Over the years I’ve slowly tinkered with my touring setup to really nail down which pieces of kit work best for the type of riding I do and where I’m heading next. I’m always looking for new products that are versatile in terms of the climate and terrain they can be used on, and most importantly I want them to last, as this stuff can be difficult to replace while on the road. Most of the items on this list are things I’ve started to use over the last year or two, but there are also a couple of items that have been a staple of my setup for the last 7 years.
Over the last seven years on the road, there is one piece of gear that I’ve realized is truly not worth skimping on when trying to shave grams at the cost of comfort and reliability and that’s the sleeping pad. I’ve run the gamut from a Therm-A-Rest NeoAir X-Lite and X-Therm to four different pads from Sea-to-Summit, searching for the right combination of comfort, warmth, durability, and weight/bulk. My initial choices for sleeping pads usually leaned heavily toward prioritizing weight/bulk with mummy pads from Therm-A-Rest, though I could never feel quite comfortable with the weak edges of the horizontal baffle designs, which gave me the sensation of balancing on a pool float all night.
Next up I migrated to Sea-to-Summit, which I found to be a huge improvement in comfort, but after a good run with my first pad, I started to frequently run into durability issues with them de-laminating in a matter of a few months on the road, which resulted in many nights waking up on the frozen ground and endlessly chasing air leaks like playing whack-a-mole.
Looking for something with a similar air chamber pattern as the S2S for stability, but with added durability, I looked toward the Big Agnes Rapide SL and upped it to the long/wide version for maximum comfort, grams be damned. I’ve been using this one for a few months now and have found it to be the most comfortable pad I’ve ever used. It’s 3.5” thick with 4” baffles along the outer edges to help keep you stable on the pad through the night. It also has an R-value of 4.8 to help trap your body warmth, which makes it suitable for below-freezing nights. It is a bit bulky compared to a Therm-a-rest or a Nemo Tensor, but at this point, I’ll happily sacrifice some space for quality sleep, and so far I haven’t had any durability issues.
If there’s a negative thing to say here it’s that the included pump sack is terrible. Somehow it is both ridiculously heavy for what it is and also quite inefficient at its one job, getting air into the pad, due to the wide opening of the air chamber. For $40 extra you can buy one from them that is a fraction of the weight and much more effective, but I wish they would just include that from the start. Better yet, integrate it into the stuff sack like Sea-to-Summit does.
I’ll keep this brief as I’ve got a full long-term review on the way, but I’ve been really impressed by the Durston X-Mid 1p in the 1.5 years that I’ve been using it. It’s a double-wall trekking pole (or folding carbon pole) design that checks a lot of boxes for the $240 price tag ($310 including poles).
All-in, you’re looking at a roughly 1kg shelter with a really small packed size, huge vestibules, full inner mesh to keep the bugs and condensation away, an easy pitch, and strong weather protection. It’s performed really well for me in the fierce winds of Mongolia and the Andean Altiplano. If you’re okay with not having a free-standing tent, I think it’s hard to beat at this price point. If you want to get fancy with it, you can jump up to the ridiculously light single wall Dyneema version for about double the price.
Earlier this year I posted a review of Tailfin’s new lineup of top tube bags which have become a staple of my touring setup over the last year. A top tube bag may not feel like a thing to get that excited about, but I really appreciated the tweaks on a classic design here.
First up is the mounting system, which uses Tailfin’s grippy V-mount on the bottom of the pack in combination with TPU straps to keep the bag as stable as any system I’ve used. It also ditches the front stabilizing strap so you can keep steering unimpeded.
As with everything I’ve tried from Tailfin, the top tube bags are rainproof and well-constructed. Best of all, they come in three different sizes at 0.7L, 1.1L, and 1.5L as well as two different closure types depending on your needs.
A lot of Ultralight folks lean toward titanium pots, but if you’re using it for much more than boiling water, I find something like this aluminum 1.3L MSR Ceramic coated (non-teflon) non-stick pot to be a lot more practical. That is unless you love chiseling welded oatmeal or pasta off of the bottom of your pots.
I really dig the wide-diameter base of this pot for sautéing up some veggies compared to those tall and skinny pots, and the non-stick ceramic surface works great as long as you keep the metal sporks away. I pack a wooden spoon, which plays nicely with the surface, and keeps it much easier to clean in the long run. Another crucial part of any pot for me is a lid that locks into place to keep things from coming loose in my bags, and the MSR delivers there too.
Another piece of my cooking system that I’ve been enjoying is this Esbit Alcohol stove. Alcohol stoves are nice because they are super simple with no real breakable parts to speak of. For that, they’re as reliable as stoves get. I’ve had my old multi-fuel stove act up in the middle of nowhere and spent days eating cold-soaked ramen noodles before I got to a place where I could fix it. Not a great culinary experience, I can assure you.
It’s also nice dealing with alcohol as your fuel source in places where canister stoves are impractical instead of something like white gas, or worse, unleaded gasoline, which inevitably gets on your hands and gives off toxic fumes while cooking. Good quality alcohol burns clean and isn’t the end of the world if you get some on your hands in the process.
There are some sacrifices with an alcohol stove though, notably, it can take a bit longer to get water boiling and can become tricky to use while cooking more complex meals as you may have to top off the alcohol in the stove mid-way through and re-light it. It also is more tricky to control the strength of the flame, which can result in wasted fuel. That’s where the Esbit comes in.
The Esbit Alcohol stove is essentially a copy of the classic brass Trangia stove, with a couple of tweaks thrown in that I think significantly improve the functionality. Most notably it comes with this little lid that you can adjust open and closed or anywhere in between to control the size of the flame. That way, if you want to cook up some quinoa, you can bring the water to a boil and then throw on the lid half-closed and it will decrease the heat while the quinoa cooks, and also decrease the amount of fuel that is burning. It’s also handy to close the lid all the way to extinguish the flame when you’re done cooking, instead of having to burn off the rest of the alcohol you’ve put in the stove.
Key to any good alcohol burner is a quality stand. For that I use the Trangia Triangle, which keeps the burner nice and stable and sets your pot at a good height to optimize heat efficiency. The whole package is quite compact and weighs in at around 200g for the stove and the stand combined.
The Big Dumpling hip pack from Rockgeist has become my go-to method for carrying my camera over the last 2 years. It’s really simple in its design, with one big main compartment and a little sleeve on the inside to hold something slim like a phone or cash. The big seller here is that the welded design makes it totally rainproof, which I can attest to from some torrential days in the Colombian Andes that left my camera dry as a bone.
As a bonus it fits my Sony A7 series camera with my go-to Tamron 28-200mm lens inside of an off-the-shelf camera insert as if they were made for each other. Best of all, the roll-top design with the bungie hook means there is no zipper to inevitably fail!
As someone who hated the idea of riding with a pack of any kind on my back, I was worried about making the switch to a hip pack for my camera for the longest time, but after my first few rides with the Big Dumpling, it became something that I don’t think about, which is a testament to the well thought out design.
I know Spencer included BXB bags on his list too, but I just couldn’t leave the Goldback off of mine, I guess it’s just that good. I’ve been using an older generation Bag by Bird Goldback front bag for years, but recently upgraded to a larger version that has been tweaked with small improvements to streamline its use since the original came out. This bag is just super bombproof, has loads of space, expandability, and is handmade by Jay in his shop in Tucson. You can also get them fully customized in terms of color, fabric material, and size.
Check out Spencer’s full review of the “Right Height” version of these bags, which can be custom-sized to fit your bike and rack setups.
A camp classic. I’ve got a few of these Opinel Knives floating around in various sizes and blade types, and I’ve never gone on a bike trip without one. They’re affordable, reliable, lightweight, and they get the job done as well today as they did back in the late 1800s when the company was founded in France. Great for slicing up veggies on your camp cutting board or partaking in any other knife related activities you might be into. This one is a No.9, 3.5” stainless steel blade that I picked up after a Mongolian man became so enamored by my old No.9 near the end of my trip there that I just had to gift it to him.
With my previous go-to riding pants, the Outlier OG Climbers, being M.I.A. on Outlier’s website for a while, I had to look elsewhere for options when my last pair had to be replaced. For the last few months I’ve been wearing these Rapha Explore Pants on my ride across the Peruvian and Bolivian Altiplano and they’ve worked out really well. Typically, I don’t like riding specific clothes because they can look too tech-y, but these strike a nice balance.
The fabric has good water repellency, and even if they eventually wet out, they dry super fast. I had an afternoon in Peru where I got drenched to the bone, and even while the rain hadn’t completely stopped, the pants went from drenched to dry in a matter of 15 minutes just from the breeze of the wind while I rode.
I dig the four front pockets and the overall stretchiness of the material, which is thin enough to be worn when it’s not cold out, but not so thin that it seems fragile. Rapha including a patch kit for repairs is a nice touch as well. If there’s a critique to be found, the integrated waist belt is a bit fiddly and the inseam could be just a touch longer.
The lightweight version of Ornot’s Mission shorts have taken the clean style of the standard mission shorts and, in my opinion, made them a whole lot nicer to live and ride in when the temperatures rise with this stretchy, lightweight rendition. As a result, I’m typically wearing a pair of these whenever it’s too warm for the Explore Pants. The inseam hits a not-too-short, not-too-long balance at 8.5”.
It’s got the array of pockets you’d want for on or off-the-bike use, and so far they’ve proven to be quite durable, with just some touch-ups to the stitching required after using my only pair for around 40% of the days in the last year.
To pair with it, the Ornot Stretch Belt with its low profile magnetic buckle is easily my favorite belt for riding. It does its job and you hardly even notice it’s there.
Next to GAIA GPS, Windy is the app that I rely on most while on tour. No weather forecast is 100% accurate, but I’ve found it to be the best of any that I’ve used. You can get an idea of how wind patterns tend to be in a particular area that you’re heading toward, to time your ride as best as possible. If I see an area that has a fierce westerly headwind wind kicking up around 2 pm, I know I need to get an early start to knock out as much early in the day as possible. It also helps me when I’m planning for areas I might want to camp in by taking the direction of the wind into account so I can position myself near geographical features that might be able to provide some shelter where there are no trees to be found.
Spotting thunderstorm patterns with lightning density forecasts on the map in advance is critically important when I’m up in a place like the Bolivian Altiplano, where there’s often nowhere to hide when the weather turns. In addition to that, I use the cloud overlays to try to plan my days for the best possibility of unobstructed mountain views.
If you’re a premium subscriber like me ($18.99/year), you can even plot out a route on the map and check how the forecast will be across each part of the route, as you get there. For example, if I’m getting ready to head out for a 5-day section, I can map it out and punch in an average “driving” speed that gets me to the destination in my estimated number of days and I’ll get an idea of any rough weather that I might cross along the way. It even factors in altitude along the route and displays that in a graph on the screen. It’s not perfect, because the routing is just in a straight line and cannot follow roads or trails (yet), but it’s a cool little tool to play with.
I have to admit, when I first put the Adidas Trailcross shoes on and used them for a day, I thought I made a huge mistake in buying them. Maybe it’s my bony feet, but I found that the outside part of my foot was pretty sore after the first couple of hours of use each day. However, they softened up after a couple of weeks, and those first uncomfortable days faded away. Now I’m nearing the end of year two with this pair and I’ve become a fan.
I opted for the non-GoreTex version, as I generally find GoreTex in shoes to be useless for most situations, and often worse than shoes that aren’t waterproof at all for wet conditions. When Gore-tex shoes inevitably get water inside them, they take forever to dry, and that ends up being more of a pain than simply dealing with the initial wet shoe. A non-waterproof shoe paired with a waterproof sock is the way to go, in my opinion.
The pedal feel and grip with these shoes is a lot better than the traditional hiking shoe I’d been using in the past while on tour, and it strikes a nice balance between stiffness for riding without being awkward to walk in. I also found that they generally held up well considering the amount of use they’ve seen in two years (splitting time with my trusty Bedrock Sandals), though the outsole will lose a bit of its walking grip faster than a non-cycling shoe.
A surprise addition to the list here. When I was back home visiting my parents before leaving for another year-plus in South America, my dad came home from Costco one day with a big pack of these Merino Kirkland branded socks that cost $23 for 6 pairs. I kinda figured they’d be iffy in quality, but as any good son would do, I swiped a pair from the pack and have been using them constantly for the last year. They’re a thicker sock, more like the mid-weight, cushioned, hiking socks from Smartwool, so you probably don’t want to be using them on really warm days, but they’re great for keeping the chill out on cooler rides and at camp.
To my surprise, a year later they’re still going strong and actually the last of the 3 pairs of socks I brought down that don’t have holes in the toes at this point. Meanwhile, these cost about $3.83 per pair (or Free.99 if you swipe a pair from your dad) and are made in the USA. So, a good option if you’re on a tight budget these days. To take it up a few notches in the style department and support this site while you’re at it, grab a couple pairs of Radavist Woolie Boolie socks instead :)
While the Rohloff isn’t new to me for 2023, I did get reunited with my Rohloff equipped Tumbleweed Prospector after a couple of years apart and I was reminded over the last year of just how great it is to have a drivetrain that you don’t have to fiddle with constantly to keep it in tune while out on tour. Just take the 15 minutes it takes to change the oil once a year, and you won’t really have to think about it until the next change. Yeah, it’ll cost you an extra kilo or so over a high end external gear setup, but it’s well worth it to save yourself from the fuss and fragility of a rear derailleur.
Given that a big percentage of my content on the site this year has been from my ride across Mongolia, I figured for the music portion of my year-end list I’d throw together a playlist of some certified throat singing bangers from my trip across the steppe. My recommendation is to turn this on full blast when your family comes over for the holidays. Enjoy!