Essential Gear for Tour Cycling
Self-Supported & Expedition Cycle Touring
Cycle touring is a trip of pretty much any length or time where the primary purpose is not for sport, fitness or commuting. Meaning, cycle touring is encapsulated by traveling by bicycle for the purpose of pleasure, travel and adventure.
There are many different types of cycle touring. Credit card or lightweight touring are for those who can carry a lot of cash (or a credit card with a big limit) and not a whole lot of gear - mainly staying in hostels, hotels and B&Bs.
Our family has currently traveled over 3000 miles by bicycle from Prince Rupert, BC to San Diego, CA. The type of cycling we do is somewhere in between self-supported and expedition cycle touring. We've spent most of our time camping in a tent while carrying our own food, extra parts, tools and camping kitchen.
We're aiming this article towards those who want to get an idea of some of the essential gear that self-supported/expedition cycle touring demand. We've also put together an article on choosing and sizing a touring bicycle. Whether or not you're traveling thousands of miles or heading out for a weekend trip, we hope our essential cycle touring gear list will help get you out and explore!
You've got all this gear, sleeping bags and pads, tent, clothes, headlamps, food and camping kitchen. How in the world do you carry that stuff? Luckily, there are some fairly standard pieces of gear that you can get which facilitate loading up your bicycle:
- Front/Back Bicycle Racks. These are pretty much a must if you intend to carry any gear on your bicycle. Even if you intend to by some milk creates and zip tie them to your bicycle, a rack is pretty key. We've went with the fairly inexpensive but so far solid Racktime front and bike racks. There are a multitude of racks out there to fit different kinds of bikes.
You'll have to do some research or ask your local bike shop mechanics for what kinds of racks will fit your bike. That being said, the RackTIme front rack we have for our Surly Long Haul Truckers, doesn't actually fit. I added some spacers and a long stainless steel bolt/nut with washers to fit it onto the front fork. Just to be sure, if you are heading out onto a tour, order the racks well ahead of time to be sure they fit or that you can modify them to do so.
- Panniers/Saddle Bags. Like pretty much all the gear out there, the choice among bike bags (called either pannier or saddle bags) are numerous. This is one of the rare occasions that we spent a bit more for gear than we really wanted to. Ortlieb bags are pretty much the gold standard for functional waterproof bags that mount on almost all bicycle racks. There are other choices on the market that claim waterproof panniers, we just recommend you get a guarantee out of the deal if you go with another brand claiming waterproofness - because the probably aren't.
- Handlebar Bag. We went with a Topeak handlebar bag because its fairly big, has a 'waterproof' map sleeve and has a waterproof fly you can throw over it when it really starts pouring. Ortlieb handlebar bags (while nice) in our opinion are overpriced. We had at one point a Novara handlebar bag that did an okay job, but was water-useless and really not large enough for longer trips. No matter what you go with, handle bar bags are super useful for carrying snacks, maps, sunscreen, camera and all those do-dads you wish were within arms reach.
- Seat Bag. This isn't an absolute need, but it is nice to have a stowe away spot for extra tubes and tools. You could probably make one with some cloth and zip ties or string for much cheaper. We went with some Novara seat bags. The expand, easily pop off and are dumb simple to install. Oh, and they are pretty cheap.
- Waterproof Compression Sack. You could get a regular compression sack and throw it in a plastic bag - we've seen people do it and it works just fine. It also happens to be cheaper that way. The only problem is that you are pretty consistently swapping out torn plastic bags to keep your stuff dry. We went with Sea-To-Summit waterproof compression sacks and they've worked out great. Though, if you wanted to go a cheaper route, you could by regular compression sacks and spray them down with a waterproofing spray. These are useful for stuffing clothes, sleeping bags and other soft items and compressing them down to strap onto the top of the back rack. You may not need this if you pack lighter than we do.
- Bungie Cords. Slapping those things that you cannot cram in your bags is a bit difficult without these guys. No brand name here, find the cheapest ones and bungie away my friends!
Getting a nights rest is not only important when you have to do that 9 to 5 job of yours. Without a proper nights rest your 4 to 6 hour+ day of cycling will probably be pretty miserable if you have spent most of the night tossing and turning trying to stay warm or wiggle those rocks and pebbles out from you back and hips.
There are few different types of camping sleeping pads out there on the market. Most are air filled insulation/padding. We went with a closed cell sleeping pad because we didn't want to worry about punctures and patching. They are a bit bulky and unwieldy at times but the benefit of durability and the fact that you can shake most moisture off of it at the end of the day made the our choice. Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite
After your choice of sleeping pad, the next most important aspect of your blissful cycle tired sleep is a sleeping bag. There is a lot of debate out there on whether or not synthetic or natural down sleeping bags are more awesome than the next. For us, price is what drove our choice as well as the lower temperature limits.
We're on a budget, so buying a few hundred dollar+ sleeping bag is not really on our desired agenda to do. The Marmot Trestle provide ample space and warmth for our needs within the temperatures we've found ourselves within. A couple of side benefits of a synthetic bag, we feel, include:
- Drying time. Getting wet when you spend most of your time outdoors, along with sleeping in a tent every night, pretty much means no possibility to keep absolutely dry . Having a sleeping bag damp or wet can greatly decrease its warmth. The fact that synthetic bags seem to dry much faster than down bags is a big plus for us - especially while we cycled through British Colombia.
- Loft. While down may provide a better loft (essentially the space between you and the ground) making your sleeping experience more comfortable and warm, down has a tendency (in our experience) to flatten and lose a bit of its 'puffiness' in the long run - especially if down gets wet. With a synthetic bag this seems to be less of a problem.
- Rips. A fundamental fact of sleeping everyday in a sack filled with any material and a zipper; you are going to rip it eventually. When you rip a down bag you'll probably wake in a dreamy morning state full of feathers in your mouth and softly dancing fluff balls in the corner of your tent. Trying to jam those little suckers back in your bag and make a patch is a real pain in the tuchus. With a synthetic bag its just this ball of nylon string you can shove back in pretty easily.
We're not saying that getting a synthetic bag is the 'best' choice for a sleeping bag. If you plan on doing extreme adventuring on Kilimanjaro base camps or in extremely cold environments there are plenty more high quality down bags that will do the job for you and probably do a better one than any synthetic bag can. However, since we typically don't find or seek out those types of circumstances a fairly cheap and reputable synthetic sleeping bag works just fine for us.
Choosing a tent to buy is no easy task. There are so many choices, in so many price ranges, you kinda just want to bang your head against the wall when trying to decide which route you're going to take to fork out the money for a tent.
While we haven't tried every member of the 'off-brand' tents from box stores like Walmart or Fred Meyer, we're pretty sure you are going to want to avoid those Coleman and Glacier Edge tents. There are multiple reasons for this. First, pack down size and weight for those more reasonably priced tents tend to be bulky and heavy - things that don't go well when you are loading them on a bicycle.
Second, most of the cheaper off-brand tents we've had experience with tend to be difficult to pop up and are made with poles and cloth material that break or rip under regular use. Thirdly, many of the common cheaper tents you can find are not designed in a way that holds up to abusive use and weather which can lead to leaks and a generally unpleasant camping experience.
Those things being said, it is probably not a good idea to go waist deep into a $300+ tent. As with sleeping bags, tents are usually made of materials (nylon and thin tent poles) which do not lend themselves to everyday abusive use - which, if you go on an extended cycling tour, will be the circumstances that you place your tent in.
For us, what's worked out well is an ALPS tent that we found on sale for $130. These specific tents, however, are no longer available as a production item. Our tent itself, doesn't come without its quirks. In moderately damp conditions some of the nylon tabs that clip in the top pole collect so much condensation that it will drip into your tent.
The best advice we have for you is that you should go with a three season tent for breathability (unless of course you are cycling across Siberia), that has an overall positive review from the vendor that you are purchasing from and has as few poles and accessories as possible. Additionally, we believe that buying a tent at full price is silly. Find one on sale, as if you intend to use a tent for any length of time you're going to have to fix/replace it at some point. Spending a fortune on a tent does not make any sense to us.
Have you ever used a camping stove?
While campfires are great, and cooking on them a masterful burning hand dance of creativity, it is not always practical to light a fire either because there's no wood or fires are banned all together. Investing into a multi-fuel cooking stove from one of the various makers/vendors out there will save you time, is much more convenient and delivers your morning coffee a lot faster.
Here's our camping kitchen:
- MSR Whisperlite International stove. We went with this stove because there where a host of people on the internet that indicated that it did alright with unleaded gasoline. We've ran this stove solely on gasoline and it has worked pretty well. The reason for this is that having to cart around spacial canisters or white gas (sometimes even finding them) can be a huge pain. At this point, gas stations are everywhere which takes the head scratching about where you are going to find fuel.
- GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Backpacker cookware. We found this cook-set on sale and it has worked well. The non-stick surface has been torn up a bit and both the pot and pan have warped a bit with heavy use and bouncing around all the time in our bags. Honestly, we can't see a light weight cookware set like this one holding up any better. This is another item for us where it doesn't really make sense to invest a ton of money in to it - no matter what you do or get, it is going to get abuse.
- MSR Cooking Utensils. Another cheap and convenient buy to make cooking outdoors a bit more civil. Out of the ladle, spatula and cheese grater the grater is the least used for us and it is really difficult to clean out in the boonies.
- MSR Cutting Board. A cheap cutting board that is small and light is super useful for cutting up garlic, onions and a host of other things on the road. We went without this for a month or two and after getting one we don't understand how we survived without it.