It has to be one of the most popular topics if you search for cycling on Google or YouTube: what should you bring with you on your bike rides. You can find reputable sources telling you to bring just the bare essentials, load your bike down with 50 pounds of gear, pull a trailer; basically anything. It can be very confusing. When I first starting cycling during 2020, I had a really hard time dialing in exactly what I should and should not carry with me when I went for bike rides. I'll try to help make sense of it for you here.
To start with, you don't have to bring anything with you when you go for a ride. It's totally up to you. I think one of the most valuable lessons that I've learned about cycling in general is that there is no perfect way to do anything. It's so easy to go down the rabbit hole online of comparing yourself to every other cyclist you come across and wasting hours of your life researching accessories that you probably don't need (I'm speaking from very real and very painful experiences). If your setup works for you, then stick with it.
But that doesn't change the fact that you are reading this post for a reason. Sometimes you need a thing or two out there on the road. I am going to break down a few categories of different things that you can carry with you on your rides, how to carry them, and some super popular accessories that you can probably do without. I'm going to include some recommendations of gear that I have used myself. This is absolutely not an ad for any brand or product and I am not being paid or sponsored to mention any of these products. I will only ever talk about things that I have used myself and that work for me. Now, lets get to it.
First up is the category of flat tire repair tools. You should probably think about taking something with you on your rides that will help you change a flat tire if and when you get one. Let's be honest: when you get one. It happens to the best of us. Take it from me, calling and waking up your wife who just got your toddler to sleep so that she can drive 20 miles and pick you up off the side of the road because you didn't check to make sure that you had actually remembered to patch your spare inner tube is NOT a fun sequence of events to take part in. Especially multiple times. (I am still happily married, but overcoming my flat tire issues was a rocky patch for us.) Suffice it to say, you need to be able to fix a flat tire and make it back home. It's not fun or safe to be stranded on the side of the road.
You have several options when it comes to carrying flat tire accessories. In my opinion, the bare essentials would be a spare inner tube, tire levers (plastic tools that help you get the tire of of the wheel), and some sort of pump to re-inflate your tire once you have the new inner tube in it. It's really not that daunting or complicated. There are more mini pumps for sale than you can possibly imagine, but as long as it gets air into your tire, you're pretty much set. From there, you can branch into all kinds of supplemental accessories: co2 inflators, patch kits, tire plugs, tubeless tires, run flat inserts, self-sealing tubes, and so on and so forth. Here we get into the category of stuff that's cool but not necessary. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but don't need them to get started riding your bike. Don't let the thought that you don't have that $300 carbon fiber mini pump with the digital gauge that only weighs 5 grams worry you. Just go ride your bike.
The first flat tire kit I ever bough was this Bontrager kit. It comes with all of your basics, and has never steered me wrong. Trek still sells these on their website, and there are also good and very similar options on Amazon.
The second category of things you might want to carry with you on your bike is tools. Google bicycle multi-tool, and hello Pandora's box. There are thousands upon thousands of different tools and multi-tools you can choose from. The point of carry a tool kit with you when you ride is so that you can fix simple issues that may arise out on the road (think tightening/loosening bolts, fixing chains, changing inner tubes, etc.) To be perfectly honest, you don't need the fanciest tool in the world. Chances are that if you're unlucky enough to have a serious mechanical issue, you are probably going to spend hours on the side of the road fixing it anyway. That's where the pros at your local bike shop come into play.
A good starting place is to take a thorough look at your bike. Notice the types of bolts and screws that are on it, and pick a basic multi-tool that will allow you to tighten and loosen a good majority of the parts on your bike. You will definitely want to be able to raise or lower your seat, adjust your pedals, straighten your stem or handlebars, and maybe few other small tasks. You shouldn't have a hard time finding a multi-tool that can handle all of those demands. There are tools that you could darn-near build an entire bicycle with, but there really isn't a huge need for that. It's going to be heavier, more expensive, and you probably won't use half of the tools on it. Just stick with something that will get the job done for your bike.
Once again I have had good luck with my Bontrager multi-tool. I also have a multi-tool that came from Amazon and has never failed me. I'm including the Topeak Ratchet Rocket as well. It's not necessary for everyone, but it is a good option if you want a little something extra
The third category of things to carry with you is actually very important. Food and water. If you have never been unlucky enough to run out of water on a boiling-hot summer ride, thank your lucky stars. It's nothing short of a hellacious experience, not to mention dangerous. You always want to carry a good supply of water with you. Whether that's in your bottle cages or a jersey pocket really doesn't matter. Just take water with you.
Carrying some type of food with you is almost as important as carrying your water. As you get more interested in cycling and start taking longer rides, it's worth doing some research into different types of food to take with you on rides. Prepare yourself for a very (very) basic and probably unscientific explanation of why your body needs food as you ride. When you ride your bike, your body relies on glycogen to power your muscles and keep you going. When you eat something with glucose (sugar) in it, your body uses that for fuel. The excess is stored as glycogen. Then when your body needs more fuel, it uses those glycogen stores to power you along. If I messed that up, let me know in the comments.
Your body can burn through those glycogen stores pretty quickly.A good rule of thumb is that if you're planning on riding for more than an hour, you need to think about bringing something with you to start replenishing your body's glucose supply. The last thing you want is to run out of juice and hit a wall. Cyclists call that bonking, and trust me: it sucks so bad.
There are tons of options for ride food. Energy gels, energy chews, energy bars, powders or liquids that you can mix into your water, homemade rice cakes, gummy bears; the list goes on and on. I've found that it takes some trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Don't buy 100 energy bars and then figure out they hurt your stomach when you're riding. Try a few different options that fit your budget and see what tastes best and what you prefer. There really is no wrong way to do it as long as your intaking carbs that keep you fueled.
But wait. What are you going to carry these things in? A jersey pocket, saddle bag, frame bag, top-tube bag, handlebar bag? Once again, there is an exhaustive list of options. But thankfully once again there really isn't a wrong way to do it. As long as you find a solution that is comfortable for you and holds all of your stuff, roll with it (as soon as I turned 30 my dad puns have been out of control.) I like carrying a saddle bag underneath my seat. They're tidy and neat and I like that. I also have been known to ride with a handlebar bag. It really doesn't make a huge difference. You aren't riding the Tour de France, so aerodynamics are not that important. Just try some different options and go with what feels best.
This sounds like an ad for Bontrager, but I promise it's not. I really like their Spring Seat Roll. I'm also a fan of Road Runner Tool Rolls. I also have another trusty Amazon bag that has lasted for years.
So that doesn't sound too hard right? Carry a few things that will help you fix a flat tire, a tool that will help you adjust your bike, and some food and water to keep you hydrated and fueled, and carry them in a way that works for you. Why does it feel so complicated then? Even now as I'm writing this, I can't help but think of the countless hours I've invested (probably wasted) deep-diving on the internet trying to get my riding accessories perfect. The perfect saddle bag or frame bag, the perfect pump, the perfect energy gel, the newest and lightest this or that, and blah blah blah. It's so easy to compare yourself to your friends or professional cyclists, or Instagram influencers. I've done it and still find myself doing it sometimes.
Try something. Try to remember why you like riding your bike. For me it's about therapy and health. I work through a lot of my mental issues and life issues out on the bike. It's my alone time and my place to really process thoughts. It's also my way of staying healthy so I can see my kids grow up. Find your reason for riding bikes. Write it down and stare at it. Seriously do that. What are you feeling? I feel a warmth in my chest and an inner-joy that comes from being out there on the road with my bike and my thoughts. Who cares what saddle bag or mini pump you have? If your bike makes you feel good, than it is good. It's that simple.
Don't overthink cycling. It's easy to do, but stop it. Just ride bikes.