Tour light with a handlebar sling

IMG_9462-001The touring packing list is a procrastinator’s dream – a balancing act of durability, weight, destination, duration, climate, comfort and personal risk profile. There’s bonus hours to be spent swapping out gear and clothes from your base packing list, depending on whether the next trip is a summer bikepacking overnighter or a transcontinental.

I’m a light tourer at heart but with a safety margin for remote country to avoid the embarrassment of sitting on the roadside batting eyelids of helplessness.

For the Nullarbor, I added some discipline to the packing list process by turning the packing list into a spreadsheet of weights, with the help of postal scales. It’s one of my best decisions. Accurate weights for each category made a rapid cull easy, then highlighted areas needing work and guided purchases of new gear. Who knew cheap camp crocs were lighter than thongs?

While the list was useful to account for necessities like water, the alarming weight category was luggage – stuff you can’t eat, drink, wear or keep your bike running. Sure, it carries gear and hopefully keeps it dry, but it can add kilos of dead weight. Worse, the common solutions like racks and handlebar bags breach my ideal of dual-purpose gear. Like a base layer that works as day wear and sleepwear and riding top with rare washing.

For five weeks riding home from Perth, I was happy to use a light Tubus Fly rear rack and Ortlieb Back Roller Plus panniers – waterproof, light, reliable. But I wanted a little weight on the bars as well. The bike was built as a remote light tourer (and secondary cx bike) so it doesn’t take front panniers – a decision that left my awesome bike man Darren Baum free to design light forks and a sweet ride.

The handlebar rig took a little time to work out. Bikepacking has started to break down the old tourer lore that demands a front rack and panniers. I was more interested in a rando rack, bag or sling, but there were few options that would work on my bike. And I still resented any dead weight.

Similarly, most bikepacking front slings are designed for flatbars so far too wide for 38 cm drops, as well as too heavy for my liking. Ortlieb handlebar bags at the time were over 1 kg and bar-mounted maps superfluous when there’s only one road. The only decision is which way is forward.

I couldn’t find a commercial solution so I ended up with a DIY hybrid – a sling narrow enough for a small bike with drops, light, stable and flexible. A few people have asked about it, so here’s the details and some pix. It’s dead simple, cheap and light.

The prototype was made from the straps of an op shop backpack – two straps with quick release buckles, and Velcro loops on a stabiliser strap to attach to the bars. I experimented with a vinyl wrap, with reflective tape across the front to provide strap guides, but it was too soft. The straps alone worked pretty well though.

As luck would have it, another scouting visit to the op shop turned up a laminated emergency blanket – durable, stiff and priced at $3. As the mental cogs ground to life, the blanket looked stiff enough to hold a load but could double as a tent footprint, or even emergency blanket/water collector/shiny signaller if things went all Bear Grylls. Cut down to size it’s 100g heavier than the tent manufacturer’s footprint, but more versatile and probably warmer. (A lightly padded car windscreen insulator is a tempting alternative too, as luggage roll cum footprint/minimalist sleeping mat.)

The Mark II sling got separate loops for the bars and a stabiliser strap; both slide on the main straps for versatility. I can tweak the width of the stabiliser strap with Velcro, and it becomes a spare strap if the need arises. Elastic loops keep the straps tidy if not carrying much load. So that’s the one I took. It weighs 71 g.

Lightweight bike touring sling with groundsheet

Zpacks Multi-Pack as handlebar bagA ZPacks Multi-Pack hiking pocket (86 g) clipped around the bars and carried essentials like camera and lip cream. It rested on top of the sling, groundsheet and its load (right). The sling and Multipack together weigh 157 g – a huge saving compared with a bar bag and more versatile.

The sling worked well. Most days it carried my sleeping mat, wrapped in the tent footprint, and sometimes water on the long dry stretches between roadhouses on the Nullarbor. My ZPacks sleeping bag has a waterproof Cuben fibre stuff sack (that reverses into a pillowcase, so dual purpose) so it didn’t need to be in panniers, but its bulk means it rides lower than I’d like in the sling, with the risk of rubbing the canti brake cables. Yes, it’s a small bike. I just prefer that the weight rides a few centimetres higher, free of the cables. Still, the sleeping bag works in the sling if I want. And if going ultralight, maybe I’d swap out the footprint for Cuben fibre.

Accessing the load in the sling was just a matter of unclipping two buckles, so I left the sling attached to the bars at night. The straps never worked loose during the day but if I do a V3, I’ll probably add fresh outdoors grade buckles with locking clips on the straps for added security.

Finally, this worked fine on sealed and dirt roads. If single track, the pocket might flap so you’d want to wrap to the sling, and maybe add some Velcro from sling to headstem to keep it tight.

Hope that helps. Good luck with yours.


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