Walking vs. cycling: Which is better for travel?
It’s winter in the Gobi desert.
The sun has set and an icy wind has picked up as I try to pitch my tent.
My feet throb from 12 hours of walking, blisters upon blisters weeping into my socks.
My hands tremble, from exhaustion, as well as cold, as I try to light the cooker for a cup of tea. My cameraman, Leon McCarron looks over to me and asks: “What the hell are we doing?”
It might sound like one of the world’s worst boot camps, but this was my own voluntary trip to walk 3,500 miles through Mongolia and China for National Geographic Adventure Channel.
A few years earlier I had set myself an even more adventurous task -- cycling home to England from Siberia. That took three years and covered 35,000 miles across four continents.
Today I make motivational speeches, drawing on those experiences, and am often asked which I preferred.
The truth is, both trips changed my life forever, and for the better.
I met my wife during my “crazy cycle” and eventually made a TV show and wrote a book about the experience.
I’ve got another book and TV deal for my “crazy walk” in 2012.
But looking back, there are differences that anyone attempting something similar should be aware of.
Walk the walk, feel the pain
If you want a pain-free, mostly enjoyable trip, walking is a terrible choice.
During my walking expedition across China, which started in November 2011 and ended in May 2012, I and filmmaker Leon McCarron didn’t make it easy on ourselves.
We started in the wastelands of outer Mongolia, headed south through the Gobi desert into China, followed the Great Wall to the Yellow River, which we tracked into Xi’an, then hiked through the snow-capped peaks of central China before reaching our end point in Hong Kong.
The trip started in the depths of winter, and ended in the heights of summer. We each carried 25 kilos of kit, camera gear and supplies.
I estimate that I took about 5 million steps with each foot on this journey. Imagine crushing anything with a 100-kilo weight 5 million times.
It’s no surprise that even with well-fitted boots, blister gel, industrial strength Band-Aids and a pair of walking poles, I incurred a badly strained foot by month two that delayed things for a week, and was still developing back pain and huge blisters, underneath calluses, into the final weeks.
That’s not to say cycling is an injury-free activity. But it's far less traumatic on the body.
Cycle for life
My cycling expedition, which lasted from 2004 to 2007, involved cycling from Siberia back home to England for more than three years, but apart from a pulled thigh muscle in the first week, I rode without incident.
For one thing, you can pack all your kit into panniers and strap them to the bike. Even in the most extreme locations, such as crossing Siberia in winter, I was able to carry more than 40 kilos of gear and supplies in my panniers without a problem.
Once my muscles got used to the effort, it was possible to ride for 10, or even 15 hours a day without pain.
That allowed me to soak in my surroundings as I pedaled out of the streets of Tokyo and past the magnificent snow-capped Mount Fuji; or as I passed donkeys on the Golden Road on my way to the great Silk Road mosques of Samarkand; or as I sped across the emptiness of the Nullarbor Plain in Australia with the wind on my back.
This wasn’t the case while walking.
The fatigue that sets in after 10-12 hours of walking is significantly greater than a similar time cycling. And that’s on top of the back pain, knee pain and feet covered in blisters.
Versatility makes a difference
But pain, injury and exhaustion aren't the only criteria you need to consider. Another factor is versatility.
While walking I was able to get far from civilization, one of the most enjoyable aspects of any hike, I would contend. I followed tiny paths, scrambled up slopes and walked completely cross-country for long periods.
But the bike can be a versatile instrument, too.
Off-road mountain bikes work well as touring bikes (just attach some racks). In Papua New Guinea I balanced my bike on dugout canoes and carried it through jungles; to cross the South China Sea I hitchhiked a ride on a yacht and stowed it in the hold.
There are few places one cannot take a bicycle.
So, finally, what about enjoyment? Which is more fun, cycling or walking?
Two factors tip the balance in favor of cycling again.
Firstly, importantly, I'm likely to be in less pain.
Secondly, there are those glorious “fast and free miles,” the wonderful experience of cresting a mountain pass after hours of upward toiling, followed by the reward of an exhilarating downhill freewheel.
In comparison, walking up a big hill, groaning and grunting to reach the top, provides no relief -- you're still faced with an equally painful descent down the other side.
Cycling is, on these three criteria, the better option.
But don’t let my rather extreme excursions into these travel adventures color your own view.
Clearly, when the conditions are right, walking can be an unbeatable adventure, if only for its simplicity.
Just remember your Band-Aids.
What about you? Do you prefer walking or cycling? Tell us your stories in the comments