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Packing light for a cycling tour

Packing light for a cycling tour

As people with regular day jobs and limited vacation time, we naturally want to cover as much distance and see as many things as possible with our bikes when we travel. After having experienced a couple of cycling trips, especially those with plenty of elevation and long climbs such as the ones in Japan and Spain, we’ve come to the realization that the ability to pack light and ride unencumbered makes the trip much more enjoyable. Long live bikepacking bags!

Bikepacking bags are light and fast to setup which don’t require racks or other special (can also be read as heavy) mounts or attachments. Nadiah and I both have our own set of bikepacking bags, and over the years we have discovered the essential must haves that we need to bring with us on the bike. Between the saddle bag, the frame bag, the top tube bag and the handlebar bag, we have learned what works best for the both of us, so we’ll share that knowledge here.

To be fair, panniers still have their place when you absolutely need maximum load capacity, but we have discovered that our method of travel favours the lighter weight setup.

Travel considerations

Before we get to our individual packing list, here are some of our primary travel considerations to better illustrate why we choose to do the things we do.

Accommodation

Our longer trips typically take around two weeks to complete. I have to admit that the idea of setting up camp wherever we stop at the end of the ride is an extremely appealing idea. But as much as we love camping, carrying all the necessary gear would have meant additional volume and weight, as well as extra logistics.

Also, we have been reminded on numerous occasions that the weather is always beyond anyone’s control. When you are out riding in the rain for the entire day and completely soaked to the bone, you can’t be bothered to set up a tent in that condition as misery loves company!

However, what we can control, is the promise of a dry and comfortable bed at the end of the day, and a place to have a warm and hopefully delicious meal. To date, I have always booked our accommodation in advance so we know exactly where we need to be at the end of the day.

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Impacts of climate and terrain

We live in Malaysia where it is hot and sunny almost all the time. So when we travel abroad, we usually plan for a colder climate for a change. We have typically chosen the autumn season for cycling trips with brisk and chilly mornings and evenings, but still cool enough midday that we do not overheat from all the hill climbs.

Another option is springtime, when the weather is similarly cool enough for cycling. Spring often brings more rain than fall, but comes with only slightly different considerations. Because of the somewhat identical weather conditions, the amount of things to pack would not differ significantly. And that brings us to the subject of terrain.

The most beautiful places we have visited so far have always had their fair share of climbs. From steep hills to mountain passes, the beauty of the world reveals itself through the morning mist, with rays of light cutting through the valley rifts and sparkling over pristine streams of water. There will always be a chance of rain and showers, so a rain jacket does come in handy. We have also recently discovered that a small can of waterproofing spray works wonders.

Distance, speed and weight

The typical distances that we have covered range anywhere between 60km to more than 100km in a day. On average, our rolling speed usually hovers around 25km/h on flats, and it drops to half or less on steep hills. The speed in which we get from point A to B will depend on a few factors:

  • How many daylight hours do we get? During autumn, we have typically experienced less than 10 hours. On many occasions however, we do ride past sunset so long lasting and bright front lights are important.

  • Is there a cutoff time that we need to hit? If dinner is being served, most hotels and inns adhere to 7:30PM. If there’s an emergency, it is important to be able to call in.

  • How much climbing do we have to do? With rolling hills, this isn’t really a problem. But with long climbs that can last for more than 30km, energy levels need to be managed. Plan for food stops or bring snacks!

Some routes are better enjoyed with as much daylight as possible, in which case we will target to finish before or by sundown. If it is too difficult or we are behind schedule, we may even shorten the route. And when checking into an accommodation, there is usually a cutoff time especially when dinner is part of the plan. If the route involves a lot of climbing AND you have a cutoff time, travel as light as possible!

Remember that you will feel every gram you carry as you’re trying to make it up that last hill in time for dinner.

Our packing strategy

Nadiah and I both use Ritchey steel breakaway bikes as our preferred long distance travel rig. Unloaded, each of our bikes weigh approximately 8kg or slightly more than 17 pounds. With luggage, that weight goes up according to what you carry. On average, it measures out to be around 3kg worth of luggage, or just slightly under 7 pounds, if we are selective.

Our packing strategy is to have enough clothing to last for 3 days and 2 nights. Most places that we have stayed at will have laundry facilities, making it easy to refresh our stash, most of which are lightweight and therefore dry easily. Check ahead of arrival just to be sure. I also carry clothing to wear when I’m off the bike, including a pair of lightweight flat-packable shoes for casual evenings and rest days.

My packing list

Saddle bag (17L)

  • Rain jacket

  • 2x Short sleeve insulating baselayers

  • 1x Long sleeve insulating baselayer

  • 2x T-shirts

  • 2x Merino socks

  • 3x Underwear (for evenings and rest days)

  • Lightweight fleece lined pants

  • Lightweight cotton hooded jacket

  • Small toiletries bag

  • Basic first-aid

  • Lightweight satchel bag strapped to the top (for evenings and rest days)

  • Spare tube (stays at the very bottom)

Handlebar bag (9L)

  • Flat-packable shoes (for evenings and rest days)

  • 2x Bibshorts

  • 4-port USB charger with universal plug

  • Small can of fabric waterproofing spray

Frame bag (3L)

  • Power bank

  • Charging cables

  • Multi tool (with chain breaker)

  • Chain lube

  • Patch kit

  • Tire levers

  • Travel document wallet (ID, passport, cards and cash)

Top tube bag (1L)

  • Snacks

  • Coins

Frame mounted items

  • Front light

  • Rear light

  • Wahoo Bolt GPS

  • Compact pump

What I’m wearing

  • Helmet

  • Cycling cap

  • Sunnies

  • Insulating baselayer

  • Merino jersey

  • Arm warmers

  • Gloves

  • Bibshorts

  • Leg warmers

  • Merino socks

  • Shoes

  • Phone in jersey pocket

Nadiah’s list

Saddle bag (17L)

  • Rain jacket

  • 3x Long sleeve insulating baselayers

  • 1x Thermal tights

  • 2x Bibshorts

  • 1x T-shirt

  • 2x cycling jerseys

  • 2x Merino socks

  • 3x Underwear (for evenings and rest days)

  • Lightweight fleece lined pants

  • Lightweight sweater

  • Small toiletries bag

  • Lightweight satchel bag (for evenings and rest days)

Handlebar bag (9L)

  • Flat-packable shoes/sandals (for evenings and rest days)

  • Spare tube

  • Multi tool (with chain breaker)

  • Chain lube

  • Basic first-aid

Top tube bag (1L)

  • Patch kit

  • Tire levers

  • Compact pump

  • Snacks

Frame mounted items

  • Front light (minimum brightness of 800 lumens)

  • Rear light

What Nadiah wears

  • Helmet

  • Sunnies

  • Cycling cap

  • Insulating baselayer

  • Merino jersey

  • Arm warmers

  • Gloves

  • Bibshorts

  • Leg warmers

  • Merino socks

  • Shoes

  • In jersey pocket: travel document wallet (ID, passport, cards and cash), phone, power bank, charging cables, ziploc bag, electrolyte tablets

If you look closely you will notice that Nadiah’s list has one less bag, and less items as well. She will however have an extra set of thermals to wear, since she feels the cold a lot more than I do, particularly on chilly autumn nights. Because of this, and since her bike is slightly heavier than mine, in addition to the fact that she is not as strong a rider, she opts to keep her gear as light as she can and only carry the absolute necessities. There are times she will choose to forego even a second pair of shoes or bring a pair of flip flops instead, or maybe even leave behind her fleece lined pants in favour of tights. These decisions are designed to reduce the weight of her whole rig, so she does not require too much energy to cycle.

One thing we do not compromise on however, is a set of tools and basic maintenance items for each person on the trip. This is to ensure that there are spare tools and such, in case one person has a faulty item. Each rider must essentially be self sufficient and not depend on the rest of the group, but be ready to pitch in if needed. So far, we’ve been lucky in that we have not faced major bike repairs on the road.

Like all packing strategies, they can definitely change over time depending on the season, weather, terrain and the duration of the trip. What we have here is a rough guide that we have applied for ourselves that has worked quite well, but we’re always open to ideas and improvements!

On to adventure

Our first trip where we used this packing list as a benchmark was our trip to Andalucîa, Spain. It was then refined when we went on our trip to Shikoku in Japan.

Cycling Shikoku, Japan: Part 1 - Journey to the Oboke Gorge

Cycling Shikoku, Japan: Part 1 - Journey to the Oboke Gorge

Cycling and exploring Tokushima for the first time

Cycling and exploring Tokushima for the first time