Thoughts on Gear

Tour Essentials

Once you've decided how far you're going, and where you'll stay, it's time to select the gear. To help with those plans I cover a few important touring topics; Packing the Packs, The Skinny on Racks, and Pannier Designs.

Let's break down touring into three styles; the first three are generally the traditional type of cycle touring, and the last bikepacking:

Inn to Inn

This is a light setup for those tourist spending nights in a hotel, and ordering food from a menu. No need for camping gear, just enough pack space to hold clothes, toiletries, and other personal items. This type of travel is sometimes referred to as "credit card" touring. A pair of large panniers provide plenty of room or a small pair of panniers for single overnight stays. The small panniers may even work for longer trips - if you can tolerate leaving the iPad, laptop, and VR headset at home. Look for a rear-mounted rack with at least 45 lbs capacity. Review the Packing the Packs and The Skinny on Racks for making the most of your tour.

Weekend Camping

Swapping out room service for campsite lodging? Take the large panniers and add a 2-person tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, cook set, and camp chair and you're ready for nights under the stars. Cooking equipment is enough for complete meals, or just morning coffee. A good rear-mounted rack should make your bike tour ready - look for one that handles 55 lbs or more. In the section Packing the Packs, I break down a sample weight and loading configuration. Hint: It's easy to extend a tour without requiring more pack space by mixing camping with the occasional hotel stay.

Fully Loaded Touring

Will your tour require multiple campsites, a grocery sack of food, and packing more than one change of underwear? From a couple of days to a couple of weeks, adding a set of small panniers to your front rack tacks on valuable space for carting extra gear and supplies for the long haul. A combination of large and small panniers provides between 65 to 80 liters of pack space. What do 65 liters of gear look like? Check out the section on Packing the Packs for a few examples. You'll need to equip your bike with sturdy front and rear racks to make a safe and rewarding tour. In The Skinny on Racks, I discuss some of the characteristics and considerations for adding racks to your bike.

Minimalist Bikepacking

Gravel roads, dirt trails, and narrow passages. Those cyclists riding the backwoods need bags that stay inline with their bike to avoid snagging on trees, brush, and boulders. These packs don't rely on racks and instead mount directly to the bike. A set of bikepacking bags - handlebar pack and seat pack - will hold around 25 to 28 liters of gear, so cyclists need to pare down their equipment to the bare necessities. My typical bikepacking list includes a one-person tent, stove, sleeping pad, bag liner, cook set, medical kit, and campsite repair kit.

Packing the Packs

Packing for a tour is a function of volume and weight. Panniers and packs are measured in liters (volume), and your bike rack has a weight capacity. Determining what to take requires balancing these two variables. As an example, my Marmot Electrum 30 sleeping bag is 2 lbs 13 oz with a pack volume of 8.4 liters, while a Dell Inspiron laptop takes only a fraction of the space (1.3 liters) but weighs a hefty 3 lbs. And of course, you'll need the power adapter as well. That laptop won't keep you warm at night.

Choose wisely.

As a rule, if you're carrying panniers they shouldn't be near the weight capacity of your racks. Remember, it's pedal power that hauls all those pounds up the hill. A heavy load may not seem much of a problem "climbing" the 175 ft elevation of the Missouri Katy Trail, but it'll haunt you while crawling up the Rocky Mountains.

To give an idea of how much stuff you can get in our traditional touring panniers, I packed a set of large and small panniers - Ortlieb's Back-Roller Classic (40 liters) and Sport-Roller Classic (25 liters) - with camping gear and personal items from my last tour. Of course, your own list will differ, but this should get you thinking:

Small Panniers with personal items

Total of 11.8 lbs

Large Panniers

Camping gear and personal items

Strap tent, poles, trekker chair, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag on the rear rack (12 lbs)

16.2 lbs of gear in the panniers

Grand total of 28.2 lbs on the rear rack

Large and Small Panniers

Camping gear and personal items

Strap tent, poles, trekker chair, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag on the rear rack (12 lbs)

19.2 lbs in the panniers on the rear rack, and 5.4 lbs on the front. One small pannier is full, with the other one empty for food or even more stuff.

Grand total of 31.2 lbs on the rear rack, and only 5.4 lbs on the front (you will add more!)

Here's my gear, filling two large and one small pannier. Your pack will look different - unless you also wear a size 14 shoe.

An Ortlieb Bikepacking Seat-Pack containing one long sleeve shirt, one short sleeve shirt, rain jacket, cycle shorts, two pairs wool socks, 4 oz fuel canister, camp towel, camp soap, toothbrush & paste, granola, lentils, soy milk, quinoa mix, and two granola bars.

Into the Revelate Designs Sweetroll handlebar bag goes a one-person tent, lightweight sleeping pad, stove, cookset, first aid kit, and bag liner.

The Skinny on Racks

Bikepacking? Then skip this section since no racks are required. For panniers, pick racks that safely handle the weight of the gear (how much weight? See Packing The Packs), and easily mount to your bike. Not all racks will work with all bikes. Your local bike shop (LBS) can help you find the right one. Here's what you should consider when selecting racks:

The monster Surly Rear Rack on my excellent Surly Long Haul Trucker (or LHT) - a CroMoly steel rack that can handle 80 lbs of pack.

Mount Points

The racks gotta stay on the bike. Both front and rear racks will attach to the bike frame at two or three points to provide support and stability. Check to see what braze-ons are available on your bike. Most bikes have a set available for rear racks:

Bottom braze-ons near the axle for attaching the rack with a standard M5 bolt. The height for this rack is also adjustable

Adjustable steel rails on the rack connect to braze-ons on the bike frame. The long silver rails allow this rack to fit a wide variety of bikes.

Braze-ons for front racks are not as common, except on actual touring bikes.

Another Surly rack, this time on the front. This Surly LHT bike has braze-ons near the axle and mid-fork to secure the rack, while the numerous bolts on the rack provide ample adjustments. It features a heavy-duty top platform for strapping on more gear, handy since this rack can accommodate 70 lbs of pack.

Mounting clips can be used if braze-ons are not available. Check with the rack manufacturer to see if they include mounting clips in their hardware kit. Another option is selecting racks that mount through the axle, such as the Old Man Mountain Sherpa.


Ahh...brakes - can't live without them, can't get your stinkin' racks mounted around them.

Ok, not entirely true. Just verify that the racks - front and back - are compatible with the type of brakes on your bike. The pictures above are of a Surly LHT with the older style center-pull cantilever brakes that, for the most part, stay clear of the racks. Disc brakes tend to get in the way of "standard" racks. That's why Surly carries a different model of their rear rack for disc brakes. If the manufacturer doesn't specify what type of brakes are supported, contact them first before making a purchase.

High or Low?

When selecting a rack you may see some designs featuring a "lowrider" configuration, which mounts the panniers lower to the ground. Why is that?

It's a matter of stability - having the weight of the panniers lower on the bicycle provides better balance. The Surly front rack pictured above provides both low and high mounting options, while other racks are designed with only one configuration.

Two excellent rear racks from Tubus; the Cargo Evo on the left, and the Logo  Evo on the right. The Logo Evo has a lower rail for dropping the center of gravity.

Take note that some lowrider front racks will not have a top platform, thereby limiting how much gear can be packed on the rack.

And one last point on racks - make sure they'll fit your wheels. The Surly rear rack shown above handles 26", 700c, and some 29+ frames. Manufacturers will have this information in their product descriptions.

Pannier Designs

The panniers are packed and ready to get on the bike. The mounting system for most panniers all have the same concept; a latch that attaches to the top rail, and a lower hook near the axle to hold the bag against the rack.

The upper hooks on the Ortlieb mounting system can be adjusted to fit a wide variety of racks. Hook inserts are provided to accommodate racks with rail diameters between 8 and 12mm. The lower hook can also be adjusted along a mounting rail to prevent the panniers from sliding around.

Ortlieb Back Roller Classic mounted on the top rail of a Tubus Cargo Evo rack.

The upper hooks lock on the top rail and are released by pulling upward on the handle strap. The location of the hooks can be adjusted along the top rail to fit different rack designs.

The lower latch is a tab that slides along a rail allowing you to choose the best spot to lock on the rack.

Much like the Ortlieb system, the newer Arkel bags have hooks that lock to the top rail. A bungee cord is attached to a lower hook to keep the bags tight on the rack, and the top hooks are easily adjusted.

An Arkel Orca 45 pannier mounted to a Tubus Cargo Evo rack.

The upper two mounts lock onto the top rail and are released by pulling up on the handle strap. As with the Ortlieb packs, the upper hooks can be easily adjusted across the top rail.

A hook attached to a bungee cord secures the pannier to the bottom of the rack. In this picture the hook is in the middle position; it can also be moved to the right or left to shift the pannier forward or backward on the rack.