TO TRAILER, OR NOT TO TRAILER
… that is the question
As with just about any facet of tricycling, opinions will vary about how to do this or that, or what is necessary to achieve a certain end. People often become emotionally attached to their own particular setup and way of doing things, so it is not uncommon to experience some very opinionated viewpoints along the way. Here at Trike Asylum, it is hoped that balanced information will be presented most of the time, although biases will probably seep through here and there. When statements are made that seem dogmatic, I strive to preface them with a proviso that whatever is being said is based on what has worked well for me, realizing full well that other options every bit as acceptable, or perhaps even better, surely must exist. Few of us personally try every conceivable means of achieving a given goal, so we just speak to what we know (or think we know).
The topic being discussed on this page will generate various ideas. To pull a trailer behind a tricycle on a cross country trip or not to pull a trailer is loaded with pros and cons. Bringing a trailer along for the ride clearly has notable advantages, yet it also most assuredly has major drawbacks. At any given point in time, there are always folks who are debating whether to invest $350 in a quality trailer for their first (or next) trike tour, so I would like to offer my two-cents worth for your consideration. Hopefully, this advice will be worth more than you paid for it! Read on and find out …
My acquisition of a trike was hastened in 2009 because I had been invited to speak 900 miles distant from my home, and I was intent on not using a toxic petroleum based vehicle to get there and back. This journey, which was originally scheduled to be over 2,000 miles in length, was to take me through many remote miles of desert, through secluded terrain where it could be two days (or maybe even three depending on circumstances) based on tricycle speeds before I would arrive at the next store for resupplying my provisions. Adequate water and food are absolutely essential for someone pedaling for days on end, where it is normal to burn at least 5,000 calories per day, and dehydration is always a possibility.
After mapping my route and realizing all this, I looked at my trike and pondered how I could even come close to loading it up with everything I envisioned was necessary to keep me alive. Already on the trike was a pair of Arkel GT-54 panniers, very roomy Canadian cargo solutions that attached to both sides of my rear rack, yet they seemed woefully small for my overland trek because just my clothes and other assorted gear alone would more than fill them, leaving no room for food and water. These panniers had 54 liters of storage volume per pair, or about 3300 cubic inches (a good sized backpack like my Kelty Moraine, by comparison, has around 3600 cubic inches of cargo volume). So, I sent another $99 to Hostel Shoppe in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and acquired an Otivia hard shell cargo cache trunk that would mount atop the rear rack, above the Arkel panniers. It had roughly 11 liters volume, or about 672 cubic inches. Then, I began filling these storage areas as a test, and realized that even more room was needed.
Okay, guess I had to throw additional money at the problem in hopes of a workable solution. Next, I purchased a pair of Radical Design Lowracer side panniers that mounted directly on my recumbent seat with simple straps. They added another 25 liters of storage volume (about 1,528 cubic inches) to my already available 65 liters, bringing it all up to about 90 liters of space, which translated into roughly 5600 cubic inches. So I loaded it all up again, stuffing what I thought I had to have into every available space I could find. All this practice was bringing me up to speed on trike trek packing. I was confident that soon I would be an expert, although the trip ultimately proved me wrong in several ways, which I will discuss later.
Radical Design Lowracer panniers (left side)
Water was not so much the problem that food was turning out to be. On the front portion of my trike’s mainframe, where the boom extends forward, two 24 ounce water bottles were mounted, and behind the left side of my seat, was a 100 ounce Camelbak water bladder with a sipping tube. That provided about 124 ounces of water, just shy of one gallon, or roughly four liters. Crossing through expansive deserts, especially on hot days, could easily demand at least one gallon of water in a single day for a person pedaling up long hills and mountain grades, thus having the potential to leave me dry for the second day. Since the trip was in the fall, perhaps the deserts would be cool enough to let me pass with only 100 ounces of water (50 ounces per day), but my Death Valley destination was still seeing triple digit afternoons, so I wondered.
My dad always taught me to go prepared or stay at home, so this mantra has long since been an integral aspect of my thinking. I needed more water for that “what if” scenario. Why cut it that close? What was my life worth to me? I could gamble and figure if worse came to worst, a passing motorist might be able to save my sorry carcass, but I wanted to be independent and not have to beg for assistance out on the lonely highways. Gee, I didn’t even have enough room with my cargo setup to bring sufficient water, let alone food. Where was all that food going to go? Even if I figured my normal 2,000 calorie per day diet, a two day stretch with no market looked grim, but touring cyclists reported daily caloric consumption rates of five to seven thousand! That meant much more food was going to be needed, which added up to much more room.
Otivia cargo trunk
Add to all this my need for warm winter clothing, since I was planning on crossing high alpine mountain passes in late November on the return trip, where snow was a very real possibility at the high altitudes, and it finally became apparent to me that I probably needed to get myself a trailer. Yep, that’s the ticket! I would buy a trailer, running up my bill another three Benjamin Franklins at least. But hey, then I would be ready for anything! So, I began researching trailers.
My local trike guru, Matt Jensen, told me I needed a Beast Of Burden trailer, commonly referred to as a BOB. This is a narrow aluminum trailer that mounts to the trike’s rear dropout area. It is small and compact, and even mountain bikers pull them on single track dirt trails. The BOB has only one wheel, a 16 inch at the very rear of the unit, which requires a dual sided dropout mount for lateral stability. Matt demonstrated to me how the single large waterproof bag folded over and strapped in between the rails. It had a storage volume of approximately 91 liters, which translates to around 5600 cubic inches. Essentially, a BOB is a stow-&-go affair, where all your trailer goods stuff into a single flexible bag. He said it would be all I needed, based on his own experience with his BOB. BOBs were the trailer of choice for all serious cyclists I was told. With a Beast Of Burden trailer, my cargo volume capacity would double over what my trike already had. Sounded like a good plan.
I also considered three other trailers, each of which had two wheels that made them laterally stable with only a single dropout attachment. One was the Optima Quik-Pak, an aluminum framed trailer that had a cavernous waterproof stuff bag even larger than the BOB, with a storage volume of about 163 liters, or 10,000 cubic inches. The two wheels were 20 inches, the same size as my trike’s three wheels, and the maximum cargo load was 75 pounds. This solution used the same single bag design idea as the BOB sack, where cargo was packed with little ability for extensive organization. It is one of those things where when you reach in to get something you have to rummage around a little, and if you pull out something, the other stuff kind of falls into where it was. They call it a “Quik-Pak” because essentially you just toss everything in quickly. Being a neat-nick type of guy, I was curious if I’d like it, but that could not be my sole deciding point. Unlike the BOB, few people have even heard of the Optima, and I had never seen one on the road to my knowledge.
Optima Quik-Pak trailer
My next two options were made by Burley, a company based about 65 miles from my home. One was the Burley Nomad, a very compact little rig like the BOB, but it had organization panels inside to keep things somewhat ordered. It was also waterproof. Its two wheels made it a little wider than the BOB, but I liked its ultra low profile. Like all four of the trailers I studied, it mounted at the trike’s rear dropout. The Nomad’s two wheels were 16 inch, like the BOB’s single 16 inch wheel. The weight load capacity of this trailer was 100 pounds, plenty for all my extra water and food. The storage volume was similar to the BOB, both of which were notably less than the Optima. But as I looked at the Nomad photographs online, I wondered if I might need even more room.
Burley Nomad trailer
The final option I considered was the Burley flatbed trailer, light as a feather with two 20 inch wheels. Essentially, this was a minimal aluminum frame with a large piece of vinyl stretched between the four sides, which allowed for placing any number of container options on top, with two side rails to keep it all in place. This trailer was definitely the widest of the four, but seemed to me to have huge luggage volume potential, depending on what type of trunk I placed on it. It also had a 100 pound maximum cargo weight rating. After having spoken with a pair of bicyclists heading south on the coast (Highway 101) a week earlier with just such a trailer and a Rubbermaid ActionPacker cargo trunk strapped atop it, I realized that I could bring everything I needed with little concern about space restrictions, and since the Rubbermaid trunk was a hard shell fixed plastic box, I might even be able to organize it fairly well. The volume of the trunk was 35 gallons, or roughly 9,000 cubic inches (just over 140 liters).
Burley flatbed trailer
One trailer I did not consider at the time was the Radical Design Cyclone trailer, only because I was not aware of its existence. I later realized this company, the same one that makes my Radical Design Lowracer side panniers, makes a very nifty little trailer that may have been perfect for my needs. Based in Holland, their trailer also has two rear wheels, and it has a cargo volume of 100 liters. It’s small, but that would be a plus in tight places. For those of you contemplating a trailer, this may be worth a look!
All things considered however, I decided to get a BOB after Matt’s demonstration one afternoon. I did like the compactness of the trailer, which would serve me well when seeking night stealth camps off the main paved highway. Having been in touch with the ICE folks in England about the trek, I emailed them about the trailer I was planning on buying to get their take on it. A couple days later, I received a reply from the people who designed and built my trike, and they had different ideas. They informed me that since I had the ICE Qnt with rear suspension, a BOB would not be recommended, as the inherent lack of lateral stability of a single-wheeled BOB places undue stress on the rear swinging arm components of my trike. On a fixed frame rigid trike with no suspension, this is not a concern, but on mine it is. A trailer like that would prematurely wear out the suspension bearings on the Q, and would also tend to destabilize the handling characteristics of the trike. I wanted no chance of handling issues on steep fast descents, so I had to change course. I ordered an Optima Quik-Pak from Hostel Shoppe, but after a couple of weeks of back-order waiting, changed to the solution I ended up using.
As you have seen by the photographs on this website, I ultimately went with the Burley flatbed with the Rubbermaid ActionPacker trunk. After shelling out the cash for both items, I had the widest trike trailer of the four I seriously considered, with a large plastic trunk on top. The width factor was further exaggerated by the fact that this trailer was offset to left another few inches, a characteristic that was apparently necessary to allow tight radius right hand turns, and this aspect had the consequence of widening my on-road profile to roughly 36 inches instead of the trike’s 30 inches (which included my Arkel panniers loaded, as the trike itself has a front wheel track of only 27.5 inches). Extra width is a bad thing on narrow shoulderless roadways. The BOB would have been nice in this regard.
On the road with Radical Design, Arkel, Otivia, Burley, & Rubbermaid
This offset design also made it so that I would have to consider five tread tracks when navigating road debris during the trip. If some nasty stuff like nails, or other tire-eating items were in my path on the road’s shoulder, I would have to mentally think about avoidance tracks for five rubber tires if traffic kept me from pulling out into the automobile lane. Had the trailer run directly behind the trike, the two tires would essentially have tracked behind the trike’s front two tires, thereby allowing me to only have to visualize three tracks instead of five, as the rear drive wheel is a track all its own. With a BOB, I would have only considered three tracks, which would clearly have been the easiest during times of heavy traffic and little room.
Speaking of tires, the fact that it had 20 inch tires was a favorable consideration because it meant that I only needed to carry one size of spare inner tube during the trip. This is because the three tires on the trike are also 20 inches. I also carried one spare tire. With this setup, if I had any flat or damage issue with any of my five tires, a single solution would work. If a trailer has different size wheels than the trike, then it requires carrying different size tubes … meaning more tubes. And since I had the extra heavy duty puncture resistant Q-Tubes, which take up about twice the storage volume folded than regular lightweight puncture-prone tubes, this was a definite advantage in my situation. Quick note: from 2009 on, Burley flatbed trailers now have 16 inch wheels.
My new trailer and trunk unladen weighed in at just over 36 pounds together. This meant that I would be expending extra energy every mile to keep those 36 pounds moving, and as any distance cyclist will tell you, weight is always a prime consideration for long trips. Extra weight slows you down and makes you work harder, things that result in the consumption of extra calories and water each day, which, of course, means that you need to bring along extra food and water just to pull the very load that is supposedly supplying you with needed extra supplies. This begs the question as to whether going lighter and therefore faster (without a trailer) would mean getting to the next market without the need for all the extra food and water you included to get you there in the first place (if you get what I’m trying to say). Is all the extra stuff actually a wash-out, in other words? Maybe by not bringing along a surplus of water and food I could travel easily enough to make it across long stretches faster with just what the trike would hold without a trailer. It’s all just academic theory until one actually gets out and gives it a try.
My final trailer setup
Well, the trailer and trunk added 36 pounds … weight that was necessary to carry even more weight in the form of supplies. Inside the trailer trunk, I put my 6 pound REI Arete tent, my down mummy sleeping bag, 5 liters of contingency water, a two weeks supply of food, a thin and lightweight portable toilet seat with folding aluminum legs, toilet paper, my Aussie hat, and any other miscellaneous items that didn’t conveniently fit inside the storage solutions already on the trike itself. The extra water weighed roughly 10 pounds. The food bag weighed about 50 pounds, stuffed with items that required no cooking and were readily edible within seconds (such as energy bars, granola, dried fruit, and ready-to-eat one-pound containers of rice and veggies).
With all this, I could theoretically get all the way to Death Valley without ever once stopping to resupply my food. All I would need to do is find places to refill my water whenever it ran low. If I averaged 50 miles per day, readily attainable from all that I had learned from other touring cyclists, my midpoint destination 900 miles distant, where I was to give my talk, would be only 18 days out from my departure date. I had some lessons coming!
The Burley trailer rolled effortlessly, as if no friction at all were present in the wheel bearings or with the rubber on the road. On flat ground, I would quickly forget it was even there! Coming off mountain passes on long fast downhills with wide sweeping turns, the entire rig handled as if the trailer did not exist. All that extra weight may have had the effect of propelling me downwards more quickly than without … guess I’d have to ask a person with expertise in the laws of physics. On the uphills however, it was a different story.
Since I realized ahead of time that all the added poundage would make long steep pass ascents more physically demanding, putting perhaps too much pressure on the knees, I changed out the front crankset to get a 24 tooth small chainring. I tried a 24 on my stock Campagnolo, but the difference between the mid ring of 42 and the small of 24 was 18 teeth, way too large by most cyclist’s standards (it refused to downshift on uphills). I tell that story elsewhere on this website, so I shant repeat it here, but the bottom line is that the 24 tooth chainring allowed me to pull myself up the steepest of grades with little problem, even with my large load. I also had the notable issue that the new crankset had only 152 mm crank arms, which translated into less torque on the power stroke; I had to pedal faster with 152s than if I had 170s (I now have 170s on the trike again). Of course, when you’re on a 24, with a 34 on the rear cassette, your pace is nearly that of a snail, a slim 3 miles per hour much of the time on the steepest grades. Needless to say, at that speed, a 50 mile day can occasionally prove elusive over the course of 8 hours!
Sugino XD600 24-36-50 crankset
As I have come to learn since the trip, a 26 tooth small front chainring would have been plenty low with less of a weight load, like if I had not towed the trailer. With a 26, my speeds up the passes and long hills would have been faster, I would have cut my transit time between towns considerably in places, and my body would have had less workload placed upon it, thereby cutting back on caloric and water needs. By way of estimation, my gross vehicular weight, which for me includes my own body weight since I have to power the whole thing (I’m the engine, after all), was somewhere between 350 to 370 pounds. This is the weight that I moved down the road with my leg muscles for eight hours each day. I stopped in at two truck scales on the trip, and both showed the number 350. Of course, these scales round that number because they are made to weigh enormously heavy 18 wheelers weighing many thousands of pounds, but the scales did pretty much confirm my own estimation of what I had onboard when I pulled out from home the first of October. Slowly, day by day, that number lessened as I ate from the food supply.
If I had been more experienced prior to the trip (this was my first journey like this, and I didn’t take Matt’s advice on going light), and made do with just the trike and no trailer, my total load, including me, would have probably been between 70 to 90 pounds less! Just the trailer setup alone was 36 pounds, after all. Had I been pedaling a reasonable weight, I probably could have made do with much less food. Actually, part of the food issue was that I wanted to save money, and since I had purchased much of my stock at a Grocery Outlet bargain market, saving me a considerable amount of money, I figured I could avoid paying the outrageous prices typically found in little Timbuktu markets out in the middle of nowhere, and thus was born the initial urge to carry enough with me to last the first 900 miles … live and learn (the words “what an idiot” do come to mind).
The purpose of this story is to look at the question of whether or not to pull a trailer, so let’s get into some pros and cons. You may have been picking up some cons as you have read between the lines so far, yet there are good things to be said for having Mr. T tagging along behind the trike. Let’s look at those now.
From a safety standpoint, I kept wondering on roads with exceptionally narrow shoulders of less than 36 inches if the fact that the trailer being offset to the car side of my trike would help me appear even wider than motorists typically believe trikes to be, thereby forcing them to give me more room. I also suspect that this extra width could have been cause for anger in young impatient males, or even in old impatient gray-haired ladies for that matter, as they may have seen me as an impediment to their ultra fast “get there quick” mindset. My opinion is that these were probably the case with the Burley flatbed, but with narrow trailers like the BOB that pretty much run in line with the rear tire, any advantage or disadvantage of offset does not exist, so this speculation is specific just to the trailer I pulled.
My image to motorists – 5 tires and wide
At every camp, the trailer came in mighty handy as a table that was already available upon arrival. Of course, the lid had to be closed, so when I used it to hold my food at primitive camps, I had to first set the supplies on my seat, close the lid of the trailer trunk, and then place the food items on it. This is also specific to my unique setup with the Rubbermaid trunk, as none of the other three trailers I considered would have offered a large flat surface upon which I could place a bowl of morning cereal.
The trailer also kept anything inside totally dry in the rains I encountered on the trip. I kept my food in this trailer at night, so if a hungry bear did happen by, he would tear into it instead of my tent, where I placed my panniers at night to avoid squirrels chewing through the expensive Cordura fabric. This happened to Jeremy and Stephanie Bradshaw on their Oregon coast trip (see story on Trike Asylum), so I wasn’t going to let it happen to me. Had I not pulled a trailer, the food would have been in the tent with me. Now mind you, I’ve been hiking, backpacking, and hanging out in bear-laden mountains for most of my life, and never had an instance of bears prowling my camp, but I suppose there is always a first time (especially now that I’ve said it, and Murphy’s Law is sure to come into affect the next time I trike camp). Every time I have ever seen a bear, it always bolts the opposite direction.
I won’t get into your panniers if you feed me some rice and veggies!
Knowing that I had enough provisions to last at least two weeks was a reassuring thought. But for the trailer, I could not have soothed my psyche to this extent. I was confident on this trek that I would never go hungry or want for water, especially since I had a Katadyn water purifier too. This was erroneously predicated on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, a dynamic that is radically different out on the road for eight hours per day, where I was burning around 5,000 calories each day based on the weight loss I experienced by the 12th day when I finally weighed myself. If I had attempted to maintain my starting weight, I would have had to at least double my daily consumption of food, and my supply would have run out within the first seven days or so.
The trike by itself is about six feet long. With the trailer, the entire train is about ten feet long. I had affixed tall flexible fiberglass flagpoles on both the trike and trailer, on the traffic side. Both poles had orange and yellow flags to bring my attention to inattentive motorists. Some color blind people see the day-glow orange as a muddy brown, but pick up quite well on the bright yellows. The trailer allowed me to have the first flagpole drivers saw about 5 feet farther back from my precious head and brain, something I saw as a positive situation. With the lateral roadside offset of the Burley flatbed, this flagpole was even farther out towards traffic flow. Even though the trike and trailer are low, ten feet of length and three feet of width is large enough to attract notice by inattentive drivers, especially with it all colorfully flagged.
Plenty of highly visible flagging really caught the eye
Trailers are definitely useful for bringing along many extra provisions on extended remote trips through desolate countryside, of this there is little doubt. The particular trailer/trunk combination I had presented additional uses, most notably as a large flat area on which to conveniently set things while camped primitively or stopped along side the roadway. Most of the time I never was even aware that it was tagging along behind me. In many ways, I was very happy with the trailer towing experience, and truly enjoyed always having access to a large food supply whenever I needed and wherever I was.
All this considered, would I tow a trailer again? The answer is now easy. The answer is now no. In fact, I sold my trailer not long after returning home after the journey. The lady triker from out of state who bought it was ecstatic about getting a nearly new trailer for only two-thirds the new price. Being the honest guy that I am, I lined out the pros and cons for her, but her application was going to be different. She only wanted it for around town errands and shopping on her trike, which is a whole other ballgame. So, she bought it, and I was glad to be rid of it, kind of like boat ownership, where they say the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life is the day he buys it and the day he sells it. The only significant saving grace of a trailer is that a considerable amount of gear can be carried along, but is this worth what is lost in doing so?
Onward to the drawbacks!
Anyone who has pulled a trailer with an automobile already knows a few significant downsides to pulling one. Like the inability to back up with anything resembling ease. On a trike, this is even worse, and backing up is next to impossible. Now before anyone says that trikes don’t have a reverse gear, let me say that trikes are easy to back without a trailer. All it takes is foot usage in more demanding situations, or, if locked into the pedals with cleats and you don’t have far to go on flat pavement, the hands do quite nicely.
But the real backwards issue comes in stealth camping off the highway on old narrow dirt roads. For those who stay in typical campgrounds or motels, this is absolutely a non-issue, but for backcountry guys like myself, this was one of my foremost gripes.
A typical camp went like this:
About an hour before sunset, I would begin looking for a suitable dirt road heading off the main highway, so I could set a hidden camp and not be noticed by anyone. I like privacy. On occasion, the road would be sandy, deep enough that my rear derailleur would drag through the dirt while pedaling back into the woods or to a secluded hill. Obviously, this was not a good thing, as it quickly deposited a lot of dirt and small rocks all over my drivetrain as the chain carried the grit around my rear cassette, through the chain tubes, and around the front crankset and chainring … over and over with each revolution of the chain. The thought of millions of grains of fine grit being pulverized between the chain links and the sprocket teeth was not too welcomed. And of course, all that fine dust became embedded in the chain joints where the links met and articulated. The first time I saw this, I was really bummed, but way too tired to even consider attempting to clean the overwhelming mess. Besides, I had to retrace my steps the next morning to get back out onto the road, so why bother?
A narrow two track dirt road makes a great stealth camp.
This filthy consequence occurred because of the trailer, pure and simple. Had no trailer been attached, I could have simply done as trikers do in such situations, just stand up, lift the rear wheel off the ground, and walk the trike through the dirt backwards, with the front two wheels trailing. It’s very simple, stable, and easy to do by grabbing the rear pannier rack, and it keeps the chain and sprockets clean. I would have used this same technique the next morning to get back onto the pavement, which was usually elevated several feet above the level where I camped to allow for highway water runoff in heavy rains. As it was with a trailer, to get back up to the road, which was simply not possible to pedal to due to the steepness and lack of traction, I had to grab the front derailleur post and walk backwards all hunched over while pulling the trike and trailer!
Picture that! It was awkward, unstable, and just plain unpleasant. Sure, I could have dismounted the trailer, but seeing as how the attachment area was tucked snugly under my left Arkel pannier, it would have involved far more time to dismount, move the trike and trailer separately, and then remount than it did to do it my improvised bizarre way. It was a highly unstable maneuver because the trike pivoted on the single rear wheel, so the front tires had to be kept within inches of the ground to prevent the trike from tipping over (which actually happened to me once). Without a trailer, pitching camp in such situations would not have been problematic at all.
And here is another point of consideration: These little neglected dirt roads were often very narrow two-track, which meant that after riding in, I had to get turned around to get out the next morning. I would do the turning before setting camp that night, as it was another unpleasant chore, which consisted of tediously moving the trike, then the trailer, then the trike, then the trailer many times by little increments, until it was finally facing 180 degrees. This also pulled the rear derailleur through the dirt, making it even a bigger filthy mess. It was a dusty affair that did not contribute to my positive mental attitude. Fortunately, I was out in the wilds, so I soon became absorbed in the beautiful country and forgot about my trailer woes.
One of the big advantages of a trike is the ability to get into, through, and out of tight places. Trikes are only six feet long and as narrow as 29 inches, so this is a big plus. Tight turns are possible even if they are tighter than the trike’s turning radius by either backing up once or twice in the process, or standing up and physically moving the rear of the trike as necessary. Again, with a trailer, this is not a possibility. Backing up is out of the question, and moving all 10 feet of it by hand is tedious and possibly dangerous depending on if you’re in a hazardous traffic situation at the time. The overall vehicular length with a trailer is certainly not conducive to maneuverability in the slightest. A trailer makes a highly maneuverable trike an albatross in more restricted size situations.
Clearly, the main reason I have decided against the trailer is the nearly complete lack of being able to maneuver easily at any time. I do not like being restricted in where I can travel, or in my ease of getting there. Once, in a parking lot where there were no cars when I pulled in, I came out of the store to find a car had pulled in on either side of my trike and trailer, and wouldn’t you know it! Each one was only about 18 inches away from my rig. So there I was, with this slim corridor behind my trailer to get out of the situation. I sat in the seat, pushed backward with my feet, and attempted to steer my rig out like one would do if backing a car and trailer in a tight situation. It would have been easier to back the car! I ended up getting off the trike, steering a little bit while standing until the trailer was about to hit one of the cars on my sides, then picking up the trailer and moving it enough to allow me to push backwards some more. This embarrassing little episode, which surely must have looked pretty silly if anyone were watching, took several minutes, and led to my firm resolve never to park headed in with the trailer again.
As a triker, you probably realize how nice it is to effortlessly breeze through the most restrictive of environments, to get where people in cars can never go, and to have almost as much freedom of movement as a pedestrian. Without a trailer, it is even easy to get over curbs, just by swinging the trike around and lifting the rear wheel to pull it up and over. This freedom of movement is what I have come to expect on my trike, and I was not impressed with having lost much of the liberty with my trailer. Of course, with the trailer gone, am I not back to insufficient cargo area like I was before the trip?
No doubt about it … losing 9,000 cubic inches of storage volume is going to make a difference. That’s about 140 liters less room to put my gear on an overnight or longer trip. To help visualize volumes expressed in liters, imagine one of those Nalgene one-liter plastic water bottles that backpackers commonly use, and then further imagine about 140 of them, minus the unused airspace between spherical stacked bottles. Or alternately, and more precisely, imagine pouring 140 liters of liquid into a storage trunk, and that’s how much volume it was. That visualization may or may not work for you, and if it doesn’t, just imagine a typical large backpack size, which is roughly 3600 cubic inches. With the loss of my trailer, I am giving up about two and a half backpacks worth of storage room. That’s quite substantial obviously.
Two and a half Kelty Moraine backpacks – lots of storage volume
The flip side is that in a volume of 140 liters, a lot of heavy stuff can be packed, and that always leads to much slower headway on even the mildest of hills. The added weight requires the trike pilot to always be gearing way down compared to normal trike-only jaunts, and when pedaling in lower gears, speed always suffers. With many long steep passes to cross over the course of many days, all that lost speed really adds up to a much longer transit time between departure and destination points.
So, now I have my highly valued maneuverability back, which makes me very happy! I also have my faster speeds back, always a plus on long-haul overland journeys! I didn’t realize how much I prized these aspects of triking until I lost them on the trek. Trikes, as you may well know, are also a blast to ride, real thrill machines, where the pilot feels like a race car driver, and to even relinquish the pure excitement side of triking is not something I wish to do. I want to have few restrictions on where I go, and I prefer to have a lot of fun getting there at reasonable speeds. Sure, I love the natural world and find solace in slowly advancing up a mountain at 3 miles per hour as I behold every little plant and creature, but after a few days of this, I long for the thrill of the ride again.
Ahh, unencumbered at last!
Life is full of compromises, and we make choices based on what are the most important things to us. I chose to downsize my load to keep the maneuverability and fun factors as high as possible under the circumstances. I was willing to accept the trade-offs.
What has this compromise required of me? What must I do with no trailer to toss things into with wild abandon? Well, I must put back on my thinking cap and redefine my needs. Just as when I went from a full sized Ford Bronco a number of years back when I was still a car owner, to a Nissan Xterra for my backcountry explorations, downsizing requires a redesign phase, a time of reassessing what is really important. The Xterra would hold nowhere near the gear, yet I relished the challenge of slimming down my over sized load, trimming it to the true essentials. This exercise proved fruitful and fun, cut down on unneeded gear, lightened the load, and increased my fuel economy.
Many of the same principles apply now to trike explorations. By downsizing, I get better fuel economy for sure, yet the fuel is not one of petroleum origin, but rather one of vegetable origin, as I am the engine of my tricycle. Better fuel economy for a triker means more miles per calorie instead of miles per gallon. Residual flatulence may occasionally be a byproduct of this engine, but at least it doesn’t harm the environment or cloud the skies with smog. More miles per calorie means less food is necessary per day, but water intake should still be high.
Downsizing the load also brings greatly increased maneuverability because smaller vehicles simply get around easier than larger ones. For me, this is the key point of it all. As I pen these words, I am now in the process of my reorganization phase, and have not yet taken a long trip without the trailer in tow. I am confident however that I will successfully move through this time, with the end result being more freedom of travel on future rides.
One way I look at things is this: Backpackers hike for extended periods, sometime months and thousands of miles, with only 3600 cubic inches of cargo capacity strapped on their backs, or about 59 liters of space. They become masters at surviving in the wilds with just what they can put in this size-restricted bag, or strap to the outside of it. They realize from experience what is necessary to bring along, and what is best kept at home. For one thing, they can’t bring very much, so it has to be distilled into the absolute essentials, and for another, the more they bring, the heavier the load, and the more food they require to carry it. If a backpacker can make do with 59 liters or less of provisions, can I apply the same ideas to triking across the landscape?
They don’t have trailers, and there are no markets either.
I believe so. My pair of Arkel GT-54 panniers has 54 liters of packable volume. The Arkel TailRider rack trunk has an 11 liter potential. The pair of Radical Design Lowracer side pods adds another 25 liters of volume. This brings my usable cargo capacity to 90 liters, or roughly 5500 cubic inches, in comparison to a backpacker’s 59 liters or 3600 cubic inches. I have about 1.5 times more storage volume than a typical strong backpacker, so it’s not a matter of IF I can make do without a trailer, but HOW I can make do. I must rethink my beliefs of what is essential. For the added ability to maneuver at will in tight situations, I will eagerly enter into this retooling of my brain.
Who knows … I might need to ride the narrow sidewalk of a nightmare bridge someday, a thing the narrow trike can do, but not with a trailer. You know what I mean if you’ve ever ridden some of the longest bridges on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast, where the narrow pedestrian walkway makes little 90 degree bends around the massive bridge supports, obstacles that a 10 foot trike/trailer combo simply cannot negotiate.
The raised sidewalk is barely wide enough for just the trike.
These are my basic thoughts on towing a trailer. There is no right or wrong about any of this. It all boils down to personal preference, not much more. There are those who swear by trailers, and those who go without. Some use trailers only for really long cross country epic rides, but not for local or regional tours where supplies in convenient towns are plentiful. Credit card trikers who punctuate their overnights with motel stays and restaurants probably don’t need a trailer, but those who opt for stealth camps in the middle of nowhere may find trailers mighty handy. Crossing open deserts is easy with a trailer. Twisting through congested downtown traffic full of impatient drivers in a big city is another story.
Don Saito rode his ICE Qnt trike 12,614 miles around the perimeter of the United States and did not use a trailer to do it. He camped primitively or in a stealth manner much of the time, but he also availed himself of the many stores and restaurants along the way, along with “warm showers” hosts, cutting down on the amount and weight of any food he had to carry. This allowed him to travel nimbly at reasonable speeds and make good progress most days. If Don can do it, so can I. I will learn what I need to know to make this so.
Don Saito on his ICE Qnt, riding around America without a trailer
But who knows! Life is usually unpredictable, and we learn to never say never. A year from now, I may just have a Radical Design Cyclone as a new traveling partner. Only time will tell this trailer tale.
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