How I Pack For a European Bicycling Vacation

Carefully. Like a surgeon.

I just returned from a trip to Munich. Staying in one hip hotel, the Ruby Lilly, I got to my room and proceeded to unpack enough clothes and shoes to open a store. Munich, evidently, was a breeze to pack for. My doppelganger threw everything from my closet into my luggage, zipped it up and I was off to cart around Bavaria with all the comforts and contents of home. Don’t . . . just don’t.

I have the great fortune to travel again in about a month, and will pack and plan much more in line with my refined method that follows a few simple rules of bicycle travel.

Start by considering a few simple questions. Where are you going in Europe and for how long? What bike are you riding? And most importantly, do you have a place you can stash or store a luggage? Because ultimately, you are packing for you and a bike.

Storage and Safety

Plan for the fact that your bike could be the envy of all humankind. Implement a strategy that lets you sleep like a baby and enables you to ride when you want. Plan where your next best meal will be and relax in the comfort and security of locking your bike up and down.  

When I travel, my bike is locked every moment I am not riding it. That should be your standard, whether you are renting or borrowing or buying the bicycle. I typically ride Gazelle bikes, which have a locking system built into the rear wheel, and bring two additional heavy duty Abus locks for peace of mind. I pack my locks into my checked bags, otherwise, I expect to take them out for inspection by TSA if they are in my carry-on. The locks are also wildly heavy to cart around an airport which puts a damper on duty-free shopping, but can save you a fortune. If you don’t want to travel with your locks to your destination, I am completely confident that you will be able to walk into any local bicycle store or bicycle rental shop and find dozens of them from which to choose, with all levels of deterrent.  

In the evening, with moonlight and streetlamps and countless kilometers, I organize a place to store my bike that encourages sleep at night. My bike is either in my room, or in a locked space. If you decide to store your bike outside of your room, be sure that you have access to it at all hours. There may be an occasion when the hotel front desk or airbnb host is not available and your bike could be locked away until they arrive which puts a damper on the early morning hours of traffic-free streets and late-night gelato runs.

Every time you leave your bike, take a picture of it. This is especially important if you are renting. You want to be able to document both your location and your bicycle security and locks in case of theft. And talk to the people you are getting your bike from. You are riding in their neighborhood and nothing compares with local advice on everything from bikes to beer.

Helmets

Make a decision about bringing a helmet. I find about 1 in every 500 people wear them in Europe. I typically bring my Yakkay helmet along, clipped to my carry-on. If you are faced with packing concerns, you could consider a folding helmet, which I have yet to try. Unlike bike locks, you may be hard-pressed to find a store that has a fair range of helmets to choose from. If you are planning to ride with your helmet, I recommend finding a way to make it part of your packing list.

Bike Gear

The answer is as diverse as an apple selection at Whole Foods in October. You should bring everything you need for a flat tire. Tire levers and spare tubes and a bike pump are a great start. You might also consider bringing along a bicycle multi-tool, handy for fixing a full range of issues. But your needs are directly dictated by your bike and where you are riding. Your best bet would be to ask someone from where you are renting or buying your bicycle. Tell them your intentions.  They would be able to steer you in the right direction and help you determine whether you needed something over and above the multi-tool and tire backup plan. Bikes sold in Europe are required to have headlights and taillights, fenders and bells, so you can expect to find these compliments to your ride.

Panniers and Luggage

Most bikes throughout Europe are fitted with racks that are designed for panniers, or bike bags. I pack two panniers, both made in the United States by Velo Transit. They are remarkably durable, waterproof, and you can stuff them full like a Mary Poppins carpet bag. We are looking into getting one more to help offset the load on my husband’s bike this summer. If you are in the market for a pannier, you would be easily able to find a sweet range at a local bike store in Europe, including options that you would be hard-pressed to find in the United States. The drawback is that it is much harder to plan your load and packing capacity without the bag in hand.

I try to plan our trips with three different hotels or airbnbs so that we can bring luggage. We arrive and roll our luggage to our first hotel, stay for a few days and then move the suitcase to our third hotel to await our return from some overnights out and about. This allows us more luggage space for our stuff, and also keeps us from having to haul around our full load at any given point.  We can pack our panniers for several days without having to load everything up and ride it around.

During our stay in Bruges last summer, we did exactly that and it worked out brilliantly! We spent several days in Bruges, moved our luggage to the third airbnb, one of my all-time favorite places to lay my head, the B&B ZAKSKE13 (by St Jacobs). They were awesomely courteous and generously held our luggage while we headed out for a four day trip into the country.  We came back to a clean set of clothes and squirreled away chocolates and were wildly happy.

Clothing

With the exception of Munich, I plan my outfits like crazy.  Not for any reasons of vanity, just because I need to carry every freaking ounce around. I typically will pack black or blue. Black or blue tops and bottoms. With that decision made, I can narrow down my wardrobe and shoes into one color family with a whole lot of neutrals.  For me, making this color choice is the most important packing decision and proved to be the fundamental disaster of Munich. With a white skirt, I can pack four different combinations of black tops to wear.  With three white or cream t-shirts, I can wear black jeans, my favorite black Ibex skirt and grey Ibex maxi skirt. And then I simply mix and match my way into something that looks like it was well planned.

I pack tight, so things that can be rolled up work brilliantly. I find my favorites must-haves are packing pieces that are lightweight and made from natural fibers. I love packing cotton and wool and silk because I like to ride, no, I like to live in them. I never travel without Ibex, simple white t-shirts, and my lightweight, waterproof waxed cotton jacket. I like to dress for the day and the ride, so I am comfortable in any setting, on and off my saddle.

Beyond that, pack what you love. Make it versatile. Prepare for any weather. And don’t be bothered by rain. Rainy day rides are really a special type of fun.

Miscellaneous

I always travel with tissue and it comes in handy whether I’m visiting the local shrubbery or wiping down my face from the rain. I also pack hand sanitizer for on-the-go clean up. I include a few band-aids and some pain relievers such as Advil or Tylenol.

I pack a healthy handful of sample sizes from Dr. Haushka along with a few full sized items. I love their full line of face and skin products and I save samples from my local food coop, and bring them along instead of full sized product.

I bring sunscreen and use it everyday on every inch of exposed skin. I am testing out two different types right now, Badger and Glossier and will let you know why I like each one when I have it figured out.

I bring along my water bottle, filling it up throughout the day.

Other than that, I keep it simple. Pack light and beautiful and safe.