Big things first

A common mistake that we all make as newcomers to ultralight cycling is to start with cutting the handle of a tooth brush. The prospective ultralighter, on the contrary, should start with thinking big. There are 7 big ones (in terms of weight or volume) which you should consider first:
  • bicycle,
  • tent,
  • sleeping bag,
  • sleeping pad,
  • cooking equipment,
  • carriers
  • and - last but definitely not least - clothes.
Bicycle. "Touring bicycle" is a term that was coined to accommodate the growing trend of cycling tourers which took too much stuff. The philosophy of a touring bicycle - take as much stuff as you want and we will build a bicycle that can handle that weight on any kind of roads - is just the opposite to the philosophy of an ultralighter. You can cycle-tour on rough terrain using very light bikes (for example less then 10 kg) if you can control your total luggage weight (all things except the bicycle) below 9 or 10 kg. I can't give you much advice on particular bikes, because I think there is no advice: any bike that can reliably carry your body weight should be able to carry the additional weight of ultralight luggage. OK, I might give you just one hint: a very light bike should be ridden more delicately - it is not a tank and you can't treat is as one.

2009, wild camping in Canada.
Tent. The tent should not be heavier than 1500 grams. There are good tents weighing less than 1 kg. You don't need much tent space since you won't have a lot of luggage, so you can leave the tents with big vestibules, sheltered entrances, over-engineered guy lines etc. to your loaded comrades. I am personally quite happy with the single wall tents. There might be some minor problems with leakage and condensation, but these are rare occasions and not too hard to deal with. Your tent won't stay up in a tornado and you won't stay completely dry after 12 hours of tropical rain, but you probably wouldn't even if you had a 4-season tent. Extreme cases are better dealt with extreme measures - by taking shelter under a roof for example.

Sleeping bag. Down sleeping bags are the way to go. They are warm, light and can be packed to small volume. 1 kg is a good starting estimate for a down bag for sleeping temperatures to -5 C, and extremes to -10 C with your warm clothes on.

Sleeping pads. As a final step in the evolution of my sleeping kit I now have a body-sized strip of bubble-wrap as a sleeping pad (less than 100 grams). This might look too extreme, but I really don't remember being any more comfortable on a 5 mm foam pad that I had previously. As a great example of multiple use, the bubble wrap serves me also as a wrapping material to provide structure and waterproofness for my rear stuff bag. The bubbles don't pop or flatten that easily. You can have the same strip for 50++ nights. And by the time the bubbles flatten you will be trained - in the manner of great Asian martial artists - to sleep on hard packed ground without anything beneath.

Cooking. No cooking utensils. I can survive on cold, dry food for a couple of days until I get to the restaurant or some other form of eatery. If the restaurant is expensive, I extend cold food treatment for another couple of days. I can't emphasize enough the importance of this: there's no cooker, no mugs, no pots, no plates, no cutlery, no fuel, no fuel container, no cleaning utensils, no bags for storing all this junk, no additional cooking water and no bags of raw, useless food. In addition, you don't waste your time in cooking, cleaning and searching for fuel and can concentrate on cycling instead. And there's a thing less to be broken. There are only two things I need from all these: a plastic tea spoon and a plastic toothpick (see the picture) - taken from the meal served on the plane. Both weigh about the resolution of my scale (2 g). I cary both in the back pocket of the cycling jersey - you never know when an opportunity for a good meal will come, so you better be prepared. 

Carriers. Don't underestimate the weight of carriers or 'containers'. These things, i.e. panniers, bags, backpacks, etc., are larpourlartistic inventions for storing other, presumably valuable, things. They are nevertheless necessary (unless the number of things that you are carrying is less then 4), so choose them so that the ratio of content weight to container weight is as high as possible, but not less then 3,142 (also known as 'pi'). Carriers deserve a post of their own - see the post below.

Clothes (and shoes). Clothes as a colective item is one of the 7 big ones - in most cases the second big one, after the bike. So you should definitely take into good consideration what clothes you choose. Take a scale with you to the shop when you buy clothes. The people will laugh at you, for sure, but believe me - you will save a lot of money. The most expensive items are not always the best nor the lightest.
Never take two items for the same purpose, e.g. two cycling shorts. The only possible exception to this rule is a spare pair of socks. Layering or comlementing items is a good thing to consider. A combination of a windbreaker + light rain shell is usually lighter and warmer then a single all-purpose rain/wind jacket. Arm warmers complemented with short sleaved jersey make a good subsitute for short and long sleeved jerseys. When one item is in the wash, slip into a complemenatry item while you wait it to dry (e.g. underwear + long trousers or rain pants when you wash your shorts). Wash your clothes in the evening so they dry by the morning. A case of special need of consideration are the shoes. For reasons explained elsewhere, I find special cycling shoes one of the most bizzare choises for a touring cyclist, especialy the lightweight-one. There are much lighter and more suitable alternatives. An excelent choice, that I used so far with great success, are the shoes for in-door football. These or similar low-tech trainers or light summer shoes can weigh down to 600 g for a pair. I am not against the combination of sandals and waterproof socks either. Right now I am experimenting with the "crocs" (340 g a pair).
I generaly have two, complementary sets of clothing. Usualy I wear: hat or cycling cap, wind/rain jacket, cycling gloves, cycling jersey, cycling shorts, socks and shoes. The complementary set: fleece cap (a beanie), fleece top, underwear (usually bathing trunks), trousers and second pair of socks is in the bag and comes into use on extremely cold days or nights, when off the bike or when the first set is in the wash. Other than that there are some additional items for the rain: rain pants, overshoes and gloves. I carry these in the hood pouch of the rain jacket - after I cut off the hood. Often I take a second T-shirt - sorry to disappoint you, everybody makes compromises sometime.

Tajikistan, 2008
2008, Tadjikistan.
I think a word of warning is in order here: beware, lightweight touring can be addictive! Which means that like a drug addict you may start spending more and more money on lighter and lighter equipment. I'm maybe not the right person to give advice, since I already went too far, but to avoid this I suggest to set yourself a goal, but also a limit. For example, your goal may be to lighten your luggage to 8 kg. Then I suggest to make your "virtual set-up". This means that you first make a list of all the items you need. Then search the net for the best, albeit the most expensive equipment that will be within your limit. When doing this virtual set-up make sure that the items in your list are both compatible (for ex. that your handlebar bag is big enough to store your camera) and that there is no redundancy. This is an iterative prosess. You'll have to go few time through it, if you want to optimize things in weight, in price and in suitability. At least that's what I would do if I started from scratch. And If I had patience. If you are certain that you won't go below the limit, you'll never be sorry even if you buy the most expensive stuff. If, on the other hand, you are most likely to improve your equipment permanently, then I guess the best way is to buy the cheapest stuff.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the information..I really need this kind of post, this information will be very helpful for me as i am planning a trip with my friends on a hilly area...I have learn so many new things from the post.. Keep it up...

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  2. Eating cold food means you, presumably, don't make use of freeze dries foods. Have you considered the breaking point, where your plan to eat normal food, and not use a cooking unit, makes it uneconomical weight wise

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  3. Axel, I'm not sure what you mean. Not cooking my own food might be uneconomical money wise, but how is it uneconomical weight wise?

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  4. Very inspiring set up. I'm planning my first ultralight cycling trip this year and your site is invaluable, thank you.

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  5. Iik, correct me if I'm wrong but unless the weather is hot and dry shorts usually don't dry over night?! If so how do you get along?

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    1. I take a spare myself, also 1 titanium cooker is superlight and saves a ton on food costs.

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  6. Leon, sorry for the late answer. Usually I wash the shorts when I'm in a hotel, where there's a towel in which I wrap the shorts and squeeze it. By the morning they're usually dry. If not, they dry on me in about an hour.

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  7. I can't "wrap" my head around your sleeping pad, don't the bubbles break? I assume you're talking about the same bubble-wrap that is shipped in boxes to protect fragile merchandise? The stuff that you pop for fun when you unpack things.

    I have to make sure because I'm not a native English speaker so maybe I am misunderstanding you.

    How long have you been touring with this pad now, and what have the problems been?

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  8. Yes, it's ordinary bubble-wrap used for packing. I've had 2 bubble-wrap strips since 2006 - on 6 tours. The bubbles pop/flatten a bit, but by now, I've got used to sleep even on a plain plastic sheet. The critical points are my hips and knees. A bit of padding there (with pieces of clothing) can solve the problem.

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  9. I think this set-up is to extreme, a better equipment list i've seen from a touring biker is the one from Mike Hall (fastest around the world on a bike), he did have a sleepingpad and there are alot of them that are super tiny and weigh almost nothing, a better sleepingpad=more comfort=better after a day of biking.
    Second: those cycling shoes do help the pedaling, it saves alot of energy, and isn't hard to carry (u have it on your feet).

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  10. I used the bubble wrap system in September in France. You do feel the hard ground at first more than on a mat.
    However that did not disturb me and I had a good nights sleep.
    http://adenough1.blogspot.co.uk/

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