Bike Touring in the USA: Our tips and tricks!
Biking in America was a dream come true for us. The country is so vast and diverse and the nature is unseen. If you are planning a cycling trip to the United States, perhaps our tips below will help you to make life and preparation a bit easier. We cycled big parts of the Continental Divide from Montana to Colorado, a little part in Utah and then cycled down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego.
Visa for the USA
Many cyclists enter the country with an ESTA. This gives you entry for 3 months in the country. We had already decided in 2020 to apply for a B2 visa. This asks for a little more effort and money (€100 per person at the time), but this visa gives us entry for six months and is valid for 10 years. It allows a bit more flexibility so we don't have to do anything in a hurry. Be careful, though, because the waiting procedure to obtain an interview currently takes several months.
Annual Pass National Parks
If you plan to bike in more than two National Parks in the States, an Annual Pass is the most beneficial! An Annual Pass gives you access to all National Parks in the USA. The price is 80 USD and gives you access with one car and four adults. You can also use it for up to four bikers, but you must stay together continuously. The pass is valid for 1 year.
You can purchase the pass online or at the first park you visit. It's super easy to arrange on the spot so we recommend doing that.
So biking in a National Park is not free, but many parks are wonderfully beautiful and well worth a visit. Wild camping is prohibited in National Parks, fortunately many parks do have Hiker - Biker campsites which are cheaper than regular camping spots. Reservations are not necessary here. Prices vary from park to park and range from $5 to $10 per person.
Membership Supermarkets - Groceries USA
Often we leave the supermarket disappointed, they are so huge that Stefanie comes close to having a panic attack. Finding all of your items on the grocery list can be a real challenge in most of them. The fruit and vegetable departments, unlike the unhealthy rayons, are small and prices sometimes ridiculously high. Therefore, it is often more advantageous to ask for a customer card in supermarkets, on a lot of products there are nice member discounts.
Don't be fooled by this photo because the Whole Foods Market was definitely not our favourite. It is the most expensive store but they do have stuff like lentils and beans in bulk. Also the selection of vegan and organic food is really large in this store. So for some products it was very convenient, but when you know that locals describe this supermarket as "Whole Paycheck," you know enough.
Trader Joe's and Sprouts are also two supermarkets with great vegetarian and vegan offerings. Trader Joe's was price - quality our favourite supermarket in the USA! We saw these stores mostly in California.
We rarely if ever went out dining in the USA because it was too expensive. Fast food was reasonably okay priced, but still easily $10 per person. The average daily price for grocery shopping for us was €16.
Wild camping in the USA
Allowed on BLM lands - not in National Parks. Be careful, though, because sometimes you do pay a fee on BLM lands, often near developed areas. You can wild camp for free, also called dispersed camping, on public lands. Usually the rule is: If you're not in a National Park, National Forest or Private Land, there is a big chance you can just pitch your tent anywhere.
In small towns, talk with the locals. For example, we often pitched our tent next to a church or fire station with "permission" from the locals. Since wild camping is strictly forbidden in National Parks to protect wildlife, as well as yourself and others, it is not something we would recommend.
REI - outdoor store
If you are looking for new outdoor equipment, you can go to the American outdoor store REI. At this Co-op you can also get a membership which has pretty nice discounts. You'll find a shelf in every store that has used - or returned - gear that you can often get for a bargain.
Adventure Cycling Association
Interested in biking in the United States but no idea where to start? Adventure Cycling Association gives a lot of inspiration on long distance cycling routes in the States. They also have an app where you can download all their routes (paid version), or you can also buy paper maps. The free version of the app does allow you to stay updated on wildfires, which we found quite handy.
The distances are big in the USA and sometimes it's just easier to skip a part by bike. We did this a few times to catch up with the weather or escape more dangerous highway sections. It takes quite some time to figure out how to cover longer distances sometimes by public transport. One thing became quickly clear to us, we are spoiled in Europe, in the USA public transport is much more limited. In cities like San Francisco (BART) and Los Angeles it is not that bad.
Long-distance buses across the country: Greyhound US (you can take your bike, but only in a box)
Buses in Colorado: Bustang (bike rack for bikes)
Train: Amtrak (you can bring your bike, but you have to book this in advance at 20$ per bike)
Hitchhiking: Is actually forbidden, yet we did it a few times (bad weather, a flat tire, wildfires, ...). The big advantage is that many Americans drive a big car, they have quite some room for bikes.
Cycling on highways
Cycling on Interstate Highways is forbidden except when there is no other option. We always tried to plan our routes to avoid these Highways, because it's not really pleasant. Fortunately, we only had to do this once. The shoulder was plenty wide and in general it felt safe, it was mainly the noise that made it very unpleasant. It was our fastest 7km on the bike. You can recognize these roads on your route when they have only 1 or 2 numbers.
In addition, you have the plain Highways that often consist of only 1 lane per direction, sometimes two and exceptionally three. Not all of these Highways have an equally large shoulder and often you just become quite an intimate part of the traffic. At times we found this very unpleasant to cycle on and even dangerous. It is impossible to name all places specifically, but in general we did notice that drivers within National Parks were very respectful and there it was never dangerous. Especially on long straight stretches without a shoulder it sometimes became dangerous because of the higher speeds car drive. In California, we found the traffic the least pleasant of anywhere.
In addition, you often see roadkills when biking on busier roads, ranging from squirrels and foxes to skunks and deer.
Preconceptions about Americans
We have to admit we had quite a few preconceptions about the American mentality. We know the country from television and movies, accompanied by all the necessary showbiz and glamour. If you don't really delve further into it, it seems that all Americans drive around in big cars, drink a lot and a large number of them are only too happy to be waving their guns around.
There are a fair number of these that are true. You see big trucks everywhere, the contrast between rich and poor is enormous, the gun law (and really anything political) creates a huge division within the country. The division feels very big and we heard several times from people that a decent conversation between Republicans and Democrats is rarely possible. Still, we ourselves felt it was important to engage in conversations with everyone, and there is no better way than cycling through several states to do this. A conversation with someone in central Wyoming is incredibly differently than with someone in San Francisco. We always tried to do this by staying true to our own beliefs but also keeping our eyes open to someone else's opinion without immediately getting defensive. There are views we will never, and sometimes simply don't want to, understand, but that doesn't take away the fact that each of these people has a story.
Stefanie asked several times for opinions about "if the next president could or should be a woman?" Usually this answer was a resounding yes, quickly followed with stating no one is currently plenty qualified and/or running for president. Of course, we regularly talked about the previous president, Donald Trump, and come into contact with real Trump-haters, but also with people who are still convinced that there was fraud in the previous presidential election. So it's certainly possible in our opinion to talk to someone about politics, but changing someone's mind is not something you're likely to do in this divided country. It's black, or it's white.
Hospitality in the USA
Regardless of anyone's political affiliation, hospitable they certainly are in this beautiful country. Helpful, genuinely interested in what we are doing and often we are offered a place to sleep without having to ask. A few times a dollar bill is shoved into our hands, which still feels very strange. Unfortunately, we see many signs along the side of the road saying "no trespassing" and feel like an intruder when we get too close to someone's property. Our advice: when you get a hold of an American, engage in conversation, respectfully, and get to know each other better. These signs are often simply to deter people and we have to admit, it does its job quite well.
Currently, €1 is about $1.06 (December 2022). For us, unfortunately, the Euro was a lot less strong during our trip across the States. It is handy to always have some cash in your pocket. Some of the smaller stores have older payment machines and sometimes our credit card didn't work.
A little tip is that you can shop tax-free in some states: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon. When you are in a store you always have to add an extra tax to the prices you see, except in these five states. Here there are no additional taxes added on shopping so that often makes it a little cheaper.
The US has some very beautiful places for road cycling, mountain biking and downhilling. Especially the last two are hugely popular. We are not the most knowledgeable people to talk about this, but a few places that might be interesting: Steamboat Springs (Colorado), Grand Junction (Colorado), San Luis Obispo (California), Moab (Utah) and many more. You can rent a bike practically anywhere for some cool day trips.
Classifying the seasons in a large country like the States is quite difficult. They largely correspond to the seasons in Europe, but the temperatures and type of precipitation can differ enormously. You can imagine that a winter in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is much harsher than one on the coast of California.
Many cyclists bike from North to South or from East to West (or vice versa), and based on that, the easiest way to determine the start of your trip is to take it from there. Our tips for a cycling trip:
Avoid the Rockies between November and May/June
Colorado is great in September/October
California is sunnier in their fall/winter than in their summer. You can travel here year-round. In winter it is a little colder, but you get lots of sunshine and especially little tourism in the place.
Avoid the desert areas like Moab in the summer, way too hot!
If you would happen to have any extra tips for cycling in the United States, feel free to share these tips below!