I was speaking to a well traveled bike tourist recently who was indignant that anyone would criticize how much gear he carried on his bike – it was after all his bike not theirs. That’s a fair point to be sure. So let me qualify my post by saying that this is just my opinion which I am generalizing outwards based on my own experiences and the experiences that have been shared with me by other cyclists. It may not apply to you.
I was a Boy Scout for a lot of years and even won a top scout award near the end of my tenure with the organization. Being prepared for what could happen on a trip was a key part of the Boy Scout philosophy. Which provided the motivation to learn valuable backcountry skills and hone one’s gear. The typical overloaded bike tourist I see huffing and puffing uphill reminds me a lot of my days in the Boy Scouts. They are clearly prepared for a lot of different situations with all the gear they are carrying. In fact in “mainstream” cycling touring culture being prepared is a key goal for an experienced bike tourist. A lot of the chatter on bike touring forums is around “what if?” scenarios.
When I was in the Boy Scouts and when I started bike touring this philosophy made a lot of sense. I mean who wants to be unprepared for a problem? Besides it can’t hurt to be prepared right?
My first inkling that there was a downside to being overly prepared was reading Yvon [of Patagonia fame] Chouinard’s book about alpine climbing. He notes that if you carry all the possible safety gear you can think of for every eventuality you might face – you will be moving so slowly that you will have to use it more often than a climber who is less burdened. Which amounted to saying that being too safe is actually dangerous. As an example if you are in the mountains and a storm is coming faster than anticipated a slow moving team with lots of gear can’t out run it so they have to setup a bivy and wait it out. The fast moving team with less gear can change their plans and descend quickly to safety and comfort below. If the storm is particularly severe the bivouacked team may not have enough supplies to out last it and need rescue.
How does this apply to bike touring? It’s not like cyclists are facing life and death situations regularly.
Here’s how carrying too much stuff affects a bike tourist:
- carrying more weight uphill makes your tour harder so you cover less ground, have less time in camp at the end of the day and are more tired
- detours or side-trips are not appealing because of the effort required
- bike and gear must be stronger to carry the extra weight
- breakdowns more likely due to extra weight
- some items like tires wear faster
- bike handles more like a dump truck than a bicycle reducing enjoyment
- route selection is restricted by difficulty of riding a heavy bike [bumping down a very rough dirt road isn't so appealing when your bike will likely break]
- slow moving heavily loaded bike makes getting past dangerous sections on route harder so you are exposed to risk longer
Add into the mix the slow as molasses flat-proof tires that a lot of tourists are running and you’ve got yourself a bike that’s hard to ride and not nearly as much fun as it could be. Ironically it will be one that will likely have more problems to deal with than a lightly loaded rig so you get to use all the tools and spares you are carrying.
A smart quote I read on a lightweight backpacker/traveling site said “…we pack our fears and insecurities with us…” as an explanation why so many people carry so much stuff with them when they leave home. Shortly after reading this I was in India for 4 months traveling around with a 30L daypack. As I met other multi-month travelers carry expedition sized backpacks everyone wanted to know where my “real” backpack was – thinking this was just my sightseeing pack. On that trip I shared a room with a Canadian guy hauling a monstrous 100L pack around with him that he could barely lift onto his back. I watched with interest as he unpacked enough soap, toothpaste and shampoo for his whole 6 month trip. I couldn’t help myself and commented to him “…you know they do sell toothpaste and shampoo in India?…”
Assuming you are with me so far the obvious question is what is too much gear and what is just enough?
Like most interesting questions in life there is no simple answer. It’s easy to look at the extremes and find examples that are clearly over the top in either direction. My bikepacking setup is my lightest most compact touring setup yet, but I am sure there are folks out there who look at my packed bike and see a bloated whale of a rig and others who can’t imagine rolling out on tour with so little. I feel I’m on safe ground with this blog post’s title because I think 99.9% of us err on the side of too much. About day 7 of most long distance bike tour journals you read a very similar report of stopping at a post office and mailing a box of stuff back home. Frequently a couple weeks later that happens again and another box of excess gear is discarded. You rarely read about someone stopping at REI on day 7 of a tour and buying a whole shwack of stuff they realized they absolutely needed.
Why is that? Well when you are home war-gaming all the possible things that can happen on a tour and assembling a pile of gear that can deal with it all there is no downside to adding another item to the pile. When you are on the road having to haul, unpack, pack and pedal all this gear around – some common sense kicks in and you start to prioritize enjoyment and ease of cycling against the risk that you won’t have a clean shirt on day 7 or that you may run through 5 spare tubes without being able to restock.
The reality is that on the road you don’t need a lot to be happy and that a lightly loaded well maintained bike isn’t likely to breakdown.
So if you are thinking to yourself “…do I carry too much stuff?…” I’d ask yourself if that list of potential problems above is true for you or not. When you see a cool attraction 3kms uphill off route do you take it or do you skip it because extra climbing on your heavy bike is just not worth it? Do you plan routes looking for the easiest way through an area or the most scenic despite the poor roads and extra climbing? Do you worry about wheels and racks breaking on tour from all the weight they carry?
If you are unsure you can always try a riding with less gear on a short tour to see what you think.
Sounds great, but what happens when the unexpected strikes and you don’t have “X” with you? No matter how much gear you carry something can happen that you didn’t anticipate. In the photo above I was on tour in the Canadian Rockies when a heatwave struck and I was baking on my bike. I had lots of stuff with me, but no sun-shirt. Since I was on a paved road tour I rolled into the next town and found a shop that sold me the tan LS shirt I am wearing. Problem solved. If it had suddenly become bitterly cold I would have tracked down some warmer clothes to augment what I had with me. What’s the alternative – carrying gear for heatwaves and blizzards on every tour even though you expect mild temperatures?
For anyone on a paved road tour in the developed world – Canada, USA, Europe, Australia, NZ, etc… Just about anything you need is virtually at your finger tips. In the US overnight shipping of specialty parts makes carrying anything beyond the basics pointless. Help isn’t far away either as governments don’t build paved roads unless there are cars interested in driving down them fairly regularly.
On the Big Dummy tour in the Yukon shown in the photo below I ended up with a hand injury that required evacuation down hundreds of KMs of remote dirt road for me and my cargo/touring bike. Yikes – that’s not a simple problem to solve with limited traffic and no cell phone service! However, I ran into the foreman of a rock crushing operation who was an avid cyclist and without hesitation he threw my bike into the back of his pickup truck and gave me a lift. Back at home there was no easy solution to a problem like this. When actually faced with the reality of my situation I found a way to sort things out.
Turning to more remote tours it seems like being far away from resupply makes carrying a lot of stuff essential – doesn’t it?
If you are heading far from a bike shop or a post office and you asked me what spares/tools to bring along I would redirect your energy to reducing the risk of having a problem in the first place. That means taking a robust well maintained bike, not stressing it with unnecessary weight, riding it appropriately and then working out what spares/tools to bring with you.
For example using an uber strong undished Rohloff rear wheel that isn’t affected by weather and has no derailleur to be ripped off by vegetation or destroyed in a crash is a way to mitigate a lot of potential problems without needing to carry anything extra on the bike.
Choosing to get off and walk a steep rocky descent that’s on the limit of your abilities is a way to mitigate the risk of bike and body damage that would require a whole schwack of tools, spares and first aid supplies to deal with otherwise.
Combining spares/tools amongst a group and choosing to use similar equipment so less is required and more can be shared with other riders is smart.
The point I’m making is that reducing risk can be done without necessarily adding more stuff to your bike. Just like climbing in the mountains one way to reduce your risk of a problem on a remote tour is to travel lighter, faster and more nimbly.
Having said that if you are doing a remote tour in South America and you are on a 29er you might decided that carrying two spare tires is needed due to the lack of resupply options along your route and the length of your trip. That’s a rationale choice to mitigate the serious and certain problem that your original tires will wear out on the tour.
If you are interested in touring with less stuff, but it just seems like everything you are carrying is essential and you can’t figure out how to reduce your gear load here are some ideas on how to get there:
- If you are a 4 pannier, handlebar bag and stuff lashed to the top of the rear rack kind of tourist you can remove the front panniers which will force you to carry less since there is less capacity on the bike. If you prefer the weight distribution of 4 panniers you can line the bottom of each bag with several inches of folded bubble wrap to reduce bag capacity while keeping 4 panniers.
- Track down some touring journals of folks who are riding with less than you. See what they are carrying and model your own kit after them.
- What are the bulkiest/heaviest items you are carrying? Stuff like tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear can often be replaced with much lighter/more compact items without any loss of comfort/functionality.
- Look at any items you are carrying multiple of [say T-shirts] and reduce them. One running t-shirt can be washed and dried in a couple hours so maybe you only need one on the tour? Touring in high tech camping [think Patagonia or REI or North Face] street clothes means you don’t need cycling clothes and street clothes on the trip. If you are carrying thermal underwear on a trip anyways you can wear them to bed and use a lighter sleeping bag.
- Sharing a tent between two people instead of 2 friends each carrying their own can save a lot of weight. Same goes for tools, repair gear, spare parts, etc…
- Look for items you rarely use or can do without. If you can start a campfire every night leave the stove and fuel bottle at home. If you typically eat a hot meal at a restaurant during the day maybe sandwiches and fruit at night work fine and you can ditch the cooking/eating gear entirely.
- Spend your trip prep time ensuring you won’t have a problem on the ride rather than using it to amass all the tools/spares to fix problems. A well maintained well built bike is worth more than tools/spares.
- Make a list of your gear and note next to each item why you are carrying it. Prioritize the list into 3 categories: 1) stuff that gets used every day 2) stuff that gets used occasionally 3) stuff that’s there for “what if’s”. Work hard on reducing the last two categories.
As you are going through this process don’t go overboard. It is a process. If you are a 4 panniers, handle bar bag and stuff lashed on top of the rear pannier tourist now you don’t have to be the ultimate ultralight bike tourist next time out. Maybe you’ll never get there. That’s not important. What’s important is that you have setup your bike to carry what you need in a way that’s as fun as possible for you on tour.
Keep in mind the real goal is to smile as much as possible on tour – not to brag about how little you are carrying. A lighter load is definitely a help in enjoying a tour more and being able to explore with more freedom because you can take detours and ride challenging terrain easier. You can worry less about breaking a rack or some spokes and gnarly dirt roads suddenly become fun touring routes. However, if you are cold and miserable on a tour because you didn’t bring what you needed and your bike breaks because you used the lightest weight parts you could find than there isn’t much to brag about is there?
Despite a lighter is righter message in this post I don’t think being a weight weenie is useful in general. I don’t own a scale. I don’t weigh my gear or calculate how much my gear weighs on a particular ride. I don’t cut the handle off my tooth brush wear a girl’s thong cause it’s lighter or anything silly like that.
I shoot for less gear and lighter overall weight on tour as a general goal, but I do so in a rationale way that balances weight and functionality with the needs of the tour. For example I found a 29er frame that was nearly 3lbs lighter than the one I was looking at initially with no other downsides so I grabbed it. During the build I spec’d an IGH and heavier wider rims adding some weight compared to a derailleur and less burly rims. This gave me an undished very strong rear wheel and an almost bulletproof drivetrain. It also gave me wider tire profile for better traction – important here on the Wet Coast of Canada! In this case adding weight lets me travel rough roads/trails with more confidence and less tools/spares so my enjoyment is high and my overall bike + gear weight is not any higher.
I do look at component/gear specs online before buying, but I’m looking for significant differences like 0.5-1.0 lbs. I only compare items that meet my functional needs in the same way. I don’t have a scale so if I can’t feel the difference between 2 items when I pick them up they are essentially the same to me.
You don’t need a scale to know that leaving stuff at home is going to give you a lighter rig. Being able to ditch a rack and panniers saves pounds of weight without any downside if you are able to carry the gear you need without them. Beyond weight savings having less gear with you means you spend more time on the tour thinking about your ride and less time thinking/dealing with your gear. Packing and unpacking gets easier/faster and you are more in tune with the world around you when you aren’t traveling with a kitchen-sink safety net strapped to your bike.
I don’t sacrifice my comfort to get my load down in size. So I always have a warm jacket to put on at the end of the day and I make sure I am warm enough in my sleeping bag to get a good night’s rest. On the other hand I don’t need a stove and a hot meal to be happy at the end of the day on most tours so I delete the cooking gear when I can. Touring in the wet cold winter I may go the other way and plan to cook a decadent meal in camp to keep my spirits up.
I don’t weigh food or water. I’d rather have too much of that than too little. Having said that I do take resupply opportunities into account when I plan. I always want to have some extra food or water, but if each day of the ride goes past a grocery store I don’t need to leave home with 3 days of meals.
I try and keep the big picture in mind when making choices. I have a suspension fork on my 29er bikepacking rig because it makes the bike more useful for me as an all around MTB and for bikepacking on rough ground. This isn’t absolutely necessary and it does add weight/complexity to the bike. I felt it was a good choice. Someone else might feel it’s not needed. I use wide tires on my bike which are heavier and roll a tad slower than narrower rubber, but the traction and the comfort of the bigger tires is worth it to me. My parts choices and gear choices are not the ultimate lightest possible in a lot of categories. I didn’t go with the “ultimate“ options because they didn’t make as much functional sense as something else or the cost was simply not something I could justify.
When I get back home I evaluate how the trip went and modify my gear for the next ride. Sometimes that means taking more items and sometimes that means leaving stuff at home. The big question on my mind when looking back at past trips and looking forward to new trips is what was the fun factor like and what will help me have more fun?