Gear? It’s The Spirit That Counts.

Earlier this year, we were contacted by an anxious would-be bike tourist. He bombarded us with questions about gear.

From the bigger pieces of equipment such as the bike and the tent down to the tiny details of bottle cages and bar ends, he wanted everything to be perfect. The equipment, he said, should solve all his problems and never fail.

We had to disappoint him. This graph (spotted in a mountain bike magazine) sums up our view very well.

The more you ride, the less the equipment seems to matter – or at least that’s been true for us.

Good gear helps. Certainly it does. But it’s not the magic answer to a perfect bike tour and believing that the ‘perfect’ gear will ensure a ‘perfect’ trip will only lead to disappointment. No matter what the quality, bikes can break down, waterproof jackets sometimes leak and certain challenges – like fighting a headwind – can’t be helped by equipment at all. In tough situations, a good attitude will get you further than equipment ever will.

We also don’t have all the equipment answers. What works for us, might not work for you. What we like might not be your cup of tea. We list our favourite bits of gear in our free Bike Touring Basics book but every cyclist has to make their own decision. Finding out is half the fun!

We’d also argue that the ‘perfect’ trip is a rather boring one. Some of our best memories come from the toughest moments on the road, when everything seemed to be going wrong. Why go so far to avoid failure and challenges, when we have so much to gain from those experiences?

Back to gear, we recently posted this photo on our Facebook page. It’s from 1898. There’s not a waterproof pannier or high-tech tent in sight.

Bikes & Mountains (circa 1898)

Fast forward to 1961, where we find this lovely image of two boys out for a bike tour from the Dutch National Archives. Didn’t anyone ever tell them that you’re not supposed to ride a bike while wearing a backpack? Apparently they just wanted to have fun…

Trekkers op de fiets met tent en rugzak, 1961.

At least their panniers appear to be in better shape (and less overstuffed) than the bags that this Japanese cyclist is carrying. The year is 1974 and he’s on an 84,000km trip around the world. How he doesn’t topple over is beyond us…

Doofstomme Japanner maakt per fiets reis om de wereld van 84.00 km; Hirayaura in…

Back to Dutch cyclists, here’s a family, going on holiday with their self-built touring bike… including sidecar.

Vakantie, trekkers per fiets. Zelfgebouwde vakantie-familiefiets. Vader,  moeder…

Ladies from the 1950s on a 6-month tour of Europe.

Vakantie, trekkers per fiets, Londen (Engeland). Drie vrouwen met fietsen, volge…

A dapper young man, ready for his summer holidays (the photo is from the 1930s).

Trekkers per fiets. Een jongeman met zijn fiets bepakt en klaar voor zijn fietsv…

Two young women, returning to Illinois after a bike trip.

Vakantie ten einde. Amerikaanse meisjes op de fiets terug naar Ilinois

And finally, there’s Frances Birtles, who rode around Australia several times in the early 1900s.

Frances Birtles

So, to the cyclist who wanted to perfect his touring setup before leaving home, we have just this to say. Go ride. Have fun. The rest doesn’t really matter so much.


  1. Paul Morris
    30th March 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Love it! No more fashion/marketing victims please!

  2. Jeff Katzer
    30th March 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Great collection of old photos.

  3. Paul
    30th March 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    LOL – some great photos. Really gives us gearheads something to think about. I think most people get concerned about gear on the first big trip they take, especially if they’ve got a bit of cash to spend. Buying good quality gear is mostly to do with peace of mind, knowing that if something goes wrong then you don’t have to beat yourself up for not being properly prepared. A solidly positive mental attitude in all conditions and catastrophes is the only thing you really can’t leave behind though.

  4. Brenda Cupryna
    30th March 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    When we started cycle touring again in 2006, we bought some Giant bicycles for £199 each. Not the cheapest we could find but they serves us very well on the north sea cycle route. We didn’t have Ortlieb panniers and out front bags we used for kayaking, ,held on with homemade carriers. We have now up rated our bikes and panniers, this year have invested in an extra wheel as well. I have all the fabric to make a new tent as I want to change the design a bit. There’s nothing wrong with the original but son wants to have that one and I really want to make another. I agree that nothing will ever be perfect but it’s getting out that matters.
    We hope to get away next week – here’s hoping it won’t snow!!
    Best wishes
    Brenda in the Boro UK

  5. Richard
    30th March 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    While the sentiments are fine : you can enjoy a trip without equipment, or with faulty equipment or rubbish equipment for a lot of people the equipment purchase, maintenance and usage is as much of an integral part of the touring experience as the exercise, scenery and excitement of visiting new places. People ask about equipment because they equipment does vary in quality : and someone going away for a 6 week bike tour certainly doesnt want a leaking tent or panniers that split.

  6. Doug W.
    30th March 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    Seconding what Richard says. When my wife and I were in college and started getting into backpacking, we bought what we could afford: a Tent from Sears; some external frame backpacks from a clearance big-box sports store; sleeping bags that weighed a ton, so on and so forth.

    We have great memories of those early trips; but the underlying theme from each of those early trips was one of misery and suffering. Leaking tents, overburdened loads, packs that chafed, bumped, etc., etc. This was in 1995.

    These days, married for 15 years this August thank you very much, we can afford much better gear. We don’t obsess over it. We buy what we think will do the job, and then we don’t think about it. As it turns out — for us, at least — that having lighter, more reliable, and more comfortable gear doesn’t necessarily allow you to do anything or go anywhere that you couldn’t with lesser gear (polar/alpine exploration withstanding) but having better gear allows us to focus more on the reason we went in the first place.

    When I look back at last summer’s 10-day bike trip in western WA, I never even think of our gear other than how incredible our bike trailer performed. Instead, I think of the views, the calm, the actual riding and camping and people we met.

    • Paul
      30th March 2012 at 6:22 pm #

      Doug – Isn’t that the point? You didn’t think about your bike trailer because you didn’t have to. It did the job, meaning you could forget about it and concentrate on the views. That’s why people obsess about buying the right gear – so they don’t have to worry about whether it will last the distance or not.

      • Doug W.
        30th March 2012 at 7:52 pm #

        Yep, that was my point (the trailer was only mentioned because it worked so good, it actually surprised us). We had no thoughts to the bikes, tent, sleeping bags, cookware, etc., because we bought good reliable stuff (not the absolute “best”, I’m sure) and instead all of our trip memories were about the actual trip, not the problems we ran into because of the gear.

  7. Nicola
    30th March 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    We bought basic stuff to start and then upgraded what didn’t work. Different things work for different people it’s the cycling that counts 🙂
    On Sunday we leave to cycle for the next 2 years as we have sold our business, furniture and car also let our house out and abandoned our children ( all over the age of 20 ) it’s now or never 🙂

  8. Eric & Elaine Hendrickson
    30th March 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    After touring for the better part of 40 years we still fine things that we change and replace on almost every trip. When we see others often a quick examination of their gear gives us some ideas. I will say that Ortlieb (now) sure beats cat litter containers (back then) for keeping stuff dry on a tour. But when we had nothing it was just as mush fun because we didn’t know any better. Just picked up two new touring bikes for another exciting touring chapter for us.

  9. Patrick
    30th March 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    Just saw a couple of young guys outside a country pub. Proper bike-shaped-objects with springs and welding where there should be air or tubing. Sleeping bags, tent poles and fishing gear strapped to each available surface. Massive rucksacks. Looked like they were having the time of their lives.

  10. Nick
    31st March 2012 at 3:43 am #

    It seems part of the fun of a tour is making it yourself. I will be leaving for my first big tour in about a month, and I did a bunch of research and prepared, and am certain I have things I won’t need, and am missing a few I will. I don’t know what they are yet but I’ll enjoy finding out. I can’t wait! I’m sure the next trip I’ll experiment and try a few different things, figure it out as I go.
    Thanks for the great photos, those were fantastic!

  11. friedel
    31st March 2012 at 6:49 am #

    Totally agree that nice gear does have its benefits. We also appreciate the joys of a waterproof tent and a stove that works consistently. It’s just that we often see cyclists worrying so much about the gear that they never get out there and do it. This person in particular had the idea that if he just picked the ‘perfect’ set of rain gear, for example, he’d never be wet. Even with a great rain jacket, sometimes you’re going to get wet and that’s not anything to worry about it. And if you can’t afford the perfect rain jacket, that’s okay too. Just embrace the spirit of the trip and have fun. That’s the message.

    • Brenda Cupryna
      31st March 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more Friedel. It’s more important to get out there. Like everything else in life ,if you wait for the perfect time, thing etc. it will be too late. Like Elaine we are still refining or is that adapting after 40 years on and off. We still have our 1987 Dawes tandem and probably sometime in the next 10 years we will have to start touring on that.
      Brenda in the Boro UK

  12. Alex Morrison
    31st March 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    I can see both side’s of this. My first big tour, 6 months around Europe is comming up soon and Ive spent a small fortune on “Good Gear”. Today I have just returned from a trial 2 day run and everything has worked perfect.
    On the other hand I did some touring with my dad, age 10 and we had home made panniers from roofing felt,and steel frame. old 5 speed bikes and all bits n bobs , but had the greatest of times and the fondest of memories.
    So good gear yes, but fond memories ….. Priceless.

    • Brenda Cupryna
      1st April 2012 at 1:00 am #

      Well, just tonight my husband has had his 3rd bike in a ear stolen , so we won’t be able to afford a good replacement for him. He will be back to whatever he can get. It’s not just the bike but all the other bits- bags lights etc. I just want to scream. I think I’ll be doing a solo tour at Easter.
      Brenda in the Boro UK

      • friedel
        3rd April 2012 at 8:05 am #

        So sorry to hear this, Brenda! I hope he finds a decent used bike for your touring this Easter.

  13. Peter Jordan
    10th April 2012 at 12:58 am #

    I think most people want the best when they do something new. They are excited about their new venture, it’s human nature. When i climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, i had to have new boots. It’s not till you finish and get down that you realize that you could have done it with your old pair.

  14. Paulo Roberto amaral
    14th April 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Fotos antigas muito interessantes. Isso demonstra que as pessoas já tinham consciência do uso da bicicleta. Parabéns pelo site.

  15. john grierson
    20th April 2012 at 8:21 am #

    I know nothing about bike touring, but last year completed the El Camino walk from St. Jean Pied de Port in western France to Santiago de Compostella in western spain, 800 km. and 38 days walking with a 10kg. pack, You find out very quickly that you are carrying stuff you don’t need. 3 shirts. sneakers and spare belt went when I saw the Pyrenees from my hotel. Jeans and hooded top went in Pamplona. I bought cold weather gear when I needed it. a month later. Didn’t have to carry much food, but always 2 lt. water. I can recommend this Pilgrimage journey which can also be cycled. It can be a spiritual experience.

  16. Peter Jordan
    25th April 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    John Grierson, I done the Camino de Santiago last year on my bike. I might have even said hello to you. You done well to walk it. I loved it and might even do it again this year.

  17. Andy Hulme
    10th May 2012 at 11:21 am #

    The bottom line is kit that WORKS and is fit for purpose is what is needed the cost or brand doesn’t really matter. Cycling is the most important thing and the BIKE is most important here again the cost or make and model is not that important, it is getting out there on something that can get you out. People should just cycle because when the BODY doesn’t work anymore the cycling time is over !!

  18. Nigel Francis
    30th September 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    The best gear in the world is useless, unless you have a good helping of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude).

    Here are my thoughts on Gear vs PMA –

    I hope you don’t mind the inclusion of the link Friedel?

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