Adventurer Cartoonist Tegan Phillips Shares Her Best Packing Tips for a Solo Bicycle Tour

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

I’m Tegan, a 25-year old adventurer/cartoonist from Cape Town, South Africa. A few years ago, I was kind of headed into a career as a lawyer when fate threw me on a solo bicycle trip from Bristol to southern Spain. I recorded the trip in a cartoon blog, which mostly depicted my incompetence as both a human and an adventurer and found that people enjoyed it and I enjoyed making it. I kept making cartoons the next year when I spent 10 months cycling through Africa with my parents and my sister, and the year after when I started cycle-touring the UK before heading off to New Zealand to circumnavigate the South Island (about 2200km) by run/bike/swimming in 25 days. And that’s basically all the exciting things I’ve done in my life in one short paragraph.

Nowadays, I’m making cartoons for a living, spending as much time as possible on my bicycle and focusing most of my energy on finding ways to become fully location independent so I can see the world by bike every day and never stop until either me or my bicycle falls apart.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

How and why did you get into bicycle touring?

I got into the adventure lifestyle somewhat accidentally. During my studies in South Africa, I was due to spend a semester abroad and ended up with a very long midyear holiday, so I spontaneously entered a competition held by adventurer Tom Allen to win a touring bicycle and gear (panniers, tent, sleeping bag etc).

To make my entry stand out, I decided to make it into a sort of comic. I had no adventure/cycle-touring experience and no comic-making experience but to my surprise I ended up with the bike anyway and set off on a trip from Bristol to the south of Spain with hardly any preparation and absolutely no idea of what it would be like.

Luckily, despite extreme sunburn, saddle sores, ending up in the emergency room three separate times and mostly having no idea where I was going, I ended up having the time of my life and deciding that adventure was going to play a bigger role in my life going forward.

Generally I’m only as prepared as the people around me (mostly concerned family members) help me to be, and no more. Left to my own devices, I’m not a big one for planning – in fact one of my most distinguishing characteristics as an adventurer is my total lack of foresight. It’s part of what makes my adventures well-suited to comic material. The adventures usually happen through this sort of process: (1) see something interesting on the Internet (2) spontaneously commit to a ridiculous adventure plan (3) secure minimum gear according to advice of worried parents (4) set off on adventure without any regard to initial plan.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

How do you finance your adventures?

I’ve been hugely fortunate in that my parents helped cover the bulk of my initial adventure expenses and our family Africa cycle was paid for by my dad when he sold his business.

After our Africa trip I started researching and applying for adventure grants, and was lucky enough to win The Altumate Challenge 2016, an amazing initiative created by an international recruitment firm called, Altum Consulting. That covered my entire New Zealand Epic adventure – gear and travel expenses for myself and my support team in New Zealand for duration of the trip. Part of the Altumate Challenge also meant fundraising for charity, and so with my team we managed to raise about $11,000 for World Bicycle Relief, which was really rewarding. New Zealand was probably one of my more expensive adventures as it was a bit more time-pressured and technical, involving the three disciplines (swim, bike, run) which meant three times the gear.

Generally, when I’m just cycle touring it’s possible to keep expenses pretty low by wild camping (putting tent anywhere out in the open) or staying with friendly locals, eating cheaply (bread is my friend) and transport is cheap because it’s mostly only the costs of getting to the start and leaving from the finish, between is all human-power.

In terms of funding current and future adventures, I’ve been working on cartooning professionally in Cape Town for the last year or so with the aim of both saving and building a business setup that will allow me to operate remotely so I can ride around and fund myself at the same time.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

How do you eat and sleep on the road?

Every adventure is different, but where I can I love love LOVE to wild camp. I’ve slept under bridges, in public parks, alongside highways (as I’m typing this I’m realizing that all sounds a bit sketchy), but mostly wild camping means getting to put your tent on top of a mountain or next to a river, angling the opening so that you can see the sunset from one side and the sun rise from the other. Heaven in a small canvas capsule.

I’ve also been so fortunate to meet lots of amazing and kind local people, sometimes literally just riding past them in the street, who have invited me into their homes to share stories and a meal and advice about the local terrain.

And every now and then, when I’m very dirty/sick/exhausted/grumpy, it’s nice to find a campsite or a guesthouse to get clean and crawl into bed and use WiFi and be antisocial. Every adventure is a happy balance of those three.

In terms of my gear, my first ever bike trip was on a cheap hybrid bike that Tom got for free with a ton of bulky, basic gear, and it was all really comfortable – more than sufficient for touring in Europe in the summer. For our Africa trip, though, my dad bought a ton of fancy gear so I now have probably more than I need in terms of good quality stuff.

To break it down quick:

  • Bike: custom-built touring bike with a steel Surly Disc Trucker frame, Shimano SLX groupset, Jones Loop handlebars, a Brooks saddle and Shwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres. Each of these components was specifically chosen by my dad for African terrain (lots of dirt roads) and to be honest, there were no show-stealers from a components aspect because they were all so good.
  • Another great addition was a dynamo hub (Schmidt SON 28 disc hub), which saved me in Wales as it provided a seriously powerful front light in overcast weather as well as a USB port to charge my phone (which was clipped onto my handlebars in a waterproof case, acting as a GPS). The wheels have to be spinning for the phone to charge though, which meant one time when I’d forgotten to plug my phone in and I was lost, I had to ride around in circles so I could just power it up to check the map.
  • Tent: 3 man MSR Mutha Hubba – a bit big for me when I’m on my own (was originally sharing with sister) but such good quality, easy to put up, nice and roomy inside, which helps when it’s pouring with rain outside (Wales, I’m looking at you).
  • Mattress: Exped Downmat Lite – pretty sweet air mattress that rolls up tiny but pumps up to be warm, big and comfy when you need it.
  • Sleeping bag: K-Way Extreme Lite 500 Sleeping Bag for summer and a First Ascent Ice Breaker for the winter. The summer one is a bit of a luxury, could just use a light blanket instead, which would serve a similar purpose for about a twentieth of the price, but the winter one is a life saver. I’ve slept on Table Mountain in the winter, sans tent, and I reckon that in any other sleeping bag my buns would have shriveled up from cold and maybe evaporated, never to be seen again.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

How do you bring your things with you?

For long distance, comfortable touring I use Ortlieb panniers; two in the front, two on my rear rack and sometimes a handlebar bag and a rack pack as well. This is more than enough carrying capacity for a long tour in a cold place, and in my experience about half the stuff I pack doesn’t actually get used (think: ukulele, magic trick set, big heavy books, extra hiking boots, extra other useless things). Again, these bags were my dad’s choice for our Africa trip, and they are strong, waterproof and really generally durable – which makes a big difference considering how much stress panniers take on a trip. Ortlieb is generally considered one of the best brands by cycle tourists, but I’ve found that even they inevitably start to come apart eventually through general wear and tear if you do a lot of off-road stuff when they’re heavily packed.

That said, I’m looking to get into the sport of bikepacking this year; kitting out my road bike for some on-road, ultra-light touring, which will require very different gear (no panniers – all gear somehow directly attached to frame/seat post/handlebars). One of my friends is a fashion designer who works with denim and I was thinking about working with him to design my own custom bike packing frame/saddle/handlebar bags. Not too sure if denim is the best material to use for this sort of thing but even if functionality is limited at least I’ll look hella trendy.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

How do you organize things in your bags?

The formula that I use is to take out everything I’m packing before a trip and then divide it into the panniers as logically as possible, and then repeat the process a week or two into the trip when I’ve got a better sense of what I’m using when and how often. I find it’s best to have one pannier for bulky sleeping gear, one pannier for food and cooking gear, one pannier for tools and all the other odds and ends, one pannier for clothes, and a detachable handlebar bag where I keep my iPad, wallet, passports, etc. that functions as a kind of unfashionable handbag whenever I go into a restaurant or grocery store or something.

Having waterproof/water resistant bags depends completely on where you’re going, although there are hardly any places in the world where you’re guaranteed to avoid rain. I would say it’s worth paying a bit extra just to get one or two waterproof bags, for electronics and passports and things, or dry bags that you can put inside a regular non-waterproof pannier are a great option that work just as well.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

I’ve found that as fun and entertaining as it is to carry loads of unnecessary things – I mean seriously unnecessary, like a pot plant, which made it all the way from Cape Town to Botswana on my sister’s bicycle (couldn’t fit on mine because of the ukulele) – it’s actually not worth the schlep. Which is a South African way of saying pack light if you can. The easiest things to cut down on are clothes, ‘emergency’ gear or things that you ‘might need’ (but that you could probably just buy on the way if you actually do need) and entertainment things like books – you really don’t need more than one book at a time, I promise.

I reckon the most comfortable way to go, the way I’m looking to start touring now, is: essential sleeping gear, two of everything for clothes (one for washing, one for wearing), no stove unless you’re somewhere cold, and no extra ‘fun’ things like books, playing cards, etc. You always imagine you’re going to have all this extra time to take photos and write in journals and read and draw, but actually the time you’re not on your bike is generally spent shopping/preparing food/washing clothes/setting up camp/packing or arranging bags/chatting to people/planning routes/falling asleep (you suddenly need a LOT of sleep). Anything that isn’t a part of that is not really going to be useful to carry.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

What has been your best adventuring purchase below $100?

From a cycle-touring perspective, I’ve been really impressed by the Ultralight Bike Mirror, which clips onto my handlebars and gives me a great view of the road behind me. On a touring bike, same as in a car, it’s not always safe to turn your head too often to check, but being able to just glance down and know what’s there and how fast it’s moving can make a world of difference.

Another thing that features near the top of the list is a cheap pair of waterproof trousers that I bought in Wales after riding through nonstop rain for about a week. It’s no exaggeration to say they changed my life.

As for other favorite gear, I absolutely love the 2XU wetsuit I used for my New Zealand triathlon. I really, really hate the cold and my swimming skills are pretty nonexistent, so spending a few full days in icy New Zealand water would have been almost unbearable if not for that wetsuit.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

What is your best advice for other adventurers?

Everybody overthinks everything and it stops us from getting out there and doing cool things. Before we do something new, we want to know exactly everything that could possibly hypothetically go wrong and feel certain that we could possibly hypothetically deal with it. This renders us habitually unable to differentiate between reasonable precautions and fear-based excuses to not even try. And this applies to everything – from starting a business to getting into a relationship to taking up a new sport – but specially to adventure because there’s such a broad scope of things that could ‘go wrong’, so people feel like they need to invest an impossible amount of time and energy into being prepared.

No adventurer ever feels prepared enough, or fit enough, or skilled enough: but they going ahead anyway, learning over and over again that there is no base level required to move forward. And it is only by moving forward that you are able to accomplish the experiencing of anything new. Want to cycle across a continent? Buy a bicycle and a pannier or two and leave. You’ll figure out the rest as you’re going. That’s how it always works. Expecting it to be any different from that is like saying that you’re not prepared to leave high school until you feel one hundred percent ready for adulthood. It’s just not going to happen.

Bicycle Tourer Tegan Phillips

What will the future bring?

I spend a spectacular amount of time daydreaming about things I’d like to do, and there are lots of half-plans waiting for their moment of becoming real. In particular, there are some seriously long bikepacking races that I’d like to try within the next few years, scattered between Asia and the Americas. My current plan (which changes every day) is to spend a few more months in South Africa getting my cartooning merchandising business running smoothly and getting as strong as possible on the bike, designing some good gear, and trying it out on some local bikepacking routes. Then next year I’m keen to head off to somewhere warm and just start pedaling indefinitely.

Visit Tegan Phillips on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter

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