We all want the best and most affordable gear as well as beautiful pictures of ourselves traveling in exotic places. But what we often forget is that these things are not essential to having a wonderful time, but are rather optional. What is essential? The right frame of mind. So before I get into talking about gear, I want to outline the more important things that you will need, which you can acquire right here, right now.
A positive attitude: I have now spent over three years cycling the globe. When I departed California I had no idea how long I would be gone, let alone if I would have enough guts even leave America. There were days where things would go wrong, or the weather would be terrible, or I would feel homesick or heartbroken. Maintaining and adopting a positive attitude was essentially the only way to get through these days. There were times were I felt that without a positive attitude I might as well just stop riding until it came back. Attitude is one of the only things we have that can shape the future.
A sense of adventure: This goes hand and hand with a positive attitude, in that you understand that with adventure comes struggle, hardship, loneliness, and many times loss. Being aware of the greater picture is important here as events don’t always seem fun in the present moment but many times take shape down the road. In having a sense of adventure you understand that you may struggle for days on a remote route; not eating much, sleeping in cold camp sites and even pedaling up hill in the rain. But that when you eventually reach your goal it will have been worth it. There is a passage in the book Seven Years in Tibet where the main character tells of how the best Christmas present ever was a a single, dried apricot given to him but a Tibetan villager.
Honesty: Be honest with yourself. What are you looking for in a cycle tour? What are you comfortable with? We all hear stories about individuals cycling 100 mile days, wild camping in extremely remote places and traveling to politically sensitive and dangerous areas. But what do you want? Comfort zones vary from person to person and one persons might be completely different from the rest. So be honest, don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to cycling in other countries to have good time or a serious adventure. You can have the most adventurous tour in your home state if you have the right attitude. So be honest with your self and short comings, in my opinion this is probably the most admirable personality trait.
So now that your have the right frame of mind, here is an outline of the basic equipment you will need. If you are interested in specifics and a review of the gear I use click here. Otherwise below is the general list.
Bicycle : If you are planning a world tour, I highly recommend a steel frame bicycle, with 26″wheels, more of that info can be found on the “What I use” page. On a domestic tour pretty much any bike that is comfortable and strong enough to carry a bit of extra gear will do, just make sure that you can adjust the height of the seat, and handle bars as these may need to be adjusted as you get further down the road. Regarding gears, as long as there are 5 or more gears in the back, and two in the front you will be fine on hills. Don’t fall for the newer, expensive and excessive speed bikes unless you are into it. Pick your handle bars on what seems most suitable to your tastes. A drop handle bar offers many hand positions but is not as effective on dirt roads. A flat bar however great on trails can lack different hand positions. I prefer the drop bar, but again see for your self.
Saddle: Get a seat that is a little on the firm side. If you are going to be riding a lot each day a soft saddle will be hard on your back, and will be less supportive to your body. Try out a few and see what works.
Rack: If you don’t want to carry a bag on your back, look for bike that can accommodate a rear/front rack. From there, you can then either tie your bags to the back, or buy panniers. For a while I used to carry a back pack because my bike couldn’t fit a rack, it was fine, but couldn’t carry too much stuff.
Panniers or back pack: If you found a bike that can fit a rear rack and you want the official look of a touring cyclists get some panniers, otherwise a backpack strapped to the frame works or just carry it on your back. There are a lot a pannier options and if you are looking for a budget pair make sure that they have a convenient attachment system that will not cause frustration when you are tired or trying to take the panniers off in the dark.
At this point its time to be honest with your self on what kind of touring you want to be doing. Do you want to stay in hotels each night, with a hot shower and a comfy bed? Or will camping in the wilderness be what your looking for? Also it would be a good idea to get a sense of how long are you planning on being gone. I personally enjoy camping in that it offers me the freedom of not having to get to a city at the end of the day.
Tent: Any tent with a waterproof fly will work, but there are a few things to consider. 1. Some tents do not have a detachable waterproof fly, these tents can make camping in warm areas extremely uncomfortable, and stargazing impossible. Therefore I highly recommend against using these types.
2. If you are solo bring a tent fits at least 2 people so you can keep your gear dry and have a little space if you have to spend the day inside. If you are a couple consider bringing an extra tent.
3. If you are going to wild camp look for a tent that does not have bright colors on the main compartment or fly, bring a tarp or foot print to protect against rough ground.
4. If you are going to be camping in the cold make sure the tent has wind screens on the lower sides. Otherwise cold wind will blow inside regardless of if you have the fly on.
5. I like to be able to sit inside my tent and have a little bit of head room. If this is something that you enjoy too make sure to look for it when picking one out.
I personally use a Kelty Grand Mesa 2 tent. It is not too expensive as far as tents are concerned and holds up well to rain, snow and wind. I was sponsored by another tent company but decided to stick with the Grand Mesa 2 because I’ve used it for so long.
Sleeping bag: I have always been a proponent of synthetic sleeping bags. They are cheaper then down sleeping bags and wash/dry easily. The most important aspect of concern for me however has been that they maintain their warmth when wet or damp. This aspect has been why I continue to use synthetic sleeping bags even though they; aren’t as warm, are heavier and not as cozy. On an extensive cycle tour there will be days or even weeks of solid rain. During these periods it is impossible to keep your gear dry and even with a tent and water proof stuff sacks your sleeping bag will go from damp to wet in a few days. Again depending on what type of tour you are going on I recommend the synthetic for all around use.
Water proof stuff sack: Great for keeping your sleeping bag dry and compressed for packing. I always put my sleeping bag inside a stuff sack with my sleeping mat and strap it to my rack with a bungee.
Sleeping Mat: I use an inflatable sleeping mat from Therma-rest because it packs down well. Inflatable sleeping mats however aren’t as good in cold conditions and several times I have had to used extra padding to keep me warm.
Stove: I have encountered many cyclists who do not cook. I however am not one of them. On my first two tours I brought an aluminum can stove that burned alcohol. This worked well for heating up cans of beans but did not have the endurance or BTU to cook extensively. Alcohol, methanol or Iso-propyl the main fuels that work with the aluminum can stove are also expensive compared to gasoline. When cycling through Alaska I camped with a cyclist who had a MSR Whisperlite stove. I have not looked back since and have used this stove almost everyday of my tour! It burns many different types of fuels and compacts down to fit well in my panniers. If you bring a stove you will want to bring a pan or two, and cooking utensils. I recommend two as I usually use one pan to cook rice, pasta, or legumes and the other to cook vegetables.
Clothes: You are going to be under the sun all day. So unless you want to spend lots of money on sunscreen, I recommend wearing long sleeve shirts, and knicker like shorts that cover your knees. My ideal cycling apparel is a long sleeve white dress shirt, a mesh trucker hat, a pair of knickers, and sandals. There are few people who enjoy cycling in sandals so if you are not one of them I am sure there is another type of shoe the suits your fancy. Cleats being an option or a comfortable pair of shoes. If its cold, I will layer on top with a wool base layer and throw on a jacket. If it gets really cold I will put on; shoes with wool socks, moisture wicking long underwear, a wool sweater, a wool scarf, and a wool beanie. Layering is by far the most effective way to stay warm. If the roads are dangerous I will put on a neon yellow vest.
Extras: Maps, cellphone, tablet or computer, sunglasses, gloves, tent stakes, pictures of loved ones, etc.
Money: Depending on your comforts, you are not going to need a lot, but you are going to need an easy way to access the funds domestically as well as abroad. I always carry one credit card (Major Visa or Master Card), an ATM and USD. The credit card is always my go to, but in many countries this is not an option. This is where the ATM comes in handy, but before you take the card you have always used, make sure your bank does not charge foreign transaction fees. Some banks charge up to a $5 transaction fee when used outside of the continental US. Charles Schwab is a bank that not only charges no transaction fees but also no ATM fees! I use this ATM abroad and then transfer money monthly from my other bank account to the Schwab account. I don’t carry an ATM from my other bank account so there is literally no proof that it exists other than my online transfers. This keeps things safe, and free from confusion. When neither the ATM or the Credit card work I resort to exchanging USD. This is my last resort as many Embassies require you to pay for travel visas in dollars.
Safe keeping: Keep credit card, ATM, and USD in a plastic bag stashed inside a money belt. Make sure the USD is in a waterproof bag and keep the bills looking brand new!!! Many banks and embassies will not accept your foreign currency unless it looks brand new! Put your passport in a plastic bag too and stash that with the other things. Put a few days worth of spending cash in your pocket, but the bulk should also go in your money belt. If camping in a insecure location stash your money belt in a safe place under or outside of your tent and gear.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me.
– Julian Wong