28 September, 2012

Packing the Campeur Bikepacking Style, Part 1

A guest post by Nicholas Carmen (who blogs as Gypsy by Trade)

The excitement to load my bicycle with expedition-grade racks and plastic waterproof panniers has waned, and is countered by a fascination with ride quality, rather than load capacity. My cycling interests have wandered off-pavement and over mountains, onto the Great Divide Route and the Colorado Trail, and a lessened load has become my best friend. A lightweight bike allows greater access to new terrain and reduces fatigue on both rider and bicycle. A smaller load equates to a lessened frontal face and an aerodynamic profile in headwinds or when riding fast. The bike is easier to lift over fences and rocky trails; best of all, it is fun to ride. With a quiet lightweight bike and larger volume tires, I can go anywhere.

On smooth flat terrain, a touring bicycle is at very little disadvantage to an unladen bike -- wheels are remarkably efficient. In mountainous terrain cycletourists grind uphill and coast downhill, spending much of their time ascending in extremely low gears, at slow speeds. There are no secrets to elevating a mass from the bottom of a hill to the top. Not even lower gears undermine the fact that work is the combination of force and distance, in which force is determined by the mass of the bike and rider, and the angle of the grade. Lower gears make many steep grades rideable, but a lighter load is the only real secret to scaling mountains and pedaling the land. It's just easier.

With less equipment the cycletourist climbs more nimbly, maintaining momentum and covering distances with ease. On unpaved surfaces, tire pressures can be optimized to quietly and comfortably float over obstacles and washboard. And on terrain that challenges the limits of rider and bicycle, having less stuff may be the only way through. Rough surfaces and high pressure tires are the cause of many physical discomforts, as well as broken rims, racks and spokes. I prefer a tire in excess of 40 mm for most of my riding, while a 45-50mm tire enables more rugged mountain roads.

An American Pass Hunter

I am excited that the new VO Campeur frames features generous tire clearances. Tires up to 42mm (45mm on the 59cm and 61cm sizes) allow for mild off-pavement riding on cyclepaths and most forest service roads, as well as for comfort and safety. The growing options for larger 700c tires include several from Schwalbe and Vee, the Clement X'Plor MSO, Panaracer Fire Cross, and the prevoyant Bruce Gordon Rock'n'Road. Many smaller cross-type tires are also suitable and will fit under a fender. Initially, I appreciated vintage 80's touring frames for all-purpose riding, but was drawn away due to limited tire clearances and inflated prices on the used market. The Campeur kills both birds. A Campeur with racks and panniers is well-suited to paved roads and graded rail-trails -- traditional touring fare. With a tidy, lightweight load and larger-volume 700c tires the Campeur is an American Pass Hunter capable of our scenic and remote roads as on the Great Divide Route. Strap a bedroll to the handlebars and attach a saddlebag. The Campeur turns from a capable gear-hauler to a dirt-road scorcher-- a real adventure bike!

Doing more with less

The secrets of a lightweight load are not in sawing off toothbrush handles or titanium sporks. Avoid redundancies and bring only what you need. While backpackers have known the benefits of lightweight travel for years, cycletourists have a tendency to “fill the truck”. Comfort, safety and preference will determine personal equipment needs, while packing for worst-case scenarios will ensure a heavy bike. Expect real conditions and plan for them; don't “what if” yourself into an extra pannier full of gear. Provisional items such as batteries, bandages, and the remaining six books in the series can be left at home and sourced along the way. Additional clothing, food and water are available in more places than you will require. The fact is, most cycling occurs along roads of some kind, and along roads are people and resources, and most often a willing pick-up truck in the event of a worst-case scenario.

When planning my adventures I pack relatively little clothing, rotating several t-shirts, socks and underwear with a single pair of nylon athletic shorts. Clothing quickly becomes laundry on the road, and touring the land with a bag full of smelly socks isn't particularly attractive. In the summer months I find it refreshing to swim multiple times daily, rinsing soiled clothing to maintain a reasonably clean exterior. I wear a single pair of reliable shoes for riding and walking. This is convenient when I require to push my bike up a steep, rocky grade. When the temperature drops, I expect to empty my bags wearing most of my layers, pairing a down jacket and thin wool long underwear with a 30-deg down sleeping bag. In the coldest weather, a vapor barrier liner allows me to comfortably sleep down to single digits inside my tent. If you are inclined to spend money on kit, replacing an older inexpensive tent and a too-warm sleeping bag will make the greatest reductions in packed size and weight. The remaining gear for a cycling trip is usually already in your closet, and only small reductions in weight and volume can be achieved with new equipment. Better to leave gear at home than to buy “lighter”. As such, lightweight cycling need not come at a great expense.

While my personal needs currently require a brick of electronics, one could easily pack 25 lbs. or less, including several day's sustenance. Regarding food and water, I typically prepare for the exact distance ahead, with a small reserve for unexpected delays. Considering the hundreds of dollars invested in lightweight equipment, one could easily negate the benefits of sil-nylon and tinanium with 20 lbs. of excess food and water. By consuming most of my food before resupplying, the average weight of packed food over time (full+empty/2) is minimized. Running low on food, but not starving, is a sign of good planning. Water is usually the single heaviest thing on a loaded bicycle: in wet climates I rarely fill more than one bottle, and I camp near water sources. A popular hiking tip is to “camel up” by drinking a liter of water at the source to avoid carrying it on the bike. Of course, water is quite precious in arid climates; it may be unavoidable to carry several liters, or more.

How to pack gear without a full load of panniers?

Reducing a load from four panniers to two is a good start. The effects of a lighter load are multiplied by the support equipment that becomes unnecessary, including racks and bags, stout wheels, and a “proper” touring frame. The Ortlieb panniers and Jandd racks I used on my first trip four years ago weigh over 12 lbs. and burdened me with extra clothing and food.


Parting with panniers entirely, a “rack-lite” system may use an existing rack or a mini-rack. The VO Pass Hunter supports a handlebar bag, saddlebag or a drybag attached with straps, but it doesn't support panniers. Independent of weight, the benefits of riding without panniers are threefold: a quieter ride on rough roads, a narrower profile with greater ground clearance and aerodynamics; and distribution of mass near the center of the bicycle. Last year the Pass Hunter provided a strong lightweight saddlebag support mounted to the rear of my Schwinn High Sierra, cradling a Carradice Camper over many thousand miles of pavement and dirt roads.

Without a heavy load and the need for rack fittings, almost any bike can serve as a touring bike. With the ability to cover distances more easily, even fewer supplies are needed on-board-- it's a slippery slope to a really enjoyable, ridable bike.


Further refinements exclude racks of any kind in favor of “soft” attachments. This mirrors the revolutionary philosophy birthed in lightweight internal frame backpacks in the 60's, the origins of the modern backpack. Framebags are made from durable “sailcloth” materials and provide efficient storage within the main triangle of the frame, relying upon the structure of the bicycle frame as the backpack relies upon the human skeleton. Modern accessory bags can be fit to the toptube, handlebars, or seatpost, while strapping a drybag to the underside of the saddle or handlebars is an inexpensive, lightweight approach to carrying gear. The growing availability of refined “bikepacking” style bags inspired by mountain bike touring and racing comprise one of the fastest growing trends in touring, and are almost exclusively handmade in the USA by local craftsmen. There's a lot to like about it, most importantly, the ride. This is how I would load my Campeur.

While lightweight travel is often considered the realm of endurance racers, randonneurs, and mountain biking “bikepackers”, the benefits of lightweight touring are for everyone. It need not be legitimized by epic distances and record times, or even an obsessive calculation of pounds and grams. Sometimes I ride fast and far, but I never hesitate to share with others that many of my days are spent swimming and drinking coffee, pushing my bike up rutted steep trails, or writing. The measure of success in my travel is fun and adventure. Lighten your load, throw a leg over the top tube and enjoy the ride.


Anonymous said...

Panniers have the advantage of being easier to pack and easier to remove from the bike. There is some tradeoff in bike-packing luggage.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. While I like looking at all the new frame bag designs the reality is that two small Ortliebs work just as well if not easier. Seems like all the frame bags put the weight up high which seems like it would impact handling. I did a 9 day tour with all my gear in my panniers and a small stuff sack on the rack.

Anonymous said...

Panniers certainly have the benefit of convenience. Baskets are a breeze.

Most panniers are optimized for convenience in urban use, at the expense of attachment systems that are durable and secure. Ortlieb panniers use a rather flimsy lower retention hook, which allows the bag to move in transit. On rough roads, they make a lot of noise and can fall off. Although unlikely, I've seen a wheel damaged by an airborne pannier. While Ortlieb panniers (and others) have proven themselves, for some kinds of riding there are better approaches. For paved tours, panniers are a sensible solution. The last time I used Ortlieb panniers I cinched a nylon gear strap around the belly of the bag to limit noise and motion.

For rough roads, for a narrower profile (clearance on trails and aerodynamics), and for reduced weight, other methods excel. I think having the load low to the ground is less important than having a minimal load overall. Framebags keep weight low and center, and contain the load securely and quietly.

Of course, we're lucky to have many options that work well.

Trailer Park Cyclist said...

One day a couple years ago I was walking back from the grocery with my old Kelty external frame backpack stuffed with my favorite healthy foods (pizza and beer) and thinking about bicycles. I found myself wondering why we add a frame (racks) to a frame (the bike) By the time I had reached home I had invented the concept of what I would call Bikepacking. I cracked open a beer and googled the term just to make sure it wasn't used by someone else first.

One of these days I will come up with an idea that several thousand people haven't beat me to.

So...my latest is a helium balloon with a wicker basket towed behind the bicycle. I will call it the AirBob and I'm not even going to check on that term, I am that confidant of success.


Anonymous said...

Guest posts of this caliber are a wonderful enhancement to your site. More, please!

Anonymous said...

TJ- Thanks for the thoughtful advancements in trailer design. A 13lb Bob is a boat anchor, so your Wicker Helium trailer will be an improvement for sure.

As we lighten our loads, neither the weight of rack and panniers or "proper" touring bikes are necessary. Lael's well-equipped 35lb Surly LHT (with rack, fenders, and Schwalbe tires) is tough to swallow with only a 15-20 lb load. She suggests that modern panniers are like clip-on ties. A real tie fits better, moves with you and won't fall off.

Blogan said...

I've ridden many miles with a variety of luggage arrangements. I've used a large saddlebag (similar to a Carradice) with Rivendell's silver hoop support, I've used (and still used) a medium Berthoud handlebar bag mounted to a small front rack, and I've used Arkel panniers on Surly front and rear racks. For a light load, and for my particular bikes, the Berthoud bag wins easily. The saddlebag was okay (same bike) but for some reason the bike rode a bit oddly with it mounted. The panniers are overkill for a load small enough for the Berthoud bag, especially with the massive Surly racks, but they work great for heavier loads. However, on a narrow singletrack I can definitely see how low-mounted panniers could be a problem. Mine have never been particularly noisy, though, and the bike's handling doesn't seem to be greatly affected with panniers unless I have a really heavy load. I also used a large trunk bag mounted on a rear rack for several years, and while not bad, it wasn't really as good as any of the other options, in my opinion. I've never tried a frame bag, mostly because I'm satisfied with my current setup, but also because, to clear my water bottle it looks like I wouldn't have much room left for the bag. So I'd have to use a small bag which probably couldn't hold enough for all my needs.

Anonymous said...

Good luck with your balloon TJ but I'm afraid Air Bob has been around for a bit. Gary Fisher used to have a BMX bike wit that name.

Anonymous said...

Blogan- It's always fun to see the luggage combinations that result from much experience. I suspect many of us start with a load of panniers, and adapt our systems from there. It was also lots of experimenting with front and rear panniers, handlebar bags, saddlebags, and frame bags before I came up with the current combination. Excepting an expedition into vast remote places, I'm not planning on using panniers anytime soon. I ride as much off-pavement as possible, and panniers simply aren't ideal, although they are not unworkable As you say, the Arkels have a very secure attachment. My cycling companion has used the Jandd Hurricane panniers (the smaller model) and notes that the attachment is also very secure and quiet.

I do not notice any adverse handling with the saddlebag, and none of the typical swaying. I attach several drybags between the saddlebag, seat post and rack/fender, which stabilizes the entire load.

I used a gigantic Ostrich handlebar bag for a trip to MX several years ago. While I Iiked the capacity and the ability to organize, I found it to be noisy as it bounced on rough roads. Soft attachments such as with saddlebags and frame bags, or even drybags strapped to the handlebars satisfy my desire for a quiet bike on rough roads. However, I miss the convenient map window of a proper handlebar bag. Somehow, I've carried very few maps all summer.

Framebags do complicate the storage of water. Bladders are an efficient use of space and can be stored within a framebag. As well, I really like the attachments now seen on Salsa and Surly forks for H2O bottles. King Cage, of Durango, CO, make a top cap mount for water bottles to be used with 1 1/8 in. threadless systems.

Re: The Gary Fisher Air Bob
Very funny. I had never heard of that model. Sorry TJ, but your great idea will require a new name.

Richie said...

What handlebar is that on the bike the nice lady is riding?

Anonymous said...

Richie- That is the On-One Mary, available in 25.4 and 31.8 clamp diameters in Al, and 25.4 in Cro-Mo. It also comes in a variety of colors. In particular, the nice lady likes gold.

I enjoy the variety of handlebar dimensions that VO manufactures. I personally prefer the Tourist (57cm wide, 60deg sweep) for all-around riding including both urban rides and dirt roads, but a bar with less sweep and more width satisfies the need for control while riding trails or with a load. The Mary is about 65cm wide with a 35-40deg sweep, and 37mm rise. It's just about perfect, and the nice lady revels in all-day comfort.

Edward Scoble said...

Same difference frankly, I have a large saddle bag and frame bag, stuff I don't need to take out during a tour go in saddle bag, stuff I need to in frame bag.

It Take the same amount of time to load and unload, I rode 3,000km with a fixed wheel bicycle, whether my friend have a conventional pair of rear panniers.

If anything, bikepacking is easier and quicker, otherwise hiker wouldn't stick to their trusty backpack in favour for sherpa.