Get to your hike by bus, train, or bike

My bikepacking setup on the AT

The author's bikepacking setup on the A.T. Read the Trip Report.

Hiking may seem like the “greenest” activity you can do on Earth Day, or any day, with one notable exception: the often considerable drive to the trailhead.

You don't need to be a strident conservationist to appreciate the irony of a tricked-out SUV with a lone occupant, spewing carbon dioxide and volatile organic hydrocarbons on a 200-mile round trip to hike and “appreciate nature.”

A common-sense reply to this criticism is that hikers, despite burning a few gallons of gas here and there, develop a heightened appreciation of nature, and are therefore motivated to conserve land and water quality, maintain trails, and be generally more environmentally-conscious.

Whether or not that holds true, consider that 82 percent of Americans live in urban areas and spend more than 32 hours per year stuck in traffic (according to the 2010 census). Driving in stop-and-go traffic for an hour to arrive at the trail with a bundle of stress isn't exactly a relaxing start to a hike.

Whether you want to reduce the environmental impact of your trip to the trail, avoid road stress on your way out of town, or just don't have a car, consider a few alternate travel techniques to get to the trailhead.

Look Locally

Local food is all the rage, so why not consider local hikes? You'd be surprised by how many great town, county, and state parks are close by. Think of a hike as an afternoon escape, rather than a weeklong trip to a national park.

Resources

To find local parks, try contacting your state's department of natural resources or state park agency. Can't find the website of your local state parks? Try www.stateparks.com/usa.html.

Gear Tip

Just because it's a day hike doesn't mean you have to leave your backpacking gear at home. I'll often bring a new stove or tarp on a local hike to give it a shakedown test before longer trips.

Carpool

If none of your friends like to hike, consult local hiking and outdoor clubs to see if any offer a ride-board or arrange group hikes.

Resources

Trouble finding a local hiking group? Look at local Sierra Club chapters, American Hiking Society alliance members or try Meetup.

No local groups? Ask at a local outfitter if there are informal local groups. Some larger organizations, like the Appalachian Mountain Club, offer regional shuttle services.

Gear Tip

Be careful to stow your gear carefully and securely to avoid having to poke around in an unfamiliar trunk or play the "whose Swiss Army knife is this?" game. You might even consider adding a luggage tag to your pack to ease identification.

Safety Tip

Just because someone else hikes, doesn't make you exempt from common-sense safety. Don't get into a stranger's car alone, always leave word with a trusted friend or family member about your destination and your expected return, and check the credentials, insurance, and history of hiking clubs and leaders carefully.

Try a Group Hike

Many local hiking clubs organize group hikes. A few, like the Capital Hiking Club in Washington, D.C., will charter a bus to bring the group to a trailhead en masse.

No Groups?

Start your own hiking group. This is a bigger topic than this brief article, but consider using online tools like Trailspace, Facebook,or Meetup to find like-minded people in your area and organize regular hikes.

For an example of a fun, well-organized group hike, see this trip report documenting a recent hike on Tennessee's Fiery Gizzard Trail by a group of Trailspace members. Remember, the safety rules above still apply.

Try Local Mass Transit

MTA Appalachian Trail Station Near Pauling, NY
Appalachian Trail train station near Pawling, N.Y., on Metro-North's Harlem line. (Copyright © 2010 Michael Brochstein)

 

Many cities and regions have bus services that pass trailheads. We tend to forget that buses still exist, but I've been pleasantly surprised to find clean, reliable bus services in even the most rural parts of America.

Some national parks, like Acadia, link free local bus services with other regional bus systems, creating opportunities to explore parks car-free.

Beyond buses, many regional rail systems, designed to serve commuters, can take you to trailheads on the outskirts of urban areas. Examples include the SEPTA in Philadelphia, MARC in Maryland, and Metro-North in New York City.

Resources

Trail organizations are beginning to get “on the bus,” with this trend too. Washington Trails Association created a resource specifically for “bus hikes” in Greater Seattle.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy publishes a Getting to the Trail page and A.T. Shuttle List (PDF) that include info on shuttles and public transport.

Google Maps has integrated information from local transit authorities to provide directions that include bus and train schedules.

Gear Tips

  • Bring a travel wallet. Public transit can expose you to an increased risk of theft, so consider keeping your insurance card, credit card, driver's license, and cash in a travel wallet that's easy for you to access, and difficult for pickpockets. Have exact change for buses and trains at the ready to avoid creating a bottleneck.
  • Bring hand sanitizer. You should have some for backpacking anyway, but public transit can expose you to more viruses and bacteria.
  • Pack smart. Many items, like stove fuel, a knife, bear spray, or even sharp tent stakes, are prohibited or can attract unwelcome attention on public transit. Bury potentially problematic items in your pack.

Try National Mass Transit

Greyhound still offers stops in many small towns near major trailheads. Amtrak also offers stops in surprisingly out-of-the way places and actually crosses the Appalachian Trail in Harpers Ferry, W.V., and near Pawling, N.Y., on Metro-North's Harlem line.

For stations further than a few miles from the trailhead, consider bringing a bike. Most Greyhound buses allow bikes (call the station of departure to confirm) as do many Amtrak trains (Call to confirm. Some require bikes be boxed). 

Resources

Gear Tip

Keep your pack close by. This is another reason to pack light. Smaller packs can fit in the overhead compartment or under seats on Amtrak and Greyhound buses. Stowing your pack under the bus slows down your arrival and increases the chance of theft. If you must stow your pack, consider a luggage tag.

Try Bikepacking


The author's bike near Bethel, Maine.

Bikepacking is a hybrid of backpacking and bike touring. For the uninitiated, bike touring might seem like a daunting proposition. Consider, though, that depending on terrain, a 60-mile bike tour is roughly equivalent to a 15-mile hike. In other words, it's no walk in the park, but it's possible for most reasonably fit hikers.

To prepare for bikepacking, think about your gear first. Bike touring trailers that allow you to stow your packed backpack work best for bikepacking, but panniers (saddlebags) work well too. Ultralight hikers could get away with no special equipment and just wearing a pack. Don't forget your helmet, but leave the special bike shoes at home.

After your gear is secure, look for a hiking trail within 20 to 100 miles and plan a safe biking route from your home to the trailhead. 

Route-Planning Resources

I use a few primary tools to plan safe bicycle routes:

Once your gear and route are set, you're set to get on the road. I find that a pre-hike ride puts me on the trail stretched out, de-stressed, and ready to walk.

Gear Tips

  • Go light. Think it's important to count ounces backpacking? It's even more so for bikepacking. You'll need to carry additional bike-specific equipment (lock, lube, tools, pump, tubes, etc.), so minimize wherever possible.
  • Go dry. If you have to leave your bike somewhere for a few days, in addition to locking and concealing it well, cover it with a tarp. Even a few days of rain can rust your chain and cause problems.
  • Avoid clip-ins. Clip-in pedals with special shoes are just another thing to carry. Stick with traditional cages and save weight.

Try Bike Shuttling

For point-point hikes that would ordinarily require two cars or a rented shuttle, try a bike shuttle. Drop a locked and well-concealed bike at the end of your hike, then drive back to the beginning to start hiking.

Gear Tips

  • Be prepared. Bring a patch kit, spare tube, multitool, and bike pump and know how to use them. It's no fun blowing a tube in an out-of-the-way place.
  • Be safe. Bike shuttles often mean evening rides on country roads. Bring front and rear lights and a reflective vest to avoid problems.

General Gear Tips

With the exception of bikepacking, all of these alternate means of getting to the trail don't require a lot of special gear. Here are a few considerations that might make your trip a little smoother.

  • Bring a book. Another nice part of many alternate means of getting to the trailhead is that you can relax and read a bit.
  • Bring deodorant. Normally, I wouldn't recommend this, but if you're going to take a crowded bus home from a long hike, your fellow passengers will appreciate it. Most deodorants are available in travel sizes.
  • Pack light. Shuttling in and out of buses, trains, and bikes is tough enough. Don't complicate matters with 80 pounds of gear.
  • Pack tight. A pack with water bottles, a fly rod, and climbing gear rattling around on the outside is asking for trouble. Additionally, sharp points from trekking poles and crampons can injure co-riders. Get as much equipment as you can inside your pack, and consider a rain cover to keep external gear protected and connected.

 

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about alternate ways to get outside. Do you have more ideas? Interesting trips you've taken car-free?

Share your ideas, tips, and questions below.

 

 


Watch: Biking Directions on Google Maps

Filed under: Outdoor Skills

Comments

GaryPalmer
210 reviewer rep
4,348 forum posts
April 13, 2011 at 6:52 p.m. (EDT)

I at 55 have never had a car or any motorized vehicle since I was 16 when I had a Moped. I use my bicycle to get to work and when I travel I bike tour. My last big tour was in 2006 when I pedaled across Alaska from the Beaufort Sea at the North Slope to Homer Spit below Anchorage, a distance of about 1000 miles over 30 days.

Seth Levy (Seth)
TRAILSPACE STAFF
488 reviewer rep
1,087 forum posts
April 13, 2011 at 8:13 p.m. (EDT)

Wow!  Gary, you may be my new non-motorized idol.  I've yet to own a car too, but you've done it for 20 more years than I have!  What kind of bike did you ride across AK?  Did you camp?

 

GaryPalmer
210 reviewer rep
4,348 forum posts
April 13, 2011 at 8:30 p.m. (EDT)

I rode a mountain bike. Yes I camped every night. Most of the route was paved except over the Brooks Range, I rode down the dalton Highway from the North Slope to Fairbanks then the main highway to Homer. I saw grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou, a lynz, dall sheep,bald eagles, alaskan bison, salmon and a porcupine. I had not one flat but something stole my spare tirewhile i was camping one night. I started in early August so I had 24 hours of daylight every day, tho the sun dipped below the mountains.

But my bike was stolen the first night after returning to Anchorage as I went partying with some others and neglected to lock it up at the hostel where I left it. I discovered it gone the next morning. I had planned to ride it all the way back to Utah thru Canada. I ended up staying in Anchorage till January 2nd 2007 and flying back to Utah. I also lost my cameras spare batteries, my binoculars and a 500mm lens for my camera which were in my handlebar bag on the bike when it was taken. And my bike racks.

I designed some pail panniers from old square Mayonaise buckets from a restuarant. I have two for the back and two for the front. They are sturdy and make excellent camp tables,chairs, water buckets, even a ice chest. I also use the same type of buckets for camping when I cache my food in backcountry areas on longer than a month trips.

When I left alaska the security at the airport had me open my panniers as they had never seen them used as luggage.

Rick-Pittsburgh
1,631 reviewer rep
3,962 forum posts
April 13, 2011 at 9:39 p.m. (EDT)

Good read/info. I must be part of the 18% that sat in traffic more than the 32hrs/yr. I know when I use to do my daily commute from Ft.Washington to S.E.(DC) on the beltway I use to burn that 32 up in a month. :)

Peter1955
1,377 reviewer rep
1,339 forum posts
June 2, 2012 at 9:44 p.m. (EDT)

Meetup included Google maps in their disastrous update a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the new maps didn't work at all for hikers,since locations like, 'Jacques Lake Trailhead, Maligne Lake  Road, Jasper National Park', weren't recognized. That particular one would give you an unchangeable location downtown in the Town of Jasper not the actual trailhead some 25 km away. Even city locations like 'Emily Murphy Park' wouldn't work unless you could give them a numbered street address.

That winter, this resulted in my members being sent to meet at non-existent locations out in the countryside, often at -20°C, down icy back roads. There was a very real risk of someone landing in a ditch, lost in the snow, with no way of finding out where they were, and no likelihood of rescue for days or even weeks. This resulted in a posting on all of my Meetup events saying "IGNORE GOOGLE MAP FOR THIS EVENT. IT IS WRONG. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS GIVEN IN THE EVENT POSTING."

It took Meetup a number of months to change the links so that the map locations could be manually moved from the ones assigned by Google to the correct ones.

Yesterday evening, I had someone get lost by using Google to generate a map to get to 'Riverside Campground, Richmond Park, Alberta' instead of following the clear and accurate directions on the event posting. It sent her 6 grid lines north of the correct turnoff, then seven lines back, but to the wrong location. Since cell phone reception was poor, we had to send out a couple of vehicles (who had used a legitimate set of directions) to find her.

Great ideas here; hikers are almost all concerned about the lowest possible impact on the environment. But be warned - while Google maps for urban locations might be reasonably accurate, when it comes to finding a trailhead or other rural location, they have proven (in Canada at least) to be quite unreliable. Always double check.

Callahan
255 reviewer rep
1,469 forum posts
June 3, 2012 at 12:18 p.m. (EDT)

via monster truck

BigRed
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
773 reviewer rep
681 forum posts
June 3, 2012 at 2:37 p.m. (EDT)

We finally delivered our rustbucket Subaru to the crusher last December. We didn't dare take it out of town for more than a year before that. We joined the local car coop and can get cars of various sizes whenever we need them. We do our daily commute and shopping by bicycle (with trailer), or we can take buses if we need them. But for hiking and skiing trips, it takes so much longer to get to a trailhead using trains and buses, if you can get there at all, that we usually end up taking a car. Humping ski gear around also makes it hard. At Easter time a few years ago we all, including the dog, took a train down to Rjukan at the southern edge of Hardangervidda, skied across the Hardangervidda to Finse over 10 days, then took a train back home. The tour my daughter did from Åndalsnes to Oppdal a few years ago is also a potential train-to-train hike, but my wife gave us a ride one way so she could join us for the first few days, and we just took the train home. I have various schemes for other carless trips, including taking our new folding canoe north to the Swedish border region around Sarek and Kebnekaise, where there are some big lakes. Overall, for me it's a big relief not to own a car anymore.

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