Our gear ranges from expensive, specialized technical ware or wear to nearly disposable products that we commandeered for our own special purposes. Here are some of our simplest and most heavily used little products:
Our lunch kit has been a winner and is always with us in my fanny pack. It includes a Lexan spoon for each of us, a can opener and a knife. With those simple tools we can open up and eat a watermelon or can of tuna as well as prepared salads from a grocery store. The Lexan soup spoons that we both carry are big enough to maneuver bulky food items to our mouths and are durable enough carve out bites of cantaloupe. They usually last the entire 10 month traveling season, even with heavy, daily use. We buy ours at REI for under $2 a pair and have sewn fabric covers to keep them cleaner.
Those cheap, flat can openers that look worthless are dynamite. I wouldn't want to open a pile of cans with one but one can at a time is just fine. We love the thinness and inconsequential weight of these openers and unlike the Lexan spoons, we can replace the can openers here and there in Europe. I stash mine in a recycled plastic sleeve so it doesn't damage anything in my fanny pack.
The first year we toured, Bill carried a beefy Leatherman multi-tool and we found that its bulk and weight prevented it from being kept handy. In contrast, my simple Swiss knife with a single blade and 2 accessory items was lightweight and compact enough that I was willing to keep in handy in my fanny pack. So now the Leatherman is relegated to deeper storage as a bike tool and the Swiss knife is in my fanny pack as a kitchen tool.
These 3 simple and cheap items--the spoons, the can opener, and the knife--are all we use for the year for preparing our evening meals, eating our picnic lunches and diving into any special roadside market finds.
Vinyl Table Cloth Fabric Becomes Sitting Mats
Some European grocery and hardware stores sell colorful vinyl tablecloth material by the meter (about a yard). We buy a half meter of a cheery print with a fuzzy backing, then cut it in half to create 2 squarish pieces. When the store clerks seem accommodating, we ask them to make the second cut or do it ourselves with our tiny folding scissors. These pieces of vinyl tablecloth then become sitting mats for our picnic lunches.
We love having tough, waterproof mats for our rear ends. When we sit in the dirt and rocks the mats protect us from ticks, ants, and soggy ground as well as smooth out the rough spots. Sometimes we use the mats on less than pristine looking benches and rock walls to protect our clothing from tree pitch, bird poop, and general grime. They are a huge help in keeping our clothes both clean and dry on our daily picnic stops.
Unfortunately the colorful side of the mat is the side that goes to the ground and we sit on the fuzzy side as the fuzz helps prevent the tacky feeling of sitting on plastic. But we do enjoy the flash of color when we get the mats out and put them away.
We strive to have everything we carry serve multiple functions
and the picnic sit mats have other uses. In the room we sometimes put the fuzzy
side down and use the vinyl side to protect our room furnishings from
particularly messy eating frenzy.
When Bill does lunch time bike maintenance on the road, we'll put 2 mats together with the fuzzy sides to the inside to create a work surface to contain small tools and parts. Bill has also discovered that the mats make a dandy insulating wrapper to keep our lunchtime chocolate bar from melting in the sun as we ride.
We use our folding scissors to snip off bits of mat edge and corner that become soiled with food on the fuzzy side and when they are just too messy, we pitch them and buy a new pair for around $3. We usually use 1 to 2 pairs a year. And we often take the sit mats with us on sightseeing days in the city as well as use them on biking days.
Viscose Kitchen Cloths
We love those brightly colored viscose kitchen cloths sold in grocery stores for around a dollar for 2 or 3 cloths that are about 15" square. We originally carried them for mopping up the tent, especially on rainy days. They are very absorbent for their weight and work as well as a sponge with less bulk. We used them to soak up the water that inevitably followed us into the tent on our rain clothes and any water that leaked in during the downpours. When staying indoors we found the viscose clothes helpful when the shower or bathtub left more water on the floor than could be managed with towels.
I keep a viscose cloth at the top of my pannier in rainy weather. If I can't ventilate my rain jacket well enough to keep the moisture from condensing, I'll use the cloth to mop up the moisture inside it during rest stops. If the wind is directing too much rain around my collar to my neck, I'll wear the cloth as a neck scarf to trap the water. And if the panniers have gotten too muddy or wet to be welcome in our hotel at night, we'll give our bags a quick wipe down with the viscose cloth before going indoors. Fortunately, these cloths are easy to wash up and dry quickly so they are ready for reuse in little time.
Added Warmth for Descents
My newest uses for these clothes are in temperature extremes. My thighs get uncomfortably cold on some steep mountain descents where we are continuously braking instead of pedaling, cheating my legs out of their usual warmth from exertion. When the long johns and rain pants can't deliver enough cold protection, I use a single safety pin to attach 1 cloth to my long johns near the top of each thigh. Some rain pants are snug fitting enough that I can manage without the safety pins as I am not pedaling in this instance. Usually I fold each cloth in half and they give a welcome insulation to my legs that keeps all of me warmer during the trip down the mountain.
The viscose cloths are handy in the hot weather too to use as a neck cooler. They aren't quite long enough to tie around my neck as they come out of the package, even folded on the diagonal like a bandana. I've used 2 different approaches for lengthening them. My first attempt was cutting a couple of slits in 2 diagonally opposite corners and running a short piece of cording through both pairs of slits. Anything soft would do for a tie, like a bit of shoe lace. That worked fine but looked a little odd.
My next approach was to cut a short strip of the viscose, without cutting it all the way off, to create a self-tie. This approach looks better and is durable enough. With both tying approaches, I trim a triangle off of 2 opposing corners to decrease the bulk of the 'scarf.'
On the hot days I whip out my viscose cloth with ties, saturate it with water from my bottle or a roadside spigot, and loosely tie it around my neck for a quick cool down. It often unattractively drizzles water down my upper chest leaving a soggy spot on the sternum area of my shirt, but I hardly care when it is really hot. It cools as well as the gel neck scarves though must be rewetted more often. The viscose is less prone to mildewing than the gel scarf and doesn't have to be soaked in advance of using. But the viscose is soggier to wear than a gel-filled cooling scarf. When approaching a summit, I balance the need for cooling against the risk of getting my clothes too wet to be comfortable on the descent.
Like with gel-filled cooling scarves, the viscose cloth must be worn loosely and turned frequently as the portion against my neck warms and then holds the heat it instead of cooling. Turning the scarf always allows it to begin cooling again, but it does require frequent fussing to maintain the cooling effect. If we stop for a cool-down or rest, I'll saturate the viscose with more water and flop it around on my head, forehead and neck for extra cooling. In the evening I give it a quick wash with detergent, wring it out, and hang it to dry.
I also use a second wetted viscose cloth to keep the water in my Dromedary water bag cool in hot weather. The evaporation of the water on the cloth has a cooling effect on the water in the bag which is quite welcome in the heat. Like the viscose neck scarf, the viscose cloth on the water bag must be rewetted several times during a hot, dry day.
When the viscose cloths become too thin and limp to be of much use, their final duty is cleaning grease off the bike or chain. Our cleaning fluids aren't up to the task of cleaning the cloths up and so at that point they get pitched, though we often use a cloth for 1 to 2 years.
Bulgur--The Ultimate in Dehydrated Foods
Bulgur--partially cooked, cracked wheat--has got to be the best dehydrated food around. It's cheap, it's nutritious, it's durable, it's non-perishable, and it's infinitely easier to find than backpacker's dehydrated foods. You may have been eating it in tabouli salads without knowing it as it has Middle Eastern origins.
A half pound stowed in the bottom of a pannier guarantees enough calories to keep us both going when the expected food for a breakfast, lunch or dinner isn't there. We like to carry more than that as food insurance for unexpected holiday closures at local grocery stores or cooking disasters. You can use hydrated bulgur like rice or pasta for any meal of the day or find recipes designed just for it.
It's especially handy as most preparations of bulgur can be eaten without being cooked. The best products are quite palatable after a half hour or more soaking in water. The lesser varieties benefit from hydration in the heat of boiling water and some need a little extra heat boost after that. Microwaving is ideal for providing the extra heat but putting the bowl of soaking bulgur in a sink with 1" of hot water will often do the trick.
We regularly dish-out about 140g per serving by counting spoonfuls to create a hearty breakfast augmented by salt and olive oil at a minimum. Turmeric, canned beans, and chopped fresh tomatoes are added when available for our ultimate hearty and colorful breakfast.
For lunch, we sometimes pour bulgur, salt, and water into a plastic bag and let it hydrate while we pedal in the morning. A little olive oil and any other amendments like canned beans or vegetables can be added just before eating at lunchtime.
Bulgur can be hard to find overseas and its availability varies from country to country and between regions within a country. I usually keep an empty package to show the next clerk in a given country what I am looking for as many people are unfamiliar with the product, even if you get the name right and they have it in their store. Huge supermarkets and health food stores are the best bets for locating bulgur when it is difficult to find.
Bulgur is often shelved with the rice and pastas and in some stores, in their international section if they have one. In New Zealand we'd go weeks without finding bulgur in the towns and then in one large supermarket they had 5 different brands of bulgur stashed in 4 different places in the store.
Film Cans for Coins
We don't use film cameras anymore, but still carry a memento for our coins. A plastic film canister makes a great coin purse for our fanny packs. It keeps all the coins together so we don't accumulate excess heavy change. At the cash register, it's easy to pour the coins out in a neat row into your palm for easy selection. Light-weight, easy to replace, and free--what could be better.
Keeping It Compact
Shaving the bulk from our toiletries has been a real boon, with tackling dental floss and medication tablets being our big space-savers. I have a favorite dental floss I bring from home but strip it down to 1 dispensing canister and create my own refills by removing the rest of the stash from their canisters and protecting them with a strip of plastic wrap.
And all medications come out of their containers and get bundled into tight little plastic wrap 'rafts'. Not only are they phenomenally more compact, but they are less subject to disintegrating from bouncing around in a pill bottle. Written prescriptions are kept with the appropriate pills but we've never been asked about our medications in 6 years of travel.
Minimizing Punctures Inside Luggage
Wear and tear damage is one of our big enemies and we are very careful to minimize damage to our belongings both inside and outside our panniers. We use our folding scissors to round the corners on all of our products in tubes, like tooth paste, hand lotion and sun screen as soon as we buy them. If we leave those sharp corners, we risk having holes bored into other items after weeks or months of jostling. And a short length of plastic tubing is invaluable over the tips of our little hair-cutting scissors to keep them from puncturing other precise belongings.
Soft-sided luggage survives the rigors of baggage handling best when packed full, though not bulging. This can be hard to achieve if you expect to bring souvenirs home. You can fill the space budgeted for returning treasures on your out bound journey with rolls of toilet paper or paper towels. Either can be useful when traveling and will add rigidity but not much weight to your bag. If you don't use the paper products yourself during your trip, they can be left behind at a small expense to you with the knowledge that the supplies will be used by someone else.