After a two-year hiatus, we’ve finally managed to scheme up a new, extended bicycle tour. In 2012, we had a fantastic time cycling along a portion of Adventure Cycling’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) from Banff, Canada, to Whitefish, Montana. Touring off-road was a completely different experience. Instead of hugging a white line along a highway with the sound and smell of motor vehicles whizzing by, we were hogging forest service roads with the sound and smell of the wind through pine trees. Needless to say we wanted more.
So when Adventure Cycling produced a new off-road route in Idaho, it didn’t take much thought to know where we’d be touring next. All I had to do was mention Carrie’s favorite phrase, hot springs, and the decision was made. It took an all out effort from my wrinkled body to pull Carrie out of the Blue Lagoon during our 2008 Iceland adventure. With over 50 hot springs along this new route, we may end up spending more hours soaking than cycling.
With three weeks allotted to make the 500-mile counter-clockwise loop, we feel that we should have plenty of time to avoid putting in big miles every day. Unlike many folks in the bikepacking world, we’re not out to make this an epic adventure of stamina and grit. You won’t be catching us passed out in bivy bags by the side of the trail with uneaten pizza and gummy bears oozing from our mouths. You may however catch us eating pizza and gummy bears just before plunging into our third natural hot spring of the day. While those who race this route (it’s bound to happen soon) may complete the loop in about four days, we’ll be content with a 17-day pace.
That’s not to say that the Idaho Hot Springs route will be a walk in the park. Off-road touring, as we found out on the GDMBR, requires more preparation and planning. We’ll need to review how to properly hang food to keep it away from bears. We’ll need to plan out our potential resupply locations so we don’t run out of food. We’ll also need to plan what clothes and equipment to bring and how best to carry it on our bikes and bodies.
By nature, I’m not a planner. I like to go with the flow and see what happens as each day progresses. When it comes to bicycle tours however, I love to analyze every aspect of the trip. More specifically, I love to analyze and optimize my gear selection. Yes, I admit, I’m one of those guys. The gear nerd. The guy who knows the weights of every article of his clothing. The guy who you may think enjoys thinking about gear more than absorbing the experience of the trip. But in defense of myself, and in defense of all the gear nerds out there, I feel that the better my gear is optimized for the trip the more likely I will enjoy said trip, as my little bundle of stuff is perfectly suited to the task at hand.
So without further ado, I’m going to break down what I’ll be packing for this trip. Warning. Please stop reading this post now if you could care less about pack lists. We’re about to reach peak geek here.
Based on weather reports, the parts of Idaho we’ll be visiting seem to have a high desert climate: hot during the day and cool to cold at night, with a potential for random thunderstorms. This is great cycling weather, as minimal clothes are required to be comfortable on and off the bike.
- Straw hat – Provides excellent, lightweight, sun protection. The chinstrap should keep the hat in place when windy. I will also look utterly stupid in it, which gives me a smile.
- Patagonia Capilene 2 t-shirt – The slightly loose fit allows excellent airflow. It dries almost instantly. The gray color is good so I don’t appear too grungy after days of riding in the same shirt.
- Giro DND gloves – To keep my hands from getting sunburnt and blistered. I hope they won’t be too warm on hot, exposed days.
- Aerotech Designs padded touring underwear – The pad is really thin. I hate thick, diaper pads. I used these on the GDMBR and other long rides. They are comfortable and they dry quickly.
- Zip-off shorts – These lightweight zip-offs go over my padded undies. The inseam is a bit short, but the material is lightweight and it dries instantly. I will also use these as my swim trunks and my off-bike shorts. Using zip-offs means I only have to pack the legs instead of a full pair of pants.
- Wright Sock Coolmesh II quarter sock – This is my favorite sock for everything except weddings. The two thin layers keep my feet really dry and cool. I’ve used these type of socks for cycling for about 8 years. Nothing is better in my opinion.
- Patagonia Javalina shoes – I’m on my second pair. There’s nothing too special about these except that they have a slightly stiff Vibram sole, which lasts a long time and offers good grip on my flat pedals.
The rest of the clothing I’ll be schlepping is basically used to stay dry and keep warm. Because summer showers in Idaho are brief, I won’t be bringing waterproof booties and rain pants. This may prove to be a mistake. However I still believe a rain jacket is necessary. It will keep me dryish while riding in the rain, but more importantly, it will act as an air barrier during cold evenings and mornings.
- Wool beanie – It’s useful for sleeping, as I don’t have a sleeping bag with an insulated hood. I also use it to cover my eyes so I can sleep in past sunrise.
- Patagonia Capilene 2 long sleeve shirt – This will be my pajama top, my extra layer while riding, and an alternative shirt when doing laundry.
- Marmot Zeus down vest – My insulating layer off the bike and my pillow in the tent. I moved from a jacket to a vest as an experiment to see if the weight and bulk savings of a vest is worth the reduced warmth. This trip will help me know for sure.
- O2 Rainwear hooded rain jacket – This is perhaps the most affordable rain jacket out there. It packs down fairly small and weighs very little. The fit is terrible, the size small is way too roomy in the chest and torso, but it works nearly as well as my Shower’s Pass Elite 2.0 jacket for 1/10th of the price and perhaps half of the bulk.
- Specialized cycling knee warmers – My knees like to stay warm or they will bitch and moan. The knee warmers can also be used to stay warm during cold nights in the tent.
- Zip-offs legs – These legs zip onto the shorts I’ll be using for riding. Zip-offs in general scream gear nerd, but hey, I’m not ashamed of who I am.
- Wright Sock Coolmesh II quarter sock – An extra pair to change into for sleeping in the cold and to wear the next day while the other pair is drying.
Absent from this list are a lot of spare clothes that many bicycle tourists like to bring. I’m not bringing an extra pair of padded bike underwear, multiple t-shirts or jerseys, extra clothes specific to looking good in town, or any dedicated pajamas. Each article of clothing that I pack can serve multiple functions, can dry quickly, and can be easily laundered. This means I can remain clean and comfortable without the bulk and weight of excess clothes. While the wardrobe won’t win any fashion awards, it gets the job done. Function > Form.
While packed clothes may be the bulkiest items one carries on a tour, camping equipment is usually the heaviest. The potential to save weight in this category is high, but the potential to spend a lot to save that weight can also be high. This is the category that I’m usually dissatisfied with at the end of a trip, especially when it comes to the tent we choose to bring. In New Zealand our tent ended up growing mold from being packed damp so often while we were finishing up our trip along the west coast of the south island. In Iceland our 4-season tent withstood the wind really well, but the fly seams leaked so much water that we had to tack on plastic garbage bags to the peak every night. On the GDMBR, we brought a tent that was too short for my tastes. On a few other, smaller trips, we’ve tried a couple of different tents that all left me displeased in some way. While we’ve chosen a new tent for our Idaho trip, I already have my reservations about it’s abilities.
- Six Moons Designs Lunar Duo Outfitter – This is a single-wall tent with a huge amount of living space for the weight. Yes, there’s a far lighter version of this tent, the Explorer, but the price nearly doubles for a 1lb. weight savings. The only reservation I have with the tent is it’s ability to withstand high winds. We’ll see what the Idaho weather gods bring for us.
- Jacks R Better Sierra Sniveller – This quilt was overstuffed with 900-fill down. It’s compact and light. I’m not sure I trust the 25-degree temperature rating, as I’ve slept cold in it in the 40s. If we do get cold weather, I can always layer on my other clothes for added warmth.
- Thermarest Neo Air – Despite being a bit narrow, this pad is nearly ideal for touring. It takes up very little space and weighs only a bit more than a closed cell foam pad.
- Black Diamond headlamp – This headlamp does the job. Nothing fancy but critical to have when camping.
- 1.3L titanium pot with cat can stove – It’s easy to burn food with the combo of the thin ti and the high heat from the stove, but we usually just boil water for rehydrating meals. The stove, pot stand, and windscreen all fit inside the pot with room to spare. We’ve been using this cook kit since 2007. It’s foolproof.
- Sea to Summit spoons – The wide and fairly square shape of the spoon makes it easy to scrape our pot clean of nearly every morsel of food. Try that with a spork. The short handles mean the spoons can travel inside the pot so they don’t get misplaced. I tried about every type of plastic camp utensil, all of which either broke or were terrible to use. This is my favorite piece of gear. Yeah, I’m serious.
- Orikaso folding dishware – We’ve brought two folding bowls and one plate on every trip we’ve ever taken. These things take up almost no space because they can be stored flat. They’re easy to clean, light, and we can use them as cutting boards and mugs too. Awesome.
- Leatherman Juice C2 – Although I don’t like bicycle multi-tools, this camping multi-tool is great. Pliers, knife, screwdrivers, wine and beer bottle openers. If it had a can opener it’d be perfect.
- Odds and ends – A can opener for the occasional refried beans. A lighter for making fire. A small cloth for camp cleanup. About 50-feet of nylon cord to hang food.
- Platypus GravityWorks water filter – Man this thing is bulky. There are definitely smaller options out there. But this filter system works so well that it continues to take up space in my bags.
- Platypus 3L bladder and hose – I’ll probably only ever fill this bladder up to 2L, seeing as we’ll be near rivers and streams for what appears to be the entire trip.
- Small synthetic towel – This 1-foot by 2-foot REI-brand towel mops up moisture with aplomb. I used to bring a much larger towel.
In an ideal world our tubes would never need patching, our chains would never need greasing, and our wheels would never need truing. Alas, we live in an imperfect world. The thorns and grime and unseen potholes that litter the trails mean that it’s inevitable that at some point our bikes might need some TLC. Since we try to pack lightly, we don’t tend to bring a huge repair kit with us. Even so, this stuff can get heavy fast. To reduce weight and to increase the efficacy of each tool, I carry separate tools instead of a multi-tool.
Instead of listing the tools, I figured a photograph would suffice. All of the tools fit inside a Trader Joe’s plastic peanut butter jar, which slips into a bottle cage on the underside of the downtube. A couple of spare spokes, a pump, and a spare inner tube are packed in different locations.
The concept of clean has a different meaning when bicycle touring. The combination of dust and sunblock and insect repellant is a wicked recipe for grime. To fight grime and to stay happy and healthy on the road, we bring a small assortment of items that packs small and weighs little. Another photograph of these items should get the point across.
Some bicycle tourists prefer to bring no electronic gadgets on their trips as a method to escape their evil and addicting clutches. While I admire these tourists for their minimalist and simple traveling lifestyle, I’m too attached to life in the electronic age. On our trip to New Zealand, I hauled a 12-inch laptop and a DSLR with two lenses. In Iceland I left the laptop at home, but kept the bulky camera. Six years later, the digital world has changed for the better.
While a smartphone may be the ultimate traveling companion, I’m too wary of paying ridiculously high monthly fees for that pleasure. Instead I’ll be bringing a slew of gadgets that get the job done without the recurring expenses.
- Samsung dumb phone – This thing is great for making phone calls and sending text messages, which we may need to do on occasion. The battery life is still good despite being over four years old.
- iPad Mini – Slightly better than a smartphone for typing up blog posts, the iPad has great battery life and keeps my addiction rolling.
- Garmin Edge Touring – The only reason I even use a GPS unit is to record the distances I ride so I can get paid 10 cents per mile by my work. Adventure Cycling has provided a GPX file of the Idaho Hot Springs route, so we can use it to complement our paper maps.
- Panasonic DMC-LX5 – A step down from a DSLR in control and image quality, but this pint-sized camera can be stuffed anywhere.
- Limefuel L130x battery – Since my bike is equipped with a Shimano dynamo hub, I can charge this battery, which in turn can charge the gadgets. This thing is pretty hefty, but it means I don’t need to rely on restaurant and motel outlets to keep the gadgets alive.
- Sinewave Cycles Revolution – This diminutive USB port is the middleman between the dynamo hub and the Limefuel battery.
- Cables for everything – All gadgets need cables. If only the companies that make these things could settle on one type of connection. The gadgets I’m bringing require micro and mini USB connections.
The bike and bags
There are as many ways to carry gear when bicycle touring as there are internet cat celebrities. Visit any forum where bicycle tourists discuss their preferred methods and watch the sparks fly. Some tourists prefer the traditional four-pannier setup. Some only ride with rear panniers. Others ride with only front panniers. The crazy ones just use a backpack. Handlebar bags, trailers, cargo loaders, frame bags, saddle bags, there’s a method for everyone’s madness.
In the bikepacking world, the latest craze is using soft bags strapped all over the bike frame. I admit that the retrogrouch in me thinks this method looks really sloppy. When touring on paved roads, I prefer to use two rear panniers and a handlebar bag. It’s a simple, clean setup with plenty of flexibility. When touring off-road, I think that despite it’s beauty flaws, the bikepacking bag strategy works really well. You just have to learn to pack efficiently.
When we rode the GDMBR in 2012, I used a frame bag, a handlebar bag, a traditional saddle bag, and a small backpack to carry my stuff. This method worked to some degree, but I hated wearing the backpack, and the saddle bag bounced a bit, even with a support rack. My goal with this trip was to pack efficiently enough to avoid using a backpack and to overcome the bouncy saddle bag. The items I’ll be bringing, listed above, will fit into a Revelate Viscacha seat bag, a Revelate stock frame bag, a JPaks top tube bag, a Revelate handlebar harness, and, if needed to carry extra rations, a Sea-to-Summit Ultra Sil day pack.
It wasn’t easy paring down my kit so I could cram everything into these rather small bikepacking bags while not needing to use a backpack. But I think the effort will be worth it. No sweaty backs on this trip!