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Here’s a challenge for you: You are going on vacation. For two years. While you are away you will spend almost all of your time outside. You’ll travel to all of the world’s major biomes; from alpine tundras to tropical jungles; from the desert to the beach. The temperatures you will encounter will range from below freezing to above 100 degrees fahrenheit. You plan to spend your time exercising nearly every day and camping nearly every night, but when you get to the city you’ll probably want to treat yourself to the occasional fancy restaurant. What clothes should you pack? I should also mention that you have to fit everything you bring into a 15 liter bag - essentially a small backpack - and carry it every step of the way. Oh, and if you are lucky you’ll come across a washing machine perhaps once a week. Go!
Lots of people we’ve meet on our cycle tour have asked us what clothes we brought on our trip, so I thought I’d put together a brief post on this topic.
Before we set off, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide what to bring. While it was hard to say goodbye to my entire wardrobe, I’ll admit to being pretty excited about the idea of wearing nothing but yoga pants and sports bras for two years! The photo below shows all the clothes I have with me...
Each item meets at least one specific need, ideally two or more. For example, my sarong, which might seem like a rather frivolous item, is actually my towel, my beach-wear, my blanket for lying on the ground, and my sheet for when it’s too hot for the sleeping bag. On the really sticky nights, I wet it to keep me cool as I sleep. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, my sleeping clothes (leggings, vest and toe socks) can serve as an extra layer of warmth if needed. At my coldest - some nights spent camping in the desert with temps well below freezing - I’ve pretty much worn all of my clothing, waterproof pants and all. While I obviously don’t want to have unnecessary redundancy, I’ve also tried to follow the “wear one, wash one” rule - most items have a duplicate that I can wear in its place if something is wet (from rain or washing).
One of the major investments I made in new clothes for this trip was buying things made of merino wool. Merino wool has become super popular lately because of how fine and soft the fibers are, meaning it can be comfortably worn next to your skin. It’s also supposed to have a particularly favourable weight to warmth ratio, be good in terms of moisture control (wicking away sweat), and critically for us, be odor resistant. It ain’t cheap, but I’ve got a few Smartwool brand items and they’ve fared really well in terms of strength and durability even after 8 months of daily use - making it overall feel like money well spent.
My other shout out to technical gear has been my ExOfficio underwear, bought specially for this trip. Its quick drying (like, 20 minutes in the sun, quick), super lightweight and comfortable. Although some of my serious biking buddies are horrified by this decision, I choose to wear it under my biking shorts, and I’ve generally had good success with avoiding chafing (TMI perhaps…). I’ve also enjoyed repping Michigan on our travels by sporting my sweet shirt from The Mich Mash, and my custom Great Lakes Relay team socks (shout out Lady Heavy ❤).
As we usually only manage to find a washing machine once every week or two (thanks to laundromats/lavandarias, warmshowers hosts or the occasional hotel manager who takes pity on us), we’ve become pretty committed to rinsing our biking clothes at the end of each day. We met a couple of seasoned bike tourers early on in Alaska who extolled the virtues of washing your clothes daily. At the time we thought was a bit OTT, but over the months we have come to appreciate the value of putting on at least half clean (even if still slightly damp) biking shorts in the morning. We plan to up our hand-washing game shortly by trying out a "scrubba" - essentially a dry bag with a flexible washboard liner inside that should do a better job of keeping us looking and smelling respectable between laundry days.
Despite having basically only two complete outfits (riding and non-riding), I like to think that we pull off looking quite ‘put together’ most of the time. The big exception to this is on laundry day. When laundry day comes (a remarkably exciting day in the life of a bike tourer), you have two choices: stay fully clothed and only get to wash half of your filthy rags, or find a way to wash ALL of your clothes. We usually opt for the latter, and lucky for me Chris is quite willing to scurry down the street to the laundromat wearing nothing but his swimming shorts, while I hide out somewhere in my bikini feeling a tad vulnerable, but grateful.
After 8 months on the road, I’m already on my second set of tops and biking shorts; I replaced the ones I started out with in Tucson, AZ, after 5 months and 6000 km of use. These new clothes are already showing signs of wear, and I plan to switch them out again in the next month or so (at ~12000 km). I guess it is to be expected if you consider that a regular top gets worn once every 10 days or so, and lasts you for a few years (say, 150 wears?). My clothes get worn daily for 5 months, working out to roughly the same number of uses. The main failure I’ve found has been stretching - all the hand washing and wringing out eventually takes its toll. If anyone has any tips for gentler drying methods, I'd love to hear them.
In writing this post, I realise I still have too much stuff. I have THREE pairs of shoes (riding sandal, hiking sandal and trail running shoe) but for the life of me I can’t figure out how to get by with less.
I probably won’t need any of that stuff again until we get to Peru, in close to a year from now. I have to decide if it's worth carrying all that time, or if it’d be better to send it back to the states, and plan to retrieve (or re-buy) it later. I hate being cold, so having it - just in case - serves to calm my brains cry of “what if”.
That said, with my bike already weighing in at 85 lbs I’m pretty motivated to not carry things I don’t need. Most of the time, I really enjoy not having excess clothes to choose from. I’ve got everything that I need and I wear everything that I’ve got. That said, of course I occasionally crave some variety, so if you meet me along the way, don’t be surprised if I try to raid your wardrobe.
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