The first time I biked to the grocery store, I was living in Appalachia, a notoriously hilly region of the United States, and I had just gotten a new red and white cruiser bike for my 20th birthday.
It was August, meaning it was around 85 degrees Fahrenheit and humid enough that you nearly needed gills. But I was determined to be a healthy, environment-friendly adult and go buy my groceries on my bike.
I had attached one milk crate to the back through a complicated, unorganized system of bungee cords just that morning, and I was wearing a cute dress like those girls who ride cruiser bikes on Instagram, so I felt confident and ready to go.
Carrying groceries on a bike, especially when done the right way can be a great Instagram opportunity—if you know what you’re doing. It can teach you a lot about commuting because it affords you the privilege to learn first hand what goes on inside a driver’s mind when they have their truck packed.
There’s so much I didn’t know about getting groceries via bicycle, and even though I’m a Millennial, I didn’t even think to Google it. I did the other Millennial thing: I wore a ridiculously impractical outfit because it would look great on my Instagram.
You’re smarter than me, clearly, you’re doing your research, but that doesn’t mean your bike trip to the grocery store can’t be post-worthy.
To get a great bike-riding pic, I rode a cruiser bike, wore a sundress and sandals, and made my friends take a million pictures of me riding down the middle of the road.
Here’s how well each of those worked out:
1. A cruiser bike sits back more than a typical road bike so you aren’t hunched over the handlebars so much. Instead, you can sit up straight and show off your outfit. This made for a great pic and didn’t inhibit my grocery trip at all.
10/10, cute and functional.
2. A sundress and sandals are ideal August attire, but they definitely weren’t great for actually riding my bike.
To ride a bike in a dress, it has to be impossibly perfect: long enough to avoid flashing people while you pedal, but short enough not to get caught in the wheels, and it can’t show sweat at all. Biking leads to sweat in some unflattering places. Sandals were another bad choice; I had to buy band-aids at the store because they got a little scraped up.
3/10, got a gorgeous post, but was wildly uncomfortable the whole time.
3. Riding in the middle of the road makes for the best biking Instagram pic, in my opinion. Because I was living in a tiny town in a somewhat neglected area, traffic wasn’t an issue.
Time was the biggest problem with the millions of pictures I had my friends take. Sure, I started around 10 am 10 am, but by the time I actually started biking, it was closer to 11, and significantly hotter.
6/10, not inherently a problem, but requires a good location and some planning.
When I left my cozy (read as cramped and vaguely moldy) college apartment, I started biking up a long, slow incline almost immediately. By the time I got to a stoplight at the top I was drenched in sweat, makeup running, and not even halfway to halfway there. Perfect.
Map out your biking route to the grocery store ahead of time.
One of the first tips anyone who’s biked to the store for groceries before will tell you is that you’ve got to map out your path.
You don’t necessarily need to take the flattest, most straightforward route, but it’s always good to know where you’re going. If you’re looking for a good workout, it helps to know which path will take you up the most hills or get you a little extra mileage.
If you’re like me and just in it for the sake of living out your aesthetic for a hot second, you’ll want to know the easiest way to get from point A to point B.
This website is geared more toward hardcore cyclist, but its bike trail maps for bike paths all over the U.S. come in handy for grocery shoppers too.
I wasn’t aware of that website at the time, so I got to the local Walmart nearly a half hour later. I walked into the air-conditioned store, taking deep gulps of the cool, dehumidified air, and started grocery shopping for myself for the first time.
I’d gone grocery shopping countless times before, but only as an errand for my mom or to find a few ingredients to make brownies or something. This was my first time shopping for all of the food I would have to live on for the next few weeks.
Biking to get groceries is typically better for replenishing your current grocery supply, not so much for buying in bulk.
This is a crucial mistake that all college students should be warned about: unless you’re comfortable making multiple trips, biking is probably not the best option for initial grocery shopping. When you move to a new place, you need everything.
Condiments, spices, and all those ingredients that seem to just build up in a pantry over time, like tomato paste or panko breadcrumbs. It’s going to be expensive and requires more than one milk crate of space, so be prepared.
I walked out of the store an hour later very proud of my purchases. I walked right past the Pop-Tarts, choosing dark chocolate almond granola bars instead, and I didn’t even glance at the Oreos.
I bought a new pillow, a gallon of milk, lots of mac and cheese, and other cheap but hopefully not too bad for me type groceries.
When I walked up to my bike carrying all of my bags, I realized a few problems many of you may have already spotted: 1) one little milk crate was not going to hold all of this, and 2) if it took me half an hour to get to Walmart, it would my jelly legs even longer to carry all this added weight back, which would be not amazing for all the dairy and chocolate products in my arms.
The best strategy for transporting groceries is either a bike trailer or a basket.
This could have been avoided if I’d had any number of bike storage accessories. If you plan on really using your bike in your everyday life, like this biker, a bike trailer is one of the best bike accessories you’ll ever buy.
It doesn’t have to be huge or expensive, just big enough and sturdy enough to hold a few reusable grocery bags (one of which should probably be refrigerated—just sayin’). Trailers hook onto the back axel of the bike and trail behind as you ride.
They ride close to the ground, and some have several wheels, making them significantly steadier than, say, a MacGyver-ed milk crate pressed into your back. This also means you don’t have to pedal quite so hard.
If you use your bike for lighter grocery shopping, like biking to the health food store just down the road rather than biking downtown to a major chain grocery store, a trailer might be a bit excessive. But you still have some great grocery-carrying options.
One of the most popular is a rear rack, which is a flat surface that attaches above the back wheel. You can attach rear baskets or something called a pannier, which is a specific kind of bag that hangs off the sides of a rear rack.
For even lighter grocery shopping, you can get a front basket, like we had when we were kids. They make them a bit sturdier for adults, but they definitely hold less than a rear basket.
Having too much extra weight at the front of the bike can make it difficult to steer, so even if you find a bigger front basket, you won’t want to fill it up.
I just had my one milk crate, but somehow I made it fit and began the long trip back. It was afternoon by then, and so humid that it felt like I was swimming.
When I finally walked the wobbly bike up the steep driveway (it only fell over once, so…yay?) and started unloading, I was nearly in tears. My first adult grocery trip felt like an utter failure.
But here’s the thing: none of the dairy items had gone bad, my lungs recovered after a few hours in the air conditioning, and my six roommates were all very impressed and wanted to bike to get their groceries with me next time.
Biking to get groceries is practical and environment-friendly, but it’s also a great stress-reliever.
Biking to the grocery store can feel like an adventure, but without all the risks and potential for disaster.
Food is hardy— even if you are just as unprepared as I was, you’ll still make it back okay. Like most college students, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety at the time, so I may have had a bit of a meltdown in the parking lot when I was playing grocery Tetris with the milk crate, but getting my body moving helped me channel some of that anxiety.
In college, I used biking as a way to get myself outside when I was overwhelmed with schoolwork. Now that I’m a full-time writer, I do the same thing when I’ve been staring at my computer rewriting the same sentence over and over for hours.
My car is faster, sure, and the trunk is bigger, but on my bike, I get to feel the sun and wind on my face, and a little burn in my legs. That’s priceless!