Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Riding to the Root: Backpacking without a backpack

When you spend seven years in Boy Scouts like I did, you learn a thing or two about backpacking.

There's the little nuances to it, like air-compressing your gear to maximize space. And there's the major points of it, like packing light, remembering a toothbrush and knowing what you'll need for the trip.

Over the years, I've been on a lot of cool backpacking trips (Grand Canyon, Isle Royale and the Boundary Waters, to name a few), all of which required their own degree of preparation. The preparation stage of backpacking is something I always took a major interest in. I like feeling prepared for all scenarios and I've often compared the process of loading gear into your pack to solving a puzzle: It's not just about having the right piece, but also about knowing where that piece is supposed to fit in the puzzle.

The three-day bike trip to Lanesboro that I'm about to leave for requires a lot of same backpacking principles, only with one key difference: There's no "backpack" involved. I don't know if it's the same for other cyclists, but I try to avoid loading gear on my back for long-distance bike rides. My reasons for this include:

  • It eases the strain on your back and shoulders, which are already being used to support your upper body while riding. Ultimately, your gear's weight (and yourself, for that matter) is being carried by the wheels of your bike. It makes no sense for your back to have to carry that weight as well.
  • The added items on your back make it more likely that you'll overheat. Wearing a heavy backpack on your back would be like throwing a thick wool blanket over a furnace: Bad times all around.
  • The weight isn't evenly distributed on your bike. If you're packing gear for a bike trip, you generally want to have it spread out on your bike so the front and rear wheels can share the workload.
  • Not as important as the other points, but if you're biking shirtless with a backpack, odd tan lines happen.

Lightweight packing also takes on premium importance when it comes to bike trips. The more weight you're carrying, the harder the pedaling. You're also more likely to have bike malfunctions, as the extra weight can put strain on the tires and spokes.

I'm actually having a little trouble with the lightweight concept for this trip. For starters, I'm packing a laptop. I'm also trying to keep costs along the way to a minimum. So instead of staying in hotels and eating at restaurants constantly, I'm packing a tent, a camp stove and four meals worth of food.

However, I'm shaving valuable ounces off in other ways. Instead of bringing my entire wallet, I'm only packing my ID, my insurance cards (worst-case scenario), a check card and some money. Instead of bring full bottles of items (camp soap, toothpaste, ect.) and a full roll of duct tape (a camping essential), I compressed them down into smaller containers. Other luxuries like an air mattress and a pillow are also being left behind.

After taking all of that into account, here is what the items packed onto my bike look like (sans the food, which is in a fanny pack that will be around my waist):
For the sake of keeping the blog entry relatively short, I won't list EVERY item I'm packing. But I will say that I feel decently prepared for the ride.

Electronics, toiletries, maps and my first aid kit are in the handlebar bag. The bike repair kit is on the center bar between the seat and the handlebars. My tent, sleeping bag and a change of clothes are attached to my bike seat via clips and bungee cords.

You'll notice the absence of bike racks in my packing methods. This is for two reasons: I didn't want the extra weight, I didn't want to spend the money on a decent rack unless I needed to. Besides, I used a rack last fall for my trip to Red Wing (a $25 one from Wal Mart, bad choice) and it wound up being more of a headache than it was helpful. I'm not opposed to using racks, but if you can get by without them, more power to you.

Well, that's all I've got for now. Time to hit the road. Hope to check back in later today.

***In case anybody is curious, here is what my gear looked liked before being packed:

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