2012 Cycling Gear Review

Perfect gear is not actually critical for touring success. In the beginning my gear was whatever I had on hand, or whatever my limited finances could afford. For my original trip I toured with blue jeans, which I now shudder to think about. However, over the years I’ve slowly upgraded my equipment, as time (and finances!) permitted to the point that I now touring with some of the lightest equipment around. In many respects I now use ultralight gear to subsidize my original youthful endurance.

Over an extended trip I acclimatize to whatever the gear load. While a trip starts out slowly, over the days, weeks, and months the actual weight of the gear matters less. Except for big hills – I always care when climbing big hills! But for trips over a shorter duration lighter gear offsets some of that early ramp-up period, when you don’t have the benefit of time to work your way up to not caring (or at least caring less) how much is carried by the end of an extended trip.

That said, finding the right gear is important. Knowing what to bring, as well as what to leave behind, can be the difference between a very good and a very bad day.

Tent

Carrying a tent, in many respects, defines the type of cycle touring. Once you have a tent, a number of other items become a necessity (sleeping bag, air mattress, etc.). The tent provides a flexibility to the excursion that doesn’t come any other way. If things go awry, or you just keep going one day with no particular destination, the tent provides a place to stay regardless of circumstance.

When touring I tend to spend about 50% of my nights camping, almost always in campgrounds. I prefer a warm shower, and, more importantly, the company of others. In addition to those met along the way, campgrounds are the most likely way to meet fellow travelers. “Free camping” (camping along the roadside somewhere) by definition makes it unlikely you’ll have someone nearby. Cycle tourists rarely stay in hostels (although that’s the best place to meet young Americans on the road). And when is the last time you met someone when staying in a hotel? Cyclists are easy to pick out in a campground, and I’ve found that it’s a ragtag community of individuals and couples that welcome conversation.

I prefer an actual tent over a tarp, if only for the protection from the local mosquito population. For years I traveled with a one-man tent – the Eureka Gossamer – and it served me well. It’s very dry, and for its time one of the lightest tents on the market. However, for the trip to Poland it was time to upgrade. Tent technology had changed such that modern tents are significantly lighter. The Gossamer has no vestibule or really interior space. It was starting to show its age from UV and repeated use.

After a review of the available market, I selected the Mountain Hardware SuperMega UL2. While pricy, at just over two pounds it was roughly 50% lighter than the Gossamer. More significantly, even with the decrease in weight it was a two-man tent with considerably more interior space and a vestibule. The close runner-up was the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 with the differentiating point that the SMUL2 had a fly that extended out over the door, making it less likely for water to fall inside the tent when the fly was wet.

The SMUL2 is a great tent. There is a lot more head and shoulder room than the Gossamer. The interior height of the tent was such that it was easy to access gear in the tent, even when it was in the far (lower) end. It set up easily, and held up well over the trip. It proved quite waterproof in heavy rains. I did end up replacing the tent stakes with my existing set of Ti tent stakes, which dropped a few grams off them overall weight. The Ti stakes also are stiffer than the usual aluminum stakes, making them stay in the ground better.

It’s still not perfect — the tent fly could stick out about 2” farther; as it was with water on the fly some water would end up dripping into the interior of the tent when entering and exiting. Because the vestibule is triangular you don’t end up with a lot of vestibule space. However, being one man in a two-person tent I didn’t really need much vestibule space.

Sleeping Bag

When I started touring in 1989 technology was different. Quallofill was just on the market, and had the advantage of retaining about 80% of its warmth when wet – appealing when you’re going to be on the road and never quire sure what’s going to happen. As a synthetic, it also dries quickly. It was light for the alternatives at the time, but bulky. However, the bulk didn’t matter much because it rode on the top of the bicycle’s rear rack. For options on the other end of the spectrum, down is extremely light-weight, but if it gets wet it’s going to be useless for days.

For that reason I eschewed goose down for many years. When my original sleeping bag began to lose its loft, I replaced it with another synthetic bag. But I eventually realized my sleeping bag had never actually gotten wet. The decreased bulk of the down bag would mean that I could actually store it in the panniers, providing a further layer of protection against moisture. My sleeping bag of choice at the time became the Western Mountaineering Highlite, which has served me well for several trips. A 35 degree bag weighing in at 16 oz. was an obvious choice (despite the fact that my wife claims I look like a giant bunch of grapes when inside it!).

However, the Highlite has always felt like it wasn’t rated accurately for me (it’s more like a 45 degree bag). In the past that’s never been an issue, because I tend to tour in late Spring. I also carry a silk sleeping bag liner for both for the extra warmth and to serve as a sleeping sheet when a particular country’s hostelling system demands it. My Highlight is also getting somewhat long in the tooth, and starting to lose some of its loft. Those deficiencies caught up with me in Poland. One night in southern Poland the temperature dropped abruptly, and I woke up cold. More significantly, a couple of times in northern Poland the nightly temp dropped to below 40 degrees, and even with the liner I had very cold nights. I’m likely to replace the Highlite for the next trip, and the current likely candidate is the down Mountain Hardware Speed 32 as a great blend of warmth and weight.

Sleeping Pad

Hand in hand with the sleeping bag is the sleeping pad. There is an advantage to a closed-cell foam pad (that being that closed-cell foam pads will never spring a leak) but they do take up a fair amount of volume.

For that reason my original sleeping pad was one of the early base lightweight Therm-a-Rest air mattresses. As Therm-a-Rest has come out with lighter models, I’ve upgraded to keep up. All in all, I love Therm-a-Rest. The gear holds up well. I’ve had one (after literally years of heavy use) start to delaminate, but Therm-a-Rest replaced it at no cost with a current model.

My current model is the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Small. I use it for all sorts of camping, not just for cycle touring, and I’ve always been really happy with it. That said, the same deficiency in the sleeping bag exists in the ProLite – just not warm enough for the lower temperatures.

Generally I’m going to resolve both of those deficiencies by simply taking a bit more care of what the temperatures could be, and planning appropriately. I’m also considering upgrading to the ProLite Plus, which has a 3.8 R-rating over the ProLite’s 2.2.

Cooking

You can certainly camp without a stove, as there’s usually a town (and eating establishments) nearby. That said, when you’re cold and wet, there’s nothing like being able to prepare something warm wherever you are. Preparing your own food is also considerably cheaper than the alternatives.  Many campgrounds in Europe include a small kitchen in which you can cook, but that’s not 100%, and I typically don’t have the option to pick and choose which campground I stay at, so I still want to carry a stove.

Fuel is the predominant factor in selecting a stove. From a fuel perspective there are really three choices: gasoline, alcohol, and butane (or isobutane). Whatever your fuel choice, acquiring fuel becomes one of the necessary early tasks when arriving in Europe, as you certainly can’t carry fuel on the airplane.

I don’t like carrying gasoline. Any careless fumble or leak can lead to everything else reeking of fuel. Alcohol is readily available in Europe once you learn how to look. The alcohol stove itself can be as light as (and in fact made from) an aluminum can. But if you’re cooking regularly you can need to purchase alcohol on a regular basis or carrying a large volume of it. It also burns at a low temperature, so cooking things takes longer.

That leaves butane. Gaz is common across almost all of Western Europe, and was my original choice when I started touring. It’s sold in most camping stores, doesn’t take up a lot of space, and will last for several weeks. The minus to the original Gaz cartridges (since resolved) was that once in use you couldn’t detach them from the stove. Several weeks of fuel can then ironically be TOO long; I remember sitting in the outskirts of an airport in Spain with the stove lit and at full blast because I couldn’t take the cartridge on the plane, and I’d arrived at the airport before realizing I still had the fuel.

Gaz cartridges (butane) become very inefficient at low temperatures, and cease to “boil off” at just over 0ºC, which means they aren’t well-suited for the northern climes, and are thus harder to obtain in Scandinavia. For that reason when I went to Sweden I changed to another stove – the Primus Micron Ti, which uses isopropane/butane cartridges that function at lower temperatures than butane alone.

The Micron was my stove of choice for the trip to Poland. I had to go to a couple of camping stores to find fuel (the first store sold the stove, but no fuel, but then at least I knew fuel was out there somewhere), but after that I was all set. I still had fuel at the end of the trip, so I left the cartridge with the final hostel’s staff the night before I flew out.

The stove then necessitates something to cook things in. I started out touring with the classic Boy Scout aluminum cooking set. But that set was bulky, and not as light as the EverNew Expedition Series Ti Pot Set, which I switched to many years ago, and have been happy with ever since. I carry two pots, and conveniently the fuel cartridge for the stove fits precisely inside the two pots, reducing the overall packed volume.

Gear Storage

Once you’ve got all of this gear, you need some way to carry it about, with three predominant methodologies: a backpack, a trailer, or panniers.  A warning up front – discussing how to carry your gear is somewhat of a religious debate amongst the proponents of each type.

The apparent advantage of a backpack is it makes all of your gear easy to carry when you’re not on the bike, but that’s offset by significant negatives. First and foremost, the backpack is awkward while cycling. The weight is on your back each time you move up and down when pedaling. The pack throws you off balance when trying to look behind you. If you need something, you have to stop and completely pull the pack off to rummage about for things. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any long-haul cyclists carrying everything in a backpack.

A trailer is the next choice. Trailers provide the largest capacity for carrying things (both by weight and by volume). When you have a place to leave the trailer, you can easily leave all your gear for the afternoon. Some trailers permit you to lock up all of your gear. When traveling on difficult roads, or encountering bumps, the impact from the weight of the gear is distributed back to the trailer (decreasing the impacts on the bicycle and thus potential gear failures like broken spokes). Trailers are more likely to provide some level of “waterproof”.

However, the negatives far outweigh those benefits. A trailer is more expensive that a good set of panniers. A trailer adds drag and rolling resistance with the extra wheel (although obviously less so with single wheel trailers over double wheel trailers). The base weight of the trailer is more than that of panniers, so you’re hauling more raw weight. When moving about in towns with your gear, you’ve got to deal with the extra length and awkwardness of your load. Trailers make getting on and off trains and buses more difficult. If you have a gear failure that is part of the trailer itself, you’re a lot less likely to be able to find replacement parts for your specific trailer. And finally the very fact that it permits you to carry more stuff means that there’s the inclination to carry more stuff, adding to the already increased amount of weight from the trailer itself. Rarely do I see someone touring with a trailer, as the predominant choice of long-distance cyclists is panniers.

Panniers are less expensive and lighter weight than a trailer. They provide a handy way to compartmentalize where your gear is stored. Panniers are also more flexible – if you’re on a day trip leaving most of your gear behind, you can adjust how much gear you’re carrying with you. If one pannier does happen to leak, at least it’s only part of your gear.

My original choice in panniers for touring was, for reasons lost in the annals of time, the LL Bean panniers. LL Bean has a great reputation, and a great warranty. In the case of those panniers one aspect of that became extremely important. Within four weeks on the road one of the panniers had started coming apart, and by the end of the trip three of the four panniers were in a state of disrepair that couldn’t be attributed to normal use. When I came home LL Bean replaced them free of charge. However, the replacements also started coming apart even under normal, non-touring use, and LL Bean eventually refunded my money.

That left me in need of replacements. Ortleib makes the premiere cycling panniers. However, they’re among the most expensive, and because of their waterproofing they’re also quite heavy. I eventually settled on some of the smaller panniers made by Lone Peak, with Sundance panniers on the front, and Parley’s Summit panniers in the rear. The smaller panniers provide less space, and thus less temptation to carry things I don’t need. The 3500 cu. in. provides enough room, and if I ever needed more space I could temporarily move the sleeping bag (now carried in one of the rear panniers) out to the top of the rear rack.

Lone Peak does sell rain covers for their panniers, but instead I line the panniers with standard trash bags and that’s generally worked out just fine, as it lighter than fully-waterproofed alternatives.

Racks

There used to be a lot fewer choices for bicycle racks than there are today. On my original touring bike I had the Blackburn EX-1 rack on the rear, and their Lo-Rider rack in the front. Where the conventional front racks carried the panniers high on the front wheel, the Lo-Riders moved the weight of the front panniers down to closer to the front axle, and I find that particular weight distribution make the bicycle actually handle better under load than placing everything in the rear.

When I was forced to replace my bike, the carbon fiber forks on my new Litespeed Blueridge wouldn’t permit the Lo-Rider racks, and I went with the shop’s recommendation of the Old Man Mountain Ultimate Lowrider, and I’ve been quite pleased with it. My rear rack is still the old, reliable, EX-1.

Handlebar Pack

While some consider that the weight of a handlebar pack to outweigh the merits, I would not be one of them. The handlebar pack gives you a place to readily store the things you’ll want regularly during the day. It’s a great spot to put snacks (of which you’ll consume many). A good handlebar pack will have a weatherproof top with a map case on top so you can view your map readily as you cycle along (you can put your compass in the map case as well). A well-designed handlebar pack can also give you somewhere to put your fingers, out of the wind and weather, for those particularly cold blustery days. But the pack need to mount firmly to the bicycle so that the weight is stable.

While my LL Bean panniers were terrible, the same cannot be said for the handlebar pack, which served me well for many years. However, the pack design would not accommodate the handlebar design on my Litespeed Blueridge bicycle. The advantage of the LL Bean pack design was an external frame for the pack so that it didn’t sag, and the alternatives using that design are few and far between. I’d almost given up when I found the Bushwacker Diablo. There’s a rigid frame, and it doesn’t sag. It’s now my handlebar pack of choice, although it does come with some drawbacks.

First, the Diablo makes a lousy hand bag. I carry a strap with two clips that permits me to remove the handlebar bag and carry it with me as I wander about the city. But those mount points on the Diablo are placed very poorly, such that the bag never carries well.

Second, the handlebar pack is positioned in such a way that it “meddles” with the front cables. When the pack is in place, the cables have a lot of pressure on them from the pack. Removing the pack (such as those cases where you want to use it as a handbag for the day) makes the cables reposition, which can in turn change how the shifting works, which can be a real pain.

For the trip to Poland I replaced the front cable housing with “Nokon” cables, which are more flexible and inclined to not move, in an attempt to resolve this issue. However, I traded one minor problem for two major ones. First, the Nokon cables can twist along the course of the day. That meant that the mere vibration of the bike twists the Nokon, which in turn twists the adjustors for the cable, exacerbating the very problem I was trying to fix – the derailleur indexing changing. The Nokon also squeaked. If you don’t think that’s a major problem, try to imaging running along a beautiful quiet countryside road, with your front cables making an “eek eek eek” sound all day! In the end I used adhesive tape to lock the adjustors in place, oiled the Nokon, and mitigated both issues, but I’ll be going back to the way it was previously for the next tour.

The Lock

Like it or not, there’s the regular need to leave your bicycle in random places, and you just have to accept that. I’ve left my bicycle in cities all over the world with little issue. (That’s not to say I don’t fret when I leave it!) The only time I’ve ever had anything stolen was the one time that I left my bike securely locked in a shed with an organized cyclist trip of a group of Americans.

But I do carry a Kryptonite Standard U-Lock and almost religiously lock up my bicycle. For years I carried an Evolite – Kryptonite’s ultra-lightweight U-lock – but when the vulnerability surfaced where almost anyone could open a Kryptonite lock with a Bic pen, Kryptonite recalled and replaced all their locks, but didn’t replace that model. I now use one of their lightest U-Lock models, and will continue to do so.

Clothes

Staying Warm and Dry

Rain

Absolutely nothing sucks more than being thousands of miles from home, in the middle of nowhere, and being cold and wet. When I started touring, I didn’t have a lot of money for quality gear, and my rain coat and pants were simple plastic shells. They’d keep you dry, but if worn long enough, I’d end up as wet on the inside from perspiration as I would have from the weather. The shells also didn’t truly hold up well under heavy rain, and would slowly leak. That said I used that type of shell for years of touring and commuting to work, and for the money they work just fine.

One of the best upgrades I’ve ever made was replacing the jacket for the Gore Bike Wear Countdown Jacket. It was expensive, but worth every penny. The jacket has a high collar and extra long tail for additional coverage. There’s a pocket in the back (so you can pack the jacket into its own packaging) which also serves as a dry location for gear when you have no other. The only minus for the jacket was that it came with no hood, but my wife tracked down an add-on for the coat that provides a detachable hood, completing its perfection. It’s the driest garment I’ve ever owned – bar none.

While I’m currently using rain pants by Sierra Design, I’ve used a variety of rain pants over the years, and the SD ones don’t stand out over any of the others. While a key part of my gear, I don’t use rain pants very often. If it’s raining hard and cold, I tend to duck somewhere dry when I can. If it’s even vaguely warm, I just cycle without them. My legs are generating plenty of heat, and when it stops raining my legs dry back out fairly quickly.

Cold

I don’t remember what my first warm jacket was for touring, but it was most certainly bulky and heavy, and early on was replaced by the Patagonia Puff Ball. While I no longer tour with that jacket, it’s only because it’s been worn to a frazzle from excessive use, as it’s a great piece of equipment. It was one of the lightest jackets on the market at the time, WARM, and with Quallofil as the liner retains its warmth even when soaked. On a trip from Amsterdam to Copenhagen I had chosen not to pack it because I didn’t think I’d need it. During the trip I decided I’d been wrong, and actually had the Puff Ball shipped to me from the US, staying in Kiel, Germany an extra day to make sure I got it.

Unfortunately Patagonia stopped making the original PuffBall, making replacing the coat difficult. Eventually Patagonia introduced variants as a pullover or with a hood, but the inability to completely unzip the coat made it too difficult to adjust my internal temperature while cycling. Eventually I gave up hoping for a replacement, and purchased the Mont-Bell Thermawrap which was about the lightest jacket I could find at the time. Overall I’ve been impressed by the Mont-Bell, although it doesn’t breath that well, which is surprisingly usually more of an issue about town than on the road.

Patagonia recently started making the Nano Puff Jacket, much like the original design but about 4 oz. lighter, and it’s likely to be my next jacket of choice.

Despite my aversion to carrying anything I don’t have to, I also carry a pair of synthetic/wool blend fuzzy socks. There’s no replacement for that feeling when you’ve been cold and wet.

Camera

When I started touring, I didn’t carry a camera. Instead, I purchased post cards at each place I stopped, and mailed them home (a practice I continue to this very day, although I bulk mail them in a padded envelope). Eventually I started carry a boxtop 110 film camera, and later upgraded to lightweight digital cameras once they became readily available. It now seems like each trip I upgrade to whatever the current camera technology is.

With a more random style of touring, it’s important to make sure to keep your digital camera “charged”, and that means using conventional AA batteries instead of rechargables (which also saves you the weight of carrying about a charger). The battery life of the camera itself is also important, because you don’t want to spend your whole trip searching for and purchasing batteries. You’d also like the batteries to last long enough there’s no need to carry multiple sets of spare batteries. As technology marches on, finding cameras that still run on AA batteries is getting more difficult.

Note that lithium batteries are also lighter than conventional alkalines, but lithium batteries tend to be hard to find in Europe. I tend to have a set of lithium batteries as the spares, and each time I buy replacement alkalines I move the lithium batteries back to the spares.

For the trip to Poland I made a major camera upgrade to the Nikon Coolpix L120. It’s probably the heaviest camera I’ve ever taken, weighing in at 431g (almost 1 lb.), compared to the usual 6-7 oz. of my previous pocket cameras. However, the L120 also had all of the features one might want. While it runs off of 4 AA batteries, the battery life then is exceptional. I took over 1000 pictures on the Poland trip across 3 sets of alkaline batteries. The L120 takes exceptional pictures in low light (especially good for museum or random underground castle pictures). I gained an entirely new appreciation for the functionality of the 21X zoom, as it would let me change the perspective of the shot, as well as get clear shots of things that would otherwise be unrecognizable. I did learn to keep the camera very steady in low light or high zoom to prevent the shot from being blurry. The L120 also the first camera I’ve ever had with a built-in timer, so there’s an actual occasional picture of myself amongst the various photos of the trip.

Even though it’s a 14.1 megapixel camera, almost all of the shots I took I kept to 5 megapixels. I’m not likely to do much with most of the photos but post them online, and the smaller size means that they take less time to upload and store long term.

Computer

Back in the dark ages taking a computer touring with me wasn’t even a consideration, but a lot has changed, as well as the expectations of my job for the ability to reach me. For the trip to Sweden I carried the Nokia N810, preloaded with a map of Sweden. The N810 was a bit sluggish-performance-wise, but it got the job done. Via WiFi it provided the ability to check my email, and while the GPS was really slow, the GPS functionality came in handy a couple of times.

Time marches on, and for the trip to Poland the device of choice was my Galaxy Nexus, although it spent most of the trip powered off to conserve battery life for when I might need it. While incompatible with the cellular service in Europe, the WiFi still worked. In addition to email, and access to Facebook and other Internet resources, it also serves as a backup camera. Combined with the GPS and downtown WiFi I once used it to locate the cheapest nearby hotel. Larger towns tend to have a map of the city in city centre, and instead of needing to memorize where something was I could snap a picture of the map and later navigate off of the photo. I also kept a copy of my personal password database on the Nexus, in case I needed to access something. That said, I would never tour where I was 100% reliant on an electronic device, so I’ll always carry paper maps.

Maps

I have previously been so bold (or foolish) to arrive in England with no maps at all. Instead, I went to an airport bookstore and managed to set myself right. Prior to the advent of the Internet, finding maps of countries in Europe of the scale that you would want for cycling of 1:200000 to 1:300000 while still in the US was difficult. Now however, you can resolve that concern with relative ease, and before I left for Poland (and because of my intended route) I had ordered four maps at 1:300000 that covered all of Poland. Those maps were from Marco Polo, and were carefully selected because they also show campgrounds, hostels (and in some cases hotels!), and sites of historical significance, with a focus on castles and ruins. I also ordered a map that was specifically all of the campgrounds in Poland, as well as printing out a map from the Internet of campgrounds in Poland, in order to give myself the best information I could on places to stay. Finding specific sites at 1:300000 is still a bit of a challenge, and can take some wandering about. Even then I once failed to find a campground listed on all three maps because it had closed.

Miscellaneous

I carried 20’ of 2mm cord to most often use as a clothes line. The last few trips I carried only 15’, which wasn’t always quite enough (the girth of a tree the typical problem). Prior to that I’d cobbled together clotheslines using the various straps, bungee cords, and whatnot that I had. Carrying an actual 20’ of cord instead of that arduous process is well worth it.

Formerly I used the front bicycle headlight as my flashlight. While I think of a blinking rear bicycle light as a necessity, I’ve come to devalue the front headlight and instead carry only a headlamp. Instead of using a bicycle headlight as the flashlight, I use the headlamp as the headlight in the rare circumstance I need one. Since for most summer touring in Europe it doesn’t get dark until 9 pm (or later, I once rolled into a campground on the coast of Denmark after 11 pm and it was still just barely daylight), there’s actually little call for a head light, and a headlamp is a much more convenient flashlight than a flashlight is a headlamp.  I found my former Petzl headlamp broken right before I left for Poland and replaced it a Princeton Tec Remix that I was quite happy with.

Most of those touring with panniers strap gear to the top of their rear rack using bungee cords. Following the advice of a fellow cyclist years ago I replaced all of my bungee cords with a single nylon strap and have never regretted that decision. In addition to removing the risk of losing an eye when one of the bungees unexpectedly breaks free, the nylon strap is lighter weight, and permits me to strap things solidly down so they don’t sway when the bicycle takes an unexpected shock.

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