Bike Touring Gear
March 30, 2011 5:56 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about your indispensable gear for bicycle touring.

A few friends and I got really excited about the prospect of bike touring late last season, and I want to try to make it a reality this summer. For these upcoming trips, I currently own a) a bicycle, and b) a helmet.

So, I probably need to equip myself a little better. Ideally, I'd like to camp rather than stay in hotels. What's the one piece of gear that made your bicycle tours just that much easier, more comfortable, or generally more enjoyable? I realize I'm going to need things like a sleeping bag and a tent, but I'm at a loss otherwise. How many changes of clothes is appropriate? What do you normally bring for food?

The bike I'm planning to use is a 2006 Specialized Sirrus. I have a rear rack, bar ends (flat handlebars), and a single bottle cage. What else should I consider for the bike? More bottle cages? Change the handlebars?

To start off, I'm envisioning rides we can do to places that have transit we can return to Boston on, such as riding to the Cape and taking the Provincetown ferry home. So, probably a lot of three-day weekends for the time being.

(As an aside, I have experimented with heavy loads by transporting a 45 lb bag of cat litter home strapped to the top of the rack, and the bike was almost unrideable. Is it going to be really foolish to load this up with touring gear?)
posted by backseatpilot to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
The key thing to decide for touring is whether you want to use panniers or trailer. Either will be much better than weight strapped to the top of the rack, and 45lb is kinda a lot of weight. Like backpacking, the lighter the better. Extra bottle cages are useful, though some tourers prefer Camelbak-type bladders.
posted by JMOZ at 6:14 AM on March 30, 2011

This is a detailed breakdown of one setup, and here are pictures a a few hundred others. I don't have any personal advice, but I've been thinking about touring as well and found those.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:17 AM on March 30, 2011

Panniers will carry the weight lower than your bag of cat litter was so the ride will be more stable. If the Sirrus has front rack eyelets you could further distribute the weight front and back with another set of panniers.

You should have a bike shop re-tension your wheels but they will probably be your weakest link - carry as little weight as possible. The Sirrus is not the ideal touring bike but if Thomas Stevens could ride around the world on a penny farthing without roads then you can can ride a flat bar road bike around the US. Try a few longer rides first to make sure you can ride without severe discomfort (especially in your hands) then just go for it. If you have the money to spend then upgrading to a properly fitted touring bike (which I define as a sturdy road bike with mounting points for front and rear panniers, a sturdy wheelset and relatively more upright riding position) will make things more comfortable and mechanically reliable. As JMOZ said a trailer will take a lot of weight off your bike and improve handling under load, perhaps making the Sirrus more suitable.

I would recommend reading Ken Kifer's thoughts on gear. On my first tour I took a sleeping bag, a camping hammock and a plastic drop cloth for a tarp. It worked great but then I wasn't in an area with black flies or other wretched bugs. If you will be then I would recommend a light two person tent. One change of shorts, one long sleve shirt, one short sleeve shirt and two pairs of socks should do it for a short tour. Throw in one more of everything for a longer tour.

Food wise you will need to consume a rather large amount of calories. By the mid point of a longer tour I was eating 5 PB&J sandwiches for breakfest, another five for lunch and then a pound of pasta for dinner. I've always toured on an extreme budget so I don't eat at restaurants but I've heard they make consuming sufficient calories more pleasent. Snacks are important. and the International Bicycle Touring list are both a trove of information.
posted by ChrisHartley at 6:22 AM on March 30, 2011

I highly recommend Raymond Bridge's book Bike Touring for advice on touring. I would advise using panniers with a lowrider front rack.

With the a straight handlebar of a hybrid, a pair of bar ends (like Ergon grips or Cane Creek's Ergo bar ends) will give you a second hand position, which will make long rides much more comfortable.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:24 AM on March 30, 2011

This is a link to all forum posts on crazyguyonabike in the Equipment List category. One guy recently collected a bunch of equipment lists in an excel file you might want to take a look at. A lot of the journals there have people who list their equipment--you'll find everything from ultralight minimalists to college students doing it on the cheap to people who take everything, including portable kitchen sinks. You might like this guy's list--he added comments to his gear list after his cross-country tour. Plus, his whole journal is a hoot, so you might find inspiration in reading it since he didn't really know what he was doing before he left on his trip, either. On the other hand, this guy was super systematic about packing--his page has the weights and locations of everything, along with some notes about his gear post-tour.

Since you're just starting out, you might also be interested in how to make bike buckets to carry your gear rather than piling it all on top of a rack. But there's SO MUCH other info over at crazyguy that you should start poking around over there and see what you can find.

The one thing I didn't take and then bought later was a decent travel sized pillow. Everyone said I could just put clothes in a stuff sack, but good sleep is a necessity on tour, and I need a pillow for that.
posted by BlooPen at 6:37 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Crazyguyonabike and Ken Kifer mentioned above are both great. I was recently at a touring seminar and they highly recommended booklets, maps (touring specific), and everything else from Adventure Cycling (just a sexier name for touring, actually). Here is their "how-to" page.

You want rain gear and fenders. Spare spoke for every wheel in your crew or a kevlar adaptable one. The more puncture resistant the tires, the better.
posted by bread-eater at 6:38 AM on March 30, 2011

Warning warning warning: Bike touring is all about having fun, and doing it your way... it's not about the gear. It can be very easy to get worried about your equipment, spending months fixing up your bike, making sure you have the best of everything, but never actually going anywhere.

You might already have everything you need to go bike touring tomorrow (well, for a S24O).

An overnight trip is a bike tour - and it's a short, cheap, and easy way to do it. Those in the know call them an S24O (sub-24hr-overnight) - leave home one afternoon, find a spot to stay for the night, and return home in the morning. It needs virtually no planning, and it's no big deal if you forget something, or make any mistakes (and you will), and it's a heck of a lot of fun.

I recommend you try out a low-risk high-fun S24O outing, and see how you go. You'll learn heaps, and can come home the next day and call yourself a bike tourist! It is also the number 1 best way to learn what you need for longer bike tours.

More info here: Bike Camping vs. Touring
Packing list here: A Kit for One Night Out
posted by damian_ at 7:29 AM on March 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

I went on a tour a few years ago and took a lot more stuff with me than I needed and sent things home along the way.

Things I would have been sad without were: sleeping mat, Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap, and my panniers (I used Ortlieb and they are great, I would sometimes take my things out and use them to hold water to clean dishes or myself if a shower/sink wasn't available).

It was nice to have a handlebar bag (I used Arkel), because I wouldn't have to dig through my panniers to find things I wanted handy, like snacks, iPod, cell phone, wallet.

Your saddle is important as are good padded shorts -- my butt hurt the whole time even after I switched to a nice leather saddle (which took time to break in too).

I took a water bladder with me and wore it on my back (it was a Camelback), I could never get it adjusted to be comfortable to wear. But, it was nice to have water right there -- also nice was filling it with ice and water and having cold water to drink through the day.

We had a Trangia stove, I think you can make a similar stove out of cans, and that was also really nice to have. We used it to make everything from grilled cheese to lentils to pancakes. It was hard to get enough calories, I ate a lot of candy.

Now, I want to tour again!
posted by backwords at 7:33 AM on March 30, 2011

Indispensible stuff on my last (3 week) bike tour. As always, YMMV:

Phone numbers and addresses for bike shops everywhere we went! I was having a problem with my shifter early on that we couldn't fix. Knowing who to call helped.

Basic bike tools, pump, spare inner tube, patch repair kit, lube for the middle of nowhere.

2-man tent with considerable porch areas. We were in a place with a lot of bugs. Ours was Mountain Hardwear.

A waterproof jacket that tightened at the back of the neck. Amazing how cinching up that one spot made the difference between feeling dry and not feeling dry. Altura Evo did it for me.

For shoes, we cycled in Tevas and Sealskinz socks, for quick drying.

Great pannier bags. Waterproof stuff sacks for going inside them, to keep everything extra dry.

A truly waterproof map case. Mine's an Ortlieb.

Fanny pack/bum bag/kidney belt/whatever you call it for phone, bank card, stuff that HAD to stay dry and close to hand.

Heavy duty rubble bags as spare covers/liners for all of our bags.

Reflective stuff... it's surprising how quickly cyclists become invisible to cars. A high vis reflective tabard, even in summer, is key. Lights for night, of course.
posted by Cuppatea at 7:41 AM on March 30, 2011

Forgot to add... stove, we took a Jetboil. It rocked. Also sleeping mats. And bivvy bags for insect-free and starry nights... packs down to nothing, and doubles as a waterproof liner if need be.

Things we had too much of? Clothes. You're going to sweat and get wet, and there are probably places to wash clothes if you need them. 3 changes turned out to be enough.
posted by Cuppatea at 7:46 AM on March 30, 2011

I had a little bag that went under the saddle for easy access to cash, keys and tools. It unclipped easily for carrying into tea shops. Much less sweaty than a bum bag.

A spare inner tube, no matter how handy you are with the patches.

Proper REALLY waterproof panniers or dry sacks for inside your panniers.

Less changes of clothes than you think you need, except when it comes to socks. Dry socks are fantastic.

Some of that powdered energy drink stuff that you can put in your water bottle. This is a godsend at the late end of a long day.

Dense calories. We did pretty short days and I was still eating about twice as much as I do when at my office job.

Almost everything else is gravy.
posted by emilyw at 7:50 AM on March 30, 2011

My only addition to what's been said above is to have a decent tool kit (and know what it's for). Long-distance touring can be hard on bikes. You'll bring a spare tube, of course. You may well experience bent derailler hangers, torn tires, broken spokes. You don't need much to deal with those problems (a crescent wrench, a tire boot and a kevlar spoke or two), but not having them can mean calling a friend or a cab a long way out of town. Getting a list of the bikeshops on your route is a great idea too. I've had a couple of experiences where that was really handy (pro tip: don't cross a rail track at 35 kph if you want to keep your rear rim).

Having spares and a tool kit seems to be a bit like bringing rain gear: if you have it, you won't need it, but if you don't, you're just taunting the trouble ghosts.
posted by bonehead at 8:31 AM on March 30, 2011

Practice with the tools you will take with you before you leave. If you don't already know how learn to patch and change tubes. Learn how to adjust the set screws on your deraillers to lock them in a suitable place if your shifters die. Learn how to remove the casette and replace a drive-side spoke or carry a kevlar spoke so you don't have to remove the casette. On my above mentioned first tour my only tool was a 5mm allen key and a pair of vice grips. It is exceedingly difficult to true a wheel with a pair of vice grips.
posted by ChrisHartley at 8:31 AM on March 30, 2011

I would strongly recommend that you change handlebars. Bar ends help the single-position nature of flat bars, but having a set of drops opens up so many options. I've got the Nitto Noodle on my road bike, and it's seriously comfortable. I've got three good positions without even getting into the drops.

The downside of that would of course be that you'd have to swap out both your brake levers and your shifters. If you were feeling fancy, you could take it as an opportunity to switch to bar end shifters, which generally have the advantage of working in both indexed and friction modes.
posted by god hates math at 8:47 AM on March 30, 2011

A very low first gear is nice. Spend some time looking into the direction of prevailing winds for the trip you plan, and think about doing the trip in reverse if that's the way the wind blows.

Your butt and your hands are going to get sore: Good gloves and a handlebar that allows you to switch positions often, and a seat that works for you (for me, a leather saddle did the trick) are important.

Like emilyw, we tend to do short days and eat lots. All the money we save on hotels goes into fancy cheese, bread, and wine. A small stove is nice if you can plan some one-pot carbohydrate dinners, but be sure that you can find the right fuel where you are traveling. I use an old Svea stove and carry white gas in an aluminum bottle.
posted by Killick at 8:57 AM on March 30, 2011

I would agree that using drop bars would be an improvement for the additional hand positions, but this will require new brake/shift levers, making it a bit of a spendy proposition. You could add aero clip-on bars to flat bars or drop bars for even more hand positions.

It looks like your bike has eyelets for both rear and front low-rider racks. These plus panniers will distribute your weight much better than a single massive box of cat litter tottering on top of your rear rank. Ortlieb makes convenient, waterproof, sturdy panniers. They're not cheap but they're pretty much trouble-free.

Some tourists bring the kitchen sink, and they can easily load 45 pounds onto their bikes. At the other end of the spectrum, you can go pretty crazy saving weight if you want to. There's a whole sub-movement of ultralight bike touring called bikepacking. They're a little extreme for my tastes. I found that this guy's equipment lists were very helpful guidance, and his approach of having most of the comfort of loaded touring at minimum weight appeals to me.

Apart from obvious things like tools and spare tubes, the most useful thing I brought on tour was a smartphone. I ran my whole life through my iPhone when I rode the Southern Tier (self link). I had my own pack weight (exclusive of water) just below 30 lb; if I had spend a lot of money on a new tent and sleeping gear, I could have gotten it below 25. My own equipment list is here.

You will definitely want to be able to carry more than one bottle's-worth of water at a time. I was carrying a 100-oz water bladder (equivalent to about 4 bottles), and on one day, I had to carry two of them. Depending on where you're riding and how often there are available water stops, you might not need that much tankage, but on a hot day, a single bottle barely carries you through 30 miles even if you're heat-adapted.

I would carry more than one spare tube. I prefer to swap tubes when I flat and patch the flat when I'm done for the day (it's easier to do a good patch job). You can have more than one flat in a day, and tubes can fail completely (tear at the valve or have a big rupture). A good pump is also a good thing to have. The Topeak Road Morph is a favorite of tourists; the Lezyne Micro Floor Drive is similar in spirit but smaller.
posted by adamrice at 9:43 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Items I wish I would have brought on my tour:
* Tarp to cover the bike overnight.
* An awesome kickstand. Finding a suitably sturdy object in the middle of nowhere to lean your bike against is not always easy when you want to dig though your pannier bags.
posted by nautone at 11:41 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ride what you have. Don't worry about changing out bars ($$$) or changing too much on your bike until you have a few tours under your belt.

Most important:
- Proper saddle height adjustment

Things that made it more enjoyable:
- Never running out of water. I had 2 water bottles and a camelbak.
- Bike shorts
- Good tires - I used continentals that have kevlar, 1 flat in 1200 miles
- Rain shell for me, fenders for my wheels
- Getting the smallest little ring on the front

I've done a few tours. With all seriousness, get a rack and some bags, load up what you think you need and do a one or two-nighter. You'll know what you want to change. Don't plan too much or read too many gear lists. Just get out and ride.
posted by just.good.enough at 1:28 PM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love my Ortlieb panniers - they're completely waterproof, very durable, and you can even get patch kits for if you do manage to damage them. I use them every day for commuting but I've taken them touring or to music festivals.

If you change your handlebars, don't hesitate to adjust them or your saddle if you feel pain or discomfort during a long ride. If you feel any numbness or knee pain, STOP and readjust. Don't worry if it happens, but sort it out on the spot or you could be storing up a lot of trouble down the line.

Depending on your situation and route, credit card touring (ie rocking up to a hotel/B&B each night without having to carry a tent) can be a lot of fun if you fancy trying things out without getting loads of kit.

Have fun!
posted by doop at 3:56 PM on March 30, 2011

A remote control for my camera, and a tiny telescoping tripod.

We saw some great places, and as well as taking pictures of those places, I got some really nice photos of me and people with me. it seems like the camera timer can do the same thing, but in the real world, it can't.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:05 PM on March 30, 2011

You need a good saddle. Even with a good saddle, the only way to stop your ass from hurting is to plant it on that saddle for several hours a week leading up to your departure. No saddle, no matter how perfect, will feel great if your butt isn't hardened by miles on the road.
posted by klanawa at 5:48 PM on March 30, 2011

I've biked along Cape Cod twice, most recently last year. You can take the commuter train from South Station down to Plymouth, and from there it's 10-15 miles to the canal. Although, I haven't yet found a route from Plymouth that (a) avoids fast-moving cars and (b) isn't on dirt roads. Once you get to the Cape it's better.

I only have one thing to add to the above answers. For last year's trip, I navigated using only Google Maps on my iPhone and it worked pretty well. It helped me find a pretty sweet Mexican restaurant in Harwich. The problem was that every time I checked my location, the battery life dropped by about 1%. So if you have a smartphone that has GPS or some other location finder, definitely bring that and plan on using it--but be sure to keep it well-charged!
posted by A dead Quaker at 5:50 PM on March 30, 2011

I did a trip on my own in Tasmania a few years back.

My bike setup is here. Front and rear panniers and a handlebar bag was my setup.

I had a light 2 man tent Trangia, Thermarest and very light sleeping bag.

I could carry all the gear I needed. For more than one person you should be good if you get enough panniers.

If there are a few of you consider having one person drive and store the camping gear. It would make it a lot easier. You could rotate that person around or something with, say 3 of you riding 2 days each.
posted by sien at 8:01 PM on March 30, 2011

I see one things missing here that is absolutely essential for bike touring: Baby Wipes! Trust me, after the first day, these will be lifesavers. Even experienced riders, but especially if touring is new for you, experience, um...some discomfort down below. Baby wipes will make this much more pleasant. They're also great for wiping up your hands after you eat a greasy snack to keep your bars clean, getting the grease off your hands after you fix a popped chain and even removing grit/muck from your bike.

Most pharmacies sell travel packs that come in a light, thin, reusable plastic case that is perfect for bike touring. It'll be the best $3 worth of gear you buy.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 8:35 PM on March 30, 2011

Response by poster: This is all great information, thanks! I do have a couple of medium-sized Novara panniers for the bike, but I'm going to look in to getting larger ones for the rear and using these for a new front rack. The other option I'm considering is getting a trailer - we have a tandem that I might want to use to haul the girlfriend around, too, and I think a trailer would be better for two people. Looks like a bike repair course might be good to invest in, also (and lots of spokes! I can't believe how many broken spokes I've read about).
posted by backseatpilot at 7:26 AM on March 31, 2011

If you decide to go with a trailer, it would be useful to test ride and decide 1 wheel or 2. 1 wheel offer less drag but are a bit less stable. It's a matter of personal preference. The trailer I want to get at some point is the Burley Nomad, but the BOB (Ibex and Yak) are also popular choices. Trailers are one place where I can't recommend things like Nashbar's house brand.
posted by JMOZ at 8:29 AM on March 31, 2011

Make three piles from all the gear you think you might take...
1) Definitely can't imagine living without.
2) Important, but could survive without if I had to.
3) Luxuries/everything else.

Leave behind everything except pile 1). Even in that, are you really sure? You'll be amazed how little stuff you can survive with comfortably, even on an extended tour, with just a little experience.
posted by normy at 8:07 AM on April 15, 2011

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