Biking across America is one of those iconic cycling adventures that many of us dream of doing.
There’s something so simple yet impressive about the idea of riding your bicycle from one coast of the USA to the other, through the heartland of America.
In this article, we speak to someone who has done just that. While still at University, Nicholas Orsini, an avid traveler, cyclist, Ironman and founder of sports nutrition company The Plant Era, cycled across America. He also wrote a book about the journey.
In this article, Nicholas shares his experiences and tips for taking on the challenge of cycling across America.
Read on and prepare to be inspired!
Sponsored by The Plant Era
1. Tell us about biking across America. What does it involve?
I cycled across the United States from Florida to California. This route is called the “Southern Tier”.
The route is 3,023 miles (4,865km) long with a maximum elevation of 8,185 ft (2,500m) and minimum elevation of -155 ft (-47m). The average climb per mile was 35 ft (10m) per mile.
The exact statistics are dependent on if you follow the maps to the letter or veer off course. My cousin and I took a few detours – due to mother nature and personal reasons. It didn’t help that my Southern Tier maps blew off my bike within the first week as well!
The journey took us roughly over a month to finish and we finished at the beginning of June.
Note that the GPX file above is not an official Southern Tier route file. Nicholas unfortunately no longer has a GPX file of his route, so we are using the above to give an indicative idea of the route.
2. What prompted you to cycle across America?
My cousin and I embarked on this ride across America because we wanted adventure, freedom, and to see more of our homeland.
We were in our final year of University at the time, so it seemed ideal to spend a month of summer cycling across the United States.
3. What are the different bike routes across America?
Of course there are lots of possibilities, but the main three cycle routes across America are:
The Southern Tier route
This is the route that we rode and which I describe here - 3,023 miles (4,865km), from California to Florida if you're going west to east (or Florida to California as we rode it).
The Northern Tier route
4,271 miles (6,873km), from Washington to Maine. From Washington, you pass through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and end in Maine. The route also dips into Canada.
The TransAmerica Trail
4,211 miles (6,777km), from Oregon to Virginia. From Oregon, you pass through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and end in Virginia.
The Northern Route and TransAmerica trail are much more suitable than the Southern Tier during the summer, given the climate and conditions in the south (more on that below). Note that the Northern Tier route can’t be ridden during winter due to snow (and the section through Glacier National Park in Montana is usually closed until June!).
The most famous of the cycling routes across America is the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. It started as a plan to celebrate the USA’s 200th birthday and “opened” in 1976 when 4,000 cyclists showed up to ride the “Bikecentennial”. The route takes you through Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and usually takes around three months to complete. The Adventure Cycling Association estimates that about a thousand people cycle across the US each summer on this route.
4. How did you choose which bike route across America to take?
I grew up in Florida, so it made sense for me to begin there. Also, I had never been to California and Arizona before, so I really wanted to travel though there.
Most importantly, I just thought it was a more exciting part of the USA, I didn’t have three months to travel and I had more friends along that route than the others!
5. Give us a feel for what the Southern Tier route is like.
The route takes you through a huge variety of landscapes and cultures. Most people do the Southern Tier from west to east, but we did it the other way around.
I started in Florida, where you’ve got everything from the historic coast at Pensacola and Castillo de San Marcos to the alligator infested waters around Palatka.
From there the route runs through the rural countryside of the Old South in Alabama and Mississippi into Louisiana, where the history, language, music and food are all pretty unique.
You then cycle through Texas, with highlights including Austin, the sagebrush and tumbleweeds of Texas hill country and the Rio Grande river.
New Mexico follows, with its sparsely populated ranch country, before you head into Arizona and the Yuha Desert.
Finally, you’re into California and the coastline beckons.
6. What were your three favourite sections of your trip across the US?
My favorite parts of the route were also my least favorite!
California was the most beautiful part of the journey. We experienced an area north of Death Valley which was a surreal experience. Due to the intense heat, we left Phoenix at 6pm and cycled until 11am in the morning. There were no motels along the way, so we cycled the entire night with the exception of one gas station break.
Throughout the night we would hear howls and all sorts of animal noises. At one point while taking a breather, a coyote even came up to our bikes, scaring us into a full throttled sprint!
Seeing the coasts of California and Laguna beach was also breathtaking.
Hill Country, Texas
I equally loved experiencing Hill Country, Texas. It is an incredibly beautiful place filled with nature and animals, but also the most painful cycling of my life. The hills were non-stop and destroyed our bodies.
Riding through never-ending mountains is a painful experience!
Mississippi was my least favorite part of the journey – we found it to be an ugly, boring state filled with flat tires, bike issues, terrible food, and constant thunderstorms.
However, the people of Mississippi were the friendliest people I’ve ever met in my life and for that reason, Mississippi will always be in my memory as a really positive part of the journey. Lots of people in Mississippi helped us when we were at our lowest points throughout the journey. It helped me learn that anything is possible with faith, belief in yourself, hard work, and a little bit of luck.
7. What was the worst thing that happened to you on your journey across the USA?
The worst thing that happened to us was encountering a deadly storm in Texas.
It was filled with tornadoes and flooded the entire city of Austin. Large pickup trucks were flipped upside down in the water. Being on bikes and seeing tornadoes is a frightening experience.
A close contender for “worst” were the constant bike issues we faced. We’d end up destroying our bikes further just to ride a bit farther to get help, fix it with the best available resources we had to hand (usually duct tape), or even more remarkably, hitchhike with strangers who would pick us up.
8. Were you ever concerned for your personal safety?
Absolutely. You’ve got to be aware that there are certain dangers in biking across America.
For us, the most concerning was when we were riding to Austin Texas. We saw tornadoes and floods, which killed around 50-60 people. They wiped out a lot of the city and were disastrous.
In another situation, we got flat tires and ran out of bike tubes, leaving us stranded miles from the nearest gas station. Luckily a kind stranger gave us a ride to the nearest bike store. If not for them, we would have been in a terrible situation.
Lastly, one of the most scary things that happened to us was running out of water. This happened to us twice. Once in Florida where we found an abandoned mechanic shop and luckily the bathroom sink had running water. Although the water was dirty and brown, it was better than nothing. The other time was in the middle of nowhere in Texas. We found a jug with flowers next to a cross on the side of the road and had to drink it…
When you're in these situations in that climate, running out of water is absolutely disastrous and one of the most dangerous things to happen. We always tried to prioritise it, but it’s easy to make mistakes.
10. Tell us what each day was like.
There were no typical days, given it was just my cousin and me.
We had no support team or caravan and little experience!
However, we did develop some sort of routine.
We would generally wake up at around 5am to stretch and eat a breakfast comprised of freeze-dried oatmeal. We would get on the bike before 5:45AM, cycle until 11:30am and then rest for two or three hours due to the intense heat.
After our long siesta, we would start cycling again at 2-3pm and cycle until it became dark around 8pm, before grabbing a motel.
We would finish the night with a beer, ice bath, foam rolling and deep stretch session, and most frequently, Mexican for dinner.
Throughout the day were always a few gas station breaks to ensure we were filled up on snacks. When we would finally arrive to a city, we would give ourselves a few hours to enjoy the city.
11. Did you plan your expected average mileage each day?
We planned on doing 60-80 miles (about 95-130km) a day depending on the distance.
We ended up doing around 70-80 miles (113-130km) a day the last half of the trip and 60-70 miles (97-113km) the first part.
The least we did was 30 miles (48km) in a day. The most we did was 149 miles (240km) from Phoenix to Blythe.
We only took one rest day throughout the trip as we were in a rush to get back home for work. The rest day was unplanned and due to bike problems and a slight injury with my hip flexor. It would have been more relaxing to have incorporated rest days!
12. How fit do you have to be to bike across the US?
People who think you have to be Lance Armstrong to do this type of ride are completely wrong! A normal person can absolutely cycle across the US if they really want to. We had barely any of the prerequisites you might imagine you need for riding a bike across America; in my opinion, the most important thing is to have faith in yourself and be resilient.
We barely trained before the ride. We did some spinning classes, but no long rides. We didn't have the pressure of needing to be fit beforehand, though it would have helped a lot! More than that, it would have been great to know how to change a tire properly before we set out…
Needless to say, by the end of the our bike ride across America we were in extremely good shape! Our lack of fitness at the start just meant we just couldn’t cycle nearly as much at first.
My advice would be that your fitness and training goals before you leave should be influenced by how much you want to cycle daily.
We encountered a seventy-year-old man riding his bike across America, but only cycling a few miles a day!
13. How long does it take to bike across America?
How long you’ll need depends on your fitness and how many miles you realistically think you’ll manage each day. If you can, I’d suggest giving yourself as much time as possible, so you can enjoy some of the cities along the way.
We only gave ourselves a month, which wasn’t really long enough given we weren’t fit or experienced when we started.
We felt too rushed throughout the trip.
14. What sort of logistics are involved in bicycling across America?
I would recommend preparing especially well for a ride like this.
Having a support car would be extremely helpful. My cousin and I had no help or support, and it made the journey far more challenging. If you decide to forgo support, then always carry the tools you needed, a few spare tubes, and far more water than you think you need.
Talking about water - make sure you have enough of it. Running out of water is the worst thing that could happen to you. On hot days, we would both carry a few jugs [1 gallon water bottles like these] with us.
I would also highly recommend ensuring you know where every rest stop is and a motel or camping ground – this is key, because without water or food, you’re toast. Many of these roads are in remote areas with very few people, so you will not have help.
We originally planned out everything in terms of towns we would ride to and rest/camp. However, early on we decided to throw out all of our camping gear to lighten the load and that meant our plans went awry. Also our lack of fitness at the start of the trip meant that initially we couldn't cycle as far as we wanted. For example, on some days we could cycle an extra 20km and other days we would cycle much less as our bodies couldn't handle it. It’s not ideal to do the ride like we did, due to the risks outlined above, but I guess it just depends how foolhardy you are!
15. Tell us about your kit choices.
Our kit was chosen by two poor university students!
We left with kitty litter boxes spray painted black as panniers, multiple water bottle holders, a camelback, and a handlebar bag!
Unfortunately (perhaps unsurprisingly) the kitty litter boxes broke after the first week of cycling, so we bought some real ones, but by the end of the trip we had ditched nearly all our gear but the necessities.
I finished with only one knapsack that carried an extra pair of shorts, Allen wrench, duct tape and extra water. During the day we would cycle in just our cycling shorts, but wearing lots of sun block!
16. How did you organise your nutrition during the ride?
There are two ways of doing this:
1) carry a lot of gear and camp out, use freeze dried food, cook, and go slower or
2) ditch all of that, cycle faster, and use your credit card. Buy food at gas stations, restaurants, cafes, Walmart, or wherever you can.
We began with option one and switched to the second option when we realized how slowly we were going.
Also, I’m not sure we would have been able to make it through Texas hill country with all the gear.
It’s all a personal preference.
Bear in mind that, even if you’re travelling really light, services are infrequent in some parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Some key food that we always had were granola bars and foods high in fat, carbs, and protein. The fat and protein will help ensure you’re not getting so hungry and the carbs will provide you the energy you need. If I’d have had protein powder – like this from The Plant Era - I would have ensured I’d always had that with me too!
One final point on nutrition - expect to eat a lot of Mexican food as this kind of food is everywhere across the southern USA!
17. How much does it cost to cross America by bike?
We spent around $2,500 to $3,000 each. My cousin spent more because he had to buy his bike.
We were on a shoestring budget so really didn't spend much; it was a necessities only kind of a trip.
18. What tips would you give to someone wanting to bicycle across America?
We cycled east to west in May and June. This was not the optimum time to be cycling as it was boiling hot.
I would recommend cycling the Southern Tier route in the winter time – or in a cooler period – ensuring you aren’t in tornado season, which can hit between July and November in Florida.
If you do go in winter, remember that snow can occur at any time when you’re in the hills/mountains of the Southwest during the winter (the highest pass in New Mexico is over 8,000 feet).
Starting from the west and cycling east should help with the wind.
Stay off the highways and interstates, some states allow you to and others don’t. For the ones that don’t, you’ll learn the hard way like us by getting kicked off by the cops!
A big thank you to Nicholas for sharing his insights on this iconic journey.
You can find out more about Nicholas, The Plant Era and their mission to develop the world’s best sports nutrition here.
Want more info on biking across the US?
If you’re looking for coast to coast cycle route maps, the Adventure Cycling Association has some excellent resources.
Quite a lot of books have been written about cycling across the USA, but many seem to have a religious slant or are overly personal memoirs/journals.
In addition to Nicholas’ book about his experience of riding across America, which you can find here, we’d suggest you check out the following:
1. North to Alaska by Trevor Lund
While Trevor cycles from the southern tip of South America all the way north to Alaska (rather than sideways across America), we had to mention this book as it’s much newer than the other “good reads” we’ve come across and it’s a superbly written account of adventure at a time when the internet was in its infancy.
Published 7 January 2020. 303 pages.
2. Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across America by Brian Benson
The author’s memoir of his trip from northern Wisconsin heading west. The book is written in a humorous style and focuses on the relationship between the author and his then girlfriend as well as on the journey.
Booklist said of it “Let's hope Benson has more travels in mind. He is a gifted writer, an observant human with an eye for the telling detail and how to tell it.”
Published 24 June 2014. 277 pages.
3. Momentum is your friend by Joe Kurmaskie
The heartwarming adventure of Joe’s cycle trip across America with his son on a tow bike behind him and his seconds on in a trailer behind that! Contains thoughtful reflections on fatherhood as well as well-written snapshots of his experience biking across the USA.
Published 27 September 2011. 318 pages.
4. Across America by Bike by Alice Honeywell and Bobbi Montgomery
This book is about the authors’ trip across the northern part of the US, from Oregon to Maine, by bicycle. It’s a well-written account of an inspirational 3,600 mile journey by two newly retired women, that also gives a real insight into America.
Library Journal said of it "[The authors] explore what it means to live the pared-down existence of loaded touring as they pedal slowly enough to enjoy the beauty of the country. Honeywell and Montgomery also discuss their equipment, time management, and the ever-important aspect of all cycling journeys-locating and consuming lots of food. . . . Readers will find this an easy and inspiring read."
Published 15 October 2010. 300 pages.
5. Thunder and Sunshine by Alastair Humphreys
This highly acclaimed book might be a bit old but it's a classic. It covers Alastair’s cycling trip from Patagonia up through South and North America to Alaska, then Siberia, Japan, China, Central Asia and Europe.
So, while it isn’t strictly in the same category as the other books above, we’ve included it in our list because it’s a stonking great read and will definitely get you inspired to get on your bike!
Published 1 June 2008. 350 pages.
Want more cycling challenge inspiration?
Check out our list of the world’s best cycling challenges, which includes the annual self-supported TransAm race.
There's also the infamous Race Across America. This ultra-distance road cycling race started in 1982 and competitors race west to east across America, covering about 3,000 miles. It takes the fastest riders just over 7 days to complete. As compared with the TransAm, the Race Across America competitors get support from their crews. It calls itself “the World’s Toughest Bicycle Race” and is one of the longest annual endurance events in the world.
(A sneak peak at three of the toughest hills)
route info, preparation and more
Q&A with Fritz Dittmann
tips + insights on how to ride across the USA