Now that the weather is improving, I have been jonesin’ for the bikepacking season. Charles and I spent the winter contemplating, discussing, researching and procuring some gear to be able to do more “unsupported” bikepacking – ultimately, this means camping. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Making the best lemonade from lemons I did a quick trip to try out some gear and get a sense of the experience. The short version:
For the long(er) version – really how long can a write up of a 2 hour trip be?? – read on…
I have been really happy with my bikepacking setup over the last year. We did the two trips last year, a very remote 3 day trip through the Monongahela National Forest and a 4 day trip around northeastern Pennsylvania and I had few complaints wit the set up. Once I purchased a gravel/cyclocross bike in 2018, I could no longer use the rack and pannier setup I used on my Orbea 29er mountain bike because the Raleigh Roker carbon frame could not support those kinds of loads on the frame mounts. The direction these days is for lighter weight setups using “fore and aft” bags mounted directly to the bike, rather than traditional touring pannier set ups using racks. While these traditional setups are probably better for road touring and can carry more, they are not ideal for off road touring, especially if there is any single track.
I use the Ortlieb 16L underseat and top tube frame bags. They are a bit on the heavy side, but bulletproof and 100% waterproof. I’m not a weight weenie so not really worried about that and I’d rather have them perform well. When you are talking 30-40 pounds total up rig weight a few pounds is worth the better performance. In 2019 I swapped my Ortlieb handlebar bag for the top tube bag and Apidura Expedition Top Tube Pack (extended). I ultimately liked these better as it kept weight off the handlebars because I didn’t like the effect on handling.
Now that we are thinking about unsupported bikepacking, that means overnight gear: tent, sleeping pad(s), and sleeping bag. You might ask the question: why even go there when credit card/hotel bikepacking has worked well over the last few years? There are a couple of reasons for this:
One, it reduces trip logistics constraints a lot, especially if the intent is to be in less populated places. Our recent trips have been in fairly rural areas and at times has made the planning difficult and occasionally resulted in a very long day like the 105 miles on Day two of the first Excellent Adventure. Two, it makes longer trips more affordable. More than 2 or 3 nights in a hotel start to get fairly spendy. A week or two trip would be prohibitive from that standpoint. Of course staying in a hotel is way nicer in many ways, but limiting that to every 3 or so days is a nice compromise and coupled with one above, very flexible. Three, in this immediate post covid-19 world, choices for lodging may be limited or undesirable. This may allow us to do some bikepacking trips this summer before the US is culturally willing to accept this kind of tourist and it’s a way to maintain some distance using a campground and other such facilities.
This first order of business was a tent. The biggest issue with lightweight backpacking tents is the poll lengths. They are typically about 17-20 inches long which is the packed width of the tent. While not long if strapped to a backpack, it just doesn’t work on bike, where the usual storage place is on the handlebars, in our case between the drops on gravel bikes – if you are on a flatbar mountain bike, it’s not so critical – where you need clearance for the shift levers. In the last couple years Big Agnes has come out with bikepacking version of two of their popular tents Copper Spur HV UL1 and the Fly Creek HV UL1. The main difference is pole length but there are some details that make it nice for biking. This is not a gear review per se (and I am not sponsored by any manufacturer or company), so I’ll let you read their specs and you can see all kinds of reviews on You Tube. The difference between the two is the Fly Creek is slightly lighter and has an end entry, where the Copper Spur has large side entry at the expense of a half pound or so. This winter Charles had one of each and we had a little demo in his living room. After setting them up and wiggling in and out of them, hands down the side entry was nicer and the “vestibule” was also a little bigger. You can pretty easily guess which I chose.
Next was a sleeping pad. I originally purchased a Klymit V Ultralite SL Sleeping Pad based on a number of reviews, but when I got it and actually tried it… Ouch. Not going to work at all. I’ve never been a hard surface sleeper and it really didn’t feel much better than a carpet on the floor. A number of years ago – very early on in this bikepacking adventurism after my original C&O trips – I was in an REI and checked out some pads and I remembered how impressed I was with the Big Agnes QCore inflatable pads. After looking at some reviews I got a QCore Deluxe. Double the weight, only an extra pound, but very worth it. I also got a large inflatable pillow.
The next issue was where to put this gear on the bike. It makes most sense to me to have the footprint, tent, fly, pad and pillow all wrapped up together since they would always be used together. The best location for this “roll” would be the handlebars since the bikepacking tent is sized to fit there. I played around with the idea of using straps to the handlebards but then you have access issues with your hands, the roll tends to bounce around and it limits places for your bike computer and lights. I opted for the integrated Salsa EXP Series Anything Cradle with 15 Liter Dry Bag and Straps system. This dry bag easily fits the gear (dispensing with the individual tent/pad bags) and is 100% waterproof. And, most importantly, the cradle holds the bags very securely away from the handlebars and shift/brake cables and keeps the weight low. The unit is very sturdy with aluminum mounts (obviously not to be used with carbon handlebars) and the cradle is hard plastic.
I read a lot of reviews about how sturdy the cradle holds and whether it has a tendency to move on rough terrain. All of the reviews I read were very favorable and the only negatives I saw were weight and some criticism of the fussiness of the straps. But once I got is all installed, and bounced the bike around, I was pretty confident this would work very well.
The last piece is a lightweight sleeping bag: AEGISMAX Outdoor Ultra Light Goose Down Compactable Sleeping Bag, which will go in the underseat pack to keep completely dry.
Some other bits I have: a Profile Design 2 bottle seatpost cage, a Wolftooth B-Rad system to lower the bottle cage on the seat tube and a Salsa Side Entry Water Bottle Cage for the down tube. These bits allow me to carry 4 22oz water bottles. The B-Rad mount lowers the seat tube bottle so it fits under the top tube bag and the side entry cage makes getting the downtube bottle out a snap for easy drinking. As I mentioned above, I don’t like this kind of weight on the front end, so the two bottles under the seat and two on the frame works well for me.
So what does it all look like together?
I also replaced the under downtube bottle with a plastic jar that holds tools and other things like patches, zip ties, line and other “hack bits”. WIth any luck, I won’t have to get into this very often now that I have tubeless tires (Specialized 2Bliss Tracer 42mm).
So how did it all work out? My short ride our to Thomas Point Park on a variety of road surfaces showed that this new handlebar set up was rock solid and very easy to get the gear on and off. So with all of this background, check the video again.
At this point, I am ready to go on an actual ride when we are able. Probably just a weekender/overnight trip with some real riding on both ends. We have a number of possible rides in mind such as the NCR trail as that is a known quantity with a good distance and a well supported camping stop (ie showers and bathrooms) at the Indian Rock campground. Ready to Roll.