How to listen to music on a bike tour
April 15, 2009 12:58 PM   Subscribe

What are my best options for listening to music on a long bike tour?

We're planning a two-month bike trip down the Pacific Coast (Washington, Oregon, California). I'm curious how people listen to music on such rides. Personal mp3 players seem to be the easiest - maybe listening with only one earbud in so you can hear cars ok.

I would be fine buying a cheapo mp3 player but it would probably not have enough space. I have a 16Gb usb flash drive and it would be great if I could buy a player that could read from that (the stereo in my car does this and it's very convenient). Does this exist? I can't seem to find it. Or will it be easy to find internet cafes on the road in which I could switch the music from the usb stick onto the player? I'm not planning on bringing a computer with me.

What about batteries? Should I get something that uses AAA batteries so I can do quick replacements on the road? Am I going to burn through a shitload of batteries this way? Are rechargeable batteries practical? I have a 4Gb ipod I could use but it seems like keeping it charged on the road will be a pain.

Also thought about portable radios but I doubt there is much to listen to on the coast, it's mostly small towns so not many radio stations (is this true?)

Any other ideas?
posted by PercussivePaul to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I really can't think of a more practical or elegant way to do this than with an iPod and a solar iPod charger.

If I were you, given my love of cycling coupled with my addiction to the internet and iTunes, I'd take a tiny cheap computer along for the ride, too.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:11 PM on April 15, 2009

A few years ago, I think I owned the type of player you are talking about. It was basically a housing with controls that you could plug a USB memory stick into. I can't for the life of me remember what it was called, but I think it was made by a company known more for USB sticks than audio players. Also they do sell players that basically are memory sticks with buttons on them, but you couldn't use your existing one.

As far as the power goes, I bet you could rig up some kind of solar or pedal powered source to plug into along the way.
posted by o0dano0o at 1:11 PM on April 15, 2009

I'm taking a similar trip this summer and have the same question. I haven't decided about bringing my ipod as charging it has potential to be a pain/ is just more stuff to bring.

I was thinking about bringing a small radio and seeing what stations I could pick up if I'm in the mood. If it means some lonely AM talk radio days then I guess that's what I get. Having done a little bit of touring before, I find that I don't mind just riding along without music at all.
posted by thewestinggame at 1:14 PM on April 15, 2009

Best answer: I took my iPod with me on my 3 month bike tour and listened to one earbud while I was riding. Charging ended up not really being a problem, I brought my wall charger with me and pretty much everywhere we stayed from motels, public parks and camp grounds usually had somewhere to plug the iPod into. We had a solar panel with us to charge our phones and other electronic gear, but ended up mailing it home, because there always seemed to be somewhere to get electricity from. Listening to that iPod saved me some days, I was really really happy I took it.
posted by backwords at 1:32 PM on April 15, 2009

Best answer: Cycling is what I use all my mp3 players for. Here's the lowdown, but I don't have a specific model to recommend:

- ipods are terrible mp3 players for cycling - the user interface breaks if you can't look at the screen, and the scroll wheel works poorly from inside your pocket, and doesn't work at all if you're also wearing gloves, and the ambient road vibration far to consistantly turns the scrollwheel's interpretation of the operation you are performing into blow out his ears with a massive volume ramp-up.

- The exception in the ipod range is the shuffle - button controlled, no scrollwheel crap, interface intended to not need eyes, easily in reach because it's light and small enough to clip anywhere, and rugged. (One of my shuffles looks like someone took an angle-grinder to it, after it hit concrete at speed, with my hip bone driving into it from behind. Still works fine :-)
Obvious disadvantage - it's a shuffle, so it's not able to select songs while you cycle.

- The best mp3 player for cycling is a full-function sort, but with a spacious button-driven interface. The one I use is obsolete, so I can't recommend it, and with 32gb flash cards now starting to appear, I'm currently keeping an eye open for something as good (but solid-state) with which to replace it. Hence, I know what works well, but don't yet have a model to recommend. Sorry.

Most solar chargers won't do you much good, as most of them need 6-8 hours direct sunlight (ie all day) to charge, and you'll be cycling during the day. Charging while listening while cycling is likely to involve the kind of annoying human-wiring-harness that you'll probababy just give up on after a few days.

However, you can get solar chargers that charge their own internal battery, then can charge your device at night from that battery.

Likewise, you can get chargers that charge the device from regular AA batteries. (And also solar AA chargers if you like :-)

I read an article a while back noting the bubble-effect of satellite radio - that if you use regular radio, you are forced to listen to the local stations, and without that, you're missing even the low-hanging of the local flavour of where you are. In today's conglomerate world, I don't know how much that holds, but it might factor into your choices.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:47 PM on April 15, 2009

As regards ear-buds and traffic - not a problem. If you crank the music up load enough that it drowns out traffic, it's so over-loud as to risk hearing damage. So Don't Do That. You don't realise how loud traffic really is until you adjust the music volume to a comfortable and audible level while in the middle of traffic, then try to listen to it in a quiet place at that volume setting after you've been in the quiet place for a while.

Your problem, therefore should be struggling to hear the music over the traffic roar. Once you're out of town and traffic is intermittent instead of constant, that's not a problem.

Just don't get ear-buds that are designed to seal your ears and block outside sound. Regular ear-buds will be fine, they won't impede your hearing and the music won't have all that much effect either.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:53 PM on April 15, 2009

MASHSF (fourth item down) sells an MP3 player that straps to your handlebars and has a little speaker. It's rechargable.

I haven't heard them, but I can't imagine ever wanting to ride with earbuds.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 2:29 PM on April 15, 2009

Frankly, I would suggest not listening to anything at all and concentrating on the traffic around you.

I used to ride my bike in Pittsburgh all the time, and the ability to hear cars coming up from behind me was something that really contributed to my safety. Even if you can still hear the traffic a little, some cars these days do not make much noise and can be easy to miss if you're concentrating on music instead.

Bike riders are incredibly vulnerable on the road, and a small accident for a car can be really bad for a bicyclist. Be careful!
posted by elder18 at 3:51 PM on April 15, 2009

You should be aware that there are laws in many areas prohibiting the use of earphones while operating a vehicle, and those laws apply to cyclists.
posted by hydrophonic at 4:35 PM on April 15, 2009

I would not listen to music while biking with anything but earbuds, if at all, in order to hear traffic.

In the city, at least there are frequent stops and intersections to keep the average speed of a car fairly low. Out in the suburbs and countryside back roads you will have arrogant SUV yuppies and sleepy truck drivers to contend with, and you won't hear them coming until they're right on you. The hybrids are worse as they make even less noise.

Keep your ears open and your wits about you.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:53 PM on April 15, 2009

Best answer: For better or worse, radio in rural US (especially on the West Coast) is all ClearChannel, all the time. It means that you get pretty much the same radio everywhere that target the mainstream audiences. Only the local announcers and signal strength vary. So, if you have mainstream tastes, then a simple radio receiver will do fine -- many of them can operate on induction power alone (i.e. no battery needed).

I agree that iPods are not easy to use in city riding, precisely because you can't operate the without looking at them. But on long, rural rides it's not a problem at all. Heck, if I can ride no hands and change my jersey on a back road (don't do this at home), selecting a new playlist is easy.

As for the whole earphones-in-traffic debate, I'm with harlequin in that it's a non-issue. TRAFFIC IS LOUD: all the people who think iPodded cyclists are reckless have never actually tried their iPod on the bike, and probably don't even ride a bike at all. It just looks dangerous to them.

Besides, when you on a long-distance bike tour, you are not going to crank it up or use isolating earbuds, because a cyclotourist is not aiming for the HiFi experience. The biggest challenge for me on bike tours is the mental boredom: I've found reciting songs to myself, counting pedals strokes, counting sheep, etc all to relieve the monotony. It's worst when the terrain is flat and easy.
posted by randomstriker at 5:29 PM on April 15, 2009

Best answer: Having biked from Baltimore to San Francisco, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this. First: in most (if not all) US jurisdictions, riding with headphones is illegal enough to get you a ticket and a talking to. Second, traffic is often *not* loud, and can sneak up on you. Alertness is key. However, when you're doing long-haul stuff, you'll have days when you'll barely see a thing beyond wheat and cows. This is indeed boring. It is possible to retrofit portable speakers onto your bike (usually just putting them in one bottle cage and the MP3 player in the other, and securing with zip ties). This produces tolerable sound, adds a communal element to the listening experience, and is neither illegal nor unsafe.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:28 PM on April 15, 2009

Best answer: If you're going with an mp3 player, you can't really beat the Sandisk e100 series (e120, e130, e140, etc) for this. They use only one AAA battery that'll last 8+ hours straight and they have a SD slot so you can have as much music as you want (or an SD card for each mood / time of day). They're old, so they only cost between $15-$45 on ebay. I've been using them for 5 years and will continue to use them even, if I've got to pay $60+ for a used one. They're the most simple, cheap, light weight, versatile, & well-designed mp3 player ever made (IMHO). Oh & you can also get them with an arm strap.

I used mine with one earbud on a bicycle tour from Texas to California. I would always use the one ear that didn't face traffic for listening and would keep the volume relatively low (safety first... REALLY).

In addition to the mp3 player I strapped a little handheld radio ($5-$15 from Walgreens / CVS / ETC) to the handlebars using an old camera case and some velcro straps. They have a little external speaker and give just enough volume to set some nice music on those long, lonely state highways.... or even better, when you're cranking up a 2000 ft incline over a half mile.

Don't listen to music too much! Enjoy the sites and sounds of the ride! But if it's a day when your dragging (yes, you will have those days) the music is a great reward / mood booster. And, even though the radio MAY only get you Clear Channel stations in rural America, it'll still do the trick. Sometimes cheesy repetitive Top 40 pop songs are much better than quiet introspective Indie music when your pumping out 30-120 miles a day and have pushed your body into a seemingly mechanical state.
posted by eli_d at 7:49 PM on April 15, 2009

Best answer: I have the perfect item for your trip. It even comes with a water bottle cage-like holder that screws into your down tube's eyelets and a remote that straps onto the handle bars. It was such a relief to have this speaker on my tour last Summer.
posted by LC at 10:07 PM on April 15, 2009

Others have commented to avoid using headphones while riding. I absolutely agree with them. You need to have all your senses sharp while riding to remain safe.

I used to ride with something that might interest you. Basically, I took a set of headphones with the larger size speakers and broke the speakers out of the headphone band. Then I got a piece of cardboard and taped both the speakers to said cardboard. I then mounted velcro on the speaker setup and my helmet (on the right side). Basically the little speaker setup hung down over my right ear allowing stereo sound (as compared to only wearing "one earbud". The low frequencies kinda sucked, but it did the job. I did not think my awareness of traffic was diminished with this open-air setup.
posted by Dave. at 8:30 AM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. OK, based on the recommendations here it seems that we will be avoiding headphones and looking for speakers. I would have thought speakers would suck a lot of batteries and would be hard to hear; maybe not? Any more recommendations for speaker-based systems?
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:06 AM on April 16, 2009

PercussivePaul, I used the ihome2go speaker system on my trip with 2500 mAh AA rechargeable Nimh batteries and they kept their charge for days at a time. Highly recommended!
posted by LC at 10:14 AM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Checkmarks for those that I felt to be particularly helpful or informative.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:08 PM on April 20, 2009

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