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Ultralight Cycle Touring

There is a time and a place for heavily-laden, long distance cycle touring.

There’s a time and a place for zooming off for a day out on your bike.

And “credit card touring” (road bike + toothbrush + credit card + hotel) surely makes a whole lot of sense.

But it also nice to combine the best bits of all of these things. To get all the excitement of riding fast on an unburdened bike, to appreciate the decadent luxury of eating at cafes and pubs along the way, but to also savour the freedom and satisfaction of carrying all your sleeping gear and camping wild.

I recently cycled round the north of England for 4 days. I travelled as light as I could. I bought food along the way, I used my phone for photographs and navigation, I reached speeds of 86kph, and I slept wild on hilltops. They were good days!

This is my ideal set-up for an overnight microadventure without, I hope, teetering into that weird world of people who buy light kit, weigh their kit, cut bits off their kit and spend so long doing all this that they never get outside and do anything!

  • Road bike.
  • I carried my kit on a seat post rack. You could also use a saddlebag or a small rucksac.
  • I kept my gear in a 10l dry bag, secured with a bungee. A couple of bin bags would work just as well.
  • Multitool, pump, spare tube, puncture repair kit. Because you know what will happen if you gamble and don’t take it…
  • Clothes: take only enough clothes so that, if you are soaking wet and wearing all of your clothes and cycling fast, you remain just about warm enough. If it gets any colder, head for a cafe or train station! For me, in August, this meant only the cycling clothes I was wearing. I took no spare clothes at all. At night I slept butt naked in order to use all my clothes as a pillow.
  • Buff.
  • Tiny cycling rain jacket.
  • Bin bag: £ for lb this is the most effective, cheap waterproof ‘gilet’ available and a great supplement to the tiny cycling rain jacket. Can also double as a make-do tarpaulin above you at night if it rains.
  • Phone for camera and navigation. I used the phone on Airplane mode to save battery. This app is superb for navigation, even when you have no signal.
  • Phone charger. A nice excuse to linger in a cafe for an hour to charge the phone.
  • Sleeping bag. The smallest one you own that will keep you more or less warm enough.
  • Bivvy bag.
  • Thermarest. Various experiments in not bothering with a roll mat have always led to me regretting leaving it behind. I use a NeoAir 3/4 length.
  • Credit card.
  • Toothbrush. Get a kiddy size one. For an overnight trip pre-apply toothpaste and wrap in cling film. Or be gross like me and supplement chewing gum for the toothbrush!

Do you have any other suggestions on this topic? Let us know in the comments below.

Buttertubs pass / dork on bike

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Comments

  1. Interesting article Alistair. I tried a similar lightweight cycling experiment back in 2010. I decided to try a lightweight tour from Sheffield (where I live) up to John O’ Groats, climbing Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis on the way (by foot obviously).

    I took a similar kit list to you, except I left out the sleeping bag and replaced it with a lightweight insulated jacket. I used a rucksack, as my bike had no rack mounts (carbon fibre race bike) but regretted this decision when I started getting back pain after a day or two; a seatpost mounted rack would have been great.

    I camped in my bivvi tent and stayed in a YHA or two, but was blessed with good weather for most of the trip.

    I cycled around 150 miles a day, except on days when I was climbing a mountain and completed the whole journey in 6 days.

    It was a fantastic trip and I met some great people along the way, including a very helpful American lady who let me borrow one of her walking poles to help me back down Ben Nevis, not sure if I would have made it back down without, as my knees were in serious pain by this stage!

    I stopped short of John O’ Groats and visited the Old Pultney whiskey distillery in Wick, which would have been closed by the time I had ridden the 10 mile stretch of road there and back. Maybe it was just an excuse to say I still need to reach John O’ Groats by bike, or maybe I was just too tempted by the thought of having a well deserved wee dram…

    Reply
  2. Great article!
    I agree with your idea of the microadventures and have spread your word in my circle of friends here in Spain. I’ve done 3 overnight microadventures this august, one alone vivac in a mountain peak, one cycling vivac with a friend and one more with my little son (3y) and my daugther (6y). They enjoyed the adventure more than me… my couple didn’t want to do then, but now is more interested… 😉
    I love cycling too and love lightweight cycling touring but i prefeer do it in mountain bikes.

    Continue with this suerb job!!!

    Reply
  3. Did you take a bike lock?

    Reply
  4. I did a 5 day tour to Ireland and took slightly more kit than you mention here. I took rear panniers and took a stove. The seat post rack is a usual addition. I’ve used that carrying kit on a ride down to Brighton instead of taking a rucksack. I also did a trip where I attempted to carry everything on my back in a big rucksack and don’t recommend it for the same reasons Tom Newma mentions.

    Reply
  5. Hello Alastair!
    I work for Arkel panniers in Canada and came across your website while doing some research! Please take a look at our very unique Randonneur rack/TailRider combo and our Dry-Lite panniers – Thanks for your time and keep up the great work!
    Kevin

    Reply
  6. Hi there
    I’m about to embark on a 1500 mile backpacking trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats and was interested in your weight-saving cycling trip round the north of England Like you I am using my phone for photos and navigation (I use the “Viewranger” app which is great because you can use 1:25k OS maps offline). But I noticed that you said you used your phone in airplane mode to save batteries. When I tried this on my iPhone, it also turned off the GPS so it was effectively useless for navigation. So what sort of phone did you have and how did you get it into airplane mode while leaving GPS on?

    PS great website – really well laid out and interesting
    Cheers
    Adam

    Reply
  7. Swanand Apte Posted

    Use your finger as toothbrush with pinch of salt. You can rinse your mouth properly with water after dinner & then eat some raw vegetable (Carrot, cucumber etc.) Your mouth will feel fresh on the morning !

    Reply
  8. Yeah..I can handle light days rides, but I can’t pack light. Something like ‘I can handle a heavy bike’ combined with ‘i’m allowed to take three books and my nice face wipes if I want to’! However I’m reading this book on obsessively light packing at the moment (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00IR2VKZW/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=B00IR2VKZW&linkCode=as2&tag=cycl-21) There’s a cool graph on amount of stuff you take + comfort gained vs pain level when cycling!

    Reply
  9. Hi great article!
    Although I’m one of those heavy loaded mules you mentioned that you occasionally see on the road, something close to a mobile home on a bike is pretty close. However I recently did a 200 mile tour around Wales in a simmer liar fashion you mentioned here, eating in cafés, and slept rough on the beach in my lycras with just my sleeping bag to keep me warm, and I must say you make a pretty good argument for traveling light.
    All the best on future trips mate keep on inspiring
    Andy

    Reply
  10. Peter Gambrill Posted

    It looks like you’re wearing road cycling shoes, obviously you can’t really walk about in those. Did you bring any others or cleat covers perhaps?

    Really happy I stumbled upon your blog, will definitely be picking up your microadventure book asap. Keep it up!

    Reply
  11. I use free maps with mapdroyd…..excellent, and free, with or without gps used.

    Reply
  12. Neill Wylie Posted

    A brave 4 days!

    Reply
  13. I plan to do a Lejog this year with my dog, I have the best ‘lightweight’ gear that I can afford and a Doghut trailer for my dog when we are on busy roads. I hope to follow quiet back roads for the most part so that my little dog can jog along beside me.
    I’m retired now so I don’t have to complete in a given time, I can take as long as I like.
    The thing that worries me is, what to do when it chucks down with rain, as I’m sure it will, for at least part of the trip.
    I will be camping (stealthily) as I can’t afford expensive hotels, and not many accept dogs anyway, and neither does the YHA. What do you do when everything is wet, tent, sleeping bag etc?

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      When everything is wet I’d recommend treating yourself to a B&B!
      (Also look into Couchsurfing and the Warm Showers List)

      Reply
  14. Al on the subject of phones I moved from iPhone a long time ago to Samsung Galaxy (currently S5) for three primary advantages over the iPhone. 1. User replaceable battery – you can carry spare batteries and change them easy in the field & they are tiny / light 2. The phone is weather proof so acts as a great GPS in the rain / mud 3. Battery life is far superior. 4. 18 megapixel camera. Unfortunately Samsungs most recent phone the S6 has moved towards a sealed battery which I think is a bad move. For mapping I have memory map app on the phone and OS mapping (offline) for the entire UK. It’s a great setup.

    Reply
  15. please do something about that pop up

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Hi Paul,
      I know they are annoying, but it’s got me 2000 newsletter sign-ups in a month. So it’s a tricky balance to get…

      Reply
  16. Hi,
    I enjoyed reading this noticed the CAAD8 in the photo which is similar to my own, and that it has the same Schwalbe Lugano tyres that came with the bike when I bought my bike new.
    Are these tyres better, for grip with the extra weight of kit on them?
    It’s just that, as I didn’t rate them for grip, when just out for an ordinary ride without kit, of distances ranging from 20 – 80 miles, I replaced them, but I still have them.

    Reply
  17. Bruce Goodchild Posted

    I rode around southern England in 1975, mostly camping,
    some b and bs. I’d like to be able this summer to
    return to Britain to,do some much more modest riding,
    with some camping.
    Would I be better off bringing one of my nice bikes with me,
    or rather buying used bike when I get to London, and thentrying to sell it at the end of the trip?

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      I think either option would be fine. You could do the trip on a £50 second hand bike for sure. But you can also do it on a nice bike, if you don’t mind the hassle of transporting the bike here. Good luck!

      Reply

 
 

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