Top 10 (Lightweight) Items to Pack in Your Panniers

Innovation & Entrepreneurship


Ever since my first dispatch from the road I have been mentioning (complaining?) about the weight of the stuff I’ve been hauling over mountain passes, through canyons, and to places that are in the middle of nowhere. I decided I would throw a bone to the cyclists in the crowd as the question I most frequently asked to anyone I could catch on cycling tour before starting the Ride the Talk campaign was, “What item is the most valuable to you on your trip?”

It is amazing how after a few days of travel you discover what is important and what is just dead weight. As one cyclist put it, “Whatever you discover in the bottom of you panniers at the end of the trip is what you didn’t need.” I decided not to wait until the end of the trip to tell you what’s risen to the top.

Below are my top ten picks for (lightweight) “keepers” on a long bicycle tour. (This list doesn’t include the “must-haves” such as bike shorts, helmet, sunscreen, water, multitool, extra tubes/patch kits, mobile phone, maps, etc., as they are a given.)

  1. “Utter Butter” (10 oz): This item is by far the heaviest of all listed but seriously something you should not leave home without. It is oft overlooked in blogs about long-distance cycling but I refuse to keep the myth alive that people simply cycle for hundreds of miles on end in hot/wet weather without incurring serious chaffing, or possibly worse, callusing, in areas that should never, ever be chaffed or calloused. Use the stuff, whether it’s “real” chamois butter or diaper cream. Use it. I repeat: use it. One cautionary note, it looks a lot like sunscreen; don’t make the mistake I did!
  2. Comprehensive bicycle maintenance knowledge (0 oz):  I took a full day class to learn the ins and outs of maintaining and repairing my bike on the road. This knowledge is nearly priceless (although the class did run me $70 at REI). Having the confidence that I could fix my bicycle should something happen grossly out weighs the burden of worry of not knowing how to help myself.
  3. Mirror (2 oz): I am quite certain that my cycling mirror has saved my life dozens of times. At about a dozen dollars, I’d say that it is more than worth its weight (in fact, at this point, the thing is priceless).
  4. Backcountry Boiler (8 oz): If you are planning on making your own food or will be out of range of any kind of food service, I highly recommend this boiler made by The Boilerwerks. It is extremely lightweight, allows you to carry water within it, and boils water in just a few minutes with any locally-available fuel including twigs, grasses, sticks, etc, no traditional fuel necessary.
  5. Cleat screws (0.25 oz each): Speaking from experience, it only takes one situation where you’re unable to release your foot from your clip-less pedals in traffic to decide to carry replacement cleat screws. The guys at Bike Doctor in Missoula, MT, taught me if one’s gone, the other is surely gone or nearly there; always carry two.
  6. Small MP3 player (2 oz): Load your iPod Shuffle or the like with motivational tunes and this tiny piece of electronics will get you up and over mountain passes that you didn’t think possible. Personally, I find Lady Gaga unbelievably motivating (I guess it’s out that I am a “little monster”).
  7. Handkerchief (1 oz): This item is the jack-of-all trades. It can serve a washcloth, sweatband, rope, bandage, pee rag (sorry, TMI?), small sack, chain rag, etc. Invaluable.
  8. Earplugs (0.25 oz): How is it possible that two tiny pieces of foam could nearly guarantee the recommended daily does of sleep? I want to personally thank the inventor of earplugs, whoever s/he was. Thank you. They let you sleep anywhere, any time.
  9. List of emergency numbers (0.25 oz): this could literally save your life. If you cell battery dies, you have no access to numbers and it is surprising what you won’t remember when you absolutely have to remember it. If something happens to you on the road and you are unconscious in the middle of nowhere, people will know who to call. Put it in your first aid kit, wallet, or someplace people are likely to look through right away.
  10. Master link (0.5 oz): This charmer is a tool-free gadget that stands in for a broken chain link. Because it snaps together with your fingers, it only takes a few minutes to install rather than the slippery, time-consuming process of replacing regular chain link(s) and pins. I’m carrying two, just in case.

Cindy Gilbert

Cindy Gilbert is the founding director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program which is home to the fully online, multidisciplinary MA in Sustainable Design (MASD) that is the first of its kind in the world. In this role, she fosters a culture of awareness and creativity through sustainable, innovative and collaborative design. The MASD program blends theory, practice and leadership into a holistic, hands-on learning experience that culminates in student-driven thesis work that brings novel, sustainability-focused products and services to fruition.

Cindy has taught numerous courses and workshops, around the world and online, in the fields of biology, sustainability and biomimicry. She is founder of a consultancy that specializes in innovative online and sustainability education projects with recent clients that include VentureWell, the Biomimicry Institute, the University of Montana,, GeekPuff, and the Green Building Research Institute. Most recently, she served for nearly four years as the founding director of university education at the Biomimicry Institute where she developed and managed all higher education programs, including the biomimicry professional certification program, annual biomimicry education summits, biomimicry affiliate and fellows programs, and biomimicry design challenges. Cindy is based in Montana.