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10 Tips For Your First Off-Road Cycling Expedition

THIS ARTICLE: Is written by Tom Allen who has recently returned to the UK with his mountain bike having spent the last few years travelling on it through 30-odd countries. His old teammate Andy Welch recently gave us some tips for anyone planning a big cycling expedition and now it’s Tom’s turn to give some pointers to anyone thinking about doing such a trip off-road.

1. Choose The Right Tool For The Job

Off-road biking comes with an entirely different set of requirements to road touring. Take a leaf out of the mountain-biking book and design your steed from the ground up as a robust trail-devouring machine.

Fat, puncture-proof expedition tyres together with hand-built 36-spoke wheels are the order of the day, as is reliable and effective front suspension, a rigid steel frame, mountain-bike gearing, and a comfortable and upright handlebar position. Bar-ends offer a variety of hand positions and a sprung saddle takes the edge off the bumps. Consider a trailer for luggage, of which more later.

2. Keep It Simple, Stupid

Your bike’s capabilities and resilience will be pushed far more on the demanding terrain away from roads. So when choosing components, get the best quality you can afford. The trick, however, is to do this while avoiding over-complicated, modern, proprietary systems where possible.

If you’re off-road in the developing world, flashy new technology is going to be irreparable by anyone except you. So use cup-and-cone bearings, Schrader valves, square-taper bottom-brackets, standard sized bolts, steel frames and racks; and avoid air-sprung forks, 9-speed drivetrains, internal hub gears, integrated brake lever/gear shifters and the like. Shimano XT is the component range to start at, being durable and affordable. Magura and Fox make super-reliable suspension, Tubus is the place to go for racks.

3. Be At One With Your Inner Bike Mechanic

Your super-reliable high-performance bike is likely – somewhere, somehow – to break. Murphy’s Law dictates that this will probably happen hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the nearest bike shop. Best to accept the inevitable and plan for all the contingency you can practically bring along.

It’s impossible to cater for every possible failure, but you can at least pack an expedition-level toolkit. This means tools and spares over and above the standard touring essentials, including tools specific to any unusual parts you may be using – don’t forget Gaffa Tape, cable ties and a hose-clamp or two. At the very least you need the tools and skills to deconstruct the entire bike and put it back together. (Don’t be afraid; a bicycle really is a very simple machine!)

Then, even if you can’t fix a problem yourself, you know that you’ll be able to remove the offending part in question and either install a spare or hand the broken one over in order for a local with a blowtorch and a monkey wrench to work his or her particular brand of ‘magic’!

4. Travel Light, Strike A Balance

It’s possible to take a fully-loaded bicycle along forest singletrack, across open steppe, up gravel tracks, down river-beds, and through deep Saharan sand, but it’s not always easy!

Tough terrain can be tackled far more easily with a little consideration for your luggage – how much you have, and where you put it. The standard road touring setup – 2 front and 2 rear panniers – doesn’t work at all well off-road. You need far more manoeuvrability; you need precision in your steering rather than brute force of weight; and you want to even out the stress and strain on your bike wherever possible.

A trailer can take 50-80% of your luggage, instantly relieving the rear wheel of weight additional to that of your own body. Ditch the front panniers but keep the front wheel firmly planted by adding a handlebar bag above the suspension forks. Reserve the 2 rear panniers for food and books which you can eat or give away, plus anything that won’t fit in your trailer.

Extrawheel Voyager and BOB Ibex trailers are superb off-road. Strip away everything unnecessary; 2 sets of clothes are quite enough, forget delicate laptops and the like, use tried-and-tested ultralight camping gear and learn to live minimally.

5. Kill Your Speed

Off-road touring is not about distance. Realistically, expect to slash your average daily on-road mileage in half if you’re spending time on unpaved roads. This can vary dramatically with conditions and the type of off-road you’re tackling; on one particularly memorable day I managed only 12km, compared with up to 170km on a paved road with the same bike!

It follows that you should get as much information about the conditions ahead as possible in order to judge your supplies safely. You’ll use different muscle groups; expect your upper body to get a good workout if you’re not used to technical riding, and expect your whole body to feel the effect of the minor muscles being used for constant balance correction. Plan for plenty of R&R if you’re not conditioned to this kind of exercise.

6. Be Flexible And Keep The Information Flowing

Don’t expect to be able to plan an exact daily itinerary. There’s no need to do so; part of the value of an adventure is the process of on-the-ground discovery. “The map is not the territory”, so allow a realistic margin for error when planning distances and schedules.

Never underestimate local knowledge when it comes to gathering information about the conditions ahead, but likewise, never underestimate the ability of male pride to confidently deliver unsubtantiated ‘information’ rather than an admission of not actually knowing! Learn who to approach: truckers are a goldmine of knowledge; bus drivers, farmers and others who spend time on the land itself are a good bet. Get three opinions and go with the two who agree. Treat all locals’ distance estimates with suspicion – better to rely on your map.

7. Be Self-Sufficient

On-the-road logistics need a little more planning when you’re facing several days at a time without access to food supplies, reliable drinking water, electricity or human contact. Get a book such as the SAS Survival Guide and read up on basic health and hygiene in the field.

Water is critical; cover all bases by stocking up on fuel for boiling, bringing a water filter, and packing some iodine and chlorine tablets for purification – boiling water is preferable; most filters don’t work at the viral level. Pack broad-spectrum antibiotics, anti-diarrhoea pills and rehydration sachets in your first-aid kit in case you do ingest something disagreeable. Make sure you’ve got enough plastic bags to carry your waste food packaging with you to the next settlement.

Consider a solar charger such as the folding models by Powerfilm; ensure all your gadgets use compatible batteries, and beware that there is a lot of junk in the solar-power market. Dynamo-hub-based power solutions are beginning to show progress too.

8. Eat well

You could bring specialist expedition food with you if weight and space was at a premium, but most of the time it’s possible to adapt locally-available food for your purposes.

Make sure you’re getting a balance of food groups as well as the carbs and protein you’ll need for energy and recovery days. When settlements are around, workers’ eateries are usually a good source of fat and carbohydrate-rich food at lunchtime. You’ll start to crave fruit and vegetables after a few days without; give your body what it’s asking for.

On the road, breakfast well to avoid running out of juice mid-morning; munch biscuits or driet fruit and nuts throughout the day; and consider instant noodles as a universally-available, quick-cooking and cheap way of getting a hot, energy-rich meal at the end of the day. Throw in a tin of whatever preserved meat or fish is available to avoid gagging on your twentieth identical bowl of MSG-flavoured instant noodles in as many days!

(You can get a few more tips on this topic in my article How To: Use Supermarket Food For Sports Nutrition)

9. Communicate

If you’re going somewhere where you don’t speak the language and don’t expect English to be widespread, consider spending some time learning the basics of the local tongue before you arrive. A few words and phrases can go a long way – cycle travellers have a specialised core vocabulary consisting of words like ‘water’, ‘food’, ‘sleep’, ‘tent’, ‘yesterday’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘morning’, ‘evening’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘days’, ‘weeks’, ‘months’ (if travelling long term), and such like. You are unlikely to find many of these words in the back of the guidebook alongside “where is the bureau de change?”, so getting to grips with these beforehand can help a great deal.

Language courses are available as audiobooks for your MP3 player. Bring postcards from home and photos of family as universal ice-breakers. Show local people your map, considering they may never have seen one before.

10. Enjoy

It’s not a race; nobody’s handing out medals, so slow down, respect and revere the landscapes you pass through, accept invitations with grace and don’t outstay your welcome. Cycle travel is often a cultural experience more than anything else, and this can still be the case if you’re cycling off-road. It’s worth building enough flexibility into your plans to engage with the opportunities that will present themselves, as these are the memories that you will treasure the most in days to come.


Laura and Tim Moss are currently cycling 10,000 miles around the world. They are raising money for JDRF Diabetes Research and proudly supported by Lyon Equipment.

About The Author

Tim has supported over 100 expeditions across all seven continents. He has climbed new mountains, crossed a desert and is currently cycling around the world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society London and a Guinness World Record. He aims to encourage more people to live adventurously.

Number of Entries : 587

Comments (4)

  • Dorothee Fleck

    good advice, Tom, I agree with almost all of it, but only almost. After cycling around the world, covered only 26 countries, but countries like Mongolia, Australia and Bolivia included I had quite a lot and long off road experiences as well.

    My bike doesn’t have any suspension, because they are heavy and can brake. With steel frame, normally you don’t need suspension.

    When I designed my bike I have only choosen the best components I could get, I thought it’s like a life insurance. I also included Rohloff hub gear and Magura hydraulic rim brakes (HS33). Even the gears got broken, after
    80 000km!!!, I never would go touring again with a derailleur, which always brakes. With a hub gear a chain last longer as well.
    With my brakes I never had problems. I needed just a few brake pads and I had no problems with the rims.

    I doubt it’s always easier with a trailer than with front panniers. On the single trail switchbacks in the forest of Australia I was happy with my front panniers. In general front panniers worked very well with me.

    In Bangkok I got such a nice little EEEPC netbook. Incredible how robust it is. I didn’t count how often it dropped of my bike, it got wet, sandy, have been it frozen nights and in high heat – no problems at all.


  • Tom Allen


    Thanks for the feedback Dorothee. I see your point about rigid forks and front panniers if you’re doing a really long journey – 80,000km is really long!!! But the article was really aimed at people doing their first trip specifically off-road. All suspension forks are not created equal, and mine (Magura Odur) have done 22,000km and I have never had to adjust, maintain, repair or even touch them in that time. In fact I would say that they are one of the most reliable parts of my bike – more reliable even than the frame!

    The same goes for my derailleurs – I’ve never had any problems with them. I also take comfort in knowing that if they did break, I could easily convert the bike to single-speed and keep going – but I’ve heard of Rohlhoff hubs breaking and rendering the bike completely unrideable.

    I think in the end it depends on your trip and your preferences – for long mixed trips, rigid forks and front panniers are probably ideal, but for shorter off-road trips I would still choose suspension and a trailer every time.

  • Tom Allen

    By the way I completely agree about the EEE PC netbook – I got a 1000H in Dubai and put a solid-state drive in it – now it’s perfect for travelling, and really cheap too….


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