Back in our first issue, we explained what the Bicycle Times staff carries on our bike trips to the office in “Commuting Kits.” For this issue, we’re considering the longer road and have asked a panel of experts what they bring for a cycling tour.
In his article “Lounging in the Laurel Highlands” (issue #4), BT Circulation Dude Justin wrote about a casual weekend trip and detailed the gear he used. There is a broad spectrum of touring styles, however, from light-and-fast to stop-and-smellthe- flowers. Here, our panel shares specific recommendations and general philosophies on touring by bicycle.
Our contributors and their overall touring styles:
Alastair Bland is a freelance writer living in California. For this issue he also wrote a story about a long tour through Europe, “From Turkey to Italy,” on page 36. “My style would be light—though definitely not out of the desire to move fast and easily. I carry very little gear for the enjoyment of simplicity, of leaving ‘stuff’ behind. There is a place in my life for owning a multitude of things, and bike touring is an escape from that.”
Jan Heine is the editor of Bicycle Quarterly. An interview with him can be found in issue #3.
“My touring style is to ride most of the day at a good clip, but take time to stop, take photos, eat good food and visit the sights, riding between 60 and 150 miles per day. I don’t pare my gear down to an absolute minimum, but I also don’t bring much excess. When I started touring seriously about 20 years ago, I bought the best lightweight gear I could find, and I still use most of it today. I usually carry about 35lbs. of gear (including my panniers) when I tour alone.”
Justin Kline is the Bike Division Manager for light manufacturer PrincetonTec.
“Touring style: I guess I fall in the middle of the spectrum. I cut my load down as much as possible, but I am not afraid to carry a little extra weight to provide some luxuries. If you travel too light you don’t sleep at night…”
Nick Lubecki wrote an article about his touring philosophy, “Do-It-Yourself Bike Touring,” for Dirt Rag issue #127.
“Most of the time I like to take it easy. Usually I set out with a destination in mind and a general idea of a route. I like to be able to take my time and make detours or sleep in some mornings if I feel like it rather than sticking to a strict schedule. I try to enjoy myself as much as possible. I stop to read every historical marker I pass and sometimes to check out a strange looking plant or flower.”
Aaron Teasdale is the Deputy Editor of Adventure Cyclist magazine, a publication of the Adventure Cycling association.
“I love exploring wild places, the wilder the better, so I always go as light as possible. But unlike a lot of the ultralight crowd, I’m not interested in speed. You miss everything if you go too fast. So call me a light-and-slow wilderness bikepacker.”
Carolyne Whelan is a bike mechanic and writer who travels by any means possible, but her favorite is by bicycle.
“I usually tour for distance, doing a few hard days (80-120 miles), then spend a couple days relaxing, sightseeing, and having adventures. I’ve hitchhiked while touring if I needed to, but mainly I enjoy the long days going as fast as they’re supposed to. Whenever it hurts, I just think of what else I could be doing back home and the ride is enjoyable again.”
There are three basic categories of essentials for an overnight cycling tour: food, shelter and bike repair.
AB: A pocketknife, spoon, and plastic bowl for eating, and at least two water bottles. I like to have olive oil and vinegar to make a large bean-based salad at night. A stove is something you can get away without, though six weeks of cold dinners has made me wish many times that I had a small MSR camp stove. I shop daily for groceries and produce. No sense packing it all from home.
JH: I like real food. That means rice and pasta, dehydrated lentil soup, tofu in Tetrapaks and fresh vegetables, as well as small containers of cooking oil and salt. I often carry two days’ worth of food. I use a small MSR Whisperlite stove, a single stainless pot, a bowl, a cup, a spoon and a pocketknife. I don’t bring a fork and knife, as they aren’t essential for the foods I eat.
JK: Stove—alcohol stove like the Vargo titanium, or Jetboil if I am not traveling light.
Small knife—for cutting food and many other uses you wouldn’t think of.
Food—I am a not a huge fan of traditional nutritional supplements and bars so I often take along high fat/calorie foods that keep me going and are easy to obtain. Nothing like a Butterfinger or a couple slices of salami after an hour of climbing.
NL: I bring a small pot, aluminum plate, steel cup, spoon, knife, and a small aluminum tea kettle (for brewing coffee), garlic, butter, olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, and thyme. Usually I find dumpstered pizza, potato chips, and doughnuts for snacks and plenty of veggies for dinner. I’ll cook pasta with tomato sauce when I’m feeling fancy. Sometimes I’ll spring for a dozen eggs or some bacon and eat half for dinner and the other half for breakfast. I prefer to cook over a fire, but I pack an alcohol stove for those times when I can’t. I fill up on water before I stop for the night; two quarts is enough for stew, drink and coffee the next morning for one person.
AT: Caldera Cone stove system, Yerba Matte chai, sugar and dehydrated milk in teeny tiny containers, three instant oatmeal packets per breakfast, pepper in teeny tiny container for enlivening freeze-dried dinners, caffeinated carbohydrate gel, and ProBars and bulk cashews for trail food.
CW: Two water bottles and a bladder (Camelback, etc.) are mandatory. This should be enough water to reach another water source. Bread and peanut butter are also mandatory, plus raisins and bananas picked up along the way. This will keep your sugar levels good and keep you from crashing, plus is a complete protein. A couple Clif bars is a good idea as well. I’m not much of a cook on the road, so I usually bring a jar of quinoa or couscous with water and raisins in it and strap it to the top of my rear rack, so it cooks in the sun and is ready to eat by dinnertime.
AB: A large, sturdy yet lightweight tarp to sleep on and a sleeping bag are the essentials. Then, depending on the local climate and expectations of rain, you might bring a tent. I usually don’t.
JH: I carry a lightweight two-person tent, whether I am going alone or with my wife. A good sleeping bag is an essential, and on long trips, I sometimes carry a cotton liner that is easier to wash. I still use a foam pad, but the new air mattresses are tempting.
JK: Pad—usually only torso-length Thermarest.
Sleeping bag—depends upon the season, but a Mountain Hardware Phantom 45 is what I use most of the time. Try to find a bag that doesn’t weigh much more than 1lb.
Shelter—this all comes down to the weather. If I know there is little chance of rain with minimal bugs, then I sleep under the stars. Otherwise I will take an Adventure Medical kit emergency bivvy or a one-man tent like the Mountain Hardware Stiletto 1.
NL: I bring a sleeping bag, ground pad, tarp and rope, flashlight (bike light) and candles, and a wool hat and jacket for hanging around camp on chilly spring nights. During summer I’ll bring a bed sheet and just sleep on top of the sleeping bag. The tarp is versatile, but I only pitch it if it looks like rain. I like to sleep under the stars.
AT: Pad—NeoAir full-length sleeping pad.
Sleeping bag—Western Mountaineering Summerlite 32°, 1lb. down sleeping bag with a FlexAir inflatable pillow (weighs only .5oz).
Tent—Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent in fast-fly mode.
CW: I’ve survived fine with a picnic blanket (mini tarp) and a small fleece throw I picked up along the way. A good sleeping bag can be essential depending on where you’re riding and what time of year it is. I’ve also used my New England charm (hah!) to convince strangers to let me sleep on their floor for the night.
AB: Spare spokes, one of those convenient “multi-tools” for making any adjustments your bike may need. LOTS of patches and glue, as well as at least two brand new tubes. A reliable pump. If it’s a long tour, take an extra tire in case of a blow-out. Chain links.
JH: My bike is set up for reliability, so I carry very little: one or two inner tubes, a spare folding tire (narrowest, lightest model that fits the rim, just to keep going), and a few spare spokes. A MAFAC tool kit with three flimsy wrenches for emergencies, plastic tire levers, a spoke wrench. I haven’t broken a chain in over a decade, and I now use wider 5-speed chains that are less likely to break, so I no longer bring a chain tool. My entire tool kit weighs much less than most multi-tools.
JK: This can be an easy but risky area to save weight. I usually bring along a few spare bolts, a quick link or two, hex wrenches, chain tool, duct tape, pump, patch kit, and a tube. For longer trips in remote areas like the Great Divide, brake pads, chain lube, and a shifter cable are also necessary. One thing that should never be forgotten is a spare cleat and cleat bolts.
NL: Patch kit, spare tube, spokes and cables, wrenches for every size bolt on my bike, cone wrench, screw driver, freewheel removing tools, portable pump, hose clamps (in case the rack brakes), chain lube, grease, spare bolts and nuts (for racks) and a multi-tool or pliers. I bring a first aid kit too, in case I break.
AT: Multi-tool, spare tube, glueless patch kit, tire levers, mini-pump, FiberFix spoke, spare derailleur hanger, Park tire boot, Leatherman Juice S2 multi-tool.
CW: Two tubes, a patch kit, a good multi-tool, some Tri-Flow lubricant, and a cleat replacement kit (the bolts can also come in handy if something else goes wrong). I’d rather travel light and if something major goes wrong, stop by a local bike shop. It’s better to check your bike thoroughly before leaving on the trip and get it well tuned than to carry a bunch of stuff you’re not really sure quite what to do with anyway.
AB: A journal, pens, a good book, camera, waterproof poncho, minimal changes of clothing, a language guide, a few toiletries, a corkscrew for wine.
JH: Well, I like to wear clean clothes for “off the bike.” In addition to a couple of T-shirts, I usually bring a wool sweater that can double as an extra layer on the bike, and shorts that can be worn over my tights to make me almost presentable. As for extras, a rocking chair frame for my foam pad makes camping much more comfortable. I usually bring a journal. Sometimes I carry a heavy telephoto lens for my camera.
JK: Rain gear (also doubles as camp clothing). A light (PrincetonTec EOS Bike) to navigate the campsite, or get me there on those days that don’t go as planned. Arm and knee warmers are extremely versatile, keep me comfortable, and don’t add much weight or bulk to my kit.
NL: I bring one or two books, a deck of cards, and if I have a traveling companion, a checkers/chess set with folding board for entertainment. Sometimes I’ll bring a field guide or a small telescope for wildlife viewing and plant identification. The telescope came in handy last summer when I spotted a mountain lion across the creek while taking a break one morning to do some fishing in northern Pennsylvania. I’ll usually bring a fishing pole and gear.
AT: 10lbs. of camera equipment (SLR, 3-4 lenses, small camera to wear on my chest) and Nikon Travelite 10x binoculars.
CW: Bungee cords! Extra pair of bike shorts! Light raincoat and sweatshirt. (To be honest, I always forget the raincoat.) A change of shoes—I really enjoy my Chaco sandals because I can hike in them and they give my feet a chance to breathe after all that riding. In a colder season, a comfortable pair of sneakers are good in case you want to stop somewhere. Oh, also, a bandana comes in very handy. If you’re traveling solo, music will keep you motivated.
Beyond the Basics
Do you vary what you bring for different conditions, terrain
to be covered or bike ridden?
AB: I always ride my Surly Cross Check, and I always plan a tour based on the assumption that I’ll be riding over dirt and rocks. I never ride skinny slick tires.
JH: I don’t really vary what I bring for different conditions. A three-day trip or a three-week trip is pretty much the same. You either need something or you don’t.
JK: In the summer I leave the stove behind, bring minimal extra clothing, and often leave the shelter/tent behind to save weight.
NL: I’ll bring more spare parts, clothes, and carrying capacity if it’s a long trip. I always bring a poncho in case it rains, worn over my hands and handlebars, so combined with fenders I stay pretty dry. Cold weather touring requires a different sleeping bag, heavier clothes and maybe wider tires. Sometimes out west there are huge distances between towns so I’ve had to gather up plastic gallon jugs and fill them up with water in order to have a supply for the couple days till the next water stop. I’ll also stock up on food. While in the desert, I quit riding in the early afternoon and hang around in some shady spot till it cools down a bit.
AT: If I’m traveling on technical singletrack, I ride a fullsuspension bike with disc brakes and bring my lightest, most Spartan kit. If I’m traveling on dirt or paved roads, I might be more indulgent and bring extra clothes or a book.
If I’m traveling with my sons Silas and Jonah, the packing list expands considerably. We bring multiple books, fishing poles, Frisbees, and hot cocoa. Plus all of the “treasures” they’re sure to find along the way: cool rocks, cool sticks, and big pinecones.
CW: I am a bit older in the heart every time I tour and therefore tend to bring a bit more (a sleeping bag, for instance, isn’t necessary, but is a creature comfort). I still try to go by the rule of thumb “bring nothing and pack your panniers full of cash” (figuratively speaking, of course). I’ve done all my tours on an old hybrid frame someone gave me that I put drop bars and tour-ready components on, but my next tour I’d like to splurge a little and get a mountain touring bike and maybe take a B.O.B. trailer to do some mountain touring, for something different, but I’ll need to get a job first.
Did you have any particular instances or mechanical problems
that prompted you to carry certain items?
AB: After 2007 in Portugal, when my rear spokes began breaking one after another, I subsequently made a point of buying a double-walled 36-spoke touring wheel before my next trip, and extra spokes. That time, in northern Portugal, was a nightmare. I was afraid I’d have to take a bus and quit the ride. Finally, I found a shop where they helped me sort things out. In my opinion, a faulty wheel with breaking spokes could be the worst thing to happen on a tour. Worn bearings could be problematic, too.
JH: My wife once broke a chain on the last day of a tour of the San Juan Islands as we were racing to the ferry. We ran a strap from her head tube to my rear rack, and I towed her to the ferry terminal, where we caught the boat home. We had to catch that ferry, as she was to start a new job the next day. It was a good workout, but I carried a lightweight chain tool for a few years thereafter.
JK: During the Tour Divide in 2009 [a race along the Continental Divide, from Canada to Mexico], my seatpost clamp stripped from the additional weight of my oversized seat bag, which required occasional tightening. I was in a small town a few blocks long in Montana with no bike shop and no spare seatpost clamp or bolt. After a few trips to the hardware store, town garage, and a few local residences, I found a helpful local who was able to tap out the seat clamp threads and use a larger diameter screw. This has certainly trained me to add a spare seatpost bolt to my touring kit.
NL: Twice I’ve had blowouts and gotten stranded. The first time was on my first tour across Pennsylvania. The second time I was prepared—I brought a spare tire—that second tire then immediately had a blow-out, in the middle of the desert, in Arizona, during August, 130 miles from the next bike shop. I had to hitchhike out of there. I’ll always bring a spare tire if I’m going more than 1000 miles.
AT: My riding partner had a bolt fall out of his clipless pedal cleat in the middle of the Yukon once. We jerry-rigged a fix with a wrong-sized bolt from his bike and pieces of aluminum from a beer can we found, but I’ve never traveled without spare cleat bolts since.
CW: I gave myself tendonitis in my ankle from riding a hundred miles with a broken cleat, which is why I always carry a cleat replacement kit now. I also have cut myself really bad before and needed stitches, and had to ride to the hospital. Now I bring a second bandana that isn’t full of sweat and bike grease and snot, because it sucks to wrap up a bloody ankle in all that crap.
What have you brought in the past (or present) that is probably overkill?
AB: A tent, I find, is only useful if absolutely waterproof. A leaky tent is overkill.
JH: Some people mail back surplus equipment, but I’ve never brought more than I needed. It’s more likely that I forget to pack something and have to buy it during the trip. On my last trip, I forgot my pocketknife, and once, I left without toothpaste. Fortunately, I usually notice before I get too far from civilization.
JK: A one-man tent. The true light and fast travelers can do without this, but sometimes it is just too tempting to be warm, dry, and safe from the biting insects.
I traveled with booties along the Great Divide. Something most people leave behind, but I found them to be worth their weight. My feet stayed toasty during the below-freezing morning temperatures and dry during the passing showers, which seemed to happen almost daily.
NL: While in Colorado, I bought a cast iron skillet. Not a big one, a saucepan, but it was pretty heavy. It did come in handy frying tortillas in bacon grease. I was also collecting rocks on that trip, so I had a few pounds of them, for geological interest. After a certain point on a tour, weight really doesn’t matter. I didn’t mind lugging this stuff around, but I probably wouldn’t leave home with anything cast iron now.
CW: I brought a tape recorder so I could record my thoughts on the road, but turns out it’s really hard to talk while hauling up a mountain, really hard to hold onto a tape recorder while descending, boring and speechless while on the flats, and awkward while stopped at a supermarket. So it wasn’t that successful a project.
How do you carry your stuff?
AB: Panniers and a basket/bag attached to the handlebars. Definitely no backpack.
JH: Panniers front and back, with heavy stuff in the front and bulky stuff in the rear. A handlebar bag carries anything I need to access while riding: camera, snack food, rain jacket, arm warmers, wallet… The handlebar bag comes off easily, so I can carry it (and my valuables) with me when I lock up the bike.
JK: When traveling light on technical terrain, custom frame bags cannot be beat. I have been using the Carousel Design Works handlebar and seat bags made by Jeff Boatman.
NL: I use panniers on the front rack and a backpack strapped to the rear rack. Larger gear like the sleeping bag, ground pad, and tarp I’ll strap down with bungee cords. My panniers are messenger-bag-style soft briefcases from Goodwill, carabinered to the front rack. The backpack is Army surplus, so there are places on it to hook straps to. Eventually I get lazy and just start tying plastic bags filled with food to the sleeping bag for ease of access.
AT: I use Carousel Design Works frame, seat, and handlebar bags. I carry my camera gear in a backpack. For civilized touring on paved roads, I use Rivendell seat and handlebar bags. For family touring, I use a B.O.B. trailer.
CW: Rack and panniers—very efficient. I had a B.O.B. trailer but never took it on tour because I thought it felt awkward—I’m interested in trying one of those again, though, especially since I own a tent now, and since I’m old I’ll probably travel a bit heavier and in more secluded areas. Rack and panniers can get you real far and keep you from taking too much.
Road stories: have you ever lost a particular important item out on the road?
AB: I ran out of patches in Turkey. I was getting punctures at a rate of one a day and was doomed unless I found a bike shop. In the end, I flagged down another pair of cyclists who had at least 100 patches. They gave me 20 or so.
JH: I once spent an awful night in a fleabag hotel in a rough frontier town in Venezuela. I was so eager to leave that I forgot my cosmetics bag, and realized it only after climbing halfway up a mountain pass. I turned around and retrieved it, but it made for a long day.
AT: Believe it or not, I’ve never lost anything while on tour.
CW: I lost my travel partner for a while one morning. We had gone to sleep behind a laundromat and when I woke up he was gone. He came back an hour later, though. Turns out he couldn’t sleep so he went to a diner for breakfast and some alone-time. Seriously, though, I think bike tours are the few Zen moments in my life when I don’t lose anything. Maybe because whenever I hit the road in that fashion it is to leave everything in my life behind, so I don’t care about anything.
Do you have any ideas, advice or even stories about bicycle touring? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below!Tweet Print