There are a number of books and web pages giving some basic packing tips, equipment choices, etc. for various kinds of bike touring. The intention of this web page isn’t to replicate those resources, but rather to provide additional information and tips that I have not seen elsewhere. Because there are different styles of touring, some of this may seem rather opinionated, but what follows is what (in my experience) has worked best.
In bike touring, I tend to follow these guiding principles:
- Have Fun
- Do not plan too detailed an itenerary
- Minimize weight — every gram does count
- Reliability is key
As you will see, the last 2 principles drive most packing
In this day and age, there is no excuse not to have waterproof paniers. The best I have seen are made by
Ortleib which have a “drybag” type design similar to that used in Kayaking. Ortleib is a German company with a couple US distributors, the biggest being REI. Out in the field, I can report that my Ortleib bags survived 30 days of the worst, wettest weather Ireland had to offer without letting even a drop of water seep in.
Road bike vs. Mountain Bike?
Answer: Road bike. Unless you are going off-road, a road bike is much
Folding vs. Regular bike
If you are going to use a folding bike, be sure it uses all standard components. The Bike Friday for example uses spoke, chainring, and tire sizes that may be hard to find. S and S Machine can retrofit an S and S Coupler into an existing frame, turning any bike into a folding bike. However, I have no direct experience with them.
If you are buying or building a touring road-bike from scratch, be sure to go with Campagnolo (i.e. “Campy”) components. The problem with Shimano shifters is that the cable routing leaves less room for a handlebar bag. The other nice thing about Campy is that they sell a stock 13/29 triple cogset to provide an extra low granny gear. The only way to obtain something comparable in Shimano is by having a custom cassette built.
Even on long bike-camping trips, I manage to pack everything I need into 2 rear panier bags and a handlebar bag. At worst, I strap a few extra items (like a tent) on top of the rack. Unless you will be traveling in a location with no water or food, there really should be no reason to rely on front paniers (or for that matter, a heavy bike trailer). I’ve heard some justify front paniers by saying they balance out the weight. Adding several pounds of “ballast” to a bike is a pretty stupid reason for carrying around extra baggage.
Inevitably, you will break a spoke out in the middle of nowhere, and chances are it will be on the “drive” side of the rear wheel. Thus, to replace the spoke means having to know how to remove the rear cassette. Typically, instruction manuals on doing this would have you use a chain whip, heavy wrench, or even a vise — not the kinds of things you want to be carrying around on a bike. However, if you followed my advice about using a “Campy” cogset, none of those tools are necessary. What I do is barely hand-tighten the lockring on the cassette. Because the lockring is not geared, it will not tighten up over time as you pedal. And since it is ratcheted, and not used to transmit pedaling force, there is no need to use a tremendous amount of torque tightening it. Thus, all you need to remove it is the special lockring adapter, which weighs a few grams. One more thing: be sure that you carry with you not only spare spokes, but spoke nipples to go with them as it could be the spoke nipple that breaks or gets damaged.
Instead of carrying around a heavy bar of soap, I pack a tiny bottle of super-concentrated dish detergent. A few drops will do the job, whether showering or washing out your nasty sweaty clothes. I get by on 2 pairs of lycra — one can dry while I ride in the other. At night, I wash the lycra I just wore and switch to the one that had been drying. Usually, lycra will dry overnight. One thing that speeds up drying is to tightly roll the lycra in a towel to absorb moisture. And speaking of towels, Thermarest makes a tiny “PackTowel” that is extremely absorbant and much lighter than a bulky bath towel.
Make sure to thoroughly test out raingear at home before embarking on your trip. There is a lot of crap out there which is advertised as being waterproof, but in fact is only “water-resistant” (i.e. will only keep you dry for a few minutes). Even worse are windbreakers which are not even water-resistant. Also be sure to verify that your “waterproof” jacket and pants are not leaking through the seams.
Most cycling shoes are designed for maximum air flow, which means they won’t protect against cold and rainy weather. Lake and Northwave (at one time or another) have made winter cycling shoes, but they can be virtually impossible to find in stores. You can special order them, but mail order companies will generally not allow returns in the event they don’t fit. I can report, however, that the Northwave Arctics work very well.
Most bike shops carry booties, made of neoprene or other material. They are utterly useless — don’t waste your money on them. The best shoe cover is your standard $20 rubber goloshes. I bought a pair at my local shoe store and cut a small hole in the bottom for the cleat. It should be noted, however, that even with the most extreme countermeasures, water will eventually soak into your shoes. To allow shoes to dry more completely overnight, be sure to remove any shoe inserts.
Transporting a bike can be the most difficult part of the tour. Many transit companies will not take bikes at all, and others (like airlines) will charge a small fortune. Here are some tips:
- If flying to a city with a staffed Amtrakstation, then you can ship your bike ahead of time using Amtrak Express Shipping. Much cheaper and easier than dealing with the airlines, just bike to your nearest station, pack the bike in an Amtrak-supplied box, and pay a nominal fee to deliver it across the country.
- Rules for oversized luggage are different for international flights. You should not be charged to bring a boxed bike when flying internationally. However, they may ding you for domestic segments of an international
iterary. You should take this into account when making flight arrangements.
- Want to know which trains in Europe take bikes? The DB TravelService web page contains train (and bus) schedules for all of Europe. At the bottom of the page is a checkbox “carriage of bicycles required” which limits travel searches to bike-accessible trains. Even when not traveling by bike, this web service is invaluable for trip planning.
- Most airlines require bikes to be boxed, and finding a bike box for the trip home can be a real headache. If you have organized your tour in a loop, that can make things easier. What I have done is to make a hotel reservation around my arrival and departure dates. I arrange with the
hotel beforehand to store my hardshell bike box in their storeroom while I am away. Most hotels are happy to provide this service, and if not then make your reservation with a place that agrees to do this for you.