How to Bicycle Tour For Cheap, Part 1

Want to go on a bicycle tour but don’t think you can afford it? Have a dream of adventure on a bicycle but don’t know what to buy? Then read on! In Part 1 of 2 in this series, I will share four lessons I learned on how to assemble a touring set-up for cheap, based on my experience during a 2,000-mile trip from Denver to New York City over the summer of 2018.

For a quick reference-list of my equipment and their respective prices, scroll down to the very bottom of this article. Otherwise, read on.


 

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During the course of my tour from Denver to New York City, a common inquiry from people asking about my trip was, “You must have a pretty expensive bike and equipment to do this.” That couldn’t be further from the truth! Compared to a homeless cross-country drifter I met in Kansas who was riding a fixed-gear bike with a milk crate for a pannier, I was only a few grades above him, but, I purchased my gear with a mind for frugality and being as lightweight as possible.

Pay Attention to the Used Market

The first and biggest question is, of course, “What bicycle did you purchase?” The answer: a $140 used Schwinn Trailway I found on Craigslist. I considered buying newer, shinier bikes before arriving at my decision, but the used bicycle market is very healthy in Denver, and shortly into my search on Craigslist I started seeing bikes that were in good shape and more than adequate for the needs of my journey. I could have purchased nearly the exact same bike brand-new at Target for about $260, but that’s an additional $120 that could go towards buying a pannier, sleeping bag, or bike tools. When I inspected the bike in-person, it had been maintained and tuned up throughout its life, and was in excellent shape on-par with a new bike. So if I’m getting the performance of a new bike without having to pay the price tag for it, why should I?

The bike lasted me the entire way to New York City without problems, and during the entire trip only required one repair. After riding two days through rain and mud on the C&O Canal Towpath in Pennsylvania, the spindle inside the bottom bracket rusted over and broke. Luckily, I was near a bike shop when this happened, and it was a simple $30 fix before I was on my way again.

You have to be discriminating in your choice of used gear, though. Just because it’s a low price for the item you’re wanting, doesn’t mean there isn’t a hidden flaw. However, if the item checks out and the price is low, go for it! Give yourself plenty of time before the trip to search the used markets, because even if you can’t find what you need at the moment, someone could be selling it later.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Free Things

I have a short story to tell for this one, so bear with me until the end.

When I set out on my journey, I had a thermal bivvy sack and a Snugpak Jungle Blanket for my sleep system. I was born and raised in Phoenix, and since I was leaving on May 2nd, I figured the temperature would rapidly rise as summer approached. How wrong I was. I tested my system outside a couple nights in a row and it was comfortable enough, but on the first day of travel, a cold storm-front rolled in and the temperature dropped well below what my system could handle. After two nights of shivering until I passed out, I began to search and ask around for a sleeping bag to purchase in the small towns I was passing through. Eventually, when I stopped at a diner in Idalia, I met a couple who had passed me on the road earlier. I told them I was looking for a sleeping bag, and as luck would have it, the woman had a backpacking-sized mummy bag she hadn’t used in years and was more than happy to give it to me for free! I insisted on compensating her, but she insisted on it being a gift. From then on, I was warm and cozy!

If I hadn’t asked strangers for help, I would have had to wait five days until I reached Saint Francis in Kansas to buy a sleeping bag at the local Ace Hardware, the nearest place that sold them. And even then, the only sleeping bags available were big, ancient ones that would’ve been Hell trying to fit on my bike. But I was gifted a sleeping bag that was compact and fit my needs perfectly, all because I asked the right people for help.

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Thanks for the free sleeping bag! Idalia, CO

When you’re planning your bike trip, ask friends and relatives if they have any gear you need that they could let you borrow or part ways with. Make a post on your social media accounts and ask there too. It’s possible that someone you know who doesn’t even live near you has something you need that they’d be willing to ship to you. A friend of a friend of a friend might be willing to trade something with you. You’ll never know unless you ask, and ask around as much as you can. Just don’t beg. Nobody likes a beggar.

Just Because It’s Cheap, Doesn’t Mean It’s Bad

When you’re researching what to buy, you’ll most likely come across bikers with blogs who post their gear lists for informative – and sometimes advertising – purposes. Looking at a lot these, you’re likely to see expensive or high-end equipment, and it can be discouraging to see these when your budget and options are limited. However, there are specific reasons why these bikers might have expensive equipment:

  1. They’re simply wealthy from whatever career they pursue.
  2. They are a professional rider in some capacity, and have equipment sponsors.
  3. They are a professional blogger, and have negotiated deals with retailers for free or reduced-price gear in exchange for good reviews and advertising through their website.
  4. They’ve been bicycle touring for many years, and have devoted a portion of their income to purchasing bike equipment over a long period of time.
  5. They’ve been saving up for much longer than you have.
  6. Life ain’t fair.

You’re just some average guy wanting to go on a long-distance tour or adventure, what’s the gear you should be purchasing? Be frugal, and don’t be afraid of inexpensive gear. The biggest differences between low and high-end gear are simply the features and the durability; don’t let the marketing buzzwords seduce you. If you don’t require a lot of features (because you’re new to this thing and barely know what you need anyway), and you don’t even know if you’re going on tours after this one (because you have no idea if you’re going to enjoy it as much as you think you might), there’s no sense in NOT buying cheap gear. It might not last you 12,000 miles over the course of three summers of pan-European touring, but if it lasts 2,000 miles without breaking, then it’s good enough!

To give you an example, the total price of my rack and panniers was about $70. Both were purchased new from Chinese manufacturers on Amazon.com, and both lasted my entire trip without failing me. They don’t have any extra features, and aren’t made of the best quality materials, but they were good enough for the task. You could easily spend upwards of $500 on your panniers alone, and hundreds more on a fancy rack made from titanium and custom fit to your exact bike model. But you don’t have to.

Like I mentioned previously, I met a homeless drifter at a rest stop who was biking across the country from New Mexico to New York state. He had a fixed-gear bike with monkey-bar handles, a milk crate bungee-corded to an ancient rear rack, and a small backpack with his belongings. And this man was in Missouri when I met him. Sure, he had hitchhiked a few times, but he had cycled well over 1,000 miles by then. If that guy can get that far with so little, I know you can do even better with more.

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Artsy portrait in a motel in Norton, KS.

Know What to Spend Extra On

So far I’ve discussed how to be a cheap bastard and still travel the world, but there are some things you’ll want to spend extra money on. It’s all up to personal preference, so I can’t tell you what is worth it and what isn’t, but I can give you some guidelines to think about, as well as an example of each.

  1. In terms of comfort, what is important to you and what isn’t?
  2. In terms of performance, what is important to you and what isn’t?
  3. How much more are you willing to spend for a marginal improvement?
  4. Is a product more expensive, but exponentially better than an alternative?

Comfort

I’m a side-sleeper, so I have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep on thin padding. I learned this the hard way with a Thermorest Z-Lite during my walking and hitchhiking trip across the Southwest in the summer of 2017. When I was searching for an inflatable sleeping pad for my trip, I needed something that was as thick as possible. What I settled on was a Big Agnes Air Core Ultra, XL width. It’s 25 inches wide and 3.5 inches thick when fully inflated. It was on sale for $60 at REI from an MSRP of $100, and it was worth every penny even if I had bought it at full price. There are thinner, less expensive pads that I would be able to sleep on, albeit less comfortably, but I decided that sleep quality was important to me and therefore worth spending extra on because I had saved money in other areas. I still own it, and it’s going to see many more adventures before it needs to be replaced.

As a counter-example, I also bought an inflatable pillow that was one of the cheapest on the market, the Klymit X-Pillow. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a good head-rest on it for most of my nights due to me being a side-sleeper, and I would have gladly spent more money on a thicker pillow to get better quality sleep. So in that case I chose poorly and paid the price!

Performance

When I purchased my bike, I decided that it wasn’t important that it travel fast or last forever, but it was important that it was comfortable and ergonomic. Since I had saved so much money on the bike, I took it down to a bike shop and had it fitted professionally. Basically, I had the bike adjusted to fit my body’s range of motion, and bought a seat that fit the sit-bones on my pelvis. In doing so, I learned new things on how the ergonomics of a bike should fit a person, and also got some tips and advice from the fitter, who was a long-distance bicyclist himself.

Now, obviously, you don’t need a professional to fit you to your bike. But I decided that, given the distance I was riding, a little discomfort could become a huge problem as the days wore on, so anything I could do to reduce that possible discomfort was worth it. Compared to how I adjusted the bike myself, I would say the fitter made my bike about 30% more comfortable and 15% more efficient. That doesn’t sound like much, but once you start adding up that comparative advantage over the course of 60 days, 30% becomes the difference between sustaining a knee injury and not, and 15% becomes the difference between making it to a town before sunset and not. Plus, it was $75, so it was not a big expense compared to the cost of travel over the next two months.

Marginal Improvements

With many gear items, some things just don’t have a great amount to improve on. Take the bicycle computer. A basic $13 model from Walmart will give you a speedometer, odometer, trip odometer, and an average speed tracker. A more expensive computer isn’t going to calculate any of that better than a cheap model can, just as a scientific calculator isn’t going to calculate addition or subtraction equations any better than the one on your phone. You’re also not participating in high-performance races or time-trials, so things like wattage calculators, GPS integration, altimeters, etcetera are frivolous for your needs. Yes, having that information could potentially improve your performance by some small percentage, but is it worth the extra cost?

The rain jacket is another one. You can quickly and easily find rain jackets made for bicycling that cost $150 and up. You can find mid-range ones for $60 and up. Or, you could buy a Frogg Togg for $15, and it will repel water just as good as the other more expensive products. Sure, it won’t breathe as well, that’s a fair criticism. But again, you’re not cycling for time or competition, so sometimes it’s better to just pull off the road and wait until the rain passes while wearing your cheap set of Toggs, then take them off and hop back on the saddle. Or, duck under a tree and enjoy an unexpected break from the weather. Or, if the rain is light enough, just deal with it and air-dry as you go. The more you pace yourself to the world’s rhythm, the less expensive travel is.

Exponential Improvements

Is a piece of gear more expensive than an alternative, but exponentially better? The best example I can give here is your choice of padded bicycle shorts (or chamois if you’re in the know). If you’re doing a long-distance trip with high-mileage days, you can’t avoid purchasing a pair or two to protect your sensitive parts. Sure, you could purchase a couple of $30 pairs at Target or Walmart, but how long would they hold up? And how well would they prevent saddle sores? The answers to those questions: Not very long, and not very well. So let’s say you buy those two pairs for $60, and about 1,000 miles later they’re both pretty frayed and your perineum is so sore you have to take multiple rest days in order for it to heal. Chances are you’re going to want to rest in a motel, so that’s $150 at a minimum for three days. You’ve now spent $210 because of your choice, and now you are also going to be searching for a more expensive pair to replace the cheap ones you have probably thrown away by this point. Now you’ve spent nearly $300 in direct costs for your bike shorts.

Or, you could pony up and pay $100 for one super-nice pair of shorts, which means not having to deal with a single sore the whole way, and are still in pretty good condition by the time you reach the end of your adventure. It’s a more expensive immediate cost, but it’s much less expensive in the long run. Besides, since you’ve saved so much money by purchasing a used bike and keeping your other costs low, the expense paid for high-quality chamois is reasonable.

(Note: This chamois example doesn’t apply to “shorter” trips of 300 miles or less, since you’re probably not going to be in the saddle long enough for expensive chamois to make a noticeable difference.)

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At a local camping park in western Missouri. As you can see, there’s not much I’m carrying!

Conclusion

Regardless of your level of income, outfitting yourself for a long-distance bicycle tour is possible if you’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices to do so. Humble yourself, keep a realistic idea of your capabilities, and don’t be ashamed to buy used or sub-optimal gear. At the end of the day, you’re riding a bicycle along a path; it’s an extremely simple activity. It’s only by over-thinking it that it becomes a complex problem to solve through ever-increasing amounts of wasted money.

Most importantly, take plenty of time to find adequate gear for the lowest price. If it works well enough, and will last long enough, it’s going to do the job you need it to do. Yeah, you’re not going to be the guy decked out in the latest gear with the coolest-looking set-up, but you are going to be the guy who rode a thousand miles and came back to tell the tale.

 


If you enjoyed this article or found it useful, please consider subscribing to this blog to get a notification when Part 2 in this series is published. In it, I will discuss how to keep travel costs low when you’re on the road. Thank you for reading!

 

Equipment and Price List

*  indicates Amazon Prime discount price

** indicates purchased previously unrelated to bike tour and cheaper equivalents are available

  • Bicycle: Used Schwinn Trailway, $140+$90 for bike-fitting and new seat/seatpost
  • Rear rack: West Biking “Almost Universal” Adjustable Bike Rack, $26.49
  • Panniers: Roswheel Multifuction Bicycle Expedition Touring Cam Pannier, $39.95
  • Frame pack: Ibera Bicycle Triangle Frame Bag (Large), $9.99*
  • Handlebar pack: Roswheel Bicycle Handlebar Bag, $14.99
  • Tent: ALPS Mountaineering Lynx 1-Person Tent, $65.97*
  • Groundcloth: Campcovers 3 By 8 Foot Tyvek Ground Sheet, $12.19
  • Sleeping bag: Ledge Sports FeatherLite +20F, Free (normally $54.49)
  • Sleeping pad: Big Agnes Air Core Ultra Extra-Wide, $59.95 (sale, normally $99.95)
  • Pillow: Klymit Pillow X, $19.95 (sale, normally $24.95)
  • Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket, Discontinued, but was $39.95.**
  • Cooking pot: GSI Outdoors 1.1L Halulite Pot, $19.95 (sale, normally $29.95)**
  • Eating utensils: McDonald’s plastic-ware, Free
  • Bike computer: Bell Dashboard 100, $12.99
  • Tire liners: Rhinodillos, $13.55
  • Tires: Factory tires
  • Total: $620.41 Only a couple weeks of paychecks if you make minimum wage in most US States!

Everything else, such as clothing, bike tools, miscellaneous creature comforts, water bottles, sunglasses, etc. are all up to personal preference and prices can vary wildly depending on where you are in the global market, the local climate, and what you’re comfortable with.

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