Four ways to lighten your bike touring load

Bike touring NullarborBike touring gear lists vary with tour type, duration, climate, location and personal risk profile and preferences. Some people are happy to sleep on bubble wrap while others pack a coffee machine. And you’ll likely pack differently for a credit card tour of French patisseries versus the Tour Divide.

Our trip across Australia meant five weeks on the road with up to 300 km between water points (let alone bike shops) so we had to be self sufficient. But I wanted to travel light – certainly much lighter than the (heavier, stronger) men whose gear lists dominate mainstream bike touring. And don’t forget that sometimes you’ll be pushing that weight into a roaring headwind, after a couple of weeks without a rest day.

As a result, the gear list (download below) became a fluid balancing act of safety, durability, weight, comfort and cost – more comfort and safety margin than the ultralight crowd and overnight bikepackers but lighter than traditional four-pannier touring.

1. Use a spreadsheet packing list

Possibly the most useful thing I did for this trip was turning the packing wishlist into a spreadsheet. It has a few categories – clothing, spares, food/water, camping gear – with weights from the kitchen scales and a running total. Changes were easy to make, the weight savings from changes gratifying and it provided the discipline to cull luxuries and guide choices. I would have ended up heavier without it.

A couple of things that seemed reasonable initially were dumped immediately I saw a total weight, while little things like which multi-tool to take were also influenced by weight. Category totals also flagged the weight of storage/luggage like panniers and handlebar bags. You can’t sleep on it, wear it, ride it, eat it or drink it but there’s kilos of it! If you’re conscious of weight, I’d highly recommend a spreadsheet with weights to hit you in the nose.

Beyond that, I found three approaches worked for lightening the load: choose a lighter alternative, make things dual purpose, or just leave it behind. Trial size ProLink

2. Choose lighter

I found a tiny 15 mL (trial size) bottle of ProLink chain lube at the wonderful Abbotsford Cycles; much smaller and lighter than regular bottles. I shipped a second bottle in one of our food parcels, and used both.

A contact lens case was handy for a smudge of grease, croc-style camp shoes were lighter than thongs and kitchen towels replaced a Bike touring toweltravel towel.That’s a towel and bath sheet below (and rags if need be). I could have left out the camp shoes but they became one of life’s luxuries, and useful in the middle of the night for short walks.

3. Go dual purpose

I initially thought I’d be taking a trowel for camp use. But decided while musing in an outdoors shop that a sand stake could work just as well. Plus I’d have a sand stake, and a spare stake. So I got a light alloy sand stake, smoothed the sides with an emery board for comfortable digging, and deleted the 165 g trowel from the list. That’s dual purpose.

Wool tights and thermal did double duty as PJs and daywear for days on end. Bags for organisation started to add up too. So I ditched a pillowcase in favour of the Zpacks sleeping bag stuff sack that turns inside out to become a pillowcase. (More about my beautiful Zpacks sleeping bag later.)

I also cut down a laminated emergency blanket to do double duty as tent footprint and waterproof wrap that contained and stabilised any load in my handlebar sling. (And maybe catch water if need be, and signal with the shiny side.) The sling often just carried my sleeping mat, but sometimes also the sleeping bag or extra water, so the footprint served as a stiff wrapper that didn’t increase overall weight. I still have a reflective windscreen panel that would do much the same job, but it would be flashier on the bike. Tyvek and Cuben Fibre are worthy footprints too – if you need a footprint at all – but they don’t offer the extra warmth of the reflective emergency blanket and stiffness of this one. 

4. Delete, delete, delete

Just leave it at home. Many items on my initial wishlist met this fate and I didn’t miss a thing.

A front rack, front panniers and regular handlebar bag could cost me around 2.7 kg – huge compared with my goal weight. So I made my own handlebar sling (my little bike is too small for Alaskan bikepacking goodness like Revelate Designs) and coupled it with a Zpacks Multi-pack as a quick-release handlebar bag/handbag. A total 159 g versus 2.7 kg. Win!

I went heavy on a couple of things though. For five weeks, I figured I would value real utensils rather than a spork, as well as a mess bag. I’m glad I did. It just saves looking for stuff when all you want to do is eat and relax.

Nullarbor cycling gear list – download

You can download and edit my gear list to your own needs here: Nullarbor cycling gear list [Excel 33 KB].

My ride buddy Jan carried the stove and pot, while I had our bike spares and tools – the benefits of sharing weight. Food weights are approximate but a fairly accurate maximum at each of our re-supply points – roughly weekly from Perth to Adelaide and a little lighter thereafter as you roll through a town at least daily.

Because of the distances involved, we mostly carried dehydrated food for breakfast and dinner, and had rolls or wraps for lunch, or bought lunch along the way. My maximum water load was 10 L but we often carried 4-5 L.

What didn’t work

Most things worked great, but I didn’t like the taste of water from the Ortlieb bag, and after a day of the worst flies I have ever experienced, I would recommend a fly net for this trip.

Sadly, the wires on my Power Monkey solar panel broke before Norseman so I didn’t have solar power. It’s slow anyway but it made me more diligent about recharging whenever we stayed indoors. No dramas with the Garmin or phone (which is pretty useless anyway on the Nullarbor, even with Telstra).

A buckle on the handlebar sling (made from an old backpack) broke but the emergency buckle had it fixed quickly. I used the Italian road mirror that I had on hand, but it was pretty close to useless this trip; I wouldn’t recommend it. If some of the gear items look like strange choices, feel free to ask. But it’s your trip, your legs, your informed decision on spares. Enjoy. 🙂


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