Biking across the US: lessons learned from mistakes aplenty

May 12, 2022

a photo of a male adventure touring cyclist on a bicycle riding on a road, grand remote mountainous nature landscape with a long road going far into the horizon, at sunrise, from high above --v 5 --chaos 50 --stylize 750

Image created using Midjourney

In June 2016, I dipped the rear wheel of my touring bike into the Pacific Ocean, waved a final goodbye to my good friend Thomas, and began pedaling back towards the east coast, where we had been just a week before. Thomas was off to med school in Seattle, and I was embarking on what would be the greatest summer adventure of my life.

Looking back on my nearly 4,000 mile journey, I realize that I made many mistakes that I didn't even know were mistakes at the time. It wasn't until years later, after racing internationally, training under the best coaches, learning from industry experts, and spending a year working as a mechanic that I realized my unknown unknowns.

If you're reading this, chances are you're planning your own epic bikepacking adventure. This article is the culmination of everything I've learned, distilled into actionable advice that will help ensure your trip is defined by the thrill of the journey, not the parade of problems you'll need to solve.

Why yet another bikepacking advice piece?

With so many blogs out there offering advice, I know it can be overwhelming. In the months leading up to my trip I probably spent more time reading about bikepacking than actually riding. While much of the advice I found was helpful, a lot of it wasn't the best for me.

Most adventure cycling blogs cater to beginner riders, making recommendations that err on the side of comfort and shorter daily distances (<80 miles). These blogs often recommend heavier rigs with more aerodynamic drag but more capacity.

And that's fine for some! If you're turned off by the thought of wearing lycra or think a 3x8 gear setup is called "24 speed," then you should stop reading now. On the other hand, if you identify as a "cyclist" and desire a bikepacking adventure that suits your riding style, this is the article for you.


By far the worst mistake I made was giving myself too much storage capacity. Parkinson's Law applies to bikes as it applies to meeting lengths: your gear will fill the space allotted.

I opted for not one, not two, but five bags: two fork-mounted panniers, two rear-rack-mounted panniers, and a backpack strapped atop the rear rack. So much space allows for unnecessary luxuries. Case in point: a cot. Yes, a freaking cot!

A combined photo of before and after Zack's first tour across the US. On the left side he's in the Pacific Ocean with his bike, and on the right side he's in the Atlantic Ocean.

From the 2016 tour, starting in the Pacific in Ocean City, WA and ending in the Atlantic in Ocean City, Maryland.

Compare my setup with Lachlan Morton's that he used to complete The Alt Tour, a 3,400 mile, 215K vert gain, self-supported ride covered in 18 days.

Below is the ridiculous amount of gear I brought on the 2016 trip. If it's struck-through, that means I would not recommend bringing. The text to the right of the struck-through text is what I would recommend bringing instead.


I recommend following the Adventure Cycle Association routes, especially if going solo. You're bound to encounter cyclists on the way (I met well over 100 cyclists on my trip), especially at ACA-endorsed camping sites. The routes often pass through National Parks (Acadia, Glacier, and Theodore Roosevelt on the Northern Tier route), which are both beautiful and top-notch places to camp.

The other benefit is safety. The ACA routes follow designated bike lanes and (paved) trails when available. People who live near these routes have learned to expect cyclists, so drivers tend to be more patient and businesses often cater to cyclists (bike racks in front of stores, more frequent bike shops, general interest in you and your trip).

I ended up following primarily the Northern Tier route with a variation near the Great Lakes to go through Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cleveland. I then took meandered to Pittsburgh and took the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Towpath to get to Washington, D.C. I used Google Maps bike directions to fill the gaps between these established routes.

The ACA sells paper maps as well as downloadable GPX files that you can add to your bike computer. A quick Google search shows several (unverified) free versions.


Part of the draw to bikepacking is the connection with nature, so suffice it to say that most bikepackers camp. Try to plan your lodging/distance goal for at least the next three days with contingency plans for weather. Depending on the location of campgrounds, you may need to increase or decrease your mileage a bit, but in general I was surprised how easy it was to find a place to (legally) rest near my goal distance per day - likely a perk of following a well-established cycling route.

I camped most nights, but I also had the pleasure of staying with hosts through a cycling-specific couchsurfing app called WarmShowers. It's a community full of cycling enthusiasts, many of whom are eager to help you on your journey. During my trip I met countless wonderful hosts, shared stories and laughs, enjoyed more than my fair share of delicious home-cooked meals, and, of course, took advantage of some warm showers! Some of my most memorable experiences on the trip were with hosts who went out of their way to make my trip special.

When all else fails, there are cheap motel rooms just about everywhere in the U.S. Some are so ratchet staying there could probably count as camping. But hey, a bed is a bed. And sometimes after a long day riding, a ratchet bed is just what the doctor ordered.


Good food is a beautiful thing, but when you're in the middle of a bikepacking tour, that's not the time nor the place. Think of it as fuel, not food. It's not there to be savored, it's there to get you from point A to point B.

You'll need to fuel up, and a lot of it. To keep going day after day without risking bonking or substantial weight loss and injury, you'll likely need to consume more than double what you typically eat in a day (for me, north of 8,000 calories).

Rural areas rarely have many food options that are conveniently located on your route. I had most of my meals at grocery and convenience stores, sticking primarily to prepared foods or quickly prepared foods (ex: a baguette and jar of peanut butter or Nutella). For mid-ride snacks, I kept bags of gummy candy and mixed nuts within easy reach. If I stopped at a fast food restaurant, I'd fill my water bottles with the closest option to Gatorade.

While you will probably lose some weight during the trip, you don't want to lose too much or harm your body's ability to recover. Make sure you're staying on top of your nutrition to avoid bonking and provide the micro and macronutrients your body needs to perform for many days on end.


If you're reading this it's because you're already a fairly committed cyclist. That's probably enough - you should never be riding hard while bike touring, so you don't need to train intervals, for example. You should do a dress rehearsal trip before a much longer trip, e.g. a 3-day long weekend tour with distance per day approximately the same as what you'll be doing on the longer tour. Test out your gear, see what works, what doesn't, and fix it.

Even well-trained cyclists probably aren't biking 700+ miles per week when not bikepacking. Your legs will adapt, but be patient. Over the first couple week or so, go a little easier up climbs than you think you can handle.

Side note: many blogs recommend pre-planning a rest day every six days or so. I think this is bad advice - don't adhere to a strict rest schedule. Listen to your body. If you need rest, take rest, otherwise carry on. Every body is different, and yours may need more or less rest. Personally, I felt like I could have gone the full trip with no rest days, but I ended up taking a couple to free up some time with friends. I mean, how often do you get to ride Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point with one of your buds??

What else?

What questions do you still have or would you like to know more about? Drop me a line and let me know!