Category Archives: Reviews

7 Lessons Learned from 4 Years of Nomadic Cycling


Four years ago, I embarked on a journey that permanently changed the course of my life. The journey started as a desire to do something out of the ordinary and as a resistance to the status quo. This journey has taken me throughout the US, from Alaska to Florida. It has forced me out of my comfort zone a million times over and has challenged me to face many of my fears. I have been fortunate enough to make countless friends along the way and find a loving companion, who is just crazy enough to join me in my travels. Four years ago, I left Portland, OR on my bicycle, heading south with not a single plan set in stone – just an openness to experience something new. That journey continues today, and I’d like to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned from my extraordinary life of travel.

IMG_1234The first few steps might be the hardest, and it never gets easier – Whenever I’m about to embark on a new adventure, it’s the act of taking those first few steps in a tangential direction that are the hardest. The thing that has surprised me the most about this is that in the past four years I don’t think changing course has ever gotten easier. I guess that’s why it’s often those first few steps that make the biggest difference between an ordinary life and an extraordinary life. This principle is probably best summed up in Newton’s first law of motion – an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. I still find leaving home to set out on a two-month bicycle tour just as difficult as coming off that bike tour at the end of two months to set-up a new home. The thing that does get easier is the adaption process. The more I put myself outside of my comfort zone, the more tools I gather and the easier time I have to adapting to a new way of life.

Come up with an ‘ABC Plan’ – What’s an ABC Plan you say? Well, this is a little tool that I’ve developed over the years to help me feel more comfortable in taking those first few steps toward my goals. The “A” in ABC is the best case scenario. I imagine the best case scenario for whatever my next adventure is and what actions I will need to take in order to achieve those results. The truth about the “A” is that it often doesn’t require much more input other than getting started. If everything works in my favor, that scenario is usually self-sustaining and doesn’t require anything additional from me.

You might be able to guess now that the “C” in ABC is the worst case scenario. Mentally I can usually come up with at least half a dozen “C” scenarios, and I try to think about what I will need to do to resolve them or at least reduce the risk of them happening. With cycling these scenarios usually involve: getting my bike/panniers/wallet/cell phone stolen, running out of food/water/energy or ending up in a ditch/hospital/graveyard. While these aren’t pleasant things to think about, they will provide you with a much needed back-up plan and risk assessment strategy, which I have found will make you both more likely to survive a “C” scenario and actually downplay any fears you might have going into a new situation.

The “B” in the ABC Plan is the scenario that is most likely to happen. This is the part where I think you gain the most insight. When it comes to cycling this usually involves things like flat tires, broken chains and spokes, and running behind schedule. This part of the planning phase tells you how to pack and plan for things that are most likely to happen and will once again help alleviate any fears that you have going into your next adventure. The great thing about the ABC Plan is that you can use it in almost any area of your life where you have fear, even if you aren’t embarking on some big new adventure. Looking to ask for that promotion, but afraid? Develop an ABC Plan and explore your options. It might not seem like such a big task anymore.

A life of travel ranges from exhilarating to exhausting – I’m not going to lie, I have felt more exhausted, more times in the past four years than I ever remember feeling the 30 years prior. I’m not talking about the kind of exhaustion you get from riding a 100-mile bike ride or running a marathon. That exhaustion usually dissipates in a day or two. I’m talking about the exhaustion felt from life on the road. In the past four years I have moved my home base from New Orleans, LA to Newport, RI to Portland, OR to Skagway, AK to Durango, CO to Providence, RI to where I’m at now…which is looking for my next “home.” It’s not easy living a nomadic lifestyle, but I do have to say that I have been thrilled with the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I’ve encountered. I have actually looked back on the past four years of my life and thought to myself “I really do lived a charmed existence.” Though it is rarely easy, it is often rewarding, and that’s why I continue to live this way.

Less really is more – There are so many ways I see this principle apply to my life, and it has truly made me happier. The house with the least possessions is the house that’s the easiest to clean. What I’ve found out about the “less is more” philosophy is that it’s continuing to evolve for me. What I considered traveling light a few years ago is completely different than what I consider it today. I expect that four years from now that idea will have evolved even more. A question pertaining to my nomadic lifestyle that I’m often asked is “Where do you keep all your stuff?” My reply is often as simple as “What stuff?” I’ve learned that I can pretty much find anything I need in just about any town in America, even if I’ve entered that town empty-handed and having no connections. Things like Craigslist, email list-serves and eBay have made it easier than ever to walk into a new place and make a life for oneself. The great thing about the “less is more” philosophy is that it’s going to mean something different to everybody. We will all have different wants and needs. I’ve just found that I’m personally happiest only having to worry about the few possessions that I can carry on either my back or bicycle (and maybe a box or two of nostalgic items that I can keep at a relative’s house), than being bogged down by furnishings of a typical American household. This idea has also led me to purchasing more quality products, often reusing nice used items and focusing on longevity as an economic strategy.

Every experience is enhanced when it is shared – Before I met my Sarah three-and-a-half years ago I did most of my traveling alone. I had some great, I’d even say truly amazing experiences while traveling alone, and I encourage everybody to take on solo travel at least once in their life. Never having to compromise on things like where to go, what to do, where to eat or what to see is what tops my list about solo travel. What I’ve found though, in my own experience, is that when you don’t have another person with whom to share those amazing times, you tend to forget just how amazing they were. There is something about reminiscing with another human being about things that keeps those experiences so much more alive in our memories. After all, what’s the use of a life full of experiences if you have nobody to share them with?

What advice would the future version of yourself give you today? – When I find myself at a crossroads or in a moment of fear or uncertainty, it helps me to look to the future and imagine what advice a future version of myself would give me today. The amount of years I usually use is 10 because that’s a number I think of as being close enough to imagine yet far enough away to hold a different perspective. Maybe 5 years or 8 years or 20 years is a better benchmark for you, it doesn’t really matter. The thing about this exercise is that I find it can help even with the small decisions. Should I work out today? Future me says yes. Do I really need to eat this entire box of cookies? Future me says please don’t. Will this $100 be better off in my savings account or buying some new electronic device? Future me says the $100 does more for him in savings than in an electronic device that has been outdated for years. I’ve found that it helps the most with the big questions though. Should I continue working at this job that I hate because of the short-term fear of quitting or should I take a stab at something completely new? Future me says that I will benefit more from trying something new, even if that means failing, than continuing to do the same thing expecting different results. What would the future you have to say about your recent decisions?

All things considered, humanity is alive and well – Whenever I’ve found myself in a truly tough situation, I’ve found that there was a person there that was willing to help. In fact, something I’ve often said is that if I ever lose my faith in humanity, the best thing I can do is go on a bicycle tour. There’s something about cycling in particular that really seems to bring people together. With websites like WarmShowers and CouchSurfing, connecting with like-minded strangers has never been easier. These websites take away a lot of the fear of meeting new people too, because they require identification verification and you can read what others have to say about these people. I’ve also been shown such beautiful acts of unexpected kindness while bike touring. I’ve had complete strangers offer me a place to stay, buy me dinner, give me money and donate to charities that I support. One of the most touching acts of kindness I’ve experienced came at one of the lowest points in my years of bicycle touring – right after Sarah and I had our bikes stolen. Unbeknownst to us, some friends of ours reached out to strangers, friends and acquaintances and pooled together enough money to allow us to continue on with our travels. At my lowest point, I was shown the most amount of love.

IMG_1278As I continue on my journey through life, I understand that this list is not exhaustive and is just a drop in the bucket of lessons to be learned. What I’m hoping to show you is that a major life overhaul is possible, and it doesn’t have to be as scary as we humans tend to make it out to be. Even failures, if done in a thoughtful way, can be insightful steps in the right direction. While my ideal life right now is that of a nomadic one, I know that this too can and will change. I’m not recommending that everybody jump on a bicycle and ride across the country, but I do think that everybody can benefit from a little more adventure in their lives, whether that means taking your kids camping, asking your boss for a raise or simply taking your bike for a ride around the block. Two truths that continue to show up in my life: You’re never going to be as young as you are today, and this is the only life you’re guaranteed…so you better make the most of it.

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Review of Green Guru’s Hauler Bike Pack Saddle Bag

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Taking my Green Guru bags out for a test ride on Marshall Mesa in Boulder, CO

During our travels this summer, Dallas and I were lucky to meet a few of the good folks from Green Guru, an awesome company out of Boulder that up-cycles old bike tubes and tent fabrics to make useful things like wallets, backpacks and panniers. We applied to be ambassadors after talking with them at RAGBRAI, and at the end of our season we got to check out their shop in Boulder and receive some gear to test out. I’m writing my first review of the Hauler Bike Pack Saddle Bag in total honesty.

Here are all of the positive features. This bag is like an over-sized saddle pack that attaches to the rails on the underside of your saddle by a clipped strap on each side, and a Velcro strap to secure it to the seat post. The best thing about this bag is there is no need for a rack, so it can literally attach to any bike. At 425 cubic inches of space, you can pack enough stuff in there for an overnight trip if you needed. This pack is made of up-cycled tent fabric

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The Hauler Bike Pack looks great on my mountain bike!

and bike tubes on the outside with a waterproof nylon inner lining. It has a reflective strap that faces back towards car headlights when it’s on your bike. This strap is sewn into the bag as a series of loops, and a bike tail light can easily be clipped onto one of the loops. Also on the outside of the bag is a small zippered pocket on the top and a Velcro pocket on the bottom containing a removable plastic stiffener. It has a Velcro and roll-top closure, with 2 more clipped straps to keep it tightly rolled while riding. There’s also a removable, adjustable strap that clips onto the bag easily to convert it into a shoulder bag, or pannier-shaped messenger bag. It’s pretty versatile.

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Now for the things that I don’t like about the bag. It can take a while to attach to the saddle, especially if your saddle is mounted all the way forward on its rails. The female half of the clip needs to be fed through the rails, and the bulk of the plastic can be tricky to get through and hold there while you try to bring the male half of the clip to meet it. I know in order to be able to tighten the straps down so the bag isn’t hanging low and loosely between the saddle and rear wheel the strap that is fixed to the bag needs to be short, but maybe the other strap could be longer to make this easier (or there could be a loop attached to the end of that strap so it’s easier to grab to tighten after you’ve loosed the clip all the way). The clips could also be smaller, but then you may sacrifice weight capacity for the bag. The only other thing that is annoying about the bag is riding with it. The bag swings back and forth when pedaling, and I don’t think it is avoidable. Maybe it’s my massive hamstrings that hit the side of the bag with each pedal stroke, batting it back and forth like a pendulum, creating some weird gyroscopic feeling while riding with a heavy load. I’ve tried using the bag with both my mountain bike and road bike, and still get this swinging. However, it’s much better than riding with a backpack! I’ve tested it on the road and on trails, and it’s actually less noticeable on trails, perhaps because the terrain is already bumpy and pedaling isn’t as frequent and rhythmic.

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Overall, I am very happy with the Bike Pack Saddle Bag. I look forward to taking it on more long mountain bike rides, and using it to commute around town (although I’m going to have to add to my collection of bike packing bags if I want to take my tent with me). I don’t have a rack on any of my bikes right now, so I haven’t been able to use panniers, and this bag offers a solution, allowing me to carry everything I need without having to wear a sweaty backpack.

To see the Hauler in action, check out this video description that Green Guru made for their Kickstarter campaign

Review of North St’s Woodward Convertible Pannier

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Riding to the grocery store using my new bag as a pannier

I am writing this review on a bag that I purchased with a preconceived bias, so keep that in mind if it sounds slightly like I may be searching for a reason to love this bag.  The Woodward Convertible is a bike pannier that can also be worn as a backpack.  North St Bags, which is located in Portland, Oregon, was named for the street the owner grew up on in Montpelier, Vermont.  Unfortunately, I left Portland just before discovering this amazing local company, and had to wait for the bag to arrive in the mail.  Since I don’t remain in one place for very long, it was a bit tricky to coordinate where to have the bag shipped, and to make sure I would actually be there.  Consequently, by the time I did receive the bag, I was over a thousand miles away from my bike, so I had to test it out as just a backpack first.

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The bag converts easily between a pannier and backpack, with a zippered flap that contains the backpack straps while being used as a pannier and a velcro strap to secure the pannier hooks and bungee while wearing as a backpack.  The bag is also waterproof, so there’s no need for rain covers if it starts to rain on you during your ride.  There are good reflective stripes all over the bag, and my favorite part is that you can customize the colors of both the main bag and the reflective stripes.  

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Inside the main bag is a padded compartment for a laptop (or papers that you don’t want to get crinkled), and there are two velcro pockets on the outside as well as a pocket that perfectly fits a U-lock.  The side velcro pocket is perfect for my water bottle when I’m walking around town or already have my coffee thermos in the water bottle cage on my bike.

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I did get to try the bag out as a pannier when our friends, Dustin and Katie, from Alaska came through Durango after bicycle touring around Arizona and New Mexico.  The bag fits best on a rear rack, since it would hang pretty low and may hit the ground if you were to try it out as a front pannier.  There is a bungee cord with a hook that hooks onto the bottom part of the pannier rack, and two hooks at the top of the bag that hook over the top of the rack.  It does allow the bag to bounce away from the rack, since there’s nothing securing the bottom of the bungee to the bag, but it seems pretty secure and I don’t think it would easily fall off of the rack.

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This bag has been perfect for biking and walking around town and is wonderful for grocery shopping.  I am extremely happy with it so far, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who commutes by bicycle or even occasionally would use their bicycle for a shopping excursion into town.  It’s a pretty durable material, and while a bit costly for me, I think it could last a lifetime, and I feel good about supporting a local company that’s making handmade bags in the USA.

For anyone who is interested in purchasing from North St Bags, use the code “bagforlife” to receive a 20% discount on all orders over $100! This discount code is good until December 14th of this year.

A review of trustedhousesitters.com – from a sitter’s perspective

As the holidays approach and people are scrambling to solidify travel plans to see family, an important priority for many people is finding someone to care for their home or pets while away. Then there are people like Dallas and me, who are always trying to figure out where we’re going to sleep for the next few weeks (or months) and how we’re going to afford it. Websites like trustedhousesitters.com offer a solution for both types of people. Dallas and I joined trustedhousesitters.com on November 1st this year.  We have membership privileges for one year before we have to decide whether to renew or let lapse.  I have formulated a rough sketch of an opinion so far, from the perspective of a house-sitter who has yet to connect with the right homeowner.

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trustedhousesitters.com

First, you have to pay for a membership in order to contact homeowners, and it’s a bit pricey.  This could be why most of the members are older, retired professionals.  For homeowners, this filters through all the potential sitters and is MUCH better than posting an ad on craigslist.  Homeowners can feel more secure knowing that their sitter will not be partying or doing drugs in their home while they’re away.  However, as a younger house-sitter with no steady income or pension, it is a bit of an investment for me.  That said, the costs are well worth it if it hooks us up with the right home.  In most cases, the membership would pay for itself in just one sit, saving us on the costs of hotels or hostels.

Also, as a younger house sitter amongst a member base of “mature, responsible, house sitters with extensive references and resumes”, I feel at a slight disadvantage when it comes to getting chosen to be the house sitter.  We need to use our age to set us apart advantageously.  While many of the members advertise that they are fit, I wonder how many of them would run daily with the dogs in urban areas that have leash laws.

Most house-sitters are not expecting to be paid.  This is a great benefit for homeowners, for obvious reasons.  However, most people who can afford a membership can also afford to pay their sitter a little bit to reward them for doing a good job.  If there is no payment at all, there may be less incentive for the house sitter to make extra efforts to keep the house clean or the garden alive.  I assume that most of the members on here would go that extra mile just for the positive feedback to use a reference, but it is nice as a house-sitter to receive a little bit of compensation, not only to offset the cost of travel or the time involved in caring for pets, but as a token of appreciation for a job well done.  This would still be much cheaper and less hassle than boarding pets at a kennel or hiring someone through a pet-sitting service, and it would provide homeowners some extra peace of mind.  I don’t mind not being paid, but when everyone is offering their services for free, it diminishes the perceived value of all sitters. 

In search results, your sitter profile is not going to show up if you say that you charge “Sometimes” unless a homeowner indicates “I don’t mind” in the search query, so if you want homeowners to be able to find you, it might be beneficial to indicate that you don’t charge at all. I don’t like this, for the reasons mentioned above. Sometimes a free place to stay is more than enough and I would not feel right charging a homeowner, but when the house-sitting job comes with responsibilities like feeding and exercising animals, keeping house plants and gardens healthy, and helping to run a farm or bed-and-breakfast, I would expect a little bit of compensation. 

The reference feature allows house sitters to request references from other members or externally, and references are posted on sitters’ profiles. There’s also a feature to have a police report available, to prove that you have no criminal record. Homeowners can search for sitters based on references and police report availability. The references offer sitters great motivation to do a good job so they can earn more positive references to help them in finding future house-sitting opportunities.

The site is an excellent resource for both homeowners and house sitters.  It connects people who would never have found each other and opens people’s minds up to opportunities outside of their immediate vicinity.  Members are much more reliable and trustworthy than your average craigslist user, or at least the sketchy people are weeded out from the start. I have already started recommending the website to friends who may be interested in house-sitting as a way to vacation inexpensively.

Recommendations for the site:

Reach out to younger people and try to diversify the membership base. Maybe offer a Groupon or not charge a house-sitter for their membership until they have secured their first house-sitting gig through the website. OR, in addition to the membership option, allow people to join for free and pay per house-sitting gig that they obtain (members would not have to pay this fee). Also, try to attract people from other countries. Right now, the majority of homeowners are in the UK, US, Australia and western Europe. It would be nice to see an even wider range of locations, including South America and Asia.

Improve search result feedback. Allow people to sort search results in order of proximity, or other options. Your profile won’t have any priority if someone in your area searches for a house-sitter. Let the profiles of house sitters who indicate that they charge “sometimes” appear in search results for either paying or non-paying homeowners.

So far, I love the website and am excited for its potential in helping Dallas and me find places to stay while we are traveling. When we do find a house-sitting gig through here (and according to the site, 75% of members with complete profiles do), I will be sure to blog about it!

For those of you who made it through to the end of this lengthy review, Trustedhousesitters is offering a 25% discount on memberships when you enter the discount code, “nomadiccycling”!

Shopping Season 2011 Gear Review

He holds him with his glittering eye –
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.

Well its Black Friday and the 2011 shopping season is here. I thought I would review a number of items that we have with us on the trip. After over 1600 miles I have a good feel for our gear. Hopefully this will be of some help to anyone planning their own bike touring trip.

First off the Bike!

This here is my Specialized Tricross Sport 2007. I have named it

“The Bebop”

This bike has so far worked out great for me. Its a 54 cm aluminum frame with a carbon fork. 700 rims. Shimano 105 components. This bike is light, strong and provides a comfortable ride on road and thanks to its design it handles fabulously off road. It has tapped holes for both the front and rear racks. As long as you balance the weight it handles fabulously and I have not had a single problem with any of the components. The only change I would make to my set up is the gearing. It is a cyclocross bike so it’s geared rather aggressively, this can make for some tough uphill days so I plan on changing out the crank before heading to Europe.  Some people tend to go for full steel frames when touring. In general this tends to be a good call for long tours through remote areas as steel is a very easy material to repair. Secondly steel can provide a smoother ride than other materials. So far I am very happy about my choice and suggest giving one a ride at the local Specialized Rep.

One word of caution. Every model before the 2011 model has the tapped holes for the front rack, they eliminated these in the 2011 model. They realized afterward that the taps were in demand and brought it back for the 2012 model. Just keep that in mind.

Racks:

Surly Front and Rear Racks.

I did a large amount of reading before settling on my bike racks. I am very happy with the Surly rack. The front rack is rated to 70 lbs and the rear 80 lbs. I currently have the rear rack on my bike and a different one of the front. The rear rack has held up wonderfully, structurally and cosmetically. While my front rack is still structurally sound it has not held up cosmetically and large areas of the paint have chipped off resulting in rust. I have had to clean this off several times. I will be holding on to my front rack until there is a structural failure. At that point I will be replacing it with Surly, no doubt about it.

Panniers:

Ortlieb Front and Rear Roller (Classic or Plus)

This here is the Ortlieb Roller Classic. If you do any reading on the thousands of websites reviewing what panniers to use the Ortlieb company comes up again and again as the best choice. I now cast my vote with those who have come before, Ortlieb is the best! For long tours the Roller Plus or classic seem to be the best way to go. The most important feature in any storage bag for any trip is durability and waterproofing and these bags pass with flying colors. I have been through driving rain, light hail, crashes both on and off road and been hit by a bus. These have suffered zero structural damage and maintained their waterproofing. There are a few cosmetic marks from soot and dirt but a bit of soap solves this problem quickly. The attachment system is simple and convenient. It can be quickly adjusted to easily fit most any bike rack. Not only are they simple to put on and take off but they are also very convenient to carry around as they provide a shoulder sling for the bags.

Tent

Stoic Arx Xl 2

I greatly enjoy backpacking and camping so I spent a long time picking the tent for this trip. In the end I settled on the Stoic Arx XL 2 tent for several reasons. First of all its a fairly light tent,   with everything packed it weighs a total of 4lbs 11 oz. It sets up quick and easy and breaks down just as fast. The only real downside is that it does not come with a footprint which I would suggest getting. While this tent has proven to be wonderful we have not had to use it on this trip due to the overwhelming generosity of the CouchSurfing and WarmShowers communities.

Clothing

Sarah and I each have a varied assortment of clothing, and rain gear I will just briefly highlight a few companies that I really enjoy

Mountain Hardware

The people over at Mountain Hardware make excellent gear for nearly every situation. I personally have three of their products with me along for this trip. The Pac-lite shell, the Micro Grid zip tee Fleece and the Micro Power Stretch zip tee Base Layer . Each of these products have functioned perfectly and I have been through some pretty rough weather so far. In addition to great performance the company stands behind their products and work with any complaints very quickly and often will outright replace the product if they are unable to repair it. I have had a great relationship with Mountain Hardware and encourage anyone undertaking any sort of expedition to use them.

This is a great company from New Zealand. They specialize in Merino wool products and they are all amazing. I have two of their GT200 Chase shirts and they are amazing. The wool is soft, very warm wicks sweat and moisture away  and is antimicrobial so for those trips where you haven’t seen running water for days and thus no bathing, these shirts don’t smell.Another interesting thing about the site is that there is a code associated with every garment and you can put that into the website and track precisely where the wool came from.  I strongly suggest any of IceBreakers clothing for warmth, comfort and adventure.

I have two pairs of their bike shorts and a fabulous wind breaker. They have all served me fabulously over the course of 1600 miles. There are tons of reviews and sites on how to pick a pair of bike shorts. I am not going to get into it, go find those sites and read them. In the end though pearl iZumi makes a good pair. As for the windbreaker its fabulous. It packs down to the size of a soda can, its highly florescent and can be seen from several hundred meters and keeps off wind and light rain.  Again Pearl iZumi, good stuff.

Well thats the short version. More reviews and other thoughts to follow. Thanks, cheers everyone.

Phil