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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Amphibious Paddler

Outfitting for Adventure

By Tamia Nelson

October 5, 2004

You've got a bike, and you've set it up for backcountry roads. You've taken a few shakedown rides. Everything's gone according to plan. Now you're ready for more. Your first scouting trip took you several miles along an old railroad right-of-way to a real hidden treasure of a mountain lake. You spent the afternoon there and had the place all to yourself. Now you want to go back. This time, though, you want to bring a boat and enough gear to make a comfortable camp.

But there's a problem. You can't carry all the stuff you'll need in your hands, and you don't want to tote it on your back. Why not? For one thing, carrying a heavily-loaded backpack while riding a bike makes crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope look easy. For another…well, let's just say it's a pain in the posterior. And pain is not the object of the exercise. Then there's your boat. How do you haul a boat with your bike?

It's not impossible. Think of your bike as a sturdy little donkey. Load the beast, not your back. This means outfitting your bike for hauling. It's a bit like fitting out a canoe or kayak. Straight from a dealer's showroom, a boat is just a hole in the water. Outfitting is what makes it ready to go places and do things. It's the same with a bike. When you first wheel it out of the shop you've got a neat toy. Fun? You bet. But still a toy. Once you fit it out, however, you've got transport — fun and utility in one tidy package. Let's look at how it's done.

The good news first. You've already started. Water bottle and cage, minipump, patch kit, tools.… All of these are important when you outfit a bike, and chances are that you've already got them. But if you want to bring your camping gear along, you'll need more: a rack and panniers to start with, or maybe two racks, front and rear. Think of them as a sort of frame pack for your bike. That takes care of your gear. And your boat? It's possible to haul some ultra-light inflatables on a bike, but most of these are little better than a fisherman's float tube. If used carefully, they're good for exploring beaver ponds and mountain tarns. Want something more capable? Then you'll need a bike trailer. I'll get to these in a later article. Today, though, let's concentrate on basic outfitting — what you'll need to turn your bike into a beast of burden. Start by getting catalogs from a few of the many specialty mail-order firms. Some general outdoor retailers carry limited selections of bike-camping gear, too. Campmor and L.L. Bean are a couple that come to mind. Be sure to visit your LBS (local bike shop), as well. You can also get lucky at garage sales, hardware stores, and big-box retailers. It pays to look around.

With that in mind, let's go shopping.

  • Seat Pack. These used to be called saddle bags, and the biggest of them was almost large enough to carry a minimalist camping kit. Nowadays they've been put on a diet, and you'll find them described as "wedges" and "hatchbacks" in the catalogs. Small as they are, however, seat packs are good places to store a spare tube, a "boot" to repair a ruptured tire casing, and tire levers (these were "tire irons" once, but most are made of plastic today), along with a limited selection of basic tools. Seat packs hold more than their diminutive size would suggest. Farwell's is a sort of TARDIS. (Doctor Who fans will know what I mean.) Freewheel removers, headset wrenches, and even bottom-bracket tools emerge miraculously from its depths whenever they're needed, though repacking them when the job is done can take the better part of an hour.

    Seat packs aren't expensive. If you avoid the ones with designer names — I am not joking — you'll spend less than it costs to buy most fast-food lunches. Some even come with a rudimentary patch kit and a set of tire levers. Unless you ride on solid tires, don't leave home without both items. Roads and trails are littered with sharp trash of every imaginable description. I know one cyclist whose tire was holed by a discarded pork rib.

  • Fenders. I think these are essential on any bike, but then I live in a wet climate and ride right through the sloppy winter months. Most fair-weather cyclists get along fine without them. If you're leaving the highway for the byways, however, and if you'll be carrying your camping kit along with you, fenders are a Very Good Thing. Without them, you'll have a muddy stripe from your tailbone to your helmet after your first stream crossing, and your gear will be covered with grit after just a few miles. Why does this matter? Any grit on your gear bags will get into your boat sooner or later, and grit is not a healthy thing for either inflatables or folders. It's also bad news when it gets in bearings. And grit is a problem even on dry roads.

    If you opt for fenders, you have a choice. You can get full fenders or you can make do with stubby, cut-down models intended for mountain bikes. Even though I ride a mountain bike with front suspension, I go the whole hog, and I'd suggest that you do, too. (I even added a mud-flap to my front fender.) Half fenders, like most half measures, just don't measure up. They're fine for day trips or "singletracking" (riding where many hikers fear to tread), but they don't do very much to keep your gear clean on long backcountry treks. There's also a downside, however. If you opt for full coverage, and if, like me, you ride a mountain bike, be prepared for a struggle when you fit your fenders. Few suspension forks have mounting eyelets, and bikes with rear suspension probably won't have eyelets on the dropouts, either. (The dropouts are located where the seatstays and chainstays meet. They hold the rear axle in place. There should be two eyelets above each dropout on a hardtail bike, in fact — one for the rear rack, and another for the fender stays.) It's something to consider when you buy a new bike, particularly if you buy from an LBS. See if you can get your bike with fenders already mounted. If the shop owner rolls his eyes and starts shaking his head, it's time to move on to another bike.

    You already have a bike? Then you'll have to adapt. Where there's a will, there's usually a way. I fastened fenders to my front suspension fork using a clamp from a Radio Shack antenna guy-ring and collar. I only needed one; a disc brake mount served to anchor the other side. If all else fails, zip-ties can work wonders.

    One last caution: If your bike has fat tires — and most mountain bikes do — be sure to buy wide fenders. Look for fenders labeled ATB (all-terrain bike) or MTB (mountain bike) in the catalogs. Road fenders won't work.

  • Rear Rack. You'll need a rear rack. You may want a front rack, too, but most front racks are now the low-rider type. They work well on road touring bikes and some hybrids, but mounting them on suspension forks can be a challenge. Even fitting a high-capacity rear rack to a full-suspension bike can be difficult. That's one of the reasons I prefer a hardtail. Whichever rack you choose, however, make certain it won't collapse under camping loads — you want a rack rated for at least 40 pounds, and preferably more. (Good luck. Many modern racks are rated for no more than 25 pounds. That's what mine is rated for, come to think of it. Yet it handles loads of 40 pounds and up almost every week, in country where 25% grades are common. It hasn't shown any signs of failing to date, but I still worry. (For peace of mind, I check the mounting bolts every time I load up. I also carry hose clamps for emergency repairs.) A bracket for a taillight is a good thing to have, too, even if you're sure you'll never ride at night. Think fog. And flat tires.

  • Panniers. The other half of your bike's frame pack. It's possible to spend a great deal of money on a set, or you can do what I did: buy two US$20 "townie" baskets intended for carrying groceries, and then strap waterproof stuff sacks on top to carry a sleeping bag and tent. After more than a year of 30-50 pound loads and no small amount of abuse, these low-end but rugged panniers are doing fine. Two caveats: (1) they must be packed full (a partially-loaded pannier will collapse under the weight of the stuff sack strapped on top), and (2) everything in them must be in a waterproof bag. This sort of thing is second-nature to paddlers, of course. We're experts at making the most of small storage spaces and waterproofing gear. We have to be. And since it's impossible to waterproof the panniers themselves — a shower-cap cover over the open top of the pannier helps, but water always finds a way inside sooner or later — I added a couple of grommeted drainage ports in the bottom of each one. Now I have self-bailing panniers.

    If this sounds a little too Rube Goldberg or Heath Robinsonish to you, and if price is no object, you can get beautifully made, completely waterproof touring panniers. Just be sure that your gear will fit in them. Townie panniers are simple, square-sided fabric cells. They're easy to pack. Touring panniers, on the other hand, are complex trapezoidal solids. It can be hard to find a place for odd-sized or odd-shaped gear. And whatever panniers you choose, make certain your heels clear the loaded bags when you pedal. If they don't, you'll wear holes in the fabric before you've gone 10 miles.

  • Bar Bag or Trunk. One or the other is necessary even around town. A bar bag (short for "handlebar bag") attaches exactly where the name suggests. Trunks sit on top of your rear rack. I like bar bags. I don't like trunks. This isn't just a personal quirk on my part. My sleeping pad and tarp — and sometimes an inflatable pack boat or a filled 1-gallon water bag, as well — all travel on top of my rear rack. There's no room for a trunk. My bar bag, on the other hand, is as indispensable as it is convenient. It holds my foul weather gear (poncho or anorak or both), a cable lock, a high-intensity headlamp that doubles as my front light, some of my larger tools (crank-bolt wrench, lockring spanner, and the like), maps, sunglasses, a small first-aid kit, insect repellent (rarely), camera and film, gloves, a headover (a sort of tubular scarf that doesn't come unstuck at 20 miles per hour), and lots of snacks.

    This versatility can be problem. Weight hanging off your handlebars won't make any bike easier to control at speed. Still, I get by. Of course, I seldom exceed 40 mph. It happens only on long, steep mountain descents. I also rode very cautiously until I learned how the weight on the bar affected my bike's handling. It helps that my bar bag is securely attached to a fixed plate. I wouldn't use any bag that wasn't. I try to keep the load in the bag under 10 pounds, too. I admit that I don't always succeed, but I do try. At least the overstuffed bar bag helps to balance the weight in the rear panniers.

  • A Second Water Bottle and Cage. Like the old steam locomotives that make railroad buffs' pulses race, you won't get very far down the trail without water for your engine. But you'll need all the space in your panniers for other things. That why a second water bottle and cage are mandatory. A third bottle and cage are better yet. The third cage can go under the down tube. It also makes a good place to carry a fuel bottle or propane cylinder.

Does this seem like too much to carry on one bike? It's not. You'll even have room to spare. Look at the drawing to see where everything goes. Bags are shown in blue; the other stuff is in red. The second water bottle and cage are omitted for clarity. They'd go on the seat tube, with the minipump strapped alongside. (If you need to refresh your memory about the name of any part of a bike, see the illustration in Paddlers' Wheels.)

Looking Good!

What did I tell you? There's a place for everything. But sometimes even this won't be enough. If your load tops 50 pounds or so, or if you want to haul any type of boat other than the smallest (and lightest) inflatable, you'll need more than a rack and panniers. You'll need a trailer. That's a topic for another time, however. Meanwhile, we're not quite finished outfitting. You'll also want to give some thought to…

Home Base

Unlike most canoes and kayaks, bikes have lots of moving parts. And that means they need regular maintenance. You can let your LBS do it, or you can do it yourself. If the latter option appeals — and bikes are a lot easier to work on than cars — you'll need a few more tools than you have in your on-the-trail kit. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Repair Manual. This is a good idea for anyone who has a bike, in fact. It doesn't matter if you usually take your bike to the shop for maintenance and repairs. Unless your LBS makes trailside calls, the day will come when you'll have to fix something on your own or walk home. It's best to be prepared. The bad news? I haven't found a manual I can recommend without reservation, though all of the repair guides I've seen by Rob van der Plas have been pretty fair, even if they are starting to show their age. The same goes for Glenn's NEW Complete Bicycle Manual. But it, too, is no longer new.

    Begin your search by seeing what your local library has. Look for a book that describes repairs to bikes with components like those on your bike. Pay special attention to the rear hub and cluster (is it a freewheel or a cassette?), the headset and stem (is it threaded or non-threaded?), the brakes (are they disc, V-brake, or center-pull?), and the bottom bracket (is it a sealed cartridge or cup-and-cone?). When you find a manual that answers the questions that you've been asking, your search is over. Buy a copy of your own.

  • Shop Kit. Chain lube, grease, and any specialty lubricants you may need (for a front fork or twist-grip shifters, say) , along with maid-of-most-work WD-40®. Specialized tools to fit the components on your bike: crank remover and crank-bolt (or crank-nut) wrench, freewheel or cassette tool, bottom bracket tools, and headset wrenches (if you have a threaded headset). Ask the seller or manufacturer if you don't know what you need. You'll also need other bike tools: a chain tool, pedal wrench, and spoke wrench, along with Allen keys and box-end or open-end wrenches for all the fittings on your bike. (Most of these should already be in your trail kit.)

  • Workstand. You can't hold your bike and fix it at the same time, and it's a lot easier to do a good job if you aren't standing on your head while you work. A repair stand gives you the same edge that a professional mechanic enjoys. One that holds the rear wheel off the ground can cost as little as a month of basic cable, and it'll be good enough for most repair jobs. Or you can spend as much as your monthly car payment for something an LBS wouldn't be embarrassed to ask its mechanics to use. Whichever you buy, make sure it holds your bike securely, without crushing the brake and shifter cables against the frame.

That's it. A bike can be a toy or a tool, and if you're an amphibious paddler, you won't be happy with only a toy for very long. Outfitting makes the difference. So fit out your bike for adventure now. Then load it up and go. The backcountry is calling, and winter's not here yet.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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