Philly Pedals

How-to / Tips - Safety / Touring / Touring Tips by Troy Mustache

Bike Touring on the Cheap

Philadelphia Bike Ride

Have you thought about going on tour, but have had second thoughts due to the associated costs? Well, there are plenty of things you can worry about while on tour (being flattened by a reckless driver, dehydrating in the middle of the desert, getting eaten by a bear, etc.), but money doesn’t have to be one of them.  Touring can be as costly or inexpensive as you’re willing to make it.  If you’re used to a certain level of luxury, then you’re probably not going to be able to do it that cheap. If you can take a step back and reassess what parts of your life are needs vs. wants, then you’ll be able to hit the road on a budget and still have a blast.

As is the case with most expenses, one of the keys to maintaining a budget is prior planning. Last minute decisions are usually the most expensive, but if you take the time to plan your tour (even a month ahead of leaving is plenty of time in most cases), you’ll be able to shave costs off. If you’re able to cut your baseline costs, you’ll also be more prepared for the unexpected since you’ll have a little more room in your wallet for emergencies.

Trailer parks can be great low cost camping options.

And remember, if you’re constantly worrying about money, you’re not going to have fun. If you find that you’re cutting costs in so many places that you’re not going to be able to enjoy yourself, it may not be a bad idea to change your overall tour plans.  Maybe instead of a month long tour, you chop it down to two weeks. Maybe instead of a destination tour, you do a ride that can start within driving distance of your front door.  You can always plan a grander tour when your financial situation allows it. Philly to Pittsburgh may not be as exciting as a Patagonian adventure, but regardless of what tour you pick, you’re going to have fun.

There are plenty of ways to maximize your experience while minimizing your costs. Here are some ideas:

1. Stop buying water

I’m not encouraging dehydration; what I want is for you to stop thinking about water in terms of 20 ounce bottles and gallon jugs.  Free water is (almost) everywhere (in America) if you keep your eyes open. Bathroom sinks, water fountains/pumps in parks, convenience store soda machines (press the tab on the lemonade shooter), and more are sources of free water. And don’t feel limited to self-serve.  If you ever stop somewhere to eat lunch, never leave with empty water bottles. On a scorching summer day, you’ll find most waitresses and bartenders will offer before you can even ask.

Remember, if you ever think someone might get upset with you for taking water, just ask first. Most people will not say no to a polite request that involves zero effort on their part.

2. Borrow supplies from friends

Everyone has camping equipment that they break out a few times a year, but otherwise sits around collecting dust. The last thing you need to do is buy more stuff that will spend 97% of it’s life in a closet. What you need to do is find out who has what, graciously ask if you can borrow it, bribe when necessary, and then be willing to return the favor when you can help someone out.

We’ve moved away from communal living, but there were days when people actually shared their things. Neighbors would borrow weed wackers and cups of sugar. People would check out books from a library rather than downloading them to a Kindle. So don’t feel bad asking for help from friends. Besides, would you think less of them for asking for your help?

3. Facebook /

Building on #2, Facebook and Warm Showers are two great ways to keep housing costs down. If you know people in other cities, see if you can crash at their place for the night.  Even just a status update of Anyone know a place I could crash in [city]? can help land a couch for the night. With the speed of social networking, you can be sleeping on a friend of a friend’s couch hours after posting.

The most important thing is to be a perfect house guest. Leave their place cleaner than when you got there, eat only your own food unless otherwise offered, and always err on the side of politeness. If you have some room in the budget, take them out to dinner.

Also, always thank people for their hospitality. Not just immediately, but also after you’ve had some time on the road and can appreciate what they did for you. It’s easy to say thank you right away, but it’ll mean more a few weeks down the road when you send them a postcard or thank you note from wherever you now are.

4. DIY Route Mapping

There are plenty of sources out there that will sell you itineraries. They can be extremely helpful. They tell you where to stop each day, they tell you which roads to take, and they guarantee you won’t die of dehydration in the middle of nowhere (see #1). But they can also be extremely limiting. You will be on routes that many have traveled before (you’ll know it when people see you and simply ask, East or west?), there will be fewer surprises, and your success will be all but guaranteed. Also, they can also cost a pretty penny.

The fact is, you don’t need them. All you need is Google Maps and some time to research your route. Pick a starting point, then pick an ending point, and switch to Bicycle mode (available in both browser and mobile versions). Then look at the route it automatically plots, and start choosing daily endpoints as well as sights along the way. Please note that if there are no bicycle routes, switch back to car mode. This can happen out west.

How far can you ride in one day? 60 miles? 100 miles?  Set endpoints that are within ±20-25% of your per day goal. And don’t forget to look for special attractions (Five dollars is a small price to pay to see the largest ball of ear wax.) Make the route special for you. Feel free to use the pre-made itineraries as guides for your route, but don’t be overly reliant. Many of the itineraries available for purchase have summaries that are available for free preview. You can build your own route based on these previews.

One thing to note is that in certain areas of the country you will only have one route, so you’ll end up riding with other people who have been riding on the well beaten path. Chat with them and compare experiences. You will likely start hearing similar stories from the different riders, but yours will be unique.

5. Camp, don’t hotel

This is an easy one. When you’re planning your route (see #3), plan your daily ending points near campable places (either legitimate or guerilla).  Figure out what you can ride comfortably, and then pick a destination within ±20-25% of that goal. Go that far on the route and search for ‘camping’.  You’ll find campgrounds, state and national parks, and RV parks (most of which are tent friendly, but call first). You can then pick each day’s end point based on a combination of mileage and amenities.  If you don’t need a toilet, there’s a lot of nice BLM land out there.

6. Water bottle showers

You are going to get salty and grimy every day. You don’t want to add rashy and itchy to that, so stay sanitary. If you’re able to find low cost or free camping, you may not have a shower waiting for you. You will likely find free water (see #1) though, and in those cases, your water bottle is your new shower head. Get wet, lather up, rinse off.

I once saw a German hitchhiker enter a pay shower stall with a 32oz Gatorade bottle full of sink water and a bar of soap. You should feel like less of a person after having read that.

You can’t beat the view of the Mississippi from the Sunset Motel in Lake City, MN.

7. Never stay at a name brand motel (excepting Motel 6)

Eventually, you will likely end up in a motel. Don’t be ashamed!  Sometimes you just need a bed. Other times, crappy weather will have you on the verge of a complete freak out and you should really get indoors before you throw your bike into oncoming traffic because you’ll be damned if you keep riding in this slop.

Unless you’re heading into Sturgis in early August, you probably won’t need a reservation where you’re headed. I’d recommend getting into town and checking out what’s available.  Locally owned motels are the best.  They’re usually the cheapest, or at least flexibly priced, and definitely have the most character.  You will never remember your stay at a Holiday Inn, but you’ll always remember a night at the Sunset Motel in Lake City, MN.

The only exception to this rule is Motel 6.  If you’re in a larger town there may not be anything mom and pop.  In that case Motel 6 is your cheapest bet 99% of the time.

8. Talk to people; Be sociable

While you may not be an interesting person, what you are doing is. People will want to talk to you (unless you’re on a well beaten path [see #4]), so talk to them.  You’ll meet some really nice people, and some weirdos, but either case they may just offer you something in exchange for stories on the road. Maybe it’s ice cold water.  Maybe it’s a campfire beer.  Maybe it’s a creepy, creepy massage in a van with no windows.  This leads to #9

9. Never say ‘No’ to an offer

Don’t be an idiot. If someone offers you something (see #8), smile and say yes.  Even if you don’t want it, you’ll probably make them happy to think that they’ve helped you out on your journey. So stop being selfish, take homemade fish pastry, and say thank you. I don’t care if you’re gluten intolerant. You’ll have all day tomorrow to fart it off.

10. Suck it up and stop being a princess for once in your life

Seriously. A week without a real shower won’t kill you, a PB and Banana Tortilla is a filling meal, and a sweatshirt doubles as a pillow.

Everyone has their own tricks, so help out the community (see #2) and please leave advice in a comment below.

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