Doom's Bikerafting Kit - The Gear, The Ciggies & The Polaroid Camera
My Bikerafting Kit for Travelling Alone in the Pamirs
My objective when I set off alone to explore Tajikistan - Pamir Mountains, Central Asia - was to see the landscapes and people of the farthest reaches of the country. I wanted to use my bike and packraft to traverse lesser used roads and trails to get to these places.
As you can imagine a lot of planning was involved before I even bought my plane tickets. Bringing the right amount of the appropriate gear is, in my mind, a critical component to any successful mission. And traveling alone for a month and without language skills only intensifies the need for proper planning and self-reliance.
Having said that, it would be easy to pack a bikerafting kit with everything you could possibly need into a bunch of giant panniers and start a long ride. But, it’s not so easy to carry, push, and shove a grossly overloaded bike around the “Roof of the world.” Or anywhere for that matter.
Choosing the proper gear for any bike trip, be it large or small, is a skill that every cyclist should take seriously, because it’s oftentimes these choices that will dictate the outcome of your trips when things get weird. Leaving that chain breaker (that you don’t even know how to use) at home might save you some weight and space, but your ride is over if you happen to snap a chain mid trip. Trust me, you’ll figure out how to use this simple tool if you have it when you need it. Other items may not be such a no brainer, like water filtration/purification. This essential aspect of your gear list can’t be over looked, but necessary system can vary largely due to expected water sources and cargo space at hand.
What's In a Kit...
The bikerafting kit described below was my best attempt at putting this all together while carrying the least amount of shit possible. Remember that this list varies greatly depending where I go, when I go, and what the terrain might dictate.
The #1 item on my list, which also happened to be something that I could have easily not taken, was a modern Polaroid camera - Insta 90 by Fujifilm, with 80 pieces of film. This little instant camera provided a way for me to give something back to all the amazingly gracious people (many of them children) who I met along the way. We would do portraits, and I would hand these little prints over to my new friends as a thank you for the meal or great company that they had provided to a stranger in a strange land. Two pounds, priceless.
Because this was in no way designed to be a road or gravel grinder trip, I took a real mountain bike with a plush fork and three inch “plus” tires.
The Specialized Fuse was my bike of choice. This bike handles weight well and the plus tires give extra cushion to float over rough terrain, yet it’s no sluggish fat bike. I have the carbon version of this bike, but I would in no way suggest that carbon is the way to go on a trip like this. The aluminum version would certainly be a better choice for durability and reparability in a rugged place like central Asia. But, I had the carbon bike so it’s what I brought. I should add that I did end up riding hundreds of miles of roads and highways in Tajikistan and can honestly say that they are rough!
Every road-touring cyclist with mid-sized tires that I met along these roads looked at my large tires and squishy fork with envy. One guy in particular was so fed up with his skinny tired bone shaker I swore he was about to abandon it right in front of me and start thumbing it.
If there’s one thing that people with racks have trouble with, it’s breaking the bolts that connect the bottom of the rack to the bicycle. These tiny bolts carry all the weight of the rack and gear, and I’ve seen these break more times than I can remember. Or worse, the bike itself will break at this high stress point.
I use an Old Man Mountain rack with a thru axle system that the rack sits on. Basically, the stock thru axle is replaced with one that has a longer extension on both sides of the wheel which carries the weight of the rack and gear. The rack has specific machined lowers “legs” that fit over these extensions and are held in place with a smaller bolt that does not carry the weight of the rack. This is by far the most bomber system I’ve seen.
Panniers: Don't Fill them With Your Fears!
Let’s talk panniers. Yes, the bike bags that carry your gear and live on your rack or racks. They have many pros, like simplicity of use, the ability to carry plenty of gear, and they come in many sizes, colors, and prices. The problem with panniers it that they are HEAVY, and because they can carry so much gear people tend to “fill them with their fears.” I wish that I could take credit for that quote, but alas a fellow cyclist said this to me on the road, in discussion about why touring cyclists’ bikes are so heavy.
However, Revelate Designs makes Nano Panniers, and this is what I use. Many touring cyclists are carrying front and rear panniers, which weigh in at around seven pounds (empty). The Nanos tip the scales at a mere 16.4 ounces and they held the majority of my food supply for a week’s worth of travel.
Frame Bag & Other Bike Bags
A frame bag is the corner stone of any bike packing set up!! I use Revelate Designs, but there are many choices out there these days. All my heavy gear and daily use stuff goes in here—things like water, lunch, snacks, camera batteries, and all bike tools, etc. A frame bag allows you to keep the center of gravity low while giving easy access to things you need during your time on the bike.
I also use Revelate's handle bar bags/harness often. On the other hand, in order to save weight on this trip and to keep it simple, I just used two cam style bungee cords to keep my rolled-up boat secure and safe on my bars.
The Packraft Kit
Of all the gear choices that I made for this trip, the boat was the hardest to decide on. You might be thinking what is a packraft, and what possible use could it provide on a bike ride to the “Roof of the World”? These are great questions, the latter of which I was struggling with myself. A packraft is a (usually) single-person, light weight inflatable boat. These little water craft have been essential tools for many of my past trips where water presents not-crossable barriers to forward progress. Weighing in at anywhere from two to ten pounds these boats can carry you and your bike across bodies of water, and even better, down river canyons with no road or trail access. In the end I decided to bring the boat.
My boat kit consisted of a custom 3lbs 11oz Alpacka Raft with special light weight Vectran fabric and thin floor that I made specifically for trips like this (when I worked at Alpacka years ago. Don’t ask them to make one for you, but go with their Caribou bikeraft or one of their super light, stripped down Alpacka Classics). The paddle is a Sawyer five-piece carbon and cedar unit (another great option is the Aqua-Bound 4pc Whiskey paddle, made specifically for packrafters). My safety gear was a super lightweight drysuit, and inflatable PFD.
The total weight of this kit was around 7.5 lbs. It provided the best day of adventure on the whole trip when I deployed the boat to paddle 17 miles down the otherwise impassable Istyk River Canyon to shortcut into the Aksu valley, 13,000 feet.
Clothing, Sun Protection, Communications & Everything Else
Dual Duty Gear
Whenever possible I like to use items that have a dual duty. My sleep kit is a pretty good example of that. I was testing out a 27oz shelter from Hyperlight Mountain Gear. It uses trekking poles to hold it upright. Of course, I wasn’t using poles on my bike ride, but my paddle took the place of the poles and worked great to pitch my tent every night. Tajikistan is a very windy place, and I was happy to have this bomber respite from my least favorite weather phenomenon.
My ¾-sleeping pad leaves my feet and lower legs hanging off on the ground but my empty pack provided just enough padding to keep them insulated and warm. Lastly, I took my ten-year-old down Western Mountaineering 32-degree bag. I knew that I’d see nightly temps under this rating but on those occasions, I would just go to bed with all my clothes on. Sleep kit 3lbs 7oz.
Cooking & Water
This is another place where you can shed weight and bulk quickly. Everyone thinks they need a water filter. I own one and never pack it. I typically use Aqua Mira drops to treat drinking water and boil dirty water from lakes or rivers for dinner and breakfast. For international trips like Tajikistan I take the aptly named MSR Whisperlite International stove. Runs on just about anything flammable and is super reliable.
We could go down a tech rabbit hole right now, but that is a dark dark place the likes of no ISO can cut through. So, I’ll just say that I brought my best body (Sony A7RIII) and one (gasp) lens to cover the basic necessary focal lengths. The new 24-105 F4 lens from Sony was the best weight to focal length lens that I could find.
As a photographer I understand the reality that whatever lenses I bring there will be opportunities that I will miss due to inadequate glass. That’s just how it goes, period. My girlfriend recently asked me if I feel naked when I don’t have a camera, and my answer was yes, and free too. The camera is a burden that I will gladly carry just like the clothes on my body.
Speaking of protection, sunglasses, a ball cap, sun block, and light sun blocking hoodie are must haves! As well as a small first aid kit, with appropriate meds.
I waffled on bringing two pairs of glasses, because it seemed so redundant, but after losing my first pair of glasses (on day one) fleeing a dog attack, I put on my spares and felt like a king. Bring two pairs for big international remote trips!
In regards to clothing, there’s absolutely no one right way to do this. Just think less is more, and bring soap for doing laundry.
Three packs of Marlboro Reds for military dudes and those in need of a smoke. These gifts were invaluable on this journey through an ex constituent republic of the former USSR.
Last but not least is outside communications. For this I used the Inreach Mini, pairs to your phone and allows satellite texting and SOS in case of serious emergency. 3.5 oz. These units are small, quite reliable, and have saved a lot of asses over the years. If weather is of concern during your trip you can plan ahead and have a friend at home message you updates as needed. This can be super helpful for dicey weather situations, with small margins for error. This especially true with packrafting and canyoneering.
The Bikerafting Kit Final Words
I’m not particularly attached to the idea that having the most expensive or perfect gear possible will allow you to have a great time. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. Getting out the door with whatever you’ve got for a bikerafting kit is always better than staying home and doing housework or worse, washing your bike for the umpteenth time so it still looks new. Some of my most cherished bikepacking debacles have been caused by the things that I didn’t have.
Want some more tips & tricks, check out, "Pack This! What's in Your Bikeraft Kit," about short bikerafting adventures.