Ninety-Nine Bike Touring Lifehacks

I experience miserable failures so you don’t have to!

MD025012

You can read blogs and websites all day, but nothing truly replaces first-hand experience. That’s not going to deter me at all from trying to replace your first-hand experience with as many Bicycle Touring Lifehacks as possible. That’s right; for the next twenty-four hours, this site is Buzzfeed.

I learned lots of these from simply making mistakes, but many other people had a hand in this list. “iik,” the crazy european who cycles in crocs, was my gateway into ultralight touring, and I honed my skills through the Backpacking Light community, and through BikeForums.net, and through the people I’ve met on the road and the trail. This list is also heavily subject to my prejudices; I like to travel fast, and I like streamlining things to save time, so some tips may seem arbitrary or obnoxious (something, something, cut the handle off your toothbrush…).

This list is not my list; it’s a working record of everything I’ve picked up so far, and full credit goes to the innovators.

Tips for Ultralight Bicycle Touring

  1. Reynolds Turkey-cooking “Oven Bags” are lighter than trash bags and more durable than regular zip-locks. They make perfect pannier liners for waterproofing clothing.
  2. Baby wipes are excellent for touring, and for every other day out of the year. Toilet paper is barbaric by comparison.
  3. Spare spokes (I don’t carry them, but some do) can be taped to the inside of a chainstay.
  4. Laminate a photocopy of your passport, driver’s license, and social security card and slip it into your bike’s seat tube, or better yet, top tube. It can be used to identify your bike in case a thief steals it and files off the serial number. It can also get you out of an international jam if you lose your passport.
  5. If you’re touring in an area with bike shops, your emergency tube can be several sizes smaller than your tire size. It’ll inflate to make up the difference and, while it won’t last forever, it will last for a while until you can get a larger tube.
  6. A small pair of locking pliers like the Leatherman Crunch can replace all of your individual crescent wrenches. Since they lock to the bolt-head, the size can vary and you can still put down as much torque as you would with a regular wrench (grip strength alone is not enough most of the time, so normal pliers won’t work).
  7. Coat your tubes in baby powder (corn starch) before installing them to reduce the chance of a pinch flat.
  8. Cut down any excess straps and melt the ends with a lighter to prevent fraying to save a small amount of weight. Not much, but if you do this to ten straps you’re looking at more ounces than a titanium pot.cropped-md027739-1.jpg
  9. If you’re out at night and you’re worried about encountering an animal, just sing while you set up camp. This tip doesn’t work if you’re Snow White.
  10. A 32mm or smaller cyclocross race tire with a folding bead, high TPI and thin, supple sidewalls will roll up to the size of an apple. Makes a much more efficient spare tire in areas that warrant a spare tire than having a big fat Marathon. You can strap two rolled tires, stacked, in a Salsa Anything Cage. Just replace with a burly tire at the next bike shop.
  11. If your rack bolt keeps vibrating out, loop a piece of string around the thread right where it meets the bolt-head and soak it in superglue. 
  12. A few zipties can replace the standard Ortlieb hardware for at least 600 miles without fail, in my experience. 
  13. Dryer lint mixed with petroleum jelly is an amazing firestarter. My mom won’t notice the absence of either.
  14. Take a piece of dry birchbark and strip it with your fingers into very small strands. You can pack hundreds of small birchbark “hairs” in a film canister for firestarting. MD026669
  15. Pare down your first aid kit by thinking about the injuries you’re likely to sustain. I got rid of all insect sting reliever because I can just deal with a bee-sting. I don’t need more than a couple of small bandages because most small cuts and scrapes can just be left alone. Any large cut will need two things; wound closure strips and an ace bandage. Neosporin prevents infection. So, that’s basically my whole kit- just large-wound stuff, neosporin, and painkillers. Maybe there’s a couple of antihistamines too…
  16. Body Wrappers Ripstop Pants are a fantastic wind and bug pant, weigh 4 ounces, and cost $20. I got a Size Large and it fits me great, and I’m a 32/32. Great alternative to carrying regular 13+ ounce long pants in the summer for bugs and unexpectedly cold nights.
  17. A windshirt makes a great bug shirt, too. Tight nylon weaves make it harder for them to suck your blood… muah ah ah.
  18. Merino Wool won’t develop a stink from body odor. The fibers are antibacterial. You can wear a wool T-shirt for day after day. Just rinse it out and let it dry on your body occasionally to get the salt out. I wear wool bike shorts and socks, too.
  19. Sea to Summit drybags are not waterproof. They’re rainproof, but I went river rafting and my Ultra-sil bag leaked like a sieve. Don’t count on anything to be completely waterproof. If you really need to protect something, like a computer, use a plastic bag inside your drybag for redundancy.
  20. Your local hardware store sells 3M ear plugs with a connecting wire that fit into an included carrying case. The whole package is the size of a tub of lip balm. Use them when you’re camping near the road.
  21. Your canister stove can be used to quickly light a campfire, if you’re careful. Hold a dry stick over the flame instead of using the stove as a blowtorch. An Esbit tab also makes a killer firestarter.cropped-dsc_0004.jpg
  22. Any bolt can be replaced at a hardware store. Get stainless steel hardware to resist corrosion. Smaller hardware stores tend to have a better bolt selection than most big-box hardware stores.
  23. Place your sleeping pad on top of grass, sand, or pine nettles for extra comfort. A foam pad can sit on top of flat Hemlock or Spruce branches for more warmth in winter and spring. Using good campsite selection makes just as much of a difference in comfort as getting a plush 1-inch pad. I carry a tiny X-small 3-4 length pad and nothing else, and spend an extra 5 minutes prepping the place I lay down in the first place.
  24. Some big weight savers are simple fleece mittens and a thin fleece half-zip top. I find, combined with rain mitts and a raincoat, those two items totaling less than 8oz together take me straight down into the low 30’s temperature-wise. The fleece top is soft and fluffy, and I use it as a pillow every night. No extra pillow needed, plenty of emergency warmth, and both items keep working when wet. And so, so durable, it’s fleece, it cannot die. ZPacks makes uber-light fleece mittens, made in the USA.MD024960
  25. Heat a sewing needle with a lighter to kill bacteria before using it to lance a blister. Put a single hole in the blister, then drain it, apply neosporin, and bandage it. Don’t rip the skin off, unless you want an infection.
  26. If your achilles tendons or knees hurt, make sure you do frequent stretches. Go to a local yoga class and politely ask the instructor to show you a few stretches useful for those specific areas, and do them at every rest stop. Prevention is way more effective than kinesio tape, braces, or powering through pain.
  27. Don’t ride desperately for the next food/rest stop. Remind yourself to appreciate the empty stretches of highway for all of their positive qualities.
  28. Stow spare cables in your handlebars. Just pop out the bar ends and thread them in there looped a couple of times. They stay put and are there when I need them.
  29. Ditch the racks. Full framebags are easier to ride with, have a better capacity/weight ratio, and are safer (no load shifting or rack failure).
  30. A dollar bill works as a boot for a slashed tire.
  31. Used cork bartape protects the drive side chainstay for less weight than a heavy neoprene sleeve.MD026258
  32. Learn the mistakes drivers make, and assume everyone is going to make them, every time. At some point, everyone tries to snag parking spaces. Everyone tries to squeal out when there’s a gap in the traffic. Everyone turns right without looking. Nobody sees you until you see their eyes.
  33. Soft bottles in framebags can’t fall out on rough terrain, are lighter than bottles, and stay cold longer. They’ll stay cold for almost a full day if wrapped in your sleep shirt. Bring a strip of tent repair tape to fix a punctured bottle (it won’t bunch and leak when folded, like duct tape will).
  34. Pizza has lots of calories, lots of salt, protein, veggies, and it’s inexpensive and widely available.
  35. Peanut butter is high in calories and fits in a bottle cage.
  36. A tennis ball canister fits in a bottle cage, too, and can be used to carry CLIF bars, a windshirt, spare tubes, trail mix, or anything else you’d like. Keep tools in an empty peanut butter container instead, since the plastic is burlier and won’t crack from a rattling multitool.
  37. Stickers make your bike look junkier and less prone to theft, and protect the frame from scratches and scuffs. MD000006
  38. There are more libraries in the US than there are McDonalds. A library is a safe, warm, and quiet place to take a break, watch a movie, plan out a route, buy a used book, or escape the rain.
  39. Shimano sells chain pins with an extra installation peg attached so you can use a chainbreaker to replace pins if you don’t have a quicklink, or if your quicklink breaks. After you install the pin, the installation part just snaps off. The pins weigh less than a pea.
  40. Ditch your camp shoes.
  41. Ditch your camp chair.
  42. Ditch your clothesline.
  43. Ditch your groundsheet.
  44. Ditch your magnesium firestarter.
  45. Ditch your mini tripod. Stack rocks instead.
  46. Ditch your bowl, cup, mug, pan, and plate. A spork and pot is enough.
  47. Ditch your stuff sacks.
  48. Ditch your spare anything, except tubes. 
  49. Ditch your fear of not having something. You can buy almost anything, almost anywhere. If you can’t, you probably shouldn’t be wanting it. If your trip is an exception to this, you probably don’t need this list.MD020300
  50. Have your wheels trued by a wheelbuilder before you leave and during your tour, or learn to true them yourself (I still need to). Ditch the spare spokes. A properly tensioned wheel will almost never fail, and if it does, it’ll likely fail beyond a spoke replacement.
  51. 3M Safety Glasses are lighter than sunglasses and protect from kicked up rocks on the road.
  52. T-shirts are lighter than bike jerseys. 
  53. Any numbness in any part of your body should be treated as a warning sign that something needs to change in your seat height, seat setback, handlebar height, or stem length. Numbness can lead to serious problems.
  54. A cut down 1/8″ thick foam pad or a small sheet of Tyvek is multi-use. It protects an air pad or bivy from granite or gravel, provides a sitting area for cooking, lets you fold clothes and sleeping stuff up without getting them dirty, lets you step out of a hammock in socks, and the list goes on and on…
  55. A light-colored, slightly transparent dry-bag will work as a lantern if you shine a bike light into it.
  56. Aerobars provide multiple hand positions beyond normal drop or flat bars with bar-ends. Being able to rest on your arms makes a big difference for efficiency across wide, empty spaces with headwinds, which can be a real confidence-breaker.
  57. Your front tire and back tire wear at different rates. But, switching them halfway through a tour isn’t a good idea because grip in your front tire is much more important than grip in the rear. Instead, get a heavy-duty touring tire for your rear and a lighter, more supple tire for the front. Both will wear at about the same time, and the lighter, more supple front tire will improve ride quality, improve grip, and decrease weight.MD027013
  58. Slide back an inch in your saddle on long climbs to engage slightly different muscles in your legs. 
  59. Stand up every 10 minutes all day long for just a moment to keep circulation flowing through your legs and rear. 
  60. Shake your habits. If your happiness and enjoyment is not dependent on coffee, hot food, sleep, warmth, being dry, being alone, being among others, moving fast, or knowing where you are, you open yourself up to a world of opportunities. “Type 2 fun” is knowing that at the end of a bad experience is a great story, and a stronger you. Embrace the suck!
  61. Wrap a CLIF bar in a tortilla, and add granola and nutella or peanut butter. Then wrap it up in a bandanna or tin foil. All these ingredients are easy to pack, there’s no prep, it won’t spoil, and the result is easy to eat while riding (and it’s delicious).
  62. Squirt lime juice into bottles, hydration bladders, and soft bottles. Lime juice is antibacterial, so it’ll keep your bottles clean. It will mask the taste of metallic tap water or a dirty bottle. It’s also good for preventing scurvy. A single lime is good for about four days of water, and you can buy limes in liquor stores, gas stations, and supermarkets.
  63. Most accidents between bicycles and vehicles happen in intersections, not on straight roads where cars come from behind. Don’t fear the traffic coming behind you; watch for the traffic coming from the side, and watch for turning vehicles (not turn signals).IMG_1810
  64. Add longer zipper pulls to your raincoat, fleece, framebags, and anything else. You’ll be able to open and close the zippers more easily while riding, or while wearing mittens or gloves.
  65. Learn to brush your teeth while riding to save time. Spray the toothpaste when you spit it, like someone told you something shocking while you were drinking wine. This prevents animals from licking up your toothpaste and getting sick. You also don’t need to rinse; after you spit, you’ll feel normal in just a few seconds. You can also spit on people’s windshields because cars are coffins. Just kidding… do not do that last part.
  66. Learn to sew a basic stitch so you can keep small tears from getting larger over time. Just a few loops of thread can permanently prevent a problem tear in your clothes or bike bags (or tires). Seal tears in your raincoat with a stitch and a little seam-grip.
  67. Pet stores and veterinary offices have lightweight, durable plastic cups with measuring for portioning out dog food. Use it to portion water into your oatmeal, ramen, and coffee. Also good for making sure you have too much whiskey.
  68. If it’s warm, a wool shirt is better in the rain than a raincoat. You’ll heat up and sweat through even the most breathable raincoats in minutes. A wool shirt will wring 90% dry, and you can finish off the last 10% with the next tip.
  69. Wear wet clothes to bed. Your body heat will dry the clothes by moving most of the moisture out through your sleeping bag and onto the last barrier it comes in contact with (usually a bivy, tent, or tarp wall). I don’t know if this works as well with down sleeping bags, but it’s brilliant with synthetic.MD024945
  70. Black clothing is cooler than white clothing while you’re exercising in the heat because the sun will dry your sweat faster, aiding evaporative cooling. Seriously, google it!
  71. Wave and smile at cars even if they’re treating you with disrespect. A wave and a smile will dissolve most conflicts before they happen, and generally make cars more amicable to cyclists. If I wave every time I pass a vehicle, that’s thousands of waves per year!
  72. Nail polish works as touch-up paint and protects your steel frame from corrosion. You can always find your frame color, and it lasts forever.
  73. Put reflective tape on your spokes so drivers can see you from the side at night. Blinking lights do nothing from the side.
  74. You can get mini-size plastic bags from a craft store. They’re usually used for holding jewelry or drugs, but you can use them for holding firestarters, painkillers, mini duct tape rolls, earbuds, stem-mounted cue cards, or just about anything else that’s small enough.
  75. A packable daypack fits neatly in the base of a handlebar drybag for unexpected loads like loaves of bread, roadkill, and found objects. 
  76. Gold Bond is amazing as a replacement for messy chamois cream. The foot powder especially is a real treat for a beat-up rear.
  77. Local honey exposes your immune system to local plant allergens, easing allergy symptoms like congestion and sore throat. It’s also a great glucose boost for an active cyclist. Nature’s energy gel.
  78. Take your seatpost out and apply a new coat of grease every time it rains, or once a week in the winter. Aluminum and steel can form a chemical weld if left in contact. Once the seatpost is in there, you’re looking at hours of effort to get it back out, if you can get it out at all.
  79. Wear cycling gloves even if you don’t need the padding. They make thin gel-free gloves. Every time I’ve crashed, I’ve scraped my hands on the ground, and I was only wearing gloves about half the time. MD025166
  80. Eat before you get hungry. Drink before you get thirsty.
  81. The hardware store sells little nylon washers. Put them between your frame and your racks to keep vibration from rattling bolts loose. Locking nuts also have a nylon ring inside.
  82. The plastic syringe that comes with a Sawyer Squeeze is also useful for irrigating wounds with sand and dirt in them.
  83. You can refill a travel-size toothpaste by squeezing in your home toothpaste through the nozzle.
  84. Lithium batteries weigh less, last longer, and work better with electronics like your GPS and camera. You’ll also put less waste into landfills.
  85. If you really like something, don’t take it touring. You are going to put holes in your shirts, dents and scratches on your bike, and tears in your bags. Buy used outdoors gear online to save money and think of everything as ‘consumable.’
  86. Use your phone’s screenshot ability to save maps for offline use, which also saves battery. If you’re lost and out of battery/cell service, orient yourself using a compass or the sun and ride in the general direction of your next major checkpoint. You’ll figure it out.
  87. Eat lots of salty food to replace lost electrolytes, and make sure you have protein at every meal. Maximize fresh food by stopping at farm stands and grocery stores often.
  88. Learn what to do when you interact with wildlife. Know what Black Bear predatory behavior looks like. Know how to hang your food. Use your phone to take a picture of the snake that bit you so they know what antivenom to use — it might save your life. Once you learn how each animal interaction plays out, you don’t have to worry about the slim chance of ending up in a bad situation.
  89. Saddle sores happen to everyone sooner or later. Keep your rear clean with frequent washes and rinsed-out clothing. If you get a saddle sore, you can cut a piece of moleskine into a donut shape and surround the hotspot. Treat with neosporin before you go to bed and once during the day, and it should heal in 24-48 hrs. Don’t ignore it; it can get infected and end your trip.MD026277
  90. Use zip-ties on your rack to keep your pannier from sliding on the rail. You don’t have to zip-tie the pannier; just use them as spacers that keep the pannier mount from sliding in either direction.
  91. If you’re stealth camping off the side of the road and you see a car coming, just freeze. Drivers are looking for motion (deer, etc) and won’t notice you even if you’re ten feet in from the road.
  92. If you’re getting chased by dogs, maintain a steady but slow course and shout “NO” in a booming voice. Almost every owner uses “no” as their standard command. If the dogs get close, spray them with your water bottle. Most dogs will chase you to their property line and then turn around.
  93. If you need a break or you’re feeling discouraged, go to the movies. Ask politely if they’ll let you wheel your bike into the back of the theater, or behind the ticket desk. Alternatively, watch a movie on an iPad or computer in a library.
  94. Don’t be afraid of people, but never tell anyone where you’re going. Be polite and tell inquirers that you’re passing through town and moving on, even if you’re planning to stay. That said, trust your instincts, especially with other cyclists. The people you meet can lead to awesome adventures.8665907022_a59680dd93_o_2
  95. A velcro strap between your front tire and your frame will keep your bike from rolling, turning, and falling over. It’ll also slow a would-be thief from carrying off your 45+lb. touring rig.
  96. Wrap a spare tube around your outboard bottom bracket cup, then cinch it down with a strap. Insert a lever of some kind into the strap before you tighten down, like a piece of pipe or a borrowed wrench. Even a strong stick might do. You should be able to get enough leverage on to unscrew the BB cup for maintenance without a BB wrench. It’ll take a while to get it just right, but there are very few other options other than carrying the heavy wrench.
  97. Brace your wheel between your legs, put a sturdy piece of wood like a 2×4 on your cassette’s left side, and hit it down with a rock to release the cassette without a cassette wrench. You’ll still need the little lockring tool, but an auto parts store will have an adjustable wrench to grab the lockring tool.
  98. Rub your disc rotors or rims down with rubbing alcohol to get rid of brake squeal. For disc brakes, if you unscrew both of the bolts holding the brake to the hanger and then hold the lever down while you retighten them, it should align the pads or at least get you close.MD026281
  99. Love every second of your tour. Love yourself when you make stupid mistakes. Love your riding companions when they annoy you. Don’t let negativity take over an otherwise great tour, because you won’t regret it until after the trip is over. Make every effort to maintain a constant level of semi-positivity.

23 thoughts on “Ninety-Nine Bike Touring Lifehacks

  1. Great list! To #25 I’d add this tip, weird as it sounds. I agree don’t peel the skin off a blister. But sometimes after lancing it the hole will seal up and you’ll need to do it again. Put a thread on the needle you use, and poke 2 holes right next to each other on the edge of teh blister. leave h thread in the blister and tie a knot in it so it stays put, where it will wick off the fluid and the blister will dry up and heal faster with the skin covering it.

  2. Lemons! Lime will do nothing to scurvy as it has almost no ascorbic acid. A historically tragic factoid as many British sailors lost their life to the consumption of lime rather than lemon.

  3. Loctite will solve all of your bolt loss problems, is lighter than nylock nuts and nylon washers, keeps water from wicking into threaded areas and causing rust, and will stop Al / steel corrosion welding. You can buy it in liquid or “glue stick” form. I recommend Loctite Blue 243 since bolts don’t have to be perfectly clean for it to work. Never use red Loctite on any bicycle application. You want the blue liquid that comes in the red bottle.

  4. Nice list! I always bring a few Benedryl and ibuprofens. Weird factoid about lime juice- it causes sun sensitivity so wash it off any sun-exposed skin to prevent burn.
    Achilles or knee soreness could also point to poor seat position. Can’t wait to check out the other lists.

  5. It seems a lot of these are based on someone’s opinion. It really depends on what type of tour you want to have. Ditching the rear rack is a nice idea, but also rear racks have their positives: you can contain everything in two, easily removed bags; and the top of the rack acts as expandable space for extra things you may carry, extra water, drying clothes (my fav). I couldn’t hack leaving my bike locked in a corridor for example, and then having to take all those bags of individually. But again, it depends on what type of tour you want to have.

    Also, please *do* take spare spokes. Even the most perfectly tensioned, expertly built wheel with top parts is most likely to fail at a spoke, and especially the spoke head. Don’t find out the hard way. Nobody wants to be in the middle of nowhere with a rear wheel that doesn’t move because a spoke or two has snapped.

    Jamie (cycle tourer and bike mechanic)

    1. Well, everything’s opinion! You obviously tour a different way than I do. I prefer to travel light, and I don’t leave valuables on my bike when I go for a hike or something. I can’t imagine drying clothes on my bike, since it’s usually covered in grime. I have very thin cord for that. And I haven’t ever broken a spoke that stopped a tour. Between kevlar spokes, bike shops (or bike “enthusiasts”) etc, it’s one thing I stopped packing. When I carry spokes, i’m just carrying a fear. I don’t think i’ve ever been anywhere I couldn’t hitch-hike or walk out of if my life depended on it!

      1. Fair enough. I also travel light (3 bags for round the world) and dry my clothes on the move, as I only have 2 t-shirts.

        I don’t carry an inner tube, as I haven’t had a puncture in over 17,000km. But I have had a broken a spoke. So, each to their own.

      2. Definitely. I might only have one t-shirt, but I have two inner tubes! Ha!

        Would definitely love to hear more about your trips. Sounds like I can learn a lot from your experience. Do you have a blog?

        Cheers,
        Max

      1. Sure, it’s bikeramble.com

        I dunno why it’s not working when you click my picture…oh well.

        Let’s keep in touch!

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