Bikepacking gear

Back at the end of the Cairngorms Loop I had a little think about the gear that I had used, and talked about what I might do differently next time.

Winter… long nights. Wet nights. Less riding. More time to spend looking at a glowing screen, researching kit. It is easy to fall into the trap of “needing” the best of everything.

The last few years have seen the evolution and maturing of the fast and light philosophy. What was once the preserve of alpine climbers, is now pretty much the de-facto way of doing things for anyone spending more than one day in the mountains. I’m sure that part of this is marketing led. Outdoor gear manufactures find a new niche to sell to, another reason for the consumer to buy a new jacket, or sleeping bag, or rucksack. What is interesting though, is that away from the Berghaus, Rab and OMM, there is the antithesis of consumerism. People making things for themselves, adapting existing gear (usually by cutting off superfluous weight, which is often driven by the big companies adding unnecessary marketing-driven features to gear), small companies being born making uber-niche products. Many of these small companies are American, but there is an increasing number of Brits out there as well.

Interesting times, and the result is more choice for the discerning consumer. And potentially more bewilderment… The challenge will always be to balance weight with practicallity, durability, function, fit and cost. Cost is an interesting one. Lightweight kit almost always sacrifices features and size, sometimes the price comes down correspondingly, sometimes it doesn’t, as lighter weight (and more expensive) fabrics and materials are used. Everyone’s priorities are different (and may vary depending on what kit we are talking about), but I am willing to make some sacrifices in the name of lightness, understanding that weight is not the end in itself, simply a means to an end. Broadly speed and comfort while moving take priority over comfort while stopped. There are a few caveats on this approach:
1) I live in the UK. Our weather is not known for being predictable. “Just comfortable” can quickly become dangerously cold/wet/exposed. Depending on the situation, I’d rather play it safe.
2) I’ve not yet been out for longer than two days/one night. A single night of discomfort isn’t so bad when you know you’ll have a warm bed the next. I also don’t believe that one bad nights sleep hugely affects performance the next day. Head down and carry on. On longer trips recovery becomes more important.
3) I sleep very well, and in the short term can make do with not much sleep anyway
4) I can’t afford to buy the best of the best for all conditions, so inevitably have to make compromises when choosing gear.

So, based on all that, what recent purchases have I made?

Top of the list was a sleeping bag that would keep me warm for three seasons of the year, to replace my worn out, and never very warm in the first place synthetic bag. I’ve gone for a Rab Neutrino Endurance 200. Toasty warm down, with a water-resistant finish on the outer. Useful for damp bivvies, hopefully.

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I used a rucksack to carry much of my kit on the Cairngorms Loop. This wasn’t the end of the world, but there are better solutions available, which keep the weight off ones shoulders, and should hopefully reduce fatigue. At the moment, I am testing a Wildcat Tiger and Mountain Lion for Singletrack Magazine. They both feel secure, and allow the use of dry bags to keep kit totally dry.

For time off the bike, but not in my sleeping bag, I’ve bought a Golite Bitterroot down jacket. I’ve been looking for a hooded, lightweight down jacket for a while, along the lines of the Rab, or Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. I spotted the Golite on sale for £100 (from £260) though, so snapped it up. So far, all I can confirm is that it is keeping me toasty while I have my first brew of the morning (at home), but it feels good.

I’ve used an MSR Pocket Rocket for years and years, and always been happy with the reliability and cleanliness of gas cooking. Meths brings back memories of heavy trangias and DofE expeditions. Times change though, and there are a new generation of ultralight meths stoves out there, ranging from DIY coke can jobs to something a little more sophisticated. Jenn has been sent a couple of minuscule meths stoves by Stu at Go
Bearbones
to try out. I’m interested to see how they fare.

First test for a lot of this kit will be this weekend. Can’t wait!

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Bikepacking the Dales

Bikepacking

Backpacking with a bike.

I’ve had a few adventures over the years which have involved riding somewhere, carrying camping gear, sleeping out, then riding home the next day. The concept appeals, not least because it allows one to explore that bit further than can be done during a day. Or, do a longer “day” route, but at a social and relaxed pace. I’m also a sucker for sleeping outside. Little differences, like the changes in sounds: no creaks and clunks of a cooling down house, no muffled traffic noise. Crinkles of synthetic fabrics, wind, rustling grass, creaking trees, the hollow echo of rain against tent/bivvy bag/tarp fabric.

May will see my longest bikepacking adventure yet. Not huge, but big enough, and with an additional time pressure. It’s an individual time trial, so while no one will be racing, it carries with it an implied goal of completion as quickly as possible. I’ve already mentioned the Highland Trail. I’m sure I will talk about it a lot in the months to come.

In the mean time, I want to be as prepared as possible. This will involve the “usual” training rides, and as much long distance stuff as I can fit in. I also want to make sure my camping routine is completely nailed, and is a “routine”, so when I’m two days in to the Highland Trail, and shattered, I know that my sleeping bag will be warm enough, where my stove is packed, etc. That means a few preparatory rides and nights out. I.e. a perfect excuse for more fun.

1st up will be later this month, with Stu Rider, of Rider’s Cycle Centre in Skipton. Stu is a top bloke – I actually met him on the Cairngorms Loop last year, and we have bumped into each other at CX races and the like since then. He is going to be taking on the Highland Trail too, so is equally keen to get some miles in. He has planned out a route in the Dales, on tarmac and less muddy sections of off-road. We’ll be over-nighting at Aysgarth, before returning home. 50 miles each day, at a social pace. If you fancy joining us, there are more details on the Riders Cycle Centre Facebook page. The route is here:

Bike packing, learning lessons

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The photo illustrates how I started the ride. The drybag at the front contains bivvy bag, with sleeping bag already inside. I then bodged my OMM Trio Chest pouch over the top, with gave me a nice zip pouch in which to store sweets and a couple of other items. The top-tube bag contained a few energy gels and the saddle bag (just) held 2 x tubes, a puncture kit, multi tool, tyre levers, CO2 and zip ties.

I then carried spare clothing and some bulkier food items in my rucksack. As the weather forecast was for a cold one, I hurriedly added a few more items of clothing.

At around the same time as my GPS failing, my saddlebag tore off. The fabric gave way around the velcro straps. Not very impressive, as I’ve only had it a year, and rarely used it. Saddlebag went into the rucksack for the rest of the ride.

Water was carried in one bottle on the bike. There were more than enough streams to refill at. I never ran completely dry.

Lighting was dealt with via a USE Exposure 6pack (thanks Garage Bikes) and my shiny new USE Joystick

I wore:
Craft string vest style base
Scott bib shorts
Craft knee warmers
On-One SS jersey and endura arm warmers
North Face “Dirt Track” jacket with zip off arms
Endura waterproof shorts (was expecting to remove these at some point once I warmed up, but temperatures were never particularly high, and keeping a dry bum helped my comfort levels)
Endura baa baa merino socks
Pearl Izumi midweight gloves
Mavic shoes
I carried:
OMM Kamleika Smock waterproof
Lowe Alpine waterproof trousers
Decathlon roubaix style leg warmers
Finisterre Etobicoke primaloft jacket
Decathlon hooded softshell
Aldi winter gloves
Low Alpine peaked gore-tex hat
Fleece skull cap
I pulled on the winter gloves during my evening hike-a-bike and wore them for the rest of the ride (sweaty hands in the warmth, but not a disaster). The Decathlon softshell was a heavy luxury, and probably not necessary. I pulled it on over my existing layers at the same time I swapped gloves… it did a job at the time, but I had other layers in my bag that I could have used.

At the bothy I pulled on legwarmers, primaloft jacket, big hat, and put my softshell over the top. Waterproofs were used as a pillow. I wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t exactly a comfortable night.

Setting off in the early hours, I kept all my clothes on until I started to warm up, then layers were slowly shed throughout the day.

What I would do differently
Less weight on my back. I’d look to use a decent, large saddle pack and some form of framebag.
Winter shoes. The Mavics just weren’t warm enough.
Spare socks
Fewer clothes if the forecast is milder
Less food
Consider a small back up “point you in the general direction” type GPS in case of failure