Friedel and Andrew Grant, world bike tourists and creators of the travellingtwo.com website, have written The Bike Touring Survival Guide, a well written, produced and thought out ebook all about bike touring.
Before I start my review, I should add a disclaimer. I have met Friedel and Andrew, been supportive of this effort, and am one of the people thanked in the acknowledgements section. In addition, I've done a fair amount of bike touring but nothing of the distance and difficulty that the authors have.
I've tried to write this review both from the perspective of an experienced bike tourist and someone who is new to it and looking for a guide to get started.
Let me start by saying that I really like the idea of an ebook for this material. Not only does it greatly reduce the price (€5 or about $7 at 6/2011 exchange rates), but it allows me to take a copy on tour without adding any weight!
The book contains lots of interesting photos, useful asides, website links, and inspiring anecdotes. Not only is it full of valuable information, it is fun to read. I plan to carry this book on my next bike tour in case I need to repair a zipper or deal with a broken frame, two things I learned about when I read this book.
The book does reflect the author's experience and is tilted toward, what I would call, expedition touring. Namely, long, multi-country tours taking several months to complete. While it would help prepare a novice attempting their first overnight bike ride, it concentrates on the issues presented by longer and more remote tours. This is not a bug. It's a feature! It means that the material in the book will keep delivering insights as bike touring wannabees transform themselves into iron-thighed global travelers.
While, I found this book to offer excellent advice, references, and road-tested information, I have three minor complaints.
First, I didn't find a few things I'd recommend in the book. One example is hospitality websites. I use them on every bike tour yet they aren't covered at all.
Second, I thought the organization of the material could have been improved in some sections. In the second part of the book, which concentrates on maintenance and repair, there are 5 sections dealing with wheels, then one on chain maintenance, which is followed by one on tubes and tires. I'd have bunched the wheels and tires sections together and followed them with the one on chains.
Third, while an ebook is searchable, it would be nice if it had an index.
All in all, here is my advice: If you are looking for a book to help you get started bike touring, buy this one. If you are looking for a book to help you plan a long, multi-country trek, but this one.
The book consists of two parts: Life on the Road and Bike and Camping Gear Maintenance. Each part has several chapters and each chapter consists of several sections. Each section answers the question that is its title.
Part 1: Life On The Road
After some inspirational advice on bike touring, such as, anyone can do it and keeping it simple, the Life on the Road section opens with "Getting Ready". Here, the authors answer questions like "Is it safe?", "How much will it cost?" and "How do I plan a route?". The section includes specific budget levels from low to luxury, a planning timeline, long distance bike routes, and a large listing of routing resources.
Next, the book shows how to pack a bike for travel on planes, trains, buses and boats, along with how to check for travel restrictions. The chapter concludes with a detailed packing list discussion, thoughts on trying to get tour sponsors, and a special section devoted to women and bike touring.
The best plan rarely survives contact with reality unchanged. This chapter deals with what happens when you actually mount your bike and start pedaling. First, it goes into maps, GPSes, and provides practical tips to navigation. This is followed by a detailed section on food and cooking that covers how much to eat, what utensils and ingredients to carry and a number of suggested recipes.
After riding and eating, you need to find a place to sleep. For the most part, the authors assume you will be camping and provide a detailed description on, what the authors' call, "wilderness camping," also known as "stealth" or "wild" camping. Essentially, pitching a tent in some out of the way place where you won't be bothered. There is also a Q and A and Do and Don't list.
If your tour includes camping, you'll get some great advice here. But, not everyone camps on a bike tour. While the book includes a bit of advice on finding cheap lodgings, such as truck stops in China, it doesn't offer any other advice on where a non-camping bike tourist might spend the night. Specifically, there is nothing about hospitality websites like couchsurfing.org or warmshowers.org, hostels, or other cycling-specific hosting options.
After dealing with riding, eating, and sleeping, it is time to discuss getting clean. This section deals with different ways to get your body clean from bathhouses to handy wipes. It then describes different clothes washing techniques and how to get things dry.
One of the most important topics is covered next: water. The authors list places to get water, how much you need to drink and how to carry extra, should that be necessary.
This chapter ends with toilet talk and what to do if things start going wrong. Their advice? Stay calm and ask for help, if necessary.
The People You Meet
One of the real joys of bike touring, in my view, is being able to interact with so many random people. But, answering the same question too many times or being surrounded by curious humans who don't speak your language can be harrowing and lead to serious frustration and even anger. This chapter suggests ways to both enjoy and avoid human contact while bike touring including a list of ways to reduce it to almost zero.
Extending the previous section, the authors discuss ways of dealing with unwanted and intrusive questions, such as, "How much money do you carry?" or "Where will you sleep tonight?"
The chapter ends with an insightful discussion of accepting offers of hospitality. After discussing several issues, like fatigue, safety, and poverty, this section provides some excellent suggestions for ways to be a good guest.
This chapter includes ways to stay connected with friends and family, such as cellphones and Facebook. It then goes into the gadgets a bike tourist might want to carry. These fall into those that record things, computers, and entertainment devices.
If you carry electronics, you have to make sure they don't run out of power while you are in the middle of nowhere. This section suggests ways to find power outlets, use bike dynamos, and portable chargers.
For me, access to the internet is an essential part of bike touring. This chapter concludes with advice on finding internet access and what to do when you can't.
No matter what, there comes a moment in every bike tour when you have to ask yourself "Exactly what it is about this experience that I enjoy?" For me, these moments usually involve headwinds, heavy rain, and steep inclines.
This chapter attempts to enumerate, discuss, and mitigate potential problems. The challenges include traffic, robbery and other personal hassles, theft, dogs, bad weather, health issues, and thoughts of quitting. The book identifies the problems, offers ways to deal with and minimize them, and provides specific suggestions for things you can do to protect yourself.
Far Away Places
It is one thing to tour in a place where everyone speaks your language. It is another thing altogether to go to exotic places with unfamiliar cultures full of people you can't communicate with. This chapter covers what to do if your route goes through some where Far Away.
The topics explored are determining it if is "safe", vaccinations, visas, exchanging money, dealing with beggars and barginning, and communicating without speaking.
Every tour, no matter how long, ends someday. Getting back to a life at home, work, and family can be hard for someone who has been living a simplified life and riding a bike every day. For the most part, this chapter deals with the psychological issues that might pop up as you step off your bike for the last time and become a regular Joe or Jane, again. Adjusting to remaining in the same place, an insatiable hunger, and daily routines can often be the hardest part of a bike tour.
In addition, if you have to find a job after a long bike tour, you may need some advice on how to portray the gap on your resume. This section offers some good suggestions for ways to turn a bike tour into essential job skills.
Part 2: Bike and Gear Tips
Repair Kits and Maintaining your Ride
Bike touring is all about trade-offs. The more stuff you bring, the better prepared you are but the harder it is push your bike forward and, especially, uphill. In addition, there are only so many square inches of storage space on a bicycle. You can't take everything.
So, what should you take? "What Goes in my Repair Kit?" tries to answer that question by dividing up tours into 4 parts: Ultralite, The Basics, All-inclusive, and Middle of Nowhere. This section provides a list of tools to take on each of these four types of tours.
While a bicycle is a relatively simple device, it does require maintenance. "Keeping my bike running smoothly" provides detailed instructions to what needs to be done to keep a bicycle in top running shape.
A bike tourist gets very familiar with the sounds of his or her bicycle. The authors' attempt to diagnose the potential source of odd sounds emanating from various part of a bike, be it a squeek, bump, tick, or rattle.
If a bicycle component fails, it can usually be repaired or replaced. But, what happens if the bike frame breaks? Is it possible to fix a cracked frame on the road? This section describes the steps to take to fix a cracked bike frame.
Rollin, Rollin, Rollin, Keep those Wheels a-Rollin...
All the bike's weight rolls on two thin metal wheels, which also have to deal with rocks, pot holes, curbs and every other road obstacle. The book contains several sections for dealing with various wheel problems.
"How to Fix a Broken Spoke" covers how to replace a spoke that has snapped. "How to Fix a Wobbly Wheel" provides the steps to take if the spokes are all there but the wheel is no longer aligned properly. What if the wheel has been "tacoed?" That is, hit from the side and is now "half-mooned" shape? "How can I straighten a severely bent wheel" gives a few ideas. Another way for wheels to fail is for the rim to crack. This is a serious problem and while you will need to buy a new rim, doing what the authors' suggest just might get to the nearest bike shop safely.
The most common problem a bike tourist is likely to have is where the rubber meets the road: a flat tire. "Why do I keep getting flat tires?" lists the things that cause tires to go flat. However, I couldn't find any specific directions for fixing a flat tire. While replacing a punctured tube is simple and required knowledge for all bike tourists, it is an odd omission from a book that is so complete.
In addition to leg muscles, what makes a bike go is the chain. Not only is it a vital part of the bike, it also has its own special needs. It has to be inspected, lubed, cleaned, and measured. Sometimes, a chain has to be replaced. All of this is described in the "What's wrong with my chain?" section.
No matter how many spare tubes and patches a bike tourist takes, it is possible to use them all and still have more flats. And then? There are a few answers in "I'm out of patches and tubes. Now What?"
If you are camping when not riding your bike, then the second most important piece of equipment (after your bike) is your tent. It keeps you dry, provides some privacy, and gives you a place to recharge.
Siting, setting up and taking down a tent is a skill that grows through experience. "How should I pitch and pack my tent" is full of good advice from two bike tourists who have mastered this art form. The same goes for "How can I clean my tent?" which includes a mildew treatment.
Tents develop holes and have poles that break, both potential show-stoppers. These problems are dealt with in "How can I fix holes and water leaks in my tent?" and "How do I fix broken tent poles?" Knowing how to do either of these are worth far more than the price of this book!
Letting Sleeping Bags Lie
Bike touring can be a stinky, sweaty business. This can mean bad news for your sleeping bag, a critical part of every camper's kit. "How do I care for and clean my sleeping bag?" helps making sure when you lay your body down, it is in a clean place.
Most campers sleep on a pad to insulate them from the cold, hard ground. These, too, have to be cleaned and in good repair to do their job. "How do I protect my sleeping pad from dirt and failures?" tells you how to keep them clean, patch holes in air mattresses, and what to do in dire circumstances.
Bike tourists need to eat. The easiest way to save money is to cook your own food. This means carrying a stove. If your gear includes a multi-fuel stove, you need to know how to clean, diagnose problems with and repair it. "How can I keep my stove working well?" is a detailed description of how these stoves work, what to look for when things go wrong and how to fix them. It also has cooking tips.
Stoves are only useful as long as you have fuel to run them. To save time and money, it is best if your stove runs as efficiently as possible. "Can I make my stove more efficient?" describes wind screens and pot cozies, as well as other techniques for using less fuel.
No matter how much you squeeze out of your stove, you will need to refuel at some point. "Where can I find fuel? How much do I need?" provides several options.
If you are relying on your stove to feed your hungry body, you might want a plan B should your stove get lost or simply stop working. "How can I make an emergency replacement stove?" shows you how to turn a cat food can into a kitchen.
If your tour requires you to fly, then you need to know to clean your stove so that it can make it through airport security checks. This is covered in "Can I fly with a stove?"
Is That Water Clean?
No clean water, no bike tour. If your tour will take you places where clean water is not readily available, you will have to carry a way to clean it. "Do I need a water filter or purifier?" will not only help you decide, but provide you some good options if you need one.
If you are carrying a water filter, you need to keep it in working order. Generally, this means cleaning it. "How can I care for my water filter?" tells you what to do and what not to do with your filter and how to keep it clean.
Coats, Zippers, and Shoes, Oh My!
The last three sections describe how to fix clothing. "How do I care for waterproof clothing?" deals with cleaning and repairing rips and tears. "How to keep shoes from falling apart?" provides specific fixes for flapping soles, worn heals and wet shoes.
If all you are carrying is a single pair of pants and the zipper breaks, what do you do? "How do I fix failing zippers" likely has the answer. Whether it is the slider or the coils, this section will help.
Making a List and Checking it Twice
The last part of the book is a set of checklists to use when planning your next bike tour. There is an extensive, 3 page, packing list, a primer on medical insurance, and a long list of equipment recommended by the authors with links to appropriate websites. The book ends with a list of recommended books; some are guides, others are travelogues.
The Bike Touring Survival Guide is 241 pages long, contains hundreds of pictures, many sidebars, links to just about every website worth visiting, and is well written to boot.
I recommend it wholeheartedly.
If you find an error, have any ideas for new features or thoughts about the current ones, please send me an email.
Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz