QUESTION: How do you pack for a bike tour? And what should you pack? I’ve got one coming up, and I don’t want to overpack or end up wishing I’d brought more. —Sara J.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: The answer to what to pack varies, depending on 1) whether you’re talking about an on-road or off-road tour, 2) whether it is a supported or self-supported tour and, 3) if the latter, what, if any, available services you intend to use.
Let’s first look at packing for on-road self-supported touring. Self-supported means that you will be carrying with you on the bike whatever stuff you will need for the journey, but since you will be on roads, you’ll be passing through communities, so, if you wish, you can eat in restaurants, convenience stores or wherever prepared food is served, do laundry at laundromats, and stay overnight in motels instead of camping.
If eating out, you can get away without hauling cooking gear, a stove and stove fuel, and won’t need to have much food on the bike (except a few non-cook items to get you through places where no food services are available). And if using motels, you won’t need a tent, sleeping bag, air mattress or towel. Cyclist tourists who rely fully on dining out and motels are often said to be “credit-card camping,” and it’s a legitimate form of touring self-supported.
But assuming you don’t intend to regularly use those services, here are some categories of items it’s wise to pack, in either panniers (saddlebags) that mount on racks attached to the bike or in bikepacking bags that attach directly to the bike frame or in a cargo trailer towed behind the bike:
- Clothes. Include here both what you will wear while riding in various weather conditions and what you will wear when off the bike in evenings and layover days. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the sun will always be shining; assume the weather will change and be prepared. Regarding bike shorts, many riders take only two or three pairs, washing one pair out each evening and letting it dry on the bike the next day.
- Housing. This is your tent, sleeping bag, etc. Go for lightweight stuff that will cover a range of temperatures.
- Food and cooking gear. A stove, fuel bottle, easy-to-prepare food. Many road riders plan to restock in grocery stores along the way, carrying no more than three days of food at a time, to keep weight down.
- Personal items. These include toiletries, towel, medicines, first-aid supplies, suntan lotion, etc. Don’t forget some toilet paper.
- Tools and parts: At least a multi-tool, patch kit, chain lubricant, 2-3 spare tubes, air pump, and perhaps spare brake and derailleur cables, spokes, chain links, miscellaneous nuts and bolts and cable ties. Some riders bring a spare tire of the folding sort.
- General items: water bottles, phone and charger, wallet, notebook, maps, reading material, and the like.
Supported touring assumes someone else, usually by means of a motor vehicle, is transporting most of your stuff, so on the bike, you need carry only what you want to have at hand during that day’s ride. But, depending on what services the support team is providing, packing for a supported tour may not be much different from packing for a self-supported one.
For example, when I rode across America self-supported, I carried stuff from the categories I named above, except for the food and cooking gear, since I mostly ate out. But except for an occasional night in a motel, I still camped, so I needed the housing items. On a later supported multiday ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the tour company transported our stuff and provided the meals from a caterer who traveled with us. But we still camped out, so I needed the tent and its accouterments, and since it was a week-long event, I needed the clothing changes, shower supplies and personal items. And even though the tour company employed a bike mechanic to travel with us, he was mostly available only at our evening stops, so I still wanted some tools and spare parts with me on the bike.
The main difference in packing for self-supported versus supported touring was that for the latter, I was able to use duffle bags as opposed to panniers that attach to the bike.
I’ve resisted providing an itemized list of what I carried on my extended tours, since some if it is a matter of personal preference and, with each new tour, I’ve made a few changes, either because of experiences from previous rides or because of new types of equipment becoming available.
But, especially on self-supported rides, keeping weight to a minimum is important — you don’t want to be hauling lots of extra pounds up the climbs most routes eventually include or when you are battling headwinds. I’ve read a lot of books by bike tourists, and several tell of starting out with too much stuff. Some end up mailing home a box of items they’ve discovered they can do without.
One key is to take things that can have more than one function. I took one set of “street clothes” to wear in the evenings, but I used them as my sleep suit as well. Long gloves for cool-morning rides can double as potholders, and so on.
When it comes to actually putting all your stuff on the bike, let’s assume you are using panniers for an on-road self-supported tour. Typically you’ll want two sets panniers — one set to suspend from a rack mounted over the rear wheel and one to suspend from a rack mounted over the front wheel (for the front, I recommend a rack that allows you to attach the panniers fairly low, to keep the front wheel’s center of gravity low for better steering.)
Divide your stuff — exclusive of your tent, mattress and sleeping bag — between the four bags, aiming to put about 40% of the weight into the two rear bags and about 60% into the two front bags. Then put your tent, mattress and sleeping bag atop the rear rack and fasten them on with bungee cords or straps. A small handlebar bar or top tube bag can be added for small personal items or snacks.
If you are using bikepacking bags, you’ll likely have to really streamline your packing list, as these bags, which are good for off-road touring, provide less room overall. Typically, bike packers have a handlebar bag, a behind-the-seat bag and a frame bag, all of which attach directly to the bike without racks. Put bulky but lightweight items in the handlebar and seat bags, with heavier items in the frame bag to keep the center of gravity low.
If you are using a cargo trailer (not recommended for off-road touring), most of your gear can go in it. You may also want a small bag or two on the bike for the few things you want to keep near at hand while riding.
My best advice for deciding how and what to pack is to do a test run or shakedown cruise. If, for example, you are planning to camp, go on a preliminary two-day ride where you actually camp out. And even though the ride is only two days, pack your bags as though it was a multiday journey, and get a feel for what lugging stuff on the bike feels like.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.