Lightweight bicycle touring/bikepacking tips

Don't cut those toothbrush handles...yet

The moment I hear the word lightweight - I imagine someone frantically sawing off a toothbrush handle to save weight. As cyclists and bikepackers, we are looking to reduce the weight on our bicycles for reasons I’ve listed in another post. But before we get into mutilating toothbrush handles and garment labels, here are 5 things that we bikepackers/bicycle tourers need to look at -

  • The bicycle
  • The sleep system
  • Food, water & cooking equipment
  • Accessories including electronics
  • Finally clothes

1. Bicycle

I prefer rigid bicycles. Add suspension to a bicycle and you add complexity, but far more serious - you add weight. So unless your terrain screams suspension - No! A road trip to Leh via the national highway doesn’t need suspension - avoid it .

MTB suspension is geared towards absorbing big hits, it doesn’t work well with road chatter and gravel.

Gravel bikes, flat bar road bikes, endurance road bikes and rigid hybrids all weigh under 11 kilos and have clearance for wider tyres. Not only are rigid bikes lighter and faster on paved and unpaved surfaces, but they also require less maintenance. Tyres on these bikes act as pneumatic suspension and are much better at dealing with road chatter and gravel.

2. Sleep System

Ditch that tent. Do you really need one or is it just for the Instagram content Realistically, dhabas especially in the remote corners of India provide simple fresh meals and also double as overnight pit-stops. A well-planned route can string these dhabas together. If we do that we can ditch the cooking equipment along with the tent. That is a lot of weight saving! But if you’re still hung up about camping in wild spots then why not go old school and use a bivy? My RAB Alpine bivy weighs in at 440g while my lightest single-person tent weighs 1220 grammes!

A bivy also called a bivouac sack or bivy sack is a lightweight protection device commonly used when camping outdoors. It should be large enough to fit over a person’s sleeping bag and offer extra protection from the weather. A bivy has no poles or shock cords that can break in the middle of nowhere. It is not just lighter, it is orders of magnitude lighter.

3. Food, water & cooking equipment

I hate to cook after a hard day of riding. For me, camping and cooking is not the aim in a bike tour. But if that’s what floats your boat then skip this section.

Everything I buy along my bicycle tour needs no cooking. Boiled eggs, bananas, parathas, roti with sabzi (veggies) and rice cooked with daal (lentils) can be all eaten cold without much fuss. This means I don’t need to carry my multi-fuel Primus stove. Another couple of kilograms saved in stove, fuel and utensils.

Water is the heaviest item you carry on your bike. This is where the hours spent on the internet researching your route pay off. A well-researched route will mark out spots of civilisation where water can be refilled and restocked.

For all outlandish routes, carry a portable filter like a Lifestraw or Sawyer. These filters gives me the flexibility to refill from any source irrespective of how turbid it looks. Muddy holes in the ground filled with rainwater to animal ponds are all fair game for the filter-carrying cyclist. My water bottles are size small. More and small bottles mean I can plan my water usage better. It helps if you have a bike with 3 or more mount points. If not you can can always use a accessory to add a downtube bottle cage mount to a bicycle (Youtube).

4. Accessories including electronics

This is the “trip of a lifetime” and I must capture…everything. Stop! This is where things start to go wrong. To document everything on a bicycle tour I need - a camera, nay an interchangeable lens camera, 3 different prime lenses, filters, tripod, monopod, microphone and the kitchen sink. Oh yes, and I need to add a GPS to record my route and a GoPro for the action videos and an Insta 360 for the environment (sarcasm alert).

A bare-bones electronic alternative is an smartphone, an old-school numeric feature phone and a power bank. Use the smartphone is exclusively as a content creation device. Keep it in aeroplane mode and use feature phone for calls and messages. I might carry a Garmin Etrex 20x GPS with the preloaded route - but only if the route requires it. That’s it. One charger and cable services it all.

Sure it may not get me the 20x zoom that I may need to shoot an eagle on the mountain but I think a decent smartphone does a good-enough job at both stills and video at 10x less bulk.

5. Clothes and personal items

The only clothes you need on a bicycle tour are a) 2 pairs of cycling clothes and b) 1 pair off-the-bicycle clothes. If you really need more - you can buy them from any village/small town along the way.

Cycling clothes need to work on alternate days. I always wash my cycling shorts, socks and jersey after a day of cycling and let them to dry overnight. I slip into my other pair of cycling clothes the next day. That way I rotate between the two pairs every alternate day and yet have options if they are wet or worn away.

This is excluding clothes needed for layering in the winter or to protect me from the rain in the monsoon. But you get the drift - resist the urge to carry more clothes than you have to.

So there you have it, 5 aspects of your bicycle tour gear plan that need a rethink before you start sawing toothbrushes in half to save weight. I have to warn you though - going lightweight is addictive. Once down this rabbit hole you will start to question everything you carry on a tour. Yet, that’s a good sign, right? A better prepared tourer/bikepacker with less weight is a happier, less tired camper. Ok I need to go now and saw my toothbrush in half now…