Ultra-Moderate Touring

Click image above to embiggen.

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?

Click image above to embiggen.

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.

7 thoughts on “Ultra-Moderate Touring

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  1. I'm with you Shawn. I've gone from the four full panniers plus handlebar bag and top of rear rack to saddlebag, frame bag and handlebar roll – close to a bikepacking style.I started by deliberately reducing weight but realised that what I need was less bulk such as Thermarest Neoair mat instead of Exped Downmat, three season tent instead of four season, etc.. It mades packing easier and I lost a third of the weight as well.So, if I qualify as an Ultra-Moderatist howsabout you design a badge for us? :0)

  2. I'm with you Shawn. I proved last summer that I can tour for a week with less than 20 lbs. of gear. I can't sleep on bubble wrap, however! For me, aging and the lighter camping equipment option seemed serendipitous. I hope to camp and tour for many years to come. Something to consider: does one decide to lighten the load only when you've gone the opposite route? I can't imagine an initiate to bike touring (and camping) beginning as a minimalist.

  3. I think I fall into the Ultra-moderatist camp. Since I do both backpacking and bicycle camping, most of my gear crosses over. Backpacking came first. I started out as an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of backpacker. Before the backpacking I was a car-camper, so I started out with a Toyota truck full of gear that had to fit into a backpack. I made the beginner mistake of buying the biggest backpack I could find. Of course, I could fit way too much stuff in it. Over the years I've used your method of buying lighter, more compact gear as I replace old gear. With experience I also have a very good idea of what I need and what I don't. anniebikes said "I can't imagine an initiate to bike touring (and camping) beginning as a minimalist."I have seen this many times. They read all the forums and gear lists on-line and start out as a minimalists. Most of the time they do fine. But it's when things go wrong and they don't have any experience or survival skills that they get into trouble. It's worse for backpackers in remote areas. I've seen my share of beginners in real trouble in the back-country. Most of the time it's when the weather turns bad and they don't have the gear for basic survival.

  4. Yeah. I think it's better to start out with too much and whittle down, than the reverse. This is the problem with the internet: there is so much information out there, especially from self-styled experts, on this and pretty much any topic of interest. So it's easy to go minimalist from the get-go. But I would rather learn from experience what I need and what I don't need, vs. what other people need or don't need. And I worry that those who start off right off the bat as minimalists will resist adding things to their kit, even if it's needed, even if it will make their live more comfortable, even if it's an issue of safety. Because they were told it's best to go as minimal as possible.

  5. I, too, am in the moderatist camp. I've done overnights with 4 panniers, a 3 day micro-tour with half as much weight and quite a bit in between. But your post gave me an idea for a challenge. A back to basics challenge. It's not what you think.Go on an S24O without any good gear. No panniers and no light weight hiking gizmos. Only bring stuff you'd find in a department store. I'm not suggesting you actually go to a big box and buy a bunch of worthless junk, but if you still have it go camping with it. Get out the gigantic Coleman bag and lash it to your rack. Put a Jansport backpack in your basket. Etc, etc.

  6. Interesting concept! Sounds like it would be a fun one. Alas, I have pretty much jettisoned all my old department store equipment and don't feel like going to the Wal-Targs of the world to get more. Maybe if I found some for free?

  7. Great post… I'll sign up as an ultra-moderatist, too.I laughed at the second illustration. I cycled for a few months a while back with some guys who constantly berated me for what they considered my excess baggage and then at every stop wanted to borrow this that or the other that I had and they didn't.Not that they were all wrong. I have ditched a lot of gear since then. And like you when things wear out or break the replacements are normally lighter, smaller, 'better'. Live and learn. It's all good.

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