Friday, May 08, 2015

Bikepacking gear considerations

Here I am near Island Park, Idaho, during the 2009 Tour Divide. I laugh when I see photos of the junk show I hauled around back then. Of course, I laugh at all photos I see of all of my gear set-ups, including my most recent winter tour in Alaska, which was less than two months ago. But this photo has some gems. The aero bars (never used them.) The LED headlight that was connected to a battery pack with eight AAs. Pedal cages. The cheap rain gear that I purchased in a panic in Banff, because until two days before the start, I thought I could get away with a thin softshell pullover. I probably had more than 15 pounds in that backpack alone, as I tended to hoard food and water. I had a 24-ounce aluminum water bottle that I filled every morning, threw in the pack next to my three-liter bladder, hauled around all day, then dumped all the water out and re-filled it in the morning. I don't recall ever actually drinking from that bottle. It was my water insurance policy. Oh, I had an 11-ounce filter as well, and it rained nearly every day of the trip. Although there are lots of ways in which I could still go lighter with bikepacking gear, my top goal is to not be quite as water-obsessed as I was back then. 

Mulling a limited list of gear, knowing I will have to live intimately with my choices for one to four weeks, is always a difficult chore. Some people are perfectly content with ripped T-shirts and sleeping in the dirt. I envy these people. They have an ability to go light without an ultralight mentality, which I admittedly lack. (The reason I continued to use my ancient and heavy Thermarest after Cady scratched up the newer one — because it worked. Most gear does work. Why fuss over it?) Luckily, Beat is gear-savvy and does the research, and because of this I still find my way to superior items that actually meet my needs. Otherwise, there's a strong chance that I'd be standing here in 2015 with a rusty 2008 Karate Monkey and a lot of other stuff I'd been forcing through the motions for six-plus years. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) 

My current bike is a Moots Mooto-X YBB 29" titanium softtail. I've been riding it long distances for three years now, and would be perfectly happy to still be riding this frame in 2020 if the fates allow. I love this bike. I'd still say the same about my Karate Monkey, though.

I use bags from Revelate Designs. I was lucky to get a custom frame bag for my Moots before Eric stopped making them. He always includes a few modifications to make them extra "Jill-proof," because I am notoriously hard on my gear. Revelate gear is durable and light. The frame bag is still holding up well after three years of near-continuous use. Can't ask for better than that. My packing habits are basic — sleeping gear in the handlebar bag, clothing and spare tube(s) in the seatpost bag, food in the frame bag, repair items and tools in a small top-tube bag, and water and small items in a backpack. 

Here are a few other items I'm currently considering. (Decisions are still being made in regard to all of this:)

Sleep system:

Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32 sleeping bag— This is the same bag I used in the 2009 Tour Divide, and on many summer camping trips since. It still feels perfectly comfortable in temperatures in the 30s, and I don't have a compelling reason to upgrade.

Outdoor Research Helium Bivy — Something I just ordered, but am pretty sold on. This bivy sack received good reviews for its waterproof/breathable capabilities. It also has the single pole that could vastly increase quality of sleep. I need something I can just throw on the ground and crawl into when I am exhausted, without fussing with a bunch of guylines and stakes (This pretty much applies to every camping trip I go on, not just multiday races.)

Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad — Finally broke down and got one of these. I've been using some old-generation Thermarest for too many years now (think 2006 or 2007. I actually used a newer one during the 2009 Tour Divide, but my cat destroyed that pad.) The NeoAir is considerably more comfortable and warmer than my old inflatable pad, and quite a bit lighter. I suppose that's not a surprise.


Patagonia Capilene 2 Zip Neck — This shirt has become my go-to top/base layer for just about every long event I've completed in the past three years. It wicks moisture well, and the fabric dries very fast. It has good thermal capacity for cold, but it's also highly breathable, so it's reasonably comfortable in hot weather as well. The zip neck is good for venting, and long sleeves provide the kind of sun protection that I require. Although I'd like to go with short sleeves, my skin seems to absorb light in a way that leaves me feeling fried at the end of the day no matter how much sunscreen I apply. Over the years, I've learned I'm better off covering myself with clothing, and trying to vent heat as best as I can.

Pearl Izumi Aurora Splice 3/4 tights — Although I am as yet undecided, I am considering going chamois free for the long ride. It's a difficult decision, because while I like a bit of padding for my backside, I've learned I cannot wear a dirty or wet chamois for long periods of time without consequences that range from unpleasant to full-blown rash/infection. These consequences have nothing to do with my backside, which can actually weather the saddle spanking okay. I rarely have issues with chaffing, and I've never had a real saddle sore (at least what the Internet defines as a saddle sore.) I did, however, sustain a large and bulbous blister on my left cheek during the Freedom Challenge last year, after a particularly rocky stretch. I wore my thermal running tights, with no chamois, for about 75 percent of that ride. This solidified a belief that for me, chamois are nice, but not necessary on a long ride. I like the idea of 3/4 tights because, again, sun protection, and these have venting mesh behind the knee. I could combine these with calf compression sleeves and knee warmers for a warmer tight in cold weather.

North Face Thermoball Hoodie — Love this jacket. Warm when it's wet. Warm when it's dry. Warm when it's slightly cool and you're puttering around camp. Makes a great pillow.

Skinfit full-zip rain pants — I can't overemphasize how important full-zip is to me. I figure since I'm going fairly light on tights, I'll end up wearing these on cold days as well as rainy days. I also use these in winter racing and find them very capable in the wind-blocking department, which is really all that matters to me in a rain pant. (I don't think rain pants can keep you dry, especially on a bicycle, after many hours of pedaling through deluge and mud. No one will ever convince me there are non-imaginary pants that can do this.)

Skinfit primaloft mittens — These are just as light as any of my thin fleece mittens, they're warmer, more water-resistant, and have a flap that can be pulled back to expose fingers when dexterity is needed. They fit well over bike gloves. I'm considering combining these with a pair of Mountain Laurel Designs eVent shells for wet weather.

Hats and mittens are two areas where a little bit can go a long way in terms of keeping one warm and happy in wet weather. I have no idea what the weather will be like this year, only my memories that despite a multitude of winter endurance experiences, my closest brushes with scary hypothermia during an endurance event happened during thunderstorms in the Tour Divide, in Colorado and New Mexico, respectively (so no shipping stuff home from Montana.) I'm thinking about my go-to Mountain Hardwear Dome Beanie for a hat.

I haven't decided on a rain jacket — whether to bring my go-to Outdoor Research Mentor Jacket (like the Capilene top, it's a winter thing that's followed me everywhere for more than four years) or something lighter. It's hard to justify the heaviness of the Gore-Tex shell, but I know it's going to keep me happy in wet and windy conditions, and sometimes that's what matters most.

DryMax socks — These are like gold. Pure gold. For your feet. They really do hold away moisture, which is just as important for cyclists who want to avoid trench foot unpleasantness, as it is for runners trying to avoid blisters.

Acorn fleece socks — For cold days, and camp.

Integral Designs vapor barrier socks — Every since I recovered from frostbite six years ago, I have to be careful with my feet. Even if temperatures are not below freezing, I can sustain more nerve damage if they remain too cold for too long. These are a lightweight insurance policy against bad feet.

Montrail Mountain Masochist trail-running shoe — I know I've addressed the reasons why I don't use clipless pedals on this blog before. It has to do with the aforementioned frostbite damage that limits my tolerance of tight or stiff shoes. Also, I like to move my feet around on the pedals. It's another technique I use to relieve pressure from other areas such as my knees and calves. Long-distance cyclists are always raving about their multitude of hand positions on their handlebars, while locking their feet into a single position for the duration. This, I don't quite understand. The best way to relieve any nagging issue is to try moving in a slightly different way.


Sawyer Squeeze water filter — This was recommended to me by Mary, and seems like a great option for fast water treatment. Only three ounces, and the pouch can be used for reserve water storage. (I'm hoping to maintain a carry capacity of 5-6 liters, for a couple of long, hot, and dry stretches.)

Salomon Agile 12 backpack — This is a low-profile pack that's large enough to pack six liters of water if necessary, comfortable, and has huge side pockets for easy access to miscellaneous items such as sunscreen, salt tabs, snacks, the occasional comfort bottle of Pepsi, and camera.

Buff — Has so many applications, from blocking sun on the neck, to keeping ears warm, to mopping up water that's pooled on a sleeping bag.

There are of course other small items, tools, spare parts, and bits of clothing, not included in this list. I don't consider myself a gear expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I know what keeps me happy, and what's going to give me the courage to approach a mountain pass when it's dark and cold and raining. It's still a tough decision to make.

As always, input is appreciated. 


  1. So does this mean we will see you in Banff...?

  2. I notice you didn't mention your light yet? Have you made a decision on what type of light?

  3. Bivy!!! Ughhhh. I just can't do it. I can see where you would not want to mess with a tent and perhaps you can cowboy most of the time. Shelter is always my biggest dilemma. I thought I loved my trekking pole tent until a couple weekends ago in the Grand Canyon. The wind, the wind! I'm now back to my 1p Big Agnes but I resent carrying extra poles. Hope the squeeze works for you. There's the plunger thing to clean it, I rarely have to use it but if you think you will use it a lot it is worth carrying. If you carry smart water bottles there's a way to use the cap as a flush also, but I haven't done that.

  4. I'm in love with those Patagonia base layers and my NeoAir too. I'm slowly upgrading my gear and it's so hard to decide what is worth replacing when everything still works fine but weighs a ton.

  5. Love the NeoAir too-- although it crinkles a lot when you move around :) If you ever decide to go for a new sleeping bag, check out Sea to Summit's Spark series. Super small and lightweight-- the darn things stuffs to the size of a grapefruit and barely weighs a pound!

  6. Jill seems to like her Fenix BC20. It has an interesting beam pattern with one spot closer to the wheel and one farther away. She's backing it up with a Fenix headlamp as helmet light.

    The Bivy looks great btw. The pole (which adds 2 oz and is optional) really makes a difference, and it seems to be basically freestanding, just adding a fair bit of space above your head. It also has a bug screen which is awesome. Of course if you fully zip up a bivy there's no escaping condensation issues, and in a deluge it won't be as waterproof as a tent for sure. I used some eVent bivys but they're heavier and eVent has some durability issues, and noone makes them with the right mix of durability, weight and features IMO (there's one from MLD which is light indeed but uses a cuben floor which is prone to punctures and costs a whopping 360 bucks!!!). But really it takes you no time to set up a bivy ...

  7. great list! love lists like this - so I don't have to trial and error things...


  8. What do you think about hammocks for California rain free trips? My preferred "sleep system" is a motel bed, but if needed, I can sleep suspended much better than on the ground. Another question I always think of when reading someone's gear list is: how do you wash your riding kit and dry it when camping outside? Hotel shower and good wringing in a towel takes care of that for me. Learned these skills from a GDR record holder...unless you carry multiple sets of course.

    1. Usually, you don't wash your gear when cowboy camping — which is the reason I want to avoid using a chamois. A quick wipe with a wet wipe can take care of many issues with dirty clothing, except for the smell — which really is more other peoples' problem than yours. :P

      Everyone has their own thing. I would hate a hammock — I like the "security" of an enclosed space and can't be fussed with finding two trees close together to hang my shelter. On the other hand I don't mind sleeping on the ground.

  9. My brother and I have used the Sawyer Squeeze filter system for our high-Sierra backpacking trips for 3 years now w/ ZERO problems, and it's fantastically light...much better than the old pump system we used to carry.

    Just FYI, there are now at least 2 mfr's who make treated down sleeping bags (so if/when they get wet, the down doesn't clump and still keeps you warm). Mine is a Sierra Designs Zissou 23 w/ their proprietary "DriDown" (it's comfort rating is 34F, but supposedly good down to 23F), and it only weighs 2lbs...I've been down to 20F in mine once (I was pretty cold but survived). Don't know who the other mfr is (this was a few years ago since I got mine, likely others doing the same thing...check w/ REI...they'll know all this if/when you are interested in getting a new bag).

    I give you credit carrying a Thermarest...they are SOOOO heavy (bike-packing probably isn't quite as weight-critical as backpacking tho...sure you have to pedal it, but it's NOT all on your back).

    I'm just trying to think back to your last Tour Divide run (info that I got from your book)...don't recall you spending a lot of nights out on the trail, I seem to remember you getting to hotel rooms most I mis-remembering? But I gather this kit you are assembling is for general bike-packing, not specifically the 2015 TD, right??

    Sure hope you decide to do it (the TD)...I'm stoked to follow you again...already have my Outlook set to give me reminders a few days out from the 2nd Friday in June. LOVE following that just boggles my mind how hard it must be, especially 100% self-supported.

    1. Thanks for the tips. I did spend the majority of nights in hotels in 2009. I would prefer to do a run that was mostly camping — not only for the experience, but also because it's so much more time-efficient. Towns and hotels suck up a large amount of wasted time, and I'm not convinced the rest or recovery is any better — it's just more emotionally reassuring. I'm not sure I'll be brave enough to throw a bivy in the dirt every night, but I like to think I have that kind of mental fortitude in me. :)

  10. I don't care whether people don't prefer clipless, but I do care if they use physiologically unsound reasons for it :P

    Moving one's body into a disordered position to relieve overuse symptoms (say, pushing with heels on pedals without adjusting the rest of one's position which would require adjusting the entire bike, turning toes out, moving feet outwards or inwards, what have you) is a sure way to develop disordered movement patterns, apply damaging torque to joints, and generally create a host of other problems down the road. Overuse issues are resolvable only by rest and appropriate treatment. I see this in the weight room sometimes; it hurts to do a heavy lift properly because of an injury, so the lifter just jacks his form up to work around the pain and to complete the lift rather than coming down in weight and keeping good form, or to rest until he can work out again. He think he's avoiding injury because for that initial period of time, the lift doesn't hurt, but down the road he's going to be lost and sorry. So, that piece of advice made me cringe. Flat or clipless, pedaling form and appropriate bike setup is super important to avoid injuries. If pedaling hurts so much you've got to move into a disordered position, it's probably time to stop pedaling.

    1. If you're sitting in an airplane seat on a long flight and your butt becomes uncomfortable, you shift your position a little, right? I don't see any difference in doing so on a bike. I'm not twisting myself away from pain; I'm avoiding little nagging discomforts, and they do go away.

      That's all I'm supporting here. What works for me. I haven't had a hint of lingering knee pain (besides my fall-induced tissue tears and wounds) in six years, when I was wracked with knee pain through most of my 20s. Something changed, and I think it's that I just became better conditioned to this type of movement, while also decreasing the repetitiveness of my motions.

      All the advice you give is correct, of course. But I think you're imagining this issue from the perspective of shorter-term, higher-power efforts, where I'm approaching the problems any repetitive motion can create during long durations of moderate to low-intensity spinning. Even the perfect form is going to feel uncomfortable after eight, nine, ten-plus hours. Pros who need to power through their most efficient efforts deal with it and then recover. Bike tourists are going to give up some power and efficiency by standing out o the saddle, throwing an arm behind their back, etc., to relieve a tight muscle or other issue. But they'll feel better at the end of the day and ready to go again the next. I do this with my feet (mostly to relieve pressure in my feet since my toes are so sensitive.) I'm sorry this offends you so.

  11. You gotta be careful with the sawyer:

    It seems like those filters *can* suffer from low lifespans. Here's sawyer's response:

    I don't think this should be an issue with occasional use, and one is well advised to diligently follow cleaning procedures ...


Feedback is always appreciated!