How To Stay Organized On A Bike Tour

I’m far from the world’s most organized person, but being on a bike tour brings out something slightly obsessive in me about ‘everything in its place’.

Tyres fit between the planks quite well

Panniers are, after all, a bit of a black hole. Once something falls down to the bottom, you never find it again. And who really enjoys opening up a pannier, expecting that thing you need to be at the top and then finding it’s not? The next thing you know, you’ve emptied all 4 of your panniers, plus your handlebar bag, only to discover that you actually packed the rain gear with the tent on the back of the bike. In the meantime, the downpour has gotten heavier, and you’re already soaked.

And let’s not even talk about arriving in camp, only to discover you’ve forgotten the toilet paper or your toothbrush. I can’t be the only one who’s had this experience…

Happily, there are some tips that help keep disorganization disaster from happening too often. At least, these are some that work for me.

#1  – Make A List

I used to think you didn’t need a packing list for bike touring. After all, it was all pretty obvious, right? Clothes, bike tools, tent, sleeping bag. Well, I was wrong. I can guarantee that without a list I will forget something. It’ll probably be something that should have been so easy to remember as well, like socks or a hairbrush or a cup to drink out of. There are so many things to pack on tour, it’s easy to overlook just one.

Don’t have a list yet? The Adventure Called Bicycling blog has a good one, and you can see what we packed for a world bike tour.

#2 – Put Things Back In The Same Place

Now that you’ve packed using a list – so you know you have everything you need – make sure you find a place for everything and put it there every time. After you’ve put your fleece back in the same spot 10 times, you’ll instinctively know where it is. I personally like to group things as well, so one pannier is mostly for food, another for clothes, a third one for bike tools and so on.

A great tip for ensuring things don’t get misplaced is to put labels on the back of your panniers, listing everything that goes inside. The labels can act not only as a way to keep things sorted on tour, but also as a packing list for future tips.

#3 – Separate Things Into Bags

Chilling in the shade

Lots of shops sell small, multi-coloured stuff sacks. Get a bunch and use them to further organise your gear. Socks can go in one bag, t-shirts in another. The more colours the better. It’s much easier to spy a red bag and know your cold-weather clothing is inside, than to dig through the pannier, trying to separate bandanas from base layers.

#4 – Get A  Notebook (a paper one, not a laptop!)

Things come to mind when you’re cycling. You remember that the shops will be closed on Sunday, so you need to pick up more food, that you’re almost out of sunscreen or that you need to send mom an email to wish her a happy birthday. When you get into town and have to remember all the things you thought of while pedaling, it’s hard. So get a notebook and write these thoughts down as they come to you. That way you already have your task list when you arrive at your hotel or campsite for the night.

Notebooks are great for other things of course, like jotting down the contact details of friends you meet along the way, or keeping track of expenses as you buy things. We also use our notebook to make shopping lists and plan out each meal, when we need to buy food for several days. This keeps us from buying too much or too little.

#5 – Have One Bag For Daily Needs

Andrew holding the bike, again!

There’s an exception to every rule and the exception to my ‘everything in the same place’ rule is this: one bag is for the things I know I’ll need that day.

If it looks stormy, the rain gear gets pulled out of its normal spot and put in the day bag. If I know I’ve got a big climb, the snacks get priority. These things either go in a handlebar bag (on Andrew’s bike), or in the bag that sits on the back of my bike.

Some days this extra bag is nearly empty. Other days, it gets stuffed full. By having it there, I always have the flexibility to pre-select things I’ll need for the day’s tour and keep them close at hand, so I’m not unpacking panniers by the roadside. Food we buy along the way can also go there, and be repacked later. Of course the next day, when the sun comes out, the rain gear goes back in its normal place.

How about you? How do you stay organised on tour?


  1. Doug Nienhuis
    29th July 2010 at 10:41 am #

    Staying organized is an ongoing process for me. I start off doing much the same as you. I have a packing list that is divided into four sub-lists – one separate sub-list for each pannier bag.

    Front Left: stove, fuel, pots and pans, oil, big tools, spare parts
    Front Right: food
    Rear Left: clothes and toiletries
    Rear Right: maps, journals, camera, small tools, flat tire kit etc.

    Then I put my tent on the rear rack and my sleeping bag and mosquito net on the front rack.

    I prefer front-loading pannier bags (also called side-loading) with multiple pockets to keep things organized, so I use a set from Arkel Overdesigns. Then as I ride, I keep fine-tuning my system, noting when something isn’t working out. I’m very careful to have a permanent home for everything and always put things back in exactly the same place every time. I want to be able to put my hand on anything I want even in the dark in my tent. It drives me crazy to have to fumble away in various bags and pockets looking for something.

    A danger with my system is ending up with too many bags. I’ll put something neatly in a bag and then put that bag in a bag and that one in another bag which then goes in the pannier bag. It gets a bit crazy and it adds to the weight, but it works for me in the long run. I never have to worry about where things are, and things are protected and compartmentalized. I find that without bags, things get damaged very fast and easily.

    I also divide some things up. For example, I have a main first-aid kit, which I keep in a safe and dry place in my clothing pannier bag. However, I often might want a band-aid or an antiseptic lotion when I’m in a bathroom, so I keep a smaller first-aid kit in my toiletries kit. I keep the minimum number of first-aid items in it so that it won’t be a big problem if it gets wet or damaged. I keep a third small first-aid kit (really just band-aids) in my right rear pannier bag – the one bag that I always take with me either on or off the bike wherever I go.

    I also find that lanyards are very useful for organizing things and keeping them from getting lost. Pocket knives, for example, had a habit of going missing with me. Then my friend told me to tie a short leather cord to it – a lanyard – and now I never misplace it or drop it and I always find it. I do the same with flashlights and thumb drives and similar items. It’s surprising how much that has helped me stay organized. When I reach into a pocket or onto the tent floor or a bedside table looking for one small item, I can just feel for the lanyard. When I find it, I can just pull out the item. I rarely actually tie the lanyard to anything, but somehow having that lanyard attached just keeps me from losing things.

    In your article, you mentioned how having a list helps you not to forget to bring things when you go on a trip. There’s a related problem – forgetting things and leaving things behind at your campsite and in your hotel room once you’re on the road. Obviously, you can’t go over your list every morning to make sure you have everything. However, there is one simple technique that has saved my neck dozens of times – the final check of the room or campsite.

    This sounds pretty obvious, but there is a strong psychological urge not to do that final check. I’m always very eager to get on the road in the morning. Once I’ve finished packing, I just want to go. However, I force myself to do that last check every morning. And it’s important to do this when the bike and all the gear is out of the hotel room or away from the campsite. You go back into the room one last time just before you start pedaling and simply go over the whole room quickly – look under the bed, move the sheets and pillows (if there are any) and look under them, check the walls and ceiling and windows for anything hanging up, check the bathroom for things you left behind (making sure to check the hook on the back of the door). It’s astonishing how many times I think I’ve packed up everything and then gone back in to find an item or two lurking somewhere.

    The same thing is true of campsites. In the case of a campsite, I pace off the whole area where I had set up my tent, sweeping my feet through the grass. It’s easy to leave behind a bag of tent pegs in the tall grass, for example. Then I scan the trees to look for things that I’ve hung up and forgotten. Again, it’s surprising how many times I’ve found something at the last minute that otherwise I would have left behind.

    Finally, I always stop the bike when I reach the main road and am about to cycle away. I stop for just a few seconds and think about what I’m doing and where I’m going that day. There might be hundred little things that you told yourself to remember the night before that have since slipped your mind. A couple of times, for example, I realized that I had deposited my passport or some other ID with the hotel staff and had forgotten to get it back. Other times, I realized that I needed to fill up my water bottles. The list goes on. It’s much better to stop for five or ten seconds and take stock instead of riding for ten kilometers and then suddenly remembering something. There’s no more dispiriting way to begin a day than to cycle for twenty kilometers and end up right back where you started from.

  2. Graeme Willgress
    28th October 2010 at 11:11 am #

    This is work in progress for me as I havn’t toured for years, until I started again in 2010. Using the trailer can add to the need to be organised, and in some ways makes life more difficult. You only have the bag (s) on the trailer and I use bungees to attach a secondary bag on top of the trailer bag. I am very aware that I could overpack due to having lots of carrying potential. That’s where the list comes in for me.I DONT carry any more than I could fit in panniers, and as I travel alone, I take far less than many couples, who have 8 panniers (and sometimes a rack bag) between them!!!! The trailer bag is about 60 Litres, no more, and I can pack everything, barring tent and extra food, in this, but I choose to spread it out to make it easier through the day.
    I couldnt leave home without the list!! Basically, I don’t get too stressed as I know I can pick up items left behind, as long as all the major stuff is there. But, it’s really easy to forget the trailer tube or spare nuts and bolts, sewing stuff etc.
    Always the boy scout, I cant pack until the night before. I stack stuff on the floor in the spare room, and go over and over the list!!!!
    Originaly, I didnt have enough coloured stuff bags. I started marking bags with pieces of gaff tape whilst on tour. Nuff said!!! I also used to pack my major kit in the main trailer bag, not a good plan, as the bag isnt easily available.
    Nowdays, I pack the camping gear in the trailer bag (tent,cooking stuff,spare shoes etc) and pack my personal gear in a holdall that I strap on top of the trailer bag. The holdall is reasonably waterproof and all the gear is in dry bags and covered with a bright rucsack cover for visibility. Once at a campsite, everything I need to pitch is in the trailer bag, so I just remove the holdall (Still covered) and off I go. It seems to work well, for me anyway.
    In addition to this, I use a Carradice saddlebag (7/8 litres) attached to the saddle, with a ‘bagman support’. This is my day bag, and I put food, waterproofs etc in here. Any additional food I buy gets stuffed in here, if there’s room, or in the holdall if I’m buying loads. There’s enough room for my jacket, on the road munchies, flask (a great piece of kit this- Stainless and with a big top for chunky soups etc) or even my mini trangia if I want to make a brew on the road.
    I’ve done away with the handlebar bag as I dont get on with them, particularly they effect they have on handling. I have replaced this with a ‘Manbag’, Yep, that’s right, an over the shoulder handbag type affair where I keep my camera, phone etc, worn like a small courier bag.
    I’m also a bit obsessive in the tent organisation, although it never looks like that!!! The same stuff goes in the same place every day. That way, I can find it, and its easier to pack and know everything has gone back where it should!Night to night, I only get out what I need to. That way, I have less to pack and less chance to lose/misplace stuff. One advantage of the Teepee, is that I can pack everything (including the clipped in groundsheet) away before leaving the tent. This is a real bonus when it’s chucking it down with rain. I can get the bike and trailer fully packed, without going outside which means I dont have to put wet weather gear on and then get all sweaty.
    The Teepee comes down in around a minute, tops. So, that just leaves me stomping around the camping area double checking that nothing is left behind.
    My pack up time is only about 30 minutes max, but I faff about checking and running through my mental list ie: food bottles (full), maps, camera, etc etc. I always sit and chill out for 5 minutes or so before leaving, just to relax and subconciously go over the tings I need to. It amazes me how often I think of something I nearly forgot to do, say, post etc. Once done, it’s just a warm up, then I’m on the road for the day.
    And that, as they say, is that. Happy travelling 🙂

  3. Karla
    29th October 2011 at 12:25 am #

    In response to repeatedly opening each bag I now have a small piece of survey flagging tied to each pannier (red for right side front/rear, green for left side front/rear. I didn’t want too descriptive of labels to make it too easy for the curious.

    Labels are:

    tent (rear pannier holds sleeping bag, pad, ultralight tent with poles, and silnylon rain poncho I use to cover my bike at night – no need to open in the day or hotels/hostels unless drying gear);
    cook (rear pannier holds my stove, pans, food, bike pump, miscellaneous gear not needed that day)
    gear (front pannier with valuables I take with me – electronics, binoculars, “brief case,” )
    clothes (front pannier – clothes and first aid kit)

    I love the Eagle Creek Pack it Cubes for clothes and for my “brief case” with maps, journal, postcards to write, stamps, pens, misc. brochures…

    On top of my rear rack I use a dry bag (from kayaking) that I strap and clip on. This holds rain gear and whatever groceries I’ve bought or miscellaneous gear that has come off or may need to go on in the day. One day it may be almost empty, another quite full.

    • Stephen
      30th October 2011 at 10:47 am #

      Yes, kayak dry bags are excellent for touring! I use a larger one, which is a good size for the tent (not wet) and the sleeping mat.

  4. Stephen
    30th October 2011 at 10:43 am #

    Like the main post, I also use coloured stuff sacks, separating different kinds of gear, and that works well as long as I can remember which colour means what! Like everything, I find that remembering is a matter of practice and finding some prompt to tie the colours together with the memory. Orange is for cycle clothes, blue for camp clothes, and the little blue one (recycled from a stove I once bought and don’t use) is always for phone and battery chargers and the international socket adaptor.

    However, I like Karla’s idea of colour tagging the left and right side panniers. Usually I find the most basic question is, “I know it’s in a rear pannier, but which side did I put it in?” Of course, I only get it right half the time (or less often!), so the left-green, right-red sounds like a help.

    Ortlieb classic roll-top panniers being what they are, I use the zipped front panniers for gear I think I’ll need during the day, including stove, plate, snacks, lunch, and also note book, sunscreen, that sort of thing. Unfortunately the handle bar bag won’t fit on the bike I bought earlier this year, or I’ll have to change the drop bar, so I also use a waist pouch for valuables.

    Thanks for the ideas, everyone.

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