I was on vacation at Mesa Verde Nat park this year, I met a nice couple bicycling cross country from California, they were riding reasonably loaded Surly Big Dummy's. They were surprised at the calories burned and the cost of food on the road to keep up energy levels. They said they could do 35 miles on a very good day, averaged 20, mind you they were in South West Colorado headed to central Colorado, lots of steep climbs. They set up camp every night and cooked what they had at the time, basically living on the road toting all the gear on the back of the bikes, guitar and all, awesome guitar player by the way.


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This brought to mind an interesting question, is it more expensive to feed yourself per mile cross country than it is to buy gasoline on a per mile basis, I know this is quite subjective and may not be easily answered due to the fact that different vehicles use fuel at different rates and gasoline and food costs are different in other countries. So lets set some reasonable parameters. Food energy cost vs gasoline costs.


22 mpg car

Reasonably loaded Big Dummy's (all the gear, and a few comforts you need to make camp cross country) They had high quality lightweight camping equipment from what I could tell. Max cargo capacity including rider is 400lbs on the Big Dummy.

LA California to Denver, scenic routes.

Food costs: are higher due to inconvenient places to shop and limited carrying capacity and food spoilage issues.

Has anyone ever done a study on this subject or kept track on a long bike trip cross country?

  • I'm not sure your assumption about food costs is even true. While cycling, you tend to eat better quality food in reasonable amounts to stay in better shape, which is less expensive than junk/industrial food consumed in unnecessary amounts.
    – jv42
    Sep 6, 2011 at 11:37
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    I think that driving vs cycling across the country are qualitatively two VERY different things. "Food costs vs fuel costs" might be different insofar as calorie consumption will be much higher for a touring cyclist but that would be a minor detail of little interest compared to all other differences. In other words, one does not go on a cross-county trip by bike in order to "save" on gas. It is hard to tell what is the motivation of such a question.
    – Angelo
    Sep 6, 2011 at 12:19
  • Interesting question, but one that's going to be hard to answer meaningfully. What car is being used and what mileage does it get? Driving routes are usually shorter than bicycle routes. And you can have more than one person in a car without impacting the MPG too much; add a person and you have to add $$ for food. Nonetheless, driving cross-country and cycling cross-country have similar mystiques and both can be fulfilling and worthwhile. Sep 6, 2011 at 16:48
  • How will you judge which of these is the right answer? Sep 6, 2011 at 16:53
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    Back when I was younger I traveled fully loaded on several tours, and I tended to carry more than most. But, from the looks of it, that Surly is carrying about 50% more than I ever did. Sep 6, 2011 at 18:06

4 Answers 4


I rode the Southern Tier last year and used a GPS app on my phone that estimated caloric output. Probably not very accurately, but it gives us a number to kick around. My distance was right around 3000 miles.

Total estimated calories burned over the ride was 143,000. That would be equivalent to 265 Big Macs (540 cals per Big Mac). Not that I ate any Big Macs, but it's a handy yardstick. A Big Mac costs about $4. So that would be $1056 in "fuel" if that's all you ate. I'm assuming that you would burn about the same number of calories whether you rode a relatively small number of high-mileage days or a large number of low-mileage days (I think that technically this is wrong because in the latter case you've got more off-bike time during which you're also burning calories).

Interestingly, a gallon of gas costs about $4 right now too, depending on where you are. If you're in a car and getting 22 mpg over the same distance, and filling up with $4/gal gas, you'll spend $545.

Although I did keep track of my food costs at the time, I no longer have that data handy. I was not cooking a lot of my own food—mostly eating out. So my food costs were higher than they had to be. On the other hand, you could not get away with just pasta--you'd need a lot more protein and fat to keep going over the long haul. As it is, I lost about 15 lb.

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    I think the problem here is that you aren't using a food with a low $:calorie ratio. For $4 and only about 540 calories you could do much better. A 5 pound bag of sugar costs about $2, which is a price of 40 cents per pound and a pound gives you about 1700 calories. Bringing the cost for the trip to $33. Now you can't survive on sugar alone, but it does illustrate the point that using high calorie low cost foods, the price could be cheaper than using a car. Eating lots of high fat nuts, pasta, dried friends and others high calorie low cost foods could bring the price way down.
    – Kibbee
    Sep 6, 2011 at 19:01
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    I refuse to eat dried friends. Fresh only. Anyhow, I don't pretend that Big Macs are a good food source or good value—just that it's an accessible and easily quantified point of reference. FWIW, I checked my dehydrated camp rations, and they wound up being a slightly better value, but not much.
    – Adam Rice
    Sep 6, 2011 at 19:50
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    Wow, didn't realize I typed "dried friends". of course, what I really meant was "dried fruit". Anyway, brings up a decent thought, what about going Oregon Trail style and hunt (not your friends) along the way. Maybe if you find a field of wild blueberries you could pick those. Could save you a few bucks.
    – Kibbee
    Sep 6, 2011 at 20:58
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    +1 for posting your actual real world experience, these are the answers I am looking for, not dry calculations which I can do myself.
    – Moab
    Sep 7, 2011 at 3:36
  • " As it is, I lost about 15 lb." Yes this was also a problem for these two riders, so they started eating more trying to maintain a healthy weight, which is when food costs went over the estimated budget. They had a excellent knowledge of healthy eating, so they were not eating any junk food that I saw in the 3 days we were together at Mesa Verde.
    – Moab
    Sep 7, 2011 at 3:46

The easiest way to approach this problem is with simple physics. Compare a 180lb cyclist on a 40lb loaded touring bike averaging 15mph for 100mi/day and a car averaging 22mg for 100mi/day.

The power calculator (broken link, see below) I use estimates 130W of power necessary for the cyclist to maintain a 15mph pace. At 15mph, the trip would take 6.66 hours. Multiplying the two together gives us an energy requirement of around 900 Watt-hours. This is equivalent to 775 kilocalories of energy output. The human body is roughly 20% efficient at converting calories in to calories out, so this gives us a rough estimate of 4,000 kilocalories expended above your basal metabolic rate.

Now, then, we run into a problem. How much does a calorie cost? A blog I follow frequently has a breakdown of cost per calorie for a large variety of foods. When on the bike, a whole lot of your calories are going to come from the cheaper side of that table: peanut butter, sugar, bread, and other plentiful sources of carbohydrates. Your meals are going to come from the more expensive end. A weighted average of $1.00/200kcal seems reasonable to me, assuming a lot of the needed calories will come from bread, sugar, and pasta. Finally we reach our estimate of $20 for 100mi.

We now will estimate the cost of driving that 100mi. 22mpg for 100mi is a simple 4.5gal, which at $4.00/gal is $18.18. However, there are other costs to driving besides gasoline. From Commute Solutions Cruz511 Traveler Information service, I'll estimate fixed costs at 11.9¢/mi, depreciation at 27.9¢/mi, maintenance at 5.3¢/mi, and accidents at 10.9¢/mi. Obviously, though, these costs will vary greatly depending on your particular make and model of vehicle. With these extra costs adding up to 56¢/mi, we have to add $56 in extra expenses for the car ride. This gives us a final cost of around $75 to complete the trip by car.

Obviously, these numbers are highly sensitive to the initial assumptions: average cycling speed, fitness level, make and model of car, type of food eaten during and after cycling, and so on. With that in mind, I believe the takeaway from this should be that touring by bike and car are surprisingly close in terms of transportation costs (being well within an order of magnitude). The decision to cycle or drive should be made based upon other factors: will you enjoy the experience of cycling cross-country more, or is having several extra hours at your destination worth it?

The original power calculator link has broken. Here are two others:

  • Minor point: You didn't figure anything for bike maintenance. I think realistically you'd have to figure about 5 cents per mile for that. And depreciation for the bike likely would be another 5-10 cents, depending on the bike and how long you keep them. Sep 6, 2011 at 18:03
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    Fair enough. But we also didn't factor in the costs of the long-term health impact of 100mi cycling vs. driving. :) Sep 6, 2011 at 18:18
  • Nor the impact on your marriage from cycling 100 miles a day with or without your SO vs taking a nice leisurely trip together (that involves visiting lots of shops she likes). ;) Sep 6, 2011 at 21:46
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    Here's a nice graph on efficiency of self-propelled methods of transportation you may want to include in your answer (self-propelled excludes sailboats and railway freight cars). Conversion from efficiency to cost depends, of course, on fuel cost.
    – R. Chung
    Sep 7, 2011 at 13:50
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    Maintenance is a form of fuel, if you think about it. The car's gonna stop going forward if you don't keep putting oil in it. Sep 7, 2011 at 14:35

If I were going cross-country I'd figure 60-80 miles/day, except in the mountains (which I probably can no longer manage), and many riders would figure 80-100. Generally you ride 5-6 days/week.

Meals can be cheap or expensive. If you carry expensive camping food then that's probably $15/meal. If you carry pasta then you can get by on $2 per meal, I'd guess. Meals at restaurants can vary a lot, of course, but mostly you'd stop at diners or fast food places where you could get out for $10 or less.

Of course, you also need a good supply of munchies, and that would be another $10/day for me. So I'd figure maybe $30/day if I were trying to be frugal, $40 if not. Others could no doubt get by on $20 or spend $100.

$40 for 80 miles is $0.50/mile, and the frugal guy could get it down to maybe half that. Gas for my 25mpg buggy would be about $0.15 per mile. (Of course, this isn't counting food eaten on down days.)

Of course, we're not computing how much we pay for the energy expended, vs what we'd normally use to feed our faces. You burn maybe 800 calories/hour cycling at touring speeds. Figure 6 hours/day or 4800 calories. That's roughly 4 Big Mac Value Meals at $5 apiece. So in BMVM terms you'd be spending about $20/day, which is roughly $0.25/mile. You could of course eat more frugally and probably get it down to the $0.15 auto figure.


In the South West there are lots of amazing places to stay over in National Parks such as Mesa Verde and cool towns such as Telluride in Colorado. Whether you are travelling by RV or bicycle you want to be able to join the dots between these places and not miss any of them out.

To achieve this by RV you only need 2-4 hours of driving time, whereas by bicycle you want to be putting in 6-10 hours of cycling time. Whether you are driving or cycling you want to be eating three times a day, maybe with extra snacks in between. By bicycle that means lots of carbohydrate, simply prepared with any cooking done quickly on a single heat source camping stove with nothing refrigerated. By RV that means what you would normally eat, leisurely cooked on a decent sized cooker with ingredients kept in a normal fridge. The cost of food is therefore a lot lower when cycling even if the calorie intake is a lot higher. Hence the 'fuel' comes for 'free' when cycling as you are spending less on food than you would do if travelling by RV.

Really it is an exercise in time management. Everyone does their own thing, however, I personally would not be happy putting in 20-35 miles a day. You can cover that distance before your first stop for refreshments if you put your mind to it, even if crossing the continental divide. For me a more realistic pace is to put in fifty miles before lunch, another fifty before 6 p.m. and then up to another fifty thereafter to get you to where you need to be camping out. Clearly if there is a lot to see and do that day the mileage required can come down, to half of that, e.g. to put in seventy to a hundred miles. Also, putting in the 'maximum range' of 150 or so is not realistically achievable day in, day out, but may be necessary, e.g. if heading out from Grand Canyon up to Four Corners and on to Mesa Verde where you don't want to be camping rough in very hot desert. Same in Colorado, there are parts where there are not that many National Park camp-grounds or other 'sensible' places to stay over. (When cycling it is best to have an aversion to motel stayovers as you cannot cook the same, television leads to staying up late, you are isolated from meeting nice people such as yourself and they cost money.) Really you want your rest days to be in places that are really worth the extra day, e.g. Mesa Verde where you can leave the tent set up and go on a guided tour and take in a ranger's talk in the evening. Those rest days need to be coincided with the days when you having nothing in the tank and can barely physically move.

Meanwhile, in the RV, you have pre-booked camp destinations to get to (on the bike there is rarely this requirement to book in advance). Therefore time management is not a question of 'going as far as you can'. The cyclist will be able to de-camp in less than an hour, hitting the road shortly after the morning midges have died down. Meanwhile, the RV traveller will be putting a full breakfast on, to then wash up, get the garden furniture in, faff-tidy up and make the road a lot later in the morning. They will then get to the next 'dot' on the tourist trail some time shortly after lunch, to get the best spot available in the campground. Then the garden chairs and everything else needed for camp will be set out, a proper dinner put on and so forth. This will be quite leisurely. When they are ready to settle in for a bit of light television watching for the evening the cyclist might still be some miles away from the campground with not that much daylight left. However, the cyclist will be able to pitch a tent, put some food on, eat it and get washed in less than an hour. (No garden chairs to put out.)

It really is tortoise and hare, with the 'cycling tortoise' actually seeing more of the sights along the way - the splendour of the South West is best observed at cycling speeds, with no car parks required.

If the RV driver were to push on and do the most miles possible (cyclist style) then they would be able to do LA to Denver in a matter of a few days rather than the weeks needed to do it by bike. However, in reality, you go in a RV to see the sights and they are spaced a cycle-ride apart. Although the RV driver may be quicker joining the dots between these locations, they are far more likely to have 'rest days' (not pushing on every day) and putting out garden chairs instead of pushing SPD pedals. The RV traveller's food costs are likely to be significantly higher than those of the cyclist and then there is gas/petrol/diesel on top. This is for the case of putting in 50-150 miles a day by bike, I don't think the cost analysis is the same if only going for 20-35 miles per day as you are not really 'joining the dots' at that speed.

  • Nice opinion, but does not answer my question in any way.
    – Moab
    Sep 7, 2011 at 3:41

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