How to Bike Across America
National Geographic Travel photographer Tyler Metcalfe recently quit his job and sold off his possessions. Now he’s setting off on the American Bike Project—an epic solo adventure of cross-country cycling that will take him 4,228 miles across the United States.
Two years ago, National Geographic Digital Nomad Robert Reid wrote an article called “Are Bikes the New Tour Bus?” Robert argues that bikes are the best way to see a city, noting that biking is “more fun than public transit, quicker than walking, and cheaper than taxis or renting a car—not to mention better for the environment.” Over the years I have adopted the same sentiment. However, I say, why stop at the city limits?
In recent years, I have come across a number of people who have decided to travel across states, countries, and even continents by bike. The stories they tell paint bike travel as a fascinating way to see our world, and though bike touring is nothing new (National Geographic published an article on bike touring in 1973), there’s been a rise in interest lately. And now I’m joining in.
After spending the last two and a half years working at the headquarters of National Geographic, I’ve decided to quit my job, sell most of my possessions, and bike 4,228 miles across the country on the TransAmerica bike trail. The trail was established by the Adventure Cycling Association in 1976 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary, so there will be plenty of buzz along the way. The route passes through 11 states, three national parks, and covers a diverse landscape that reflects the heart of America. I have spent the last two months planning for the journey, and today I'll be setting out from Washington, D.C., to begin pedaling until I reach the West Coast.
Though I can't yet give advice on how to accomplish such a journey, I have collected plenty of tips from those who have.
Do Your Research
Though the day-to-day of riding a bike across the country sounds routine (wake up, bike, eat, sleep, repeat) the scale of such a journey can require a good bit of planning. Where will I sleep? What is the safest route for a cyclist? How much gear should I take? There are a number of websites and organizations that host a wealth of information specific to bicycle tourists.
CouchSurfing.com and WarmShowers.org, for example, provide a surprising number of options for travelers and bicycle tourists looking to stay in a welcoming home while traveling. Not only are these places free, but more often than not, the hosts have taken similar journeys and are looking to give back to the travel community.
Adventure Cycling Organization, another bike-centric organization, has mapped more than 40,000 miles of routes specific to bicycle touring. Their maps come in print and digital form, are easy to read, and feature waterproof coatings. Finally, there are a number of blogs and video series from cross-country cyclists. Bicycle touring pro Darren Alff has been one of my go-to sources, via his book, The Bicycle Traveler’s Blueprint, and his YouTube videos on the basics of bike travel.
Commit Before You Feel Ready
As much as you can plan for a long trip, you will never feel fully prepared. Last month I attended a lecture by National Geographic explorer Sarah Marquis, who spent three years walking alone though the landscapes of Mongolia, China, and Australia. She learned to live off the land and survived a handful of extremely uncomfortable situations, so I assume she knows a thing or two about preparing for a long journey.
Her biggest piece of advice? “Commit to the journey just before you feel fully ready.” According to her (and many other like-minded travelers) you will never feel completely prepared when it comes to embarking on a journey of such a large scale. Major details can be crucial for trips like these, but flexibility is key too. With an open mind and flexibility, detouring for a few days in order to purchase a forgotten item or repair a broken part becomes just another part of the journey.
If you try and plan every single detail of a long trip before you leave, your idea will start to collect cobwebs and you’ll eventually talk yourself out of taking the plunge.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Memories Weigh Less Than Luggage
After committing to the idea of biking across the country, I decided to sell most of my possessions and permanently move out of my apartment. I don’t know how long I will be on the road (and am open to continuing the adventure upon reaching the West Coast) so I wanted the freedom of being unencumbered.
Packing light is essential for a trip like this, and I plan to bring only the essentials. As Alff says in The Bicycle Traveler’s Blueprint, “You don’t need half the things you think you’ll need.” As someone who has traveled often but only once checked baggage on a flight, I know the game of packing efficiently. In my opinion, you get more out of traveling when you have the physical freedom to move easily from place to place.
Follow along in the coming months as I ride my bike 4,228 miles across America. I'll be pedaling through 11 states, three national parks, and countless landscapes—and reporting the stories I find along the way. I’ll be updating my story here and on Twitter @tyler_metcalfe, as well as posting images to the @natgeotravel Instagram account, and my personal Instagram feed @tylermetcalfe.