Nicholas Carman has spent almost eight years pedaling the world with Lael Wilcox, and the last 8 months bikepacking in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and the Middle East. He shares words and images on his blog www.gypsybytrade.wordpress.com
Originally composed on 2-17-15
Advice on what to carry?
Carry what you need, including what you want, but keep it simple. One of everything is a good starting place, although that’s not a license to take everything. Books and fishing poles and packable boats are cool, if that’s your thing. I carry a MacBook Air into a lot of funny situations. A few months back we found ourselves on an all-day bikewhacking expedition in Lesotho including a number of waist deep river crossings in the rain. At moments like that I wonder what I am doing with a computer, but here I am near Jerusalem taking a few days editing photos and writing for fun, for others, and for some money.
Lael always has a book, but for the longest time she didn’t even have a spoon so we shared mine. I think she lost it somewhere, which is one of her ultralight secrets. We share an enameled steel mug, but that is not a situation of circumstance like the spoon, that is by design, and often I can use our small cookpot as a mug or bowl. I have been carrying a pair of Maxxis DH tire levels that I bought in Montreal on our first bike trip in 2008. Eventually I ditched one lever and carried the other. I left the other lever behind this year, because I can always get a tire off a rim with my hands.
Before leaving home, look closely one last time and remove a few items from your bags. Its not obsessive to do this, its realistic. I see greater obsessive tendencies in people with panniers full of stuff, although weight isn’t the most important thing. Ride quality should be a serious consideration to anyone riding off-pavement. A very nice bike can be ruined by packing like an Okie. If everything is bursting at the seams and strapped to the bike, consider leaving stuff at home or another luggage strategy. Another method is to pack reasonably, ride for a few days or a week, then reassess your equipment and send stuff home. The key to lightweight travel is learning to live without, to leave stuff at home rather than spending money on more and more ultralight equipment. As such, you will save money which can be spent on the essential items like a tent, sleeping bag, and luggage. The remaining money will go a long way on the road. Don’t castrate your trip before it happens by spending lots of money if you can’t afford it.
Simplicity and durability are important in all the gear we use. The beer can stove is basically unbreakable, and when it gets stepped on or run over, I can make another in about ten minutes. I’m currently trying to remove all the zippers from my life. I have a lot fewer than in the past, but the few that I have are all moaning and dying at the moment, which strengthens my resolve to be zipper-free in the future. Eric Parsons made me the most wicked zipperless framebag that uses a single buckle closure– it is unbreakable. And if it breaks, it is reparable. That’s what I’m going for.
I ride in normal athletic shorts and a cutoff t-shirt when the weather is good. It’s cheap and easy to replace. Shoes are almost always some variant of the Adidas Samba, or mid-height Salomon boots (XA Pro 3D Mid GTX) I bought a pair of fake Levi’s for $15 in Cairo last month, as it wasn’t really cool to wear the magenta shorts that I’d brought from South Africa in Egypt. Even short sleeves drew a lot of attention there. It is still winter here– the weather is like parts of Arizona– but I rode in jeans through most of last week when it was colder. Eventually the weather will warm up and the pants will get holes in the butt and I’ll revert back to shorts and thin long underwear.
I’ll list the basic contents of my pack: Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2, 30F Mont-Bell down bag, Therm-a-rest ProLite pad, 800ml MSR Titan pot, beer can stove, Crank Brothers M17 multi tool and basic repair aids, clothing in total to match the coldest and wettest expected weather, steel spoon, folding knife, chain lube and rag. Electronics include an 11” MacBook Air, Fujifilm X100T camera, 2 WD external hard drives, cords and chargers.
Advice on what to eat?
Food that you like. Food that is familiar. Food that is easy to eat and digest and pack and prepare. Cheap food it good for the budget. When we buy food on the road we consider the local specialities and take advantage of the great flavors that are uncommon or expensive back home, such as Belgian beer, French cheese, Egyptian bread, South African wine. We pack as much fresh fruits and vegetables as we can. These foods are heavy and sometimes awkward to pack, but they disappear quickly and greatly aid digestion and morale. Apples are cheap and durable, and common in many places. Oranges, cucumbers, carrots, beets, and onions are also super packable. We also prioritize more delicate food that we like such as tomatoes and persimmons. We enjoy cooking, but we also enjoy preparing raw foods. It can be a lot easier than cooking and its a fact that raw foods make you fart a lot less than cooked foods. When you’re living in a tent, that’s a good thing.
Here in Israel, we’ve established our casual bikepacking diet to include mostly ready to eat foods as fuel is expensive and hard to find. Our standard haul for a day or two or riding is a large 1kg tub of hummus, pita, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, apples, dates, nuts, dried fruit, halva, sardines, pretzels, coffee, and wine. I’m responsible for keeping sweets on board, while Lael ensures there are always apples and vegetables. In the Negev desert of southern Israel, we are usually no more than 24 hours between food, but we’ve packed up to two or three days of food at times while in Israel. In general, we try to carry only as much food as we need, but it isn’t an obsessive pursuit. It does feel good to be snacking on your last few peanuts as you roll into town.
Lael drinks a lot of water. I don’t, except when I feel real thirsty. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning to discover she’s emptied a whole water bottle or more in the night. Water is good, and we’ve learned to drink a lot when it is available to reduce our loaded requirements.
Size, specs, and species of your ride?
I am riding a large Surly Krampus with 35mm Light Bicycle and Derby carbon rims, tubeless 2.3-2.4” tires (Maxxis Ardent, Schwalbe Hans Dampf, Bontrager XR4), 120mm suspension fork, 2×9 drivetrain with thumbshifters, 780mm carbon RaceFace bars, Salsa titanium seatpost, platform pedals, Ergon grips, and the same Brooks saddle since 2009. I’ve got an SP dynamo hub up front which powers a Supernova E3 Triple headlight and E3 Pro Taillight, as well as a B&M USB-Werk, which keeps the GPS running full time and occasionally charges other devices.
Lael is riding a similar set-up on a Raleigh XXIX, although she is using an Answer 20/20 carbon bar with a 20deg sweep, along with a super comfortable Syntace carbon seatpost. Her Reba fork is holding up really well after many years of use and has been adjusted to 120mm of travel. She has chosen not to clutter her bike with any electronics for now, part of her unofficial simplicity regimen, but she’ll probably get some dynamo lighting next year. We like riding right to the end of the day, which leaves us riding beyond dusk at times. Proper lighting also lets us enjoy cities at night while traveling, so we can ride out of the city at night to camp.
We’re exclusively using Revelate Designs luggage, including a few custom items. Eric built a zipperless framebag for me that is a beautiful piece of engineering and handcraft. It is nearly faultless, which is amazing considering it is a first draft. I also have a custom waterproof seatpack to fit an 11” MacBook Air. I store the computer in a neoprene case and a series of waterpoof bags. This is the best riding system I’ve used to date, and finally gives me a completely rack-free system for the computer. I can fit all the camping equipment I need and up to about 4 days of food and about 1-2 days of water at most. Lael has a custom framebag with a giant zipper and an elastic softshell fabric on both sides of the zipper to reduce strain on the teeth and the slider. The action is really smooth and has been solid through months of hard use. She has a reputation for being really hard on zippers. The new waterproof Revelate Sweet Roll is awesome, and finally converted me from using a compression drybag on the handlebars. The small Sweet Roll that I have is much more convenient to use than the drybag, saving time at the beginning and end of each day as the bag stays on the bike. We each use a small Pocket bag out front, which is small enough not to affect the handling much. I’m not a fan of having a lot of weight on the bars. Lael has a standard Viscacha seatpack, I’ve got a Gas Tank, and we each have a Bunyan Velo bar bag which we received from Lucas for contributing to the magazine.
We each have packable backpacks, like silnylon drybags with thin straps that we can use while in town, while traveling on planes and buses, or in the grocery store. They are miserable to carry with any more than a few pounds, but they lend themselves well to these circumstances and weigh 100g or less. I’d been looking for something like that for years and finally found them in an outdoor shop in Crimea.
Thoughts on essential bike equipment?
Durable large volume tubeless tires; dynamo lighting and USB power; Ergon grips, real shoes and platform pedals, an alcohol stove, a framebag, the B17, and a reliable shelter. A cheap steel spoon is better than any spork. Don’t use a spork, it is uncivilized.
I wouldn’t say these are essential, but these items are personal favorites that I strongly recommend to many people. Of course, personal needs vary, and I’m hesitant to recommend something as personal as a saddle, but the Brooks B17 has been mostly comfortable, which is pretty good for something the size of a shoe that I sit on for five hours a day. I estimate well over 50,000 miles on this saddle.
A GPS is an invaluable tool, especially as more and more riders speak the language of digital tracks and maps. There are some barriers to the technology, both actual and perceived, but it’s worth it.
Water purification method?
None, most of the time. I currently have some cheap tablets I bought in South Africa, but have used only three of them. I’ve used a bunch of water filters and found most of them to be disappointing, so I’m not excited to explore them further at the moment. I had a USB rechargeable Steripen for a minute, but didn’t use it all that much and trying to treat 8 or 10 liters is a hassle. It was one of those things that was easy to leave behind, even though it is a totally justifiable tool. But I just wasn’t using it, and for now it isn’t essential.
I typically have the capacity for about 4-5 liters on the bike, including a 64oz. Klean Kanteen in a Salsa Anything Cage under the downtube and one bottle cage taped to each side of the fork. I’ve drilled holes in my last three frames to accommodate the Anything Cage, although I might downsize to a 40oz bottle in the future now that Velo Orange is producing a proper steel cage for a 40oz bottle. The cage also suits a 32oz Nalgene or a really big bottle of beer. I pestered Chris to make a cage like this for a few years, so I’m glad to finally see it.
Beer can stove. The Penny Stove, since 2009. I’ve only had three, and even though they get beat to hell they keep working. Finding alcohol in different countries can be fun, learning the name and figuring out where it is sold are the challenges. In the US you can find it at gas stations, paint/hardware stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets in that order. Elsewhere, pharmacies are the best bet, and hardwares stores. In France, 90-95% alcohol is sold as a common house cleaner and is scented. When the flame is about to go out, you smell roses or lemons
In Ukraine and many other places you can get 96% alcohol from the pharmacy, which is the natural equilibrium state of ethanol with water at STP. Of course people drink it sometimes, so when a suntanned bearded guy walks in and asks for ten 100ml bottles, the pharmacist gets suspicious. “It is for camping, cooking”, I insist. The funny thing is, the vodka is cheaper than the stuff from the pharmacy and is much better. Ukrainian vodka beats the heck out of both Polish and Russian vodka.
We’ve enjoyed making fires more recently. We didn’t for years, but it has crept into our pattern in the last few years. We’ve had a few fires recently in the desert of Israel to make coffee in the morning, to cook some sausages, to create ambience while camping with a friend. Alcohol is hard to find here, or is prohibitively expensive.
For some time I was buying a small Brunton aluminum pot every few years, but it has been discontinued. I recently discovered the MSR Titan 800ml titanium pot and couldn’t be happier with the features. I think this will be the winning pot for a long time.
Thoughts on essential gear for staying alive?
Keep it somewhere between carefree and stupid. I don’t really think about it much.
Favorite trail/ bikepacking recommendations?
Anywhere in Albania.
You know, there’s a reason the AZT, CT, and Divide get so much attention. I remember the first time I heard about the Divide, about my first day on the Colorado Trail, about that piece of the AZT from Picketpost to the Gila River. All of that stuff is meant for us, to enable us to ride bikes and sleep outside. Each of those routes are essential and foundational to the sport, in America and globally. Everyone should at one point try to ride some of these routes, but it is important to realize there are opportunities close to home, and also in far off places that don’t advertise trails and mountain biking. The process of discovery is enchanting, whether by following an established route or in the process of routefinding.
Riding to the Knik Glacier outside Anchorage is one of my favorite rides. At the shortest, it is a flat 10 mi ride from the last access point on Knik River Rd to reach the frozen lake and towering blue canyons and iceforms. Last spring Lael and I piled some gear onto our bikes and rode from our front door in Anchorage, camped in the valley, and completed the ride to the glacier in the morning. It still wasn’t a challenging ride, but making connections like that is important to me. We needed to break from routine for a minute and sleep outside, even though it was still winter and we don’t really have winter camping gear. Arriving at the glacier the next day with facefuls of sunshine beaming down was a lot better than whatever else I would have done with that time. Sometimes ‘doing’ should take preference to planning and saving money. Lael likes to say that the time you spend on a bike is never wasted.
Bikepacking long-distance walking trails in Poland is awesome, and although we only got a taste of it I’d love to go back. There are ridiculously steep uphill pushes, but also epic singletrack descents and lots of ridable terrain. There is a healthy hiking and biking culture, although I don’t think a lot of the guys on bikes are calling it bikepacking. They just take the train to the mountains on the weekends with backpacks and ride bikes and build fires and roast sausages and drink beers. The rest of us can learn from the Polish. They’re tough people. There are also many historic hiking shelters, often big stone structures at the top of the larger ridges which serve hot food, cold beer, and also offer showers and a bed if needed. Prices are good. Poland is awesome.
We’re currently riding the new Israel Bike Trail and the Holyland MTB Challenge route across Israel. The IBT is a government project to build and sign a cross-country trail, like the popular Israel National Trail designed for hiking. The HLC is a grassroots bikepacking event that features a ton of great riding from fresh-cut desert singletrack to rough jeep roads and adventurous natural trails through canyons and dry riverbeds. This is a new route that originates from a race which took place last year for the first time, and is basically just a GPS track with some organizers and a website. The guy that conceived the HLC, Zohar, raced the Divide a few years ago and came back and created this. The growth of bikepacking in all forms is amazing to watch and to engage.
Rumor has it that Scott Morris is coming to race this year, partly at the request of the local bikepacking community. I’m really happy to see this kind of exchange. Scott is the godfather of a lot of this stuff, so I am also happy to see him get some credit. Even Lael is thinking about racing (track Lael here) the HLC, in part because of the support and enthusiasm of the bikepacking community in Israel. The other day I was invited to a dinner with a bunch of guys who brew beer and were making really nice pizzas in an outdoor over. Less than half of them looked like serious cyclists, but when it was mentioned that Scott and Ezster might come ride the HLC in April, the room went quiet in awe. Bikepacking is hitting the big time, but I don’t really see it changing, just growing.