You will need to do a lot of research to determine the combination of gear that will work for you. The panniers and bags that you select need to hold all of your stuff and be durable enough to hold up to harsh conditions and rough riding. Your size and sleep habits will determine the specific camping gear that you will need when you bed down at the end of a long day on the road. The outfit that you wear when riding affects your personal comfort and it will guard against chafing and overheating or chill. You will need a selection of spare parts and tools for breakdowns of your bicycle or camping gear when you are potentially many miles from a bike shop or hardware store.
All of your gear should be selected so that it is easy to pack and carry it on your bicycle. I have seen some things carried in very awkward ways that detract from the experience. I have seen mattress rolls carried across the handlebars. I have seen 2 ½ gallons of water strapped to the side of a rear rack. Besides being inconvenient, these kinds of loads are not safe. You should strive for compact and light gear that fits within a tight envelope on the bicycle and that can be well secured to the bicycle so that things aren’t falling off or getting lost. The loads should be a low as possible to keep the center of gravity low and the bike stable.
Panniers and Bags
The size of my first set of panniers was determined by measuring my favorite suitcase and calculating the volume. That volume is about 2500 cubic inches. The things that I put in panniers are not nearly the same as those that I put into a suitcase for a one week business trip. However, that approach gave me some way to visualize the size of the panniers. Keep in mind that your panniers need to hold all of the things that you need to dress, camp, and potentially feed yourself for several days. There are panniers that are designed to hold enough stuff for commuting, but not enough for a self-supported bicycle tour.
Another parameter for pannier selection is water resistance. Most serious long distance touring can’t avoid an occasional shower. In case of a shower or a downpour, you don’t want your clothes and camping gear to get wet. As an alternative, you can line your panniers with a plastic bag and achieve acceptable results as long as you have a way to seal the bag to avoid water intrusion.
The color of panniers can provide an extra measure of visibility for your safety. At one time, I thought that black panniers were cool because they didn’t clash with the color of my bike. My though process has shifted toward visibility. I like brightly colored panniers with reflective markings.
There are other types of bags that are handy for things that require better access during the day. There are seat bags and handle bar bags for that purpose. Seat bags are generally small. They can be used for snacks and other items that you want to keep out of the way. The handle bar bag can accommodate larger items. I like to use mine for my phone and camera, things that I may use more often during the day. I also like a handle bar bag that easily removes from the bar so that I can take valuables with me when I go into a store or when I go for a small hike.
There are lots of other small bags that you can buy to hang from other places such as the top tube or the seat tube. For me, these tend to get in the way and I keep rubbing against them when I pedal. I also avoid bags for the top of the rear rack because I use that space to carry my tent.
In this category, I also consider the map holder. Some strap to the handle bar others are integrated with the handle bar bag. I use mine for maps and for queue sheets. It’s nice to have quick access to this type of reference material to avoid missing turns and attractions along the way.
Your camp is your home away from home. Sleeping accommodations will not be as comfortable as home, but you need to get it as good as you can for a good night of sleep. Your home away from home includes the tent, mattress, sleeping bag, and pillow. Weight and packed size are key selection factors for all of these things.
Let’s start with the tent. A good place to carry your tent is the top of the rear rack. That defines the packed footprint that you need since it is a small space. You don’t want it to hang over the back of the rack too far since it could obscure your tail light. A protrusion in the back of your bicycle can be a hazard and an inconvenience. Weight is a factor since everything you carry adds to the total load on you and your bicycle. Your own size is a constraint. I’m 6’4” tall and I need a tent that can accommodate my height and prevent my head and feet from making contact with the tent walls when I sleep. A tent should be easy to pitch since you may have the need to pitch quickly in a driving rain to avoid getting the interior soaked. You will want a ground cloth to protect the tent floor.
A mattress is a good idea unless you can stand sleeping on hard and irregular ground. The mattress doesn’t need to be very thick to smooth the irregularities. Mine is about 2” thick when inflated. An inflatable mattress or pad is preferable over a foam pad since the inflatable models fold to a very small size for packing. If you buy an inflatable, buy a patch kit for it and remember to take it with you.
Over the mattress you need a comfortable sleeping bag. I have two that I use depending on the overnight low temperatures that I anticipate. One is rated for 50 degrees and the other for 28 degrees. You don’t want to underestimate the need to keep warm at night. You also don’t want a sleeping bag that will require a dedicated pannier to carry it. The dimensions of the stuff sack used to transport the bag are important. Sleeping bags often appear large and voluminous until they are folded and rolled for the stuff sack. When my 28 degree bag arrived at my front door, the box containing it was huge. I immediately folded and rolled it to be sure that it would fit into the included stuff sack since I didn’t believe that it would. As it turned out, it fit nicely into the 7” diameter by 11” long sack. By the way, when you store your down sleeping bag, take it out of the stuff sack, fluff it, and hang it in a closet.
Pillows depend on your needs for sleeping. I prefer inflatable pillows because the compressible ones don’t seem to decompress very well. I actually use two: one under my head and one under my knees when I sleep on my back. I find this position very comfortable after a day in the saddle. You can use a cloth bag stuffed with clothes, but that might be lumpy. I think it’s best to have something that was designed to be a pillow.
Cooking and water purification gear are considerations if you plan to tour through areas where services are scarce. Again weight and size are important. If you are travelling with a self-supported group, the various camping and mechanical supplies can be distributed among the riders and larger items can be carried. In a group you may carry a stove and cooking utensils that can accommodate the size of the group. When you travel alone or when packing for yourself, the smallest utensils that will feed you are preferable. There are stove and utensil combinations that break down and fit into a very small volume that are ideal for self-support. Keep in mind that the purpose is to reconstitute dried or freeze dried food for consumption and to prepare coffee.
Water is essential for life. If travelling in an area where supplies of potable water may be scarce, there are alternatives. All you need is clear water and an ultraviolet water purifier to top off your water supply. There are also filters and chemical purification systems that you can purchase. An effective system must be capable of destroying bacteria and viruses. My personal opinion is that UV is the most reliable and effective purification technique and there are no chemicals such as iodine that will affect the taste of the water. The only limitation is that it will not be effective with cloudy water. My experience says that is not a deal-breaking limitation.
Most of my experience is with warm weather bicycle touring. For the warm riding days you need to wear synthetics that dry quickly and wick the moisture away from your body. Either long sleeve or short sleeve jerseys or shirts will work. The bottom is another story. There is a lot of personal preference there. The preferences range from tights to pants to shorts. I think that clothes specifically designed for bicycle riding is preferable because it is designed to minimize chaffing. Your saddle is also a factor, but the clothing also needs to provide padding and drying for sensitive areas. If you prefer pants or shorts, you need a liner made for cycling. Do not use your regular underwear when you ride since you risk chaffing that can make a long ride very uncomfortable and even painful.
Whatever combination suits you, be sure to try it before a long tour. For the trial you will want to test the combination of saddle and clothing over a long distance. If you do end up with chafing on the road, I find that Desitin® provides some comfort and helps healing. There are salves and creams that purport to prevent chafing, which they may do, but I believe that proper clothes and saddle make those unnecessary.
When the temperature drops or when it rains, you will need more layers. Rain gear can provide a layer for a slight chill in the air. When it gets colder, long sleeves and more substantial clothes will come into play. Cold air is not my area of experience: I’m a summer or warm weather bicycle tourist. I can tell you that on chilly mornings I put on my rain gear until the sun fully rises to warm the day.
The main reason for rain gear is to protect you from getting drenched in a downpour. That requires both rain coat and rain pants. You don’t want vinyl or anything else that totally seals you from the elements. You can get as wet from the inside out as from the outside in by sweating profusely inside a sealed raincoat. Some of that can’t be avoided and still shield you from the rain. I’m not sure that a truly “breathable” rain coat exists. There are designs that are better than others and I prefer any of those versus vinyl. This is another area where the online reviews can be helpful.
The repair parts and tools that you carry need to compliment your equipment:
- Wrenches and other tools that are needed for your specific bicycle.
- An adjustable wrench.
- Duct tape.
- Splice sleeves for the tent compression poles.
- Patch kit for the inflatable mattress.
- Tire patch kit and two spare tubes.
- Chain lubricant.
I will not use the patch kit unless I run out of tubes. Touring with a fully loaded bicycle stresses tires and they can fail. If I were touring in an area with long stretches that had no services, I would consider carrying a foldable spare tire. Tire failure is an event that can’t be predicted. When it happens, you may be miles from a bike shop. Be sure that the foldable tire is compatible with the tube size of your regular tires so that you will not need to carry a separate tube for your spare tire.
I also recommend changing your tires on a regular basis as a preventive measure. It is sometimes difficult to spot a tire that is ready to fail. A change every season or every 2000 miles or so mitigates the problem and reduces the need to carry a spare.
Have a good quality tire pump with you. Be sure to test it before you take it on a trip. There are lots of pumps on the market that do not perform well enough for touring. You need to have a way to measure tire pressure and some pumps have built-in gauges for that purpose. Again, you need to test it to be sure that the pressure reading is good enough to avoid significantly over inflating or under inflating your tires. You should regularly check your tire pressure when you are on the road to avoid tire and tube failure.
Chain lubricant is something that you should use every day when on a tour. It is a good habit to lubricate each link to be certain that the chain functions well and to prevent wear as much as possible. This is even more important after riding in rain or moist conditions because the moisture will often wash the lubricant from the bearing surfaces and even cause mild rust formation. Rust is abrasive. Purchase a lubricant specifically designed for bicycle chains and do not use penetrating oil such as WD40. Penetrating oil is volatile, will evaporate, and leave your chain running dry.
A Note on Packing
On a recent ride I learned that I needed to change my approach to loading my panniers. In the past, I was very intent on using stuff sacks for things like the sleeping bag and pillows. I even rolled my rain gear into little cylindrical wads. The cylindrical shapes created by stuff sacks are nice and neat, but are not an efficient use of space. They create little voids that are difficult to fill. It is much better to flatten and layer items in the panniers. That way all of the available space can be used effectively. Use the stuff sacks at home. The exception for me is my sleeping bag since a down bag needs to be compressed into a stuff sack to reduce the volume.