There is no way to tour on a bike without carrying a certain amount of weight. Obviously, the more weight you have to push, the harder the riding will be. On the other hand, needing something and not having it can make tours hard, as well. Finding just the right balance between weight and comfort is one key to a successful bike touring experience. In this article, I make 8 suggestions on how to take less weight on your next bike tour.
When I'm gathering stuff for my next trip, I find there are lots of little items that fall into the "maybe/maybe not" category. Packing enough of these "little" things can add a lot of extra weight, if you aren't careful. My wife often kids me when I am making my final gear selections and viewing every thing as "weighing a pound," to try and stop myself from throwing in "just a few more" pieces.
After several tours, I have a solid list of things I know I will need and use. There are also tools and equipment that I don't always use but don't want to risk being without should something happen (I intend to list those in a future article). Still, every tour presents me with several options and the same old "maybe/maybe not" dilemma. As a result, I've developed a few rules to guide me in taking less weight on tour.
I'm not suggesting that you lighten your load by emptying your wallet on new, ultralight touring gear. While you can always buy gear that weighs less, for the purposes of this article, I'm not addressing that option. The suggestions here focus on taking what you always take, just taking less weight in the process.
1. Lose weight by losing weight
The heaviest thing I carry on a my bike, by far, is me. I weigh 175 pounds. It is far more likely that I can cut 10 pounds off me then I can lose 10 pounds of gear. In my experience, while I get in better biking shape as I ride, I rarely lose weight while touring (I don't gain weight, either). So, I can't plan on my load getting lighter because I will be losing weight.
There are lots of ideas for losing weight and this isn't a subject I know much about nor am interested in for this article. But, here are some successful things I have done before touring to lose weight.
First, I stop doing muscle building exercises. I used to lift weights a couple times a week. As a result, my chest and arms were a bit bulked up. I lost about 10 pounds (from 185 to 175) by terminating my strength training a few months before I went on tour. After losing that weight, I changed my routine so I now do a much reduced weight training program designed to maintain my muscle mass instead of build it.
Second, I try to eliminate a high calorie food in the few weeks before I leave. In my case, the obvious choice is chocolate. I have a serious dark chocolate habit. Cutting my chocolate consumption down to a minimum often lightens me a few pounds, though often makes me a little cranky. Unfortunately, I can't keep this level of discipline up while on tour, so it may be wasted effort for me. But, it is something to keep in mind.
2. Don't ride on heavy tires
Not all bicycle tires weigh the same. There are significant differences between the same sized tires. Lots of long distance bike tourists use and swear by Schwalbe's Marathon Plus tires. These are virtually puncture proof but they are expensive and weigh over a pound and a half each. I used them on several tours and they performed as advertised, but they didn't grip all that well on wet pavement and my bike felt a bit sluggish. On my last tour, I switched to Continential Ultra-Gatorskins. They weigh close to half the weight of the Marathons. I felt I got a better ride for less weight. I should mention that I rarely get flats because I use tire liners between my tubes and tires, which add weight, but I don't like flats, so I feel it is worth it.
I'm not saying that Schwalbe's tires aren't good; only that they're heavy. Want to lose weight? Get lighter tires. Here are several links about bike touring tires.
3. Carry things with multiple uses
I used to carry a Swiss Army knife and a small pair of pliers. I liked the Swiss Army knife because it had a scissors, both a flat and Phillips head screwdrivers, can opener, and a sharp knife for chopping vegetables. I also carried a small pair of pliers as part of my repair kit.
I lost that knife to an airport security check and after looking around, found a replacement that was smaller, lighter, had the same features, and also contained a pair of pliers. It was a Leatherman Wingman. I now carry one of these and leave the pair of pliers at home.
I need a chair to sit in after riding for a day. It turns out that the Thermarest camp chair allows me to turn my air mattress into a chair for very little weight. Thus, my mattress can also be used as a chair!
It is easy to pack clothes with multiple uses, but I cover that in a separate section below.
4. Toiletries: Don't carry heavy containers or more than you need
After my first ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I was determined to reduce the weight on my bike. One place where I was able to make a significant difference was in my toiletries kit. Without much thinking, I took a tube of toothpaste, a travel-sized can of shaving cream, my normal razor, and a bottle of shampoo, among other things. Each one of these added unnecessary weight. What's more, I was taking way more than I actually needed.
The four things in the photo (normal sized toothpaste tube, after shave, metal razor, travel shaving cream) below weigh 11.75 ounces.
Instead of a large toothpaste tube, I bought a travel sized one and refill it by squeezing paste from my large tube into it. I've used that same tube for over a month of brushings without running out. I got rid of the metal shaving cream can and replaced with a small plastic container filled with shaving gel. I now use light, plastic disposable razors instead of my trusty (and heavy) metal razor. I put just enough shampoo in a small plastic squeeze bottle.
Replacing just the four items above with small, lighter containers saved half a pound (I've added weight to cover the empty toothpaste tube)!
5. Clothes add up
Before my first bike tour, I did a shakedown overnighter. It was during this ride that I discovered just how heavy jeans are! Before I left, I lightened my load by leaving the jeans at home and taking lightweight nylon pants, instead.
On my last tour, I experimented with only carrying biking jerseys for both on and off the bike wear. I specifically chose jerseys that aren't too garish nor full of logos. Doing so, took 2 t-shirts "off my back." I now only buy biking jerseys that will look good off the bike as well and don't plan on carrying "regular" shirts on tour again.
Instead of taking cotton socks that need to be washed every day, I now wear thin, wool socks that can be worn for several days before needing replacement.
This allows me to travel with 2 less pairs of socks.
Shoes always present a problem for me. I use clipless pedals, so either I take two pairs of shoes or I wear cycling shoes all the time. I once toured with only cycling shoes and it wasn't a serious problem. But, it was a short tour (SF to LA) that I was very familiar with. I've tried other types of shoes but the ones I now carry are Teva sandals. They are light, comfortable, pack down small, and let me air out my feet. Here is more discussion about off-bike shoes.
While not necessary, I bought a pair of lightweight, quick drying underwear that I take instead of my normal cotton boxers. I can rinse them out before I go to bed, hang them up, and they are dry the next morning.
6. Let the post office carry it for you
You don't need to carry all your gear all the time. You can mail it to yourself and pick it up when you need it!
On a recent bike tour from Portland, OR to Jackson, WY, I started on the ACA TransAmerica trail and then veered off it. I only needed the ACA map for the first part, but required more detailed maps for the rest of the trip. It turned out to be quite a lot of materials. Instead of carrying all that extra paper, I mailed it all to myself, General Delivery to the town where I left the ACA route. It was there waiting for me the day I arrived.
You can also mail gear or even food ahead if you don't want to carry it. Most towns of any size have a post office and they accept packages sent to General Delivery. You just need some ID to get it. This thread at crazyguyonabike.com discusses using General Delivery mail.
7) Don't carry more water than you need
It might seem almost blasphemous for a bike tourist to suggest not carrying extra water. After all, one way to bonk, or even die, is to not have enough water to drink. The emphasis is not on risking running out of water, but on the "more than you need" part of the equation.
As I learned in physics, water weighs "A pint a pound the world around." While it is vital to survival, it is also heavy. Carrying an unnecessary quart of water is 2 extra pounds of dead weight.
I want to be clear. I am not suggesting that you skimp on water to save weight. I am pointing out that carrying more water than you need quickly adds up to lots of extra weight.
Most of my tours have been through sparsely populated areas. While there are long stretches without services, it is rare for me to spend a whole day without passing some place to get drinkable water. I have never asked someone for water and been refused. As a result, I rarely carry extra bottles of water "just in case."
I do wear a 2-liter Camelbak (over 4 pounds full!) and have a very good idea of how far I can get on a full water bag. I also carry a water bottle on the bike that is full of a sport drink (usually one reconstituted from powder I carry). On a tour in France, I realized just how much water made a difference when my legs could feel it every time I refilled my Camelbak!
Clearly, you have to carry enough water to insure that you don't run out. I have a pretty good idea how much water I need for a day's riding and along with the riding conditions, I adjust how much extra water, if any, to carry. See this thread at bikeforums.net for further discussion on how much water people carry on tour.
8. Don't carry lots of heavy food
One of the unabashed joys of bike touring for me is being able to eat all the time without fear of gaining weight. Often, this means carrying lots of food to eat during the day and to prepare for dinner and/or breakfast. Many fruits and vegetables are full of water and, therefore, heavy. Thus, instead of carrying apples and oranges, I tend to carry bananas. While not as rugged, bananas provide more energy per pound than either apples or oranges (100 grams of apple has 25 Calories while 100 grams of bananas has 85) and usually weigh less.
Try to carry dehydrated foods. On my last tour, I carried dehydrated refried beans which were very good tasting and ready to eat soon after hot water was added. Pasta, dry soups, and other "waterless" foods are great to carry around. Like most bike tourists, I try to buy any heavy foodstuffs as close to my destination as possible to minimize the extra food weight I have to carry. While not specifically dealing with food and weight, here are over 20 links to food and bike touring.
While riding a bike laden with gear is an integral part of bike touring, there is no reason to carry more weight than you have to. Remember everything on the bike has to go up the hill, too!
If you find an error, have any ideas for new features or thoughts about the current ones, please send me an email.
Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz