Packing For Travel - That Old Nightmare!

John Coles

Packing. Want some help? Then read on.

We're all as bad as each other.  Dreams of travelling light, and before you know it you need a camel to help transport your luggage.  Well, not any more.  By following this article, stress and weight will be a thing of the past.  

Let's start at the very beginning.  Some of you may have come across that old adage for hardened travellers; lay out everything on the bed you wish to take.  Then step back, go through it thoroughly and discard those things you believe you can really do without.   OK...  done that?  Well, here comes the hard bit.  Without faltering halve, yes halve, the items before your eyes.  

I can hear you now.  Don't be silly... I'll need that.  Well statistics prove you won't.  Apparently we bring back over 50 of those items untouched and unused.  Go on, admit it, how many times have you said... I think I'll just take that in case it rains, or whatever.  

So if you bring back 50 items, why take them in the first place.  Impossible?  Well read on.  

What To Carry It In.

I first got the idea of cutting down my luggage from watching Keith Button in the early 90's on Tour carrying what seemed at the time like a messengers dispatch bag over his shoulder coupled with a saddle bag.  Now this seemed brave.  And at the time, of course, I dismissed it.  

Then on one occasion a bit later, when hanging around at Portsmouth docks (as one does!) waiting for our ferry I chatted to a group of four lads in their 20's who were travelling light.  They had virtually nothing with them.  No saddle bags, panniers or rucksacks, just standing there in cycling shorts and T shirts.  Their answer was simple.  Wash their shorts overnight, buy a new T shirt daily and throw it away, don't shave, and eat in the evening where there were no dress codes.  I was so impressed it made me think.

Over the years I have tried them all.  Panniers at the back (seems like you re dragging around a ton weight), at the front (have to be careful with bike control but generally a better feel)... and then it all changed.  The problem with panniers is that whatever the size, you fill em!  So the first golden rule of travelling light is to chose the smallest bags.  Crazy, but you know it makes sense.  

Then one year I noticed Alisdair with a rucksack and it all fell into place.   Whilst everyone else was faffing around with panniers (including me) on and off the bike, (usually losing control of the bike at the same time) he was Mr Cool, always ready.  Everything was at hand.  And this form of luggage met that important criteria of 'keep it small'.  This, I thought, was for me.  At last, the perfect answer.  

OK you disbelievers...  here it comes.  Luckily, I had a barely used cycle-style rucksack with extra chest straps and a mesh to keep my back cool sitting around in the loft.   I needed to work out how much I could carry, so I filled it up with some books until the weight felt comfy.  After road testing I decided on an optimum weight of 11 lbs all to be squeezed into 25 litres of space.

I laid out the clothes I thought I would need and weighed them all, recording the values.  It is only by doing this that you begin to realise just how heavy some items really are.  Then I started discarding things and ended up with the list below.

On an average Tour you might be making, for example, four overnight stops.   From experience, nylon takes a couple of days to dry in a hotel room after washing.  I remember David Tomlinson one year dangling all his washed clothes daily from his bike.  This is all very well but do you really want to follow someone staring at the inside of their washed shorts!  Did nothing for his street cred!

What To Carry.

So back to the plot.  Here's what to take for 5 days cycling if you're not going to adopt the 'buy and throw it away' method.  This list is for blokes...  girlies to adapt where necessary.  Leave ALL luxuries behind.  Do NOT wear an undervest during the day.

Day: 2 Pairs Cycle Shorts Wash/reuse/wear wet (they soon dry) as necessary.
  3 Tops Wash daily for 2 days.
  Gortex Rain Jacket Doubles up as a carried evening coat if cold.
  4 pairs socks Dual role.  White, wear evening pair next day.
Evening: 1 pair trousers Long trousers will cope with ALL types of venue.
  2 s/s cotton shirts Alternate and rewear.  Do not wash.
  2 pairs smalls Roll tightly and pack into shoes.  Alternate, not wash.
  1 pair shoes Choose light deck shoes.
  Pullover Choose lambswool, its light.
Toiletries: Shaver Wet only ( maybe light travel elec.  shaver).
  Deodorant Buy small travel type.
  Toothpaste Ditto.
  Hairbrush Nylon comb is lighter.
  Wash gel Buy 'all over' small travel tube.  Can't rely on hotel.
  Medical ONLY anadin, cream (in film tube), diarrhoea tabs.
Misc: Knife/fork/spoon Plastic set only.

In maybe a 'bum bag' take some food and sweets, money, passport, pencil.  In a very small saddlebag take a light multitool, 2 inner tubes, puncture repair kit and levers.  

The Gortex rain jacket should be carried in the outer webbing of the rucksack.

When in France share bottled water with a colleague to avoid filling your bottle and having to carry the rest.  There's always some over and it shares the cost.

When packing keep like with like.  If you must have a luxury keep it small.   Mine is my phone, which contains my diary.  Luckily the charger is very light.  Stuff to leave behind includes... hair dryers, towels, any 'just in case' items, other luxuries, penknife, washing lines, sex toys, capes, hats, spare shoes, spare parts, spare anything.  

Always think dual purpose.

You can bet your bottom dollar that very few people adopt this approach so most of your fellow travellers will be carrying that once in a lifetime needed item.  Come on, what is the point in 16 people all carrying the same item?

If you adopt this method and I accept it would not suit everyone, even these few items are very hard, almost impossible, to squeeze into a 25L rucksack.  This is because of the bulk.  But hold on, I have the answer.  

Pack-Mate.  Yes, I came across these in one of those adverts in the weekend newspapers, sent off for them and haven't looked back.  This amazing invention allows the bulk to be substantially reduced without compromising wearability, by extracting the air.  The clothes are placed inside these quality poly bags (various sizes), and then closed with an airtight zipper and easy close sealer.  

You then compress the package by pushing down with both hands, and then roll towards the non return valves where the air escapes.  For example, a 5" high pile of clothing is easily reduced to 1".  And that is my final secret.  The solution to it all.

You can find details from   I have also seen a limited selection at John Lewis.  Be careful, try and buy the small and medium sizes only.  Even the large size is big, really for suitcase packing.  

Also try and unpack everything DAILY just to 'air' them.  For example, even that lambs wool pullover looked OK each day after unpacking.

What To Carry It On.

And how about what type of bike to ride?  Again I have tried mountain bikes and road bikes over the years.  There is no doubt that lightness is again the key.  I currently use a light aluminium framed road/race bike.  I do not compromise with those awful 'halfway house' kind of SPD shoes.  Tried 'em, hated 'em!   I use racing shoes with look style pedals and manage to 'clomp' around without problems on the few café/lunch stops.  My goal in all this was to emulate as far as I could a racing style and position.  It's all about feeling right, and that of course, is the secret of the successful time triallist.  I guarantee if your bike feels heavy then so will you.  The rule must also be good for touring.

And that rucksack, when worn, is barely noticeable.  Yes, believe it or not, it sits snugly in the small of the back.  Somehow the low riding position on the racing bike provides a sloping shelf like support.  At no time during last year's Tour trip did I feel any discomfort whatsoever.  You really are not aware of the weight when riding - sit up at the lights, though, and it all changes!

Well, that's it... my personal guide to travelling light.  Yes, I have discarded the hairdryers, the huge panniers, food for a year syndrome.  I have moved on...  big time, er, well, small time I suppose.  Go on, try it for one year!