Traveling is awesome - new places, new people, and new experiences are all things that make life a little better and the only thing that makes traveling better is traveling with your bike! Being able to see the world from your saddle is an experience that cannot be topped or replicated. Riding far-away mountain passes, where the only thing that's familiar is your trusty bike, is the kind of adventure that is life changing. With the world seeming to be growing smaller each year we find ourselves looking to the furthest reaches of the globe to find pure, unadulterated adventure.
When I say furthest reaches I mean the absolute FURTHEST! - not just your bi-yearly pilgrimage to Whistler or the Alps - places like Nepal, Namibia, Honduras, and the Arctic regions are all a different level of adventure. Yes, hospitals may exist, but they may not be able to do anything for you and heli-evacs are surely out of question. So, how does one properly prepare for an adventure of this magnitude?
Passport, Visa, Insurance:
Make sure your passport is valid! A no brainer, but you should also have a passport that does not expire in the next 6 months; some countries will not let you in if it does. If you end up having an extended stay beyond your control (hospital/jail) you do not want your passport to expire while you're still in the country.
Make copies, multiple copies, and leave them with multiple loved ones. Keep one on your fridge at home, give one to your parents, and a good friend. Keep an extra copy tucked away somewhere in each bag you're bringing.
Double, then triple-check that you have the right visa to be in the country. Do you have to have it before you land? Can you get it at the airport upon arrival? You NEED to know this. Mistakes do happen, and if you go to a developing country and they forget to issue you a visa when you arrive, you're in for trouble! If you don't know the visa regulations then you may not realize you should have gotten one at the airport, and yes this does happen. Do a quick Google search for visa regulations for your country of choice, or speak with a travel agent.
Having proper insurance is also extremely important. You have to make sure your insurance will cover you in that particular country and for the activity you are participating in. You also want to make sure your insurance will cover a medical flight back to your home country. You also want to make sure your medical coverage dates factor in time zone /date changes.
Are you and ace bike mechanic? Is your travel buddy? If not, then learn as much as you possibly can before you go! You need to be prepared for the worst, even getting the right tube in a developing country like Ethiopia can be a challenge. Learn how to fix your suspension, learn how to build a wheel, learn how to replace linkage bearings, learn absolutely EVERYTHING you can.
Drill out your Presta rims so they fit Schrader tube valves. If you're going to be riding in the country for any length of time it may not be plausible to bring all the Presta tubes you need to combat the amount of flats you may get. Presta tubes may not exist in your chosen country and you don't want to be filling out your expensive wheels out on the side of the road. If you have narrow road rims, I suggest finding some more sturdy, wider Schrader ones. If you have fancy carbon wheels, instead bring aluminum ones; for all its wonderfulness, carbon can't be repaired in a roadside hut with basic tools.
Bring extra linkage bits for your full suspension, derailleur hangers, spare derailleurs, anything that is common to break. Bring extra cables and housing, and bring all the tools you can think of to do the above listed repairs.
All this bike prep and repair is tricky and conflicting; you need to be prepared for the worst but you need to pack as light as possible. Do your homework on the best multi-tools available. Remember to keep it light and simple!
Know the country:
Get to know your country of choice before you leave. What is the language or languages? A place like Ethiopia has over 80 languages; which one is spoken in the region you chose to ride in? Learn at least a few phrases in the local dialect, being able to say: 'hello', 'thank you', 'which way is___?', 'Help', 'food', 'bathroom', etc. These phrases can be invaluable.
What is the local religion? Traditions? Culture? You can easily offend people if you're culturally insensitive, which you can do completely by accident. It also helps to know the cultural holidays. If you're planning on stocking up on supplies in a town that's shut down for a holiday, you may have to wait for a day, a week... who knows?
You should know if the region you're planning on going is dangerous. Is there civil unrest? Recent rioting? Violence can vary from region to region in some countries and it can also come and go over night. I once drove into a town in Kenya that was rioting. I was in serious danger and it could have been avoided if I did a simple check before I left. Search online for your local government's and destination government's travel advisories.
Know where the nearest embassy or consulate for your home country is. These can be refuges and can help you if you lose your passport or get into any trouble. There may only be one embassy in the whole country, so know where it is and write down the phone number just in case you need it.
What wildlife exists in the country? Is it dangerous? How can you prepare for an animal encounter? Some countries have big animals that can kill you. Some countries have tiny animals that can kill you. Do your research.
Pace yourself on the trail, even if it seems like it could be a mellow day. Unexpected things can happen like a critical bridge shown on the map no longer being there; what was only supposed to be a 4 hour cruise can easily be a 14 hour endurance mission.
Hire a guide. There are all sorts of online resources that help pair you with a local guide. If you do get one, treat them like gold, be humble, and they can make your trip a lot easier as well as safe.
Prepare for the unexpected:
This is a tough one. When we recommend that you prepare for the unexpected it goes far beyond packing an extra pair of 'just in-case underwear', we mean - be prepared to accept the unexpected. You know that town shown on your map? Might not be there. That bridge crossing you desperately need? Washed away 2 years ago. Being able to mentally let go of the plan you spent over a year developing is both a challenge and a barrier for most people who are looking for adventure in truly exotic countries.
You have to think quickly of alternatives to your plan, as well as be dedicated to making it to your destination. A major mechanical failure or health issue can alter your trip entirely, but with you having flown across the globe to be there the last thing you want to do is give up. On trips like these you learn quickly that all obstacles are only mental and that you can push through them if you have the desire.
Consider joining a professional tour:
If this is your first real cycle abroad trip, you should maybe consider joining a professionally hosted cycle tour. Most companies streamline the logistics of travel, helping you get visas and insurance, as well as helping you with a fitness plan and packing. Having food and shelter provided can really take the guessing out of the whole trip, allowing you to focus on enjoying your ride and the country.
Organized tours can also provide local guides, security, and medical care. Professional tours will also navigate the local customs and traditions of a country and culture. With so many unexpected occurrences that happen on trips like these, joining a tour for your first time out is probably the best decision you will make.
Secret Compass is a great company that offers comprehensive guided tours of some of the worlds most remote countries. Companies like CNN, BBC, and Esquire have used their services.
Bring your smartphone. Even though being disconnected may be the whole point of going, your smartphone is packed full of useful tools like GPS, camera and maps. I was surprised how many places had some kind of WiFi, and some even had cell service. This can come in handy if you desperately need help. Yes it may be a $150 phone call, but it could save your life.
Battery backup. Or a solar charger for your phone/camera. they're cheap and compact enough that it makes sense to bring one to keep your devices charged.
Pen and paper. Some things technology can not replace and you will be surprised how easily you can communicate with the locals if you can draw it out.
Paper maps. Again, some things technology cannot replace. Being able to navigate with a map and compass is invaluable. If you've never been to a country before, you are almost always lost and every day is an adventure in finding what you're looking for. Bring your own map so it is in your language.
Bug repellent spray. The bug spray in some countries doesn't work, the bug spray in other countries doesn't exist. Bugs carry many diseases that may end your trip or even your life, so carry bug spray with the highest DEET content as possible.
Hand sanitizer. Just seriously trust me on this. Sometimes everything you can see is disgusting.
Mosquito net. Bring a good one. You can buy them in most countries, but the quality may be poor and the price will for sure be high. Some hotels and hostels have them, most don't, so just bring your own from home.
The thought of going on an adventure in a foreign and extremely exotic land can be overwhelming and exhausting, but it is worth it. These types of adventures on your bike tend to change you, you come home a different person with new perspectives. There is a sense of calm confidence knowing you conquered a land so intense. The stress of proper planning can seem like it's too much, but the reward is irreplaceable. If you take your time and plan properly you will have the best experience of your life.