What to Take and How to Pack

Dec 22nd, 2015

If you’re planning to travel by bike, there’s no getting around it—you’ll have to bring stuff.

The central truth for this stuff: less is more. Countless cyclists end up shipping excess stuff home a week or two into their ride after they realize how little they actually need and precisely how heavy their extra stuff is.

The other central truth: the less weight you carry, the more fun it is to ride. In time, you’ll figure out what works best for you.

Clothing for tours

Look for clothes that are lightweight, packable (i.e. non-bulky), versatile, and appropriate for your expected conditions.

Some people think in terms of on-the-bike clothes and off-the-bike clothes, but as much as possible bring clothing that can serve as both. Many riders swear by a light, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirt for protection from the sun’s rays. When it gets chilly, layering is the ticket. If the weather looks threatening, keep your waterproof shell layers easily accessible while riding.

Cycling shorts, cycling shoes, a helmet, rain gear, tights, and cycling gloves make riding more comfortable. A good rain jacket and pants are necessities, and there are a variety of options specifically designed for cyclists; look for Gore-Tex or another waterproof fabric that breathes and protects from rain and wind.

Cycling shoes have stiff soles to increase pedaling efficiency and to protect your feet from the sustained pressure of pedaling—which are good things—but make sure they have some flexibility, especially near the toes, if you plan to use them as off-the-bike shoes as well.

Also, some people’s feet swell slightly when riding, so choose shoes that allow free movement of your toes and accommodate an extra sock layer. 

Packing Your Panniers

When touring with panniers, try to keep your total load between 15 and 45 pounds. Your bike will be most stable if you put more weight in your front panniers — roughly 60 percent of weight in front and 40 percent in back. Experiment with weight distribution to find the best handling results for your particular bike.

Items like tools, spare bike parts, cooking equipment, fuel bottles, food, and on-the-bike clothing usually go in the front panniers and light, bulky items like clothes in the rear panniers. Your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent are usually strapped to the rear rack and add to the weight on the rear wheel.

Before packing, line your panniers and sleeping bag stuff sack with heavy-duty plastic garbage bags. Despite sometimes being labeled “waterproof,” some panniers can still leak, especially in hard rains. Roll your clothing and pack them vertically (ziplock bags work well for keeping things organized and dry). This way, you can see the end of each roll for easy identification and avoid wrinkling.

Packing a Trailer

Aim to keep your load between 15 and 45 pounds when packing a trailer for a tour.

Most of the gear needed for a tour will fit inside of the cargo bag that comes with many trailers. For the greatest stability, try to keep the heaviest gear low and toward the front of the trailer. Experiment with weight distribution to find the best results for your particular bike.

If you have them, tarps and a spare trailer tire can be securely placed on the trailer below the trailer bag. Most trailers on the market come with a waterproof bag. If not, line your bag with a heavy-duty plastic garbage bag.

Use stuff sacks, like the kind used by backpackers, to organize your gear inside the trailer bag. If you want to keep some gear handy while you ride — like food, rain gear, small tool kit, pump, lock, etc. — you can put it in a separate bag and bungee it to the top of the trailer bag.

Extras Bits and Other Bags

Start your trip with extra room in your panniers for items picked up along the way. The extra room will also make it easier to pack quickly.

Keep your wallet, camera, and often-used items in a detachable handlebar bag, fanny pack, or small backpack and always take it with you when you leave the bike.

Tools for fixing flats can go in your handlebar bag or a small seat bag for easy access. Five to eight pounds is the maximum you should pack in a handlebar bag.

Test Run

Whether you are bike traveling for the first time or you are planning your tenth tour, it’s vital to take a practice ride with your bicycle fully loaded before you leave, ideally with an overnight or two.

You may find yourself eliminating some of your excess gear once you have to muscle it around for a few miles. It’s all part of discovering how much or, rather, how little gear you really need for a comfortable self-contained adventure.

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