While the reasons for a bike tour are ever-increasing, packing for a bike tour depends heavily on the time frame, distance to be covered, weather, and road conditions.
However, before you pack, it’s best to determine what kind of tour you’re actually going to have. In general, most cycle tour itineraries fall into four categories:
Credit-card touring means paying for food and lodging along the way at motels, B & Bs, hostels, or cafes. And, aside from clothes and bike equipment, the most important item to pack on a credit-card tour is, well, a valid credit card.
Supported touring typically involves an organized itinerary with food and camp accommodations shuttled from stop to stop by a private company. Supported tours are either bare bones or pampered affairs with a wide range of corresponding prices. Generally, though, cyclists only carry a minimal amount of gear while cycling, equating to fast paces and long daily distances.
In self-supported touring, a cyclist carries everything that’s needed to get by day to day. This involves cooking, camping, heavier loads of gear, a slower pace, and sturdy bike frames.
Bike-packing is a relatively new style of touring that’s quickly gaining in popularity. Bike-packers take an ultra-light, ultra-mobile approach to self-supported touring. In turn, this approach uses minimalist camping gear and either a mountain or cyclocross bike. Frame bags and light loads are the rule, giving bike-packers the low-profile agility needed to ride the worst backcountry roads and trails.
Self-supported tours require more gear, making the use of cargo racks and panniers (a bag, basket, or box carried in pairs on your bike) necessary. Legend has it that back in the ’70s, Jim Blackburn and a couple of his friends discovered that bikes rode best when loads were mounted low on front fork’s panniers and high on the rear rack. Most cycle tourists also use some sort of handlebar or map bag to keep tools, sunscreen, snacks, electronics, or navigation tools close at hand. Frame bags mount on the frame, rather than a rack, and are favored by bike-packers for their light weight and low profile. Meanwhile, many self-supported tourists use either compression straps or a cargo net to secure equipment bags onto the rear rack.
Every cycle tourist has his or her own clothing preferences. However, most tourists agree that lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing is best. Accordingly, you’ll find that base layers in synthetic fiber or merino wool are on most tourists’ wish lists. Lightweight, long sleeve shirts or jerseys protect summer tourists from the sun’s harmful rays. Meanwhile, down or synthetic-insulated jackets are lightweight, packable, and keep you warm through cold nights. Also, a bandana or a buff is an indispensable must. Basically, you’re able to either soak it in water for a makeshift swamp cooler, or wear it outlaw-style on dusty roads when the dirt is blowing.
When selecting your shorts or tights, keep in mind that an agreeable chamois will alleviate discomfort during long days in the saddle. Along these lines, padded gloves will dampen road vibration on chip-sealed roads. Shoes that are compatible with SPD pedal systems create more pedal efficiency, but many expedition-style tourists choose hiking shoes or sandals for their versatility. And, of course, a comfortable, well-ventilated helmet is a must. Sunglasses cut glare and keep debris out of your eyes, while high-visibility fabric accents increase your visibility to motorists in low-light conditions.
For cold-weather tours, plan on packing gloves, a warm hat, a balaclava or neck gaiter, heavy socks, and waterproof, windproof shoes and covers. On top of this, we recommend down booties, as they’re able to bring coziness to cold nights without adding much weight.
Self-supported touring requires carrying all of your food between resupply points. Remember, though, that the more remote the itinerary, the less frequent the resupply points. With this in mind, a lightweight stove and pots are needed. Additionally, a mug, plate, bowl, and spork will become indispensable tools for the best part of the day. You’ll also need spices and necessities like oil, a cutting board, and a ‘kitchen sink’ (folding bowl). These items simplify both the preparation and cleanup of meals. International tourists favor multi-fuel stoves, as the more types of fuel a stove is able to burn, the easier things are when you run out of gas in Kazakhstan on your solo Silk Road tour. Many tourists favor isobutane or canister stoves for their light weight and quick boil times.
But, it all comes back to water. As previously stated, the less frequent your resupply points, the more water you need to carry. Self-supported tourists often carry three or more water bottles in cages, with two to four more liters being stored in bladders. In less-developed or remote regions, a filtration system is a definite must, and most tourists carry iodine tablets for emergencies.
Both supported and credit-card tourists will need the bike tool basics: a patch kit, pump, a bike multi-tool, a chain breaker, tire levers, and an ample supply of spare tubes. Of course, packing a roll of duct tape and zip ties for SOL scenarios is also a good idea. For self-supported touring, include the basics plus spare brake and derailleur cables, brake pads, chain lube, a Schrader valve converter, replacement spokes, a mini-cassette remover, a rag for cleaning, a Leatherman-style multi-tool, a spare foldable tire (with a nylon rather than wire bead), and some degreaser.
Credit-card tourists will want either a cotton or silk sheet for hostels and sketchy lodging spots. Self-supported tourists will need a sleeping bag, mat, and shelter. Down makes for the lightest and warmest sleeping bags, but it’s difficult to dry out once wet. Self-inflating mats are cushier and better insulating than closed-cell foam, but are also heavier and can get punctured. Summer tours in warmer climates will mean warm nights, so they’re best left for lightweight bags and cotton liners. Many tourists prefer hoop-style tents with large vestibules. These are great for cooking and socializing, but most aren’t self-standing and take more time to set up on rocky surfaces. If you’re free-camping, look for a tent with muted colors, as these are best for being nearly invisible when necessary. Bike-packers and minimalist tourists will want technical tarps, bivy sacks, and hammock shelters for their light weight and packability.
These three make sense as a category. A basic first aid kit is a good idea for any kind of tour. For expedition-style tours, carry extra prescriptions and spare pare of eyeglasses if you require them. Basic toiletries like a toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, and toilet paper are a must, while baby wipes, biodegradable soap, and a travel towel will also come in handy. Pepper spray or bear spray is quite effective against aggressive animals (and there will be some) and creepers. Keep in mind, though, that these items can’t be taken across international borders.
While bike-packers and minimalist tourists scoff at the extra weight, it’s important to bring personal items for entertainment. After all, all of your time out of the saddle is free time.