Mountain Sides

The biggest challenge when packing for bike touring is space. Here, Don Carpenter and Bruce Smithhammer set out for a two-night bike packing trip.

When I started backpacking I carried lots of things just in case: Just in case it stormed for a week. Just in case it was colder than predicted. Just in case I lost something.

I remember packing an extra set of long underwear and multiple pairs of socks. I carried lots of spare batteries, a clean T-shirt or two, books, a heavy flashlight and so on. For some reason, weight was not part of my equation, even though my rest stops were strategically chosen so I didn’t have to pick up my backpack to put it on when it was time to hike again. I knew a heavy pack was painful and awkward. I just didn’t think to leave anything behind to lighten my load.

Years later, technology and a new approach to backpacking have changed my outlook, and these days I try to go as light as I can without being too extreme. I still carry my Kindle. I like to eat real food, so I continue to bring along a stove. I’m not averse to having enough layers to stay warm without having to retreat to my sleeping bag the minute the sun goes down. Still, I’ve developed systems, and most of the time when I return from a backpacking trip, I can say with confidence that I brought just the right amount of stuff. But I can’t say that is true for every time I travel. In fact, packing stresses me out no matter how many trips I take.

I am about to head out for a couple of weeks of bike touring, followed by a week with family in a rental house, and I have no idea what I need to bring. The challenge for me is that it’s front-country travel with backcountry carrying capacity. I only have my bicycle-frame bags to fill, and yet I need city shoes and decent clothes, since bike clothes don’t translate well to everyday wear. I need to be able to go to museums and to camp out in the cold. I need to be ready for dinner in a restaurant and breakfast by the side of the road. I should probably carry a few bike tools and some Band-Aids and ibuprofen. Plus, I have that week with family that I have to account for. And it’s the shoulder season, when temperatures vary and rain is likely. Accounting for all these variables and needs feels a little overwhelming. How can I ensure I have the right stuff without carrying too much stuff?

Lightweight backpackers abide by the mantra “less is more.” The idea is that, unencumbered by weight, you can travel faster, go farther and enjoy yourself more. There is definitely some truth to this notion. After all, no one would argue that a 50-pound-plus backpack feels good on your back. Bike packing, too, is more fun when your load is light, especially if your route involves any hike-a-bike sections. There have been times I’ve found myself unable to push my loaded bike up steep sections of trail. It seems the weight of my bike and the angle of the climb can overcome my ability to move upward after a certain point. So I am totally sold on the idea of carrying only what is necessary. It’s just that for front-country bike touring I am less clear about what exactly is necessary.

It’s not the gear that’s a problem. I’ve already invested in a few key items to bring down my base weight: I have lightweight bike bags, a down quilt for sleeping, and a tiny, ultralight tent. Even my bicycle is relatively light. These items definitely shave pounds off my load, but they are the easy part of packing. It’s those odds and ends that threaten to do me in. Just how many outfits do I really need for three weeks? How bad can the weather be in a temperate climate in October? And does it matter if I only have a pair of Five-Tennies and plastic flip-flops?

The most efficient packers use checklists. I’ve always advocated such lists (and even line some out in a couple of the outdoor skills books I’ve written), but, to be honest, I don’t keep one for myself. According to my own expert advice I should maintain a master list on my computer so that when I return from a trip I can make notes about what was useful and what was not. I can add and subtract items that I wished I had or didn’t use, and I can remind myself of specific conditions that made something more or less critical to my comfort and well-being.

That all sounds great, but unfortunately I have never followed my own advice, and so it seems as if every time I get ready for a trip I feel as if I am starting from scratch. Which means that right now I have stacks of “maybe” items lying around my bedroom, waiting for me to make a decision on what stays and what goes.

As I sort through these stacks, I ask myself, “How easy is this to wash?” How many different ways can I wear this shirt or these pants? Does this color show dirt?” I’m trying to pick things that can double up for different uses. So instead of a dress that can be worn only one way, maybe a skirt that can be paired with different tops or over bike shorts would be more versatile. How about a sarong or scarf that can be a blanket, towel or accessory and that packs easily? But then again, I rarely wear scarfs, so would I really use it? And if temperatures can, but rarely do, get down to the 40s, do I really need gloves and a hat, or should we just plan to find a bed and breakfast when it gets too cold to be comfortable camping out with the gear I’m carrying?

Of course, with the internet there are all sorts of resources at my fingertips, including, I’ve found, lists for bike touring in the specific place I’m heading. Still, there’s ambiguity in many of them. One list, which was quite useful overall, simply said, “We both had one day outfit and one evening/night-out outfit.”

If only it were that easy. At this point I happen to have a couple of extra outfits lying on the floor. I get that I should bring only one, but which one? And if I can fit another into my bag should I bring it just in case?

Just in case what? No one cares except me if I wear something cute. No one notices if my shirt has a spot or I wore the same clothes the day before. All that matters is that I’m warm, dry, don’t smell and am wearing something respectful and appropriate for the occasion. So using those guidelines, it should be pretty simple to cut things out, or so I hope.

Molly Absolon writes every other week. Contact her via

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