What are your long-term transportation plans for when SHTF? That’s right – long after the diesel and gasoline tanks run dry, how do you plan to get around in a sustained grid-down situation? Walking can only get you so far, and that saddle horse will burn through feed and water, putting an additional strain on your resources.
We’ve all been there, and I know the unsettling feeling of not having a solid answer to this need for a reliable, sustainable, low-resource means of TEOTWAWKI transportation. It’s tempting to just write the whole issue off and accept the limitations of staying within walking distance of your retreat. Except what happens if you need to make a run to a nearby town for critically needed supplies?
Get this: there’s a solution to this problem and it comes in the form of a fun DIY project to tweak a mode of recreational transportation that you already enjoy. That’s right – we’re talking about your bicycle. I’ll describe converting your pedal bike into a Long-Range solar re-chargeable e-bike. Many of us have at least one inexpensive pedal bike, and you sporty folks may even have a high-end mountain bike already sitting in your garage. Too bad that bike only goes as far as your stamina can power it, right? Hardly! Nope, if you haven’t heard, they make these nifty new battery-powered “e-bikes” now that can extend your range up to 25 miles. (And that’s assuming that you’re just sitting there like a bump on a log not pedaling a bit and letting the electric motor do all the work for you.)
Now you’re probably thinking, “Sounds pretty good, but a bike like that has to be pretty pricy and it sounds like exactly the kind of flashy thing that someone’s going to rip off,” right? Yeah, I thought so too and my research on commercially available e-bikes pretty much backed that up. At $2,000 to $6,000 a pop, the price was steep, and their distinctive appearance was a huge flag signaling would-be thieves of a high-value target. In fact, I read that New Yorkers who bought these high-end bikes were resorting to wrapping the frame in frame tape or electrical tape to hide the brand name and attempt to disguise their bike’s value.
That’s when it hit me: Why go through all the cost of buying an expensive e-bike only to have to try to disguise it and make it blend back in? What if there was a way to simply build your own e-bike using an existing pedal bike as the frame? Did such a thing exist?
Several hours and many digital rabbit holes later, I discovered that a do-it-yourself (DIY) conversion option did indeed exist. I could take the inexpensive and inobtrusive big box store bikes that my wife and I already owned, order the battery, motor, and some accessories online and have two fully equipped ready to go e-bikes for far less than the cost of a single commercially built e-bike. Not to mention avoiding the months long wait for the sold-out commercial version to ship.
Sounds impressive, right? And guess what? After successfully completing two of these bike conversions, I can tell you that it wasn’t even that hard and the results are everything we hoped for.
Advantages of an e-Bike
Extended Range: Powered by a lithium-ion battery, our bikes greatly extend our normal range. I’m a casual bike rider and in no way a Lance Armstrong type. I have two “bad” knees so my normal bike riding range is limited. The e-bikes help.
With a wife that weighs half as much as I do, it’s natural to assume her battery will last a lot longer than mine. That said, another thing we do if we need to extend our range even further is to swap our batteries. When my bike reads about 1/3, hers may still show approximately 7/8, so we trade batteries. Another way to look at this is to imagine taking a trip on the bikes. Normally you could see yourself going out until your bike shows about ½ charge then many of us would start to head back to the barn. In this case, if you are traveling together, that range may be extended by simply swapping out your batteries. But your mileage may vary. (YMMV).
Battery Life: Battery life varies greatly. Factors include weight, topography, and how much power you use. I usually average about 250 watts. With this much assistance, I feel as though I am almost freewheeling on a spin cycle which I could do for hours. You should have seen the grin on my face when I went out on my first bike ride. It felt great to be out there, riding around.
Charging: Charging the bikes takes about three hours from a normal 110 VAC wall outlet. What’s great about this setup is that our RV’s solar system (we travel part-time) is more than capable of charging the bikes through our inverter when needed. This means that for an off-grid or grid down situation and for folks already running solar systems, you don’t have to use your finite resources such as gasoline and diesel to generate power.
Confidence: I mentioned my knees. With several knee issues brought on by teaching at a law enforcement academy. This included Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) among other things So I was reticent to hop back on a bike for any length of time. Converting my bike to an e-bike has increased my confidence. I am now able to ride and not worry if my knees start to ache. I could simply add more power to the bike and let it take me home. This has made a huge difference because I now have no qualms about jumping on my bike to explore areas and do bike rides that are a lot longer than what I would do without the conversion.
Stealth: As someone who has owned and ridden motorcycles, I can’t express enough how the quietness of the e-bikes can be very useful in a TEOTWAWKI situation.
Speed: These bikes are fast – and yes, I removed the limiter (not recommended) so I have been clocked at 42 miles an hour. Even with the limiter in place, you’re still looking at a 24-mph capability. Now, when going this fast you have to think like it’s a jet fighter’s afterburner. Yes it’s fun and will get you there fast, but you can’t hold this speed forever. The battery life doesn’t last long at this speed. Instead, look at this as the fight or flight potential of the bike. If you need to “di di mau” and get yourself out of a situation quickly, then you can.
Cargo: In 2018 we took off in our RV and toured the US for more than a year. Time and time again our e-bikes proved their worth. In many towns where we were only a few miles from the town’s center, we would use our e-bikes to go shopping. This helps because it gives us the freedom to leave the F-350 1 ton at camp and let me tell you, trying to find parking for that beast in both small towns and large cities can be daunting. To hold our groceries and other supplies, I found panniers that fit perfectly on the bike rack which comes with the battery. The panniers fold flat and can hold just over two gallons each. That’s a pretty significant amount of room, considering you are on a bike.
Throttle and Pedal Assist: The electric motor has two mode options – throttle and pedal assist. Throttle mode is like motorcycles in that the more you rotate the throttle, the more power is applied. The throttle allows the bike to act like a motorcycle and you don’t have to pedal at all if you don’t want to. The pedal assist mode provides power only when you are pedaling. Pedal assist is more intuitive to folks who haven’t ridden motorcycles. The wattage can be adjusted and set to fit your style of riding and whether you want more or less help from the motor.
Want to learn how to build out an e-bike for yourself? Keep reading and I’ll walk you through the whole process including sharing the learning lessons from my After-Action Review (AAR) of the project.
What to order
Your DIY e-bike buildout consists of three core components, plus any accessories you want to add:
- A standard pedal bicycle or mountain bike. See AAR notes for some recommendations on bike specs if you plan to purchase a new bike for this project
- A 15AH electric bike lithium-ion battery with battery holder and charger. The battery holder is a sturdy metal frame which the battery slides into. The battery itself comes with a 3-stage key – on, off, and lock. When you leave the battery in the locked position, the battery is secured to the frame and is unable to be removed until you unlock it.Price: About $400 on Amazon
- A rear wheel electric bicycle conversion kit. This kit comes with a 1000W motor, LCD display, the pedal assistance system (PAS) and all the related components. This motor is rated for up to 440 lbs. The manufacturer lists a top speed capability of 28 mph but notes that it is governed down to 24 mph to make it a road-legal pedal bike in most states in the U.S.
Price: About $220 on Amazon
- Grocery bag panniers (optional)
We added two grocery bag panniers per bike and would highly recommend them. Each bag fits 2 gallons of milk. They hook onto the battery frame and are easily removable so you can take them into the store and use them as a shopping bag. The handles and shoulder strap make for easy carrying.
Price: About $45 each on Amazon
- Other accessories
Tactical light mount, upgraded seat, night lights, phone pouches, etc.
The Build Process
There are plenty of YouTube channels dedicated to explaining the build process. Just do a search for “how to build an e-bike” or “DIY e-bike.” Some folks who work on bikes say it takes them about 1-2 hours although it personally took me around four hours per bike. I consider myself handy but not a bike “Gearhead.”
The only specialty tool I had to purchase was a bottom bracket tool in order to mount the pedal assist sensor.
After-Action Review (AAR)
Overall, the conversions went smoothly, and I’m pleased with the results. What do I recommend and what would I do differently the next time? Here are the take-aways from my personal AAR:
Start with a 26-inch rim bike: Get a 26-inch rim bike and the 26-inch motor kit. My wife has a 26-inch bike and mine just happened to be a 29-inch bike. The first thing I noticed is that 26-inch seems to be the standard. My 29-inch kit cost significantly more than hers did.
My second observation was that I found myself tightening up my spokes almost monthly until I recalled why Loctite was invented. I noticed that my wife’s bike didn’t have that problem. Two reasons for this came to mind. One is weight. I weigh more than her, so there is more wear and tear on my bike. The second was actually brought to my attention by an engineer, so I can’t take credit for it. He pointed out that the distance from the hub motor to the rim or radius is longer on the 29-inch bike. This means that the torque on a 29-inch is greater than that of the 26-inch. For both these reasons, going forward, I would purchase only 26-inch rim bikes.
Buy a bike with disc brakes (at least in the front): I bought $99 Big Box Stores bikes. I noticed I was going through rubber brake pads about every 3 months. Granted they only cost $3.50 each, but still, you will have a lot more braking power if you opt for a disc brake at least on the front. You can add after-market discs, but I’m told they are difficult to install and hard to align. Save the hassle and simply buy a bike that already has them already.
Accessories: Once the bikes were put together, I went on an Amazon shopping spree and bought a tactical light mount, 13-inch-wide (comfy) seat, night lights, panniers, and removable pouches. Another thing to note is that since the bikes are mountain bikes, I noticed my age was playing a factor after a long ride. My back would hurt and feel sore. Mountain bikes by nature are set so that some of your weight is over the front forks, causing you to lean over and put stress on your back. I remedied this for myself by purchasing a set of [tall] BMX handlebars. Now I ride in a straight up posture and my back no longer hurts at the end of the day.
Some Final Post-Apocalyptic Considerations
I’ll leave you with a recap of the top reasons that a DIY e-bike conversion fits the bill for a creative means of TEOTWAWKI transport:
• Quiet Operation
• Solar charging capability
• Ability to cannibalize parts from other bikes
• Extended range
Now go do it! Obtain a bike and your conversion kits, then invest a weekend building something that is fun and practical both for now and when SHTF. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did.
Editor’s Note: The author did not provide any Amazon links. I added those, and like many of the others that you see in SurvivalBlog, they earn us commissions that help support the blog’s operating expenses.