When most people pack, they try to think of every possible thing they may want and make sure to bring it. This is not always a bad mentality to have, however you need find the best balance between the advantages of having lots of gear and the advantages of having less weight. Sometimes packing smart can mean identifying bad things that you should not pack, rather than picking good things to pack. Your pack list should always start with the core items which are absolutely necessary for the success of your trip, and then go from there. With that in mind, let’s start by talking about the things which are specifically needed to fix and maintain your bike, and then discuss other items.
Adjustable crescent wrench
This is an incredibly versatile tool which I highly recommend bringing. Not only can you use it on any bolt, you can also use it at the end of an allen key to apply extra torque. Keep in mind that you are working on a bike, not a truck, so you don’t want to bring a huge, super duty crescent wrench. I’d recommend one which is about the size as a tube of toothpaste.
If you need to fix your chain, you will need a chain breaker to both take apart and reassemble it. This tool is small and relatively light, and it can really save you in the event of your chain breaking or your derailleur falling off. You can buy chain breakers individually, or as part of a bike tool kit.
Make sure you have at least 2 tire levers to help you take your tire on and off in the event of a flat tire. Tire levers are usually made of plastic and they are pretty cheap. They usually seem to come in packs of three, and they are standard in most bike tool kits.
Allen keys and a screw driver
These are essential for fixing and tightening your rack attachments, breaks, water bottle holder, and anything else that can become loose.
Patching your tubes instead of replacing them will save you money and allow you to travel with less spare tubes. When done properly, a patched tube is just as strong, if not stronger, than a new tube. Keep in mind however, that there are some leaks which cannot be patched. You can buy a good patch kit for about 3 bucks. Stay away from self-adhesive patches as they usually only last temporarily before they break (even if they’re advertised as permanent). A patch kit will include sand paper, rubber cement, and some patches.
Obviously, you need a pump… I like to carry two pumps on long trips, just because this is such an important tool. I would recommend getting a pump with a footpad and an air hose, so that you don’t risk breaking the stem of your tube while you are pumping. You don’t need to spend lots of money on an awesome pump, just make sure it rated to pump to the tire pressure you will need.
2-3 spare tubes
As great as patching punctured tubes is, not every flat tire can be fixed with a patch. Also, you may find it frustrating to spend your time out on the road dealing with patches, especially if you are not in the best spot when you need to fix your bike. I usually do all of my patch work after I’m done biking for the day. It is always important to have at least one, probably two or three brand new tubes with you at all times. It’s very rare, but not unheard of, to have a day with multiple flats (I’ve had up to 5 in one day); if that happens, you need to be prepared.
2-3 tire boots
With preventative maintenance you will hopefully never find yourself in a situation where you need to use these, but if your tire does get ripped, you need a way to boot it. A tire boot basically looks like a glorified Band-Aid. You can use a dollar bill in lieu of a proper tire boot, but the boots themselves don’t really cost that much more then the dollar bill does (I’ve even gotten them for free before)…
A broken spoke can stop your trip in a second. You should make sure to have some spare spokes. Your bike will have a couple different lengths of spokes. I’d recommend going into your local bike shop and having the mechanic get you the proper sized spokes. I usually carry one spare spoke of each different length.
Freewheel or cassette remover
I learned this one the hard way when I got stuck in the middle of nowhere in Mexico on a Baja trip. If you break a spoke on your back wheel and you need to take off the freewheel or cassette to replace it, you better have a way of removing it. Your bike will either have a freewheel or cassette, and the tool you need to remove it will vary depending on your bike. Go into your local bike shop and make sure to get the right part. A remover is very small (about the size of marshmallow), but they can be surprisingly heavy. Make sure to pack it along with you.
Ok, this one is not quite as important as the other things. You will never find yourself in a situation where you are stuck in the middle of nowhere and will not be able to get to safety without a bottle of chain lubricant. Nevertheless, this is a great preventative maintenance tool as it will help protect your chain from breaking and will allow for less friction while you pedal. I’d recommend a “self-cleaning,” wax lubricant. You can pick up a small bottle for a couple of bucks at any bike shop.
Bringing a cell phone, especially a smart phone, can be important for a number of reasons. It can serve as your best emergency tool. Yes, there are still areas with no signal, however most major roads now have at least a couple bars. A smart phone is not essential for the trip, but it can be a big help. When you roll into a new town, smart phones can make finding grocery stores, hotels, libraries, bike shops, etc. exponentially easier. It is also incredibly useful to have Google maps in your pocket, particularly when trying to bike through large cities. Your phone can also serve as your clock, computer, and entertainment. Don’t forget your charger, headphones, and a spare battery if you have one.
Your eyes can really get shot when you are riding outside all day, especially in the summer. A pair of sunglasses can save you from headaches and eye damage. I’ve found a cheap pair will do just fine. In fact, the pair I brought with me was gotten for free from some event.
First aid kit
This has an obvious purpose. You don’t need to run out and buy a nice kit; it’s easy to make one yourself. Make sure to include bandages, pain pills, and some antifungal cream for chaffing. I would also recommend bringing a travel size bottle of hand sanitizer which can double as a disinfectant for cuts (yes, it will sting a little bit, but get over it). Your entire kit should be pretty small, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t fit in a standard size sandwich bag.
I’m sure you’re going to want to take at least a couple pictures. If you are in the market for a new camera, you may want to think about buying a camera which is water and shock resistant, just in case anything happens to it during the ride… I personally would never bring a large, expensive camera with me on a bike trip, but if photography is your thing, then go for it.
This is one of the most underrated things you can bring. You never know exactly what you may need it for, but a roll of duct tape can do all sorts of wonderful things. You can use it to fix holes, bind things together, and even make things.
Make sure to bring a white light for the front of your bike and a red light for the rear. Obviously, lights will come in handy if you want/have to ride at night. It can also be very helpful to use your lights when it’s rainy, foggy, dusty, or when you’re in a tunnel or on a bridge. Remember that the main point of using lights on your bicycle is not so that you can see where you’re going, but so that others can see you.
You can buy a perfectly adequate rain poncho from most pharmacies and retail stores for about 5 dollars. Ponchos are much cheaper and fold up smaller than most other rain gear. Plus, if you get a brightly colored one, ponchos can increase your visibility just when you need it the most, when it’s raining. Not only is it more comfortable to stay dry in the rain, it can become a health and safety issue as well. Wet clothes can cause chaffing, and also lead to hypothermia, even in the summer.
5-6 large, waterproof trash bags
Trash bags can serve multiple uses. You can use them to separate your dirty and clean clothes, keep your toiletries from soiling your gear, and, when doubled up, as an effective way of waterproofing your pack. They take up virtually no space, cost virtually no money, and weigh virtually nothing, so you have no excuse to not bring several with you.
2-3 “normal” sets of clothes
These are clothes which you will wear when you are not biking and not dirty and sweaty. I brought 3 shirts, 5 pairs of underwear, and 2 pairs of short along with me, but you can bring more or less depending on what you want. Clothes can take up a lot of space in your bag, so try to keep this in mind when deciding how much to bring.
Come on, please bring some toiletries… If nothing else, at least bring some soap and deodorant. This one isn’t for you as much as all of the other people you will encounter. They’re cheap, light, don’t take up much space, and can really freshen things up… That said, I usually try to limit my toiletries to a small sandwich bag.
One pair of shoes
Shoes take up a lot of space. I’d recommend only bringing one pair, along with some flip-flops. You do not need to buy special biking shoes, with cleats and clipless pedals. I have found that a basic pair of tennis shoes and some 7 dollar toe clips do the job just fine.
One pair of sandals
Sandals are a great alternative to a second pair of shoes because they take up considerably less space in your pack. Besides, if you’re anything like me, sandals are preferable to shoes whenever possible.
You may have seen these orange foil blankets which you can buy at sporting goods stores for 5 bucks. I’d take one along. They take up about half the space of a soda can, and they could prove invaluable in case you get stranded in the middle of nowhere for the night. On top of that, they also make great things to have around whenever you are cold at night and need an extra blanket. For example, I used mine when I slept at a hurricane shelter with no blankets.
Yes, I mean standard swimming goggles. I brought them with the intention of using them if I got caught in a big dust storm in the south west. While I was in Arizona there was a huge dust storm which made national news, however I missed it by a couple days and never had to pull out the goggles… If you are going through the south, or anywhere with lots of dust, you may want to consider bring goggles.
Yes, of course, bring a helmet. Not only are helmets good for safety, but they can also act as sweatbands and help keep you cool.
How much fluid you will need to carry depends on your route and what time of year you will be biking. To be safe I’d probably recommend being about carry about a gallon. Nalgene water bottles are fantastic, but a little expensive. If you want to save some money, the dollar store has lots of cheap, Nalgene rip-off bottles to pick from. The rip off bottles do tend to break on occasion, but they seemed to be worth the discounted price to me.
I have found a surprising number of people who bike across America actually don’t bring a bike lock with them. Yes it is a little heavy and bulky, but a combination cable lock can be wrapped around the frame of your bike when you’re not using it, and can provide you with security and peace of mind.
I guess it depends on who you are, but I would have had some pretty crazy sun burns if I didn’t wear any sunscreen. Remember, you’re going to be out in the sun more or less all day.
2-3 sets of clothes to wear while you are biking
As you can imagine, whatever you wear while you are biking is going to get pretty sweaty. I’d bring at least two pairs of clothes to wear exclusively while biking. I brought 3 pairs of compression underwear, 2 pairs of athletic/”basketball” shorts, 4 old T-shirts, and 5 pairs of regular socks. You do not need to own, nor wear, and cycling jerseys or cycling shorts to bike across America. If you do already own some, you might as well bring them. If you are expecting cold weather or lots of rain, make sure to not wear too much cotton.
Of course you don’t want to forget your wallet. Just in case you get robbed, I’d make sure to take out any extra credit cards and miscellaneous things which you won’t need for your bike trip before you head out.
You should always have at least a little emergency food and/or snacks on you. Powerbars, Cliffbars, and other like bars are cheap, small, and full of good calories which you need while biking. I’d try to always have at least 2 with you at all times.
As discussed above, you don’t need fancy clipless pedals. If you already have them, then more power to you, but, if not, you don’t need to go out and buy them. Most sporting goods stores and bike shops will carry toe clips which you can attach to your regular pedals for 5 to 10 bucks.