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Mental health while bike touring

Aktualisiert: 14. Dez. 2022

Most people, when they think about long term travel, whether by bicycle or backpack or Van, they imagine the life on road exciting, full of fun, free of worries and even romantic maybe. Most people we talk to definitively think we are living a perfect life - just living our dream by travelling the world for such a long time.

As a matter of fact – we are living our dream for sure and I guess most long-distance bike tourers would agree to that feeling. While paddling the world we are experiencing it in a very intense way, we feel the wind in our face, we smell the fresh air after a summer rain, we sit on a bonfire in the desert singing songs and we definitively get to see stunning landscapes and meet amazing people. In our case, travelling while performing a social project was Iris´ personal dream for many years and she was working so hard for this dream to come true. Almost every day we are waking up and still can’t believe that we actually made it. BUT … as amazing as life on the road is, it is definitively not perfect or worry free and most of the time also not romantic. It is actually hard work and more often than not we experience a physical and mental exhaustion which leads to symptoms similar to a burn out syndrome.

Our project includes a lot of contact with people who suffer from mental illness as well as their relatives, friends and care givers. We also speak to people working in Universities, Organisations and Institutions who have to deal with the effects of bad social policy or the lack of social policy every day. So, on top of the regular things bike tourers are exposed to, we are also exposed to a lot of individual suffering and frustration. And if it would not be hard enough in general to brace ourselves while JUST bike touring, you probably can imagine how hard it is to take it easy while cycling for the sake of changing society for the better. We feel very responsible to the mission and vision of our project and therefore we hardly grant us a real break. If we are not on the bikes we work on the project.

But even if not performing a social project while touring the world, most of us will experience feelings of mental exhaustion sooner or later and for some of us those feelings grow so strong that it becomes hard to enjoy the travel at times. But how come that even though we seem to live a perfect life, a life a lot of people envy us for, we still end up being fed up with it at some point?

Well, that is purely because of the nature of bike touring itself. Cycling hundreds of kilometres is physically hard work. Its draining especially when starting fresh or when touring for a long time. Our body hurts from sitting on the bike and from using a lot of strength to make progress. In addition to the physically hard workout, we are performing every day, most of us also get drained by a regular lack of sleep. Some nights we cannot sleep because people come to the tent without having good intentions. Some nights we hardly sleep because people are having good intentions and we end up chatting and laughing with our hosts until early morning. Some nights we are caught in a thunderstorm and other nights we have dogs barking around our camp area without stopping. There are countless occasions where we don’t find enough sleep and I think most of you would agree that finding good sleep is, more often than not, a hard task while bike touring.

People who are touring by bike are finding themselves exposed to what surrounds them, whether it is people, animals, weather or traffic. We can feel it, we can taste it, we can smell it. There is no car or bus window which shields us from the outside world. We are relatively unprotected from whatever the environment holds for us and we cannot easily hide from unpleasant encounters. We cannot easily hide from pollution or poverty or noise and sometimes even not from outside aggression.

While travelling by bike for a long time, most of us are also experiencing homesickness at some point. We miss our family and friends, maybe our comfortable lives back home (if we had any), maybe just a daily routine where we know what's happening and what we can expect or even just a dish which we used to love and we cannot get anywhere else in the world. Long term travelling does not come without sacrifices. Hardly anyone of us can afford a luxurious life while on tour. And sometimes even missing small things can make us feel very sad and miserable.

Before we were travelling by bike for a long time ourselves, we also thought that this kind of life might be rather worry free. In fact, bike tourers also experience daily worries, just a different kind of worries. Finding a good place to sleep or enough water is something that troubles us regularly. Other people are worried about getting sick or having troubles with their bikes and not being able to go on for some time. Money is also a regular reason to worry for at least 80% of long-distance bike tourers (no official statistics here yet). Getting hit by a car or bitten by dogs might be very strong worries which might turn into fear. The feeling of fear and anxiety is having a strong negative effect on every human’s mental health, not only on bike tourers.

Hardly any other way of travelling makes us feel the connection between physical and mental health stronger, then while touring by bike for a long time. There is a fine line between feeling mentally well or mentally unwell and sometimes it can be hard to determine what does good to our mental health and what not. And if this wouldn't be hard enough – even the exact same things can make us feel mentally well one day and unwell a few days later. When we are physically exhausted some of us feel sad, some melancholic, some aggressive and some just empty. When we are physically well, we are happy, we enjoy what is around is we are easy going in social interactions and we are looking forward to waking up the next day and hopping back on the bikes.

In order to protect our mental health while travelling we have to take care of our physical health and vis-à-vis.

We have thought about this topic a lot lately, not only because of the subject of our project but also (and maybe mainly) because we felt mentally drained a lot lately and we saw how it affected our mood and interactions with each other and with other people. Actually, there is a few strategies that help us maintaining our mental health which we would like to share with you.

Give yourself a break

Bike travelling can become intense and overwhelming at times. For this reason, we have to grant our bodies and mind some rest. What sounds so easy is actually very hard to follow. As mentioned, before we find it already hard to brace ourselves from the activity of biking. Usually if we don’t cycle, we work. It took us a long time to realize that not just our bodies need a break from cycling but that our minds also need a break from being busy. Working while off the bike is NOT a rest day.

Sightseeing and walking around for hours is NOT a rest day. Granting ourselves a real rest and just do “nothing” has been found the most challenging but the most rewarding strategy to stay mentally healthy on our trip. Resting body and mind is very individual – Jan likes to watch clips on YouTube, I love to NETFLIX or do some SPA activities.

One thing which we also underestimated is how intense it can be to travel as a couple. We had to learn to grant ourselves a break from each other as well and enjoy some quality time alone.

Spoil yourself sometimes

As we are very tight in money, as most bike tourers, and we want to bring our project as far as possible (which means travelling for a long time) we are very conscious about our spendings. We live only of the minimum we need per day. This applies to any daily activity such as eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing, washing etc. But the same way a hot bath might comforts us at home after a stressful day at work, it also takes off tension after a long time on the bikes. The same way we reward ourselves with a cold glass of beer or a special meal during our daily routine at home, we sometimes need a reward for cycling that far. Even if we are tight on budget, we make sure that we spoil ourselves a little bit every day to keep our mood up. And when I say spoiling then I am not talking about fancy restaurants or treatments. We are happy about a bottle of cold soda after cycling in the desert, we are happy about a warm shower after staying outside for a while and we are grateful for some privacy in a hostel room after a long time outdoors.

Lower your expectations

When we started bike touring, we had totally wrong expectations of basically everything. About the distance we can make per day, about the amount of food and water we need, about the routes we would ride and about how people would be so eager to help us wherever we go and so many other things. Expectations mostly lead to disappointments, not only while bike touring. Bike touring is NOT all about cycling through green hills on sunny days with a happy ending of finding the perfect camp spot. It is hard work and often frustrating. Some days we find ourselves camping at petrol stations at best with only bread and oil left in our panniers for dinner. Many days we ride much less than we actually want, due to weather or road conditions. It took us 7 months to start riding free of expectations. Since we are not expecting the road the be panoramic or people being extremely hospitable, we are much more grateful of the moments where they are. And we are much less disappointed if those great things seem to happen daily to people on Facebook and Instagram.

Set boundaries to yourself and others

This rule applies to the number of kilometres we ride per day, dealing with the workload we have as well as to learn saying NO to people, whether they mean good or bad to us. Especially at the beginning of our trip we were constantly disrespecting our own boundaries and we paid a high price for it. We were constantly fighting and sleeping bad, because our mind was restless. While bike touring, we are constantly exposed to the outside world, so the only safe space we can give ourselves on a daily base, is the one within our own boundaries, like an invisible circle.

The violation of those boundaries has a very negative effect on our mental health and hence on our physical health. Setting boundaries in neither weak nor selfish, its healthy and helped us to enjoy our bike tour much more. For Iris it was especially hard to set boundaries regarding the work we have for the project, for Jan its incredibly hard to say no to people, especially if they just want our best (without knowing of course what's our best in this very moment). This little word, as simple as it is, is so hard to say. But we had to learn the hard way, that setting and protecting our boundaries is essential while touring the world on our bikes.

Do something good every day

As a matter of fact: by choosing our way of travelling each bike tourer is contributing to a positive social and environmental change already. In our case we perform our project while we are travelling. But in this paragraph, we don’t refer to something big. We are talking about the small things which seem altruistic but in fact make us feel good on a daily basis and hence helps us to protect our mental health.

Especially on a long trip we sometimes might feel “useless” as we are “just” travelling. The human mind likes to create things and due to our socialisation in a capitalist world we like to feel productive. Small good deeds can satisfy those needs and increase our mental health while bike touring a lot. And those things can be literally anything: feeding a stray cat while having our lunch, helping an old person carry their bags on our bikes for a bit, clean up the place we camp at from trash even though we did not leave it there, by an ice cream to the kid next to us in the supermarket, tip the people in the restaurant we eat at and so on. There are endless things we can do, most of them don’t involve a lot of effort or money but the reward we get from that is priceless.

Stay connected with the people you love

This also sounds easy and obvious but again, it’s not. Some places we go to simply don’t provide the facilities to do so e.g., internet connection. But apart from that, most nights we feel so exhausted and tired that after cooking a meal and building our tent, that all we can do is planning our route for the next day and fall asleep. Also, travelling far away holds the problem of time differences so even if we are free at times, our loved ones might be sleeping and vis-a-vis. And some days where we actually managed to meet them, we felt that we have nothing to talk about because nothing spectacular actually happened. Whatever keeps us from NOT calling our family and friends, we try to overcome it and take any chance we get to catch them, even if it’s just for 5 minutes. Talking to people we love and trust, people who know and understand our needs and feelings and share our joy has been a life saver during the last 15 months. And it helps to reduce the feeling of homesickness at least a little bit.

Eat healthy and drink enough water

We totally know it’s hard to cook after a long day and also to eat healthy during the day. Some days we just want to get a big load of sugar and honestly – it feels amazing. But only for a short time.

The effects of an unhealthy diet come quickly and we pay the price – mentally as well as physically. We make sure that we add a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables to our meal plan whenever those groceries are accessible. We mostly eat them right away and avoid to store them because of the extra weight but make sure we have enough for the evening of the same day. Same counts for water. When we are right next to a water source, we usually drink one litre right away and take a few more with us.

So far, in 15 months of travelling we had only a few occasions where we had no access to fresh fruits and vegetables and had to live of canned food for two days. There were occasions where we ate very unhealthy for example in Türkiye, where sweets are too delicious to being avoided. But again, we always paid the price right away after a few days. We felt worn out mentally and physically, had much less strength and got exhausted faster than usual (we published a booklet with our favourite recipes from the first 10 countries and useful tips for “cooking on the road”: …).

Get enough sleep

As mentioned before, finding a safe and quiet sleeping spot can be a hard task. Not only while camping but also in private houses or hostels we often do not get enough sleep. The lack of sleep always affects us badly. We have less strength; we get cramps faster or get stressed from small problems. In order to get enough sleep, we have to set boundaries and limit our own expectations which is sometimes not easy, as mentioned before. We try to follow a strict sleeping plan for at least 6 days of the week and allow ourselves one “cheat day” in between. We go to bed the same time every evening (10pm) and wake up the same time every morning (6 am). What sounds boring is actually lifesaving, not only on long distance bike travels. So called “sleeping hygiene” is one of the most important and yet underrated factors in order to stay mentally stable and healthy. If we camp, we make sure that we leave ourselves enough time to chill, to cook and build the tent before sleep time so we never arrive on our camp ground after 7pm (it happened maybe five times in 13 months because we did not find a camp spot). We avoid camping in city parks, even though its easy and convenient, because we are never undisturbed. When we are hosted, we communicate our demand for sleep politely before we even enter a house and so far none of our hosts took it personal. Most importantly, we never had the feeling of missing out on something just because we did not stay awake the whole night to eat or chat or go out. But that's maybe because we had many years of seizing the night instead of the day.

Last but not least we have to mention that we are still failing many times to follow our own rules and strategies. But we are now much more aware of what's going on and why if we feel sad, aggressive, worn out or fed up. Since we reflect our own emotion-based behaviour and analyse the triggers we became much better in intervention and prevention. We reduced the situations where we ended up physically and mentally exhausted and hence, enjoy our trip much more and have much more energy for working on our project.

If you have other strategies which are helpful to maintain your physical and mental health while bike touring, we would be happy to hear about your experience.

Stay healthy, happy and safe on the road!

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Nov 01, 2022

Very good advice!

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