Millenium Park cycleway, Sustrans at their best
The trail less travelled: Escaping on the Millennium cycle way in South Wales.

Once you leave home and head off into the big wide world on your bike, life becomes a lot simpler. Gone for now are the letters dropping on your mat and the annoying phone calls that make demands on you when you’d rather be resting in the evening. There’s no nagging boss or deadlines, outside of the ones you set yourself. You are free to do as you wish, explore where you will and travel slowly and purposefully through the world, rather than rushing around like a headless chicken.

So why do you feel so nervous? Most of us will have some tinge of uncertainty at leaving behind everything we know and heading out into the unknown. Human beings are not that good with change. We find comfort in our certitudes, routines and the way our days and weeks roll along. Interrupting those regular patterns of behaviour creates a kind of imbalance that takes a while to adjust to. Initially you can feel extremely vulnerable. Everything you knew has gone, replaced with uncertainty, but give it some time and you become used to your new patterns of life in the same way you got used to the old ones. Stepping out of your comfort zone can pay dividends and most of the potentially threatening situations your wild imagination dreams up are just that, wild imaginings.

Unless you plotted your route exactly you may not know where you are going to stay or where you are going to find food. These can be stressful notions until you realise that there are plenty of shops (I’m talking UK here). There are also many campsites or places to squirrel yourself away for a night safely so try not to worry. Regarding camping, I usually start to look late afternoon (3-4pm), giving me plenty of time to find somewhere without it becoming a panic.

I also have a plan when it comes to shopping. If I’m passing through a large town prior to camping I will shop. Otherwise, I shop at the first reasonably large store I come across during my day. In doing that, I relax, knowing I have plenty of food wherever I stop. It also makes it easier to change your plans due to unforeseen circumstances. It often means I carry food for a longer part of each day, but it gives me flexibility and that’s a fair swap as far as I’m concerned.

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All you could wish for: A peaceful spot along the Grand Union Canal, food and shelter.

I also try to always have a little something just in case. An emergency meal if you wish. In doing that, I am always prepared if I happen to pass a great wild camping site. (as I did in Scotland and Ireland) and want to stop there. Imagine finding your perfect idyll and having to ride on past it because you have no water or food?

When I tour, I tend to use both local stores and major supermarkets. Cycling touring is great for sustainability and supporting local businesses like shops and cafés. You may pay a bit more in local stores but having to always divert to a major supermarket is not that great given the state of traffic in most of our towns, not to mention the cost in time of doing so. In any shop, I always look at the ‘sell-by’ products which are usually priced much lower to shift them. You’re going to eat what you buy today anyway so it’s a good way of saving money if you can find something you desire. If you don’t see any, ask somebody and don’t be embarrassed about doing it. In doing this, you are aiding sustainability and preventing food waste.

If you are planning to go abroad, you need to check out the way their shops work. Opening times and practises vary wildly across Europe. Many small places no longer have shops, just like here, and petrol stations are becoming less frequent along the way as supermarkets and service stations on motorways take over that commodity. Getting petrol for a stove isn’t as easy as it used to be with many pumps delivering a minimum of two-litres at a time. Again, you can always ask for help. Most people will help you out if they can by letting you fill your bottle as they fill their tank. Other fuels are subject to varying availability and I always stock up well before I need to. Check before you leave to avoid problems.

The wilder the countryside, the less opportunities there will be to shop and if you are subject to a mechanical, or atrocious weather that forces you to stop short of your destination, you have a better chance of being prepared using the above strategy.

Another consideration that often gets too little attention is hydration. You may get away with taking a single .75 litre water bottle on your day ride but it’s nowhere near enough for touring. Not taking enough water for your needs can be extremely dangerous and even lead to death. If I’m going anywhere hot, I carry a minimum of two, 1.5 litre Evian type bottles. Reusing big plastic bottles is fine. Just keep them out of the sun if you can as this can cause a reaction with the plastic which contaminates the water.

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Squirrelled away in the woods near Torridon, Scotland: 2011

By drinking regularly (every 15-20 minutes) you preserve your level of hydration, maintain performance and aide your recovery later. When you drink, take a real slug (100ml minimum). If you run low, be brave, knock on a few doors, or ask somebody you see in their garden. You will usually get your bottles filled and maybe get invited in. You are not in the Tour de France and don’t have to drink, eat and pee whilst cycling along. Take some breaks and enjoy the view. Remember, you’re touring because it’s good fun.

I’m not a great fan of supposedly isotonic drinks. Everybody’s body chemistry varies and so most cannot provide the balance we require or they suggest they might provide. They are expensive and unnecessary if you eat properly and drink frequently and, in my opinion, you cannot carry enough of them to make it worthwhile during a tour.

Learning to drink enough is something many cyclists could improve upon and something that makes a huge difference to how you feel and perform from week to week during a longer tour. Remember what I said previously: a 5% drop in fluids can lead to a 20% drop in performance. Look after your body and it will look after you. Ignore its needs at your peril.

So, you’re trundling along, well fed, hydrated and with food aboard. You just got both your bottles filled as you hope to wild camp tonight. How do you decide where to stop? There are whole books on this, the best known possibly being “How to shit in the woods (Kathleen Meyer: Available from Amazon.co.uk and now in its third edition).”  Leaving your campground untouched, as though you were never there, is quite simple, so long as you follow a few basics:

  • Find out any local rules on wild camping before leaving home and follow them when away.
  • Always pack out what you take in: rubbish, tins, wet wipes, food waste (You can also bury food waste), tea bags, cigarette ends if you smoke, etc.
  • Always bury any excrement and toilet tissue a minimum of 12 inches below ground and cover it with the soil you removed.
  • Never camp in a restricted area like a nature reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest (S.S.S.I) or an historic monument. They are too delicate and are also often protected by law. You may pitch your tent, unknowingly, on something precious or destroy something that has been there for millennia.
  • Do be discrete. Many people squirrel themselves way in small forest glades, but be aware that forests are also usually insect paradise come dusk and will drip water on your tent long after the rain stops.
  • Never camp near a stream/river that provides a water source for a house or community. Their need is greater than yours.
  • If you can ask a local farmer/land owners permission, do. You may find yourself welcomed with open arms.
  • Don’t light fires, especially in forest areas. You may accidently start a wild fire and it’s a signal to your presence that may be unwelcome.
  • Pitch up late and leave early to minimise the chance of detection/ disturbance.
  • Respect nature and the things that live there: trees and plants, animals and insects.
  • Never climb over fences, gates and other boundaries. The land belongs to somebody who probably makes a hard living from it. Damage isn’t appreciated.
  • Avoid camping in car parks and picnic areas. You will often see these used as weekend party venues and other, less savoury, practises!!
  • Have fun and enjoy your seemingly perfect, private space.
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    Your reward for getting through another day.

This isn’t the place to discuss how to choose campsites. I should say here that If you have a new tent, please make sure you check it over prior to leaving. The amount of times I’ve seen people struggling, in foul weather, without a clue of how to pitch their tent, or unwrapping something brand new only to find the poles or pegs are missing, is much higher than you might imagine. This applies to anything new and untested. You don’t want to find out something is not working when you are relying upon it.

My final advice is this. Take each day as it comes. Move slowly and do less than you think you can until you settle. Don’t be tied to your GPS, a set distance, or a cycle computer reading. Make decisions based on how you feel in given circumstances and what you desire from your day. Always look at tomorrow’s route and the weather prior to doing it. It will save lots of distress once you’re on the road and ensure you begin to observe and absorb your surroundings, the weather and terrain.

Eat well and drink lots and make it as easy as possible for the first few days. Trying to get used to your hefty bike, wild camping, shopping and cooking all your meals may be too much initially. Do one thing at a time and plan forward a little. In a few days’ time, you will know where everything is in your panniers and have a system in your tent for storage that provides a new day to day routine. Then you can start to try new things on your own terms.

Touring should be fun and if you follow these basic rules and advice, it will be. Push too hard, too often, especially at the beginning and the whole thing can easily get to feel like an endurance test rather than a holiday. Lead yourself in gently, take the roads less travelled and you will have a tour to remember, for all the right reasons.

Until next time……………