By: David Merriman
Think about it. What other machine is hugely inexpensive, human-propelled, can move sizeable weight over long distances, on multiple road conditions and varying terrains, at reasonably good speed? The title gave it away but a bicycle is a remarkably efficient form of transportation and very relevant to prepping plans.
I thought I’d offer my thoughts because even though there are several references to bicycles as SHTF transportation but there isn’t much detail in which bike would be optimal for most people. Not only can a bike be simple and dependable transportation, but the right kind of bike can carry a lot of stuff. In my case, full disclosure…I’m a bike technician, I have several suitable bikes ready to head for the hills and I wanted to share a few guidelines on what may be appropriate for your prepping.
Bikes are inexpensive, quiet, and easy to maintain, and last a long time if you just keep them out of the elements. You may have seen riders with saddle bags (called “panniers” in bike lingo) of various sizes where you live. There is a resurgence of ‘bike packing’ now so people are venturing out with camping equipment intending on a truly self-contained adventure. With this new interest, there are several technological improvements that will benefit your bug out bike.
Don’t forget that before SHTF you can use your bike for exploring and local errands or even exercise! It’s a fun type of exercise, though.
So here are my suggestions to get you geared up.
Used bikes are everywhere, and with the exception of high-end road or mountain bikes for enthusiasts, they depreciate at an amazing rate. New bicycles lose 40-60% of their retail value within the first year after purchase. The main reason is because people think they want to get into cycling, buy a brand new bike, and discover that oddly enough, it does require a certain amount of effort to ride. Too much effort for many and hence, used bikes in great condition are abundant. I discovered this several years ago and haven’t bought ‘new’ since. I have eight bikes of varying configurations in my family.
Check Craigslist first; there are always good, functional, and frankly, cheap bikes there. Use the search options for price and words like “touring bike”, “mountain bike”, “MTB” to save time. The most listings seem to come out in the fall/winter but there are always bikes for sale.
If your community has a ‘bike swap’ you can usually find some really nice bikes for a good deal.
What kind of bike?
The best choice to bug out is either a touring bike, which is ready for racks and wide tires, and mountain bikes, even though you may not ride in any mountains. They are typically built from sturdier materials and components, the frame geometry is designed for balance and carrying cargo, have wider tires suitable for nearly all road surfaces, and typically, lower gearing that will take you and your gear just about anywhere.
My suggestion is that you find a bike that has cargo rack mounting “eyelets” on the front fork and rear dropouts (that’s where the wheels attach to the bike). These are integrated into the frame and easy to spot. Look either for small “circles” or threaded holes on the dropouts. When you have these, you can add racks that will carry a LOT of stuff both on the front and rear. Add a handlebar rack and pack and you can pretty much travel wherever you want to go for as long as you can stand it.
When you find an interesting bike, make sure it fits you. Be patient. Find the right size.
- Stand flat footed over the bike. If it touches you in your nether regions, it’s too big…don’t buy it. 1-2 inches of clearance is ideal because you don’t want to get hurt if you have to bail out or hit something that causes you to become unseated. If it’s any smaller than that, proceed with caution. A too-small bike will be relatively unstable and can stress some of the components because you have the seat post and handlebars extended beyond the safe limits.
- You also have to be able to move the seat and handlebars up and down to fit you. If those don’t adjust to fit you better, proceed with caution. I’ve seen a seat post that was irreparably seized inside the bike.
Which brand? You really won’t go wrong if you find a brand that would be available at your local bike shop, because the quality is much higher than that of the big box stores. You may have seen the brands, names like Giant, Trek, Cannondale, and Specialized are the biggies and used bikes are everywhere, but don’t walk away from brands like Fuji, Motobecane, Surly, and Novara (REI’s house brand) . Do a quick web search on a bike you find if you’re uncertain. The big box names won’t typically show up (except in blogs with people complaining.)
Just a quick word on the big box bikes that you can get everywhere from your grocery store to Wal-Mart. Yes, they’re cheap, but in the bike biz they’re considered practically disposable because they cost more to repair than buying a new one. You do get what you pay for.
How much should I expect to spend?
A fully equipped bike that’s ready to bug out can be as expensive as you want it so I’ll take it piece by piece:
- Bike: You should be able to pick up something very functional for $75 up…shop around. Higher prices typically result in newer bikes with better components like brakes and shifters. If you’re in the $200-500 range, you’ll get a lot of bike.
- Tires/Tubes: Gotta have these. Order online and look for sales. Figure $20-50 for tires, $8 for tubes. Search: “discount bike tires”
- Racks/bags: Try to find a bike that already has some if you can, because racks are $30+ new for both front and rear and bags can be $60+. Search: “bicycle touring racks and panniers”.
- Parts: New brake and shift cables, cable housing, and brake pads will run you somewhere around $70-100 installed at your local shop and they’ll tune it up for you. Do this unless you’re confident in your mechanical skills. If you need one, chains are $25 and up depending on how many gears you have on the back. A new chain can be a blessing.
- I highly recommend adding a frame pump. These mount to the frame and super-efficient and super low-tech. Get one that can fill big, high volume tires. You’re only going up to 50-60 psi. Search: bicycle frame pumps.
- Don’t forget that bike trailers are readily available and can double your carrying capacity.
Does it’s age matter?
It could, because bikes before the early 90’s tended to have fewer gears. Gears help you move efficiently so you ideally want a wide range for varying terrain.
What should I look for?
- Give it a good look all over with an eye to spotting abuse or neglect. Rust, especially on the chain, would indicate that it had been left outside. Water will obviously wreck steel components. Proceed with caution. Tip: Look for ‘quick release’ levers on both wheels because they can make your life a lot easier if you get a flat. This is also a very subtle indication of the quality of the bike. Quick releases indicate a bit better bike. If you see a regular nut on either end you’ll need a wrench to change a flat. Big hassle.
- Pick it up to gauge the weight. Most bikes in this class will weigh 25-35 pounds.
- Spin the wheels to see if they’re wobbly. If they’re too warped or there’s a big dent and won’t freely spin, you should probably look elsewhere. If they rub a little bit, that can be easily fixed by a bike shop. Maybe as much as $25 to “true” each wheel.
- Grab the brake handles. If they bottom out, they may be disconnected, the cables broken, the brake pads are worn down.
- See if the pedals or the cranks (the pedals are attached to the cranks) are seriously loose or damaged. Could be expensive to repair.
- How many chain rings are on the crankset? Three rings (called a ‘triple’) will give you a lower gear range which is better for carrying lots of stuff, especially if you’re going uphill. Two rings will work, though. See if there’s a big cog on the back. This is your granny gear.
- Ride it. If the seller is accommodating and will help you move the seat up to better fit you that’s awesome. Check to see if it shifts and stops alright and if the handlebars are loose. Remember, if it runs pretty well but makes some noises, or is slow to shift, or the braking is marginal it’s just a matter of adjustment.
Bottom line: if it looks like a basket case, it probably is, so move on. You’ll find the right one.
Appropriate frame materials:
Steel: It’s strong and can typically carry a lot of weight in the combination of rider and equipment but it is heavier and some of them can be real tanks. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but just be aware-Aluminum alloy: Also very strong, light weight, relatively inexpensive, and of course, rust free. You get more bike for your buck.
There are other materials like carbon fiber, titanium, even bamboo. Unless you want to spend some big bucks, my suggestion is to stay away.
What if I find a bike that I like, but needs some work?
Bicycles are a combination of simple mechanical devices with fairly standardized repair needs. Maintaining a used bike is relatively simple, and if you’re even a little bit mechanically inclined and have some basic metric tools like Allen wrenches, sockets, open end wrenches, etc you can probably get it done. You can easily buy parts at your local shop and DIY. YouTube has vids that will show you how to do just about anything. As I tell my customers, “It ain’t rocket surgery.”
But, when in doubt…don’t. Trust your local bike shop to do it for you. They’ll do it right and it will last a very long time.
If you find a used bike that works, taking it to your local bike ship should only cost $50-100 to get all of the mechanicals working properly and safely. There are also dozens of online sources for “consumables” like tires, tubes, chains, cables, etc, etc, if you want to DIY. And YouTube can teach you just about anything you need to know for basic maintenance. Just a note here, I try to support local bike businesses…but only to the extent where it hurts my wallet.
I’m all set. Now what?
Aren’t we about being prepared? Well, get prepared for the basics like a flat tire or other mechanical issues.
Get a tool bag and put in it:
- Two spare tubes;
- A patch kit;
- Two tire Levers;
- A multi-tool with a chain accessory (if you break a chain…it happens); Search: bicycle multi tool
- Beer opener. (That’s one of my must-haves.)
Now, go back to YouTube and search “how to fix a flat bike tire” or something similar. Three are over a dozen good videos there. Hint: if the tires on your new bike need to be replaced, do it yourself. It’s good practice.
Also, search for maintenance tips. You’ll get a lot of good information to increase your skill set and frankly, it’s kind of fun working on your own bike and knowing how stuff functions.
I’m happy to answer any questions or offer purchase advice. Feel free to email me at email@example.com and please, pictures are very helpful!