Desert Bicycle Touring

Deserts are ideal for bicycle touring, at least for those seeking a wilderness experience. Scenery is magnificent, little traffic on roads, possible to camp anywhere. The lack of popularity of desert bicycle touring is probably due to the fact that, historically, bicycle touring techniques and equipment have been designed for Europe and other densely populated areas, where the bicycle remains on pavement most of the time, and carrying large amounts of food and water is seldom necessary. Someone from that background who contemplates desert bicycle touring on mostly dirt roads will likely feel intense fear. And they should feel fear, because the techniques and equipment suitable for paved road touring in Europe will result in disaster for a tour on dirt roads of the desert.

My own background, prior to doing any bicycle touring, included extensive experience backpacking in arid parts of the world (western United States, Spain, Greece). All that was necessary to get me to speed on desert bicycle touring was to: (a) get a bicycle that would work on dirt roads where there are plenty of thorns, which is precisely what modern mountain bicycles using tire sealants are designed to do; (b) figure out a way to attach my existing backpacking gear to the bicycle; (c) up my water carrying capacity (from 6 liters to 16 initially, then to 23 liters once I got a heavier-duty bicycle), since water is less available in desert valleys, where biking works best, than in the mountains where hiking works best. The jump in water capacity seems huge, but in fact it is easier to carry 23 liters biking than 6 liters hiking, at least if the biking is mostly on flat terrain and the hiking is mostly in the mountains, and assuming good water carrying equipment in both cases. Nor is my background unusual. Anyone thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (and hundreds do it each year) is forced to carry 6+ liters of water plus a heavy load of food, in addition to hiking gear, and to carry this load up steep hills in the blazing summertime heat. Desert bicycle touring in the cool season is easy by comparison.

Given that there are apparently thousands of bicycle tourists, and hundreds of PCT thru-hikers each year, but almost no one bicycle touring in the deserts of the American west, even though desert bicycle touring is easier than PCT thru-hiking, my conclusion is that there is a lot of ignorance by bicycle tourists of developments in recent years of lightweight camping techniques and equipment suitable for arid regions, and probably a lot of ignorance in the other direction. That is, backpackers who know a lot about these new camping techniques and equipment, often know very little about bicycles or bicycle touring. That was certainly the case with me when I bought my first bicycle since I was a boy in 2011, after about 12 years of backpacking experience. My impression is that desert bicycle touring in 2017 is where PCT thru-hiking was in the early 1990s, before being revolutionized by Ray Jardine and other lightweight backpacking innovators.

The techniques and equipment I use for lightweight arid region backpacking are described elsewhere on this website. Note that my typical 8 kilos (18 lbs) of equipment (exclusive of food and water) is more than twice what some ultralight PCT thru-hikers carry, so I'm by no means the authority for those in search of the ultimate in lightweight gear.

Recommendations specific to desert bicycle touring

Wear hiking boots rather than biking shoes. It may be necessary to push the bicycle over sections of broken rock and deep sand, and these sections might go on for several miles. Cleated cycling shoes are unlikely to be suitable for this type of usage.

Use platform pedals rather than toe-clips or clip-ins. When the bicycle stalls in deep sand, you will be thrown violently forwards. If using regular shoes and platform pedals (and assuming there is adequate standover clearance), your feet simply slide off the pedals and you land solidly on both feet. Toe clips would be a disaster and it will take quick reactions to get your feet free with cleats. Shimano Saint PD-MX80 platform pedals have excellent grip, at least with the screws fully extended. If your only experience is with cheap platform pedals, you'll likely be surprised at how well the top-quality models work.

Tour in the cool months, so as to reduce water consumption requirements. Sun makes an enormous difference in how cold it feels outdoors, and the sun usually shines in the desert during the day, even in winter. So all you need is a warm sleeping bag for when the sun disappears, plus a shelter to allowing staying put for a few days while waiting out the occasional storm.

Temperatures plunge in the desert when the sun goes down. If touring in the cooler months, definitely prepare for below-freezing temperatures and for sleeping with your water to keep it from freezing. My own sleep gear is designed to be comfortable down to -7°C (20°F), and allow survival at considerably lower temperatures. My preferred temperature range is between -5°C (23°F) at night and 20°C (68°F) in the day. This temperature range keeps water consumption low, yet is warm enough to lounge around comfortably during the day, at least when the sun is shining, which is most of the time in the desert.

Radiation heat loss is a major factor in the desert night, due to lack of clouds and overhead vegetation to reflect infrared radiation back to the body. Therefore, be sure to sleep with an overhead tarp on cold nights, even when no rain expected, since a tarp will reflect some of radiation, especially a light-colored tarp. Put water bottles/bladder inside or under panniers when temperatures expected to drop slightly below freezing. If temperatures expected to drop moderately below freezing, partially bury water containers in the sand, near the head, with panniers or other gear on top. Only for temperatures substantially below freezing will it be necessary to put water containers next to the body, under the sleep quilt or inside the sleeping bag.

Plan to carry large amounts of water, and never plan to drink every drop of what you are carrying. You always want spare water in the desert, in case you suffer a mishap and have to wait for someone to drive by to offer aid.

Plan to carry large amounts of food. Any point of civilization (ranger station, gas station, etc) will have water available, whereas food suitable for carrying in panniers is not so easily obtainable. The most food I would carry is about 10 kilos (22 lbs). A normal human body can easily go weeks without food without any risk, but even a single day of hunger is unpleasant if you are exercising heavily. Do you really want to remember your trip as a time of starvation?

There are several ways to carry large amounts of water. My own preference is for four 6 liter MSR Dromedary bladders, plus two separate 600ml Nalgene bottles, for a total capacity of about 23 liters, since I only fill the bladders to about the 5.5 liter level. MSR Dromedary bladders are not cheap, but they far more reliable than plastic bladders (Platypus and similar). MSR Dromlites are also unreliable because the plastic opening tends to pull out from the fabric. This is less of a problem with the Dromedaries, due to the heavier fabric. Still, even with Dromedaries, I am careful to hold them when filling by putting my fingers in the opening, rather than using the handle attached to the opening, so as to avoid stressing the plastic to fabric bond. Only filling bladders to the 5.5 liter level makes them easier to fill and easier to manipulate once full. I prefer 6 liter to 10 liter Dromedary bladders for two reasons. First, 10 liter size is heavy and cumbersome to handle when full. Second, using 4 x 6 liter bladders (filled to 5.5 liters each) instead of 3 x 10 liter bladders (filled to 9 liters each) allows me to distribute the weight evenly, one bladder on each side of each wheel.

In addition to failure of the seam between plastic opening and fabric, Dromedary bladders are subject to pinhole punctures from thorns or other sharp objects on the ground. I have successfully repaired these numerous times so far with SeamGrip. So if you use Dromedary bladders, bring along SeamGrip in your repair kit. Better to bring several 1/4 oz tubes than a single larger tube, since the SeamGrip tends to solidify after the seal is broken, even if the cap is closed securely. (Search on "seam grip refill pack" to find sources for 1/4 oz tubes, or buy direct from McNett.)

Another way Dromedary bladders can fail is leaking due to worn screw-on threads, either on the 3-in-1 cap or on the bladder opening. If the worn threads are on the base of the 3-in-1 cap or between the flip-top cap and the base, then the problem can be fixed by simply replacing the 3-in-1 cap. I bring a spare cap in my repair kit for such events. If the worn threads are on the bladder opening, then the entire bladder will have to be replaced. In my experience, it is most common for the threads between flip-top cap and base to wear out, perhaps because I unscrew the flip-top cap from the base more often than I unscrew the base from the bladder, or because these threads are smaller.

Even though Dromedary bladders are durable, often field-repairable, and easy to order for delivery to a motel in the United States, where I do all my bicycle touring, I still carry a spare bladder. Water carrying capacity is too important in the desert to justify the savings in weight and space of not carrying this spare bladder.

For those who can't afford MSR Dromedaries, the owner of Bodfish bicycles (in Chester, California) suggested reusing the empty plastic bags used to hold boxed wine (typically, 4 liters per bag). Supposedly, these bags can be repaired (at least in the short run) with duct tape.

No water container is indestructible. Thus regardless of what sort of water container you use, distribute your water among multiple containers, so you will only lose a part of your water if a container fails.

Use good tires, tough enough to stand up to sharp rocks and wide enough (55-559 or wider) for sand and loose gravel. I use the Schwalbe Marathon Mondial 55-559 (2.15" x 26") inflated to between 2.5 to 3.0 bar (36 and 44 PSI) depending on road conditions.

Use Stans sealant inside inner tubes for protection from goathead thorns. See my flat prevention page for details.

Suspension is extra-weight and a maintenance nuisance and not really needed if you are using fat tires (55-559 or wider) inflated to 3.0 bar (44 PSI) or less. Bumps that make the rider uncomfortable also damage rims, spokes and other equipment. Reduce speed and/or modify tires until the bumps are no longer so uncomfortable. Suspension makes it hard to feel the ground and sense when the bicycle is stalling in deep sand, thereby making riding more difficult.

Front of bicycle needs to lift up slightly to avoid stalling in deep sand, so don't overload front panniers with water in such conditions.

Pushing a bicycle uphill through deep sand is more difficult than pushing or pedalling up a similar hill on pavement. It is thus critical to keep weight down. I am leery of trailers for this reason, since the weight of the trailer and bags is typically more than the weight of a rear rack and panniers. Also, trailers add drag and make the bicycle more difficult to manuever. Also, trailers can't easily be used with the bicycle racks on buses (such as the CREST bus), which can be useful as a way of skipping dangerous stretches of highway. Though I suppose you could detach the trailer and put in the bus luggage compartment. Then again, here is Jakub Postrzygacz's journal of his 33 day Canning stock route tour, 2000 kilometers across the wilderness of western Australia, in the course of which he frequently had to push uphill through deep sand. That tour probably wouldn't have been possible without the Extrawheel trailer, since he had to carry food for the entire tour, plus water to get from one well to the next. Also, his bicycle wasn't capable of carrying the heavy loads of my Nomad MK2. Perhaps trailers are required when distances between resupply stops are truly gigantic, but not otherwise.

If anticipating extended pushing through sand, bring along a backpack. Load water and other heavy items into this backpack when it comes time to push, so as to reduce the weight of the bicycle, since a lightweight bicycle will be much easier to push through sand than a heavyweight bicycle.

Ordinary tent stakes will not hold in loose sand, and much of the ground in the desert is sandy. So bring along sand stakes or else a free-standing tent or a bivy sack. If you choose a free-standing tent, make sure it can stand up to strong winds, as in 100 kmh or more (62 mph or more).

Although there are few or no bugs in the desert in cool months, I would still advise using a bugbivy, whether sleeping under a tarp or under the stars, as protection from bats carrying rabies and tarantula spiders, which continue to be active in the cool season, and possibly scorpions as well. There are also ants year-round plus occasional dung beetles.

Biking when it is raining is difficult and potentially dangerous. Since rain is infrequent in the desert, the simplest thing is to go into hiberation when rain begins and remain there until the roads dry out again afterwards. Bring along extra food and water to allow such hibernation. My experience of the desert is that the roads mostly dry out within a day after rain stops, though there may be desert areas which don't follow this rule. Water can be collected during heavy rain by putting a cup under the sides of the tarp and then transferring water to a bladder as the cup fills. I have done this numerous times while waiting out rain storms while hiking, but that was in temperate areas where rain is truly heavy. I'm not sure if the rain in the desert is heavy enough to allow collecting substantial amounts of water this way.

Desert sand has a strong cleansing/drying effect. Bring along plenty of lubricant for the chain, derailleurs and other moving parts. Make sure the lube bottle has a secure cap, since otherwise lube will leak out from air pressure changes due to changes in elevation as you travel, and chain lube has a very pungent smell. I learned this the hard way, because originally, per Lennard Zinn's recommendation, I used Prolink Gold as my lube. The Prolink Gold bottle has a twist cap which is not secure. Now I mostly use White Lightning Epic Ride silicone chain lube, which has a much better cap and also doesn't smell very strongly and is widely available at Walmart stores (though I still try to carry enough for an entire tour). Even with a good cap, there is still the possibility of some lube dripping down the sides of the bottle or the bottle cracking. In anticipation of this, I store my lube in my saddle bag, so that drips/leaks will only contaminate bicycle tools/spares and the saddle bag itself, and not my food, clothing or quilt. An alterntive to lubes specifically designed for bicycle chains are the lightweight lubes sold at hardware stores, such as Triflow. Unfortunately, these alternatives sometimes are only available in spray cans or bottles liable to leaking.

Have a plan for cleaning the chain before relubing. My system is as follows. Two 125ml bottles of citrus chain cleaner plus two toothbrushes (one is a spare) are kept stored in the saddle bag, where spills will not be a problem. Dip toothbrush in chain cleaner and hold again chain while running backwards. Repeat until the chain is full dampened with chain cleaner. Rinse with water. Optionally, wipe with a paper shop towel. Dispose of the dirty shop towel properly, please. (If in the backcountry, place shop towel in saddle bag until reaching civilization.) Allow chain to dry in sun then relube. Citrus chain cleaner is widely available in auto repair shops and thus easier to find than bicycle chain lube. Citrus chain cleaner can also be used for cleaning the hands, if they get greasy from handling the chain.

As with water, it is advisable to distribute lube and chain cleaner across multiple smaller containers versus a single large container, in case one of the containers breaks or spills. Thus I carry two (or more) 2oz bottles of lube rather than a single 4oz bottle, two 125ml bottles of chain cleaner rather than a single 250ml bottle.

A bicycle with Rohloff internal gear hub, such as Thorn's Nomad MK2 which I use, eliminates the fiddling associated with derailleurs, which can easily become clogged by dirt and sand when touring on dirt roads, and is well worth the expense if you plan significant amounts of desert touring. For most of us, Rohloff really is a set-it and forget-it solution, though there are occasional reports of problems, as discussed on my webpage for the Nomad (see here).

The above recommendations are in addition to those for a normal paved-road tour. That is, in addition to the above, bring along a full set of tools, spare parts, flat repair kits, spare tubes and tire, one or two pumps, etc. The middle of the desert is a bad place for your bicycle to breakdown and you not be able to fix it. Think about all the things that might go wrong, and have a plan for such contingencies.