Top 10 packing tips for long distance bikepacking – from Jack MacGowan

In this blog we hear from Jack MacGowan after his recent Welsh Coast to Coast. He shares his top packing tips for long distance bikepacking.
 
Introduction:
 
Guten targ and welcome ladies & gentleman to another installment from the mad two-wheeled explorer from BicycleTouringApocalypse.com. In this entry I share my top ten packing tips for bikepacking the infamous Welsh Coast to Coast.
 
The vast majority of us associate exploration with some foreign land, characterised by imposing mountains, breath taking valleys, a jagged coastline, woodland as far as the eye can see and of course a scattering of epic castles. The truth is this fairy tale landscape is closer than you think.
 
The UK arguably showcases some of the most wild and beautiful landscapes in Europe, Wales is no exception. Thus, it was only a matter of time before I planned a Welsh odyssey. Obviously, when I say planned, I mean had a quick lacklustre shimmy at routes, packed the car and made haste for the mountains. However, unlike me, a physically sadistic masochist who thrives on physical pain & mental torture, most people will want some idea of what to expect. Thus, below I have put together ten packing tips I’d recommend for the Welsh C2C. If you need any additional help get in touch through the ‘ contact me ’ section of my site.
 
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1. Waterproofs:

 
‘ It’s raining it’s pouring the old man is snoring ’…now I can’t be sure where this nursery rhyme originates, but my bet would be Wales. It WILL rain. Hence, waterproofs are essential. I donned the Berghaus Vapourlight Hyper Smock 2.0, which was superb. Moreover, at 75g you won’t even know you’re carrying it, until the heavens open and you remain bone dry. The Hyper Smock’s waterproof material also acts as a fantastic windbreak, which in conjunction with my Berghaus Smoulder Hoody created all the warmth I needed on the bike. Waterproof trousers, socks and gloves are also necessities (Sealskinz have some great gear).
 
Obviously taking on the Welsh C2C during winter will exemplify the chances of rain, so I’d recommend tackling this ride in the summer months. Moreover, bad weather made some of the remote singletrack dangerous whilst I was away, so don’t be like Jack and hold out for spring/summer. This moves me onto my second point, pack light….
 

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2. Pack light:

 
The warmer weather during the summer months will allow you to pack significantly lighter as you’ll have no need for excessive layers. Moreover, if camping, you’ll be able to more comfortably utilise a minimal tarp set-up. Weight is a killer. It’s probably the greatest lesson I’ve learnt in all my years of bicycle touring. The lighter the bike, the better the ride.
 
Do away with non-essentials and always opt for lightweight purpose built gear when possible. It’s not a fashion contest, so don’t be afraid to don the same clothes for most of the trip. If you’re keeping clean and changing your underwear then you’re already a few steps ahead of me. I joke, hygiene is obviously crucial so always be sure to carry wet wipes when wild camping, cleaning daily will help prevent discomfort on the bike. That said, I would certainly advocate wearing the same outer layers throughout a 3-7 day trip. You can judge me all you like, but when you’re lugging the weight of several bulky outfits up a 30% gradient you’ll know it.
 
This links back to my previous point about purpose made equipment, I know it’s often pricey, but breathable layers made from materials such as Merino wool will remain fresh and comfortable for longer.
 
Saving weight on the bike is not simply achieved by reducing your clothing, you need to think carefully about every gram you can save. Here’s a few suggestions.
 

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Kitchenware

Keep it simple. Most of the food you’ll be cooking will only require boiling water so carry the most minimal set-up.
 
I’d opt for a titanium meth stove and wind shield (Bear Bones Bivvy Gear have some excellent options) in conjunction with a titanium spork, pot & mug (I’d recommend Toaks Outdoor Gear). There are other lightweight options available, but this equipment works well for me. Another advantage is the burner and windshield can be stored in the cooking pot saving space in your panniers/bags.
 
Sleeping

I’d recommend a good quality down sleeping bag (Z-PAKS are pricey, but incredible).
 
There’s a wealth of options, but be sure to opt for the lightest bag possible, whilst ensuring it’s suitable for the season you’ll be riding. A good sleeping bag along with an insulated air mattress (see Therm-a-rest air mattresses) will provide a lightweight and comfortable nights sleep.
 
Shelter

If departing during the winter months a one-man tent may prove more comfortable (I used the Snugpak Ionosphere), but in the summer months I’d recommend a tarp as it’s both lighter and quicker to pitch (Bear Bones Bivvy Gear have a good range of tarp accessories that work in conjunction with Trekker Tent’s superb range of tarps/tents).
 
Food & Water

If you don’t take any you’ll save loadssss of weight…..but don’t do that! Food and water is absolutely crucial, so make sure you’re never running on empty. However, if you’re riding for five days don’t take enough food to stock the local supermarket!
 
I took two hot meals for every day and had porridge each morning; this was supplemented with an armada of snacks. If for any reason you end up eating all your meals too quickly then you can always make do with porridge for lunch/dinner and grab supplies at the next store.
 
Water is the most important item on any bicycle tour, so never ride without it. I consumed around 3-4 litres a day in Wales, but this varies dramatically depending on rider so always pack more than you think you’ll need and whittle it down during the week if it seems excessive. There’s nothing worse than dehydration, so keep hydrated!

 

3. Navigation:

 

If you’re also planning an off-road bikepacking route then navigation will be more challenging. I’d recommend combining Ordnance Survey maps (from this point referred to as ‘ OS ’) with a second smaller scale map and ideally a GPS device (there are lots of affordable/free GPS apps available for Iphone/Android).
 
I used the Rough Ride Guide ( referred to as RRG from this point ) Coast to Coast map, which utilises sections of OS designs with the addition of an annotated route. This works out far cheaper as you’d need a huge amount of OS maps to cover the whole ride and the RRG provides just the sections you need for their recommended route.
 
The only drawback is you’re only getting a narrow section of each OS map. As a result, if you wander too far off-piste you’ll find it difficult to get back onto the RRG route without a second map/GPS device. There are hundreds of incredible singletrack routes to consider when completing the coast-to-coast but there’s limited signage so ensure you’re prepared.
 

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4. The Bike:

 

I’d recommend packing one. Honestly, you simply don’t get advice this good anywhere else. There is a serious point to be made…somewhere…bare with me.
 
As with all bike tours you need a bike suitable for the challenge ahead, an old bike found at the back of the shed may able to cope with a small road tour, but in the mountains, facing ascents that make you cry for your mummy…you need something you can rely on.
 
I completed the ride on my faithful Surly ECR, a bike that laughs in the face of mountainous brutality, the bicycle that 26” mountain bikes see in their nightmares, the two-wheeled Beelzebub. This cycling goliath sits on 3” variable pressure tyres, a frame stronger than Samson, features the superb Jones H-Bar, an innovative gearing set-up and brakes that would stop a tornado.
 
The ECR, was ideal and if you’ve got the money to invest in a Surly or something similar it would be a worthwhile purchase, it’s a bike for life after all. There’s nothing stopping you taking a budget bike, just ensure you consider these affordable upgrades. Invest in some decent puncture proof tyres (Schwalbe have always proven reliable), a Brooks saddle (the Brooks Flyer is an excellent touring saddle, but be sure to wear it in pre-ride) and crucially ensure the drive train and brakes are tip-top.
 
The Welsh C2C has a combined elevation higher than Everest and the last thing you want is gears slipping on every hill……swiftly followed by a rapid descent completely out of control because your brakes don’t work!
 
The mountainous nature of the ride means that even with a premium bike you’ll probably going to need to carry out some bike maintenance on the ride. Here’s what to pack.
 

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5. The Tool box:

 
As mentioned previously weight is a killer and tools are an easy way to add bulk to the bike so only take what you need. I carry the following:

 
Tool Roll. If you’re super weight conscious you could keep all tools in a jiffy bag/small dry sack, but sharp edges may tear them. I use an E H Works Tool Roll which is beautifully simple, but works a treat (review at Bicycle Touring Apocalypse.com)

Brooks Multi-tool

2 x spare inner tubes
Puncture repair kit
Some Gaffa tape (I rap some round a piece of cardboard)
5-6 cable ties…when used in conjunction with gaffa tape there’s nothing you can’t fix! (opt for the ones that have a release catch so you can use them more than once).
An old rag, something light like a handkerchief…this is important for removing excess grime from your drivetrain
An adjustable lightweight monkey wrench. This is the heaviest item in my tool set, but can be very useful and doubles up as a makeshift hammer to knock in stubborn tent pegs.
Utility knife. I carry a Leatherman Rebar, which has proven to be the most frequently used item in my tool roll (N.B. There are multi-tools that encompass most of the features found in a utility knife).
Lightweight pump. I have an incredibly small Birzman pump which takes an eternity to pump up my immense 3” Knard tyres. However, the Knards rarely puncture so I’d rather risk a lifetime of pumping than sacrificing space in my frame bag.
Spare links for your chain. The elevation is bound to put a profound amount of stress on your chain. As a result, there’s a fair chance it could snap, particularly lugging both rider & gear, so bring spare links and check out some tutorials on fixing a chain.
Oil. It always feels like an effort wiping down the drive train and applying fresh oil at the end of a long day on the bike, but it’s worth it. A clean, well oiled chain really does make a difference and will help keep the gears running smoothly.
 
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6. Tech:

 

In honesty it’s something I try to avoid when I’m away on the bike. Bikepacking trips are my way of escaping electronics and enable me to get back to the basics. That said, there are some exceptions.

A mobile phone is essential, you’ll be cycling through some very remote areas and will need to be able to make a call in an emergency (bare in mind that large parts of Wales are without signal, so ensure you check in with friends/family whenever you have signal to let them know where you’ll be riding).
 
Camera equipment. This is where I go against everything I’ve been preaching. I give you, from the guy responsible for such comments as ‘ cut your toothbrush in half to save weight ’ & ‘ Don’t carry more than one outfit ’…..photography gear.
 
On my last trip I carried a bulky Canon 6d DSLR, two bulky lens’, carbon fibre tripod, Manfrotto Fluid head, GoPro and accessories, obviously a horrendously heavy 1970’s film camera, lets not forget twenty rolls of film….oh and spare batteries for everything.
 
I know…I knowww…HYPOCRITE…Here I am telling you to wear the same clothes for a year and then packing more photography gear than the BBC. I love photography and for me it’s inextricable from riding my bike. This is the one area that’ll happily burden the weight to ensure I get ‘ The Shot ’.  
I’m under no illusion that most hardcore bikepackers reading this are now actively seeking to hunt me down…I expect a phone call anytime ‘ I WILL LOOK FOR YOU, I WILL FIND YOU, AND I WILL KILL YOU! ’. The bottom line is, it’s up to you. If like me you’re happy to destroy your knees for the love of imagery then be like Jack, if like most people you’re happy with taking a few pictures and saving weight there are some fantastic compact cameras available ( I’m a big fan of the Fuji X series ).
 
Power. I carry two Ankor battery packs, which provide ample power to keep my phone, GoPro and Garmin GPS charged for almost two weeks ( mine are the latest 2nd generation Astro E7 ). I’ve always used Ankor and they’ve been great. Multiple USB ports allow you to charge more than one item at once….they even have a built in torch which is handy.
 
Head torch. If you’re camping wild in Wales it’s pitch black….like seriously you can’t see s#*t….A head torch will help prevent one or more of the following:
 
+ Walking off a cliff.
+ Sticking a tent peg through your hand.
+ Catching light to the tent.
+ Spending all night trying to get back into the tent.
+ Accidently wandering over to the axe-wielding murderer’s tarp in the field adjacent.
+ Eat a live rat thinking it’s a Clif Bar….I’ve seen it happen.
+ Wake up in the Middle Ages…very plausible.
 

…..So avoid rat stew and medieval torture by purchasing a head torch!
 

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7. Helmet:

 

I don’t care if you’re travelling at three miles per hour over a field of candy floss….wear one. There’s going to be sections of the ride you’ll be on the road and rocky singletrack can be just as deadly.
 
If you come off on some remote singletrack, a helmet could save your life. This all sounds super dramatic and I’m hardly Mr. Health & Safety, but it’s definitely something you need to be packing.
 

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8. First Aid Kit:

 
Hopefully you’ll never have to use it, but like a helmet it’s essential.
 
There are tonnes of variations available, but don’t skip on quality…..when your leg’s halfway down the track and you’ve only packed Percy Pig Bruise soothers you’re going to wish you’d paid attention!
 
I have a free First Aid app on my iphone incase my medical knowledge fails me…which is almost guaranteed!!
 

9. Plastic bags:

 
Honestly, I can’t even count how many times these things have come in handy…or the occasions I wish I’d desperately packed some. Here’s just some of the ways you can use them…
 
– On your feet to create a barrier between dry socks and wet shoes.
– To separate split food packaging from the rest of your gear.
– To wrap leaking bottles, water’s bad enough…but oil…sucks.
– To store dirty underwear/socks/clothes.
– Bag up rubbish.
– Use as a makeshift glove when dealing with the chain/drivetrain.
– Cut out a small section of the bag and tape it over a tear in the tent to repair a leak.
– A cheap alternative to a dry bag for electronics or camera gear….In Wales the zip on my camera bag broke and I used a plastic bag to protect my DSLR from the rain.
 
…The list goes on and on….they’re so light you won’t even know you have them. If you’re feeling really fancy you could even go for the more durable bags for life.
 

10. Packing Itself:

 
Right so I’ve suggested a tonne of gear for the Welsh C2C, but how are you going to pack all this gear on the bike? There is no universal approach and how you organise your gear will depend on both your touring set-up and personal preference. However, there are some key packing tips to consider.
 
‘ It’s raining it’s pouring ’….remember me rambling on about rain at the beginning of this article?! Well we’re about to take a trip down memory lane!
 
If you’re camping rain can be a cruel mistress and can quickly turn a small oversight into a bloody disaster, let me explain. So you’ve had a brutally long day on the bike, you finally find a place to camp and all you want to do is crawl into your tent and go to sleep. Hence, you unpack all your gear and begin pitching your tent…then…out of nowhere…the heavens open and everything you hold dear is completely soaked… you now have to frantically pitch the tent whilst watching your valuables float downstream. Its happened to me a couple of times and it’s a nightmare.
 
So, pack your bike in such a way that you can unpack the tent without emptying everything else first. Similarly, make sure items you need regular access to throughout the day are easily accessible ( N.B. I clip my first aid kit to the outside of my saddle bag for quick access ).
 

Bonus ‘ Spinal Tap ’ 11. ….Thirst for adventure!:

 
A thirst for adventure. The Welsh Coast to Coast is an incredibly challenging ride and there will certainly be points where you feel exhausted, run down and pretty fed up. It’s important to embrace these moments and rise to the challenge, because I guarantee that the week after when you’re back in the office you’ll be praying you’re back on that horrible mountain ascent. This is one of the most important things I’ve learnt in my years of bicycle touring, that even when everything seems to be going wrong it’s still better than most other things I’d be doing.
 
Crucially, it’s overcoming adversity, rising to every challenge that makes bicycle touring so damn rewarding, so incredible. It’s therefore no surprise that the most brutal rides turn out to be the most memorable.
 
Bikepacking allows you to be completely at one with nature, away from busy streets, pollution, the office and the general stresses of daily life. Enjoy every moment, the highs, the lows and quench your thirst for adventure, because honestly it’ll be a matter of weeks before you’re thirsty again!
 
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– Full Wales Blog & short film documenting trip can be found here: http://www.bicycletouringapocalypse.com/wales