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.