Its about time I posted a reviewed of some of the kit I’ve been using so this first review will focus on some of my hi-tech gadgets. I’m a user experience designer so I’m a bit of a gadget nut and my focus will be on ease of use and portability.
I’m not one of those holier-than-thou minimalists that proclaims they can live without modern technology. Quite the opposite, I think technology actually makes what I’m trying to do so much easier.
I have fully road tested these items over the last few weeks so you can be assured they work.
(Small disclaimer: these links go to the Amazon product pages for certain items and if you buy something I hope to create an affiliate account to get a tiny bit to help to fund my ride I need to do more reviews first though).
So without further ado here are ten things that you should take on tour with you if you go cycle touring:
Having a smartphone with you is invaluable unless you’re a luddite who likes to totally disconnect on your journey. You will find the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. I use mine for basic navigation – Google Maps can be downloaded via WiFi for the area I’m travelling in and I only need a basic network connection to get routing information. I can store music, take and share quick snapshots, use it for note taking, use it as bike computer with apps like MapMyRide and Strava, calculate exchange rates, look up phrases and tourist information, post blog updates or more specifically use WhatsApp to let my mother know my exact location at the end of a ride.
I also use mine to control my GoPro and Olympus cameras and check Warmshowers to see if their is a potential host nearby but the list of uses is practically endless. Be sure that whatever device you take you have the means to charge it daily when you’re away from power sources otherwise its a useless paper-weight (see below).
To complement the phone (mine is an iPhone 5) I bought a Biologic handlebar case, which is pretty heavy duty and has lasted me three years so far with a lot of drops. I’ve only had to superglue the plastic screen back once to ensure it stays watertight because some idiot poked at it when there was no phone in the case.
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There is no point bringing gadgets with you if you have no way to charge them. I was lucky enough to be given a solar charger as a present. One that I had in fact been eyeing up for a while. It has turned out to be the best gift I received for the journey (thanks Robin I know you have my back x).
Its a the 14 Watt model with four panels and weighing in at a little over 750grams its a hefty beast. It charges my iPhone in about 2-3 hours in good sun but I get to a fifty percent charge pretty quickly. I also use it to charge my GoPro, Lezyne Bike lights, Petzl Torch, Kindle eReader and my Anker Battery packs. It has two USB ports for charging multiple devices and can handle charging two iPads simultaneously in strong sun.
I typically hang it off the back of my bike using some quick release carabiners hooked to my seat springs while cycling, allowing the panels to be fully deployed. I pack it away in a pannier when its raining. Though its fairly resistant to the rough and tumble of touring I want it to last so I try and take care of it. It compliments my other charging device the Son Dynamo Hub…
This was a major luxury with a £230 price tag for the hub alone I bought the best dynamo on the market – I did get a wholesale price through the Bamboo Bicycle Club which knocked about £80 off. It is German tech so it’s got a good guarantee and its tried and tested technology. After doing a lot of research I found that most serious tourers recommend the Son Hub and the Plug III. The Son translates your forward motion into power which is fed up the fork into my Plug III PAT 2 Power converter which feeds this DC current to a USB port that you install in place of your top cap on the stem.
I only need to be doing a minimum of 12km an hour to provide a good constant power to charge my iPhone. This is fine for flats, downhills or general touring but in cities where you might be stopping a lot or areas where you have a lot of climbing to do your phone will constantly switch between charge mode and battery so I tend to stop and top up using my solar charger at lunch times.
I have never run out of power for my phone during the day and I use my battery packs to quick charge to 50% in the mornings before I set off. If you can afford a dynamo hub get one. They don’t add much weight or noticeable drag to the bike really and so what if they do – you’re not exactly racing! They allow you to run lights, charge your phone and generally convert otherwise unused kinetic energy into something useful for the journey.
Be warned you will need to rebuild your front wheel to accommodate the hub. I had mine done through the Bamboo Bicycle Club when my other wheels were being built. I had to get a bigger disc brake rotor after the refit as the brake calliper kept hitting my spokes due to the slightly increased width. I fitted the Plug III myself using their star nut replacement and a bit of soldering for the connecting wires. If you’re not confident doing any of these things a good bike mechanic can easily fit both for you.
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I can’t recommend Anker products enough. I only just started using them on this tour and I have to say they are well made, their packaging reminds me of Apple’s sustainable packaging design and above all you can rely on them not fail.
I have two PowerCore minis capable of charging my iPhone about 1.5 times each. I use them to charge all my devices except my computer, Olympus Camera and my Garmin which unfortunately cannot be charged by USB. They sit on the back of the bike constantly being topped up by the solar panel ready to use when I need them.
It really doesn’t matter which model you buy just make sure they ‘re not the large ones because they can get a bit on the heavy side and large batteries tend to be more inefficient over time at storing charge. The PowerCore batteries are pretty slim finger-sized affairs that you can carry on or off the bike with out a massive battery bulge in your pocket.
They shut off when you unplug the device and have a simple on off button to indicate charging status. Even if you’re not touring I would recommend having a few these babies around for emergency device charging.
My good friend Patrick purchased a Kindle from my wishlist before I left. I’d always seen them and thought how convenient they are. I had used the app on my iPhone but the screen is so small and not very nice to read from so an actual Kindle was always something I craved.
Reading is such a joy and I regret that while working and living in London I never read enough books. Since being on tour I’ve ploughed through five books and there are enough free or cheap books on the Kindle store that I will never run out of things to read. I only need a WiFi connection to download them and there is enough space on it for a thousands of titles.
The device itself is small and perfectly portable for touring. It saves me many kilos in weight – even carrying one book is a massive pain in the arse so this is a lifesaver. The battery life is about 4 – 5 weeks depending on whether I’m using the backlight. It is USB chargeable allowing me to charge it via the solar panel. I keep a book on bike maintenance, use it for local guidebooks and so on. I revert to it for that information when the iPhone and YouTube is not an option. The only thing I think that could make it better is if it had a headphone port so that you could download and listen to audiobooks but you can’t have everything and I guess I could use my iPhone for that.
I’m an avid amateur photographer and I’m also a big fan of Olympus products. I started taking photography seriously in university using my dad’s old Olympus OM1. An analog camera from the 70s, it took amazing pictures and was super compact for an SLR of its time. When I moved to digital photography I bought into Olympus’ Micro Four Thirds system and have stuck with it for 8 years. I’ve documented the Palestinian Literary Festival twice on Oly equipment and had my images featured in the Independent and the Guardian so if its good enough for that its gonna be good enough for this tour.
When it came to deciding what to take on tour I knew that my E500 and E3 cameras were too big so I sold all my kit for a pittance and invested in the EM10 Mark II. At around £500 with two kit lenses its not exactly cheap but it takes the amazing pictures you see on this blog (except on this post!) and does a fairly impressive job at HD video allowing me to document my journey without adding the supreme heft of a full frame or APS-C Digital SLR. Being a mirrorless system the camera is much smaller and so are the lenses.
I bought the 40mm portrait lens for low light high quality photographs as it was only £160 which is great for a fixed focal length lens that opens up to f1.8. The style of the camera is reminiscent of the 1980s OM10 and this retro styling means a lot of people think its old kit making it infinitely less nickable. The image stabilisation on the sensor makes it great for quick snaps in low-light and the inconspicuous nature of it matched with the articulating screen makes it great for street photography. I can’t recommend it enough and people who see me using it are really impressed with what it can do.
I will probably write a full review of it once I’ve explored more of its features of which there are so many. If you’re thinking of getting a new camera and haven’t bought into a system already get an Olympus I promise you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for something more compact that can withstand harsh treatment and a bit of underwater action get the Olympus Tough compact camera instead.
Petzl USB Climbing Headlight and Lezyne Bike Lights (Front & Back)
Lezyne are in my humble opinion one of the best bike brands and their lights are second to none. I bought a couple of lights two years ago and I’m still using them now. With multiple flash settings and bright illumination they’re great on and off the bike.
Petzl are a famous climbing brand and can be found in most outdoor shops. Their USB chargeable headlights are super bright with three main settings. One is a variable brightness that uses a sensor to detect ambient light levels and adjust itself accordingly, this can be overridden for a full brightness beam in the second setting. The third setting is a the red light which is useful in situations where you need to preserve your night-vision. Great for star gazing, single colour beams allow you to see your surroundings while still providing enough illumination to do things like setup you tent in the dark, read maps or hike at night. They are also a lot less conspicuous from the road if you happen to wild camping in more populated areas. I use mine as headlight when riding at night as I can tip the light toward the road to see potholes and alert other drivers of my presence.
You’d think that between my iPhone and my Olympus I’d have enough camera equipment but no adventurer’s kit is complete without some sort of action camera. I plumped for a GoPro mainly because their iPhone software for controlling it and sharing the video is so good. For that alone the price tag is justifiable.
The Session is the smallest in the line and also the cheapest new model at £160. It’s cubed form factor is also a lot more pleasing to the eye and its waterproof out of the box, no case necessary. It comes with a cradle that it slots into so that you can use all the standard GoPro accessories and shoots HiDef 1080p at up to 60FPS meaning you can get buttery smooth action shots. It also has a time-lapse feature and also takes fairly decent snaps. Low-light performance is not great but I’m never really using it in those situations.
I bought a cheap accessory kit on Amazon with extra mounts and I placed some on my helmet and handlebar bag to allow me to get some point of view shots when I’m riding. My particular model has an issue that when I mount it in the cradle the right way up sound doesn’t get captured but mounting it sideways seems to work fine. As I can’t exactly do an exchange on the road I find this workaround is fine. Do test yours thoroughly to ensure you don’t have the same issue. If you buy it from Amazon the memory cards are cheaper to purchase from there too.
The other Hero 4 cameras are double the price but they shoot 4K footage at higher frame rates and have better low-light performance. If you’re looking for something cheaper get the cheap Chinese knock-off – the SJ4000 – they also work with GoPro accessories but I have no idea about their phone software and compatibility.
If you’re like me and on a shoestring budget you will want to cook for yourself on the road 90% of the time. For that you need to invest in a good stove and cookware kit. Having been a Scout I had always been impressed with the Trangia stoves – Swedish made and barely changed since their inception. They are without a doubt some of the best stoves you can buy on the market. They come with a spirit burner into which you tip alcohol or methylated spirits.
My set has two billy cans, a frying pan and a kettle. You can cook some pretty good meals on it and the fuel is easy to carry. I bought an official fuel bottle and just stick in one of the drinks holders on my bike so it doesn’t take space. It also has the added advantage that you not discarding loads of empty canisters and alcohol is pretty easy to find not just in camping shops.
Official Trangia cooksets start at about £50 – £60 depending on the size but you can buy cheaper copied products off the net if you’re not into the originals. The good thing about them is you can replace the spirit burner, at extra cost, with a gas attachment to take normal canister fuel or a multi-fuel burner that can burn paraffin, meths, petrol and so on which is great when heading into the Middle East or places where buying Alcohol fuel might be a bit problematic.
UPDATE: I met someone on the road with a Solo Stove which can fit a Trangia Spirit burner into it or you can simply burn dry sticks and twigs in a highly efficient system design to be portable and flexible. They are about the same price as a Trangia 27.
If you wanna go the ultra cheap hobo stove route then you really can’t beat free – the beer can stove is everyones favourite camping hack so here is the definitive video showing you how its done:
No tour would be complete without a GPS device. I bought this on advice from Greg, of the Glasgow Bike station. My lovely mother donated the cash for this purpose probably in the hopes that I would be able to find my way out of a hairy situation. Greg said that when you’re on the road in remote locations having one of these is invaluable where Google Map data and road information is somewhat lacking.
However it is invaluable for checking your position as it has both GPS and GLOSNASS satellite referencing, the latter being the Russian standard. I also find it fun to try and find Geocaches site nearby. Its like a treasure hunt so when I’m bored I’ll occasionally go hunting on foot to see if there is anything near my campsite. I’ve yet to accurately locate a cache but I’ll be trying to familiarise myself with the device and get more into this Geocaching craze in the Balkans.
Thats it for now… I have other tools, gadgets and clothes specifically for the bike that I’ll be reviewing in later posts. I may also revisit some of these items to give more in depth reviews. For now these are the ten items that have been absolutely indispensable for my cycle tour so far and should you choose to head out on the road I hope you might find them helpful too. You may not need them all. You may think some of these are things you can live without but it really depends on how long you plan on going for and how much space you have in your panniers and how many of you comfort gadgets you want to take with you.
PS before some smart arse comments that that is more than ten items I reserve the right to miscount its my blog. Also I’ll take pictures of the products in use for some in depth reviews and post them on Facebook.
*Prices may change after the publish date