Stephen Lord, author of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, explains why he never leaves home without the following three items.
A short walk in the woods late in the afternoon recently found us within a mile of the car when we realised we were lost. A few wrong turns and then some backtracking and we found the turn we’d missed earlier. It dawned on me a map and compass are only of use if you can read them, and in the fading light I hadn’t read the map clearly. I’d forgotten to take my favourite, must-have bit of gear!
Essential No. 1: A Flashlight (or Two)
A flashlight accompanies me on all my trips – in fact it’s so vital and useful that I take two so that I can always find one, even in the dark and can change the batteries in the dark too. They are probably more useful in countries where power failures are a nightly occurrence – typically you’re reading the menu when the restaurant is plunged into darkness and waiters are fumbling for candles – but even in Europe they’re invaluable for nighttime toilet trips or reading in the tent. Head-mounted lights are best for reading and cooking. They're also useful for cycling in an emergency – they are not really powerful enough for you to see where you’re going, but they'll help you to be seen. Petzl, a French company, makes the widest and best range. Many cyclists like the Zipka models with a retractable wire cord that fits on a bike easily or on a tent or a bedpost.
Essential No. 2: A Map
I don’t carry a map just for safety, I carry it to get the best out of a trip. Maps are beautiful to look at and great for planning, with tons of useful information. They help you appreciate the countryside, telling you where unseen hills or busy roads are but also where those tiny unsigned roads lead to, There are plenty of these quiet back roads in France, and they are ideal for cycling. Don’t leave it till you’re lost to dig your map out – get used to making frequent stops to locate yourself on the map as this makes you look around to find landmarks shown on the map, thus developing your powers of observation. Motorists never have to do this stuff but to me it’s another thing that makes the outdoors fascinating. Backtracking to your last known position is the simplest way of finding your way once you're lost, so make lots of mental waypoints by stopping to observe your surroundings and look at your map.
Essential No. 3: A Compass
A compass is another classic bit of kit that will make you feel you’re on an expedition. You need it mainly to orient the map correctly so you can pick out landmarks and choose the right turn, especially at those unsigned junctions. It’s the simplest, most fundamental tool, needing no power and it works indoors and under tree cover, unlike GPS. Any compass will point to magnetic north reliably (as long as you hold it away from your bike, which is bound to have some steel or electronics that may confuse it) but cheap ones spin wildly without any damping and quickly fall apart. Get one of the top two brands, Silva or Recta. Even the cheapest models are robust and good enough for road use.
Stephen Lord is the author of Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, published by Trailblazer.