Sunday, October 13, 2019

Gear - Sea To Summit Reactor Extreme Liner

Overnight bikepack trips throughout the Black Hills this summer tested a variety of new and old gear. The newer stuff worked great. I love my blistering fast stove, Jet Boil MiniMo Stove, innovative tent, Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL1 Tent, and sweet summer sleeping bag, Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30 Bag. With the bigger ticket items resolved, I move on to the smaller things.

Sea To Summit Reactor Extreme Sleeping Bag Liner adds 25 degrees and 14 ounces for the size of a red solo cup.

Not so fast. As autumn evenings grow cooler, that Mithril-light summer sleeping bag feels thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread, as Bilbo Baggins would say. I learn that its 30 degree temperature rating is directed to survival, not comfort. That is, most individuals will survive a 30 degree night nestled inside the sleeping bag. but not necessarily sleep well. I might want a little more margin of error for the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, even in summer.

Here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I find that my 30 degree bag is comfortable sleeping at about 50 degrees, when wearing a single base layer. Ten degrees warmer drives me out of the sleeping bag. Ten degrees cooler adds a down hoodie and booties. So, all is good at about 40 degrees and up, with my standard kit. For a typical Black Hills summer, that's plenty of sleeping bag for me.

Helmet, Sea To Summit Reactor Extreme Liner in a non-compressed stuff sack, Brooks Range Alpini 30 sleeping bag.

But what about nights when the temperatures drop into the 30's, or even the 20's? That's certainly possible over a 2,500 mile ride along the Continental Divide, even in August. And I'd like to have the option of bikepacking more during the spring and fall here. I search for options.

I start with 850+ fill down sleeping bags rated in the 5-10 degree range, thinking that would create a comfort range somewhere in the 20's. I like the specifications and reviews for the Kuiu Super Down 15, the Feathered Friends Lark 10 YF, and the Western Mountaineering Versalite 10. If my current bag needed replacing, I would consider one of those. But it seems silly to add a whole new bag, especially at about $600.

So, I move to light down over-bags and quilts with enough loft that, when added to my sleeping bag, match the 6 inch plus loft provided by the 5-10 degree bags listed above. There are many options, with the higher quality ones weighing nearly a pound and running about $300. Again, the added volume, weight, and cost seems high for the benefit.

Sea To Summit ThermoLite Reactor Extreme sleeping bag liner, usable alone as a sleeping bag above about 60 degrees.
There has to be other options. One day at work, I mention my quandary to a trusted colleague, a retired Army Airborne Jump Master.  He describes the Army layered sleeping system, which includes a removable, thin inner layer called a sleeping bag liner. He suggests I look there.

It doesn't take long. Many sleeping bag liners are designed for comfort, such as those made of silk or cotton. Others are designed more to protect the sleeping bag, such as those made of a woven synthetic. If those types of liners add any warmth to the sleeping bag, it's not noted in the marketing or reviews beyond about 5-10 degrees. That won't do.

Then I find the Sea To Summit line of "cold weather" sleeping bag liners that use a thin layer of fabric with hollow threads designed to add warmth to your sleeping bag. They offer four levels of liners, purportedly adding from 14 to 32 degrees. Even after reading glowing reviews, I am skeptical, given the relatively low weight, packed size, and price of these liners. So, I go old school shopping at a brick and mortar store.

The orange liner stylishly tucks into my blue sleeping bag.

After spending enough time in the store to send Colleen to the nearest Starbucks, I finally decide to try the Sea To Summit Reactor Extreme Liner, which purports to add 25 degrees of warmth, weighs 14 ounces, packs to the size of a red solo cup, and retails at about $70. But it just seems so thin, so light, so small, and so inexpensive. Is it too good to be true?

Nope. This is the real deal. I'm comfortable sleeping in the low 30's with this liner inside my Alpini 30 sleeping bag, while wearing a single base layer. Without the liner at those temperatures, I am cold. I'm confident that this liner will extend my comfort zone into the low 20's, and then even lower when I add a down hoodie and down booties. It's a low cost insurance policy against unexpected cold weather and a season-extender, while adding less than a pound and fitting into my current sleep kit bag on my Jones Plus LWB.

Nice add.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Try Sometime

You can't always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, you just might find,
You get what you need.
Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, Rolling Stones (1969). 
You Can't Always Get What You Want (long version).

For months, I've been looking forward to this eleven day fall vacation, even though we had nothing big planned. Maybe it was because we had nothing big planned. Possibilities emerged, then dissipated. But one thought repeatedly crept into my mind. The DED Dirt Ride.

Deadwood to Edgemont to Deadwood. Three hundred ten miles traversing much of the North-South length of the Black Hills via the single track Centennial Trail, the rails-to-trails Mickelson Trail, and primarily remote gravel road connectors. Five years ago, I completed it with Rob Sorge and Shaun Arritola, riding by day and self-shuttling at night. DED Dirt Ride 2014. But I have not ridden it as I originally envisioned.

I wanted to bikepack the DED Dirt Ride self-supported.

I didn't.

Sunrise at Sage Creek Campground in Badlands National Park.
Oh, I prepared my Jones Plus LWB and packed all my bags. All my first day riding clothes were laid out. Maps and itinerary at hand. Everything ready. The day approached.

Not just yet. On Day 1 of 11, we enjoyed the annual Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park. Rangers and ranchers drove the park's herd of some 1400 buffalo over a ridge and down into a valley for their annual census, health checks and auction to manage the population. Seeing that many buffalo running together stirs the imagination with images of millions and millions filling the plains just 150 years ago. Wow.

Around mid-day, the rain started. It looked to stay, and it did. With cold rain forecasted for the next four days solid, I postponed the DED Dirt Ride and we drove to Denver for a long weekend. I figured that I would still have six days left to ride. It was bound to clear by the time we returned.

2019 Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park.

Well, yes, and no. On Day 5 of 11, we drove home in drizzle to a saturated Black Hills. I waited another day, hoping for some drying while knowing that my time window was closing. The next day brought some sunshine, but not enough drying and reports surfaced of a muddy Centennial Trail. Another day passed.  Eventually, I realized that I would not be bikepacking the DED Dirt Ride this year.

Ugh. Now what?

Riding south on Jensen Road I find ranchers working the fields to get one last cut of hay.

I concluded that I didn't need to ride the DED Dirt Ride again. On the other hand, I could use some longer days in the saddle pushing a fully loaded Jones Plus LWB on some hilly gravel. So, I pulled out a file of different maps and laid out an overnight trip into the rolling hills and winds of the prairie east of the Black Hills. 

Back I rode on the Bad Buffalo, a 110 mile gravel loop south of Wasta, South Dakota into Badlands National Park and through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. The roads on this hilly, exposed prairie route have been favorite winter training rides over the years. However, I've never ridden them on a loaded bike and I've never even stopped at Sage Creek Campground, a primitive camp site in the remote reaches of Badlands National Park. Time to do both.

The fencing is more stout for buffalo.

It was hilly. It was chilly. It was cloudy. It was windy and grew windier. It was a lot of work over long hours pedaling that loaded bike back to that primitive campground. It was worth it.

I set up camp and ate quickly as the sun set. Then the temperature dropped and it rained much of the night. Later, the winds of the next front rolled in. It turned cold. Near freezing cold.

Under a quick sunrise, the winds accelerated and cleared the skies. But that wind chilled to the bone. The return ride was just as hilly, just as chilly and even more windy than the day before. As the hours wore on, I must have looked like I was struggling, because two different ranchers stopped their trucks to offer me a ride. Eventually, I soft pedaled back to Wasta and plunked down inside the Jeep, finally out of the gale.

Maybe that wasn't the ride I wanted. 

It was just what I needed.

Big views across a big, bad land.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Gear - Navigation

I'm putting the final touches onto my Jones Plus LWB to prepare for longer, more remote bikepacking trips. Here's the latest addition to my navigation system - a Stem Captain compass.

No batteries required.

Jones Plus LWB ready to ride with Revelate Designs bags packed for the Centennial Trail.
Navigation system of cue sheet clip, odometer and Stem Captain compass.

Stem Captain compass shows the way.

It's your journey. 

Find it. Nurture it. Ride it.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Gear - Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack Tent

When starting to visualize longer bikepacking trips a few years ago, I dug out some ancient backpacking gear to see what had survived the decades. Not surprisingly, not much. Overnight and long weekend bikepack rides in the Black Hills of South Dakota confirmed that my gear needed serious updating. Early in the process, I found a sweet summer sleeping bag (Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini Bag) and a blistering fast stove (JetBoil MiniMo Stove). Other gear took more time.

Like tents. About six years ago, I bought a Marmot Pulsar two person backpacking tent for car camping at races and events. I popped up that tent at gravel races all over the northern plains, such as Odin's Revenge, Gravel Worlds, Almanzo Royal, and Mother Lode, and continue to do so. It works great for that purpose. I also have taken it bikepacking on short trips, but it is a bulky 4 pound load to carry on a bicycle. Works OK. Not optimal.

After just a few bikepacks with the Marmot Pulsar, I jumped to the extreme with an 18 ounce Outdoor Research Helium bivy bag. It's basically a weather resistant bag to cover my sleeping bag. I like it for good weather, overnight bikepacks and maybe would take it for a good weather, two-night trip. Maybe. While certainly small and light, it's too cramped for me for anything longer.

Sunrise atop Bear Mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Little space required to disperse camp with the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack.

For several years, I alternated between the Marmot Pulsar tent and the Outdoor Research Helium bivy bag, while researching other options. Nothing captured my imagination. 

I kept searching. Recognizing that I wanted plenty of room inside to sit up, change clothes and weather some weather, but likely would be bikepacking solo, I looked for relatively roomy, one person tents. I further narrowed my search to free-standing tents, primarily because they easily set up almost anywhere, including on a skillet hard desert floor, a solid rock alpine landing or even a concrete pad in a city park. Also, I prefer the wider access of a side entry design and the versatility of a good-sized vestibule. Designing the tent to be ultralight and relatively compact further reduced the options, but still left some contenders. With nothing compelling, I plugged along for several years with what worked OK.

Side entry with a good sized vestibule for a one person tent.

Then Big Agnes introduced the Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack earlier this year. Now, that's the ticket.

Big Agnes is a small Colorado company that designs innovative outdoor gear, including a series of popular ultralight backpacking tents. Recognizing a demand, Big Agnes adapted a couple of those tents specifically for bikepacking. For the Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack, that started with an existing one person, free-standing, ultralight tent with a side entry and extended vestibule. That's a great start for me. Big Agnes then shortened its pole sections to less than 12 inches, added a variety of creative storage straps and pockets inside and out, and included a tough, weatherproof compression stuff sack with daisy chain webbing and straps to attach directly to most any bike. Uffda.

This is a sweet package of thoughtful features that weighs all of 2 pounds, 5 ounces and packs almost as small as the Outdoor Research Helium bivy bag. This is a tent that I could live in for awhile.

Free standing design allows one to camp on solid rock,
here the floor of an abandoned lookout atop Flag Mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The side entry with sizable vestibule allows easy, clean access and some protected storage. I often sit inside the tent with my feet on the footprint in the vestibule to remove my muddy shoes, which stay right there overnight. I also keep a bottle of water in the vestibule, for access during the night without risk of spilling inside. Under the fly, one elastic strap holds a helmet and other straps can secure a number of things, including clothes to air out. There's a lot going on with this tent.

A variety of storage pockets are positioned all around the inside of the tent for small items, like glasses, camera, maps, light, journal, phone, etc., etc., etc. There's even a large mesh pocket to hold shorts, jerseys and gloves to dry. With so many pockets, I have left items inside only to find them when packing the tent. I imagine those with more electronic gadgets would enjoy those pockets even more.

Although smaller than the Marmot Pulsar, the inside is much roomier than I expected for an ultralight one person tent. It's definitely roomy enough for me to comfortably change clothes and store some gear inside. And I have spent several evenings lounging inside studying maps, reading and writing. It works well for me.

This tent packs small.
4 lb two person tent.  2 lb 5 oz one person tent.  1 lb 2 oz bivy bag.

The modifications directed to bikepacking, however, are why I bought this tent. Shrinking the pole sections to less than 12 inches dramatically reduces the packed length of the tent. It actually fits between the brake lever hoods of my 44 cm Salsa Cowbell handlebars on my Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross bike. And the weight penalty is a couple of ounces. No-brainer.

The tough, weather-proof compression stuff sack with daisy-chain webbing can be strapped directly to a bike. I'll experiment with that on the right trip. The tent, fly, poles and footprint all easily fit into the bag and the compression straps cinch it tight. No wrestling stuff into this stuff sack. It's a versatile, well-designed bag that far surpasses the typical tent stuff sack.

Although the option of independent, direct attachment is a big plus, I like sliding the entire package into the center of my Salty Roll bag that attaches to my Revelate Designs Harness. It occupies less than half the bag, leaving more than a quarter of the bag on each side to add items that I want to be easily accessible. In that application, the tough stuff sack is overkill and I may switch it out for long trips. However, I like its versatility and love the creativity behind it.

Before the bikepack modifications, the baseline Copper Spur HV UL1 was high on my list for a one person tent, but did not jump off the chart. After the bikepack modifications, the Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack shot straight to the top. Every time I use it, I find something more to like about it. My primary long term concern is durability, but that would be so for anything designed ultralight.

It's the right tent for me now.

Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack Tent, including poles, fly, fly stakes and footprint, easily fits
between the 44 cm Salsa Cowbell handlebars on my Black Mountain.

The Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack occupies about half of that bag resting under those Jones handlebars.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Gear - Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30 Sleeping Bag

About three years ago, I started riding some local overnight trips and realized my antiquated backpacking gear needed serious updating for today's bikepacking. So, I've been gradually acquiring new gear for bikepacking. It's been amazing. Every piece of gear I research, buy and use is light-years better. For example, here's a link to a prior post about my new stove. JetBoil MiniMo.

Let's go to sleeping bags. For backpacking, skipacking and car camping over the years, I typically have had at least three levels of bags in inventory: summer (30 degree rating), three season (0 degree rating) and winter (-30 degree rating). With small volume not being the highest priority for those activities, I invariably chose synthetic fill of one kind or another. It's all worked well enough.

For bikepacking, however, volume of packed equipment is a bigger issue. Even my lightest synthetic bags were too bulky to comfortably carry on a bike. So, I ventured into the world of down sleeping bags.

Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30 sleeping bag. Off to a great start.

I decided to start with a summer bag, since I intended to bikepack primarily when overnight temperatures were well above freezing. A summer bag also would be lighter, more compressible and less expensive.

Focused on small volume and low weight, I soon dove into down fill power, which is the number of cubic inches of loft produced by one ounce of a given down fill. Higher fill numbers mean greater loft and insulation. So, for the same weight of down fill, a sleeping bag with a higher down fill power provides more insulating loft and generally is warmer than one with a lower down fill power. Similarly, for two bags of the same temperature rating, the one with a higher down fill power requires less down fill, so it is lighter and more compressible.

All that really adds up in performance and price. That is, the weight and volume of a sleeping bag shrinks dramatically as the down fill power goes up. Not surprisingly, the price shoots up, as well.

The Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30 sleeping bag packs tiny.
Here it's stuffed into a waterproof Sea-To-Summit compression sack next to my helmet.

Eventually, I decided on the Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30 sleeping bag, with 850 fill down. It weighs but 20 ounces, is rated at 30 degrees and compresses to a volume much smaller than my helmet. Barely over a pound, it slides easily into the lower half of one of the Revelate Designs Truss Fork Packs on my Jones Plus LWB. Amazing.

When I first held the Alpini 30, I thought I received the wrong bag. It felt impossibly light for any practical use. So, I immediately laid down and rested the bag over me. Seemingly within seconds, I felt warmer and soon was overheated. Inconceivable! How could a bag so light be so warm?

The 850 fill down is certainly the starting point, but the Alpini 30 also maximizes warmth by borrowing features from colder rated sleeping bags, such as offset baffled fabric, a draft tube along the zipper, a neck collar, and a toggled draw string hood. For its size and weight, this bag is warm.

I've enjoyed the Alpini 30 on every bikepacking trip for four summers now. A few nights in mid-summer I have had to get out of the bag because it was too warm. A few nights that dropped into the 30's I have added a down puffy jacket to get warmer. But mostly I just sleep comfortably. It's a great summer sleeping bag for the Black Hills of South Dakota.

For bikepacking, I really like how it compresses quickly and easily into a compression stuff sack, unlike the wrestling matches with my old synthetic fill bags. Once compressed, it fits easily in the Terrapin seat post bag, the Salty Roll handle bar bag, or the Jones frame bag. However, due to its low weight, I generally pack it into one of the Truss Fork packs, which still leaves room in the upper half of the pack for a rain jacket, gloves, cap and such.

The only negative to the Alpini 30 is the stuff sack that comes with it. So, I replaced it with a Sea-To-Summit waterproof compression sack. Problems solved.

The Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30 sleeping bag is tucked into the lower half of the Truss Fork Pack
shown in this picture, leaving the upper half for a rain jacket and such.

I bought this sleeping bag in early 2016 and have used it extensively since. If looking for a replacement or a colder rated sleeping bag, I would head straight back to Brooks Range Mountaineering. Unfortunately, they closed for business at the end of 2018 and I can't find a successor. So, although my next sleeping bag for bikepacking apparently will be from a different maker, it will be 850 down fill or higher, with similar features. I believe it's worth it.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Gear - JetBoil MiniMo Stove

Creativity. Innovation. Refinement.


About three years ago, I started kicking around the idea of bikepacking and ventured out for a few, short overnights. For gear, I scrounged through our various storage spaces seeking old hiking, backpacking, and camping stuff that might work. I soon realized that my 1970's era gear, less than state-of-the-art at the time and barely used the past 25 years, required serious updating. Since then, I have been gradually acquiring new gear for bikepacking.

This is fun.

Every piece of gear I research, buy and use is light-years better. With all the time that has passed, I knew gear would improve. I'm amazed at how much.

JetBoil MiniMo ready to rock.

I'll start with stoves. For several years, I stomped around the backcountry with a cook kit comprising a small pot and a simple metal grate. Mostly I ate cold. If I wanted something hot, I would place the pot on the grate resting on a couple of rocks over a small fire. College graduation in 1981 brought a big prize - a Coleman Peak 1 stove. Now, I was cooking with gas. That was a major move up, but the Peak 1 stove was bulky, heavy and clunky to use. So, I didn't always carry it.

Researching backpacking and bikepacking stoves now, I can't believe the specifications. Crazy short boil times. Crazy fuel efficiencies. Crazy small size. Crazy low weight. Crazy cool features. Wow.

With a variety of really nice options, I eventually decide on the JetBoil MiniMo and have used it now for three summers. It's reliable, fast, convenient, small, light, simple to use and easy to pack. I love it.

JetBoil MiniMo with integrated, insulated pot, lid and swing-out, rubber-coated metal handles.

Although the MiniMo has a simmer control, I use it primarily at full blast to boil water for breakfasts and dinners. JetBoil claims it boils 2 cups of water in 2 minutes and 15 seconds, although every time I measure it's less than 2 minutes. That's fast enough that I've learned to have my oatmeal and coffee ready in cups before starting the stove.

JetBoil also claims that the 100g fuel canister will boil 12 liters of water, which is 50 cups. I've got at least that out of my canisters here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is mucho hot meals. For example, I often use about 2 cups of water for breakfast (1 for oatmeal, 1 for coffee) and about 3 cups of water for dinner (2 for dehydrated dinner, 1 for hot chocolate). That translates to 10 days of cooking from one small fuel canister.

JetBoil claims the stove's efficiency results from a proprietary "FluxRing" that circles the burner and functions as a supercharged heat exchanger. That sounds suspiciously like a derivative of Doctor Emmett Brown's Flux Capacitor, but their explanatory video does not go into enough detail to tell. In any event, the MiniMo is exceptionally fuel efficient.

Another part of the MiniMo's fuel efficiency results from its integrated design of stabilizer legs, fuel canister, burner, windscreen, pot and lid. That integration also makes it easy to use and then to pack, since everything fits inside the pot, including the fuel canister. The whole enchilada then fits easily in my Revelate Designs Jones Frame bag or Terrapin seat post bag.

JetBoil MiniMo, with fuel canister and burner tucked into the insulated pot.

Another convenient feature of the MiniMo is the built-in ignitor, which generates a spark with a push of a button. It's worked flawlessly so far, so I have not used my backup matches. A simple clockwise turn of the regulator lever releases and controls the pressurized gas flow from the canister. A counter-clockwise turn shuts it all down. Easy-peasy.

I also like the insulated pot with swing-out, rubber-coated metal handles, which are sturdy enough to support a pot full of hot stuff. There's even a lid with an opening on one side to drink and openings on another side to strain.

JetBoil MiniMo ready to pack.

The JetBoil MiniMo certainly has earned a place on my gear list for bikepacking adventures of all kinds. I love it.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

DED Dirt Ride 2014 - Epilogue

Over five hot days in August of 2014, Shaun Arritola, Rob Sorge and I rode the DED Dirt Ride, a 310 mile bicycle route from Deadwood to Edgemont to Deadwood via the 111 mile single track Centennial Trail, the 109 mile rails-to-trails Mickelson Trail, and primarily gravel road connectors. For 8-10 hours each day, we pedaled, pushed and carried our bikes, on about every type of surface, along the length and breadth of the Black Hills. Spent at the end of each day, we recovered hard by campsite and arose to ride another day. We rode with more gumption than preparation. But we rode. 

I documented this ride through a series of seven FaceBook photo albums, which is not a great platform for narrative or for preservation. So, I plan to reproduce those seven photo albums here in a series of posts, each with an added, rediscovered picture and an introductory note. Here are links to my prior posts in this series. DED Dirt Ride 2014 - PrologueDay 1 - Centennial TrailDay 2 - Centennial TrailDay 3 - Centennial TrailDay 4 - Prairie GravelDay 5 - Mickelson Trail.

As I'm beginning to build the gear, experience and mindset to consider longer bikepacking rides, I'm astonished to realize that five years have passed since this DED Dirt Ride. I am determined to bikepack more the next five years than the last. 

Yeah. We rode the DED Dirt Ride. Yeah.

This final photo album wrapped up the 2014 DED Dirt Ride. Each day of this five day ride challenged us, individually and collectively. Stringing together these five days in a row was an achievement for us, but not Herculean. It's difficult to convey how utterly exhausted one can be at the end of a long, hard day in the saddle, but then how energetically fresh one can be in the morning after a recovery night around a campsite. It still amazes me every time. Keep going and, before you know it, you're created and shared a special experience. Thanks, Shaun and Rob, for sharing this one with me.

Now, that was a ride. We pedaled, pushed and carried our bikes, on about every type of surface, through the entire length and much of the breadth of the Black Hills, and then back again. We totaled about 310 miles, split pretty evenly between single track, gravel and rails-to-trails, with stretches of pavement for by-passes and re-routes. We were out there about 8-10 hours each of the 5 days, with no damage to bikes or bodies that couldn't be handled with some trailside maintenance or ibuprofen. We saw just about every kind of wild critter that roams the Black Hills, without getting charged, gored, stampeded, clawed, buzzed, or exposed to the Bubonic plague. Now, all too soon, we're back where we started five days ago.

Thanks, Shaun and Rob, for sharing this time. I hope these pictures and words capture a piece of the experience. Special thanks to Dachia and Colleen for making it possible with your support and shuttles. Thanks also to Corinne for sending Rob up here.

If this type of thing fires your imagination, make it happen. If you're headed this way, let me know. I'd be glad to help. I may even join you.