5 Bikepacking Lessons Learned Through 21 Countries
Tara Weir is a bikepacker with some serious distance and global coverage under her belt. Cycling solo through some of the most remote countries on earth, she has amassed a wealth of knowledge on gear, bike repair and approaches to planning. In this article, Tara summarizes her top five lessons that we can all learn from. Buckle up.
Bikepacking the planet has taught me more about life than any educational institution ever could. I often ride solo and starting out I had plenty of fears and made many mistakes. To overcome these fears and mistakes, I started doing my research, learning how to invest in the right gear and more. Bikepacking over 42,000km and through 21 countries has taught me many, many valuable lessons. I hope these summaries and anecdotes help you in your journeys.
Lesson One: Mechanical Expertise Isn't Necessary
When I decided to cycle a chunk of the planet solo, I predictably was often asked “Well, aren't you afraid?” Sure, we all have our fears. But for me, it wasn't grizzly bear encounters, kidnappings or run-ins with unsavory locals that scared me. I was afraid of my mechanical ineptitude. I was pretty good at changing a flat tire but that was about it. I knew I had to delve into the world of Youtube mechanics.
Over my years in the saddle, I had more than a few stressful (now quite hilarious) mechanical mishaps. On a tour in Tibet, I zip tied a broken bottle cage to my frame while accidentally pinching my derailleur cable. I spent hours struggling up a mountain pass in too high of a gear thinking my drive chain was the culprit, until a friend pointed out my ridiculous mistake. In China, I attempted to loosen my stem bolt, breaking off an Allen key head inside. I walked down the street in a small village gesturing wildly after what I had done to anyone who would pay attention to me. A Chinese welder on the street saved the day by welding a chunk of metal to the problem bolt before prying it off. When I got to Tajikistan to cycle the Pamirs, my paltry knowledge was put to the test when I had to true a wobbly wheel. With the help of an app and about an hour of struggle, I once again had a true wheel. I never felt so proud.
Things will often work out with a bit of patience, creativity or help from others when available. I would recommend this app for emergency roadside repairs. I also recommend some time watching Youtube videos and familiarizing yourself with your own bike. In some countries, Facebook groups such as Warmshowers can help those in a pinch. Mechanically, I still barely know what I am doing out there, but with about 42,000km under my belt, I am getting by.
Lesson Two: Make It Your Trip, Not Someone Else's
Let's admit it, we are all addicted to social media at some level. We are bombarded with images of epic tours traversing the back of beyond. While following Instagram bikepacking stars can be incredibly inspirational, it can also distort our own sense of self. Sometimes, I had to ask myself: “Am I doing this for me, or to impress others?” In past I would catch myself comparing my own journeys to others, thinking that I somehow wasn't hardcore or adventurous enough. This pushed me to create an important test for myself—to take on a long trip completely devoid of social media. I did this on my 2019 ride from British Columbia to the USA/Mexico border following the Great Divide and the Western Wildlands route.
On the trip, I felt completely absorbed in the world that I was in, in all its beauty and imperfections. I didn't permanently cut social media out of my traveling life, but, for me, it was important to take a break. Try to design a bikepacking trip to be as adventurous or as easy as you want. Pace yourself and enjoy the scenery to avoid burning out on a long trip. Unless you are racing, no one is handing out medals. Planning mileage is important when resources are scarce on desolate stretches. Other than that, every day is different - ride as far as you want to. Whatever path you take, at whatever speed, make it your own.
Lesson Three: Invest In The Best Gear You Can (Or Get Good At Fixing Things)
Bikepacking is an affordable way to travel. At a minimum, you only need a bicycle and you can get creative from there. Premium bikepacking bags can run from $150-300 each—not exactly what one would call “affordable.” There are many tips and tricks to get people out there bikepacking on a smaller budget with home-made gear.
In Laos, I met a track cyclist from Toronto (with quads as thick as my waist) riding a $25 piece of junk single speed that he bought locally. He was grinding up 30km climbs with 80 lbs of gear on the back. He said that he had rebuilt his wheel 3 times in two weeks, but was as happy as could be. If you want to go badly enough, money doesn't matter as much as a good attitude and a willingness to repair things. I won't lie, I hate fixing things. So, I try to buy the best gear I can afford, the stuff that won't break.
If you are on a tight budget, don't stress. It can be done. I love meeting cyclists with low end gear cycling the same gnarly routes as the riders with $6000 setups. I just think of the smiling track cyclist busting spokes like it was a hobby in Laos. Until I become a master (or barely competent) wheel builder, I'll gladly fork out the extra cash.
Lesson Four: Connect With Fellow Bike Packers
Bikepackers are a unique bunch. As popular as the hobby has become, we are quite a minority and still “crazy” compared to a large part of the population. As a solo rider, I am always happy to come across other bikepackers. We share a certain vision of life that I find difficult to find in everyday society. Many long-term travelers have sacrificed the material Western comforts for a simpler way of life on a bike.
I have met an incredible group of two-wheeled travelers in many different countries and even a one-wheeled traveler in Chile. While I greatly enjoy my solo time, connecting with other bikepackers makes for a truly fulfilling journey. If you prefer to travel with company, Facebook groups such Warmshowers and Bicycle Touring Companions are good places to search for a possible bikepacking partner. The Adventure Cycling Association also has a page where you can post an ad for a trip here.
Lesson Five: In Many Ways, We (Humans) Are The Same
As a traveling solo female cyclist, I often felt like I had family members in every country looking out for me. I recall one very memorable experience in Myanmar. I asked a local if there was a guesthouse in a small village that I was passing through. She nodded, pointing to her own house, saying it was the only “hotel” in the village (it wasn't a real hotel). It turns out she was a school teacher and a single mother, who had lost everything in a house fire. Through the help of the community she was building her life back again. She paraded me around the village like a celebrity, taking me to the local monastery and multiple homes where I had food shoved in front of me endlessly. This was only one of many offerings of kindness and hospitality around the world.
It was in these moments that I realized that us humans have more in common than we think. Though our ways of life vary drastically across cultures, it seems that ultimately, we are the same. At the core of it, we all need to be fed, to be sheltered, to be protected and to be loved.
Bikepacking has opened me up to an extraordinary way of life. It is hard for me to consider traveling any other way. I want other bikepackers to know that we are capable of more than we may think. I would encourage others to be open to discomfort—to sometimes throw themselves into the wild and away from the insulation of modern life. This is when I experience the greatest rewards, even after I return home to a more “normal” life. The world is massive, but it is tiny at the same time. Get out there and start pedaling. You'll have no regrets.