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What to Pack When Biking Across America

National Geographic Travel photographer Tyler Metcalfe recently quit his job and sold his possessions. Now he’s setting off on the American Bike Project—an epic solo adventure of cross-country cycling that will take him 4,228 miles across the United States.

Packing Time-Lapse

Tyler Metcalfe packs his belongings for his solo cross-country cycling trip. Video by Tyler Metcalfe

When talking to people about my trip, the first question I usually get is: “How do you pack for something like that?” (Read about Tyler's trip here.)

I’ll be living entirely off my bike and will be taking only as much as I need, which means ditching many of the luxuries of modern life in favor of the agility that comes with a lightweight load.

Though speed won’t be a large concern for me on my bike ride across the country, I want to travel as unencumbered as possible. Once I hit the Appalachian Mountains, I’m sure my legs will thank me for packing light. Here’s what I’ll be taking.

The Bike

My choice of two-wheeled transportation is a Surly Cross-Check, which is a sturdy, steel-frame bike made specifically for intense situations like riding through rough terrain or traveling long distances. The bike is built to carry a lot of weight and includes features necessary for connecting front and rear bike racks to the frame.

Everything I need for my trip will fit in four Ortlieb bike panniers, which are tough waterproof bags that attach to the front and rear racks. I’ll also have a handlebar bag for quick access to items like my camera, snacks, and maps.

WA

Astoria

Missoula

Salem

ME

MT

ND

Bozeman

MN

VT

Bend

Dillon

OR

NH

WI

ID

NY

SD

WY

MI

Lander

MA

RI

Rawlins

PA

IA

NE

OH

NV

CT

IN

Washington, D.C.

Boulder

IL

UT

NJ

Charlottesville

Denver

MO

CO

CA

Louisville

DE

KS

WV

Telluride

VA

Carbondale

Pueblo

MD

Blacksburg

KY

Wichita

DC

Springfield

NC

TN

PACIFIC

OCEAN

OK

AZ

AR

NM

SC

GA

AL

MS

TX

LA

ATLANTIC

OCEAN

FL

Gulf of Mexico

The American Bike Project

Astoria

WA

Missoula

ME

MT

ND

Bozeman

MN

VT

OR

Bend

NH

WI

ID

SD

NY

WY

MI

MA

RI

IA

PA

Rawlins

NE

IN

OH

NV

CT

Washington, D.C.

Denver

IL

UT

NJ

CO

Charlottesville

MO

CA

Telluride

KS

DE

WV

KY

VA

Carbondale

Pueblo

MD

NC

DC

Springfield

TN

OK

AZ

AR

NM

SC

GA

AL

MS

TX

LA

ATLANTIC

OCEAN

FL

PACIFIC

OCEAN

Gulf of Mexico

The American Bike Project

Astoria

Missoula

Bend

Washington, D.C.

Pueblo

Telluride

Springfield

The American Bike Project

Tyler's Bike Route

Map by Jon Bowen


Food and Water

For the most part, I’ll only be carrying one to two days’ worth of food and water at a time. During the eastern portion of my trip, I’ll be passing through small towns several times a day, where I’ll load up on food items like peanut butter, bagels, cured meats, avocados, granola, and nuts. Nothing I carry can be refrigerated, so any food that I pack must keep for a few days without going bad. As for water, I’ll be carrying two bike water bottles, and two Nalgenes. If you have travel food tips to share, leave your suggestions in a comment below!

Shelter

For the majority of my journey I’ll be splitting my time between looking for hosts through organizations such as CouchSurfing.com and WarmShowers.org, and sleeping in public and private campgrounds near my route. I will be using a lightweight REI backpacking tent, which comfortably fits my inflatable Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad, Western Mountaineering Antelope 0 degree sleeping bag, and my bike panniers.

Clothing

Now that we have the basics covered, I’ll also want to be an approachable, comfortable human, and this means carrying a few sets of clothes, as well as basic toiletries.

My trip takes place over the summer months, so I won’t need to worry about bringing layers for freezing temperatures, but I still want to be prepared for an array of weather conditions. I’ll be traveling through everything from the suffocating heat of the Midwest to the high-altitude rainstorms of the Rocky Mountains.

I’ll carry a few pairs of base layers, a warm Patagonia R1 hoody (my favorite piece of clothing for all active travel), a lightweight down jacket, and one rain jacket. For most of the trip I’ll be wearing breathable biking jerseys and padded shorts.

All of my clothing is lightweight and breathable and keeps me dry even when wet, which will be essential if I get caught in a rainstorm at high elevations. I am also bringing only wool socks, as wool does a much better job than cotton when it comes to wicking sweat and keeping skin dry.

Finally, I’ll be wearing clipless bike shoes (they clip to pedals and provide secure attachment to the bike) and I’ll bring a pair of lightweight hiking shoes for excursions off the bike. 

Miscellaneous Gear

There are a slew of additional items that will be essential to my trip. First, I plan on documenting the trip through photography and video, and for this I’ll be using a Canon EOS 6D (with a 24-70mm f/2.8L lens), an iPhone 6 (with attachable Olloclip lenses), a tripod, and a small laptop. I’ll also be bringing a full set of detailed Adventure Cycling TransAmerica trail maps, a Jetboil MiniMo cooking set, a Topeak Road Morph G bike pump, and a set of essential bike repair tools.

Full Packing List:

Bike Gear

  • Surly Cross-Check bike
  • Tubus Logo Evo rear rack
  • Tubus Tara front rack
  • Ortlieb high-visibility rear panniers
  • Ortlieb high-visibility front-roller panniers
  • Ortlieb Ultimate 6 Classic handlebar bag
  • Brooks B17 saddle
  • Front and rear lights
  • Kryptonite U-lock
  • Topeak Road Morph G bike pump
  • Bike repair tools
  • 3 spare tubes

Clothing

  • 1 waterproof rain jacket
  • 1 pair of waterproof rain pants
  • 1 lightweight down jacket
  • 1 Patagonia R1 hoody
  • 2 cycling jerseys
  • 2 padded cycling bib shorts
  • 2 T-shirts
  • 1 button-down shirt
  • 1 pair of lightweight synthetic pants
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of wool socks
  • 1 pair of Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek VI cycling shoes
  • 1 pair of Keen hiking shoes

Shelter

  • REI Quarter Dome lightweight backpacking tent
  • Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite inflatable sleeping pad
  • Western Mountaineering 0 degree sleeping bag
  • Ground tarp

Cooking Set

  • Jetboil MiniMo cookset
  • 2 fuel canisters
  • Titanium spork
  • Pocketknife

Electronics

  • Canon 6D Camera
  • 24-70mm f/2.8L lens
  • 3 camera batteries
  • 2 64GB SD cards
  • iPhone 6
  • Olloclip lens set
  • 1TB G-Drive hard drive
  • 2 IOGear USB battery packs 16,000mAh

Miscellaneous Items

  • Headlamp
  • Sunscreen
  • REI camp towel
  • Basic toiletries
  • 2 Nalgene bottles
  • 2 bike water bottles
Follow along in the coming months as I ride my bike 4,228 miles across America. I'll be pedaling through 11 states, three national parks, and countless landscapes—and reporting the stories I find along the way. I’ll be updating my story here and on Twitter @tyler_metcalfe, as well as posting images to the @natgeotravel Instagram account, and my personal Instagram feed @tylermetcalfe.

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