This week I get to show you just how clueless I was when I started out a year and a half ago to live on the road. When bike packing, nothing gives you away as a newbie faster than your gear.
In my post on 23 November 2013, I sat in Houston, reflecting on what I had brought with me, and what I had sent home. That post also contains a complete list of what I was carrying with me. I started the Southern Swing 2013 on 25 September 2013 with four panniers, a handlebar bag, and a rack trunk (100 kg of gear). I was mailing two 20-kg bounce boxes ahead of me. By the time I got to Houston, I was down to one bounce box. There was no camping gear.
I set off for the Northern Trek 2014 on 15 May, with two panniers, the rack trunk, and no bounce box.
This time, I thought I had camping gear with me, and I felt pretty good about how much stuff I had learned to leave behind. In fact, I did not do any camping until after I met Cheryl in Niagara Falls on 28 July. For the next 10 weeks, I was donating old equipment to charity, and buying new equipment in outdoor stores or by mail order. By the time we reached Boston in mid-October, I was down to the two old panniers, no rack trunk, and a clear idea of what additional items I still needed to swap out. There was a sale at REI in mid-November,
so I purchased the last few items when I returned to Charlottesville. My cargo load now is just 25 kg.
Here is what happened to the gear.
Tent. My little Scout Junior tent was fine for two nine-year-olds camping in the backyard, but not for an adult on the road. I now have a Big Agnes Copper Spur, nominally a four-person tent. I can put myself and my panniers in the tent, dress, exercise, and sleep with plenty of headroom. It weighs less and folds up smaller than my old tent, even with the footprint ground cloth.
Sleeping bag and air mattress. I had a cotton, lightweight sleeping bag that I picked up in Rome in 1985. No air mattress. The bag worked fine for Boy Scout campouts in the summer, but it was totally useless when we faced a week of rain in New York State. It was the first thing to go – in Watertown, New York. Cheryl steered me to Dick’s Sporting Goods and Gander Mountain. I came out with a down bag rated to -7° and a Thermarest® Trekker air mattress, the precursor to their Neo-Air® line of mattresses.
I had Transit Epic® bags from Performance Bicycle, and I liked them – until I picked up Cheryl’s panniers from MEC (Mountain Equipment Coop). Mine were rugged, but weighed twice as much. They were only water-resistant, not waterproof. I thought having everything in lots of plastic bags was normal. I now have a pair of black Ortlieb® panniers. I ditched the rack trunk as soon as I got them. The camping gear straps to the rack where the trunk used to be.
Pillow. A simple little thing – you think? Dr. Scott Wagner, who is responsible for my having a straight frame, taught me to sleep with a roll under my neck. I used an air pillow, which I had to inflate each night. It did not last long. I was on my third air pillow when I bought a down camp pillow from MEC. It crushes to nothing, weighs nothing, and tucks under my neck just like I need. Ahh!
Stow sacks. I used to use re-sealable plastic bags (Ziploc®, Hefty®, etc.) to keep all my stuff organized and dry, within limited success. It was worth the money to buy waterproof dry sacks in an outdoor store. The different sizes have different colors, making it easy to find the bag I need in my panniers. They are rugged, and truly protect their contents. If I need to, I can lash them outside in the rain. Cheryl also bought me a waterproof backpack, which serves as the stow sack for the sleeping back and air mattress — but also as my carry-on luggage.
Clothing. This was the second biggest change I made. My bicycle kit was OK, because it was all technical fabrics, hand-washable and quick-dry. But “off-bike” was another story. Cotton shirts and underwear, jeans, cotton jeans, heavy socks: a ton of stuff that did not keep me warm and could not be kept clean easily without a washer and dryer. As soon as we got to Canada, Cheryl introduced me to outdoor clothing from the likes of Columbia, MEC, Arcteryx, and Gore Apparel. She found me an Arcteryx orange waterproof jacket. I now wear outdoor clothing exclusively when not on the bicycle. The shirts even have collars that will take a tie, if I need to dress up. I found a pair of dressy Cole Hahn shoes with Nike-Air® soles. They take up no more room than a pair of sandals and weigh less than any other shoes I have ever owned. All my off-bike clothes fit into a 5-L dry sack. To quote Cheryl, “essentially, the lighter you.”
Bicycle. Arguably, this was the most significant change I made. My trusty Bianchi Volpe served well for 38,000 km, but it was not designed for dedicated, long-distance bicycle touring. I needed longer chainstays to avoid kicking my panniers, and a longer geometry for a smoother ride on gravel. Disc brakes for better control in the mountains with a loaded bicycle.
Granted, I could have continued indefinitely with the Bianchi, but this was also my home. Both the bicycle and the rider need to be as strong and durable as possible. I now have a 2014 Brodie Elan Vitale, which has all the features I could ask for. The first 1,000 km have been heavenly. The bike begs for more than groceries back aft. I can’t wait to load up my new gear and let the Brodie carry me away.
Trip update. This week, I have travelled far and fast, but not on my bicycle. My mother died on Sunday, so son Daniel and I found ourselves flying to Connecticut to join my sister and her family for the funeral in Ulster Park, New York.
We buried Mom on Tuesday and flew back on Wednesday. The last flight of the itinerary was cancelled for maintenance problems at the last minute, so I rented a car and drove from Charlotte NC to Charlottesville VA. I have managed to ride 30 km every day since, in spite of making up time to meet a delivery deadline for the translation I took on last weekend. The translation is done, and today I am riding farther. Winter riding is good training for Europe 2015.
Next week, another sea story, then I will be back to describe how this summer has changed the way I ride, and where I ride. The Northern Trek 2014 was an epiphanic experience. Even my rides around town will never be the same again.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,