In my last post, I mentioned a couple of tips and things to think about when getting ready to cycle down the Pacific Coast Highway – like how long it will take, what route you will follow and where you will sleep along the way.
Those are all fine things to hash out in advance but – especially along this well-trodden route – there is room for flexibility and last-minute agenda changes. However, there is something that I’ve found can make or break your experience once you’ve already stepped off the train (or plane) and started pedaling: what and/or how much you packed.
You can always tell a first-time bicycle tourist by his or her weighed down panniers, slow pace and look of exasperation when you tell them the grade of the climbs ahead. Trust me, I’ve been there. Actually, I’m still there – I’ve had very few rides where I used everything I brought or needed something that I didn’t bring. Packing too much while bicycle touring is less cumbersome than, say, when you bring too many checked luggage items on a plane and then have to carry 3 heavy bags through an airport and city center. But your legs will definitely be feeling it, nonetheless.
Now that I’ve done this particular route two times – and in weather that varies from the ideal Southern California day to mudslides and the storm of the century. So, I feel like I can safely advise others on what to bring. If I were to take off again, here’s what I’d be putting in my panniers:
1. A 1-2 person tent
This route is generally really nice weather and doesn’t get extreme, so a basic tent with no frills is perfect. I like bringing my 2-person, just so there is room for me and the pannier I put my electronics in (always keep bags with food outside your tent or in a food storage locker). If you don’t already have a tent, you could rent from REI or pick up one up second-hand from Craigslist. Bonus points if you have a hammock – there are plenty of trees the entire way. Just check the weather forecast to double check if there is rain. It’s not common, but it does happen.
2. A bike rack + 2 panniers
If you are new to touring, please resist the urge to use a backpack. If you bring one big enough to pack everything you need for a week or two, you will be in serious pain after a couple hours. Instead, use a bike rack and some panniers. You can put these on the front or back of the bike; The front is better for going uphill and balancing the bike, while having them on the back will make turns easier. Spread out the weight evenly, and practice steering before you head down a busy highway – they take some getting used to if you’ve never ridden with significant weight before.
3. A bar bag (optional)
I really like having my bar bag because it lets me put my map, phone, money, camera, and some quick snacks right within reach and where I can see them. Plus, you can get one with a quick-release, so you can carry your valuables with you when you aren’t on your bike.
4. Camp kitchen
One thing that is particularly nice about the Pacific Coast Highway is that you definitely don’t need to cook your own food – even if you are camping. It ends up being a bit more expensive, but there are plenty of restaurants, road-side food stalls, and grocery stores along the way to keep you content. However, if you are like me and still want your morning coffee or occasional ‘home cooked’ meal, bringing just the bare minimum will suffice. A fuel canister, camp stove, single pot, cup and spork will get the job done. I’d also bring or carry 1-2 meals at a time so that you can stop along the road and picnic when you are hungry.
5. Water bottle + water bladder
If your bike has two water bottle cages, you will be fine with just two bottles. I like to bring an empty, collapsible 2 L water bladder just in case there’s a really hot day, but it’s not necessary. All of the hike or bike campsites will have running water and there are plenty of gas stations to fill up bottles throughout the day.
6. Small first aid kit
This is one of the single most-used items on any of my trips. I forego most of the big stuff and keep my first aid kit really practical – bandaids, tweezers, sunscreen, ibuprofen, duct tape shammy cream sample packets, tissues and Icy Hot.
7. Lights: Front & Rear for the bike and a head lamp for you
I try to avoid riding at night, but bike lights are a must have for letting cars know you are there. Use a front light in fog, rain, early morning at sunset. Keep your backlight blinking whenever you are on the road. As for a headlamp, this will keep you from fumbling around in the dark when you are trying to change in your tent or find the bathrooms in the middle of the night.
Check the weather, use your best judgment, and then try to leave 1/3 of what you already packed at home. I’m not a fan of spandex, and a full-on cycling kit just isn’t necessary, but I do try to go with high-visibility colors when I can. Here’s a baseline:
- 2 shorts for cycling (or one pair of pants and one pair of shorts)
- 2 athletic shirts – no cotton fabrics
- 2 pairs of wool socks
- 2 hats – 1 beanie for sleeping and 1 baseball cap for hiding helmet hair
- 2 pairs of underwear
- 1 long sleeve shirt, athletic sweater or cycling jacket
- 1 rain jacket
- 1 pair of flip flops for showering and hanging out off the bike
- 1 travel towel
- 1 small toiletries bag
- 1 set of ‘normal people’ clothes for off the bike – No heavy jeans! Lightweight shorts and a t-shirt are ideal
- 1 pair of cycling gloves
- 1 pair of warm gloves (depending on the weather)
9. Bike repair kit
Even though you’ll pass a bike shop almost every day, an extra tube, tire levers, multi-tool, chain grease and hand-pump are basics to have in a seat bag or in your pannier
Touring is supposed to be fun, so don’t forget to pack a few things that will make your ride more enjoyable. I never go anywhere without a good book and my camera gear. I’ve also seen people bring a Frisbee, swimsuit, and a deck of cards for camp.
**All photos were taken by me on my most recent ride down the Pacific Coast Highway in January 2017.