How to Pack Clothes for a Bike Tour
One big step in preparing for a long bike tour is packing. If you have never toured before the prospect of packing light is daunting. But you can still be prepared and comfortable with minimal excess. Because a major part of pannier real estate will certainly be taken up by clothing here are some basics about what you need to take, what you don’t need to take and how to manage staying clean and dry.
The Three Outfit Rule
In our experience when it comes to clothing we bring on bike tours, you want to pack as little as possible while still making sure that you will be relatively clean and warm.
As a general rule when I am going to be cycling for more than a week I bring three cycling outfits. In addition, depending on the climate and weather, I bring jackets and warm layers as needed.
Having three sets of cycling outfits—shorts, shirts and socks—allows you to wear one, have one clean in your bag, and the other drying on the back of your bike as you complete the day’s ride. Yes, every day I have something drying on my bike. That means that every day I find a place to wash something.
Having the third outfit is great when unexpected things happen like not being able to find a sink to wash your clothes, or an entire day of rain means that you have no way to dry them.
Laundry on Tour
If you are touring for an extended period of time you will be washing your cycling clothes all the time. This is most important for your shorts.
Because cyclists don’t wear underwear with their padded shorts and often use chamois cream there is no buffer between your sensitive parts and the accumulation of dirt, sweat and chamois cream residue that a day’s riding brings with it. Ladies, it is even more important for you to wash your shorts every day.
While it may be less of a sanitation issue to wear your socks for a day or two, if you are already washing your shorts, giving your socks a quick scrub won’t entail a lot of extra effort and will keep your feet happy and fungus free.
Personally, I don’t mind wearing cycling tops for several days. The exact number of days that each gets worn depends on the weather, the level of crustiness they acquire and my mood. Even though I don’t wash them all the time I still bring three—one on me, one dry in the bag and another (potentially) drying on my bike.
If you follow this method you will always have clean clothes for the next cycling day.
Dealing with Weather
Depending on the season and climate where you are touring you will usually need some warmer clothing and it is always a good idea to be prepared for rain whatever the forecast.
Touring in Europe in the summer I brought with me two long sleeve shirts (one that can get wet and one that stays dry in my bag in case I need it after cycling), one sweater/fleece/softshell layer, and two rain jackets.
One rain jacket was a quick drying cycling windbreaker and the other was a goretex rain shell. The goretex, like the extra long sleeve was for staying warm and dry when not cycling. Again, I always want to be sure that I have something warm and dry at the end of the day.
Extra clothes you bring for rest days are completely dependent on your personality. As a general rule I bring one pair of pants, one pair of non-cycling shorts or a skirt, and one top. If it’s cold I put on my softshell, extra long sleeve shirt and/or goretex.
In addition to my cycling shoes which are relatively comfortable mountain biking shoes with SPD clips, I only bring sandals. When I need shoes I wear my cycling shoes and I am usually very happy to have flip flops after a long ride.
My Packing List
3 Pairs of Cycling Shorts: I recommend taking your favorite chamois shorts whatever they may be. I have had a lot of luck with Pearl Izumi in the past and generally wear their brand.
3 Pairs of Cycling Tops: I like to wear tank tops when I cycle and my favorite is the Prana Sabin Racer Top which I also wear climbing. I usually bring two tank tops and a merino t-shirt like the Smartwool Microweight. Kyle only wears merino t-shirts and his favorite is from Ibex.
There are a lot of cycling tops on the market that are polyester or polyester blends, advertising that they dry quickly. While they may be great for day rides I think they are horrible choices for touring. One hour of sweating and you will be wishing you could out-ride your growing stink.
In addition to keeping you dry when you sweat and warm in pouring rain, merino naturally avoids stinkiness, crustiness and other unpleasantries you will become very familiar with while on tour. Be warned though, merino can get expensive. If you have the time, search for good deals before you buy.
3 Pairs of Cycling Socks: Again we both wear merino as a general rule. Merino stays clean-feeling, dries fast, limits stink, and is very comfortable and durable. Our favorite is the Smartwool Ultralite.
Other Layers: I wear a cycling shell that converts to a vest like the Pearl Izumi Women’s Elite Barrier and I bring two long sleeve merino layers. I also have a softshell by NorthFace and a hooded goretex rain shell by Merrel. I also bring a pack towel.
This list works great for summer touring. It also provides a good base to augment with warm layers for heading out during the winter. While this works for me you’ll figure out the best combination for what works for you. As a general rule if I don’t use something for 4 days then you probably don’t need it and can consider getting rid of it.