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Thursday, February 10, 2011

How to Pack When Bicycle Camping

I haven't been bicycle camping for very long.  There are still so many places in San Diego County I want to visit... every time I take a "spin" on Google maps I discover another park, or country road, or an area that for whatever reason just looks interesting.

The few times I have gone bike camping have been fun but I can see I have much to learn.  For instance, I tended to pack too much stuff... including things I might be able to do without. Today I have my gear list pretty finely honed... although you might feel that I still bring too much.

A basic list.  The key word here is "minimal."  You don't need much.  Basic gear should include the following:

  • your bike (duh!!)
  • some form of rack(s) upon which to carry stuff on the bike
  • some form of pack - or pannier -  in which to carry stuff
  • your most accessed items (wallet, cell phone, hand sanitizer, tools, etc.) should be kept together someplace handy.  Some folks use a handlebar bag for this purpose; there are some nice ones on the market.
  • a tent, though for the really brave a bivy sack will work fine
  • a tarp for underneath either the tent or bivy sack to prevent rips and tears and to help keep them clean
  • some bungie cords or what's called a cargo net
  • if you plan on eating at the campsite, some food and a small -very small - cook stove; if you plan on leaving the campsite and eating at a place that hopefully also serves alcohol, a credit card (occasionally this is really fun)
  • a sleeping bag
  • a sleeping bag pad (I can't emphasize this one enough!!)
  • in cold weather: a sleeping bag liner; this is a much cheaper option than buying a winter bag and even the cheap liners from Target (around $10.00) can add 5 to 10 degrees to your bag.
  • a light for finding your way to the camp bathrooms at night; or, if you're stealth camping, a light to prevent you from "watering" your own gear by accident (or otherwise fertilizing it).  Note: I use my bicycle headlight as my camping light.
  • a rear light and bike computer are good ideas; they don't weigh much and can become critical during the ride
  • a pen; a pad of paper (a small spiral notebook will do); glasses if you require them
  • a cell phone; god, yes, this can be a life saver!!  Note, though, that most basic tent sites will not have the means to charge the phone.
  • a basic toiletry kit: tooth brush, toothpaste, soap, some toilet paper, a camp towel, hand sanitizer, antiperspirant, shaving kit (for longer stays), etc.
  • a basic tool kit (see below) 

Overall my basic list adds close to 40 pounds to the bike... maybe more.  And that's a lot of weight to be ferrying around.  Most that weight resides in the toolkit minimal as that is, the tarp, the cook stove, the sleeping bag, small bric-a-brac... but also when I'm not mindful of limiting my load and I carry too many toiletries, too much extra clothing, or canned food.  Multiple cans of food are heavy!  Carry one can at a time.
      Necessaries versus non-necessaries.  Are there a few extra things in this list?  Well, you could probably get by without the following:
      • the tarp 
      • sleeping bag pad or liner
      • pad of paper 
      • the cook stove if you pick up food while riding through town 
      • the toiletries kit if you're only camping one night (each to his/her own; I prefer to brush my teeth)... or at least a severely limited toiletries kit

      If you deep-six these things your load will be somewhat lighter.  But the basic list is what I feel I need to bring.

      Additional necessaries:  I bring a few extra things because I really need them; thus I will include them as necessaries.  For instance, my physiology is such that the parts of me that get coldest are my head and my feet.  I bring a knit cap for my head; that works well.  For my feet I bring a pair of Baffin "sleeping bag" slippers... overstuffed, ridiculous looking things that happen to work excellently in keeping my feet warm:,B001E5CRF6,B000SKUFWK,B001AHQLDC,B003FM9ZX8,B002C75I7E,B002KAO2ZC,B001AZZND8,B003FMFIGQ,B001C0CK0K.

      They are bulky but very light; they use up pannier space but overall add virtually no weight to my load.  They also come with their own stuff sack so it's easy to keep them organized.

      I also need to sleep with my head slightly elevated (ain't I a pain? ... be glad you don't camp with me).  So I bring a small Therm-a-Rest camp pillow that I put on top of my clothing stuff sack.  That combination seems to work pretty well.  Again, the pillow - even though small - does use up pannier space but adds virtually no weight.

      Non-necessaries:  There are things I bring, though, that can only be categorized as non-necessaries.  These include:

      • a few small stuff sacks to keep things organized.  For instance, my toolkit, batteries, extra tube, and tire pump go in one stuff sack.  Food, matches, and spork in another.  A third stuff sack holds my pens, pencil, paper pad, and glasses.  And so on.  Nice.  Not necessary. 
      • a Kindle and reading light.  Thus far this has proven to be of limited usefulness as I'm usually too tired at night to read.  However I can't seem to leave home without them... fortunately they add very little weight and they are flat and fit into a handy pocket in a rear pannier.
      • a small AM/FM radio.  It's a very small Sony... it adds very little weight; its rate of battery usage is excellent.  Yeah, it's not entirely necessary but I'll continue to bring it with me.  At night I tend to listen with only one earphone.  I keep the other ear open in case a bear comes rummaging through the campsite.  Although that hasn't happened yet.
      • a tiny camp dustpan/whisk broom combination that clips together flat.  This is handy for cleaning debris out of the tent before packing it up; otherwise little twigs and bits of dirt will accumulate quickly.  Could I do without this and sweep out the tent after I get home?  Of course I could.

      A word on toolkits.  I used to go overboard with tools but I've learned.  Today I keep a multi-tool in my front pocket; that should be good for 99% of the situations you'll encounter.  A basic tool kit should consists of:
      • a good multi-tool (get one that includes a chain tool); there are many that are very inclusive yet small and light weight
      • some tire levers (at least three; they'll snap together to form one compact unit)
      • a patch kit (again, this should be tiny)
      • a pump
      • at least one extra tube

      If your bike has quick-release axles then you really shouldn't require more than this as a repair kit

      If you have nutted hub axles then you are also going to have to bring a 15mm wrench.  You might be able to "double duty" a pedal wrench for this function... I did that once when I took my folding bike to San Jose.  The problem with the pedal wrench - which is thin - is it tends to leave a small grove on a soft axle nut.  Anyway, one additional wrench isn't going to "break the bank" weight-wise.
        If you have accessories on the bike that require bringing special tools (that used to be my problem)... take that accessory off the bicycle before going camping.  Tools, especially steel tools, add a lot of weight and by the 30 mile mark you are going to feel it.  Trust me on this.

        Double duty.  A good strategy to minimize the amount of stuff you carry is to enlist as many items as you can in pulling double duty.

        For instance, I use my bike light as my flashlight.  I use my rear view mirror for making sure I'm applying sunblock evenly or to shave (at least, I plan to use it to shave if I go on an extended camping trip).  I use my tarp for a variety of purposes, including wrapping it around my bungied items during rain.  I use the stuff sack for extra clothing as a camp pillow.  I use my bike computer as a watch; I also use my cell phone to tell time. 

        The most perfect item for double duty, though, is a pair of cargo pants.  In either pants or shorts configurations, you can't beat having the extra pockets.  I've got it down to a system: cell phone in right lower pocket; bandanna and keys in right upper pocket; wallet in left lower pocket; multi-tool in left upper pocket.  Now I know how to automatically reach for what I need.

        The only problem with this cargo pants system is when it's raining.  Cargo pants, after all, are cotton.  Meaning they get saturated.  Not good for a cell phone living in your right lower pocket.  Serious bicycle tourers sidestep this problem by loading these necessaries into a waterproof handlebar bag.  For that matter, most serious bicycle tourers wear tights rather than cargo pants. 

        My solution has been to bring some rain pants to wear over the cargo pants.  But that's not an optimal solution - in fact, my commitment to cargo pants creates problems as much as it presents solutions.  I just can't see myself riding around in tights... goddamit, sometimes when I ride the coast these guys look like the community theater tryouts for Peter Pan just finished.  But that's my problem; you may feel differently.  There's nothing un-manly about wearing black tights... thus far it just hasn't been for me.

        Packing your gear.  If you have multiple panniers (2 in back, 2 in front) the idea is to evenly distribute weight.  Panniers - especially front panniers - are subject to some weight restrictions.  10 pounds per front pannier equals 20 pounds on the front wheel.  Some folks would say: that's a plenty, pilgrim!  Maybe even too much.

        To me, the limits are pretty much dictated by your average speed.  If you're a speed demon you have to be very careful as to how your pack weight is distributed.  If you lose control of the bike while coasting down Banner's Grade due to weight imbalance you can expect to have a most unpleasant experience.  A most unpleasant experience.

        We slower bikers have a bit more latitude.  If the bicycle leans because we didn't pack it properly, we pull over and correct it.  But that's not an option if you're doing in excess of 40 mph.  Let's get a trend started - don't ride too fast!!!!

        Another distinction is the obvious: what should go in a pannier versus what gets bungied to the back rack?  My current scheme is: tarp, tent, sleeping bag, pad, and liner go on the back rack and held in place with a cargo net.  It's tight.  Everything else goes into the panniers.  This may not be ideal but it has worked okay for me thus far.

        For future discussions.  I plan to elaborate on all the items on the basic list above as I have opinions on each of them (surprise!! surprise!!).

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