The kit list to end all kit lists

Here’s a treat for all you gear nerds.

A few weeks ago I found myself with a spare morning (or at least, the disinclination to fill it with anything more useful), and decided to spend it clearing out my panniers, going through all my stuff, tidying, itemizing, editing and repacking it all.

I was staying with a couple who have almost a century of hiking and bike touring between them, and who have, over the years, whittled down the amount they carry to almost nothing. The contrast with my bulging panniers couldn’t be greater, and I’m quite embarrassed by how many duplicate pieces of kit I’ve been carrying, unused, for the last thousand miles – just in case. Of course, I didn’t know when I started this trip exactly what I’d need to keep me alive, and was terrified of the thought that I might perish somewhere along the lonely wastes of the Alaska Highway for want of that fifth baselayer. For future winter rides, I reckon I’ll be able to carry about two thirds of my current load.

So here’s a peep into my panniers. I haven’t edited the contents in any way – I just emptied out what happened to be in them on that particular day, so you’ll get an authentic snapshot of what I might be carrying at any given moment, food wrappers and all.

Sleeping system

Here you see (l-r) a large bivvy bag (Alpkit Hunka), an inflatable mat (Thermarest), with a foil-backed foam mat (Mountain Warehouse) underneath it and my down booties (REI) on top. The yellow sleeping bag (PHD Hispar 600) is meant to be good down to -21C, and the orange one (PHD Hispar Combi) down to -6C). Together, I was informed, they provide a sleep system suitable for -45C, though I’ve found I get a bit shivery anywhere below -40. (Not necessarily an inadequacy in the bags – it could also have something to do with what else I’m wearing, how tired/hungry I am, how much moisture the bags are holding (if I don’t get a chance to dry them for a few days, they end up losing a lot of their loft) and how long I spend sitting around cooking and eating after getting off the bike and before getting in the bags.)

To pack this up, I put the booties at the bottom of the yellow sleeping bag, put the yellow sleeping bag inside the orange one, and roll the result up with the (deflated) Thermarest inside the bivvy bag. That way it’s all very quickly accessible in an emergency, and also makes for minimal faffing in that tired period after I get off the bike and just want to be asleep. The foam mat rolls up separately and sits on the top of my rear rack.

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The final part of my sleeping system, I suppose, is my tent – in this case a Hilleberg Soulo, of which I’m very fond, because it’s robust, cosy, freestanding (vital in conditions where the ground’s frozen solid and you can’t hammer in pegs), vents well and goes up and down very quickly. It packs into a neat bag which I strap onto my Alpkit handlebar harness.

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Rear left pannier

This is my more accessible pannier (since I always dismount on the left side of the bike and lean it on the right side), so it contains everything I’m going to need for a night in the tent, meaning that in many cases I can leave the other pannier attached to the bike. (Let’s pretend this is motivated by efficiency rather than laziness.)

Here you see (roughly from top to bottom):

  • spare boot liners (courtesy of Tom in Palmer)
  • blue drybag containing (far too many) chargers and batteries
  • studded rubber soles for boots (courtesy of Richard in Iskut)
  • miscellaneous Ortlieb spares, elastic straps, plastic bags and puncture kits
  • small bag containing pens, and an eyeliner pencil I’ve never used
  • net bag containing titanium cooking pot, silicone bowl and cup, spork, and miscellaneous cooking stuff
  • firelighters
  • drybags, cotton bags and the stuff sacks from my sleeping bags and Thermarest
  • file of Important Documents
  • Heet for alcohol stove
  • MSR fuel bottle (currently empty)
  • MSR fuel bottle with MSR pump attached (currently half full)
  • stove (MSR Whisperlite Internationale), in bag that also contains spare pump (broken), spare matches and foil screen
  • spaghetti
  • pile of letters, photos, emergency LRB and other mementos

You probably want to know what’s inside the drybags, don’t you? Of course you do.

Here’s all the chargers I’m carrying. I hate the amount of space they take up. This is one of the things I most urgently intend to address for future expeditions.

Roughly from top to bottom, left to right, this is:

  • spare battery pack for front light (Light & Motion)
  • charger for L&M batteries
  • handful of assorted USB connectors
  • USB converter
  • complicated universal charger for camera
  • dictaphone
  • external battery charger (for iphone; courtesy of Tom in Palmer)
  • small torch
  • iphone charger
  • charger for other front light (not currently working)
  • laptop charger
  • two sets of headphones I never use
  • spare batteries (AA and AAA)

And here’s the contents of my cooking pot.

Moving left to right, we have:

  • a tacky pink hipflask (thanks brother) containing emergency single malt
  • a scourer I bought in Toudeshk, central Iran, three years ago
  • collapsible silicone bowl (rarely used)
  • spork (indispensible)
  • packet soup
  • fire steel (Light My Fire)
  • Whitebox alcohol stove (thanks Iain!)
  • collapsible silicone cup (also rarely used)
  • titanium cooking pot (unwashed; capacity 1300ml)
  • lid
  • sachet of hot chocolate
  • matches

Rear right pannier

This is the stuff I’m less likely to want to access every day; mostly clothing. It is currently so full I’m having trouble closing it, which means that once it is closed, I’ll go to great lengths to avoid opening it again.

The Paddington Bear keyring was a present from my sister when I was in Pakistan.

  • green drybag full of clothes
  • orange drybag containing case for GoPro (which usually lives on helmet)
  • notebook
  • chemical hand warmers
  • case for sunglasses
  • vacuum flask (rarely used)
  • laptop (cheap, disposable and infuriating)
  • spare bungees (unused)
  • canvas tote bag (unused)
  • PAC tool pouch
  • spare inner tube
  • non-latex gloves

And what’s inside the green drybag? Far too much…

I try to pack in order of usefulness – i.e. things I’m less likely to need, like my swimming costume, are at the bottom; things I’m more likely to need, like a warm fleece and spare socks, are at the top. On reflection, I could have done without almost all of this. Half the baselayers I’m carrying have never seen the light of day.

In order of emergence:

  • fluffy white fleece (66 North)
  • handknitted socks (from a Finnish genius)
  • handknitted socks (from H. Outen)
  • merino boxers (Icebreaker)
  • merino baselayer (Howies)
  • merino baselayer (Icebreaker)
  • merino longjohns (Icebreaker – thank you S. Outen!)
  • merino socks (Pearl Izumi)
  • merino longjohns (Howies)
  • waterproof hat (Sealskinz)
  • bamboo cotton tshirt (Swrve)
  • handknitted gloves (thank you H. Outen!)
  • synthetic neckwarmer (Alpkit)
  • merino glove liners (Icebreaker)
  • swimming cap and goggles
  • 2 x cotton boxers (unused)
  • waterproof gloves (Sealskinz)
  • swimming costume
  • thermal baselayer (Pearl Izumi; unused)
  • synthetic baselayer (Helly Hansen; unused)
  • waterproof socks (Sealskinz)
  • cotton trousers (Swrve)
  • travel towel (Lifeventure)

What do I actually wear then?

Here’s my typical on-bike attire. (Obviously it varies according to temperature.)

From the top:

  • winter boots (Sorel Caribou)
  • hydration backpack (worn under jacket to stop contents from freezing)
  • helmet, with GoPro camera (not mine; property of PHD)
  • ski mask (Mountain Warehouse)
  • neoprene face mask (here be icicles)
  • windproof gloves (acquired in Gorgona in Veliko Tarnovo, autumn 2011)
  • merino buff
  • merino cycling cap (Swrve)
  • Swrve Milwaukee hoodie (an old favourite)
  • hi-viz tabard
  • merino mid layer (Mountain Warehouse)
  • fleece gilet (courtesy of Loretta at Jake’s Corner)
  • Rapha deep winter merino baselayer
  • Swrve winter trousers (on their fourth season)
  • merino longjohns (Icebreaker)
  • merino/silk boxers (Kathmandu)
  • sports bra
  • merino socks (Pearl Izumi)
  • woollen hiking socks (from my grandmother)

I don’t have front panniers, by I do have a couple of drybags attached to the Salsa Anything Cages mounted on my front forks.

Originally they were both red (from Alpkit), but the one containing food didn’t strap on so well when only half full, and fell off one day when I was preoccupied with riding through a blizzard, so I had to replace it when I got to Whitehorse.

The red one contains a down jacket (Alpkit Filo).

The yellow one currently contains two sachets of instant mashed potato, a bag of home made porridge mix (usually there are 3-5 of these), a box of halva, a small bag of dried fruit and a bag of glove liners and hand warmers, given to me by a very kind man near Kluane Lake.

My Alpkit fuel pod (on the top tube) contains:

  • snacks
  • tissues
  • chewing gum
  • hand warmers
  • spare rear light
  • temperature logger
  • electrical tape
  • Shewee
  • pen
  • emergency cigar (chocolate)
  • spare spoon
  • Reese’s peanut butter cups (i.e. crack)

My Alpkit frame bag contains:

  • sausages (garlic flavour)
  • butter (old; needs to be binned)
  • spaghetti
  • assorted energy bars, cereal bars and protein bars
  • hand warmers
  • chocolate
  • packet soups
  • easy-cook rice
  • battery pack for my front light
  • bag of chocolate almonds
  • two pumps (Lezyne and ?)
  • dog-earred map of the Cassiar Highway

My pogies – the thermal hand-protectors that cover my handlebars – tend to be used as nosebags, or just useful places to stash things I might want to grab quickly, or can’t be bothered to put away. Here’s their current contents, unedited.

That’s a couple of pairs of mittens, hand warmers, assorted snacks (jerky, seasame snaps, peanut butter cups, an orange), and a spare headtorch on each side, for some reason.

Bungeed to the back of my bike I usually have a slightly worn-out carrier bag, containing yet more food – some of it things I’ll want readily accessible during the day; some of it things that have sifted to the bottom and been lying there for many week (just in case of emergency).

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Here’s what’s currently in the bag.

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Contents of the bag would appear to be:

  • Three vacuum-packed chunks of pecan slice (from Miche in Whitehorse)
  • Assorted mini-packs of peanut butter and jam (from Linda at Rancheria)
  • Three tortilla wraps, rolled up with cheese and meat
  • Assorted sausages and jerky
  • Discarded wrappers and spare ziplock bags

Alongside the bag, tucked under another bungee, there’s my Nalgene water bottle, with its thermal cover, which stops my water from freezing even down at -30C. This is one of my happiest discoveries of the trip.

IMG_1374On the front of bike is a small zippered pocket that contains things I thought I might want in an emergency, but in reality have rarely looked at.

IMG_1376From top left:

  • disc brake divider thingies (for when bike is dismantled for flying)
  • duct tape
  • whistle
  • instruction manuals for recently purchased lights
  • space blanket
  • Mooncup
  • matches
  • painkillers
  • pen
  • hand warmers

IMG_1373That would be:

  • worn-out glove liners (silk; from Decathlon)
  • iphone
  • matches
  • tissues
  • lip balms (thank you, Tamsin and Michaella!)
  • lucky charm from a man I met in Ankara, three years ago
  • Dogtag insurance ‘document’
  • miscellaneous screw
  • wallet

And that really is everything! I am very very interested to hear everyone’s comments, feelings, advice, and even (for once) criticism, since I’ll be looking to reduce this load significantly for future trips. (I reckon almost my entire wardrobe could have been left behind, with only minor inconvenience.)

And here’s what it looks like when I put it all together, and add a rider.

LE6A6896Photo credit: John Rusyniak

 

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My friends in Tok

I had a long way to ride after leaving Chistochina, but I was fresh and energetic after a few days off the bike (and a handful of hearty meals), and within an hour or so decided that I would try and push on to the home of John Rusyniak, a tall grey-haired gentleman I’d met very briefly among the crowds of the dog race, and who, Richard and Judy later told me, had invited me to come and stay at his own lodge, about 70 miles up the road, if I could make it that far in a day.

“He’s got a lovely place there,” remarked Richard. “I’d try and make it that far if I were you.”

John Rusyniak’s lodge didn’t quite fit in with my route plans. From Chistochina it was about 100 miles to Tok, where the road up from Glennallen joins the Alaska Highway and turns south, towards the Canadian border, and it made more sense to me to attempt this in two 50-mile days, camping somewhere around the halfway mark, rather than splitting it into a gruelling 70 and a puny 30.

But I remembered my oft-repeated vow never to to turn down an invitation if I can help it, and thought how much nicer it would be to spend that night in a warm dry bed than shivering in my tent by the side of the road, and pressed on through the vast monochrome landscape, along the broad, endless avenues of spruce trees and snow, pausing every hour or so to do battle with one of the frozen peanut-butter-and-nutella sandwiches I’d filled my pockets with before I left Chistochina.

And I made it, even though it was long after dark, and about ten miles further than I thought it would be. I always feel a slight sense of panic as the light begins to fade around me, and I realize that I won’t reach my destination before darkness falls, but after half an hour or so, this usually transmutes into a calm surge of energy. I remember that I love riding in the dark, and that it feels swifter, and quieter, and more concentrated, undisturbed as it is by all the things that might be going on around me in the daylight. (Not that there is ever very much going on along the Tok Cutoff.) And I realize that now it is dark, there’s no longer any particular hurry to get to where I’m going, and I could just carry on all night if I wanted to. The signpost for Rusyniak’s lodge failed to materialize, and I began to wonder if perhaps I’d sped right past it. But it didn’t really matter if I had, I reasoned to myself. I wasn’t at all sleepy, and it was only another 30 miles to Tok, and the road was smooth and crisp and even, and I’d only passed 35 vehicles that entire day.

But eventually the signpost loomed to my left, many miles after I’d expected to see it, and I followed a snowy track up a slight bank and two miles off into the trees, watching the featureless white stripe winding off into the forest ahead of me, occasionally covering up my front light with my hand, hoping to see the lights of whatever house or homestead I was headed for twinkling through the trees. But for a long time there was nothing but the snow and the forest and the quiet crunch of my tyres. And then, quite suddenly, the trees opened up to my right, and I rode out into several acres of wide open space, cradled in the bowl of the snowy mountains that surrounded it, fringed with tall trees and a scattering of cabins, and with an enormous log-built mansion nestling in the centre of the clearing, like a jewel in a crown, its windows glowing out into the huge black silence of the Alaskan night.

I had been worried that the Rusyniaks would be worried about me, knowing that I was leaving Chistochina that day, and fearing for my safety when I didn’t turn up at their place before nightfall. But my arrival turned out to be a surprise. They had just come in from a day’s skiing, and were settling down for a cosy evening at home when their enormous dog, Yukon (the likes of whom I hadn’t seen encountered since the vicious hounds of Eastern Turkey) noisily alerted them to my arrival.

It was immediately apparent that John and Jill had several decades’ experience of welcoming guests to their home. (Before they set up their lodge in 2004, they ran a very successful B&B up the road in Tok.) I was swiftly installed in a warm bedroom, pointed towards the bathroom, and told to come upstairs for a bowl of hot soup whenever I was ready. But what was even more exciting was the absolutely enormous workshop John wheeled my bike into, after enquiring anxiously whether it would prefer to be in the slightly warmer room where the generator lived. All along the walls were shelves and tool benches, lined with every possible implement and substance you could want to keep your car, jeep, tractor, snowplough or bicycle on the road. And, to my great surprise, hanging from the cavernous ceiling was a recumbent tandem, on which John and Jill had toured California a few years previously.

“Oh yes, you’ve found the closest thing to a bike shop between Anchorage and Whitehorse” he laughed. Back when his kids were still at home, and they all lived in Tok, he had registered himself as a Trek dealer, simply so that he could get cost-price bike parts for him and his family, and since Tok had no other bike shop, he soon ended up as the town’s unofficial bicycle repair man. That had all ended now, but he still had a shelf or two full of leftover odds and ends and tools and spares and anything he hadn’t yet managed to sell on Ebay. The following morning, after I’d recounted the depressing litany of my lost and broken lights, he produced a pair of cheap-and-flashy rear lights (just the sort I like) and, eagerly scanning my bicycle for anything else he might be able to help with, eventually remembered a very sophisticated Niterider lighting system which, he assured me, had been sitting unused on his old mountain bike for over a decade and, with the help of bungees and velcro straps, was soon affixed to mine, effectively doubling my illumination capacity.

I only had thirty miles to ride the following day, so I hung around for a long and leisurely breakfast (blueberry pancakes smothered in butter, peanut butter and maple syrup; fresh fruit; caribou sausage), admiring the stuffed animals prowling around on the beams above my head (my favourite was an enormous silvery wolf), and leafing (with increasing awe) through the picture book that John and Jill had put together showing the construction of their beautiful home.

“Did you build it yourselves?” I had asked the previous evening; a question which, where I come from, means ‘did you hire an architect and some builders to put it together, or did you just buy it second-hand?’. The Rusyniaks, it turned out actually built their house, with the help of a revolving workforce of family and friends. The earliest photos in the book showed them wandering through a pine forest, selecting the exact trees they wanted to make up walls and roof, and then, page by page, I watched the timbers being cut, carved, treated, and finally slotted into place and sealed against the elements. What had comparatively recently been a concrete pit and a pile of logs was now an enormous off-grid palace, heated by an enormous furnace, powered by a generator and a solar panel, and supplied with water by a private well with a heated pipe running underground to stop it from freezing when the temperature drops to -50 – as it regularly does in Tok, the coldest inhabited place in the world.

“So where are you staying when you get to Tok?” asked Jill. I told her about Rion and Rebekah, the friendly couple I’d contacted through Couchsurfing. She laughed. “Rion and Rebecca? Oh yes, we know them – they go to our church! In fact, they got married right here at the lodge. Her hair’s bright red at the moment.”

John got out his phone, and showed me a picture of a handsome young couple – the woman’s hair was, indeed, bright red.

“Actually I think it’s more pink right now”, mused Jill.

Since he had his phone out John decided he might as well call Rebekah, to let them know that they had me in their possession, were feeding me and chatting with me, and would release me shortly. I left their house an hour or so later, after John and Jill had taken turns on my fatbike, with the agreeable sense of being passed from friend to friend.

A couple of days later John sent me an email with some of the photos he’d taken during my stay, and told me how much they had enjoyed having me there. “God has been good to us and we love to share what we have with others” he wrote. It was a sentiment I’d hear again and again – with and without God – all the way to the end of the ride.

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The writers’ blessing

I’m going to issue one of those typical blogger complaints/apologies: that, in trying to live as interesting a life as possible, in order to create entertaining blog posts (as well as for personal enrichment, etc.), I have left myself very little time or energy actually write them. I have, as you may well have guessed, far more stories about the last three months than I will ever find time to recount here. This, more than any of my other journeys, has been the time where my blog/life balance comprehensively failed (and that’s a word I seem to be using rather too often at the moment).

I plan to squeeze  few more posts out, but I know I’m going to have a lot of trouble fitting them in. Right now I’m catching my breath in Reykjavik, revisiting old haunts and renewing old friendships before I plunge back into the craziness that will be my London life for the next few months.

And it’s going to be a very crazy few months indeed. As well as needing to transform myself from a burly tourer to a veiny roadie in time for this summer’s Transcontinental Race (probably the steepest learning curve of my life), I’ll be giving various talks and workshops around the country (see my shiny new Speaking page for details, and do come along and say hi if I’m in your area), cycling hundreds of miles to get to them (by way of training), knocking the (patchy) first draft of my book into something appropriate for publication, and attempting to earn a living in whatever spare time I manage to carve out in amongst all of that.

It’s looking like I may have rather too much on my plate to be able to maintain a blog as well. But I’ll do my best, and with that in mind, I’m setting myself a blogging challenge. When I stopped in Whitehorse for a week, back in January, I found myself in the same house as a cookery book writer and a playwright, both of them just as prone as I am to the self-doubt and inveterate procrastination that plagues most writers. (I have only recently come out and started describing myself as a writer, still usually with a slight cringe, after deciding that, since I make most of my money by putting words in order, this was after all an acceptable and entirely honest way to define myself.) I felt as if I were in the presence of two (equally neurotic) community elders. Every morning we agreed to sit and write together, following the Pomodoro technique, a practice my academic friends have been raving about for years, which involves timed 25-minute stints of concentrated work, interspersed with five-minute breaks, the logic being that this follows the natural rhythms of the human concentration span.

It worked like a charm. I wrote more quickly, efficiently and eloquently than I ever have before, and quite magically, Miche’s kitchen timer would usually go off just a second or two after my fingers had slowed and my mind started to wander. In our five minute breaks we’d dance around the kitchen, put on another pot of coffee, and marvel at how much we’d managed to accomplish since the last one. One day I managed to produce almost 5,000 words, and they were mostly pretty good ones.

I’m not sure how well this technique will work without the comforting and inspiring presence of Miche and Yvette, but it seems like a very good way of committing to prose some of the anecdotes my mind’s currently bursting with, in some of the gaps between everything else I’m supposed to be doing.

waxwings

I’m not going to announce anything as daunting as a schedule, but I’ll try and keep you entertained once a week or so. And I’ll start tomorrow.

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Loose ends

Notes on finishing a journey. ‘It is not the goal but the way there that matters. And the harder the way there, the more worthwhile the journey’ Wilfred Thesiger I am all out of order at the moment. That’s to say, things aren’t happening in the sequence that I expected or assumed they would. This […]

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The dog race

The day after I was taken in by Judy and Richard was more or less a rest day. Breakfast, a groaning banquet of bread and eggs and meat and fruit and yoghurt and cake and cereal and coffee and juice, stretched on till almost midday, as we all sat back in our chairs, napkins crumpled […]

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A cold snap

You won’t mind if I’m not strictly chronological about this, will you, dear readers? The problem is, the rhythms of cycle touring are such that one generally has a lot more to report than one has the time, energy or internet access to record. So I’ve fallen a long way behind with all the major […]

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Of motels and chance encounters

I ended up staying in a motel when I got to Glennallen, for reasons I won’t go into here (mainly because I’ve vowed to avoid that old cycle touring cliche and keep bodily functions  to a minimum in my blog, though I promise to tell you if we ever meet in person), and while it […]

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Rediscovering the glow

The morning after Caitlin and Reese took me in, I woke up to the smell of petrol, rolled out of my emperor-sized bed, and realized that my stove pump had failed once again, quite spontaneously, and was wafting noxious fumes out of my open pannier and into the palatially furnished room. (This wasn’t the first […]

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Period drama

I almost wrote a blog post about menstruation last night. But then I talked myself out of it. I don’t always think very much about who reads my posts – because when I do it usually stops me writing anything at all. There’s no one version of me that could possibly be acceptable to all […]

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We interrupt our irregular blogging

to bring you this important announcement. To make up for being distant, out-of-touch, bad at updating my blog and worse at keeping up with my inbox (and because I was invited), I’ll be doing a series of talks around the UK on my return, hosted by Ellis Brigham and sponsored by Osprey. If you want […]

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