Biking across America

MIKE RHOADS: Two years ago, my friend and I sat bored out of our minds in a Water Resources Engineering course, staring at a power point presentation on stream channel flow. The thought of a summer internship filled with more monotonous tasks overwhelmed us, so we began researching alternative options instead.

By chance, we stumbled upon a website dedicated to biking across the country. We carried on with our year as usual, but refused to let the idea die. During winter break, I bought a bike and started planning the potential trip. I thought, if I just get a bike there’s no turning back.

My friend and I are not bikers at all. I am an Eagle Scout so I know a great deal about camping and the general outdoors. I’ve also hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail, but by no means am I an experienced outdoorsman or traveler. I didn’t know even how to change a flat tire until about 3 weeks before the trip and my friend didn’t figure it out until a week after we started.

The key is to not let the little things deter you from your goal. I don’t suggest blindly biking across the country but don’t let questions like, “What are you going to do about food, sleeping, flat tires…” stop you from achieving something incredible.

The best way to prepare to bike across the country is to go out and ride, change a few tires, talk to your local bike shop, read as much as you can about bike touring and watch literally every YouTube video on bike maintenance that you can find — this was the most helpful tool for me.

If you’re not excited enough to read, research and plan your trip, then biking across the country probably isn’t for you.

The Route

Since my friend and I live in Charlottesville, VA, we decided to start our trip from there. We wanted to end in San Francisco to meet our friend, so we planned to take the Trans America Trail from Charlottesville, VA. to Pueblo, CO. then meet up with the Western Express and continue on to San Francisco.

The route really isn’t important for planning your trip because plans always change. Although we didn’t buy any official maps, we turned out just fine. They would’ve come in handy if we religiously stuck to our route, but we often adjusted our plans to do our own thing. The key is to get a general idea of where you want to go and then let each day dictate your journey.

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Passing through the Mountains in Kentucky

Personally, we didn’t enjoy riding long days in the middle of nowhere, so we changed our plans to accommodate our interests. If possible, I recommend riding from West to East since travelling with the wind in your face can drive you insane after a day or two. I remember multiple times in Kansas where we had to pedal just to keep moving downhill because the wind was so strong.

With that said, read other people’s blogs and stories to get a feel for what route best fits you. Most importantly, don’t feel restricted to one trail. I promise you that your greatest experiences will come off the beaten track.

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A Homeless Man and I drinking Boxed Wined at 5 a.m. on the Las Vegas Strip

If you don’t like your route, then change it! No one is stopping you… No parents, no rules! The point of this trip is to have fun, challenge yourself, find yourself and see our beautiful country… It’s not to wake up pissed off, hop on a bike, and angrily pedal all day long. Have fun with it and pass through cities you’ve always wanted to see.

Packing List

Every blog that I’ve read about cross country bike trips says that you’re going to pack too heavy, and now that I’ve done it, I can tell you that they’re all 100% right. I literally wore the same shirt (or no shirt) every single day and my friend never even wore a shirt.  You don’t need much and you definitely don’t want much.  When you’re biking in the Appalachian or Rocky Mountains those few extra pounds will drive you crazy and you’ll want to throw your gear off the side of the mountain and call it quits.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was discovering how little I need in life. Shoes, socks, bike shorts, a shirt, sunglasses, a hat, spare tubes, tire levers, a pump and a multi tool is really all that you need… and I’m not exaggerating. I sent home two packages of equipment and clothes during my journey because I ended up never touching them.

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Crossing over the Continental Divide

Your packing list really varies upon the type of trip you are planning. My friend and I spent a little less than half our nights in motels; the rest we spent camping or staying in random people’s houses. Since we slept in hotels we didn’t need much camping gear, which saved us a lot of weight. We also didn’t cook at all. We ate nearly every meal out at a restaurant, bar or gas station. The bike gets so absurdly hot in the summer that we didn’t want any food in our packs; we felt it would probably spoil in an afternoon so instead we stalked up on small snacks and candy bars.

I recommend buying a few quality items with good reviews. Here is a list of all the items that I used, their brands and my ratings.

  • Bike
    • Trek 520 Touring bike
      • Highly recommend this bike. A little heavy but its super rugged. I didn’t have a flat tire until 2,000 miles into the trip and had no problem hauling gear on the rear rack.
    • Two water bottle holders
    • Two camel back polar water bottles (might want three)
      • Insulated bottles are pretty important so that you don’t have to boil water every day.
    • Ortlieb Rear panniers
      • I highly recommend these. They’re fantastic. They’re pretty expensive but I’ll have these forever and can use them for future trips.
    • Mirror
      • I used a mirror that attached to my handle bars and I highly recommend getting one. It’s really fucking scary riding down a mountain not knowing if a car is trying to pass you.
    • Rear Light (Planet Bike Superflash)
      • I had a small rear light and NEVER while I never used it on my bike, I did use it as a flashlight. When you put it behind a water bottle it can be used as a lantern which is convenient too. I don’t suggest biking at night so this probably isn’t necessary.
    • Handlebar bag
      • This is the most useful item for the bike. It is extremely convenient to hold snacks, phone chargers, wallets, etc.
      • It doesn’t need to be nice I got mine from Walmart for 15 dollars instead of the 200 dollar Ortlieb ones.
    • Tools/Parts
      • Repair Multi Tool
      • 3 Spare Tubes
      • Flat tire levers
      • Tire Pump
        • I would highly recommend getting one with a pressure gauge and one that really pumps your tires up to the needed psi. Riding on low pressure tires feels like biking in sand and will drive you crazy.
      • Chain Lube
        • This isn’t 100% necessary but you are supposed to oil your chain every other day because of how many miles you’re putting on it.
      • Clothing
        • Bike Shorts
          • I biked in a pair of Nike shorts. Bring something that you like and are comfortable in.
        • Short Sleeve Shirt
          • I wore a Mountain Hardwear lightweight shirt. It dried quick and was easily washable
        • 2 Padded Bike Shorts
          • I recommend bringing three pairs of shorts because they start to smell pretty bad after you wear them twice.
        • 2 Exoficio boxers
          • These are amazing. I probably never had to wash these. You might only need one pair.
        • 2 pairs of Darn Tough socks
          • These are also amazing. They wash perfectly in the sink, dry quickly, wick away moisture and never smell bad.
        • Columbia Pull Over
          • This is pretty important to have. I think bringing a light weight down jacket or warm pull over is crucial. Some nights, especially in Colorado/Utah, get pretty cold and it’s nice to have this to wear when camping.
        • Rain Coat
          • I actually didn’t use this a single time… It only rained 2-3 times and it passed over pretty quickly. It also becomes so hot to bike in a rain jacket that you’ll want to just wait it out or go no shirt.
        • Camping Gear
          • This is the section that will vary the most depending on your type of trip and how much camping you want. If you don’t camp very much, then there is no need for a lot much gear. I ended up sending my stove, fuel containers, pot, and cooking supplies back fairly early on. There are little times on the trip that you’re not within 20 miles of food and won’t be able to stock up. You’re also so tired most of the time that eating cold food out of a can doesn’t make any difference. Also, if you really plan on camping the entire time, you must get a nice, small, lightweight 1-person tent. Sleeping with someone every night as you can imagine gets annoying; plus, splitting up the weight of a two person tent is frustrating.
          • Tent
            • Two person REI tent
              • Like I said, I would highly recommend bringing a 1-person tent if you can afford it. I ended up sending this tent home because of how much in weighed me down in the Rocky Mountains. I bought a small tarp that we used to sleep on when the weather was nice.
            • Sleeping Bag Liner (Sea To Summit Thermolite Extreme)
              • This was one of the best items I had on the trip. It’s extremely small, keeps you pretty warm and saves you so much weight and space in your bags. You may need the jacket or a warm pair of socks if you’re going somewhere with a colder climate, but it’s worth having a smaller bag to save space.
            • Sleeping Pad
              • I used a blow up sleeping pad which was really nice. Learn how to pack it up nicely before you leave and make sure you can get all the air out. This is crucial if you plan on camping. You will not get a good night sleep without one of these.
            • Towel
            • Swiss Army Knife
              • Has everything that you need
            • Head light
            • Bic Lighter
            • Camp Spork
          • First Aid
            • I would only bring an emergency kit. I didn’t use a single first aid item on the trip and easily could have bought something if I needed to. But, safety first so bring a small emergency first aid kit with gauze, alcohol swabs and some ace wrap or tape.
          • Toiletries
            • All of this is up to you and what you want. I might want to remember to bring nail clippers — it’s an easy thing to forget.
          • Electronics
            • Phone
            • Headphones
            • External Battery
              • This is crucial if you want to use your phone throughout the day for GPS, calls, texts, etc. I got a battery that holds 3 phone charges which worked amazingly.
            • Life proof Battery Case
              • This case is incredible. It keeps your phone completely dry and doubles the battery life of your phone. My phone never died all trip and I never had any problems with the case.

Don’t be afraid to hitch hike!

Hitch hiking is entirely up to you. If you want to physically bike the entire journey, then go for it. If you want to hike up a mountain with no tires left in 100-degree heat, be my guest but I hope you don’t pass out.

We had some hilarious stories that resulted from getting flat tires or running out of tubes and having to hitch rides to survive. Don’t be naïve and get into a creepy guy’s car and expect everything to be okay. Instead, look for normal people, usually driving Subarus (almost always driving Subarus), and they’ll most likely be happy to help you.

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Camping with a girl who worked on a ferry. She took us 50 miles into the countryside where we camped out under the stars and cranked some 3.2% Utah beers.

The feeling of riding in a car, even for just 10 miles, after biking for 8 hours is one of the best feelings in the world. We wouldn’t have been able to canyoneer the slot canyons of Utah, spend a weekend in Las Vegas or camp 60 miles from the nearest 500-person town in the middle of the desert had we not hitch hiked.

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Looking Back

Since we rode for charity, I don’t feel comfortable disclosing all of our stories, but you should know that this is an extremely hard trip and mentally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Physically it’s hard of course, but anyone can bike. It may take some longer then others, especially if you’re in horrible shape, but no matter what you’ll get there eventually — as long as you don’t give up. Trust me when I say, every single day is an absurd, crazy adventure.

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Drinking a beer while riding around on the back of a four wheeler at a farm where we spent the night.

Just say “yes” to the majority of things you get yourself into. Be friendly to everyone you meet and I guarantee every day you’ll meet someone to remember. I suggest downloading an app called warm showers, which highlights houses willing to lend you a free bed for the night. This really came in handy for us, and we met some awesome people — Not everyone of course makes your day, but most people want to help, whether that means giving you a ride to a bike shop or offering you a place to sleep at night.

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Saw DJ Tiesto at a Vegas pool party with a couple of friends from home

Having an open ended trip and giving yourself more time to travel will make for a better experience as well. We stayed to glued to our schedule and often sometimes missed out on the beauty around us.

The beauty of this trip is that you tackle a challenges every day, which constantly five you an incredible feeling of accomplishment. You will literally climb a mountain everyday so the whole metaphoric challenge of summiting your goals turns into you literally climbing that mountain people always talk about. We started off each day by saying “let’s put the legs in the fuckin slow cooker” because that’s what you have to do. Every second is a grind but you get used to it quickly and end up loving the challenge.

If you every want any advice on a longer distance bike trip (doesn’t need to be across the country), post your questions below and I’ll be sure to respond as quickly as possible.

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