By Meaghan Hackinen
You’ve been on the trail for days, maybe longer. Pedaling through rain, sleet, and unforgiving heat; inhaling the crisp, clear air of high mountain passes; and camping wherever you please. You’ve encountered wildlife, and proven yourself in battles of self-doubt and steep, gnarly terrain—congratulations!
You have a story to tell (possibly a few). But where to begin? Read on for practical tips to help you get started in writing your latest adventure.
Stories connect us. And whether you’re a first-time bikepacker or seasoned vet—lanterne rouge or podium finisher—everyone has a story to share. But the writing process is more than simply a retelling: it is an exploration into your own lived experiences—an opportunity to dive back in with the benefit of hindsight, reflection, and maybe even a little research. Then, it is assessing all those disparate pieces and stitching them together in narrative form.
Sounds daunting? It doesn’t have to be!
Plus, whether you decide to share your work with others, or simply embark on the written path to better know yourself, I can assure you that it is well worth the investment of time and energy.
Perhaps the adventure is still fresh—you pick up the pen before the chainring grease tattoos are scrubbed clean from your calves and the words are flowing from your fingertips like that knee-deep water crossing you recently shouldered your bike through. I envy you!
If you’re anything like me, however, you put off writing until you’re all caught up on emails and have settled back into a routine. Images and emotions are still present (perhaps calling you back to the WiFi-free wilderness) but not as sharp as they once were. In this case, I recommend digging into some source material for inspiration. This could be:
- Journal entries
- Voice memos
- Digital notes
- Texts and messages
- Photos and videos (pay attention to location and time stamps)
- Ride files (Strava, Komoot, RWGPS)
- Social media posts
Use whatever you have to bring yourself back to that experience, and consider adopting some of these documentation techniques the next time around if you think they might help you breathe life into your story.
Free Write with Photo Prompts
Free writing can be a great way to warm up the brain and explore any story eggs that might, by now, be incubating. There is no wrong way to free write: just so long as you are continually writing. I also recommend that you start by clearing your space from distractions (silence your notifications).
Inspired by ekphrastic poetry, I like to combine free writing with photo prompts. For instance, I’ll select five photos from my trip, and set a timer for ten minutes each. With the image for reference, I write furiously (pen, pencil, or keypad—your choice) about whatever comes to mind until the timer goes off. Take a minute to reset, then repeat for the next image.
Another fun way to get your initial impressions down is to conduct a self-interview. This involves writing out a series of questions, and then answering them as if you were being interviewed (similar to free writing, I use a timer for this exercise). If you have trouble brainstorming questions you can look to other interviews for inspiration. Again, there is no wrong way to do this! I like to ask myself a mix of general experience questions, as well as ones that hone in on specifics. For example:
- How did you feel going into the ride or race?
- What was on your mind as you pedaled into the first night?
- What did your bike setup look like? Was there anything you did differently with your gear or kit this time around?
- What were some of the highlights? Challenges?
- Tell us about the route. Did you have a favorite section?
- Did you learn anything about yourself along the way?
- How did it feel to reach the finish? What was the first thing you ate?
- Twelve flats? That’s a lot—even for a bikepacker! Tell us the story behind that experience.
To Outline, or Not to Outline?
You’ve done some pre-writing, investigated your memories, and maybe even come across recurring themes (for instance: perseverance, self-empowerment, or camaraderie amongst competitors) that you can weave into your account. Now, how do you make sure you don’t lose any of those great ideas before getting them down on paper?
Answer: the quick and dirty outline!
The quick and dirty outline is exactly what it sounds like: a slapdash guide outlining what your piece aims to cover. In my case, this includes sections (intro, main body paragraphs, and conclusion) further broken down into scenes or exposition. For each scene or expository paragraph, I include a few bullet point notes to remind me what I want to express, as well as a word count estimate.
Do you need an outline? That’s up to you. Maybe you’d rather dive right in and see where the creative process takes you. Personally, I have a tendency to ramble and get bogged down in minutiae. I appreciate the scaffolding and direction an outline provides. Keep in mind that your outline is a living document: you can always adjust it as your story unfolds.
The Rough Draft
We could just call it a draft, but I think an emphasis on the word rough helps ward off perfectionist paralysis. I don’t actually have much advice: just write. Be curious and open to where your story takes you, even if that means a super side trip away from the aforementioned outline. Pulling everything together can be the most satisfying part of the writing process, or it can be a complete nightmare that I would do anything—including a heinous hike-a-bike through a boulder field—to avoid.
Sometimes, I re-write the same sentence at least a dozen times. In such instances, I remind myself that even if it doesn’t feel like I’m getting anywhere, I am still time traveling in my mind. I am figuring things out—sizing up the jigsaw pieces and searching for clues to connect them. And while it’s super frustrating when the scenes in my brain don’t translate onto the page, I tell myself that I am doing the work. The words will come.
Revision is an opportunity to sharpen the imagery, crank up the tension, and highlight recurring themes. It’s also where you catch silly mistakes—like using the word wrestling when what you meant was “the leaves were rustling in the wind.”
At minimum, I recommend you proofread your work by running it through a spellchecker. Tools like ProWritingAid and Grammarly take this one step further by offering AI-generated feedback.
It can also be useful to put your piece aside for a few days, and come back to it with fresh eyes. In my case, new insights often arrive when I’m not actively working on something, so keep a notepad handy.
Some stories need more revision than others, and sometimes it can be useful to share your work with a trusted person for outside feedback. If you decide to take this approach, I suggest providing guiding questions to help direct your early reader(s). For instance:
- What did you like about the piece?
- Was anything confusing?
- Were the places and people clearly described?
- Is there something you wanted to know more about?
Whether you use their feedback or not, be sure to really listen to what they have to say, and thank them for taking the time to read your piece.
- Write your first draft for your eyes only. In revision, you can refine, add, or delete. But if you self-censor too soon, you risk losing what makes your perspective and experience uniquely you.
- When writing about longer journeys, the routine of each day can start to feel monotonous. To keep things interesting, consider what makes a day stand out from those before and after. For instance: an unexpected encounter, a personal realization, a new food discovery, a skill or lesson learned. You might be able to skip over mundane tasks like brushing your teeth—however, if you catch a tarantula running off with your toothbrush, that’s likely something readers will be keen to hear about!
- When it comes to writing, no one approach will work for everyone. I encourage you to take what you like and toss the rest—and that applies to any of the advice shared in this article. I won’t be offended, I promise.
Meaghan Hackinen is a BC-based writer and ultra-cyclist whose two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii to Mexico’s high plateaus, across Canada and the United States, and from North Cape to Tarifa along some of Europe’s highest paved roads. In addition to a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, Meaghan holds several overall wins and women’s FKTs in bikepacking races. Her debut travel memoir, South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels (NeWest Press) was a finalist for two Canadian book awards. Meaghan’s follow up, Shifting Gears: Coast to Coast on the Trans Am Bike Race, documents her entry into self-supported endurance racing. When Meaghan isn’t riding or writing, she supports other writers through her work as Programming & Events Coordinator at the Federation of BC Writers, a provincial non-profit writing organization.
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