7 Lessons Learned From Bikepacking
We're Erin Azouz & Mehedi van Hattum. Back in 2016, with a modest savings and a big dream, and two bicycles, we bought one way tickets to Mexico. We started cycling south toward Patagonia and after a cumulative 23 months on the road (not including a year in the middle to stop and save more money), we finally reached our goal and finished our journey of cycling through Latin America. We pedaled through 13 countries (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina -- whew!), just under 10,000 miles, camping, cooking and soaking up local culture along the way.
The experience profoundly changed us and want to share our findings with others. We hope these lessons inspire others journeys to be more fulfilling, richer and a lot more fun.
1. Be flexible
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Before we started cycling together in Mexico, we thought it would be a year to get to Patagonia, but we took twice the time — 23 months. We encountered many delays along the way, which taught us to go with the flow. We took time off, spent time with our families who came to meet us, worked locally, experienced illnesses, had bike maintenance issues and dealt with inclement weather.
In the end, we found the journey much more enjoyable when we settled into a natural rhythm of slow travel punctuated with challenging and risk-taking routes. This allows things to unfold naturally and gave us the appreciation for stopping early to enjoy extraordinary campsites, meeting interesting people, experiencing the hospitality of locals and imbibing in local culture. Being in a rush was a far less enjoyable experience. Go with the flow and allow things to develop more naturally, leaving room for all the surprises along the way!
2. It’s mostly mental
We were surprised to find that the journey was far more of an exercise in mental tenacity than sheer physical endurance. It felt like 20% physical, 80% mental. We used daily challenges to make us stronger in mind, body and spirit. Learning from our mistakes kept us humble. Looking on the bright side made the difficulties of life on the road much more manageable. We helped each other stay positive.
What we learned was that our mental state determined how the day would go — so why not give yourself the gift of a great day? Things are not going to go your way sometimes. That wouldn’t be fun anyway, right? We learned to let the small stuff go and enjoy the process!
3. Travel light
This was something we learned immediately after getting off the airplane in Mexico with our bikes and all of our gear. We packed way too much and started giving unnecessary stuff away on day one. After a few months of traveling, some of our gear started falling apart. As we entered the wall of heat and humidity of Central America, we did not want to wear cotton anymore. Wool was (and still is!) a clear and obvious choice, taking us through winter in the high Andes of Ecuador and Peru and keeping us cool in the hot, dry deserts of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
We learned to invest in high quality, versatile gear that goes the distance and can be used or worn in a variety of conditions. Just a few key layers is all you need — you’ll wear them every day, and you don’t need to carry more. Smartwool layers were our favorite, every day wear -- they’re comfortable, breathable, don’t retain smell (trust me, we really put this to the test!), and best of all, they’re durable enough for even a rugged bikepacking lifestyle.
4. Resourcefulness > resources
Resources like time and money are finite, but resourcefulness is infinite. Finding a good wind block or water source made all the difference in finding a good camp site sometimes. We re-used bike tubes, random pieces of rubber or plastic for bike repairs. Dental floss becomes thread for tearing sidewall splits in tires.
We took great joy in recycling and repurposing things we were already carrying for something we needed in the moment, instead of buying something. We always looked for opportunities to exchange skills and services instead of money. We saved money, crowdfunded and found a couple key sponsorships to keep us afloat on the road financially. Whenever things got tough, we got resourceful to make it work. We were deeply inspired by the resourcefulness of Latin Americans, too, and that helped keep things in perspective.
5. The greater the risk, the greater the reward
Some of the greatest experiences we had on the road were the ones involving some level of risk, or facing the unknown. Four months into cycling, we swapped our thinner road tires for fatter mountain bike tires, and began seeking out quieter dirt roads to get off the main highway in Central America. One great example is the time we found a dirt road along the coast in Guatemala, connecting a few remote fishing villages. We noticed there were multiple river crossings connecting the little road, and a quick Google Earth search showed canoes on the river. If locals were crossing these rivers, surely we’d be able to, so we said “Let’s go for it!” If we were unsuccessful at getting across the rivers, we’d have to backtrack some 30 miles to the main highway. It was a risk we were willing to take.
And yes, we found a canoe. And yes, those little fishing villages were so unique. Leaving things like this up to fate are almost always rewarded with unique experiences! This gave us even more of a reason to keep taking risks and pushing ourselves to try new things.
6. Trust in the kindness of locals
Meeting people along the way was one of the most rewarding and uplifting parts of the entire journey. Many of those we encountered offered us food, water, and/or shelter. Allowing yourself to be taken care of by strangers is humbling and beautiful. Lean into it. You’ll ride away feeling like you’ve got extended family in all reaches of the globe.
One afternoon riding in El Salvador, we spotted a mango tree dropping fruit on the side of the road. Mehedi went to collect a few mangoes while I waited on the road with our bikes. A woman came out of her house, asked if we wanted more fruit, and invited us in. It was only noon but she was so welcoming that we ended up staying the night and sharing dinner with her. She shared with us many family stories.We immediately felt connected to her and to the thousands of others like her. This woman had so little, yet was offering us food, water, shelter for the night and her wonderful company. The kindness we were shown on the road made the world feel a lot smaller, a lot warmer, and a lot less scary.
7. Learn the language and customs of the lands through which you travel
Making an effort to learn about, connect with and understand the people and places you go creates a truly rich experience. Be aware of your surroundings and respectful of peoples’ traditions. For example, in many places in Latin America, it is customary to ask permission before entering someone’s home or personal space (“con permiso!”). The efforts we made to learn these traditions, customs and language were always met with respect and appreciation. We found that just the act of speaking Spanish opened many doors for us. Respect is earned, and it’s a two way street. We’d even go so far as to say that our willingness to be fully immersed in the culture kept us safer and more cared for along the way.
As cliché as it may sound, the hardest part of any journey is always the beginning. After you take those first steps, it gets easier the more you do it. This can be applied to just about anything in life. And don't ever think you have to be good at something to go after it -- you don't. You just have to have a passion for it, and no matter what, never give up.