Bicycle Touring – Our Beginner Gear Setup

Of all the adventures we’ve had in our last year, riding across the Carolinas on our bikes was one that seems crazy, but was actually surprisingly easy to pull off. We weren’t expert bikers or long-distance athletes, we just discovered the East Coast Greenway route and started pedaling. In retrospect, one of the more challenging parts of the trip was figuring out what to bring when we switched from backpacking to bicycle touring or bike-packing. For anyone wanting to set off on their own crazy adventure like this, here’s the complete list of gear we needed to roll around self-sufficiently.

Here I am with all my gear. This was on our coldest, windiest riding day. It wasn't my favorite.
Here I am with all my gear and wearing all my clothes on our coldest, windiest riding day. Can you tell it wasn’t my favorite?

Keeping with our minimalist travel style, here’s the full details on all our gear:

BikeTouring_AdamwithAllGear_textThe Bikes and The Bags

One huge cost advantage we had setting out on this trip was that we already had mountain bikes and some biking gear, plus a full camping gear setup. Without that, it would’ve been prohibitively expensive to get this trip off the ground. On the other hand, if you’re thinking about taking a bike touring trip and you don’t even own a bike, you’re probably crazy enough to get this figured out.

Our bikes are mountain bikes that we bought in about 2009. At the time, we definitely bought too much bicycle, but it’s worked out pretty well. The bikes have survived a few salty and icy Chicago winters, sandy summer beach trips and even being strapped to the back of the Mazda for our four month road trip. While these are not exactly the most efficient bikes for speeding around town, they’ve been perfect for us because we do like to ride on all kinds of terrain, the frames are strong enough to hold our camping setup, and we don’t really mind the extra leg work of pushing around a heavy bike.

We added luggage racks to the bikes sometime in Chicago, before I started really keeping track of our trip costs, and Adam installed them himself.

BikeTouring_LuggageRacks
Here’s our two racks. They’re slightly different because Adam’s bike, on the right, is bigger and has fancy disc brakes. He also tried to fender-ize his rack with a piece of canvas that didn’t quite hold up.

After months of wear and two hard weeks of touring, we haven’t had any issues with either luggage rack. If you don’t have fenders, I would recommend getting one with a solid shelf to help keep some dirt off you and your gear. We bought ours at a bike store in Chicago, which was nice because we also got some pointers and advice, but the current price for the same rack on Amazon is better.

 

Here's our slightly battered dry sacks. Note the loops on the sides.
Here’s our slightly battered dry sacks. The black areas on the sides of the bags are belt loops for straps that were very helpful.

Our next key piece of baggage were our two 35L dry sacks from our paddle trip days. We used these to hold our clothes, my sleeping bag, Adam’s PC, toiletries and electronics. We clipped them around the bike seat and then added some bungees to hold them down.

We picked these up a few years ago at REI. I remember them being $50 or $60, but now you can get similar looking products for $25 or $30. Unfortunately, the newer bags don’t look as functional because they don’t have loops attached to the side. We still could have attached sacks like this to our bikes, but they would’ve felt a lot less secure.

Pannier Comparison (Side By Side Saddle Bags)

Before the trip, Adam was hoping we could either wear our big backpacks while biking or figure out how to jury rig something together with duct tape and other existing supplies. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t figure out a good way to hold all our gear and have room for groceries and snacks, so we decided to get some panniers.

Since we planned our trip very quickly, we ended up purchasing one set of panniers ahead of time and then realized at the last minute we needed a second set and found some on Craigslist.

These M-Wave panniers got the job done for a very reasonable price.

Our M-Wave panniers from Amazon were very reasonably priced at $28. They are bulky and they are not waterproof, but they got the job done for two weeks. There’s one clip on the top and one clip on each side that attach to the luggage rack so they are reasonably easy to remove. The bags are attached in the middle, so you don’t have the option to ride with just one.

The other big downside I’ve noticed is that even after just two weeks, bottoms of the bags are sagging together towards the bike spokes. It looks like it’s only a matter of time before they collapse. They are also not raccoon proof, as we learned while camping, but I can’t really fault them for that.

That said, I’m very happy with these for the price. I almost always pack gear in plastic bags of some sort anyway, so I’ll just make sure that anything in these saddle bags is safely packed.

After we started packing and realized that one set of panniers just wasn’t going to be enough, we needed to find another reasonably priced set in a hurry. Fortunately, I found a set of  used Ortlieb panniers from Craigslist.  Many serious bicycle touring adventures swear by these saddle bags.

The expensive Ortleib pannier. Our Craigslist set was NOT waterproof as promised.

Unlike the cheap version, they are really easy to get on and off, with just a pull on the top. The two bags are not connected to each other so you can ride with just one. The bags roll down and close from the top, so they can be made smaller and slightly more aerodynamic.

The downside is that these are supposed to be waterproof, and ours weren’t. We camped one night in the rain and I woke up to find a ton of water in both bags. Luckily, almost everything that needed to stay dry was in the tent with us.

I only paid $80 for the two of them, which is a significant discount from the $200 list price, but not such a great deal given that they weren’t waterproof.

Another really surprising downside of the Ortleib panniers is that they fit on my bike with room to pedal, but not on Adam’s. In some weird combination of his enormous feet and the size of the bike and luggage rack, they don’t work.

Given our experience and this weird size issue, I don’t think the Ortleib panniers are worth their price, so I’d recommend the cheapo version.

Adam's bike with all his baggage (excluding wife.)
Here’s Adam’s bike with his panniers, dry sack, and the tent poles strapped to his top tube.

 

Beginner’s Repair Kit

We packed a small repair kit for the bikes, which included chain lubricant, a chain breaker tool, a pump, two spare tubes, yellow tire wrenches, two patch kits, a reversible regular and Phillips head screwdriver, two allen wrenches, spare batteries and cable ties. We already had the pump, cable ties, and screwdrivers. Filling out the rest of the repair kit cost us about $50 at a local bike store.

BikeTouringRepairKitGraphic

We picked the repair kit knowing we’d be riding between cities with bike shops, so we tried to grab only minimal supplies, most of which we didn’t need.

Of course, neither of us had every changed a flat tire, so we watched a few helpful YouTube videos before taking off on changing the tire and patching the tube. While you might not need the tubes and the patch kit, it was nice to be able to quickly replace the tube on the road and patch the tire properly at the hotel.

The last two pieces of gear that would’ve been really nice to have on the trip were some sort of rearview mirror and a kickstand. I’ll look more closely into these if we start planning another long trip.

Biking Clothes and Accessories

In general, we get a lot more use out of gear and clothes that are not specific to one particular sport. I HATE purchasing expensive, specialized gear that only gets used occasionally and largely just sits unused. Before this biking trip that would’ve included our dry sacks, which we used on 2 paddle trips, and our bike shorts, which we used for one 3-day adventure. So, I guess it was lucky for us on this trip that we fell prey to the gear trap in the past.

All that said, in the epic battle between buying gear for comfort and safety and not buying crap you don’t need, please don’t go on a long bike trip without bike shorts and a helmet.

We wanted to look like normal humans as much as possible on the road, so we usually wore regular shorts over our spandex. We traveled light, like usual. My wardrobe consisted of: bike shorts, regular shorts, traveling pants, long underwear, 2 short-sleeved t-shirts, one long-sleeved t-shirt, a fleece jacket, a windbreaker, gloves, two pair of socks and underwear, sneakers, flip flops, a baseball hat and a winter hat. Adam brought a similar set of outfits.

“Real” bikers may be surprised to hear we didn’t have biking shoes. I’ve heard that adding clipped shoes can help to increase one’s speed. That would probably be a good idea for me on our next trip, at least in theory. In practice, I can see myself toppling over a lot more often, and I’m already pretty unsteady with the heavy panniers and tired legs.

We just wore our regular gloves when our hands got cold, rather than find fancy padded bike gloves, too. This worked just fine for us.

For navigation, we printed the cue sheets from the route's website and mounted them on Adam's handlebars.
Who needs high tech?!

For navigation, we used printed cue sheets from the Greenway route website for directions.. We tied them to Adam’s handlebars for easy access. I also used an app called Map My Ride on my phone to track speed and distance. We also occasionally had to double-check our route on google maps. On most days, I also used an external battery pack for my phone because constantly running GPS crushed my battery.

Camping Gear

We brought a small, essential subset of our camping gear on this trip. It included:

  • Our tent, though the tent poles were strapped to Adam’s top tube
  • Our small camping kitchen including a jet boil stove, pot and bowl set, two real spoons, and a fuel canister
  • Aero-Press coffee maker (See why I love it in this post.)
  • Two fancy new small air mattresses
  • One sleeping bag (for me) and one blanket (for Adam)

Looking back, with our daily distances in the 40s, we needed to camp and stay in hotels because we just weren’t getting from town to town fast enough to only do one. Our mix of 2 nights in a hotel to every 1 night camping felt about right.

Other Stuff

Aside from the bikes and bike gear and basic camping gear, we also carried spare clothes, windbreakers, a sleeping bag, toiletries, and Adam’s computer. We both brought our day packs and CamelBaks. Wearing a backpack while riding is a little annoying, so Adam usually strapped his backpack on top of his dry sack.

We also had a few key electronics: cell phones, kindles, a camera for me, and a spare battery pack for the phones.

After all the gear, we had just enough room in the panniers to pack about a day’s worth of food, but not enough to also pack a few beers. If that’s not roughing it, I don’t know what is.

Here's Adam on the trail with all our gear.
Here’s Adam on the trail with all our gear.

All in, our gear was perfect for the trip. More realistically, bike touring is really easy, once we got out there and started pedaling. We didn’t need any crazy gear, and I was reassured to know we had a cell phone and a credit card for our backup plan. I’m glad we finally got out there and I’m looking forward to using those panniers a lot in the future!

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