Packing for Cross Country Bicycle Touring
by: Ed Noonan

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 Packing List

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updated 4/98

I am actually a very experienced camper. I've backpacked through Michigan, Canada, Europe and Alaska. I've cross-country skied across the Brooks Range in Alaska. I've canoed all over Canada, Michigan and Alaska. I've camped out hundreds of times. But, I've never before attempted to travel self-contained on a bicycle in remote areas. Cycling in remote areas where services are few and far between presents unique packing challenges. Weight is of primary concern. I agonized over my gear selections for weeks before and during my cross-country adventure.

In order to develop my packing list, I reviewed lists put together by about a half a dozen other cross-country riders and some cycling books, my lists from previous rides, the DALMAC packing list and a list put together by Raupp Campfitters (a sporting goods store located in Lansing, Michigan).

As my first test, I piled everything I wanted to take with me into 4 paper grocery bags to get an idea how well the bulk would be handled by my panniers. I then weighed every item on my wife's kitchen scale. At first I had 68 lbs of gear. I tried reducing it at home and failed. In retrospect, I believe I started out with a gross weight of about 125 lbs (bike and gear).


My loaded Cannondale T-700 touring bike 5/26/96
Casio QV30 photo

When I rode my bike up my first mountain pass, Cleary Summit in Alaska, a 2,000'+ 8% grade, I started removing some of the gear, By the time I got through the Canadian Rockies, I think I got the whole load down to about 100 lbs (including 13.5 lbs of computer/high tech gear).

Judging from folks I saw on the Alaska Highway, my load was actually lighter and less bulky than many.

Before departing from Fairbanks, I received some well deserved (though hard to accept at the time) suggestions via e-mail from experienced riders, like the following:

A few suggestions (feel free to ignore). Tools - you have a lot which could be replaced by a Ritchey CPR14 tool (incs allen keys, spanners, screwdriver, spoke key.) It is obviously not as good as having distinct tools, but it'll get you to the next town. Given your load, I would probably carry a real SpokeKey as well. I would try and get LBS's on the route to give you a tune-up - they'll prob do for free for a mention!

Clothes - is where you need to be ruthless. Ditch the tennis shoes. Use your running shorts as swim suit. Maybe you could ride in long johns plus rain pants for warmth and ditch the Bellweather long pants. In a while you could prob ditch your street long pants (once over the rockies) . Look at the overlap between your riding warm clothes and your town warm vest/shirt. On top you have polypro, plus insulated shirt, plus windbreaker plus rainjacket, plus street insulated shirt (and street long shirt as emergency warmth). Maybe you can ditch one item. . Ditto pillowcase - use sleeping bag stuffsack . You might psychically need to change a shirt over every three weeks via post to give you a new outfit!

Packing. Definitely keep everything as low as possible and even. I've noticed that US panniers dont descend as low as Brit ones (which can go below axle) - if you can adjust lower it would be good. You could use an MTB derailleur protector to keep it off (its a loop of steel that bolts onto axle and "covers" the cage to protect against rocks). Every inch lower helps. Do however keep weight in front panniers (I traveled light enough I didnt use). Do you have a bottle cage underneath your down tube? I used a peak gasoline stove with a Sigg fuel bottle in a cheap cage mounted using loops around the tube as had no braze ons. It lowers gravity a lot.

But you're right, the hi-tech stuff is a bear. Look again at all your gadgets (alarm clock, HR monitor? use bike light as flashlight?)

After riding the down the Alaska Highway with 10 highly experienced riders in the CYCLEVENTS Great Alaska Highway Tour, at Dawson Creek, British Columbia in preparation for the self-contained portion of my journey, I laid out everything I had with me in 3 piles on the grass (yes, no & maybe) and called out for yays or nays. My riding companions were brutal. I felt naked, but the bike still felt heavy. On their recommendation, I eliminated:

  • Camelbak
  • heart rate monitor
  • altimeter
  • pannier patches
  • ripstop tape
  • PUR Pioneer Water Filter
  • long sleeve TCBA shirt
  • tennis shoes
  • swim suit
  • 1 spare CoolMax brief
  • 1 street sox
  • 1 handkerchief
  • running shorts
  • small pillow case
  • clock radio
  • notebook

I didn't have a scale, but thought the load remained around 50 pounds. I was right. On July 30, I stopped at a livestock auction yard in Devils Lake, North Dakota where I weighed the bike as loaded and found I was correct: it weighed 85 lbs (as equipped, the Cannondale T-700 bike weighs 35, so the load was 50 lbs).

My excess weight is clearly in the high tech equipment. A Newton (at 1 lb) would be great, but couldn't handle the digital photos, and I would have had to write HTML instead of relying on the simplicity of Adobe PageMill. A windows laptop or palmtop wouldn't be as easy to use as a Macintosh, wouldn't run PageMill and couldn't realistically do the job. As of 1996, in my opinion, the Macintosh PowerBook 5300c is the only rational choice for my needs.

Ultimately, I followed all the weight reduction advice. By the time I got to Florida I was lean and mean, about 70 lbs total for bike and gear; about 60 lbs less than when I departed from Grand Prairie, Alberta.



Me and my bike - Watersmeet, MI 8/8/96
(photo by Doug)

Click here to go directly to my Packing List (suitable for printing).

Bicycle

With bicycle tourists going so far as drilling holes in their toothbrushes to reduce weight, I can't overemphasize how important it is to get a lightweight bicycle. As far as serious touring bicycles go, my Cannondale T-700 is about as light as you can get--about 24 lbs unloaded. As far as I can tell, good solo touring bicycles weigh between 22 lbs and 30 lbs. A chromolly Trek 520 weighs 27 lbs. My carbon fiber Trek 2120 weighs only about 21 lbs, but it seems too light for self-contained touring. For loaded touring in the mountains, a triple chain ring on the front is essential. The newest bicycles have 8 rings in the rear giving them 24 speeds. I have 7 rear chain rings and 21 speeds.

I don't recommend using an old bicycle for a cross-country tour. While Ritt and several other tourists I saw on my journey are still riding the bicycles they rode across the continent in the 1976 BikeCentenial, their equipment is showing its age and isn't really up to modern standards. As I see it, if you can afford to ride cross-country, you should be able to afford a new bike to do it with.

Before you take off on a cross-country trip, get to know your bicycle. I think my 600 miles of training on the bicycle I was using for the trans-continental tour should be a minimum. I was pretty sore for the first couple of weeks and despite riding about 5,000 miles on it couldn't make the transition to my Trek for a 70 mile day on DALMAC.

Operating Equipment

Helmet: The current wisdom calls for a new helmet every 2-3 years. Using mine as much as I am now, I am replacing it every year. If you have a spill involving contact with your helmet, you must replace it immediately. Because I've had a broken neck, I am particularly sensitive to helmet weight, so I use the lightest helmet I can find.

Water bottles: I like Nalgene water bottles because they have a cover over the nipple, so it doesn't get dirty or slimy from the road. I also have a Camelbak, which is great for carrying large volumes of water, but I find it hard to keep the Camelbak bladder and tubing clean.

Flag: I am a strong believer in bike flags. They make bicycles far more visible to motorists and fellow cyclists. It is a whole lot easier for fellow cyclists to see me stopped at a convenience store because of my flag and I can see my bike a lot better from a restaurant because of the flag.

Frame pump: You can't travel cross-country without experiencing some flat tires. I expected a lot more than 4 in my 6,011 miles. I know some riders who have experienced 4 flats in one day. To fix a flat, you need a pump. I have a CO2 system, but don't recommend it for a long trip. A pump is essential for checking leaky tubes, etc. I liked the Topeak because it has a hose like a floor pump.

Spares: I carry nothing but new tubes with me and wouldn't start a long tour with worn tires. Nelson learned that lesson the day we left Fairbanks.

Bike stuff & Tools

I am NOT a bicycle mechanic. In fact, though the Tri-County Bicycle Association and Lansing Community College regularly offer bicycle maintenance courses, I've never taken one. I carry a comprehensive collection of bicycle tools though and hope I'll be able to use them effectively in the event that I need to. It might be possible to eliminate some of the tools (and their weight) by using a Richey tool instead.

Cooking Gear & Food

I am a terrible cook (see Meal Suggestions page for ideas) but I have developed a pretty good lightweight cooking system centered around my Sierra wood stove. I recommend Lexan utensils, but I was given a small stainless steel knife, fork and spoon that I'll probably continue to carry instead.

Miscellaneous

First aid kit: There are plenty of pre-packed first aid kits you can buy, but in the end you need to configure your kit to your needs and preferences. I started with a commercial kit and added some of my own stuff, replenishing it before each trip.

Wallet: Along with some money, a couple of credit cards and your usual identification, don't forget your discount cards.

Glasses: I carry my prescription reading glasses and at least 2 pairs of Oakley sunglasses frames with a clear and dark lens.

Maps: Wherever you go, you need maps. The Adventure Cycling maps are good for the routes planned by AC, but you also need local maps so you can improvise where necessary. County maps are best, but taking one for every county between Alaska and Florida would be a heavy load. I was real pleased with the Universal regional maps (3 per state). I mail home the used maps about once per week.

Clothing - Bike

Shoes: I wore out most of the tread by taking only my Shimano SPD cleated shoes with me this summer, but unlike the older bike shoes, I had no trouble walking with these, even for miles at some points.

Gloves: For long distance touring I recommend using gel-filled touring gloves. I wear a different pair every day, so have one per outfit (color coordinated). I wash and dry them with my clothes. They fit better after shrinking a bit in the dryer.

CoolMax & Lycra: Synthetic bike clothes are more than a fashion statement; they are essential: bright (for visibility); lightweight; quick drying (in use and when washed); wind resistant; and, durable. All the clothes I take with me are synthetic (no cotton at all) so they'll all dry quickly at the laundromat.

Bike Shorts: Get the best you can find. The 8+ panel shorts hold up better and are more comfortable, though they are considerably more expensive. Don't try using street clothes; the seams abrade constantly and you'll wish you'd used real bike clothes.

Rain clothes: Bicyclists are least visible in the rain, so you need to wear bright rain gear. GoreTex is nice, but very expensive. I was most concerned with getting a good fit.

Clothing - Street

The more I rode, the less I saw a need for street clothes. Oh sure, you need the sort of street clothes that can be worn on the bike in foul weather (North Face long sleeve shirt, etc), warm socks, etc. I doubt I'll take long pants on future rides, opting instead to use my bike tights as long pants. I did wear my Supplex shorts often as pajamas, clothes for the laundromat, a swim suit, etc. I'm still not sure about my Teva sandals, but do think I need a change of footwear once in a while, especially for climbing mountains.

Camping Gear

High quality lightweight camping gear is essential. I picked what I thought was the best I could buy at any price. I wanted a small 2 man tent so I had room for my gear and me inside. I chose to use a synthetic sleeping bag instead of down because traveling every day, I never had an opportunity to dry out my bag and the newest synthetics are almost as compact as down bags.

Personal

The choices of personal gear are personal, but keep weight in mind even in this category.

Miscellaneous

OneZips are best for items fitting in 1/2 gallon and gallon containers. For bigger items, Dow makes 2 gallon zip-lok bags and there are always the usual twist-tie trash bags. I saw some nice heavyweight polyethylene bags for sale at laundromats on my trip.

High Tech Gear

As I've stressed repeatedly, I was quite pleased with my high-tech gear. I wouldn't consider taking anything but a Macintosh laptop on a trans-continental bicycle trip. See the Equipment Review page for details.

Feel free to drop me an email message if you have a suggestion for bettering this packing list.


TOTAL RECOMMENDED WEIGHT (Gear) <50 pounds



 
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© Ed Noonan 1996-2002