Assuming you’re not incarcerated or (effectively) indentured, and this is no small assumption, the primary obstacle to freedom is want, in the sense of being “in want” for food, shelter, transportation and other things we need to live, be comfortable, and seek happiness. If you accept this premise, I will proceed to explain how a bicycle is the ultimate freedom machine.
Let’s compare the freedom a bike affords to more common notions of free-exploration, starting with backpacking through the woods. What’s awesome about backpacking in the woods is that it’s forest bathing plus optimized self-sufficiency. You need only push yourself as hard as you want, and provided you don’t push yourself too hard, you can’t help but get stronger and better at it.
All this is true, too, of what I’ll call “cyclepacking”. Sure, you can’t ride your bike on a lot of trails, but then again, there are many trails that you can ride on. You can also still get to very remote places on roads, particularly unpaved roads. Did you know that there are so many roads in the 48 contiguous United States that the furthest point from any of them is less than 30 miles? Many of these are bumpy gravel or dirt roads, but riding at a leisurely 6 miles per hour with bags attached to a bike is many times more pleasant than walking under a load of bags on your back. Of course, pleasant isn’t everything. When it’s time to switch it up and hike a few miles up a ridge, you can and should have the means to attach the things you need to your body and do just that.
Which brings us to an obvious trick, and the distinguishing characteristic between cyclepacking and, say, bike touring or “bikepacking” (more below): A means to carry gear for excursions without the bike. Last summer, I picked up an old external aluminum backpack frame at a second hand outdoor equipment store for $10 on the hope that I’d be able to attach my bags. It was straightforward to adjust the bags’ bike-rack-hooks to securely fasten them to the backpack-rack. It was also straightforward to add it to my bicycle’s load. Over the following weeks, I spent a good amount of time in the Cascades, criss-crossing the Pacific Crest Trail, from as far south as McKenzie Pass in Central Oregon to Stevens Pass in Central Washington. If I had a night or two to spare, I’d stash my bike, say in some brush, cable-locked to tree or something to distinguish it from abandoned, convert to backpacker mode, then hike up a ridge for a night or two. Regardless of the terrain, the trail head, or the road leading to it, it never takes more than a few hours for surroundings to become indistinguishable from several days worth of hiking. Put another way, a full day and/or night in the wilderness without the sound of a single car is a singularly beautiful experience, and is easy to achieve with this one simple trick.
These weeks also happened to be high traffic for that area with South-to-North PCT through hikers, and the PCT happened to be the trail on which I’d make most of my excursions. I met through hikers on trail, fueling up in re-supply towns, and hitch-hiking between the two. I admired the sense of community they had, sharing similar experiences, challenges, defeats and triumphs. I wanted to think that I pitied them for having too many people to share their common experiences with, and I did to some extent, but the larger truth was that I envied them having people to share the experience with at all. Which is why I’m writing this: I feel very strongly that there should be more cyclepackers. Selfishly because I want to bump into more people that I can share the experience with, and earnestly because I think it’s a fundamentally better way to travel freely.
The main obstacle to the freedom of a through-hiker is simply the logistics of having enough food. Even after a through hiker has delivered her caches (weeks or months in advance), she has to get (often 10+ miles) to them, and back again. If there’s a “trail angel” or someone readily available to give a lift, great! If not, it could take the rest of the day to get into town. Even though she’s planned out far in advance, there’s inevitable variability in how long the re-stocking trip is going to take. If she’s got an abundance of time to spare, she can just roll with it. However, single season through-hikers, in particular, usually do not have a surplus of time and many I met were openly stressed about keeping pace.
As a cyclepacker, other than starting and finishing major legs of a trip, I usually don’t need to plan more than 24 hours ahead, and almost never more than a few days. Planning usually amounts to deciding how far away from “civilization” I want to go between where I am and my next encounter, how long that’s going to take, and so how much food (and sometimes water) I need to bring. I usually decide where I’ll try to get on a given day, over breakfast, the morning of.
As much as I want to be, I can be my own trail angel as a pseudo through-hiker. While I can’t say that I through-hiked any substantial stretch of trail as a cyclepacker, I do carry a couple of clamps I can use to attach my entire bike to the pack frame. While I haven’t yet used this in the wild, I’ve eyed some spots where this could be used to traverse a section of the PCT (or other trail on which bikes are forbidden), to connect a larger traverse on remote logging/snowmobile roads.
Going further, I like (almost) all the things, of which those involving back country, forest bathing, self-sufficiency, and solitude are only some. There’s also backpacking in the globe-trotting, transit-using sense of the word. As a cyclepacker (or any touring cyclist), you get to meet many people doing this, particularly by staying in hostels, in any traveled town, at any traveling time of year for that town. And like the back country backpacker, you get to enjoy almost all the benefits while being spared the headaches. Checking out restaurants, museums, landmarks, markets, sights, and nightlife in an interesting city is a blast, made funner and easier by having a bicycle at the ready. Choose your accommodations and you have an unloaded bicycle. Riding an unloaded bike in a city after having gotten there with load is especially blissful. Instead of either walking everywhere, or dealing with transit and the scheduling and costs thereof, you simply get on your bike and go where you want, when you want. Is your hostel a mile from the interesting town center? No big deal! That’s probably about 5 minutes by bike, as opposed to 20 minutes by foot. In fact, a newly hooked cyclist can be detected as someone who sets out for some place, walks up to 2 minutes away from where they’ve left their bike, realizes he’s bored, not gliding along effortlessly, not seeing something new and interesting, and also not even close to there yet, then turns around to retrieve the bike and start the trip over correctly. It’s like crawling someplace after you’ve learned to walk: harder, slower, less fun, and relatively pointless.
When you’re ready to leave town and continue on, you’re again dealing with a loaded bike, rather than a load of bag on your back, and you’re spared dealing with longer-range (and costlier and less frequent) transit. Approximately speaking for each hour one spends in a vehicle on a highway, it will take a day to traverse on bicycle. Even in the most “desolate” areas, I almost never find myself wishing I had caught a lift, found some way to get through it faster, or otherwise not ventured out into the sparse and/or desolate countryside on bike. There have been a few exceptions to this. I’ve underestimated water requirements a couple of times and had to turn back and/or ask passing motorists for some. I’ve also asked for lifts a few times. Once from a friendly rancher whose 8 mile driveway I was halfway down due to a wrong turn. Another time I took a 30 mile lift after biting off more than I wanted to chew, deep in the sweltering Costa Rican rain forest, to the next town. In that last case, I kinda regretted getting the lift after the fact, but consoled myself by tearing into some delicious hot food in cool cool shade.
So at the other end of the spectrum, as much as they care to, a cyclepacker can be a transit-using, globe-trotting backpacker that happens to be also toting around a bicycle. This is more of a hypothetical, because if you’re going to be getting yourself around mostly by vehicles, clearly the bike is more hassle than it’s worth.
The overall point is, travel with a bicycle is in many respects the best of all possible worlds, provided you want to immerse yourself in the place that you’re exploring, get a robust variety of experience, be self sufficient, free and flexible. It is, by definition, optimal for whatever you want to do, provided you simply choose the gear you need to do that, and that you want to celebrate the joys of as much physical exertion as you want, trusting that that will be enough to meet your requirements, modifying requirements as needed.
Other notes on the tautological superiority of cyclepacking.
Boats: Bikes and boats are a match made in freedom heaven. Almost any boat you can secure passage on will accept bicycles. On most vehicle ferries, bicycles get preferential treatment: there no practical limitations on number of bicycles that can be held, so no need to book in advance, or to even wait in queue when boarding or disembarking. Bicycles are permitted on most foot ferries, and most any private vessel that you’d take as a backpacker will permit bicycles. The one time I tried to take my bike on a commercial passenger ferry and was refused, I was able to book private charter on a smaller boat (for a shorter crossing of the same body of water (with a fellow cycle tourer that I’d just met)) for not too much more than the cost of the ferry.
Bikepacking: More directly close to the end of the spectrum of being a self-supported through hiker, is “Expedition touring” as described on bikepacking.com. This is the more straightforward generalization of a modern through-hiker, with ultra-light, ultra-minimal gear. This is honestly something I haven’t yet tried, as they prescribe. Instead, I’ve found a personal balance between the comfort and burden of the gear I have. Looking more like a standard bike touring rig, I have 2 bags front and and back, carrying cookware and stove, comfortably roomy tent (actually forthcoming trip is first one for tent, 15K miles in 20+ countries so far done with bivy sack), warm, synthetic sleeping bag, and sometimes LOTs of water, among other essentials and relatively luxuries. I don’t have any suspension on my bike, but I do enough pavement miles that I’m good with that. I ride 40mm wide tires, and would maybe like something a little wider, but at least for my back tire, that’s as wide as the frame ($400 used on craigslist) will allow. In the end, if I had the money to spend all over again, I’d likely go with something a bit different, but I’m rarely in want of more ruggedness from my rig, and then, only for slightly wider tires for sand and snow. After recovery from a robbery, repair after crunch of fork and front wheel by car, and the aforementioned many miles, I can’t imagine choosing to replace my rig. I’m too sentimental, but more importantly, too acutely aware that it (or any newer, costlier replacement) could be destroyed or taken from me with no notice. So, I guess the point is, go with what you’ve got, it’s probably more than good enough, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (unless you really want to…I’m constantly making minor adjustments).
Motorcycles: These are also awesome, but harder to hide while wild camping. There’s also little physical challenge, and you need gas. It’s a legit way to be really really free though, not gonna lie, but it’s higher risk, lower effort, and not as rewarding in my opinion. That said, I assume (hope) I will (be able to) transition to this someday, when I’m no longer up to the physical demands of self-propulsion.
Other things: I mentioned above that “I like (almost) all the things”. Almost, because I, myself, don’t like rock climbing enough to pursue it, but a lot of people do, as does the cycle friend I met on the boat. Some biker/packers like it enough that they pack the minimal gear they need to do a bit of it when the opportunity presents itself. Again, biking compliments the positive and avoids the negative. Same goes for kite surfing, paddle boarding, canoing, cross-sea skiffing, whatever. Sometimes the bike goes on the thing, sometimes the things go on the bike.
So I guess maybe that’s the real main point: If it involves travel and adventure, throw a bike in the equation and often the product is a thing many times better.