In the summer of 2003, I took my first bike tour across Washington State. Looking at the pictures from that ride, I’m amazed by how much gear I heaped onto my bike. Although some of the route was on abandoned rail beds, I was always within a couple hours walk to civilization of some sort. Today, as I look at pictures of the loaded bikes ridden by the cyclists in the Great Divide Race, I am equally amazed at how tiny their loads are. They travel through stretches of wilderness where the closest home might require two days of walking to reach. Yet many just have a backpack and a small seat or frame pack for hauling all of their gear.
How much stuff you haul on a cycling adventure depends upon many variables. But I think the variables with the most impact to the size of your load are money and your need for comfort.
The money part of this equation makes sense to anyone who has priced out a light-weight sleeping and shelter solution, but the comfort part is not as clear to most people. Endurance cyclist, Kent Peterson, talks about how the comfort a given item provides in camp must be measured against the discomfort the same item inflicts on climbs. Sleeping on a giant cushy pad in a big fat sleeping bag with a packable pillow under a double-walled tent may provide a great night of sleep, but hauling all of that gear up long climbs may turn you off to cycle touring all together. A drastically lighter sleeping and shelter solution may only yield a slightly less-than-optimal night of sleep, but it will certainly make your days on the bike much more comfortable.
When I bought my first “real” sleeping bag, I bought the lowest temperature-rated bag that I could afford. I ended up with a huge synthetic bag that was warm down to 10 degrees. It weighed over five pounds and wouldn’t fit into my biggest pannier. The fact is, I rarely find myself bike camping in sub-freezing temperature, so now I travel with a small down bag that is rated to 30 degrees. If it’s colder, I sleep in an extra layer of micro-weight wool. About once a year, I wake up cold, but otherwise I’m fine. My new sleeping bag was cheaper, lighter, and packs way smaller than my original monster bag.
My (expensive) lesson learned is to evaluate my comfort threshold before I spend a bunch of money on gear. Using this method, I can look at my budget and put the big money on the gear that will return the most on my overall comfort. Again, comfort is evaluated for both the riding and camping portions of my adventure.
Using this method, my basic overnighter kit is pretty small, but I do carry a camping hammock so I can sleep well. The hammock is light, packs small and since it’s covered, it serves as a tent too. I typically don’t carry a stove unless I am going for multiple days. Not cooking saves some bulk and weight, but I do miss my morning coffee.
One way to reduce sleeping and shelter gear is to do super long days in the saddle. If I tire myself out to exhaustion, then I’ll sleep anywhere. For this type of riding, I have a tiny bug tent and sleeping pad that together weigh about a pound and take up very little space.
Food and water can add a lot of bulk and weight to your bike. If I am traveling through areas where water is scarce, then I’ll be hauling a bunch of water. If I am traveling through areas where there is water, I’ll carry the means to make it potable. Sometimes I travel with iodine tablets to purify water, but I’ve grown wary of this method after I learned how easy it is to end up with contaminated water if I’m not mindful of the process. And I’m uneasy with consuming that much iodine. Now I carry a water filter for most trips and I’m very careful in my purification process.
As for food, generally speaking, it’s mostly made up of water. If I carry a stove, then I can save a lot of food weight by bringing dehydrated food. The prepackaged stuff is super expensive. Instead, go to a place like Huckleberries and check out the dehydrated refried beans. Sounds nasty? They’re not. They are great, especially after a long day of riding. I pack a little nob of cheese and a bit of dried chipotle pepper. I boil some water dump the cheese and pepper in with the dehydrated refried beans, let it sit, and I’ve got a great dinner in five minutes.
For clothes, there are no surprises here. Many thin layers are good. No cotton. And I always bring a small wool beanie and a wind breaker shell just in case.