Sunday, September 15, 2013

Touring Setup

Last year, thanks to a long involuntary paid vacation, I could take two weeks off for a bike tour. John and I rode from San Diego east along the Mexican border then north over the peaks and valleys of the Sierras and finished 800 miles later at Mono Lake. Since then, austerity and sequestration rule the world, I get paid half of my previous salary and work lots more. Perhaps, that's how it should be for everybody and the whole world would be a better place? At least I contribute!
Oftentimes, I think about the vicious cycle of slaving long hours for some capitalist pigs just to make enough for rent, gas, food, utilities, medical bills and to keep all the junk we surround ourselves with running. How much money would I need to bike from place to place, carrying all my earthly possessions on the bike? I know, stuff breaks and sports equipment and bike parts are expensive. Yet I dream about stepping out of the door, hopping on a heavily loaded bike and perhaps four, five months later ringing a door bell at my mom's place. "Hi mom, just riding by and I thought I would stop by for a few days and do my laundry!"

The question is where to pack the minimum necessary items for a long bike trips in a way that would not collapse the bike and make it still rideable uphill? This problem has been addressed by thousands of people, there are setups  described on the Internet, and many companies make high quality bike touring gear. Here is a table comparing just a few of those products - basically Revelate Design bags vs. Thule universal bike rack and Ortlieb panniers:

Productweight [oz]weight [g]volume [liters]cost $
Tangle M92554.570
Pack n' Pedal Tour35990NA89
Rack frames15425NA18
Ortlieb Roller classic67190040150

A lightweight setup using Revelate Designs Tangle frame bag, a handlebar mounted Sweetroll and the Viscacha (larger of the two) seat bag would weight 935g, have volume of 32.5 liters and cost $295. Under a kilogram for all three bags is very light and I see why this is a choice of many long distance bikepackers as well as racers (Tour Divide, for example). Yet 32.5 liters of scape does not seem like enough for self-supported bike trips which would include camping.

Last year, touring the Sierra Cascades route on a road bike, I had the two Backroller panniers about 75% full and carried a Camelbak Hawg (about 13 liters). I did not carry a tent, sleeping bag or cooking stuff (stove and pot), but I did pack an emergency bivvy, which was the size of a hammock when packed. Since we stayed in hotels and motels, I did bring some off bike clothes, like long pants, T shirt and a puffy jacket.

In comparison, the Thule Pack n' Pedal rack with frames and two Ortlieb panniers weigh more than three times as much at 3,315 grams while providing only 7.5 L more space. Cost would be comparable at ~ $260, but I already have the panniers so subtract $160. The rack is rated for high loads (55lbs) and both the rack and panniers are completely waterproof and non-wettable (I know Revelate bags are waterproof, too but the fabric must get wet on the outside in a rain). The big disadvantage is that all the weight is on the rear wheel using this setup. Adding a frame bag or a handlebar harness would distribute the weight better, but add even more weight.

Verdict: bags for minimalist touring on trails around Lake Tahoe, rack and panniers for long road trips through the Pacific Northwest. Two water bottles and a credit card for bike touring in Europe.

 I almost forgot: the ultimate touring setup is, of course, the GDR winning, spacious, lightweight and aerodynamic "fin" and "fairing" designed, manufactured and trail and road tested by John Nobile.


  1. I lived this way for segments of my 20s and even a short period in my early 30s. In 2003 my then-boyfriend and I toured across the country on $11 per day, total expense. We mailed ourselves food and supplies, camped wherever we could hide when the camping wasn't free, took baths and washed clothes in creeks, and paid for a shower or hotel room about once a week. Came home after 3 months and earned the cost of my entire bike tour back in less than two weeks of low-pay newspaper work, including return airfare.

    I often wonder if I could revert back to that dirtbag bicycle touring lifestyle if I lose the opportunities I have now. Even in my mid-30s, I still think I would choose that over a return to the 60-hour-a-week stressful job I used to hold. Cases can be made for contributing to communities, society, etc., through work, of course. I too believed newspaper work was a noble cause in this regard. Still, I am a firm believer in individual quality of life and making the optimal choices for oneself. I realize how privileged it is to have a choice at all.

    I'm really hoping to plan a longer tour for the summer of 2014. I don't have any solid ideas yet but the possibilities are exciting. I'm pretty much a full convert to Revelate bike bags, but I'm also the type who prefers to road tour on my hardtail 29er. Although I still have the panniers from 2003.

  2. Jill, thanks for insight. I guess I may try the Thule rack at some point, plus a bag. As you say, it is exciting just to think about possible routes while trapped by the "system". At my age, I think I need a bed, shower, good coffee and struedel