Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ultra Light Cycle Touring Backpack Gear Overview

Cycle touring has long been on my mind, and ideas for touring have evolved as I've put more and more thought into my goals and desires in regards to overnight cycling trips. Initially I had thought to try a short "credit card tour" North, to my mothers home near Albany. Riding with nothing more than clothes and roadside essentials I would get a hotel in Poughkeepsie (80 miles) and sleep there one night before continuing to ride to Albany (80 miles). Soon my thoughts turned to campsites, and a self sustained rig, after all the price of 2 nights in a hotel room can buy a lot of gear. Once I began researching parks, I found only a couple which were close enough to ride to, and offered camping. Clarence Fahnestock Park was the obvious choice for me, at 63 miles it's just the right distance for my abilities, and has shower/bathroom facilities, bike trails, and swimming available. "Food service" near the beach is mentioned on the website as being available during swimming season, and Winter park. I'll likely pack some food, and possibly pick some up in Mahopac as it's the last town on my route. This thought process lead me to the inevitable topic, gear. Cycling specific gear is often either not an option or not necessary in terms of touring, and many items designed for overnight backpacking will double as cycle touring gear.

I'm a backpack cyclist, I started my adult cycling adventures as a midtown Manhattan commuter. I like to keep my bike free of anything that changes how the bike is shaped, or how it handles. The only things you find on my bike are for safety, lights on the front, rear, and a BikeGlow light rope wrapped around my frame.

Shot of my bike doing its Christmas Tree impression

That being said, I did not want to opt for panniers or a trailer, and felt that modern material, design, and fabrication techniques would likely have ultra light and compact camping gear to make a -20lb backpack possible (shelter included). The first thing I chose to research was a tent. If I could not find a viable shelter for my size and weight needs, my whole idea for touring by backpack would not be possible. Single occupancy tents were less common than I had thought, and I only found a couple of reasonably priced options to consider. Soon I came upon a clear choice, the Eureka! Solitaire. Weighing only a little over 2 and a half pounds, this tent is very well reviewed by consumers and was on sale for about 70$ before shipping. The tent is a shallow tubular design, you cannot sit up in it, and is only high enough to prop yourself up on your elbows. Basically it is a good tent for sleeping and changing, and that's about it. Some reviews complained of breaking their fiberglass poles and recommended purchasing custom aluminum poles (which are also lighter than fiberglass). When I received the tent, I tried assembling the tent to get an idea for how it was done and heard one of the fiberglass poles make a small internal cracking sound. Though I could not see a crack forming, I decided that this was all I needed to influence my decision to order the custom aluminum poles from Tentpole Technologies. I measured the poles for the customer service rep, and placed my order. The poles cost me nearly half the overall price of the tent (just under 50$), but I felt the extra piece of mind was worth every penny.

Eureka! Solitaire Single Occupancy Tent

Tent, Poles, and Pegs

Custom built aluminum poles. (Aluminum poles must be slightly pre-bent.)

The next item of importance to me was power supply. I run GPS from my smart phone when I ride, and I also run my GoPro camera. I own a small emergency charger that takes AA batteries that I've used for extra long bike rides, but I wanted something sustainable, like a solar panel, that would keep me charged even when outlets are not available. After reading reviews and specs for many models of solar panels, I came upon the K3 Wind and Solar Charger. This device boasts 4,000 mAh capacity, a large panel, the capacity to charge from wind via a small turbine, and USB or wall plug charging abilities. I was able to find one for 20$ less than the MSRP on their website, about 80$ shipped. I have tested this on one ride last week and the internal battery extended my GoPro well past its usual single batteries life (about 2 hours) and I was able to ride 50 miles without changing the battery (about 5 hours). When I returned home, my K3 was at 50% charge, so I would estimate that it could run my GoPro on standby for an additional 5 hours. I will also try charging my phone with the K3 at the same time, to experiment with just how much I can get out of this device.

K3 Wind and Solar Charger

Now that I had the roof over my head that I needed, and a portable power supply that I wanted, I focused on a potential headache of a decision, the all important backpack itself. There are so many types available online that the selection is daunting. Also, when viewing a pack online you can read measurements, but never actually handle the bag and inspect its features and workmanship before purchase. With this in mind I wanted to make a trip to some nearby wholesale stores to see if they might have a pack that could match my needs. In Marshalls department store I found a Jansport Talus 26 Versa-Wing hiking backpack for 50$, which I thought was a great price as they range from 60-80$ online. The pack is a narrow tubular stuff sack design with a thick rigid foam back, a compartment for a water bladder, and large adjustable mesh pockets that reach from the back around to about halfway along the hip straps known as "Versa-Wing" pockets. Viewing these pockets in the store, I estimated that my tent would likely fit nicely in one of them and took the slight risk on the 50$ purchase. Once home I found the Eureka! Solitaire tent fit almost perfectly into one of the Versa-Wing pockets along with it's poles and pegs. In the other Versa-Wing pocket I was able to put my K3 charger and my spare tube kit to balance out the weight of the pack.

Jansport Talus Backpack

I'm a bit of a picky sleeper, but I know I have to be realistic when sleeping in a tent. I hoped I could find a light bedroll that offered durable padding but wasn't too terribly bulky. In researching this item I found many bed rolls were much heavier than I had liked, and I was determined to find an ultra light alternative. All of the inflatable rolls were far too heavy, and most of the foam rolls seemed flimsy or offered little in the way of padding in comparison to their weight. That's when I came upon the Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite Sleeping Pad. Purchasing this product was a concession to size as it is made of firm ridged foam that does not compress when rolled. But the weight (1lb 3 ounces), and the added feature of a reflective insulating design, were enough for me to overlook the SOLite pads bulky profile. Adding a small inflatable travel pillow I already owned, I now have a bed for my tent.

Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite Sleeping Pad

Standard inflatable travel pillow

Next I wanted to address some of the other necessities for my trip. Water, towel, rain gear, and spare tube and mini pump. As my backpack featured a compartment for a water bladder, I purchased an inexpensive 2 liter bladder that had positive reviews. For a towel, I found Lightload (synthetic) Beach Towels which weigh only 5 ounces and come packed tight. I already own a polypropylene rain jacket and usually I do not mind if my legs take a splashing (though I own 2 pairs of rain pants), but it's nice to keep the torrents off your torso. Even when you sweat under a raincoat, it's sometimes better than freezing exposed to the rain. I also own a rain cover for my backpack which will be good cover for my gear in the event I get caught in a downpour. Lastly I have a simple flat tube replacement kit. A mini pump, a tire lever, and a spare tube. This is the absolute minimum that I would recommend anyone to ride with regardless of distance.

2 liter water bladder

Lightload Towel

Polypropylene rain jacket and rain cover for backpack

Tire lever, mini pump, spare tube

Add a knife and fire starter and now you have the core of a durable one man cycle touring rig.

Now it was time to see how everything might pack together. The water bladder slipped fairly easily into its compartment. Then I packed 2 pair of nylon cargo shorts, 2 pair of cotton underwear, 2 pair of padded cycling short liners, 2 pair of socks, 2 pair of athletic weight cotton t-shirts, and 2 synthetic fiber athletic base layers (one long sleeve, one short sleeve), into the backpack. Next I stuffed the tent into the Versa-Wing pocket on my backpack along with its poles and pegs, and put my spare tube kit and my solar charger in the other Versa-Wing pocket. My unfortunately bulky bedroll went through the compression cords on the back of the pack without too much trouble squeezing it in. Later I found that if I used the top and bottom loops of this cord I could secure the bed roll quite tightly.

Left side of pack, stuffed with tent

Right side of pack holding solar charger and spare tube kit now in a brown plastic bag

Everything itemized above fit well into the pack, and combined only weighed 12.4 pounds! There was enough room left in the main compartment of the backpack for toiletries, food, some media equipment, and odds and ends. I believe I should have little trouble keeping this entire rig under 20 pounds before walking out the door.

I had planned on riding to Fahnestock Park ASAP upon receiving my gear, but recent problems with the audio for my GoPro have forced me to send the camera back to the manufacturer. My goal now is to attempt this trip before my first century ride on the 16th (The Ride to Montauk). Once I field test this gear I will be sure to comment on its performance when I write my first cycle tour report.


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