What do you need in terms of clothes for bike touring? It’s hard to say.
One thing I’ve noticed consistently is that each cyclist has his/her own preferences for clothes, so it’s hard to say what you should take with you. All I can do is give some idea about what we packed (and each of the four of us liked different things), and you can take it from there.
We lived in our bicycling shorts! In fact, we opted to get rid of underwear altogether and only carried bike shorts. That being said, we had a large variety of bike shorts.
John: John’s bike short preference was for Ibex wool bike shorts. He found them comfortable, even in the heat of Central America. He also had a pair of Pearl Izumi shorts, but he reached for the Ibex pair way more frequently. He carried only two pairs, and washed them when he had a chance.
Nancy: I discovered the joys of wool as well – but I didn’t use padded shorts at all. My favorite were the Ibex wool running shorts, with another pair of regular shorts over the top of them. I used to find my padded cycling shorts smelled so badly by the end of the day I couldn’t stand to be around them, but with the wool, I could even wear them more than one day if I had to – no smell at all! I carried four pairs of my wool shorts and two pairs of over shorts.
Davy & Daryl: We found the best fit for the boys were the Performance kids bike shorts, but it appears they are no longer for sale. Bike shorts for kids vary TREMENDOUSLY in size, so be sure to try them on. The boys preferred to wear the bike shorts with another pair of shorts over them. We also bought a few pairs of the two-in-one shorts before we left but, in retrospect, I wouldn’t get them again – it’s way easier to deal with two separate pairs of shorts rather than one connected pair.
For the most part, we prefer cotton. Plain ol’ 100% cotton. We don’t like cycling jerseys made from man-made plasticky fabric – that stuff STINKS! I understand that racers need jerseys for the aerodynamics involved, but when you are touring you aren’t going fast enough for that to be a factor.
We carried three t-shirts each, all of them cotton. Davy also had one light-weight merino wool t-shirt that was wonderful. Natural fabrics are way better than synthetic.
John and I preferred merino wool. We each had a few pairs of merino socks that we wore all the time – when it was hot and when it was cold. The wool dried quickly and was very comfortable. In addition to the short quarter socks, we each had a pair of thick wool socks for when it was cold.
For the boys, we opted to get cheapo cotton socks. I had some good socks for them at one point, but they were both so hard on socks that they wore them out in a couple months. I just made a point of picking up a few pairs every month or so when I found a good store, and they were good to go.
I’ve written more about the options and why you might choose each kind of shoe here: What kind of shoe do I need for bike touring?
John: John wore cleated shoes while cycling. He found the added advantage of utilizing his entire pedal stroke to be invaluable while pedaling the heavy tandem. He also carried another pair of sneakers for walking around the campground/hotel, and sandals for when it was hot.
Nancy: I decided I didn’t want to deal with cleats on our PanAm journey. On our first year-long trip around the USA and Mexico, I wore cleated shoes while cycling and changed into sneakers once off the bike. I found it was more hassle than it was worth. I hated having to change my shoes every time we had to walk over a bridge or up a steep hill or through the supermarket or… Besides that, I only wanted to carry two pairs – and I wanted one pair to be sandals. On the PanAm I wore regular sneakers on the bike and sandals once I was off. It worked for me!
The kids: The kids wore regular sneakers as well. They tended to be so hard on shoes that we replaced them on a regular basis. In general hiking shoes or trail runners worked well. They both also had a pair of sandals for when we went to the beach.
Cold Weather Gear
Layers, layers, layers. I had always read that one should go for layers, but I didn’t truly understand it until we were out on the bikes. We dealt with every conceivable type of weather condition, and utilized every conceivable combination of layers we had. Although we each had a slightly different set of layers, the basic kit for each of us was:
- Thin cotton long-sleeve shirt
- Thin wool long-sleeve shirt
- Felted wool sweater or down jacket– we went to a thrift store and found some nice merino wool sweater vests a couple sizes too big, then threw them in the washer with HOT water, lots of soap, and on the longest cycle possible. They felted down to a thick, warm layer for our torsos. Once Eddie Bauer First Ascent came on as a sponsor, we got down.
- Rain jacket – depending on the wind conditions, we could use a rain jacket on top of all the above to serve as a wind break. And, of course, when it was raining.
- Tights – When it was really cold, we used two pairs of tights each, but that didn’t happen very often. Generally speaking, one pair of tights (I preferred wool) was fine. We carried rain pants for the kids, so they could put those on if they needed for an extra layer, but they rarely needed to.
- Socks – a thin pair of wool socks and a thick pair of wool socks with shoes that were a bit too big seemed to do the trick. Daryl tended to get cold feet very easily, so sometimes we added a plastic bread bag onto his feet before he put on his shoes.
- Hats/gloves/face protection – we found that wool gloves and hats were the best. Wool even kept Daryl’s fingers semi-warm! We carried a lightweight liner pair and a thicker pair for each of us. We also had Smartwool hats that could fit under our helmets, and neck gaiters that we could pull up over our faces.
We each carried a rain jacket and pants, but we tried hard to avoid riding in the rain. We never did find anything that truly worked for our feet and hands when it was raining – if we got caught in a cold rain our hands and feet simply got cold until we could get out of the bloody rain! We tried plastic bags, which worked to an extent, but not completely. If you will be in the rain a lot, I hear there are some neoprene socks that work well.
For the record, REI was the only place we found decent quality rain gear for kids. This is the one our kids wore.
We didn’t carry a lot of clothes for our time off the bike – we just wore our cycling clothes most of the time. For part of our journey, I had a lightweight skirt that I could put on if I was going someplace where shorts weren’t acceptable. John carried a pair of sweatpants. The boys simply wore the same clothes they wore on the bike.
One extra that was worth its weight in gold was a sweatband (how much weight would that be, anyway?) Both John and I used Headsweats Headbands under our helmets to keep the sweat out of our eyes. They were invaluable in Central America!