How I packed for RAGBRAI - including combining the final two days of the 2021 route.
After 48 years of tradition, I finally registered to ride RAGBRAI in 2021. (2020 was supposed to be the 48th annual ride, but COVID…) Packing for this week-long ride/event has caused some complications due to self-inflicted circumstances. This is despite my experience as a bicycle tourist and lightweight bikepacker, plus thousands of miles of experience on dual-sport and extended cross-country motorcycle camping trips. You would think a simple 450 mile bike tour would be easy. Read on to discover my challenges.
What makes RAGBRAI different from traditional bicycle touring? Some people have called this tour across Iowa a moving county fair, or a week-long block party on wheels. On my other bikepacking and motorcycle excursions, riding was the THING. I rode from morning until night. Then I camped, and in the morning I put on my riding clothes and rode some more. I have instructed others on backcountry travel and led extended tours. The common theme is that you bring a change of clothes so that when your riding kit gets dirty, you can wash it and change into something fresh. Other than a few sightseeing side trips, every day is riding and racking up miles. (I once rode 7,500 miles in a 15-day motorcycle trip to Alaska. Do the math.) Two sets of clothes are sufficient for a weekend, week, or a year on the road! Add a T-shirt and pants for off the bike and you are set to go.
But RAGBRAI is part flea market, endless food court, live entertainment and beer garden strung along dozens of towns across the state of Iowa. Bicycle riding is the SECONDARY reason people attend year after year. It is non-stop fun with special events and activities in each town, and the bicycle is the vehicle which connects the dots. The riding is done by mid-day with plenty of time for exploring the towns or other activities. Added to this is the logistics of getting to the starting point of this one-way route on the western edge of Iowa and then home from the finish line on the eastern border at the Mississippi River.
One of the distinctions of RAGBRAI compared to traditional bike touring is the baggage shuttle – either through the RAGBRAI organization or various charters and teams. You can ride an unloaded bike everyday by letting the RAGBRAI fleet carry your luggage, including clothes and camping gear. The fact that RAGBRAI limits your bag to 50-pounds should indicate that most participants are not traveling lightly! Unlike self-supported bike touring, you don’t need to bring food or cooking gear. Every town turns out local charities and vendors, plus recruits outside concessions to keep the riders well fed.
Here are the basic categories that I packed:
1. One set of clothes to wear on the drive to and from Clinton, Iowa which was the destination town on the Mississippi River. These stayed with my parked vehicle. I overnighted in a local church, then took a charter bus to the official start in Le Mars, IA.
2. Two sets of bike riding clothes. My preference is loose riding shorts with a separate padded liner. To this I add two pairs of socks and two loose fitting shirts to handle the brutal July heat in Iowa. (Unlike 95% of the riders, I hate tight, synthetic logo jerseys!)
3. I ride with clipless pedals and Shimano-compatible SPD cleats. For this ride, in the 90-degree Iowa sun, I also packed a pair of specific bicycle riding sandals with cleats.
4. One set of clothes to wear after the day’s ride consisting of underwear, T-shirt, and light nylon pants with zip-off legs. I also pack a pair of sandals for wearing in town and at the campsite. The underwear and T-shirt are also my sleeping clothes.
5. A pair of sun sleeves for my arms and a nylon neck gaiter or buff. A lightweight, long sleeve nylon pullover to take the chill off for evenings and mornings. Combined with an ultralight pair of nylon briefs, the nylon shorts also serve as my swimming suit when the opportunity presents. I also pack a compact, fast-drying microfiber towel. My neck buff can be soaked to provide cooling while riding and serves double duty as a washcloth – that way it gets washed daily.
6. A cycling rain jacket that can also be worn as an added layer to block cold wind. I packed rain pants even though I don’t wear them unless caught in a torrential downpour – which I hope to avoid by waiting out storms in towns along the way. I packed a floppy rain hat which also is great for reducing sun exposure. Helmets are required while riding. I also wear padded bicycle gloves.
7. A mid-weight poly fleece shirt. This is my warmest layer if it turns unseasonably cold. Until needed, it is folded flat and inserted into my camp pillowcase.
You can imagine that showers are in high demand for 10,000 sweaty cyclists. I am prepared – if necessary - to forego shower access by taking advantage of swimming opportunities and other water options. I pack wet wipes for clean-up every night before bed. Third, I have started carrying a folding, waterproof bucket on bike trips. This is handy for carrying water for cooking or dousing a campfire and serves as a portable washing machine for clothes and bathing. Between shower facilities, restroom sinks, and the bucket, I can wash a few clothes at least every other day. The riding is typically done by early afternoon, allowing plenty of time for clothes to dry before bedtime. I pack a small mesh bag that allows me to put any damp clothes on the rear rack of my bike to dry in the sun and breeze.
Camping gear consists of a lightweight, solo tent with ground cloth, an inflatable air mattress, nylon sleeping bag liner, and an ultralight, poly-filled quilt. I also packed an ultralight nylon tarp. If weather conditions allow – and I can find a tree or fence - I pitch the tarp as a lean-to and find that it is much more comfortable on sweltering nights. As it turned out, I slept under the tarp on three nights, in the tent on two nights, and under the roof of a little league baseball dugout one night. In the steamy Iowa heat, I only used the sleeping bag liner and never took my insulated quilt out of the stuff sack once.
My personal gear is limited to travel-sized toiletries, a disposable razor with shaving lotion, sunscreen, lip balm, and allergy meds. I am packing a small paperback book along with a compact folding chair for time to kill in the evening.
Compiling the packing list was relatively easy. As mentioned early, typically you don’t need to carry anything on your bike for RAGBRAI. However, I intentionally chose to complicate the entire process for this ride because I wanted to carry some gear with me during the day. First, I have a different philosophy than most riders who carry nothing more than a water bottle and wallet. They elect to have everything carried by the luggage truck, which means everything is inaccessible until you reach the daily destination town. This is in obvious contrast to traditional touring where you carry 100% of your clothes and gear, restocking food when you intersect a town. Instead, I decided to carry a change of clothes with me – just to be prepared if the worst happens and I somehow ruin my shorts and/or shirt. My cycling sandals stayed with the bike so I can change back and forth with my cycling shoes. I also carried my rain gear, swimming shorts and towel. I carried my personal gear to have access as needed to soap, shampoo, razor, and meds.
There are bike mechanics stationed along the route, but I like to be self-contained, so I always bring my own tools, tube patches, pump, chain lube, etc. These tools, along with sunglasses, bike lock and a few other small items fit in my half frame bag above the water bottles. Even though medical services are widespread, I always pack a small First Aid kit. My bike has two water bottles. Every town has refill stations and countless roadside stands offer cold, bottled water. Add to this cute kids at lemonade stands and numerous beer vendors and beer gardens in the pass-through towns and there is no excuse for dehydration!
The second reason for carrying some of my gear and clothing is that I opted to combine the last two days of RAGBRAI 2021. Family circumstances at home necessitated my return as soon as possible. (RAGBRAI traditionally includes a very short final day. This year, combining the final two days amounted to a ride of 88.6 miles and delivered me to my parked vehicle in Clinton by 2:30 pm, which got me home by 8:30 pm on Friday.) Therefore, my packing list needed to be divided between what is carried by the baggage shuttle and the items carried on the bike – with the added requirement that EVERYTHING would need to be packed on my bike for the short, final leg from DeWitt to Clinton. My daily gear listed above is contained in a medium seat pack and a rear rack pack as follows:
Seat Pack: Change of clothes consisting of bike shorts, padded liner, socks; zip off shorts and nylon brief for swimming; towel, long sleeve layer and rain jacket go in last for easy access. I am not counting on finding outlets for recharging my phone, so I carried a small storage battery with a self-contained solar panel. This was secured to the top of my seat pack where it is exposed to the sun all day long.
Rack Pack: Cycling sandals and mesh bag for drying clothes. The rack pack is attached to the rear rack with Velcro straps and is quickly removed. It includes a shoulder strap, so anytime I am out of sight of the bike I have the option of loading it with other gear and carrying the rack pack with me. I stashed a small synthetic rag for clean-up after repairs and a folding mini-tripod for my video camera in this pack.
Besides these two main bags, I also have the frame bag for my tools, spare glasses, and toiletry kit. Never trust the porta-johns along the route and always carry toilet paper and wipes. A thin side pocket holds my phone, charging cords, bike lock, and map. I have top tube bag attached to the handlebar stem. This normally holds snacks for long rides, but there isn’t any reason to carry snacks at RAGBRAI! Instead, this small pack holds my sunscreen, lip balm, chamois crème, allergy meds, and mini video camera for easy access any time during the day.
The packed luggage transported by the shuttle is limited to one soft duffle. The contents need to be waterproofed since the bag will be dumped at the camping location each night, rain or shine! For any other RAGBRAI, just packing all the remaining gear in stuff sacks and loading them in a waterproof duffel would be quick and easy. However, because I was going to leave the RAGBRAI support at DeWitt, I had the additional complication of needing the option to load everything on my bike for the short ride to Clinton. The only way to carry 100% of my gear is with the volume provided by traditional touring panniers. (A heavy backpack would neither be safe or comfortable while riding.) Therefore, I used a set of waterproof panniers to pack all my remaining gear, then stuffed these into my duffel for transport by the shuttle during the week. When it came time to load my bike for the ride to Clinton on Friday afternoon, I folded the soft duffel and stuffed it in one pannier. Note: my duffel (including the panniers) weighed only 20 pounds. The gear carried on my bike weighed less than 20 pounds. I am not sure what people pack that puts them over the 50 pound limit?
Below is my final Packing List for RAGBRAI 2021 and how I divided my contents:
Worn for riding:
Riding shorts with padded, inner liner, socks, loose shirt, buff, cycling cap under helmet, sunglasses, arm sleeves. I keep my wallet in my front pocket while riding for frequent stops. The buff, arm sleeves, and cycling cap spent most of the week in my frame bag.
On the bike:
Seat Pack: Spare bike shorts, padded liner, socks; zip off shorts and nylon brief; towel, long sleeve top, rain jacket and pants. First aid kit. Waterproof battery bank with solar charger.
Rack Pack: Cycling sandals, mesh clothes bag, rag for clean-up, and mini tripod.
Frame Pack: Tools, spare glasses, toiletry kit, toilet paper, and wipes. Cell phone, charging cords, bike lock, and map.
Top Tube Pack: Sunscreen, lip balm, chamois crème, allergy meds, and mini video camera.
Soft Duffel carried by baggage truck: Solo tent, tarp, air mattress, pillow (with fleece shirt), sleeping bag liner, quilt, clothes bag with pant legs and T-shirt, folding chair, rain hat, sandals, small bug dope, extra toilet paper, large body wipes, folding bucket, and waterproof panniers. (All this gear fit in one pannier and stuff sacks for waterproof protection inside the duffel. The other pannier was flattened on the bottom until needed on Friday.)
That’s a rundown of what and how I packed. Again, if you see photos of riders during RAGBRAI, you will notice that very few carry ANY gear – just their wallets. In contrast, I carried about one-third of my gear every day and all my clothes and gear the last day.
Saving one night of camping and getting home a day early added a host of complications. It probably also meant that I expended more energy every day with a partially loaded bike. But I found the riding to be easy and recovered fully each day, sleeping soundly, and waking without any aches or pains. Maybe this information will be helpful to you if you need to cut a day out of the riding schedule. It’s your vacation so make it fit your schedule!