Do-It-Yourself Bike Touring

Words: Nick Lubecki
Photos: Brad Quartuccio

Nick Lubecki isn’t someone you know, but his attitude towards long distance riding is one you should know. He’s pedaled around the United States and Canada using equipment most enthusiasts would balk at. He finds his food in dumpsters and along the road, tossing it and anything else he might find in a basket strapped to his rear rack. No matter that his way is unconventional, his nature reserved or his appearance slightly disheveled—Nick’s advice is founded on first-hand experience and his story is pure inspiration. – Ed

DIY bike tour-1

I took my first tour three years ago on a 1972 woman’s Raleigh Rampar. I had a bright orange “Wawa” milk crate attached to the rear rack for grocery shopping that I filled with clothes and some camping gear. With all this packed into the milk crate, a friend and I set off from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

The bike I tour with now is an ‘80s Ross road bike. After I attached front and rear racks and fenders it was ready to roll. I got it for 8 hours of work through a work-trade program at “Free Ride!,” a local bicycle co-op. When my girlfriend Hallie (who had never toured before) and I rode to Colorado from Pennsylvania this past summer, she took her 10 year-old hybrid that she used for commuting and made a few simple modifications.

Use What You Have

You can do some of the same things that we did to Hallie’s bike to make your tour more comfortable. We installed handlebar extenders to alleviate hand pain, fenders to help keep her butt dry and a more comfortable seat. Small improvements in efficiency make a big difference when you’re biking all day, so we replaced her off-road hybrid tires with smooth road-friendly tires. Toe clips were a quick and inexpensive way to noticeably increase pedaling efficiency.

None of these modifications were difficult and, along with a rear rack, can turn virtually any bike into a touring bike. This saved Hallie the trouble of buying a new bike, and after we fixed it up, her old Trek performed beautifully.

A Ride a Day

Preparation is necessary for enjoying oneself on a tour. Just biking a bit every day was enough physical preparation for me. Before taking my first tour, I rode 6 miles roundtrip between home and work.

For a holistic preparation, the Two-Day Trip is essential. This is how you learn to do a bike trip. Ride all day, camp out and then turn around and come home. With this, you can practice the skills necessary for touring (like patching a flat tire) as well as work out the kinks in your packing system without getting too far from home.

Most importantly, the Two-Day Trip allows one to adjust to the most difficult part of touring: the second day. It’s one thing to ride 60 miles. It’s an entirely different thing to wake up the next day and ride another 60 miles. Working through this second day will guarantee that when you get on your 500-mile tour, you won’t give up after the third day. After my first Two-Day Trip I collapsed on the couch. But when I went on a longer trip to Philadelphia, I did just fine.

Don’t Spend a Dime

Here’s another thing I know—you don’t need to blow $5,000 at REI to get the gear you need. In fact, you probably have most of the gear you need. I know it sounds sacrilegious to some, but I find spandex completely unnecessary. Figure out what works best for you, but I find that an adequate seat and washing or changing my underwear every couple days helps me avoid any discomfort.

Everyone has a pot, cup and spoon; these items are cooking gear essentials. I use an alcohol fueled stove when I can’t build a fire to cook my meals. Most people have a sleeping bag lying around, and if your trip is in the summer, a bag rated at 40 degrees is just fine. Depending on the weather, a bed sheet or blanket might be a nice lightweight addition.

A tarp is sufficient for protection from the rain. A simple tent can be constructed by stringing rope between two trees and draping the tarp over it, and then staking down both sides. It takes about as long as setting up a “real” tent and is much lighter, more versatile and inexpensive.

Carry It All

I made a set of panniers for around $7, which takes about 10 seconds to put together. I went to Goodwill and picked up a set of messenger-style bags for $4 and then rode to the hardware store and got four carabiners. I hooked the carabiners around the handles of the bags and then hooked that to my front rack.

On the rear rack I have a basic backpack strapped down with bungee cords that I found on the side of the road. (Be sure to keep an eye on the roadside—there are goodies to be found.)

While some people advocate front and rear racks, I’ve found just a rear rack can be sufficient. The main advantage of a front rack is that it distributes the weight and reduces flats on the back tire. Ideally, a 40/60 weight distribution, front to back, works fine for me. Anything more than that and the front can be difficult to steer.

DIY bike tour-2

Get By With a Friend

Touring, like most things in life, is more fun with a friend. In my own experience, weeklong trips are comfortable alone. Anything longer than that and I really like to have someone riding along with me. Traveling around disorients the mind and upsets the ego for sure, and having a traveling partner gives me the social stability I need to meet any predicament.


Once you’re on the road you’ll have to think about water. Staying properly hydrated is extremely important, especially during the summer. The color of your pee will be your guide to proper hydration. Some old advice that I follow is to drink until your pee is clear. Less than clear will do, but dark pee is a warning sign that you are dehydrated. In my travels across the United States, publicly accessible water is widely available. I find bathrooms at fast food restaurants, gas stations and bars. Those last two also usually have free matches.

The best advice I’ve ever heard about nutrition while touring came from my brother Justin. He told me to “eat like a fat person.” This means lots of fatty foods like potato chips, fries, pizza, steak and doughnuts. Incidentally, these are the same kind of foods I crave while on the road.

Touring is a slow and steady sort of activity, and fat burns in much the same way. When ripping through 8,000 calories a day, one quickly burns through carbs. Your body then starts to burn fat reserves that will need to be replenished. The times I’ve eaten mostly vegetable stews and rice, I’ve found myself losing a lot of weight.

Buried Treasure

Now for some really good news: America is blessed with a huge endowment of high-fat food, a large portion of which is available for free, if you know where to look. I start at the dumpster.

Dumpster-diving for food is fairly straight-forward. Bakeries throw away doughnuts, bagels and pastries; pizza shops toss pizza; grocery store dumpsters have a little bit of everything ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to pastries and even ice cream. It is possible, especially east of the Mississippi, to tour while eating entirely out of dumpsters [if you’re up for it].

A Good Night’s Sleep

The same reasons that make the land east of the Mississippi ideal for dumpster diving also lead to a chronic shortage of public land. One often needs to be creative about places to sleep. You can always ask a landowner’s permission, but this isn’t always possible. Honestly, anything that’s not too out in the open, fenced-in or angrily signed, is fair game.

I’ve slept in wooded lots on the side of the road, under bridges, beside churches, municipal parks, graveyards and once in an abandoned amusement park. If you’re tired enough, there is always a place to sleep.

It’s a beautiful country. Enjoy the ride!

This story was originally published in 2007 in Issue #127 of Dirt Rag, our sister magazine. Check it out. You might like it.



Back to Top