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:)
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.