Ultralight Bike Touring Tips

Riding 4,000 miles across the country gave me plenty of time to think about all of life's intricacies and plenty of time to scold myself for over-packing my bicycle. Nothing can ruin a trip like realizing you've been too liberal with your packing and purchasing habits. If there was one very apparent conclusion that I reached after months on the open road, it was that the weight of my bike directly correlated with how much fun I was having. At the end of the day, I felt less physically and emotionally drained when I packed lighter.

This past October I decided to take this idea to the extreme--I packed my bike so light that my total gear weight dropped from 40 lbs. to about 15 lbs. by being just a little more frugal with what I brought along. The end result was the best bike tour that I've ever done! After 3 weeks and 800 miles, I was convinced that ultralight is they only way to go.

Here are 10 tips that will help you to pack lighter:

Ultralight minimalist bike touring from Asheville to Greenville, North Carolina

Fall colors near Chimney Rock in North Carolina

1. Opt to use a road bike instead of a heavy touring bike--there's nothing like having the mobility and weight savings of a road bike, especially when you want to pull big-mile days. However, don't sacrifice a comfortable seating position to be more aerodynamic--the point is to see the beauty around you, not to be tucked down gritting your teeth. Make adjustments for a more comfortable handlebar position and consider upgrading your tires to something a bit more durable.

2. Use waterproof/resistant stuff sacks or dry bags instead of panniers--this is dependent on the length and demands of your trip but these will do just fine on a tour where you'll be near civilization most of the time. I used two silnylon stuff sacks on a three-week trip in the southeastern U.S., the perks of this method is that my DIY panniers weighed only ounces (compared to traditional panniers that weigh several pounds) and it cost no more than $60. I attached mine to the handlebars and under the seat.

3. Plan according to the season--depending on when you have a trip, you might need more or less gear. In colder temperatures, plan for more weight because you'll need extra food, gear and clothing. My favorite times to tour are early fall and late spring because the mild weather means I can cut down on weight.

4. Scrutinize the weight of everything you pack (and I mean absolutely everything)--we've all heard of people cutting off extra cords and labels from gear, and some will even go as far as cutting off toothbrush handles to trim extra ounces! My advice? Do it enough and it all adds up! Cutting a pound of useless junk from your cumulative weight means more room for something else you might want to bring along. I use travel-sized soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and other toiletries knowing that I'll ride past a store sometime during the week to resupply. I've found that trips aren't usually as rural as I expect them to be, and if they are, there's no need to be hygienic! (Only joking.)

Ultralight biking tour with lightweight camping gear

Sharing the load of lightweight camping gear

5. Use the three-pile method--make one pile with things you absolutely need (helmet, sleeping bag, smart phone, etc.), the second pile with things you "might need" (pillow, sit pad, etc.), and the third with everything that you'd like to bring along (let your imagination run wild). Now, take everything from the first pile, nothing from the second pile, and one thing from the third pile. It's a good way to keep yourself in check by assessing what you need vs. what you want.

6. Travel with a friend--there is no better way to pack lighter than to have the opportunity to split the weight of gear with a travel companion. Sharing things like a medical kit and a cooking set is a great way to save on extra weight and expenses!

7. "Credit card touring" is a thing of the present and the future--if you really want to save weight, treat yourself by buying all your meals along the way and sleeping at inexpensive hotels. All you'd really need is a change of clothes, some spare parts and a daypack to keep small things in. I find that the cost of all this is more reasonable when trips are shorter. The benefit? Almost completely unhindered riding, a warm shower and a nice bed every night.

8. Liquids are some of the heaviest items on your bicycle--one liter of water weights more than two pounds! I've found that proper planning (asking locals, consulting maps, or knowing the area well) and resourcefulness allow you to minimize the amount of water you need carry with you. There are times when it's good to stock up on water but I've found that most of the time there is never a need to over-pack because there are gas stations and convenience stores littered across the country. I always have purification tablets with me that will zap nasty stuff from water in case of emergency. The same goes for packing liquid toiletries--do you really need to carry different soap for your body and another for your hair? I think not!

Channeling the minimalist cycling mindset biking - camping gear

Channeling the minimalist mindset in Charlotte, North Carolina!

9. Stay fit so you don't quit--one of the best ways to shed some weight is to lose some body weight! Proper fitness and training isn't only a great idea for your health before your trip but also a painless way to lighten up your load. Why spend thousands of dollars upgrading to lighter equipment when you could do the same for a fraction of the price? Even better, come travel with me on a Backroads trip and jump start your training with a week in California, Utah or even New Zealand. A compromise between good physical shape and quality lightweight gear will play a big role on how you feel during difficult days of riding.

10. Adopt a minimalist mindset--part of going on a cycling trip is to get away from all the fuss and clutter that typically runs rampant through our lives. Take all the things you'll need (it's different for everyone) and challenge yourself to see how much of a minimalist you can actually become.

I promise you one thing: the lighter you pack, the better you'll feel, and the more excited you'll be to spend another day exploring our beautiful country from the seat of a bicycle!

8 Responses

  1. Austin Render Austin Render

    Great advice, Dirk! I really like your three pile methodology, which I will now be using when preparing for my next bike tour. I certainly realized the importance of going light last summer when Mike Behrendt and I toured Glacier National Park. My steel touring bike and overloaded panniers were no match for his lightweight setup.

    These tips can also spill over to other areas of travel, of course, especially when it comes time to pack for your next Backroads trip! I think we could all benefit from adopting the concept of a minimalist mindset – both in travel and in life.

    • Dirk Badenhorst Dirk Badenhorst

      Austin! So good to hear from you sir! I agree with you, this minimalist mindset is one I’ve adopted as one of my own in my everyday routine, and it is only for the better. It gives me the lack of stress and worry that I enjoy having in my life and especially during my travels.

      You know theres nothing wrong with the steel bike/pannier set up. Of the times I have toured in that style, I’ve found that it’s not about how fast you move or how far you go but what you get to experience. Having too much stuff is actually a lesson in itself to be content with taking life at a slower pace (which is why we’re traveling right?!). But since, my preference has transitioned to having less, because to me, it translates to doing more, seeing more, worrying less, and very importantly, doing it all with high spirits!!

      Where are you off to this time sir? Another tour around the world?

  2. Jillian Parlee Jillian

    Dirk! You are a badass and an inspiration! Great tips, I can’t wait to put them to use!

    • Dirk Badenhorst Dirk Badenhorst

      Jillian! It is so great to hear from you! I’d love to get your take on this type of lifestyle? Can we call it that? 🙂

  3. charles fleury

    less is more ..nothing is even better.

    I got my bags stolen while in Mill Valley ,California.
    I cycled up to Vancouver with..well nothing ..

    the best time I ever had..

  4. Vinny sciortino

    I am a retired BR leader and have gone cross country 2 times with 2 different companies. I wish BR would do a XC trip as it would be the bomb. Tell Tom that Vinny wants a xc trip, I will be the first to sign up.

    • Russell Grange Russell Grange

      Okay Vinny, we’ll let him know! Thanks for checking in, safe travels out there!

  5. Jim

    I discovered the benefit of dry bags like your stuff sacks. I hang mine with straps. The stuff I need for the day is in a pop top rack bag.
    Dry bags are also half the price of panniers. And, you can stuff them more easily to lessen the volume.
    I am not down to 15 lbs. but run around 22. I carry a wine bag from small box of wine (must drink first) and fill it when needed with water. Very light and small when empty.

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