We do not compare actual manufacturers products, but the applicable benefit of various options. There are lots of great websites comparing brands, so we won't replicate reviews. Here we see which winner is based on how it performed along the 2500 miles of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
We rode the CDT in four sections, so were able to try several different setups. By the last quarter we had it right.
It would apply to any off-road bike touring route you choose, with some variation where you may be road touring. The suggestions below don't apply to the respected soles who hike the paralllel route of the CDT, or to the ultra racers of the CDT. It is a Gear vs. Gear list for touring, camping, and making the most of an extended bikepacking trip.
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Steel vs. Ti vs. Aluminum vs. Carbon
As long as you have a high quality well built frame that fits you the material is not important. If you break or bend the common metals you can find a garage and many ranchers know how to weld. With enough duct tape, splints, and by throwing your gear on your buddy's trailer you can limp to help unless it is a catastrophic failure. In shipping my carbon frame was cracked, but did not realize it until on the trail when my shifting went crazy where the frame flexed at the break. I was able to fix that with a fiberglass canoe repair kit. It looked like a big cancer where the glue and fabric was wrapped around the spot, but it worked.
Suspended vs. Unsuspended
Unless you are racing the CDT please don't go with a full suspension bike. It's heavier, will perform poorly loaded or pulling a trailer, and there will be lots of moving parts you cannot field service. Though going with a front shock is mandatory.
Geared vs. Single Speed
Once again, unless you are a wild man racer go with gears. Add 70 lbs. to your bike and single speed 12 miles up 6,000' on a rough gravel road and you will feel why gears are so important. A 3X8,9,10 or 2x8,9,10 system will work great. Have a cassette in the rear with a minimum 32 teeth and a preferred 36 teeth if going 10 speed rear. A 1X8,9,10 system is OK, but only if you are fit enough to pull it off. Note that you will rarely use the big ring up front. Coming off a mountain pass at speed on gravel is awesome, but that 50+lbs. of gear turns your fun handling bike into a land barge. Remember that the emergency room is far far away.
Trailer vs. Pannier
There are several setups for either a pannier or trailer system or a combo of both. A pannier will put everything on your bike whereas a trailer will keep everything off of your bike. If you're over 200 lbs., using an ultra light wheel set, or tend to run into every rock on the trail then go with a trailer. If you are a normal weight person, tend to float on your bike, and travel light then go with a pannier. The only downside to a trailer is the shipping. It will be like shipping two bikes, though I was able to duffle bag mine and still stay below airline size requirements. Asking someone for a ride will require a full sized truck to fit your bike and trailer.
Suspended Trailer vs. Solid Trailer
A trailer with a rear shock will flatten the trail, track to uneven surfaces better, and will be less prone to wheel damage. A solid axle trailer will weigh up to 10 lbs. less, have little or no risk of joint/bearing/shock failure, and eliminate that "noodly" feel out back. The suspended trailer will pack down a little smaller for shipping as the swingarm and shock usually comes off. No need for a suspended trailer when traveling on smooth or paved surfaces.
Tubes vs. Tubeless
This decision is usually made for you if you already own a bike. I really like tubeless setups, but realize there are no air compressors in the rare instance you break the seal on your tire. With that said, I have spent a whole day and gone through 6 tubes chasing a flat that wouldn't go away (bur on the rim I found later). Ideally start with tubeless, but have at least 3 tubes and a patch kit as a backup.
Rim Brakes vs. Disc Brakes
Hands down Disc Brakes are the way to go for touring. After 1,000 miles on rim breaks the wheel set will be ruined. The pads will literally eat into the rim and the arc of your finger will fit nicely into the groove. Eroding away at the rim will compromise the integrity of the wheel set. Disc brakes will stop better, stay cleaner, and a spare set of pads takes up very little space.
Winner: Disc Brakes
Hydraulic vs. Mechanical Disc Brakes
If you've experienced the difference between Hydraulic and Mechanical Disc brakes you will know how awesome the Hydraulic brakes work. The Hydraulic brakes have superior clamping force over the Mechanical ones. For touring I wouldn't have Hydraulics. In the unlikely chance you nick the line or lose your fluid somehow you are without stopping power. Remember that unlikely things happen when you are the farthest away from civilization. With Mechanicals they can be dirty, squeaky, or out of pads and still work.
Winner: Mechanical Disc Brakes
Presta Valves vs. Schrader Valves
Even with many entry level bikes a Presta Valve is standard. This is good, but for off-road touring you will not run into many places to air up if your personal pump fails. Every gas station, and RV park have an air compressor and they are all Schrader Valves. If running an air shock it will be Schrader also. Just buy a little adaptor from your local bike shop to convert Presta to Schrader and you will be OK. If you run out of tubes the Big Box stores will have plenty of cheap Schrader Valve tubes, but often no Presta.
Air Shock vs. Coil Shock
I love my air shock. It's light, has lots of adjustments, and performs great. On the CDT I blew it twice and had a suffering ride on a long stutter bumped road to the next campsite where I could field service it. A coil is brainless, really has no way to fail, and will work even when abused past it's scheduled maintenance.
Winner: Coil Shock
26" Wheels vs. 29er
This is no more than personal preference. The 29er will really soften up the primitive forest service roads and rocky paths. I am still an old school 26" fan for its quick steering response and stiffer wheel feel. You will not find tires or tubes at a Big Box store for 29" wheels.
Shared Tent vs. Personal Tent
I really like having my own space. I've done the shared tent before without problem, and it does take less room for a group overall. It allows one personal to pull the tent while another has room for other shared items like pump, stove, or food. If traveling with a loved one the single tent may be your only option. The downside is that people go to bed at different times, snore, and fart. Remember, you don't smell yourself - your buddy stinks, but he thinks you stink.
Winner: Personal Tent
Tent vs. Bivy
This is personal preference. A Bivy will take up much less space, but is more vulnerable to rough weather. A small tent lets you keep essential gear out of the elements. Adding a flyweight tarp is a great option with the Bivy. This way you can park your bike underneath, cook if it's raining, and have what is called a "yard sale" underneath. Of course now your packing the same volume as a regular tent with its size, ground cloth, and fly.
Gas Stove vs. Canister Stove vs. Alcohol Stove
I highly recommend a white gas or multi-fuel burning compact stove. The gas canister stoves are great for short trips, but impractical for an extended outing. There is a multitude of gas stations and Big Box stores where you can score fuel, but very few outdoor specialty stores with canister fuel along the CDT. The tough CDT hikers often use a small or self made alcohol fuel stove. A guy we met created one from the bottom of an aluminum cola can - it worked great. For solo travel and short trips a alcohol stove may work, but for larger meals, and cooking for more than one person stick with white gas. Many places you camp will be Forest Service campsites with a nice fire ring, table, and primitive toilet. This means lots of RV-ers who almost always have a gallon of white gas. A friendly conversation will easily score you free gas good for a week of cooking. In the 2400 miles of the CDT I only paid for white gas once.
Winner: Gas Stove
Air vs. Foam Sleeping Pad
Go with the Air. It will pack down much smaller once squeezing it out in the mornings. The foam is rock and puncture proof, but you can use your bike patch kit if you get a hole in the air pad. Go full length and pretty tall. Sleeping comfort is essential after a hard day of work. I also recommend getting an air pad which doubles as a camp chair.
Winner: Air Pad
Down Bag vs. Synthetic Bag
I really love my down bag. It's super comfy and has a natural tendency to lull me asleep. With that note it will still be a tie. In the West both will dry quickly enough if moist. In a soggy environment the synthetic may be the better choice. Regardless get a good compression storage bag and a bag liner to keep the sleeping bag from getting funky. Washing the bag liner is much easier than the whole thing. Let your climate decide the temperature rating. On the CDT we saw temperatures from 19 to 119 degrees. This meant sleeping from all bundled up to on top with just boxers.
Plug vs. Solar
I have tried a couple solar trickle charge systems with limited success. They all seemed to keep my cell phone and mp3 players from losing a charge, but they didn't give them the robust electric revitalizing they needed. In the day I would have the solar cell strapped to my gear in full sun, but still had limited charge after 8 hours of daylight. You don't have room for a big solar cell. They continue to make cooler and better systems - folding ones, rollable, and interconnecting. On most off-road tours your cell phone will last weeks if turned on and off carefully. When we went through a small town for a burger we'd just sit by a wall plug and top everything off during lunch.
Winner: Plug, for Now
Pump Water Filer vs. Light Pen Filter vs. Tablets
I have not used the ultraviolet light pen filter before, but it seems like a real space saver. The pump filter is tried and true, but comes with added bulk, the need for cleaning, and is clumsy to operate. Iodine or other purification tables have a very small packing area and work great. With tables you need enough for the entire trip. Regardless you MUST have a system. With the Pen and Tablets some pre-screening would be necessary to remove floaters, solids, and other bits. We always use a coffee filter wrapped around the inlet to reduce cleaning intervals. The iodine purification tablets start to make me sick after a couple weeks, but this is just a personal sensitivity.
Headlamp vs. Flashlight
A good AA or AAA headlamp will last weeks without replacing the batteries. Making camp before dark is essential, so I only use my headlamp for reading and minor night tasks. I went 4 weeks on the same batteries. It frees your hands and typically has multiple light modes depending on need. It is small and very packable. A handheld flashlight is bulky and meant for the home or car.
Camping Dehydrated Food vs. Grocery Store Food
I like prepackaged dehydrated meals for ultra-light backpacking and overnight trips, but it's not practical for bike touring. You could mail it to yourself at post offices along a route, but it's just easier to stock up at the local grocery store. Along the CDT you may have to carry up to 3 days worth of food, but there is almost always a gas station or small grocery even in the smallest of towns. In small town grocery stores you don't have an option for fruit, the cola may be flat, and the oatmeal comes in one flavor - none.
Winner: Grocery Store Food
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