On Packing: The Importance of Weight Distribution

Ready to Roll
Ready to Roll

In the 7 months between my last camp of 2015 and my first camp of 2016, I acquired a lot of additional gear. I’ve added a handle bar bag, a Tubus Tara front rack, small Ortlieb sport rollers (colloquially known as front rollers), and another water bottle cage for good measure. I thought I had a really good grasp on how to pack for a camping trip, and indeed I did, if I was only going to be putting weight on the rear of my bike. As I almost immediately discovered, there are additional considerations when employing a low riding front rack.

General Considerations

If you’re only loading on the rear of your bike, you only really need to think about having weight balanced to within 5 pounds on each side and what should be in a bag for waterproofing. I always put the tent in one bag (in a bag in case there is sudden rain), and locks on the other side, as these tend to be the two heaviest things I will be carrying.  As you start to put things up front, you’ll want to generally make sure that most of your weight is on the rear of your bike, then prioritize carrying weight lower on a rack above placing things in a bar bag. The heavier your front gets, the more you’ll notice a difference in handling. Because the weight is sitting on your steering mechanism, it’s extremely important that you get a good weight balance between both sides. You’ll want these bags to weigh about the same to within 1 pound each other. The less weight you have up here, the less you’ll notice a change in cornering and other general handling.

What Are You Bringing?

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I packed this load for a 2 night 6 person trip. I supplied much of the equipment outside of tents and sleeping bags. I also probably could have packed less clothing. Realistically, even if you want to have an experience with a lot of comfort gear, you could probably pack 25% less than this. You can read my whole pack list here.

What Goes Where?

I like to start my packing by filling the rear panniers.

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sleeping bag, locks, lighter, clothes, camp kitchen, sleeping pad

I like to use a compression sack for clothing. It saves a lot of space, but it does tend to make a dense and heavy part of your overall load. This can sometimes complicate the weight balancing effort.

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tent, rain gear, camp shoes

I always think my tent weighs 2 lbs more than it does. I ended up moving my compression sack of clothes to this bag, which made the weights more in balance. I adjust the weight in the two rear panniers until they feel about even and then move on to the other bags.

IMG_1993
bug spray, camp soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, chamois cream, comb, allergy med, band aids, toothpaste, toothbrush, pack towel, fire starter

This is the only bag that I packed successfully on the first try. I didn’t end up moving anything into or out of this pannier. I made use of the back pocket in the pannier to line up all of my toiletries so they were tight and upright as to avoid any spilling in the inevitable jostling they get on the trail.

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stove fuel, lighter, flat fix and assorted tools, camp stove, sleep pad

I decided my sleep pad fit better up here. I put all of my on the road tools in this bag, too. You want to make sure that you have relatively easy access to flat fix materials. I have only been on one trip where there were no flats, and digging around in a gigantic rear pannier for a pump and tube that are crammed under everything else is the worst.

IMG_1995
string cheese, dried mission figs, jerky, sunglasses, sunscreen, wallet, inhaler

This bag is for the snack pack and quick access materials. I put everything I thought I might want while still on the bike up here because it’s the only bag I can safely get into while riding. It’s also the smallest and in the worst place to carry any significant amount of weight.

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camp chair, roasting forks

I strapped these two onto my rack with 2 bungee cords in an X pattern after the rest of my load was placed. Nothing bad would happen if they got wet, and the roasting forks are a little long to fit in a rear pannier very well.

What I Should Have Done

I did not test ride my load before leaving, already late, for our pre-departure breakfast. This was a huge mistake as I had never previously ridden with my front rack loaded. The short 2 blocks I rode were enough to tell me that I had not packed my front panniers very well. Upon arriving at our launching point, I passed off my 2 canisters of stove fuel and then rebalanced the weight up front. This was enough to make my bike feel rideable, but the front was still extremely twitchy and I felt like I couldn’t take a hand off the bars for very long. I was specifically unable to look over my shoulder to see how the rest of the group was getting on. I did get more comfortable with how my bike felt over the next 8 miles, but I definitely should have tried riding with a front load before the day of the trip.

On the return trip, I only had one fuel canister, and 1 fire starter. I also used up all of my mosquito repellent and sunscreen. I left my front panniers packed as they were on the way out, but I swapped my sleep pad for my rain jacket and goggles. This load, though only about two pounds lighter on each side, proved much more manageable. The return trip was made with a great deal more confidence and much less need to have both hands on the bars at all times.

Maybe a Touring Bike Is a Good Idea

I like to ride fast and I use my camping bike as my primary commuting bike. These are some of the reasons that I initially decided to go with Surly’s Cross Check over the Long Haul Trucker (the price difference also helped!). While I do think the higher bottom bracket is really great for how disrespectful I am to my bike (so many curb jumps, so many potholes, never met a branch I didn’t ride over instead of around), the LHT’s touring specific geometry certainly has its advantages. Though the longer chainstay length and 2 degree difference in head tube angle create a more sluggish, boat-like feeling when riding without gear, it would have been nice to have something less twitchy feeling on my initial pack. If you’re planning on having a dedicated camping bike, and/or planning on putting more than 10 pounds on a front rack (the Tara is rated to 25 lbs), getting a touring specific frame just might be right for you.

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