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When you boil it down, cycle touring is a pretty easy pursuit. Get a bike, strap the stuff you need to it (or use a trailer), ride X miles in a day, end somewhere to sleep, be it indoors or out. Repeat until you reach the final destination.
But like any pursuit, the more one does it the more one thinks about it, and then the more one gets hung up about it. Opinions get formed and thrown about. People obsess over every little detail, and endlessly argue whether x or y is better. (See about 60% of posts in Bike Forums’ “Touring” subforum for an example.) Trailers or panniers? Cantilevers or disc brakes? Trek 520 or Surly LHT? Coke or Pepsi? Ginger or Mary Ann?
But possibly the biggest x or y argument/divide is the old chestnut: How much stuff do you/should you carry? For many years self-supported touring meant you’d take 2-4 panniers plus handlebar bag and something loaded on the rear rack. The load was fairly heavy because well, stuff was heavy. Over the last decade or so, a new school of thought has emerged called ultra-light touring. This philosophy is about travelling as light as possible. While there is a degree of minimalism (i.e. trying to bring as few items as possible) to this thinking, a lot of this has been helped by the range of ultralight equipment out there, be it sleeping bags, tents, and the like. It’s no surprise that ultralight touring has been helped immensely by ultralight backpacking equipment. And all the compact electronics offered these days is also a big aid. (Why bring heavy books when you have a Kindle? Why bring bulky maps when you have a Garmin?)
Ultralight touring has become more and more popular over the years, and there are many riders advocating this approach. Possibly a good example of the extreme end of the spectrum is this guy, who almost becomes the cliche of ultralight tourer (or backpacker, for the matter), using bubble wrap as a sleeping pad, bringing barely any hygiene products (and the few he does, like toothbrush and razor, of course have the handles cut off), and doesn’t bring any navigational equipment, whether electronic or paper, besides cue-sheets he creates before the tour.
While the ultralight approach is growing in popularity, the opposite approach, now known as fully loaded touring, still has its adherents. If anything, their voices have grown a little louder to counter the amount of ultralight talk. These are folks who care more about having the stuff they need rather than the benefits of riding less encumbered. And of course there are folks who bring fully loaded to an extreme. Like my friend Matt, for example. He brings a 4 1/2 pound (2 kg) cast iron skillet when he tours. For real. That’s why his blog handle is the Cast-Iron Cyclist. (And we won’t talk about the other stuff he brings…)
So where the heck do I stand?
I’ve definitely done the fully loaded route and have carried more than I should have. I still made it though, but over the years I’ve attempted to whittle down the load in various ways. When older equipment breaks or wears out, I generally opt to get something better, and this usually equates to something smaller and/or lighter. I’ve analyzed and reassessed my packing lists, and cut out the unneeded things.
During our Cross-Continent Tour in 2011, April and I brought more items than we normally did on our smaller tours due to various factors: we’d be out for a long time so we needed a variety of clothing to meet the needs of the weather we’d encounter. (Many cross country cyclists will send back warmer clothing when they didn’t need it anymore, but we had no idea how long we’d be out, so we kept it all.) We decided to bring a netbook for blogging and other needs, whereas on a small tour I’d just used my iPod Touch. And so on.
After this tour, I decided I definitely wanted to stay lighter in 2012, so I removed my rear rack. This would limit me to two small front panniers, a handlebar bag, and Carradice saddlebag. It handled my needs well. And it’s easier to transport stuff off the bike as well, which comes in handy when I hop on the train or the like.
But of course, to some, I’m still carrying too much stuff. Yeah, sure, I can whittle down the kit more, and probably will. But…why?
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I don’t really want to go the whole super-dooper minimalist route, nor do I want to bring the cast iron pan and the kitchen sink. I don’t want to bring so much stuff that I don’t want to dread every hill I come to, but I also realize that some hills are just a pain in the ass, no matter the load. I’ll be reassessing and reconfiguring my “rig” every year so long as I tour, no doubt. And I will probably whittle down more things. But I do want some creature comforts. I realize that I need to bring a decent sleeping pad and pillow, otherwise I won’t get a good nights sleep. I like cooking while on tour, so I’m not dumping the stove and all that.
There is no right or wrong way to do this. I’m not saying my way is better than others, nor am I saying other ways are worse than mine. This is what works for me. I’m on neither end of the spectrum, I’m squarely in the middle. I guess you can call me an Ultra-Moderatist.