Philly Pedals


Packing Light for Bike Touring

Philadelphia Bike Ride

Editor’s Note: Winter is a time to look back and to plan for the future. In the coming weeks, our authors will give you tips and stories from their bike trips. With advice from experienced touring cyclists like Tony Mustache and the adventures of a rider who took her first long-distance daytrip this summer, look to Philly Pedals for an escape from the winter slush and ice.

You can’t be a weight weenie when you’re on tour. At most, you can be a weight watcher (sans points). There are essentials you just can’t avoid, including water, food, repair kit, camping equipment, clothes, and possibly more (or less) depending on your route. You’re going to have to fight the urge to bring what you want, and instead bring only what you need.

What else do you need? The author’s bike in South Dakota’s Fort Pierre National Grassland.

When you’re deciding what to bring, an easy way to figure out whether or not you should ditch an item is to ask yourself, Do I want to carry this up a 7% grade? A pair of jeans for when you’re in town? A full length chain instead of a few links?  An extra day’s worth of food? A lot of items sound like a great idea when you’re filling your panniers, but after a few hundred miles of not needing them, every time you drop into your granny gear you’ll be reminded of the extra weight.

Also, remember that light’ is a relative term.  In a race, you worry about ounces. On tour, you’ll worry about pounds. So let’s take a look at a few areas where weight can be watched.


Hotel/Motel/Holiday Inn/Say What? This is your lightest, but most expensive solution. Nothing to carry but a credit card. If you go this route, you’ll need to plan accordingly. Don’t assume that there will be a hotel/motel everywhere you go. FYI, the best place to check for bed bugs is on the side seam of the mattress. If you are unfamiliar with these sites, get familiar. Warmshowers is a website specifically for cyclists on tour looking for a place to stay. You can sign up, locate other members all around the country, and then coordinate a date that you could stay with them on your tour. Aside from getting a dry, warm place to stay, you’ll probably get a few meals and make some new friends. Couchsurfing is the same thing, except it’s for all types of travelers.  This method will take the most research, but could ultimately be the most interesting part of your ride if you’re a people person.

A place for the well-rounded tent-toting tourist.

Tent/Tarp: You have a few options here. There is the ultralight (UL) backpacking tent, which will weigh in at 2 to 3.5 pounds and run up to $400 (GoLite, Big Agnes, other high-end tent manufacturers). There is a standard backpacking tent, which will weigh in from 4 to 6 pounds and shouldn’t be much more than $200 (REI, EMS, other store brands). There is also a bivy sack, which will be your lightest option, but is not for the claustrophobic. And then the lightest option is to forego any sort of shelter and sleep under the stars.  It would be wise to bring a tarp in case of rain. Additionally, you can forego a sleeping bag and sleep in all your warmest clothes. My personal preference is a sleeping bag.


These are the most important thing you’ll have on your tour. Nothing will knock you off your bike quicker than dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance. Unfortunately, water weighs in at about 2.2 pounds per liter. One way to keep your water weight down is to travel in somewhat well populated areas. If you can carry two 24-ounce water bottles on your frame, you’ll be able to get pretty far between water sources (convenience store, bathroom sink, unguarded dog bowl, etc). Otherwise, bring one (or two) two-liter dromedary/water bags. They add very little weight when empty, can be rolled up when empty to preserve space, and can be found at most outdoor equipment stores (Platypus makes a 70-ounce bag that weighs 1.3 ounces when unfilled.) Throw a full one of these in a pannier, and you’ll be good for a few hours.

Water is the most important thing you’ll have on your tour. Nothing will knock you off your bike quicker than dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance. Unfortunately, water weighs in at about 2.2 pounds per liter.

Aside from water, you’re going to need to need electrolytes (otherwise you will get loopy quick). The lightest option is to buy Gatorade or another sports drink when you pass a store.  I don’t recommend this. Those drinks are loaded with sugar, which causes two problems: One, when people see you drinking them, they feel the need to get on their high horse and say, You shouldn’t drink that, it’s pure sugar; and, two, they get old quick. You can’t drink them for more than a few days without getting very tired of them.

The next lightest option will be electrolyte tablets, like Nuun, Gu, and others available at your neighborhood bike shop. Each tube usually hold a dozen tablets, weighing in at a fraction of what a single bottle of any premixed sports drink would.  They don’t have any sugar in them (typically), so you won’t get tired of them, and the bottles they come in can be reused to hold screws, quarters, or other small items.


Nothing will make you more irritable than low blood sugar. Cars will sound louder when they pass you. Potholes will seem more frequent.  Pretty much everything will make you angry. If you find yourself in this situation, you have to eat something, otherwise you could go from pissed off to passed out in a few miles.

Refueling with a meal on the Fourth of July in a trailer park. 

To save weight, carry as little food as you reasonably can. If you’re riding through towns, just carry a few snacks (energy bars, trail mix, fruit, etc) and stop for groceries or meals as you need them. If you’re riding in the middle of nowhere, figure out what you’ll need until you get back into civilization. If you carry some peanut butter, raisins, honey, and a few tortillas, you’ll have lunch for a couple days. Add some trail mix, and you’re living like royalty.  You want to be able to keep your energy levels up while keeping your effort levels down.


Don’t worry about what you’re going to wear when you’re not riding your bike. It won’t matter. Does the thought of walking into a family restaurant in middle America while wearing a pair of check your imagination at the door riding shorts sound off-putting? You won’t care after a long day. Nothing disables your ego like exhaustion. You won’t even care that your shorts are covered in the day’s boogers because you were too lazy to use the hanky tied to your stem, and instead dove in finger first.

Take a Noah’s Ark approach for the daily essentials: two pairs of shorts, two shirts, two pairs of socks.

Bring the bare minimum for clothes. Take a Noah’s Ark approach for the daily essentials: two pairs of shorts, two shirts, two pairs of socks. Each night you can wash out what you’re wearing in a sink and then strap it to the back of your bike to dry in the morning.  As for other clothing, at a minimum, bring a pair of underwear to change into after you get off your bike (they will feel so freeing), a pair of shorts or light pants for walking around camp, and a warmer shirt/light fleece for when the sun goes down. If you’re riding in a colder climate, then you’ll need to bring warmer versions of the previously mentioned items. Also, in colder climates, sleep in a hat and socks. You will thank me in the morning.


This is the most variable section, but ultimately you’ll likely have three types: bike repair, camping, and toiletries. Here are some items you’ll probably need at a minimum, but the list is completely open to debate:

Bike Repair: tire levers and patches, spare tube, multi tool (or individual allen keys), lube, spoke wrench, spare spokes (one for each different length on your wheel set), chain tool, spare chain links

Camping: knife, spork, head lamp, (ultralight) sleeping bag, (backpacking) bed roll, 100% DEET bug spray (only if you, like me, are very reactive to bug bites), an eVent dry sack.

Toiletries: You know toiletries you (specifically) need, so let me just say that baby powder is a miracle. Chafing? Dirty hair? Smelly pits? It fixes it all. Also, bring a tube of chamois cream. Your crotch will thank you.

Ultimately, though, you can carry as much weight as you want.  If you don’t mind a few extra pounds for some added luxury, just bring it (stove + fuel + pasta + pesto + mandolin = romantic Italian dinner). If you bring something you don’t need, you can always mail it home (or donate it to a local thrift shop).

And let’s be honest, there are probably a few pounds you should trim off of yourself before you can start worrying about your bike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>