You don’t need to spend a fortune on touring gear. A lot of what you need you probably already have but it’s worth making a few special purchases as described in my guide to luggage on bikes.
Packing for any holiday is more a matter of what you don’t take rather than what you do – and never more so than when packing for a cycle tour. Space is firmly at a premium. Every item has to have a purpose and ideally more than one.
Panniers and bags
To start, decide what you’re going to take by way of panniers. For anything up to nine days away I take a pair of rear panniers plus a large strong plastic bag (or even a bin bag wrapped around itself) which can be strapped with bungies to the top of the pannier rack to provide extra capacity when needed. For instance, when you buy food on the way (see panel) it’s handy to be able to put that within the panniers and then transfer your clothes bag to the top of the rack temporarily.
I usually take other plastic bags to act as compartments within panniers and to improve water-proofing. There’s nothing more maddening than needing something then having to plough through heaps of dirty underwear to find it. Group your possessions together: one bag for clothes, one for tools and then another for odds and ends such as books, notebooks, pens, chargers, etc. That way the search will at least be reduced by a third – and made quicker still if you always pack the same bags in the same order in the same pannier, putting the things you need most near the top. Adopt an almost monastic approach to your possessions and how you keep them and you won’t go far wrong.
Carry things you’re likely to need regularly and at short notice – typically wallet or purse, change, phone and camera –in a bum bag. Obviously this form of storage makes for quick access but is also the most secure as you’ll never be parted from it. I normally take a 500ml water bottle on the bike plus a 1-litre bottle in the pannier. That normally suffices – providing I’m passing one or two points where I can be confident of getting a top-up.
So, what should you take in the panniers? Clothes-wise, think multi-purpose and multi-layer. Don’t take a thick jacket even in cold conditions. If it’s milder than you expect then such a jacket will keep you too warm. Much better to take a series of layers which you can add to or remove as the conditions vary. For instance, start by wearing a sweatshirt as an outer layer on a cooler day and then wear it as a single layer next to the skin on a warmer day. I normally take a few old t-shirts that I can chuck once I’ve worn them and then replace with a new t-shirt along the way again reducing the overall number I’m carrying. For wet days or as my outer-layer I wear a cagoule and what are called Rain Legs. These are apron-like leggings made from parachute material that cover your waist and thighs but not your bottom or lower legs. The great advantage is that they provide water-proofing where you need it but allow air to circulate freely where you don’t. You may get in a slight tangle with the straps when putting them on for the first time so find a private spot when you do!
Shoes can be a problem. Avoid taking a full pair as spares for the evening if it’s wet during the day. I usually take just flip-flops for that purpose. They’re much lighter and can easily be slid into the side of a pannier. OK: you may look a bit odd if you go down the pub in them but, heh, just think of the space and weight saving! And be positive: if you’re coast-bound and the weather’s fine they’re obviously perfect to wear on the beach. I usually cycle in lightweight Goretex walking trainers as they can easily be used for wandering around the town or village in the evening and any off-road exploration. Likewise, I favour zip-off trousers for cycling as they double-up for off-road wear, dry quickly and convert into shorts.
Towels are also bulky. There are two ways of getting around this. You can take a super-absorbent soft fibre towel which takes up little more space than a shirt or pair of trousers. Alternatively, go for a micro-fibre towel (also available from camping shops) which scrunches up to the size of a fist but have a test run before you pack as the smaller towels can feel like drying yourself with a handkerchief. For the sponge bag men should chose shave serum (super small pack at just 110mm tall) over shaving foam and also save and take those little shampoo and shower gels bottles from hotels rather than take a full bottle.
Everyone will have their own priorities and preferences for the all-important tool kit. Personally, I make do with a multi-tool, alum keys, puncture repair outfit, mini-pump, dumbell spanner, two inner tubes and tyre levers. Also worthwhile including for emergency repairs are plastic cable ties. They’re particularly good for securing loose mudguards and racks to the frame until you can get the appropriate nut or bolt. If you don’t like getting your hands oily when replacing an inner tube or putting the chain back on then, while you’re in the DIY store, snap up some disposable vinyl gloves. (If I forget them I find that wiping my hands on the bark of a tree then the grass essentially does the job). If you’re not much of a mechanic and going somewhere remote it may be worth considering hiring a bike since some hirers provide an AA-like rescue service or, at the very least, would be able to provide some advice or suggestions as to where you can take the bike.
An optional extra
Unless you’re planning on spending your entire tour on two wheels it’s worthwhile packing a knapsack. I have an old, floppy canvas pack that folds into quarter and takes up very little room. The downside is that it’s pretty basic having just the one, main compartment but if you’re only using it for a walk or two, a boat trip or a spot of sight-seeing it’s fine and certainly preferable to lugging around a pannier.
The last item on your pre-tour kit list is one you won’t be taking with you but will be your first requirement when you get home: a pair of tongs to remove your dirty washing from your panniers and straight into the washing machine. If it’s not ponging at least a little then reduce your load still further next time!
What to do about food
You obviously don’t want to heave a week’s supermarket shopping around with you but – if you’re staying in a hostel and by carrying just a few essentials – you can easily rustle up a simple breakfast from day to day. I carry a box of muesli (nice small pack and plenty of nutritional value), jar of honey (again energy-supplying), a few rolls (smaller than a loaf), tub of butter and a banana or two, leaving just milk to be bought daily. This micro-store can form the basis of a packed lunch too. One other tip: take as many tea-bags as you’ll need from home otherwise you’ll end up binning the vast majority of them. And if you like your hot drinks sweet then try sacharin tablets rather than sugar for ease of transport. Dinner? I go down the pub!