Bicycle Touring and Camping Gear
Thoreau said, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone," and this rule works fairly well for bicycle touring and camping. Part of the reason for going on a bicycle tour should be to get away from the complexities of the world. Nonetheless, I have encountered bicycle travelers who left so much behind that they were suffering: one was traveling without camping gear or money on a Murry bike (1991 trip), two were "camping" in motels while carrying an overweight tent (1988), one was hauling his broken bike parts across Canada on worn-out tires (1998), and another was riding all night long each night because his tent had been stolen (1998).
I don't consider it a solution to go out and buy a lot of expensive camping gear either. Better results come from using the head rather than the wallet. The high-school or college student on a tight budget can have as great a trip as the millionaire, and probably a much better trip, as having to struggle a little bit creates a better challenge, and a humble camping site close to the earth and visited by God's creatures is sweeter than the finest hotel. However, carrying the proper gear can make a real difference. While a little hardship just increases the challenge, suffering from rain, cold, insect bites, hunger, lack of sleep, sunburn, frequent flats, broken equipment, getting lost, and dangers on the roads can be alleviated, if not prevented, through careful selection ahead of time.
The real solution then is not to carry a little equipment or a lot of equipment, but to carry the right equipment. The intelligent choice comes through careful planning and experience. You can improve your ability by paying careful attention to my advice, by reading books on touring and backpacking, and by making short trips to test your understanding. As I said back in 1970,
The lightest gear is what you know.
Variations in Equipment
The specific bicycle camping equipment that should be carried on a bicycle touring trip will vary quite a bit from person to person. Some of the variables are:
- Type of trip:
- Hosteling requires at least a sleep sack or bag; camping requires at least a tent and sleeping bag; cooking requires at least a gas stove, fuel bottle, cooking pot with lid, utensils, and a supply of food; and backwoods camping requires all of these plus extra water and/or a water filter or purifier.
- The time of year, weather, and elevation:
- It shouldn't take a genius to figure out that a trip in Ireland during the rainy season requires different preparation from a trip to the Sahara during the summer or a trip to Canada during the winter. Less drastic changes in weather and climate still require changes in the camping equipment carried, a warmer sleeping bag for higher elevations, rain gear for cooler weather and whenever rain is likely, and an all-season tent for cold-weather travel.
- Length of trip:
- An overnight trip does not require any extras, not even clothing; It's easy to limit oneself to the bare necessities for a week or so; on the other hand, a long trip can be boring at times without a few toys.
- Personality and interests:
- On a longer trip, a reader should carry a paperback, a writer a notebook or small laptop, a photographer a camera or two, a birdwatcher a book and small binoculars, an artist a sketchpad, a card player a deck, and so on. Even a variety of interests can be maintained with little weight penalty provided the cyclist chooses light-weight options. However, a bike trip is not a good time to indulge oneself in possibilities: carry only amusement items that you will use frequently.
Questions about the kind of bike, panniers or trailer, tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, and other equipment cannot be answered the same for everyone. This does not mean that there are no wrong answers; just that the right answer and wrong answer varies from person to person.
Suitable Bicycles for a Touring Trip
I get quite a few questions about what kind of bicycle someone should buy, and I can answer these questions in only the most general way, as I ride only my own bikes. I have enough knowledge through my own experiences to be able to make the following statements about bicycles for touring and camping trips. Note: I do not refer to mountain, touring, hybrid, or sports bikes because those labels are often applied inaccurately: you need to examine very carefully the individual bike you are buying; for instance, a friend bought a touring bike with fender mounts and then discovered it did not have room for both fenders and touring tires.
For some reason, manufactures have not been putting double eyelets on the front and rear forks of many bikes otherwise suitable for touring. The upper eyelets provide a secure attachments for racks, and the lower eyelets allow for the attachment of fenders. It is possible, but not preferred, to attach racks and fenders with clamps (or to the bike's axles if not using quick releases).
While it is suitable to daytour or B&B tour with a rear rack and panniers only, those interested in camping will have too much gear to make carrying all the weight on the rear desirable. A rack and panniers on the front wheel will help balance the bike and make control easier. Nonetheless, thousands have crossed the US and Canada without front panniers.
A bike without fenders will be miserable during rainy weather. The problem is not from riding in the rain, but from riding at high speeds downhill on wet roads. Without fenders, the spray from the front tire will goes straight into the face. For a bike to mount fenders, it needs to have eyelets on the front and rear forks and has to have enough clearance between the tires and the fork. However, fenders can create problems too. Sticky mud, wet tar, sticks, and snow can jam between the tire and the fenders, resulting in frequent stops or even falls; therefore, fenders are not recommended for loose snow, trail riding, or muddy roads. I prefer steel fenders, which are still being sold, and which will last a lifetime.
Wide tires are slower and skinny tires are faster on smooth pavement. However, skinny tires produce a pounding ride on rough pavement, have more flats, and cannot negotiate gravel roads. Larger people carrying heavier loads should use a somewhat heavier tire. For my long-distance touring trips, I use tires from 1¼ to 1 3/8 inch (32 to 35 mm); the heavier tires are slower but have a softer ride and better control, especially on gravel. With a mountain bike, I would recommend 1.4 or 1.5 inch tires for long-distance pavement riding, although I have ridden with cyclists who used heavier tires and were happy. Tires are commonly overinflated nowadays. Tire pressure should be somewhat soft to provide a less-harsh ride, but not under the recommended minimum inflation pressure.
A long wheelbase of 40 inches (102 centimeters) minimum and 42 inches (107 centimeters) or more preferred generally means a more stable ride and slower turns, which is more comfortable when traveling long miles. The longer wheelbase also allows room for fenders and larger tires and better handling when the bike is loaded. A longer wheelbase is also very important for adding racks and panniers. If the chainstay is too short, the foot strikes against the rear pannier and/or a rear fender is impossible, so a length of 16¾ inches minimum (42.5 centimeters) and 17½ (44.5 centimeters) or more preferred is highly recommended (the size of your tires, your foot size, and the design and positioning of your rear panniers are also factors).
Dropped handlebars are an advantage in touring as they provide more hand positions. I mount the top bar flat and allow the drops to slope, as this gives me seven clearly different hand positions, counting both underhanded and overhanded positions but without counting the drops, which I find useful for mounting my bar-end shifters. Those that tour with flat bars often added extenders to provide additional positions. I have thick foam on my handlebars to help absorb shock.
Triple chainwheels are a necessary for loaded touring unless you are a young, strong, and male or are touring in a very flat region. A six percent grade puts me in my bottom gear. See my article on cadence and gearing for information on gear ranges.
The present trend is towards bikes with very rigid frames; I saw one touring bike with box stays. On the other hand, my bike has a much less rigid frame; I can easily flex the bottom bracket over an inch with my foot. The bike has traveled over 56,000 miles in all kinds of weather, about half that distance on tours carrying 50 pounds or more, so I'm not impressed with rigid designs. Get on the bike and ride it to determine if it suits you.
Touring bikes from the 80's with five and six-speed rear cogs and with chrome-moly frames are a very good bargain if you can live with the limited freewheel availability or if you replace the wheels (Caution: many have 27-inch wheels, and if they also have cantilever brakes, you can't substitute 700C wheels). These bikes are probably not bargains if you end up having to swap a number of components. Especially examine the condition of the wheels. I've seen them sold in the bike shops for $200. In addition, hybrid and mountain bikes from the early 90's with seven-speed freehubs are often quite suitable for touring. Check the frame dimensions and for eyelets. Good sources for cheap bikes are college campuses at the end of the school year, police auctions, and Goodwill Stores.
I very seldom see touring bikes with lights, and I often see them without reflectors. Of course, few would intend to travel at night on a touring trip; nonetheless, it is easily possible not to reach your destination before nightfall, and riding a bike on the road at night without lights is about the most dangerous thing you can do. In addition, the Blue Ridge Parkway has many tunnels, and I have encountered them elsewhere on many trips. In a tunnel, you can't see without lights, and nobody can see you.
A generator light is a good solution for a touring trip. It's very light-weight, it's never in the way, and it's alway available when you need it. Unfortunately, good inexpensive generator lights have become hard to find; the only ones I see now are made of cheap plastic. Somewhat pricey generator sets are imported from Europe. Other choices include a light that mounts on your head or a flashlight type light with a bracket to hold it on the bike. While these last avoid the necessity of a separate bike light, they are emergency lights only. If nothing else, the batteries won't last very long. At least get one that takes 4 AA batteries instead of one that takes 2 C or D batteries, as the light from the latter will die very quickly.
Make sure you have a rear reflector and a rear light. The flashing LED lights last for months on AA or AAA batteries.
Pannier Bags and Bike Trailers
I have written a separate article on pannier bags, so I'll just say here that most of the bags sold for loaded touring would be more suitable as day bags or for motel touring instead. If the bags are too small, everything just gets piled high on the rear carrier. Traveling long distances with insufficient gear will not make a happy camper either. Be sure your bags suit your requirements.
Some cyclists prefer trailers. Although my own experience with a trailer was unsatisfactory, bike trailers are lighter nowadays, and the cyclists I have encountered traveling with trailers were happy. Some of those who haven't used a trailer may feel that a trailer will make carrying the weight easier, but this is not true. I think the primary difference is psychological: some will not be happy with the panniers' extra weight on the bike, and others will not like the trailer pulling and pushing on the bike. There are several advantages to a trailer: it does not require double eyelets on the forks of the bike, it allows the stronger rider to carry most of the load, and it allows larger items to be carried. As disadvantages, there is the extra weight and drag of the trailer, the need to carry an extra tube and tire (for the trailer), and a constant temptation to carry too much.
Tents for Cycling Trips
I have also written a separate article on tents. The size and kind of tent should reflect your requirements. A bivouac bag or one-man tent may be sufficient on a short, fast trip. A tarp is sufficient in insect-free areas and costs very little. A cheap, light-weight discount store tent can provide happy nights if the weather is not bad. A single-wall, two-person tent will weigh 3-4 pounds and can be bought for about $100, but is now hard to find. Double-wall tents can be found that weigh and cost only a little more. Good four-season, two-person tents can be found that weigh 5-6 pounds but will cost $150 and on up. Remember that a few nights in a motel room will cost more than a tent. Four-season tents are overkill for summer use. Especially pay attention to tent pole length as long poles are a problem on a bicycle.
The sleeping bag should be of the light-weight "mummy" design. Do not buy the heavy-weight discount store version. A two-pound synthetic bag is sufficient for summer-time camping at low elevations. In the mountains or in the spring and fall, a 3½ pound synthetic bag is usually sufficient. A five pound bag is overkill except for use in the winter. While down bags are both lighter and smaller than synthetic bags with the same insulation, they are ineffective when wet.
Stoves and Cooking Gear
Many years ago, I became quite content with the Svea 123 gasoline, and I have not wanted to own another stove, although the others receive much praise. Its weight is low, it works fine with unleaded gas, and it's been very dependable over the years. Some problems exist with this stove: it's easy to tilt, it must be primed with a small quantity of gasoline burned externally, and it works poorly in cold weather. Some other small stoves are actually fairly bulky and heavy, and others require Coleman or other special fuel. Butane stoves require hard-to-find cartridges and thus are useful for weekend trips only. I have experimented with kerosene stoves, but the ones I tried were unsatisfactory. Some alcohol stoves are useless. Buy a stove from a source that offers comparisons, and use the stove to cook a meal or two before making any trip. A good place to ask about stoves is in email@example.com or check the searchable archives there, in which all stoves are discussed.
I would suggest saving some money on cooking gear. The small pots and fry pans generally sold for camping, often at high prices, are useless. Buy a lightweight ten-inch skillet with a lid and a three-quart pot with a lid. To save even more weight, leave the skillet at home.
The most important clothing to carry in most regions is rain gear. Even here opinions vary. At low elevations in hot weather during the summer, getting wet is no problem. However, considering the fact that temperatures drop during a thunderstorm or rainy spell, I think some raingear is manatory at times. A vinyl plastic rainsuit, while cheap, will quickly tear up, and vinyl is bad for the environment. Better is an inexpensive waterproof nylon suit, but such a suit lacks ventilation and is useless while cycling; some of these suits are made for cycling and do have extra ventilation added, for what it's worth. A solution I've never seen tried would be to carry a small umbrella; while it would be good only during stops, it would provide instant shelter and better protection than a rain suit. An old solution, now rarely used, is a waterproof cape or a poncho which sheds water well but allows ventilation (and also splashing) below. Another old solution is to wear wool which, while it does not shed water, does still keep the cyclist warm. The most recent and expensive solution is a Gore-Tex or Ultrex rainsuit, the former more expensive but more waterproof. Note that even Gore-Tex will not keep you dry during the heaviest downpours, but you should not be riding at those times. I would recommend against buying a heavy, insulated rain suit for touring. A lighter suit plus a vest or sweater to wear underneath in cold weather will be warmer and allow greater flexibility.
Those on bicycle touring trips don't have exactly the same clothes requirements as sports cyclist. Shoes must be practical for walking in as well as for riding. Pants should have pockets and be comfortable both in mixed company and in the woods. Shirts should be visible at long distances. It's also a good idea to tone down your image for easy mixing with non-cyclists. However, you should wear bright-colored shirts and jackets for better visibility on the road.
Cotton is generally the poorest fabric for excercise as it holds sweat and odors, and it stains and wrinkles easily. Tougher cotton fabrics may be OK for shorts, but buy synthetic underwear, socks, and shirts. Polypropylene and Coolmax are excellent, and newer nylon fabrics (which I have not tried) are now available for shorts and pants.
One decision affecting clothing is how often you wish to do laundry. A college friend of mine would wash his clothes in the bathtub every night, and a touring cyclist staying in motels could do the same. A camper could carry two sets, washing one every day. I prefer to carry three sets of clothes and six sets of underclothes, washing every sixth day.
Maps are an important part of the trip. The ultra-light traveler will want to buy a new state map just before entering a state and to discard it upon leaving. The person heavy into planning will want to carry maps of the whole trip. Be sure to double wrap all items that can be damaged by water.
Tools should not be overlooked. At the very least, you need to be able to repair flats, make adjustments, and tighten loose nuts and bolts. I carry enough tools to almost completely disassemble my bike. Some spare parts are a good idea as well, especially water-bottle bolts, which are also used to attach the racks.
Bicycle Camping Gear I Carry
I thought it would be helpful to provide a list of the equipment I carry on my long-distance, summertime bicycle camping trips.
If a scale is handy, I like to see how much the bike weighs before
and during a trip. In 1988, the bike, with lights, racks, fenders,
and two full water bottles, weighed 36 lbs., and the gear and bags weighed
47 lbs. In 1990, the bike weighed 30 lbs. (without the water bottles),
and the gear (including three full water bottles) weighed 60 lbs., which
included extra clothing and a winter bag for Colorado. When I returned
home, the bags weighed six pounds more. Since then, although I haven't
written down the figures, my bags have weighed 45 - 55 lbs. As a general
figure, I assume 250 lbs. for the bike, gear, and me, while on a local
ride, the total weight would be close to 200 lbs. The result of the
extra weight is that I am 20% slower on climbs.
Most of my equipment is under fifteen years old, due to a theft which
left me without camping equipment for some years. Most camping gear,
if properly cared for, will last decades, even if used frequently.
Cap - on head
Bandana - water bottle holder on front right bag
Three short-sleeved Coolmax shirts - left rear pannier
One long-sleeved wool shirt - left rear pannier
Three pairs of cycling shorts - left rear pannier
One pair of long pants - left rear pannier
Six pairs of synthetic underpants - left rear pannier
Six pairs of socks - left rear pannier
GoreTex rain jacket- right rear outside pocket
GoreTex pants - right rear outside pocket
Polypropylene gloves - inside jacket pocket
Sleeping bag (in nylon bag) - left front pannier
Thermorest mattress - vertical pocket, left rear pannier
Tent (in nylon bag) - right front pannier
Poles (in nylon bag) - right front pannier
Stakes - vertical pocket, right rear pannier
Three-quart pot - bottom of right rear pannier
Pot lid - on pot, on side away from bike
Knife-fork-spoon set - handlebar bag
Sharp knife - handlebar bag
Matches - handlebar bag
Can opener - handlebar bag
Gas stove (in nylon bag) - vertical pocket, right rear pannier
Fuel bottle - vertical pocket, right rear pannier
Water filter (in nylon bag) - vertical pocket, right rear pannier
Spare food - inside three quart pot
Daily food - stashed wherever there is room.
Folding tire - left rear outside pocket
Tube - left rear outside pocket
Lube - left rear outside pocket
Extra spokes - vertical pocket, right rear pannier
Spare brake and derrailleur cables - left rear pannier
Rear axle - in tool bag or handlebar bag
Tools (bag in the right rear pannier)
Small screwdrivers, two sizes flat, two sizes Phillips
7, 8, 9, 10 mm wrenches
Allen wrench set
Suntour and Shimano freewheel removers
16 penny nail (to knock open bottom bracket)
Tire patch kit
Spare nuts, bolts, brake pieces
Scissors - handlebar bag
Hand mirror - handlebar bag
Comb - handlebar bag
Toothbrush - handlebar bag
Chap stick - handlebar bag
Suntan lotion - left rear outside pocket
Liquid soap - left rear outside pocket
A small packet of tissues -- left rear outside pocket
Odds & Ends
Air pump - bike frame
Three water bottles - bike frame and pockets of both front bags
Bike lock - varies according to the amount of use, often in left rear
Needles and thread - handlebar bag
Pens - handlebar bag
Notepad - handlebar bag
Traveler's Checks - handlebar bag
Compass - handlebar bag
Leg bands - handlebar bag
Flashlight - handlebar bag
Wallet with ID, credit cards - left pocket on shorts
Keys (bike lock and pannier) - right pocket on shorts
Road maps - watertight pouch in right rear pocket
Current map - left front water bottle pocket
Olympus Stylus zoom (35 - 70 mm lens) - handlebar bag
Remote - handlebar bag
Tripod - right or left front bag depending on the size of the sleeping
Extra film - handlebar bag
Computer and Supplies
Laptop (3 lbs.) - right rear pannier
Charger - right or left front bag, sometimes right rear pannier
Extra batteries (3) - handlebar bag
Note: the computer and charger are in waterproof nylon bags and then
are each tied in two throwaway plastic bags.
Note: On my Y2K trip, I carried more computer gear, batteries, and a solar panel, which totaled 7 pounds, but my total weight was still about 50 pounds. I also left behind the long pants and wool shirt, but purchased leg warmers along the way. While the leg warmers were a good substitution, the wool shirt was sorely missed on many cold days.