Minimalist Bicycle Touring
What is a bike tour exactly? Isn’t it just a really long bike ride where you carry your food, shelter, and extra clothing on your bike? There is nothing special about a bike tour that necessitates emptying your bank account for the latest and greatest in high tech gear. Besides the highlight of a bike tour is usually when stuff goes wrong. So what do you actually need?
In our travels we have met many cycle tourists who simply strap a bunch of stuff to their bike, maybe get a map, and hit the road. Others use route guides, a GPS and have a set of labeled waterproof panniers carrying the ultimate in gear. Does one philosophy suggest you will have a better or easier time than the other? Personally, I don’t think so.
In general the level of gear that you want to outfit yourself with depends on your personality and of course your budget. We have toured with high tech gear and thrown together a setup with whatever we could find.
We learned that much of the expensive stuff is unnecessary. Although depending on where you are touring it might be nice to have. That said, experience has shown us that there are a few things that are worth investing in to keep you happy out on the road.
The Bali Setup
A little while ago we found ourselves in Bali with a few spare weeks and decided to throw together a little bike tour. We had been traveling around SE Asia and had very little with us. No bikes, no special clothes, no cycling accessories. No problem!
We bought a few cheap made-in-China hybrid bikes from a local bike shop for $80 a pop. The bike shop also included a pump, some spare tubes, and let us borrow a few tools. We had a set of handmade panniers (definitely not waterproof), picked up a map and we set out around the island.
We rode up volcanoes and through torrential downpours. We got lost amongst the rice patties and had several gear malfunctions. In the end it was all part of the adventure. We had no schedule, no mileage targets and thankfully the budget to sleep at hostels because at the end of the day we were invariably soaking wet.
You can read about our whole Bali bike adventure here.
While touring in Bali has the advantage of relatively cheap accommodation (in Europe we usually free-camp) and readily available mechanical assistance (see this post for a fun story about when Kyle’s headset nut crumbled), our experience with the bare minimum of gear taught us a few things about what we will make sure to have with us on future tours.
Don’t Leave Home Without
A waterproof setup: With our minimalist setup in Bali we were constantly wet and we were always worried about our clothes and computers getting wet. The tropical weather meant we were plenty warm riding in the pouring rain and so we relegated our goretex jackets to keeping computers and other important things dry.
At the end of the day we were checking into hostels where we were usually able to hang stuff up. Had we been camping we would have been miserable with wet clothes, a wet tent, a wet sleeping bag and no way of drying out. Not to mention how difficult it would have been to camp on Bali anyway.
When we have all of our gear we tour with Ortlieb back roller classics. They are very durable, completely waterproof, have a decent capacity and can easily be loaded and unloaded from your bike. That said, a pair of two will run you $165.
If commercial waterproof panniers are out of your budget there is a really great solution. Make your own! I haven’t done this yet but I have seen several folks who have and the internet is full of ideas. The most popular of which is to use two square four-gallon buckets with lids strapped to a rear rack. This article on instructables shows you how to do it for less than $20.
If you are considering a minimalist tour try to resist taking all your stuff in a backpack. A lot of folks who set out for the first time already have a nice waterproof backpack setup and think it will be fine to just carry the weight on their backs. After the first long day you will likely do whatever it takes to get the weight off your back and onto the bike.
A comfortable saddle: In Bali our saddle options were very limited. We just rode what was available and we got by because we had relatively short riding days, many rest days, and the tour itself was very short. On any long distance tour (more than a week or so) I imagine the pain would have become pretty unbearable.
With our regular setup we both ride Specialized Women’s Jett Saddles. We find that they are the right kind if firm, have a generous cut-out to keep sensitive areas happy, and have a flat profile which allows Kyle and I to switch positions on the tandem despite our different hip bone sizes.
If you have the budget and are going on a long tour I would advise researching touring saddles and forking out the money for a good one (usually around $100). If you don’t have the budget don’t worry about it. Just do your best to find whatever works for you. If you have been riding your bike with the same saddle for 5 years it probably works fine.
You can read some general advice on touring saddles here.
A good bike pump, tubes and a bike tool: Funny story. That pump that we got from the bike shop in Bali, well it didn’t really pump up our tires. In fact, when we tried to use it the pump shredded the valve stem on our tubes and gave us flats. This was probably compounded by the crappy tubes we got with our $80 bike.
When we tried to take the wheel off (no quick release skewers here) the nut stripped the wrench. I know it’s hard to believe but all I know is the wrench wasn’t made of steel.
Luckily the high population density on Bali and the general attitude of the locals meant that help was not far away. We were able to borrow tools from passersby and find a motorcycle shop to pump up our spare. Another fun story here.
If you are not touring in a place like Bali, an incident like this can really ruin your day. On any substantial tour you really want to be able to fix minor mechanical issues on the spot. I highly encourage you to get a good pump like the Topeak Road Morph and a bike tool like the Topeak Alien II. With these tools and a few spare tubes and patch kits you should be able to keep rolling in most circumstances.
Just go for it
Chances are if you are considering a bike tour you are resourceful enough to fix whatever situation you end up in with what you have on hand. My advice, gather what you won’t be able to live without and start riding. There is nothing special about bike touring that requires you spend thousands on high tech gear. Go have fun!