Top tips for bike packing success
After almost two weeks of bike packing in northern France there are a few tips I thought I would pass on to other potential bike packers.
Bike packing is a simplistic form of cycle touring. It doesn’t require you to screw on a pannier rack or use traditional panniers, instead bike packs fit to the frame of a bike with Velcro and clipped straps. Read about the bike packing trend.
For my trip I “micro packed” in an Apidura saddle pack. I took only the bike clothes I would wear each day and one set of evening clothes. Each night, I washed and dried my Gore Power 2.0 bibbed bike shorts, cycle jersey, gloves and socks.
To my kit list I added a windproof Gore gillet, a lightweight waterproof jacket (Inov-8 Race Ultra Shell), arm warmers and leg warmers. I was banking on warm weather so all these items were extras “just in case”.
My evening wear comprised:
- Pair of shorts
- T-shirt (size small!)
- Clean pants and bra
- Pair of running socks
- Super lightweight trainers (Inov-8 F-Lite race light trainers, like these, which are almost as light as flipflops but a great deal warmer and comfier on a cool evening after cycling all day.)
- Lightweight down jacket (Arc’teryx Cerium SL). The Cerium is hard to beat in terms of being so lightweight yet still warm. It stuffs down into a bag and is very easy to pack in a small place.
I threw in a couple of Munroaming buffs because they are useful for both chilly and sunny days when you need to keep the wind out or the sun off your skin.
My toiletries were carried in small re-fillable bottles and included only the very basics. I didn’t even take shampoo because I imagined I would find this in B&Bs and hotels. (This was the case on some occasions and not on others so I washed my hair when I could. You need to be prepared to rough it a bit on a basic bike packing trip.)
I also took basic bike mechanical and repair kit, including two spare inner tubes, a small pack of stick-on tube repair patches, a multi tool with chain link fixer, one spare link and a good quality mini pump (one that properly inflates flat tyres). Top Peak Race Rocket does a very good job.
Extra items included:
- iPhone (communication, navigation thanks to the in-built maps and also the very useful compass),
- Garmin Edge 800,
- Mini Asus Transformer Pad laptop so I could work a little while cycle touring
- Headphones for listening to music
- Ear plugs (in case of noisy accommodation)
- Long bungee (this was useful for wrapping around the saddle bag when I wanted it to be more tightly secured and for using as a strap when carrying the front pannier away from the bike.)
I also made use of my second water bottle. I used the first bottle for carrying water, and I topped this up whenever I could. In my second bottle I added my waterproof jacket and spare underwear. I liked the idea of spreading the load on the bike and I knew that the bottle would keep the kit 100% dry.
More about the Apidura bike pack bags
I chose to take two Apidura bike packs (from Edinburgh Bike Cooperative). The 17.5 litre saddle pack that fits behind the seat post and beneath the saddle was packed two-thirds full. I didn’t want to take more than this because I wanted to travel as light as I could.
I added a small Apidura top tube pack to the top of the top tube. In this I stowed my spare inner tubes and other bits and pieces of bike repair stuff.
I decided on a more old-fashioned square front pannier bag. I borrowed the Altura pack from a friend (rather like this bag if you want to buy one). It was large enough to fit in my small laptop (this was critical for my work-holiday trip), as well as other items such as arm warmers, bike lock, money, mobile phone and maps.
It is far easier reaching into a zipped pocket to see a map than it is unrolling a dry bag and when I wanted to carry my valuables with me I simply unhooked this pack and took it with me.
However, if I was to be setting off for a camping bike pack trip I’d use the Apidura handlebar pack because it’s great for stuffing in a sleeping bag and/or a sleeping mattress.
I didn’t bother with the long below top tube bag because I didn’t need the extra carrying space. However, this would be a useful pack if you were taking a tent with you on your trip because it can accommodate tent poles folded down.
The bags fit neatly into the frame of the bike and they are aerodynamic. Because I took so little on my trip the effects of carrying the packs were not as large as I can recall form pannier-based cycle tours.
I think there are two reasons for this: First, with smaller packs you are less likely to pack too much kit. Second, the shape of the packs creates less drag when cycling and it is also possible to get out of the saddle to pedal uphills.
I disagree with Nick, who wrote about the hassle of clipping on the saddle bag each day in his bike packing post . Once I got the hang if it, attaching the saddle pack to the bike each day took no more than a few minutes, which I think it really good for such a useful packing system.
Warning about damp kit
One thing to be aware of with the Apidura bike pack bags. They are made with a highly waterproof fabric but because they are stitched this can lead to some leaks in very heavy and sustained rain.
On one of the days of my cycle tour in France I endured non-stop torrential rain. The water also splashed up from the road and track for hours on end. It was extreme cycling conditions but sadly when I opened up the saddle bag some of my kit was damp.
I had properly rolled over the top three times and it wasn’t anywhere near full so I don’t think there could have been a leak from there. However, some water did penetrate the bag somehow and I was left with damp clothes to wear in the evening.
I wrote to Apidura to ask about the waterproofness of their bags. This was the reply from James Black in Customer Services: “As our current line of products is stitched, they are weather resistant but not fully waterproof. After sustained exposure to rain, some water may get into the pack through the seams, which seems to be what happened in this instance.
“We do endeavour to inform customers about this and include the below explanation on each of the main product pages on the website: ‘Please note that, while the body fabric of this pack is waterproof, due to the stitching process used to assemble the product, there is the possibility for water to enter the packs through the seams when exposed to a sustained rain. We recommend using an internal dry bag for contents that must remain absolutely dry (such as electronics)’.”
James suggests using a seam sealant, such as McNett Seam Grip, to reinforce the waterproofness. He adds: “However, because we do not have any direct control over its [the grip] quality or availability, we do not offer this guidance outright on the website.”
All I needed to take with me was an extra dry bag for days when it was very heavy rain. Mot of the time, however, the pack kept my kit perfectly dry.
Mileage and accommodation while bike packing
I decided to keep things light and simple by booking B&Bs and hotels ahead of my trip. This gave me a goal each day and it meant it didn’t need to carry a tent or worry about finding a place to sleep.
The internet, especially booking.com and TripAdvisor, makes it easy to book accommodation before you set off for another country.
I aimed for between 50 and 80 miles of cycling per day. When carrying kit, even a fairly light pack, it is a good idea to adjust your normal daily mileage. I reckon on reducing your usual daily mileage by a quarter to a third.
Also, since it’s meant to be a holiday I like to stop and see attractions when I want to and enjoy a coffee stop and lunch each day. If I’d aimed for longer mileage days I might well have found myself enduring the tour rather than enjoying it.
More mileage can become a nightmare when faced with tricky weather conditions. On one day of my trip non-stop rain created very tough conditions for cycling and, unfortunately, I’d miscalculated my estimated route distance by about 25 miles. It was bad luck that the poor weather coincided with what turned out to be my longest day in the saddle.
Another thing to take into account is navigation. I reckon I spent at least an hour each day stopping to check navigation or to correct myself after getting lost. Being in a foreign country only adds to the issues that might slow you down during a day of cycling.
On the plus side, though, mobile phones and Garmin devices have made navigation overseas a lot easier than a decade ago.
To navigate effectively I first checked my compass on my iPhone to look at the general direction I expected to travel each day. Then I looked at a map before checking Google maps on my phone and also my Garmin. With all these aids I mostly stayed on track, although getting round towns and cities was still very challenging.
Why solo cycling?
I enjoy other people’s company but it’s not always easy to marry your holiday availability and aspirations with other people. While the G-Force fancied a climbing trip to the Outer Hebrides I wanted to go somewhere warm to ride my bike.
At the outset I was worried about how I’d enjoy a solo cycle tour but it turned out that I really liked it. I liked being able to start when I wanted, go at my own pace, and stop when I fancied and do as much or as little as I wanted each day.
There was no one to stress me out and if something went wrong I could only blame myself and not others. I took to muttering quite a lot to myself but apart from that I found the experience to be empowering and liberating.
I did miss the company of a friend in the evening but I found the meals at the chambres d’hotes to be a great way to chat to other people. I also made use of on-line communications, including Facebook, email and messaging so I rarely felt lonely.
In fact, there were times when I could have happily carried on with a spot of work or enjoyed a silent meal and drink but I ended up being in other people’s company for one reason or another.
I would recommend solo touring if you have ever fancied giving it a try.
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