What to Take? A lesson in marginal analysis

What do you pack for over a month of pedaling across the country? This is a hard question because every extra ounce taken is another ounce that has to be pushed up the Rocky Mountains, the Cascades, the Appalachians and countless unnamed hills. The more weight taken, the slower the trip and the more effort required to complete each day.

However, taking nothing is not an option. Leaving behind key items like warm clothing means freezing at the top of a mountain pass or being unable to enjoy flying down a hill because the windchill makes the ride too painful. It is not just clothing that has to be determined. The more tools and spare parts that are taken, the less likely a breakdown will be a problem. However, tools and spare parts weigh a lot and are very bulky.

The way I solved this problem was by using the economic idea of marginal analysis. Marginal analysis is a pretty simple idea when packing. You look at each item you are thinking of taking and ask yourself, is the benefit of this additional item worth the cost of dragging  it up and over various mountain ranges. If the answer is not a resounding YES, it is worth it, then the item stays home.

I learned this the hard way on my last cross-country bike ride. Before the ride I assumed there would be free time each day after pedaling so I brought a 300 page paperback book. At the end of the trip I looked at the book and realized I had never opened it. The extra weight added nothing but cost me sweat and effort.

Bicycling long distance typically means bringing clothes, tools and camping supplies. During the winter before the trip I looked at a variety of lightweight camping gear such as tents, sleeping bags and mats. Together the camping gear that was tough enough to withstand use day-in and day-out looked like it would weigh about 10 pounds and cost a lot of money.

I don’t remember exactly when, but the thought crossed my mind that if I stayed every night in a motel or hotel I could leave all the camping gear behind and save a huge amount of weight. Leaving the camping gear behind meant spending more money, since camping is a lot cheaper than sleeping in a motel, but it also meant a lot less work. I set a simple goal: go cross-country with a maximum of 10 pounds of gear. Constraints are a great way of forcing people to become creative because once you have a hard limit you think carefully about each and every decision.

So what does marginal analysis teach anyone who is about to pack for a trip, even if it is just overnight in the next city?  Think carefully about the costs and benefits of every item.  You probably can leave a lot behind!

Economist Biking Across America