How to carry your equipment

So you’re thinking about a tour, and wondering how to carry all the equipment you’re going to need? Well, with a bicycle there are perhaps three main options when it comes to stashing all your gear onboard.

Rucksacks and Shoulder Bags
Perhaps the easiest to imagine, and the first thing an inexperienced cyclist might consider, is a rucksack or shoulder-bag. I wouldn’t recommend this method for long distance cycling to be honest. The reason being that carrying a rucksack puts more weight on your back and sit-bones, which is very uncomfortable and will cause saddle-soreness and perhaps back ache after a short while, also it raises your center of gravity making you less stable on your bike and in hot weather will cause you to overheat and sweat where the bag rests against your back.

However for short trips it should be fine, especially if it’s not too hot and it will probably be cheaper because most people already own some sort of shoulder bag, whereas the other options I’m going to suggest are more specialist.

In my opinion using a combination of front and rear panniers is the best way to carry equipment on a bike. Panniers are large bags that can be fitted to the front or back of most bikes on each side of the wheels. Most bikes will need to have a rack attached to the back and front to which the panniers can be mounted. The capacities vary but a good sized pair would be about 40L combined volume for a rear pair and 20-25L for the front. That combination would give you about 65L total capacity which is equivalent to a large walking rucksack.

However there are more places to mount luggage to a bike than just the racks, and panniers often do not take up any space on the top of the racks they are mounted to.

This picture of my bike demonstrates a format that I like to use when cycle-touring. I have panniers mounted to the front and back racks, and then on top of the rear rack I have my tent, a tarpaulin ground-sheet and, obstructed from view, at the back is a 2L bottle of water. Then on the front rack I have my two smaller panniers with my cooking stove strapped above them. Finally I have a bag attached to my handlebars which has a map holder on the top and provides easy access to things like my camera, sun-cream, sunglasses, wallet and documents.

Panniers for bikes with suspension
My bike currently has suspension, that’s party because I didn’t have clue what I was doing when I set out on my first tour and partly because I didn’t have much money, so it’s also very bad, heavy suspension that can’t be locked off. Given the choice again I would not purchase a bike with suspension for touring, unless I was going to ride in the most rugged environments and even then I would use only front shock absorbers and have a ‘hardtail’ solid back end.

There are many reasons for this way of thinking;

  • Suspension is heavy
  • There is more to go wrong

My current touring bike’s front forks have broken, one of them doesn’t give full resistance any longer. Even with my working suspension fork at full resistance the bike is sloppy and soft on the front and it bobs up and down and squeaks as I stand up on my pedals when climbing steep hills, it’s ridiculous really. This is yet worsened by having my handlebar bag sitting over the front forks adding yet more weight to the already broken component.

  • Suspension systems are not good at carrying weight

Like my damaged front forks that sag under the weight of myself and my handlebar bag if you were to mount panniers over the top of rear suspension you would come across similar problems with sagging and increased wear and tear on relatively fragile components.

All this bouncing up and down, and carrying heavy suspension components on your bike culminates in energy loss and will just slow you down and wear you out.

  • Suspension designs don’t work well with racks

There are specific racks that can be found for use with suspension bikes, I had to source one for my own bike and it was quite a challenge. There was very little choice and non of the options looked as simple or as strong as the rigid fork equivalents. In the end my front rack has been OK; it’s overcomplicated, heavy, structurally quite weak and is incompatible with all but the most diverse pannier mounting systems and yet it’s the best one I have ever seen for use with front shocks. To learn more about the problems faced with racks and suspension and to see some of the solutions and options available please refer to the full article on Problems with Racks and Suspension.

Trailers for bikes are not very common but serve to fill three important roles; they can be used with suspension bikes easily enough where racks fail, they can be used in conjunction with racks and panniers resulting an a colossal carrying capacity and finally they can be very useful to tandem riders whose bike still only has space for two pairs of panniers like any other, but between two people leaves them with half the luggage space they would normally have with two regular bikes. Adding a trailer can easily make up the difference.

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