Preparation and Planning for Off Grid Across the USA

Robin Greenfield organizing his possessions.
ActivismCyclingEnvironmentOff the Grid Across the USA

This blog is about the planning, preparation, and gear for Off the Grid Across the USA. It’s sort of the behind the scenes of the big adventure and designed to be a tool for anyone who wants to do a similar adventure. Because of the off the grid rules I set for this adventure, it took many hours of planning and preparation. I would guess that I put well over 100 hours of work before leaving. That was in a pretty short period of time too, as I didn’t commit to the adventure until early 2013, just a few months before I embarked on April 20th.

The most time-consuming aspect was the brainstorming of exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to cycle across the country, and the original idea was a ride called Walmart to Walmart where I would cycle across the USA piece by piece using the Walmart guaranteed return policy. The idea was that every 100 miles or so I would find a new Walmart, return the bike I’d gotten at the last one, and exchange it for a new one. All in all, I would return and use about 30 Walmart bikes. Looking back at the idea now, 3 years later, it’s something I definitely wouldn’t do today. I mean it’s funny and would have been an interesting challenge that at the same time would have been used as a tool to bring awareness to the disappearing small businesses of the USA, but there’s a lot better ways to do that.

Anyway, through much brainstorming, I ended up deciding that I would attempt to cycle completely off the grid across the USA. Off the grid typically just refers to municipal electricity and water supplies but my intention was to take it a whole lot further than that. My goal was to cycle across the country having as tiny of an impact as possible. This meant I had to think about just about every facet of my life, how I’d manage to remain off the grid, and set it up so I’d be able to do so. The purpose would be to inspire US Americans to live more sustainably as well as raise awareness and funds for 1% for the Planet. The first big stage of planning was doing all my research to figure out how I would cycle off the grid across the USA.

Once I figured out what it all meant and set my guidelines, goals, and purpose, the next big thing was gear. To successfully cycle off the grid across the USA I would need to have my gear meticulously picked out, especially since one of the goals was to purchase almost nothing once the adventure began. I will say that I was really trying to cram in a lot in the few months before the adventure and although I did plan meticulously a lot didn’t happen until the very last minute. For example, I didn’t even get my bike until two days before the adventure! Actually, I had my bike but I didn’t have a bike for my cameraman and friend Brent. What ended up happening is that I stumbled upon a bamboo bike about 10 days before the adventure and decided I really wanted to ride one of them. So I let Brent use my bike and I got myself a bamboo bike.

Part of the adventure was to demonstrate and promote sustainable products so this meant I had more gear than I would normally need. This also meant finding like-minded companies to sponsor my adventure with their products. A huge part of the preparation and planning came down to finding the right sponsors. I’d never had a sponsor before but for some reason I was sure that I could pull it off. My strategy was to partner with companies where it would truly be a win-win. I found the companies that had a similar mission to mine and that I thought I could genuinely be of benefit to. I planned on getting quite a bit of media attention through the adventure and knew that part of that would fall onto them. For example, a huge aspect of the adventure was that I would be completely solar powered and the panel would be mounted on my trailer. This is great promotion for a solar company! Or the bamboo bike company would get a ton of promotion everywhere I went and through all the media that I intended to get. I contacted the sponsors through email, twitter, and facebook and proposed my idea to them. Some places turned me down but I simply treated it as a numbers game and ultimately received every sponsorship I was looking for. One challenge was that I had to wait to hear back from a lot of these companies and I didn’t start until about a month before the adventure. This meant I hardly had my gear together until the very last minute.

Researching all the nonprofits I wanted to support was another huge part of preparation for the ride. I wanted to raise $10,000 for a handful of different 1% for the Planet recipient nonprofits and I wanted them to perfectly align with my mission as well. By lining up a similar mission with myself, the sponsors, and the nonprofits I was supporting I considered it a perfect set up. I got the gear I needed and the sponsors got promoted. The nonprofits were having money raised for them and the sponsors got to be involved with these great nonprofits. Raising money for the nonprofits helped me to establish credibility and in turn get sponsorship more easily. It all worked very well together. Since I really wanted to support nonprofits that would truly make a difference and that I truly wanted to get the word out about I spent quite a bit of time going through the 3,000 or so different 1% for the planet recipient nonprofits. All the money I raised went to small grassroots organizations.  

One of the most important aspects of the adventure was the route and the schedule. This was important because I wanted to plan gatherings and days of action in the places I visited as well as meet with media to spread the word. So the 104-day ride was pretty well planned out with exact days I’d be in each city. This came down to checking the distances between cities and creating a schedule that I thought I could maintain on a bicycle. I allowed myself days of inaccuracy for the long rides between cities.

I also made a spreadsheet of the climate patterns for all the places I intended to ride through. The temperature highs and lows was the most important aspect I paid attention to as well as rain. What I did miss was elevation changes, something very important on a bike. This was my first bike long distance ride and I sort of overlooked this. As much planning as I put into this whole thing, I also made some mistakes and missed a lot as well. I did far more than the bare minimum to make sure that I could achieve my goals though.

It was a TON of work with all of this, many countless days at home on the computer from dawn to dusk leading up to the adventure. I want to stress that a cross country bike ride absolutely does not have to be this complicated. It can be as simple as getting on your bike, packing some basic gear and heading out. Seriously it can be that simple. But with the mission of cycling off the grid across the uSA and bringing a huge amount of attention to environmental issues I had my work cut out for me (See How to Create Your Own an Environmental Activism Campaign).  

Then there was the whole thing about making this adventure into a documentary. That meant I needed a cameraman. I asked my buddy Brent Martin because two of his biggest passions were cycling and photography. We met because he cycled across the USA from Florida to San Diego and showed up on my doorstep at the recommendation of a mutual friend who was also a cyclist. He lived with me for a summer and he owed me some money and a favor as well after that. When I called him up and told him about my idea he took me up on my offer almost right away. I believed he could make a documentary because he is an excellent photographer. The truth is he only shot on an iPhone and he’d really only done photos, not videos. At that time though I thought that if he could take incredible photos he could take incredible videos.

So the deal was that I’d cover all his gear, including a bike, for the entire summer, fly him out to San Diego and home, and hook him up with a Canon 5D Mark ii to use for the summer. I also paid him $65/ week to cover food and his debt would be paid off. It was a pretty great deal for both of us. He got to do two of his favorite things (bike and take photos/ videos) and I’d have someone helping me for the whole summer to make my first documentary. I could write pages about my summer with Brent but I won’t. We didn’t end up getting the footage we needed to make a documentary but we did get 1,000’s of excellent photos as well as footage to make a lot of great short videos. Plus all the photos were used in my book, Dude Making a Difference. (Update: My 5 episode Sustainability Series was made with the footage we took.)

On the day of the adventure, I was well prepared in some ways and also scrambling to get things together. I hadn’t even done a test ride of my bike with the trailer yet and just hours before the adventure, when I finally took it for a ride, I found a huge flaw. The trailer was just too heavy and it was not working with the bike because of the weight in it. On day one I dropped a ton of gear and then again on day three. After I passed the cold Rocky Mountains I also sent home gear because I would no longer need the cold weather gear anymore. Ahead is my gear list for the adventure. What I’ve listed is mostly what actually made it past day 3 with me and I want to stress again that all this stuff is not needed. In fact, I would pay more attention to my gear list for my second bike ride across the USA if you are interested in a long cycling trip. Another great tool is my blog, All My 111 Possessions, which covers everything I own today.

If this whole adventure interests you and you haven’t already I encourage you to read the book, Dude Making a Difference!

Gear List:
(Note: See my gear list for my second bike ride across the USA if you are interested in a long cycling trip. Also my blog, All My 111 Possessions, is helpful).

Bamboo bicycle (Bamboosero)
Bob Yak Trailer (I highly recommend this trailer for touring. I started with a two wheel trailer but one wheel is absolutely the way to go. )
Handlebar bag
Seat bag
Bicycle multi-tool
Bicycle pump
Tire levers
Mr. Tuffy tire liners to reduce flat tires
Spare inner tubes for bike and trailer
Bike gloves
Spare bike parts

Food and Water
Cooking pan
2 Bowls (one to share a meal), and utensils to eat zero waste
Reusable grocery bags and neat-os to shop zero waste
Water Purifier- on this trip I used the Katadyn Pocket filter
Water bottles
1 gallon jug
A few jars to store food

Energy and Technology
Goal Zero Boulder 30 solar panel paired with Sherpa 50 battery (mostly to charge computer) 
Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar panel with Guide 10 Recharger and AA and AAA rechargeable batteries (for small gadgets)
I started with a massive 29-pound battery and then changed to the 2 pound Sherpa 50. Imagine cycling with a car battery and that’s what I was doing.
Goal Zero Speakers
Laptop, charging cord, and case
Cell phone, headphones, case, cord, wall plug
Cell phone mount to attach phone to handlebars
External hard drive for photos and videos
Bike lights
Tripod for cellphone
2 snake lights
Scale for weighing my trash
Brent- Canon 5d Mark ii with Canon EF 35mm lens, Canon EF 24-105mm lens, batteries, battery charger, memory cards, tripod, external hard drives, and other accessories
Brent- GoPro and accessories

Portable toilet (ie a bucket and then later a rock climbing tube)
Compost bucket/ bag

Sleeping bag
Sleeping mat
(I ditched the tent and sleeping bag for just a sheet when I hit Chicago. This was a mistake.)

Essential oils- lavender and tea tree oil are my must haves
Dr. Bronner’s organic soap
Coconut oil
Quick-dry towel

I got some sponsorship from Prana and Patagonia so that made up a majority of my clothes. I didn’t use any special bike clothing except one pair of padded bike underwear.
Merrel Barefoot shoes to start then switched to sandals in Wisconsin

Fishing gear (ditched this early on)
credit card and debit card
Necklace and a bracelet
Dry bags to keep gear dry and protected
Straps to strap gear to bike trailer
Ukulele, which I never used and ended up shattering in NYC
Drivers license
Notebook and pen

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