Tour Bikers Guide for Filthy Casuals: FOOD and staying alive

I will wait for the group dynamics post to go into the horrors of hanger (hunger-anger of course) but for obvious reasons, feeding yourself well and enough is one of the best things you can do for your trip.  Also water.

It sounds silly to write this out, but when you are out there in the shit sometimes you need reminding.  I must preface this post with some things about Joey and me.  I am a vegetarian and we often drank untreated spring water.  This thoroughly colored our experience on the trip and if you plan on eating meat and treating all the water you drink your experience will be different….and you might be better off lol.  But let’s start with the basics:

WATER

On the trip I drank an average of 4 liters a day.  This is low for an uphill or hot day and high for a short or downhill day.  A full water bladder is a security blanket of rare form.  I had 8 liters of capacity (2 1-liter bottles, and 2 3-liter bladders) on my bike.  This was usually water for me and Ru and was supposed to last multiple days when I was fully loaded up (in the desert in Eastern Oregon for example).  Refilling water daily and as soon as you run out/find a source is crucial and you should build time for it into your daily plan.  Also I learned that it is usually best to find an unattended spigot than to ask for water.  Most people you ask will say “Sure I can fill it up for you” but it is super awkward and they don’t fill it up all the way when you bring in 3 water bladders and 5 liters worth of water bottles all at once.  Best to go rogue and do it yourself.  No one will miss a couple liters of water (they would lose that much to a drip over a few days) and it will save your life.  Some good places to look for free water spigots include:

  • churches
  • gas stations
  • closed restaurants (when they are open you have to ask….)
  • city parks
  • grocery stores (if they have a deli with a soda fountain try to get that filtered ish!)

I had to get over my awkwardness about just going up to buildings and using the spigot and walking away.  Support the business if you can, but also you are not doing anything wrong (morally at least).

Now, I do not advocate drinking unfiltered water from natural sources.  We did it on the road because we didn’t have a choice sometimes.  I would rather risk giardia than die of thirst so here we are.  Not to mention you can use these water sources for cooking water if you boil it first.  Nothing worse than finally making camp after a long day and realizing you are gonna have to eat your mac and cheese like some kind of f’ed up bowl of dry, savory cereal.    When choosing a possible wild water source keep these things in mind:

  • Where is the water coming from? Out of a spring in the rock is better than a silty stream.
  • Can you see the top of the watershed? If you are down in a valley and the water potentially travelled miles through other streams to get to you, I say pass.  If you are 50 feet below the top of the ridge and the stream comes straight down from above, its a better option.
  • How populated is the area?  If you can see or hear livestock or houses/you have seen and heard them above you on the watershed, maybe skip it.  People and farms are greater contamination risks than an undeveloped stretch of forest.
  • Does it look and smell ok?  Even in dire circumstances, it won’t help you to drink manky, cloudy, stinky water.  Also if there is a lot of grit or plant life in it, skip it.  Boiling will not make these things disappear. Don’t trade thirst for diarrhea.

In the long run, we were risky and you should just buy a lifestraw or a squeeze filter or something.  Go to your local outdoor store and they will have choices from iodine to gravity filters for every need and budget.

FOOD

Our strategy on food focused mainly on keeping our calorie to dollar ratio high. Because of the weight we were pulling and the elevation we were climbing and staying at for most of the trip we needed to eat up to 10,000 calories some days.  This honestly means we ate a lot of junk.  Sometimes that hit of sugar is all you need to perk up and finish those last 20 miles.  But we also did what we could to incorporate vegetables into everything.  Here is a typical day’s food for us:

  • Breakfast: Split a box of poptarts, I usually at 1 pack before we started and another an hour in.
  • Morning Snack: a couple of big handfuls of whatever we had (nuts, corn nuts, Western Family bulk cookies, etc)
  • Lunch: SAMMIES, we started out on pb&j and when we burnt out on that we switched to vegetable and cheese sandwich.  We bought one condiment at a time for weight reasons and they usually lasted about a week.  The vegetables and cheese lasted 1-2 days. A loaf of bread would get us through 2 days.
  • Afternoon snack: Gas station cold drink if we could, probably my secret candy, more nuts and bulk cookies.
  • Dinner: CARB-A-PALOOZA!  Pasta, rice and beans, chili, and burritos were our go-tos.  All dinners turned into variations of those. We made a point to have fresh vegetables for dinner, canned when we couldn’t find them.

Overall what I want you to take away from this are that you need a lot of food, but you also need to commit to everything you buy.  When bike touring in America, unless you are going through the Nevada desert (in which case you better have a support vehicle or be superhuman) you will need to carry 1-2 days of food at a time.  Be sure to check your maps ahead of time and plan the food stops for the next 3 days.  You do not need to find a full blown grocery store.  On our route and in many of the most beautiful and cycle-worthy parts of the country the best you can hope for is a general store/gas station.  These are usually more friendly and likely to have a kindly caretaker to tell you where the good campspots are and what towns have worthwhile grocery stores in the next 50 miles.  You may end up paying $3.24 for a can of black beans but eh its local color and if you aren’t meeting the people in the places you ride through you only get half the experience.


But in these bodegas of rural America there are some things that are more useful than others to people looking for cost-effective, filling nutrition without adding too much weight to their rig. Here is a list of some of our unlikely life savers:

  • Hungry Jack hash browns: Light packaging, usually under $2
  • 2 lb bag of carrots: Always available, won’t go bad in panniers, make sure you don’t get scurvy, these were the only fresh veggies we had during a lot of the trip.  I am convinced they saved my life and sanity.  I love you, carrots.
  • Airheads: never went to a gas station that didn’t have them, less than a quarter a piece, more than 100 calories.  Sometimes when you’re bonking in the afternoon a hit of sugar does a body good.
  • Homemade baked goods: most small family owned stores will have a homemade section somewhere.  These are usually more filling and calorie dense (not to mention cheaper) than packaged alternatives.  Also the lady behind the counter will be so pleased you like her banana bread 🙂
  • Roasted Sun flower seeds: Planters and Western Family both have pre-husked roasted and spiced sun flower seeds that come in a light plastic container.  They are 1/3 of the cost of peanuts and deliver most of the nutritional value, including protein.
  • Bulk anything: no packaging means you decide how much you get and how much extra weight you add.  Incredibly versatile.


These were my wild card finds that became staples on our trip.  I know that I did not highlight usual “outdoorsy snacks.”  We didn’t eat granola bars and dried fruit simply because those things are not readily available in many parts of the country.  We started the trip with a big bag of gorp and approximately 8 million granola bars but when those ran out we found we could not easily replace them.  Be flexible, eat what you can find and take advantage of local tastes.  Also if you are lucky you will find some roadside produce stands to give you seasonal local goodies


I would also recommend studying up on the edible flora in the area of your trip.  We came into the trip with a certain amount of knowledge from our general interests but we ate sorrel for vitamin C, took advantage of blueberry and huckleberry patches where we found them (especially on Sherman Pass) and ate the bejeezus out of the invasive blackberries in the Pacific Northwest.  Protip: ALL AGGREGATE BERRIES ARE EDIBLE.  If you ever see a berry that looks like a raspberry/blackberry with the many nodes on one berry, you can eat it.  I cannot promise it will be any good, salmonberries and thimbleberries can be chalky and bitter for example, but it will not poison you.  If you come to a point when you haven’t been able to find fresh food in a while these berries can sometimes satisfy the urge.

While most food was bought and consumed within 2 days, there were some things that held on a bit longer and made our lives so much easier.  We always had cooking oil (mostly canola, because it is cheap, always available, and comes in a plastic container), salt, pepper, and some kind of spice blend.  Spices are the lightest way to make camp food special, get yourself some Mrs. Dash and thank me later.

When you are out for a multi-month trip you should consider how you want to eat.  Because we had our dog with us we did not go to restaurants during the trip (except when we had folks visiting us who could help contain the madness) and so we decided to buy an aluminum frying pan from a grocery store about 3 days into the trip.  We used an MSR Dragonfly stove and already had a 1.5 liter camp pot to complete the mix.  Other cooking equipment included a grocery store paring knife and 2 titanium sporks.

Eating well on a long bike trip is entirely possible, but it takes planning, flexibility, and a little regional knowledge to make the most of.

 

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