Five learnings of my Solo bikepacking tour across Europe

Written by Umair Ali

I am an avid bike-packer and a passionate educationist. I usually write on my travelling experience and topics of self development.

July 29, 2023

It’s the 3rd of July 2019. I take my first pedal stroke outside what has been my home for the past eight months in Tallinn, Estonia. I am excited —what is it like to get lost in the unknown—I wonder as my journey begins. For the next one month, uncertainty, fears, doubts, and beautiful yet challenging nature stand in my way. Still, I commit to carrying on, as far as the road takes me, driven by the mystery of this world and its people.

Biking in Estonia
Bikepacking with animals

You will be tested, be prepared!

I knew the journey I was starting with thrill and excitement would put me through a challenge —a challenge that I always anticipated and, to some extent, longed for. During all the planning, I had one thing in mind, “my plan should not make things easy.” Easy was not what I was looking for. If my journey doesn’t give me an adrenaline rush, I don’t think it’s worth the time. However, despite knowing consciously and preparing mentally for the adventure, it didn’t take me long to learn that the challenge was bigger than I expected.

It’s a different thing to plan for rain when you’re sitting on your couch sipping hot chocolate than to be in such heavy rain that you don’t have time to pull up your raincoat. 

It was only the 2nd day into the tour when I lost my way into the dense jungle with no one around while pouring showers. The next day, I pulled my leg muscles. 2 days later, my knees started to hurt as if I had run a double marathon. 5th day brought a situation when I had no water to drink, and there was no one around for miles.

No doubt, nature is stunningly beautiful when it’s calm and quiet, and being close to it gives you a feeling of meaningfulness. It’s not the case when you know that you have to pedal 60 Km in rain and thunder with no shelter and, sometimes, no food either. The story goes further; the 18th day of my tour came with something I never expected to happen. I missed the only bus that I had to take throughout the trip, jeopardizing my plan. Next week was spent reconciling to the original plan by covering 500 km in 3 days. Having no place to camp and sleep when you’re exhausted from the day’s routine doesn’t even count as a challenge. It’s normal. Day 25th recorded the hottest day in the history of the Netherland’s climate. I waited for the night to pedal as the mercury touched 42C in the day. All of this, although challenging, doesn’t make me regret my decision for a single moment. So, if you ever plan a solo bikepacking tour— or any other adventure —remember that you will be tested; you SHOULD be tested.

bikepacking in Estonia
Biking in Estonia 1 2
A car passes by, snapping me back in the present. I look forward, all I see is black road merging in a clear blue sky. I glance to my left and right and find green fields running in the opposite direction while I standstill on a quiet asphalt road. A house also passes by me quietly as if it is trying to hide its existence. The landscape holds me captive as reality merges with my memories and takes me back to my home country Pakistan where a 13-year-old me is sitting on a crowded bus, looking outside from the tinted window of the bus. A boy of the same age is biking on the road. The road is pitch black with its curbs decorated with beautiful flowers creating an alluring canvas. He pedals slowly, and I wish if I could ever bike on such a clean and beautiful place. It doesn’t take long for the bus to move away to the same old, monotonous, and dreary landscape, which features dull buildings and busy people. I look down at the road from the window and it merges with the one I am pedaling on right now. My bike meter is showing 25 km/h – a decent speed for a long-distance cyclist. I take out my phone to capture the landscape, but it doesn’t justify what I am seeing. I save a memory anyway. I realize that I have been blessed with more than I wished for. I continue pedaling.
Estonian Roads 1

It’s the People who make your journey awesome!

I visited some of the most beautiful places on this tour; I spent time at the sites I always dreamt of. There were times when startling nature made me forget to blink, but what touched my heart was the message I received when I requested Mara to host me, “Rain is crazy here. Come directly to us for a hot cup of tea!”. Soaked and shivering, I enter their house with my mud-covered shoes and bike. The family greeted me as if I were their lost son returning from a voyage. The feeling is indescribable. 

Mara’s family was not the only example. From my first stay in Rakvere, Estonia, to my last stay in Leiden, Netherland, I was hosted by some of the most generous and kind people. I cannot forget the Polish couple where we didn’t have a common language to communicate, but we still shared stories. The memory of my kind host from a farmhouse in the countryside of Estonia is still vivid. A lovely couple in Olesnica, Poland, an awesome and smiling host in Kediani, and memories of super hosts in Šiaulia, Lithuania are crystal clear. The taste of homegrown berries offered by my host family in Jelgava, Latvia, is still fresh. This list goes long, but you get the idea. You may lose the sense of time in nature, but the experience you get from kind, selfless and generous people is unmatchable.

Don’t forget to bring your slipper – Yes, slippers!

Dream Big! Dream to the extent that it scares you, but what matters the most is the small things that happen in the pursuit of something remarkable. The little things — as the feeling when I take my wet shoes off and put on slippers. If you ask what the most useful thing in the tour was, slippers would be 2nd on the list, after the bike, obviously. So, the 3rd learning from the solo bikepacking tour is that you need a good pair of slippers, both metaphorically and physically. 

Don’t worry about Diet – Your body is remarkably adaptive!

All that calories count, protein grams, and carbs amount that one needs for a physical excursion equivalent to biking 150 km on a heavily loaded bike – you’re not gonna get that. The good news is that your body doesn’t really care about it as long as you’re immersed in the experience. Initially, I tried to keep track of my diet, but soon I realized that it was not practically possible. There were occasions when I was biking for the whole day without passing by any populated area with a supermarket. All I used to have with me was water and a few cookies, and every time, I was surprised to find how flexible and adaptive our bodies have been made. The more challenging situation you put yourself in, the more resilient and stronger you become. However, I must mention that you should not take it for granted. Give your body proper nutrients whenever possible. In my case, whenever I was in any wolt city, I recharged myself with quality food. And I am thankful to Wolt for sponsoring it.

You’ll never get enough of IT!

You might plan your trip for a month and expect that you’ll feel accomplished once it’s over. Spoiler Alert: You’ll never feel accomplished. Having a month of the trip means having only one sip of drink when you’re thirsty for the whole day. All it does is increase the craving to leave the routine life and get lost again. Make sure when you come back, you have something productive planned to do.

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