If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 21 June 2012


Every time I go away on the bike, I take too much.  Always have, probably always will.  But this time (see previous two posts), I told myself I would only take what was necessary.  And I did.  The only problem is that when you have a fertile imagination, the word 'necessary' grows to encompass all kinds of trivia.  The problem was compounded by travelling with someone who was a) my offspring, and therefore I was technically responsible for her welfare, even if she is 24, and b) inexperienced at bike touring, and therefore unlikely to pack all the stuff she doesn't know she needs until she needs it.  This is how I ended up with three packets of baby wipes, two opened and almost empty and one massive brick of a thing that would have given a day nursery of toddlers clean botties for a week.

This is how the logic goes.  Babywipes are a vital accessory to any bike trip.  They are easy and neat to store, and have a multiplicity of uses, from cleaning hands after a mucky operation on a dirty bike, to getting bugs off a visor when there is no water handy, to more ... er ... personal applications involving urgent needs and quiet corners of fields.  Babywipes are only useful if they are moist, and they dry out quickly once opened.  I have one small packet, 2-3 left, almost dry, shame to leave them when I can use them first and throw the packet away.  Another small packet, half-full, if I left them at home they would dry out, chuck them in the tank bag, you never know.  And then parent panic - she's a girl, they're fussy, will she bring her own?  Better get a new packet, hello Tescos, hey, that's a big packet, won't run out of those, ha ha, put them in the basket, chuck them in the tankbag.  So there's a space the size of a housebrick in the tankbag taken up by moist wiperettes.  In these quantities, they are heavy, too.  She did bring her own (I guess that makes four on board, really), packet 1 was dry and got binned, we didn't finish packet 2, and I gave her the big packet, unopened, when we got home.  Pfft.

It's the umbrella problem.  Take it with you, you'll have sunshine all day.  Leave it at home and you are guaranteed a monsoon.  At least, that's the way my mind works.

I searched the net for 'motorcycle touring checklists' and found lots of good advice.  Some stuff I had already packed, and some stuff I hadn't though of.  Made a list. Divided it into Pannier 1, Pannier 2 and Tankbag.  Trial packed it all.  It all fitted, once I had returned three t-shirts and a jumper to the bedroom cupboard.  On the bike, it all mounted OK and I was good to go.

I had been a bit clever, and had taken the big topcase with me when I went to Oxford a few weeks before to get D2 the helmet and boots, and in it I put Anna's bike gear.  I left it up there, so D2 knew to the cm3 how much room she had, and I had only my own stuff to worry about.

I'm looking at the list I made, and some of it was vital, some was necessary, some was useful, and some was just ballast.  Here are some observations.  I'm basing this on a week's trip involving foreign roads - obviously the list can be trimmed if travelling closer to home or for a shorter period.  Camping would add a whole extra category of stuff.

Essential: stuff you can't really get away without carrying -
  • Bike documents - V5, insurance certificate, MoT certificate, driving licence.  You probably won't need them, but if you do you will really need them, and they take up very little room.
  • Travel documents - confirmation emails, insurance certificates etc, with all the vital numbers and names
  • Passport and E111 card - obviously.
  • Spare bulbs for all lights on the bike - a legal requirement in France, and a good idea to have anyway.  Mine fit in a jiffy bag in the tailpiece and will stay there from now on.  No reason not to leave them there.
  • Spare fuses - tiny, light, and could save you a long walk.  Stored with above.
  • Basic tools - I carried a small screwdriver set with allen bits and matching small sockets, plus a few odds and ends.  Not used, but I would feel naked without them.
  • Leatherman multi-tool - adds pliers, knife blades, files etc to the above, plus it's in a really battered old leather case and looks cool.
  • Small pack of babywipes (OK, OK).
  • Wallet/s with Sterling and Euros, bank cards etc, plus loose cash for tolls.
  • Maps.  Large enough scale to be useful.  Anything around 1:4,000,000 is useless for anything but the most general armchair planning before you leave.  Something around 1:500,000 is what you need for actual navigation.  Larger scales than that are great, but you end up with a lot of paper.
  • First Aid kit - wouldn't travel without one, even if it's to help out someone else.  Lives under the seat.
  • Handful of big cable ties - small ones pointless for emergency use, can always clip large ones to size.
  • Roll of gaffer tape - endless uses, from mending ripped riding gear to fixing things up after a tumble.  Or for putting on the bike's bodywork after the panniers have started to scratch it.  Don't ask.
  • For longer trips: chain lube (if the bike has one), engine oil (if the bike has an appetite for it).
  • Phone (and means of charging same).
  • Tyre repair kit.
  • Small LED torch.
Important: stuff that could make all the difference between a happy trip and a miserable one -
  • Waterproofs as necessary (I had a waterproof jacket so I only needed overtrousers, which pack small.  As it happens, I didn't need them, but I'd still pack them anyway.)
  • Spare riding gloves.  I brought a warm pair and a thin pair, both waterproof.  I wore the warm pair in the UK, but switched to the thin pair when across the Channel.  The other pair would have been miserably hot, even in the rain.  And it's always nice to have a dry pair if one gets soaked.
  • Paper and pen.  I took an A5 spiral bound notebook, a normal pen and a thick marker pen.  The paper/pen combo is useful for fuel/mileage records (if you do that kind of thing), noting addresses and phone numbers, all sorts.  The marker pen was hugely useful when the satnav went on strike and I had to write myself route instructions for the map pocket of the tankbag.
  • Reading glasses, if you need them.  Reading details on maps, if nothing else.
  • Sidestand puck - because you never know where you might have to prop the bike up.  Mine has a 1m nylon line attached, so I can place it on the ground without getting off the bike, and recover it likewise.  
  • Spare visor.  If your visor is damaged beyond repair and you are 500 miles from home, you have a very slow and uncomfortable journey ahead of you.  My normal summer visor is tinted (although not quite black) and I carry a clear spare, which I can change to for night riding if necessary.  I'm fanatical about being able to see where I am going.
  • Tyre pressure gauge.  Better than guesswork, especially when heavily-loaded and where high speeds are planned.
  • Security device.  If you don't know where you will be parking the bike at night, you will want some form of security.  My big lock and chain were just too heavy and bulky, but I carried a disc lock and a fluoro yellow tell-tale cord which attaches to the lock and the brake lever - it draws attention to the lock, and makes it harder to ride off with the lock attached.  The one time I didn't use the tell-tale, I smashed the Bonnie's speedo drive.  Bad, but could have been worse.
  • Bungees, straps, cargo net, as necessary.
  • Towards the lower end of 'necessary', but I also packed two high-viz tabards.  I usually keep these in the car, as they are a legal requirement in France.  I couldn't find out for sure whether they were required for bikes, but it seemed sensible to pack them anyway, in case of a breakdown on a busy road.  Probably one of those things that I wouldn't bother with for myself, but which, when responsible for a passenger, start to look more like a good idea.  They pack small.  Didn't need them.
Nice-to-have: but by no means vital -
  • GPS
  • Camera
  • Sunglasses
  • Inner gloves (if weather unpredictable - cold hands on a bike are dangerous)
  • Bike handbook (for tyre pressures, oil spec, etc., and because I can never remember how many clicks to alter the suspension)
  • Microfibre cloth - cleans anything, especially visors, doubles as a field dressing, face flannel or even towel, and dries in an instant.
  • Dictionaries/phrase books/travel guides for countries you are visiting
  • Cheap cable lock/s, as sold in bicycle shops or even (as was one of mine) given away as a cover gift with a bike magazine.  Leave locked to a solid part of the rear carrier and lock helmets to bike when you go for a walk.  One less thing to carry.  (Some people have a longer one and lock their jacket to the bike by passing the cable up the sleeve.  I've never had a jacket that was worth this treatment, but it makes sense.)
  • Can of WD-40.  Cures anything.  Can be used as aftershave at a pinch.  You'll only attract a certain kind of lady, but that could be an interesting experience.
Ballast: stuff I though would be useful, but wasn't -
  • Headtorch - great if you are camping (we weren't) or need to do some repairs after dark (we didn't, and a small torch can be held in the teeth).
  • Various small carabiners that I was sure would be useful for ... something.
  • Keyring with an LED torch attachment, although I had both keyrings and torches already accounted for
  • Laser pointer thing I got off eBay - because I thought it would be fun.  Once it reached the bottom of the tankbag, I never saw it again.
  • Bicycle pump - the CO2 cartridges in the tyre kit would have given me enough pressure to make it to a garage with an airline, but I thought the pump might be an extra weapon.  I didn't need it.  First night nerves, I guess.
  • Black bin liners.  From long experience of camping, where they are highly useful, but where we went there was always a rubbish bin within throwing distance.
  • Anything more than 1 (one) small pack of babywipes.

Rule 1 - if you aren't sure if you will need it, you won't.  Get rid of it.
Unless you are going right off the beaten track, there will always be a shop where you can buy something you need.  Also, if you have even a basic facility in the language of where you are going, solving problems like this can be fun.  Over-preparing also reduces the possibility of random encounters that can be the most memorable part of the trip.

Rule 2 - leave some space.
It was cool and wet when I set off, but by the time I picked up D2 I was roasting, so my fleece jumper and jacket liner came off.  I managed to find room for the thermal liner in one of the panniers, but the jumper stayed on the pillion seat as a comfort feature for D2 for the entire trip.  Thinking ahead and leaving some room for discarded layers would have been intelligent.  No, don't say it.

Rule 3 - don't put anything in 'just in case'.
Your imagination can find a million ways in which this plastic widget could be useful, but real life isn't like that, and you will empty it out of your bags at the end of the trip and ask "who the hell packed this crap?"

We've all got our own ideas on these things, and if you have a different take on what I have outlined above, please feel free to comment.  More to follow.


  1. Awesome write up Richard. Such great information. I am glad you looked back at your packing with a sense of humor.

    With at least two multi- day riding trips planned this summer I shall do my best to heed your advice.

  2. Spare keys?

    Kitchen sink - haha

    2 breathylysers (how do you spell that in French?)

    I'm thinking that it would be good to print out a Minimum Equipment List on a card like they do for passenger aircraft!

    1. Ah yes, spare keys. The bike came with only one, so I had a couple of spares made up and gave one to D2 (along with a spare key for the topbox) with instructions to keep it separate from her luggage at all times. Yes, add 'spare keys' to the 'vital' list.

      Apparently the breathalysers (checked sp) will be required from August in France.

  3. Welcome back!

    Packing..... an artform. I have just done the US coast to coast in a light aircraft with two chums - Volume: not really a problem. Weight: a big problem. It resulted in some interesting differences - I was required to shed a stone or risk having a leg amputated in Portland.

    Next thing: get D2 a bike licence.

    1. Thank you! I can imagine packing for a flight is slightly more critical than a bike trip. Did you shed the required stone, or do you now have a bad limp?

      The prospect of her getting a bike licence has been mentioned ...

    2. I didn't miss the trip!

  4. It's hard to fault your list. Here are my additions.

    Pharmaceuticals? Codeine and clove oil can be hard to get. Also Immodium and Buccastem.

    I had to ride from Bielefeld to Hannover and back at night in the rain to pick up my poxy little bottle of clove oil (it wasn't for me).

    If room permits, some small souvenirs from England.

  5. Hi Anon, and welcome to the blog. I had a period of on-and-off toothache a couple of years ago and carried a strip of painkillers everywhere, but that passed and I stopped carrying them. Probably a good idea, though. Pardon my ignorance, but I have no idea what you would use clove oil for :) Any regular medications I carry in my washbag, so I regard it as 'personal items' rather than 'bike items', but I take your point. Immodium is probably a useful addition.

    Small souvenirs from your own country - now that /is/ a good idea.

    1. I am 20 Rothmans, I apologise for being too lazy to use my moniker (I was working).

      Clove oil, applied topically to a tooth cavity, immediately ceases the pain. It has no side effects. It is far more effective than any OTC analgesic. Keep away from plastics.

      I'm taking a break from bikes but I keep these babies in our car, just in case. They are also in my washbag, usually.

      As an Australian, I take little koala or kangaroo penholders, they win over people who've been nice to you. From London, I'd take a knife or a half-eaten kebab.

    2. Ah, right! Hello 20. I thought the clove oil thing was an old wives' tale, so it is interesting that you find it works. Next time I get toothache, I will investigate.

      LOL to your last para. From Wales, all I can thing of is a sheep. In suspenders and a basque.

  6. Actually, more or less everything on your list is currently sitting in a pile in the middle of my study, waiting to be packed for Monday and the annual tour. I wouldn't argue seriously with any of your choices or reasons, they're all good.

    Minor differences:
    - I carry spare keys and photocopies of my critical documents in a waterproof wallet hidden in my tank bag.
    - I don't bother with thick gloves - two pairs unlined only, for quick drying. If it's consistently cold, the heated grips are more use than any amount of glove lining.
    - A few optical wipes (for visor/glasses) and Muc-Off degreasing wipes (everything else) instead of baby wipes. Individually wrapped so stay good longer and can carry as few or many as desired.
    - Imodium, ibuprofen and paracetamol in the first aid kit. Covers 90% of medical needs, at least long enough to get somewhere that will deal with them properly.
    - No hi-vis. Not legally required and we hates it, precious.
    - 2 black bags, to contain dirty laundry.
    - My big lock and chain, in a lock carrier (strapped to the pillion seat, so no use two-up).
    - Waterproof one-piece oversuit (and two-piece leathers). A small warmth, water- and wind-proofing advantage over mix-and-match two-pieces, but it can make a big difference on long, cold, wet days.
    - Cheap thermal two-piece base layer instead of an extra sweatshirt, for when it turns cold.
    - A roll of adhesive Velcro. Very useful when gaffa tape or cable ties aren't quite the thing.
    - A few packs of dextrose tablets and caffeinated mints, and a couple of cycling energy gels. Can be slurped or munched on the move if need be, should fatigue set in.
    - Because I carry onboard cameras, mp3 player, satnav and phone, I can't practically charge them all on the move. There's almost always a single plug in the average B&B-type hotel, and a typical travel charger plus stuff hanging off it tends to a) fall out and b) monopolise it for everyone else. So I now carry a Euro-UK 1m cable, compact 3-way UK adapter with built-in USB sockets and a UK plug-to-2-USB socket. Sounds bulky, but it's not that bad and I can get 4 devices charged simultaneously while still having a couple of mains slots for other people's phone chargers etc. I'd rather things still just used disposable batteries, tbh, could load up with 40 AAs and throw them away as necessary, but everything seems to be on Li rechargeables these days...


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