up in increments of five-to-10 miles a day until I’m consistently riding 100 miles a day. Your body needs time to get used to being in the saddle.”
6. Plan for disaster
“Remember that you’ve made a choice to put yourself in this situation; you know it’ll be uncomfortable and there will be mishaps along the way. As long as you get your head around that before those mishaps happen, you can roll with the punches. When I go into an adventure, I already know I’m going to get flat tyres in the middle of nowhere so when it happens it’s just an eventuality; it’s not a big shock. Think about what could happen way before it happens, so when you do break down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, you’re not wasting time feeling anxious and stressed; you can just get on with the job.”
7. Listen to your body
“Being on a bicycle for 12-14 hours a day gives you a chance to tune into your body in a way that we never really tune into in everyday life. You start to feel aches and pains in all of your joints and muscles in a way that you never normally would. You realize you have to listen to these twinges. If I get a twinge in my lower back, I’ll get off the bike and have a think about the position of the saddle, the pedals; I’ll try to pre-empt a problem at this stage instead of pushing on and making it worse.”
8. Reward yourself
“Although I like pushing myself to the limit, I try to have one rest day per week. I try to take in as many extra calories as possible. I chill out and get off the bike, giving my muscles a chance to rest before I hit it again. Usually, by the end of that day, I’m itching to get back on the bike and really enjoying it again.”
9. Don’t stress the bigger picture
If you’re prepared to sit on this bike all day, the miles will take care of themselves
“I remind myself to ‘ride the day’. By that I mean stop trying to push every single mile, just know that if you’re prepared to sit on this bike all day, the miles will take care of themselves. Treat it like a 9-5 job. Keep doing that and you’ll reach the end of the day and realise you’ve just cycled 100 miles.”
10. Bite the bullet
“If you’re unhappy in your 9-5, a bad day on the bike is still better than a day in an office. However gruelling it is, it’s still an immense feeling of freedom, of being on an adventure that no-one else has been on before.
“That said, some people have the grand ambitions of cycling around the world without ever having given it a go. Start small, take a long weekend, go on your bike and cycle four days straight, sleeping out and cooking up your food. People like the idea of these things but the reality of being tired and hungry, not having showered for a week and having slept in a tent that’s been rained on all day seems nice, but in reality it might not be your cup of tea. Start by riding 200 miles as opposed to 2,000 miles. Go to the four corners of your county and take it from there.”