Editor’s Dozen: Josh’s Favorite Gear of 2023
In our final Editor’s Dozen from 2023, Josh Meissner reflects on 12 highlights that shaped his eventful last year of touring all over Europe. Ranging from practical gear to immaterial inspiration, find his collection of favorites that blur the lines of bikepacking here…
When Lucas reached out to me about contributing an Editor’s Dozen post, I hesitated because I’m no gear reviewer, and quite happily so. In general, I’d rather direct my energy toward the experiences of riding, exploring, connecting, and creating in the world of bicycles and beyond. To that end, I want to praise the editors of BIKEPACKING.com for consistently prioritizing and supporting meaningful, high-quality stories and documentary work, even if it’s a lot more work to edit and doesn’t always get the most clicks. And huge thanks go out to every Bikepacking Collective member; none of this would be possible without your support.
However, equipment does matter in the sense that it shapes the parameters of our trips—if not in real terms, then in the mind through the marketing and stories surrounding them. On my four-month tour through Germany, France, and Spain earlier this year, I embraced a more expansive approach to bicycle travel, enabled by a more flexible setup and mindset. By some definitions, I wasn’t even bikepacking, not that such labels should matter much.
For this roundup, I’ve collected a mix of standout products and services that blur the lines and have helped me find my interpretation of bicycle travel, plus a couple of immaterial highlights of my year. Many of the listed products have been reliable companions for several years and continue to spark joy at every use. Putting together this post is a big reminder of how fortunate I am to have access to all these resources while having a prosperous and safe place to call home.
Trains over planes
I generally prefer to start all my tours from my front door, but when that’s not feasible, I take the train. If I can’t get there by train, I probably won’t go. It’s that simple. Europe is so well-connected by rail that leisure travel doesn’t need to involve dumping tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are untold lifetimes of adventure accessible within a day’s train journey.
Sustainability aside, taking the train is simply far more enjoyable and less stressful than flying with a bike. Everyone’s heard airline horror stories. I love stepping off a train, sniffing the foreign air, and immediately pedaling off. It adds, at most, a day of travel time to continental destinations, which I need for switching into a different headspace anyway, and I appreciate the buffer at the end of a trip for processing and arriving back home. A rinko bag like the one above made by my friend Cody has been a game changer for traveling on high-speed rail services like ICE in Germany and TGV in France without needing a bike reservation.
PB Swiss 470 BikeTool
100 grams / Made in Switzerland / €50 at PB Swiss
Bike-specific multi-tools have their place, but I find them mostly awkward to use and not that practical. Proper tools make wrenching enjoyable and precise, which means I’m more likely to stay on top of maintenance while on tour. They are also more effective for breaking down a bike on rinko rail adventures. For this, I like the PB Swiss 470 pocket tool, which is essentially a modular L-wrench.
Bits save weight and bulk over a bunch of L-wrenches, and the flexible reach comes in handy all the time. Because the bits are standard, inevitably lost ones can be replaced, and you can customize the set for your bike’s hardware. The tire levers are too flimsy, so I don’t rely on them. Incidentally, PB Swiss is the manufacturer of the Daysaver Essential8 tool, which follows a similar concept with proprietary bits.
Allygn Grill and Diamond Rack
Made in Taiwan / €195 at Fern Bicycles
Berlin-based Allygn Components’ sharp-looking front racks have been highlighted on this site on several occasions, and I want to give them another shout-out here. The distinctive Diamond Rack and larger Grill Rack are batch-produced versions of Florian Haeussler’s custom racks that grace his stunning Fern modern rando bikes.
I mounted the Grill Rack on my Pelago Stavanger, and it held up with zero issues throughout many thousands of kilometers over all kinds of surfaces. It’s fairly light for such a large, sturdy platform at under 500 grams, and it offers all the mounting points I could want for dynamo lights and fenders. The rack supports a prototype Gramm Tourpacking Grill Bag, which I hear will be released sometime later this spring.
However, the smaller and lighter Diamond Rack would be my first pick for bikepacking. If you don’t use the matching Gramm Diamond bag (read my review of it here), the pleasingly short platform makes an ideal bag support for folks on small and medium frames. The €35 front rack I ran for years also did the job, but the Allygn racks are far more refined in all aspects. I just recently got another one for the ATB I’m building up.
Ortlieb Fork-Pack (5.8L) mini panniers
315 grams / Made in Germany / $75 at Ortlieb
I’ve been a mini-pannier believer since my 2021 tour through Scandinavia, where I had to keep pedaling to make it to the next supermarket and wore through two fork dry bags and a seatbag. For Spain last year, I doubled down with quad Ortlieb Fork-Packs. I chose the larger 5.8L ones, which come out to about 7-8L in practice, and what a revelation that was. Plenty of space for real food, easy as pie to pack, no sagging throughout the day, and completely stable off-road. My loadout was split into four quadrants: cooking, food, clothes, and overflow, with shelter and sleep kit on the rack.
Ortlieb’s quality doesn’t need an introduction. After months of hard use, the hardware is in very good condition, and the waterproof PU fabric shows—almost disappointingly—barely any signs of wear. I was really hoping for more patina. While not the most stylish bag out there, they function superbly. I trust them completely, and my seatpacks have been relegated to overnighters and shorter trips.
Actively navigating with MapOut
$6 at MapOut
Open-ended touring is different from following a route. I’ve found no better tool than MapOut for flexibility in planning and navigation. Mapout is similar to Gaia GPS in that it’s a map, first and foremost. Unlike route planners such as Ride With GPS and Komoot, in MapOut, all your routes and points live together in one view, so you can see how they relate to one another. It’s the difference between having a stack of identical maps with one route each versus one map containing all routes.
I find the map visualization pleasing, the interface simple yet powerful, and the various route overlays highly useful. Mapping out potential routes with a finger is intuitive and informative—why don’t other apps have this? It’s easily the best six bucks I’ve ever spent on a navigation app. Unfortunately, MapOut is not available on Android, but OSMAnd is a great free alternative that I use a lot, too.
As a bonus, chance meetings with other MapOut users are always gold. “Oh, you know MapOut too?” You do the secret handshake and give each other the knowing eye. It’s no exaggeration to say MapOut’s changed my approach to bikepacking and how I understand myself spatially in the world.
Cooking with Real food and real utensils
Similar to my aversion to gimmicky multi-tools, I think life’s just too short for processed food and compromised camping utensils. Food is a big part of my life, and it doesn’t have to be fancy to taste amazing when you’re in the outdoors. As I write this, my mouth is watering thinking about flavorful wild blueberry porridges and fried tortilla de patatas bowls I’ve made while touring.
My setup nests in a 1.9L two-person Sea to Summit Alpha non-stick pot. An HDPE cutting board (a repurposed bikepacking bag insert) and an Opinel No. 9 knife make short work of vegetables. Nesting bowls are useful for prep and feeding extra people. A stove that can simmer, such as an alcohol-fueled Trangia or gas-powered SOTO Windmaster, is a huge boon for proper cooking (stay safe in wildfire areas). Add a spice kit to the mix, and baby, you’ve got a stew going. Pick up some local produce and see what you can come up with!
Borah Gear Ultralight Bivy
150 grams / Made in USA / $103 at Borah Gear
One of my favorite and most consistently used pieces of camping gear is my custom Borah Gear Ultralight Bivy. Borah is a small cottage manufacturer from Montana, USA, that makes gear for ultralight hikers. The Ultralight Bivy is a zippered nylon bag that adds that little bit of psychological safety I need to sleep soundly under the open sky. The head and foot box have tie-outs to suspend it like a mini tent, though I usually sleep with it completely open.
Borah bivies aren’t waterproof, and that’s a huge plus in my book. Waterproof bivies are pretty miserable in the rain and relatively heavy. I’ll always try to find some sort of shelter or set up my tent if there’s a chance of rain. At around 150 grams (5 ounces) and the size of a Valencia orange, the Borah bivy is all I bring when the conditions allow, and I sleep in it most nights on longer tours.
Starting at $103, these made-to-order bivies are a deal. I have hundreds of nights in mine, and it’s holding up great after several years. The bivies are available in several sizes and material weights, with customization available on request. I wanted a hybrid of the Ultralight and Bug Bivy with mesh for ventilation while keeping drafts out of my quilt. This is called the Dimma mod, and if you ask John at Borah, he’ll set you right up.
Outer Shell Stem Caddy
130 grams / Made in USA / $60 at Outer Shell
I met Kyle Ng of Outer Shell in San Francisco back in 2017 when he was just setting up his shop, and I was very green behind the ears. A set of his well-crafted bags with the old typewriter wordmark saw me through all my early bikepacking adventures, and the Stem Caddy remains my favorite stem bag to this day. With its intuitive closure, ample size, and padded sides, it’s perfect for carrying my Fuji camera with a pancake lens. Thanks to the reconfigurable straps, they work great in pairs. I have about four or five Stem Caddies of various colors and vintages at this point and use them on all my bikes.
You might think a stem bag is a stem bag, but I’ll highlight just one key detail that I miss on most other designs. The Drawcord Lock on the Stem Caddy features two distinct actions: pulling the tab to tighten the collar and pinching a large button to release. It’s 100% unambiguously clear by touch alone whether I’m opening my bag or closing it, which I find is not the case with the Cyberian cord locks common on this type of bag. This is emblematic of the attention to detail and real-world use that flows into all Outer Shell products.
Connecting in person through bikepacking
I can’t mention all this gear without my true highlight of the year: bonding with existing friends and making new ones by sharing the trail. Throughout my Spain tour, I made sure to keep my itinerary flexible so friends from back home could easily join. I’ll be forever looking back fondly on the quality time and shared experiences had out there.
Last year was also great for finally meeting internet friends throughout the bikepacking community in person. I wonder if this is an opportunity biased toward those who are more visible online, however. Does the bikepacking community need a dedicated platform to facilitate connections and exchanges? What do you think?
3.8 kilograms / Made in Taiwan / €1,095 (frameset) at Pelago Bicycles
I closed my review of the versatile Pelago Stavanger with the thought that it’s a bike capable of crossing continents. Granted, it’s true of any reliable bicycle, but I find the Stavanger particularly well-suited thanks to its beefy steel frame, great handling both on and off pavement, and clearance for substantial 2.25″ tires with fenders. It kept me comfortable and in control over months on the road.
For Spain, I rebuilt the Stavanger with a wide-range Shimano GRX/XT drivetrain, Velo Orange aluminum fenders, front and rear rack, and 27.5 x 2.25″ Vittoria Mezcal tires. Some days on tour, I’ll indulge and dream about upgrades or changes I’d make to my setup, playing out the configurations in my head. But I struggled to find anything I’d change about the Stavanger for this style of cross-continent all-road tour. With bikes like the Stavanger and Fairlight Faran, we’re in a golden age of versatile drop-bar bicycles. Now, if only we had touring-friendly groupsets to match.
130 grams / Made in Mexico / $49 at Da Brim
No clothing item brought me more joy and evoked more smiles from onlookers this year than Da Brim, though my Shimano SPD sandals might be a distant second. Da Brim is a sun hat for your helmet that casts a glorious shade over your face and neck, and I found it essential for passively protecting myself from the intense rays going into summer in southern Europe.
Da Brim is airy and doesn’t stink like sun hoodies eventually do. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s quite the confidence booster too. Da Brim teaches you not to give a fuck. Ranchers on the high plains understood, and I swear women were swooning when I passed through towns. At the same time, it’s impossible to take yourself too seriously wearing it. It’s been highly divisive in my friend group, but Da Brim revolution is catching on. I guess a helmet mirror is next.
Big Forest Frameworks framebuilding course
€2,250 + materials at Big Forest Frameworks
If you’re in the market for a high-end bike, why not build it with your own hands and make it truly yours? That’s the idea of the one-week framebuilding course at Big Forest Frameworks in Potsdam, Germany, right on the outskirts of Berlin. Brazing my custom steel ATB there was a fascinating and rewarding process, and I can’t wait to share my detailed report on the experience in another article soon.
I can now see why people come from all over the world to take this course. Robert Piontek, an American physicist turned framebuilder, has helped hundreds of folks successfully build their frames. He’s got the process down to a science. You’re all but guaranteed to leave with your handbuilt frame after the week in the Big Forest workshop.
Taking Time to Do Nothing
$18.99 at Abe Books
Reflecting on the last year, I’m incredibly grateful for the wealth of generative interactions and episodes I had while traveling and around home. I got to connect in person with internet friends, learn to love new landscapes, and adopt new perspectives. Traveling for months is certainly a privilege, but just because the basic freedom to take time away from work and live fully is denied to many doesn’t mean those who have it should be filled with guilt. On the contrary, I’ll pass on the advice I was given: take that time, or someone else will.
On this path, I regularly return to Jenny Odell’s magnificent book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. Odell takes the reader for a gentle walk through the tension between economic production and connection and offers a much-needed antidote to the cult of productivity that’s likely to resonate with many bicycle travelers. As time and attention are under fire in our hyperconnected, digital world, she sketches a grounded alternative that goes far beyond digital detoxes and other quick fixes. For me, this is a book that keeps on giving insight and inspiration. I think it’s well worth your time.
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