Self-contained Bicycle Touring:
Tips, Suggestions, and Opinions for Enjoying the Long Haul

 
Zion National Park Bryce Canyon National Park Descending Ebbet's Pass Sierra Mtns., California
"Angels' Landing"
Zion National Park, Utah
Towering "Hoodoos"
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Descending Ebbet's Pass
Sierra Mtns., California
 

Self-contained bicycle touring packing list
My 2006 Cross-country Journey of Discovery photo journal
My other Bicycle pages

WHAT IS SELF-CONTAINED BICYCLE TOURING?

     Some of us are definitely too full of our selves, but that isn't what we're referring to when we say, "self-contained". Self-contained touring is a style of bicycle touring where one carries all of his/her provisions for food preparation, shelter, clothing, etc., in bags or panniers affixed to the bike using light-weight racks. This allows for maximum flexibility when touring on longer trips. Self-contained touring lowers the overall cost of touring, while increasing the potential enjoyment and experience level. It also increases the physical requirement with the added weight and wind resistance of the loaded panniers. This type of cycle touring differs from what is often referred to as "credit card touring", where the tourist is bedding in hotels and dining in restaurants exclusively. Credit card touring decreases the weight of the bicycle tremendously, often requiring as little as one small pack mounted on the rear rack for a change of clothes, thus permitting faster average speeds. At the same time it increases the expense of a trip tremendously and decreases ones options, flexibility, and overall independence.
     As is typical of self-contained bike touring, most nights one will camp in beautiful state or national parks, or perhaps National Forests or BLM land. Many have showers, drinking water, flush toilets, picnic tables, a fire ring, bubbling streams, gorgeous views... Some campgrounds are a little more primitive, but that just adds to the experience. Additionally, some nights may even be "stealth camping", out of sight on National Forest lands. The price is right and the solitude is most rewarding. I usually like to plan overnight stays well in advance, with "bail-out" locations noted for added flexibility. While I usually like to have a daily itinerary, options for spontaneity and alternate routes are also built in. That's part of the attraction of traveling like this. Most days we will spend from 5 to maybe 8 hours (or sometimes more) cycling through the grandest of scenery. However, I like to enjoy one day per week as a rest day, as well as other off-bike days for enjoying the National Parks, doing some hiking, enjoying points of interst, and just plain relaxing. One thing to keep in mind is, the trip is your own, to do with as you want (or need). Go at your pace. Take the route that fulfills your needs. Take as much or as little time off the bike as you want. And remember, you are not in a race! Don't pressure yourself with getting to a daily destination. It is the journey itself—the scenery, wildlife, people that you meet, the kindnesses offered, the small towns, conversations, the quietude and peace—that flavor a tour (as in life). As I try to reflect on my earlier tours of the 1980's, they are all a blur as I hurried along each day in an effort to get the the predetermined destination. I've learned to savor the journey. Experiencing each day along the journey is what makes bicycle touring so fulfilling (to me).

Sierra Mts. California
Bryce Canyon National Park
Colorado Rocky Mts.
Roundtop Summit in July (10600')
Sierra Mountains, California
Climbing out of Wall Street
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Snow covered Red Mountain in September
Colorado Rocky Mountains
 

WHAT KIND OF BIKE AND EQUIPMENT IS NEEDED?

     THE BICYCLE: A good quality bicycle is essential. Now, most bikes for loaded touring come equipped with a strong but light-weight chrome molybneum (chromoly) steel frame with more relaxed angles and a little longer wheelbase for comfort and stability. This will generally not be your Walmart variety bicycle, but one with higher quality, reliable componentry purchased at your local bike shop—(although I have actually heard of a few people who took off across the country on bikes the picked-up at, yes, Walmart). Some touring bikes are of the "road bike" design, with curved, drop handlebars and 700c wheels. However, there are also touring bikes today based loosely on the "mountain bike" style, with 26 inch wheels. To me, the choice is strictly subjective. Two advantages of a mountain bike-based design is: 1) they will usually accomodate wider tires should you wish to tour on remote dirt roads; 2) if you are touring outside of North America or Europe, 26 inch tires and tubes are much more available. If you are touring in N.A. or Europe, then 700c is just fine. Actually, a 700c equipped bike with 32mm or larger tires can traverse dirt fire roads just fine. My preference for touring throughout North America, using primarily paved back roads with occasional dirt fire roads, is the road-based touring bike, equipped with 700c x 32mm (or 35mm) tires, and drop handlebars—this design offers more positions for your hands, better body-weight distribution, and actually places less weight on your seat. Regardless of your choice of design, first and foremost, it is vital that your bike fit you properly. I am not going to offer instructions for fitting, but you can get professional help with this at your local bicycle shop.
     After the frame, strong, well-built wheels are most important. A loaded touring bike is going to be carrying an extra 40-60 lbs. of gear, with 2/3 of the weight over the rear wheels. Most good touring bikes will have rear wheels built with 36-40 stainless steel spokes, laced to double-walled alloy rims and top quality alloy hubs with quick release levers. The front wheel will be laced with 36 stainless steel spokes. Well-built wheels of the proper strength and size will help to ensure that wheels are straight and true for the entire trip.
     On most tours the terrain will be varied, with peaks and valleys everyday. Adequate gearing will enable you to ease up the summits and storm down the other side, (carefully, of course!). Your bike should be equipped with an alloy triple crankset (3 chainwheels) in the front and 5-10 cogs on the rear wheel, providing from 15-30 gear combinations or "speeds". Changing gears is accomplished using high-quality front and rear derailleurs. The shifters can be located on the down-tube of the frame (older high-quality bikes), on the end of the handlebars (appropriately called bar-end shifters), or integrated into the brake levers (brifters). For mountain bike style straight handlebars the shifters will generally be located near the right and left thumbs on the handlebars (these are amazingly referred to as "thumb shifters!)
     On a long-distance touring bike the frame will be designed with a number of brazed-on fittings for attaching racks, water bottle cages, and even fenders. All of these features are designed to make long-distance travel by bicycle as comfortable, safe, and enjoyable as possible.
     There are several main-stream manufacturers that make touring-specific bikes that you can purchase from your local bike shop. Most come right out of the box nearly ready to load up and hit the road. I have found, however, that many of them do not come equipped with low enough gearing. Often, front chain rings, and/or rear cogs will need to be replaced. This can be accomplished by your local bike shop or your bike-savy friend. If a (nearly) ready-to-ride touring bike sounds like the way to go, then here are a few of the better examples (in no particular order): 1) Surly Long Haul Trucker (reasonably priced, well equipped, with very adequate gearing); 2) CoMotion Americano (higher end complete package touring rig); 3) Bruce Gordon makes the "Rock 'n Road" that can be ordered in either 26" or 700c wheel versions; 4) Trek 520 (the venerable 520 has been around more than 25 years—still a popular, competent choice, but will probably require changing out the gears); 5) Fuji, Bianchi, Jamis, and Cannondale also make touring bikes; 6) I almost forgot one of the best—Koga-Miyata. These Dutch-made bikes are built to take you around the world.
     If money is no object, it is always possible to have your touring bike custom made. Rivendell is one such custom-house, with a variety of models to choose from. Bruce Gordon will also build a bike to your specifications.
     One other option is to buy a used touring bike. The 1980's was the high point for touring bikes, at least in the U.S. (It seems Europeans have always enjoyed touring by bicycle.) The touring bikes that were designed in that era set the standard for long-distance touring bikes since that time. Excellent examples from the '80s were the Specialized Expedition, Miyata 1000 (and also 610), Univega Grand Turismo, and others from Centurion, Nishiki, Fuji, Trek, Raleigh, Bridgestone, and a few others. It is still possible to find these rare classic touring bikes on Ebay and Craig's List, but you really need to know what you are looking for. If you can find one of these choice beauties in top condition, you will have something very special in the touring bike world.

Zion National Park, UT Sierra Wildflowers Canyonlands National Park, UT
Virgin River Canyon
Zion National Park, Utah
Flowering mountain meadow at 9500'
Sierra Mountains, California
Squaw Flats
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
 

OTHER EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES: (Here is a bicycle touring packing list to use as a guide line). Equipment can be sub-divided into two categories. 1) The equipment that is attached to the bicycle for carrying the load safely and for monitoring the trip data; 2) and the items that will be supporting you on the trip (food/water, stove, utensils, shelter, bedding, clothing, etc.), all of which will be stuffed into the pannier bags (sub-catagory 1). (I recommend a visit to The Touring Store, owned by Wayne Boroughs, for the best bicycle touring equipment with prices and service to match the high quality of his products. He's excellent!)

     1) A long-distance touring bicycle will require front and rear racks mounted to the frame for attaching and carrying the loaded pannier bags. These strong, but light-weight alloy racks extend the framework of the bike so the panniers can attach and become one with the bike. They are also designed to keep the center of gravity as low as possible, aiding overall stability.
     Pannier Bags: As you know by now, these are the assorted bags that will be given the task of storing your belongings while you pedal. There are usually two bags mounted on either side of the front and rear racks, as well as a handlebar bag and rear rack bag. The handlebar bag is convenient for carrying energy foods for consuming while riding, camera, sunglasses, maps, etc. Things to consider when shopping for panniers are—capacity, material and design, water resistance, pockets and openings. (Again, I will point you to Wayne Boroughs at The Touring Store.)
     The Bicycle Computer has become an essential tool of serious cyclists, and is especially important for distance cycling—keeping you informed as to mileage traveled, speed, average speed, etc. These little computers are mounted to the handlebars with a sensing device attached to the front fork and front wheel. They can be of the wired or wireless variety. They are usually priced from about $25.00 to $50.00, or so.
     There are occasionally times on a tour when it seems that you roll up on the setting sun, and daylight turns into dusk. For these times is is critical that you are equipped with front and rear lights. I don't recommend riding at night if it can be avoided, however, for those occasions when you must ride the last few miles as the sun is going down, a good set of lights can save your life. These lights should have both steady and flashing modes for optimal visibility. A decent front and rear set can be purchased for around $50, of course, there are some state of the art units that can run over $250!

Colorado Rocky Mts. Sierra Mountains Canyonlands National Park, UT
Alpine Trail
Rocky Mountains, Colorado
June snow near Ebbet's Pass
Sierra Mountains, California
Crimson Sky
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
 

WHAT ELSE SHOULD YOU BRING? (Here is a bicycle touring packing list to use as a guide line).
     2) It is easy to get carried away and pack too much, including the proverbial "kitchen sink", into your panniers. But, this is a time for essentials only, with very, very few added luxuries. I'm going to address just a few basics for the trip and then list for you some of the items that I include on longer self-contained tours.
     Shelter: The tent is a crucial element for the self-contained bicycle tourist. It is an item that can make or brake you, weight-wise, and can sometimes be the difference between a peaceful night or a soggy, sleepless nightmare. You will want to arrive at a balance between light weight, small packed size, and still provide a certain level of comfort within the tent. Shelters range in size from solo "bivy sacks", (which are little more than external coverings for your sleeping bag), and small 1-person double-walled tents, (which often provide a portion of the ceiling height to allow you to sit up and usually includes an external vestibule under the rain fly for storing some gear), and light-weight 2-person tents, (offering a little more room for stretching out and for storing some gear inside the tent). One goal is to keep the packed weight as far below 5 or 6 lbs. as possible. Remember, the investment made in a good tent will be returned when you wake up dry after a long night of heavy rain. I would recommend the "Zoid-2" and "Hubba" models from Mountain Safety Research (MSR) and the "Clip Flashlight" and "Light Year CD", as well as the "Hyperlight AST" models from Sierra Designs for starters. Eureka, Kelty, Mountain Hardware, North Face, Black Diamond, and Big Agnes just some of the makers of quility tents. One last thing--go ahead and purchase the optional "footprint" for the model tent that you get. The footprint will line the under-belly of the tent protecting it from sharp objects and moisture.
     I will mention that there have been many nights, given the right circumstances, where I've enjoyed sleeping under the stars. Awesome! And along that theme, there are some cyclotourists who actually skip the tent altogether, and opt for a hammock (such as the Hennessy variety), and a tarp for overhead shelter.
     Sleeping bag: For bike touring a 3-season 20-degree goose-down bag has the advantage of very light weight and the ability to pack very small. Just make sure that it doesn't get wet! If you're worried about the bag getting wet, then opt for a synthetic filled bag. I like down filled bags, but it's ultimately your choice. That's my recommendation.
     Food Preparation: The single-burner backpacking stove opens up a whole array of cooking options, otherwise not available when cycle touring. Hot oatmeal with chopped dates, walnuts and raisins in the morning can seem like gourmet cuisine and hot bean chili and brown rice is delicious after a long day of cycling. Mountain Safety Research (MSR) makes a number of light-weight stove models that are suitable. I like the MSR WhisperLite Internationale because it is very light-weight, compact, fairly efficient, and burns "white gas" (Coleman fuel), as well as unleaded gasolene. Until recently I was still using a venerable 20+ year old Optimus brand unit (made in Sweden) that also burns "white gas" (Coleman fuel). It's a little noisy but can boil water very quickly and has an adjustable flame. If you get a white gas stove you will also need a fuel storage bottle. These can be found at MSR.
     Other camp-kitchen utensils that should be a part of the gear, includes a light-weight stainles steel (or maybe titanium) cooking pot. A 1 1/2 qt. if there are two of you travelling together, or a 3/4 qt. works just fine solo. Again, Mountain Safety Research (MSR) is a good resource for nifty camp-kitchen utensils. Also, you don't want to forget a few other simple basics, such as a can opener, a plastic bowl, fork and spoon, a sharp knife, several extra zip-lock bags (2-sizes: sandwich size and larger freezer-type bags), a few kitchen-sized trash bags, wooden or waterproof matches, emergency toilet paper, 1 kitchen sponge or scrungee thing, 1 light-weight microfibre kitchen towel, Dr. Bonner's liquid soap (this stuff can be used to bathe, shampoo, and to wash dishes - completely biodegradable).
     On a long-distance tour, much like backpacking, the food is kept quite simple, yet energy and nutrition rich. Remember: Carbohydrates provide the energy; fruit and leafy veggies provide many vitamins and minerals; legumes/nuts/grains provide protein for muscle/tissue repair. Generally, you wouldn't carry more than a 1-day's supply of food with you at any one time, as you can usually purchase each day's ration at a grocery along the way. You can actually get a wide variety of foods to take with you to the campsite, such as: fresh fruit, potatoes, fresh vegetables, whole-grain bread, hot cereals, even milk, etc. And since the foods will usually be consumed within 24 hours, you can even get salad makings. My one exception to the "carry only 1-day's food supply rule" is that I usually maintain a 1/2 lb. bag of lentils, a small bag of quick rice, and a small bag of oatmeal, and some sea salt, as emergency cookable rations, plus, a small supply of LifeForce nutrition and energy drink, trailmix, dried-fruit, and energy bars as non-cookable emergency rations. These emergency rations may be a bit much, but I still carry them around on tour. I've had to dip into emergency rations while backpacking, but seldom when cycle touring. There have been times in both Nevada and Utah where those rations were all I had.
     Clothing: Bike clothes: While touring you won't be making any fashion statements. On the contrary, each clothing item will be strictly essential and functional. There are differing philosophies regarding what to wear while riding. I'll give you mine. Since most of your time will actually be spent on the bike, I bring 3 pair of padded cycling shorts and 3 or 4 brightly colored cycling jerseys. One of the jerseys should be wool, (excellent for cooler, higher elevations). These items are made for optimal comfort and efficiency while riding a bike. They wick away sweat and don't flap in the breeze while you're riding. The brightly colored jerseys help keep you visible out there on the road. You will also want a pair of arm and leg warmers (that can be put on in the cooler mornings and easily taken off as the day warms). I bring two pair of cycling gloves, and maybe a pair of glove liners or full-fingered mtb gloves, (again for cooler, higher elevations). Pack 5 pair of cycling socks—one of these should be wool (I like to take good care of the feet). Be sure to bring a rain jacket and pants that are designed for cycling—the breathable variety is especially nice. Of course, you would not go anywhere without donning a helmet. You will also want a pair of cleated cycling shoes to clip into the pedals of your bike, providing more comfort and efficiency while on the bike. There are some touring-specific cycling shoes that are less awkward when walking off the bike, and even cleated sandals (that many swear by).
     Street clothes: I like to bring one additional pair of ultra light-weight shoes to wear when not riding, (perhaps sandals or ultra-light running shoes). How about one-pair of light-weight hiking shorts and a shirt/blouse for off-bike times? Some like to bring a gym or warm-up suit for cool, pre-ride mornings or post-ride evenings, because it can be rolled to a small size and is very light weight. An even better alternative to the warm-up suit that I use is a pair of lightweight convertible pants w/ zip-off legs which convert into a pair of hiking shorts for hitting the trails. These pants are very lightweight, fast-drying, and extremely versatile. With these convertible pants you can eliminate those extra hiking shorts and warm-up suit. Now, add a few personal under-garment items and toiletries and you're touring wardrobe is packed.
     Where to buy: Where to get all this stuff? There are several great outdoor equipment shops where you really can't go wrong. I can spend many hours browsing through their eisles or fingering their catalogues—a real weakness of mine! Here they are in no real order: REI, L. L. Bean, Eastern Mountain Sports, Cabelas, and Campmor (offers pretty good prices).
     Reading: I like to pack a small Bible. Reading its words while camped along a bubbling brook help to keep me focused on life's important things. I'll usually bring along at least one other paper-bound (to keep the weight down) book to feed the mind and spirit. I don't recommend bringing War and Peace!

Sierra Mts. California
Bryce Canyon National Park
Canyonlands National Park, UT
Climbing Ebbet's Pass
Sierra Mountains, California
"Wall Street"
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
"The Needles"
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
 

     PACKING TIPS: (Here is a bicycle touring packing list to use as a guide line). Here are a few tried and true tips for packing and balancing the load. First, we dream of bright, sunny days riding with a gentle tailwind urging us over each mountain pass. But the old rule is: "Expect the best, but prepare for the worst." The truth is, it may rain on occasion, but we don't let that put a damper on our experience. But we should prepare the panniers for the possibility of rain so that the contents will remain dry. First, line each pannier bag with a large black garbage bag. Next, roll your clothing items and compress them so they will fit into several large zip-lock bags. This technique will keep things dry and also help with organizing the packs. I like to pack the tent poles and tent in the right rear pannier bag. The sleeping bag, cookware and stove can be loaded into the left rear pannier. Clothing items, along with dry food items, go in the front bags, with cycling-wear on the right and street clothes on the left. Organize the various pannier pockets to suite your needs and place rain-wear and arm and leg warmers in rear rack pack for easy accessibility. Riding food, camera, maps, wallet, sunglasses, sunscreen, wet washcloth stored in zip-lock bag -- all can be easily retrieved from the handlebar bag while riding. It should be noted that the handlebar bag houses a clear map pocket on top for route navigation. Now close the plastic garbage bags and zip the panniers and all pockets. Affix each bag securely to the bike racks. Oh, and you will also want to carry a couple of bungie cords in the rear rack bag in case you need to lash something to the back.
     I know we've zipped the panniers and loaded the bike, but, before we finish the topic of packing I want to touch on the need for some bike repair/maintenance items that are necessary. Let me say that flat tires are always a possibility on a trip of any length. So, you want to be prepared by bringing 2 or 3 spare tubes as well as a patch kit for repairing punctured tubes. For changing a flat tire you will need a set of "tire levers" to aid in prying the tire from the rim. I like to keep one tube, 2 tire levers, a spoke wrench, and a brass schraeder/presta valve adapter in a small pouch attached underneath the saddle. This way I don't have to dig through the bags if and when I have a flat tire. (Personally, if I get a flat while on the road, I prefer not to patch the tube on the spot, but replace the punctured tube with a new one, stuff the old tube into a pannier bag and patch it later at camp. It can then be folded and stored for future service.) You will also want to keep your portable tire pump in a handy place—perhaps mounted to the bicycle frame. It is also wise to fold a spare tire and place it in one of the rear panniers. I like to bring one extra brake cable and derailleur cable, as well as two extra brake pads and six spokes (3 for the drive side and 3 for the other), and a few extra links of chain. You will also want to bring an assortment of essential tools that fit the allen-head screws and various nuts and bolts on the bike, as there may be the need for adjustments. A "Leatherman" tool, Swiss Army knife, or other multi-tool device is excellent. (I use a Topeak Alien II multi-tool. It has a tool for every occasion.) These items are all very small and can come in very handy during an emergency. Now you can zip the bags and get ready to go!

(Here is a bicycle touring packing list to use as a guide line).


     If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions email me at: biketouring@daystarbotanicals.com.

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