Bikes offer a number of advantages over cars as escape and transport vehicles. We’re not talking about motorbikes, either: the humble bicycle is where it’s at. It has been said that the bicycle is one of humanity’s greatest machine inventions- they convert a small amount of effort into a huge amount of distance, and this just as true for their load-carrying capabilities. A thirty-pound backpack feels like a ton after hiking a few miles, but once you’ve got a bit of momentum up on a bike, that extra weight feels like nothing.
Bikes are so maneuverable. Even in a well-functioning city grid, you can make trips much faster by bike, taking short cuts and using one-way streets or intersections that leave cars circling for blocks trying to find the right way into the street that’s right gorram there. You can slip down three-foot alleyways, jump onto the footpath if you need to (taking care not to alarm or inconvenience any pedestrians of course), go through winding narrow woodland trails, and even carry your bike up flights of stairs or over shallow rivers.
On an open highway, with a full tank of gas, a car will outpace a bike every time, but in a disaster-relief or post-apocalyptic scenario, conditions are very different. Highways clogged with abandoned cars are a staple of disaster movies, and if you have ever cycled through peak hour city streets then you know that bikes are excellent for sailing right past traffic while everyone else is miming frustration, trapped in the jam. We’ve mentioned elsewhere that in a disaster situation gas stations often ration fuel or run out entirely. This is usually temporary of course, and undamaged fuel pumps are brought back online within weeks of major natural disasters. But in the meantime, bikes are an unbeatable way to zip around your neighborhood: gathering supplies, checking on friends and neighbors, speeding up relief deliveries, exchanging information, and scouting out blocked or damaged roads that need attention.
But what if the gas runs out for good? Or a resupply is months away? William Gibson famously said that ‘the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,’ and it’s reasonable to anticipate that local or regional events could mean wildly varying gas prices, making gas effectively unavailable to people who can’t afford to cough up ten times what they’re used to in times of short supply. The only power you need for your bike is pedal power: you can run them for free. It’s true that you need calories to turn those cranks, but you’ll have such improved foraging opportunities that the benefits outweigh the calorie costs. Between now and the end of the world, cycling for transport more often means saving money that could be better spent on preparing.
Bike maintenance and mechanic skills are much more accessible to the average person than car mechanic skills: you need a lot less specialized equipment, and you can take a beginner’s course in maintenance or bike building and be skilled in just a few weeks. Most cities have collective workshops where you can learn how to fix and maintain your bike, and even learn how to build your own from spare parts. During a natural disaster, or a SHTF-type situation, it will be possible to cobble together a safe and functional bike from parts of the millions of spare bikes languishing in homes across our cities, something that just isn’t as easy for cars. Complex engines, dead batteries, the significant dangers that come with mucking around with fuel and sparks, as well as the sheer weight of cars (i.e. you can carry a salvaged bike home, but not a car) make cannibalizing cars or motorbikes much more difficult.
Bikes are wonderfully customizable. You can bolt on heavy-duty cargo racks and wagons, fairings to shield you from bugs (and zombie hordes), dynamos to charge your flashlight, radio or phone, and you can add and subtract lighting to make you highly visible or super stealthy. For survival solution inspiration, preppers can look to the thriving subculture of bikepacking: long-distance self-sufficient cycle touring.
Touring bikes are a reliable, maneuverable, cost-effective way to cover great distances
This beginner’s guide is more like a recipe, containing the key ingredients of an effective disaster survival vehicle. Mix and match to suit your requirements, and add plenty of extras to taste. Ideally, your bug-out-bike is practical and rugged, but comfortable and slick enough that you want to ride it all the time. Bikes make an excellent back-up plan for everyday car-drivers or public transport users, but if you’re going to leave your contingency plan in the shed, make sure you carry out regular preventative tune-ups. It’s worth it for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that if disaster strikes, your bike is in good condition and ready to go.
Surly and Soma are two of the most popular touring and cargo frame makers. Their bikes are considered among the best for long-distance bikepacking, but these highly regarded frames and bikes don’t come with anything like the $5000+ price tag of ‘high-end’ frames for sport cycling enthusiasts or the lycra brigade. Touring frames are designed to excel at long distance loaded touring. If you’ll be making shorter loaded trips – say carting tools and supplies back and forth within a city district – you can get something like Soma’s Tradesman Cargo Frame Set, which places the load directly on the frame rather than the fork or bars, so it won’t ‘pull’ on the steering. Cargo frames are designed for a lower center of gravity, keeping your weight nice and steady. If you’re looking for one second-hand, you might find them called ‘freight bicycles’ as well.
Ok, so no tubes are actually puncture-proof, but some are more puncture-resistant than others. Fortify your defenses by installing thorn-deflecting tape on your wheel rims. You can purchase purpose-built, inexpensive rim tape (aka spoke tape), from most bicycle stores. If you are buying new tires, choose something like Schwalbe anti-puncture tires, with a built in puncture-resistant inner layer. Changing a flat on the go doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it still wastes time and inevitably gets you greasy. You don’t want to be late for work, and you really don’t want to be stopped dead in your tracks with a pack of zombies hot on your tail.
A sturdy pair of racks on the front and back of your bicycle provides plenty of real estate for bug-out-bags, plus space for extra supplies like camping equipment. Build in some extra load carrying capacity in case you scavenge materials or food along the way. It’s a great idea to always take out a bungee cord, paracord or similar to make it easy to tie down whatever salvage you acquire on your mission.
If you’re building your touring bike yourself, buying it new from a bike shop, or can afford the cash for a retrofit, you should seriously consider installing dynamo lights and/or a dynamo charger. Once in place, you’ll never have to replace your bike light batteries ever again. Most dynamos (not including lights-only ones) have a USB port so that you can recharge a flashlight or smartphone while riding.
Electromagnetic lights are another great option. Electromagnetic lights work automatically as your wheel turns, so you don’t have to replace batteries, and you don’t have to remember to switch your lights on or off. Unlike most good battery powered lights, electromagnetic and dynamo-powered lights are permanently fixed to your bike, so you can leave them on when you go into the pub for a drink.
Attach a small kit with the essential tools and spares needed to fix a puncture, a slipped or snapped chain, and any other bits that commonly break or need tweaking. If your bike is newly built or you like to play with settings, you can easily forget to check crucial nuts and bolts are tightened before you ride out the door. A simple touring tool kit includes a puncture kit, a spare tube, two or three tire levers, spare batteries if your lights need them, plus a few wrenches and hex keys, or a bicycle-specific multitool. These cover all the common sizes of wrenches and hex keys. Many even have a chain-cracking tool. Two things though: ‘most common’ is not one-size-fits-all, so check that your tool is sized right for most of the parts on your bike. Secondly, many multitools are hopeless plastic pieces of junk. It’s worth investing in one that costs three times as much but lasts ten times as long. Throw your kit into a sturdy zip-up bag (an old bathroom bag from a thrift shop is a good cheap option) and secure it to your frame.
Choose panniers that are reasonable comfortable or at least possible to carry on your shoulders too. If you’re feeling enterprising, you can even convert sturdy old backpacks and messenger bags into panniers by sewing straps or clips onto them.
Dark-colored panniers hide mud and coffee stains, and attract less attention to all your sweet gear. If you go for dark or drab colors, be sure to grab some reflective material or strips to attach to them, to help keep you safe while cycling on your daily rides. Busy, city, or dusky streets, as well as streets where drivers might not expect cyclists are all especially dangerous, and the more lit you are the better.
Waterproof vinyl panniers like those made by Ortlieb are popular, but their coating isn’t breathable, meaning dampness inside caused by cold beer bottles, sweaty clothes, spilled water bottles etc. lingers and can get moldy. You can make other bags and panniers waterproof by throwing a waterproof cover over the top: a waterproof backpack cover; a raincoat cut up into a circle and sew to elastic; or even plastic grocery bag.
Panniers make excellent bug-out-bags: you can carry much more weight and more volume, and it’s easy to stack things like tents and bedroll up on your rack while your panniers sit to the sides. Just keep in mind that even if your bike is securely locked, your panniers aren’t, and it’s possible for someone to loot your stuff. If you have expensive, desirable panniers, it’s not unheard of for people to take them right of the bike. This is another good reason to choose panniers that you can sling over your shoulder when you go into a store or get home.
Apocalypse or no-apocalypse, bike thieves abound in every city. In some cities, like Copenhagen, it’s mostly drunken opportunists looking for an easy way home, and there’s a good chance your bike will turn up on a sidewalk somewhere. Elsewhere, bike thieving is an income stream, mostly for people desperate for their next fix of a street drug, and bikes are routinely repainted and sold and never seen again.
If you only spend money on one high-end item for your bike, it should be a lock. High quality D-locks, U-locks, heavy chain locks and foldable locks are the best. It will weigh a ton, but it will be worth it. City-dwellers would do well to buy one or two smaller locks for the wheels as well as a main lock for the frame.
If you’re prone to losing your keys, you might want to go for a combination-code lock. The high-end keyed locks usually offer a replacement service, meaning that if you lose your keys you don’t have to throw away $70 worth of steel, or worse yet, need to call in a professional to crack your lock before you can go anywhere. When you get your new lock, make sure you write down the code in case you ever need to order a spare key.