Saturday, May 03, 2014

Edelrid Beast Lite Crampon review update have just published a review I have written of the Edelrid Beast Lite crampons. This post is basically an addendum to that noting a problem that has since arisen with the crampons since I filed the review.

I got the crampons unfortunately near to the close of this year's rather truncated Finnish ice climbing season but I still managed to get out and use them on several hundred metres of steep ice divided over lots of pitches and a number of days. It wasn't a whole season of weekend usage, but I still felt pretty confident in my conclusions on the strong and weak points of this rather novel model of crampon. The most noticeable thing about the Beast Lites is (unsurprisingly, considering their name) their low weight, so when I was packing for a ski-mountaineering trip to Norway just before Easter I threw the Beasts into my bag because, despite being a technical climbing crampon by design, they weigh less than even a pair of 10-point walking crampons I own. It was actually on taking them out of my pack to use to scramble up on to the blocky summit of the Senja peak Kvænen where I noticed that plastic heal clip of one of the crampons had cracked through (see the pictures below).

I know that heel bail clips like these don't need to break and that plastic is a very suitable material to make these components from; my Grivel G12s are now well over a decade old and the heel bails are fine. and on my first pair of DMM Terminators it was the metal frame of the crampon that broke after 8 seasons of hard use not the bails. It seems very unlikely that this could be simply bad luck after, relatively speaking, so little use. So I suspect there is a problem either with the type of plastic that Edelrid have used here or the shape and design of the heel clip that led to the breakage. It maybe that in trying to make the crampons so light they simply used too thin plastic here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Marmot Isotherm Hoody/Polartec Alpha Insulation - some thoughts.

The Marmot Isotherm Hoody being used as a mid-layer on a -20 day.
The Isotherm hoody is Marmot's first go at using Polartec's new Alpha insulation, an insulation originally developed by Polartec for US Special Forces. The military wanted a synthetic insulation that while warm was also breathable and could be kept on during periods of activity. With body armour, plus all the equipment carried by modern soldiers on their webbing, donning or taking off layers of clothing below all that is obviously difficult in anything beyond relaxed and safe situations hence the requirement for insulation that breathes well when you are active in it. The Alpha insulation is knitted onto a mesh, allowing 'sheets' of the insulation to made and sewn into garments. The knitted construction is very air-permeable meaning breathability, but also means the insulation is stable and drapes well. This allows for simple garment designs that don't require extensive channels through the construction, as would be necessary to hold a loose insulation like down. The Alpha insulation is though encased in an inner and outer shell. Again because of the stable, knitted structure of the insulation, manufacturers can use as an inner layer a very breathable and light mesh material (again a loose insulation like down would escape through such a material). With the Isotherm Hoody Marmot have used a mesh version of their own dri-clime material for most of the inner liner. 

Graphic from Polartec, click here for more info.
With Polartec Alpha's unique selling point being breathability I feel the choice of outer material to the insulation is vital. Insulation works by holding air still, creating a barrier of stable, warm air between the person inside the clothing and the colder, moving air in the environment beyond – so there needs to be a windproof layer over the insulation to allow for this to happen. This would seem to be where the central dilemma with Polartec Alpha lies – for the material to insulate to its maximum amount you need to use a windproof outer fabric but this may not be particularly breathable, but to get the most out of the insulation's structure which is what Polartec says makes Alpha more breathable than competitor synthetic insulations, you want an outer fabric that is highly breathable, which generally means less windproof. The new buzz-phrase in the industry for this is “air permeability”; for instance the new Goretex Pro is air-permeable as is Polartec NeoShell making both of these fabrics more breathable than other waterproof fabrics, but the other way of putting this is “not as windproof” and that might not sell as well in the 'performance outdoor clothing' market. For the outside of the Isotherm Hoody, Marmot have gone with Pertex Quantum, a light ripstop nylon. There are different types of Pertex and I'm not sure if certain forms are more windproof and less breathable than others – but Quantum is an ultra-fine and smooth weave so I would imagine that it isn't particularly air-permeable, although of course being windproof allows the Alpha insulation below to insulate all the better.
Some slightly freaky google auto-produced multilayer pic of me mountain-biking in the Isotherm.
So that's the physics theory section; but what about in use? Well, in truth it is a bit of a mixed bag. Let's start with the good stuff; the Thermo Hoody is very light (387 grams in medium, about 20 grams less than Marmot claim) and very compressible – it is very easy to stuff into a bag to take along 'just in case'. The hood (a simple under-helmet design) adds instant warmth when used although it isn't designed to zip up and protect your face. Considering how light the materials are too, it seems relatively tough – it survived a day of gritstone cragging when it was far too cold for me to worry much about not scuffing and scraping it. Marmot have used a stretchy light softshell material over the shoulders to make it a bit tougher for use with a rucksack. It's easy to care for too, particularly in comparison to lightweight down tops. If it gets grubby you just chuck it in the machine for a wash. For me the downsides are the fit and the design. I've been a big fan of Marmot for years as their quality seems top-notch and their size medium has always fitted me well, but with the Thermo Hoody the medium is too tight across the shoulders although it's not particularly trim around the waist so its seems a bit oddly proportioned. Perhaps related to this I've also found it doesn't work brilliantly with a harness with a tendency to pull out after some high reaches. A climbing harness covers the hand warmer pockets too, which considering Alpha is all about “active insulation” - so insulation to wear whilst doing stuff, like climbing! - seems a shame. Another minor design flaw is that the lining in the sleeves is too loose so when ever you pull the jacket on the inner fabric pulls out, protruding beyond the cuff. It goes back in easily enough if you hold the cuff and stretch the sleeves a bit, but it's enough of an annoyance to notice.

And finally to the big issue – is it breathable and how much warmth does it offer? Used as an outer layer for things like autumnal mountain biking I found the Isotherm snug, wind resistant and warm but perhaps a bit too warm. Despite not riding particularly hard or doing long climbs, in positive single digit temperatures the inside of the Isotherm was getting rather damp with sweat being worn over just a thin base layer. This would dissipate with time, but then I've found the same true of traditional synthetically insulated pieces like the Marmot Variant. Through the damp cool autumn Alpha didn't strike me as that different and I was left wondering – was it the Pertex Quantum material holding in the sweat or the Alpha insulation itself? For cool weather rock climbing, the jacket was more successful, not getting sweaty inside and keeping me reasonably comfortable while climbing on what was a ridiculously windy day at a rather exposed English gritstone edge. The day was so windy though, that although it wasn't particularly cold (about +5) I still needed to use a duvet over the Isotherm when not climbing – in those gales you notice the air permeability by getting cold! So good for less aerobic activities like rock climbing but I don't think the Isotherm is necessarily the best cragging top for the reasons mentioned earlier; it would need to be longer, have differently positioned pockets and perhaps a slightly heavier, tougher face fabric for that. I have used it as a mid-layer under a Marmot NeoShell jacket in cold and very cold conditions, and here it worked impeccably. This has included Nordic skating at -20 and alpine skiing at just below freezing. But in both these cases I suspect a hi-loft fleece would have also worked as well as a mid-layer.

Cragging at the Roaches in the Isotherm Hoody
I'm left wondering rather what “active insulation” pieces like the Isotherm are really best suited for? I think for me, at least, a microfleece (the grid-pattern ones wick and breath very well) and a windshirt will work as well; being more versatile, costing less and not weighing much more. Nevertheless we all experience the outdoor environments differently and for some people I'm sure the Isotherm will be the best midlayer they've ever tried. There is a lot of like about it, a certain silky luxurious snugness in particular! But still – for me – I'm not sure if it does a job better than pre-existing solutions. It will be interesting to see how Polartec Alpha is used in conjunction with different shell materials in the future, because I still don't quite see how to square the circle of having an insulation that is both air permeable itself and is encased in air-permeable fabrics that will still work well in anything other than windless conditions.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Physics you can sleep on; a design weakness in the Alpkit Numo sleeping mat.

Bikepack bivvying - my Alpkit Numo under my tarp
Warning: very geeky camping gear post follows; surf away now if you don't care and most well adjusted people probably don't.

A camping mat is pretty fundamental to getting a decent night's sleep when camping – whatever you pick is a compromise; the light ones might not be tough, the tough ones not light, the light, tough ones not cheap etc. In summer you can get away with more (well, actually less); find some softish, non-rocky ground and even the lightest closed cell foam mat can be great, but on hard uneven ground and as winter approaches the mat becomes more important.

Winter bivvy, in a laavu (Finnish lean-to log shelter)
I got an Alpkit Numo a few years back and have like it. It's one of the new generation of air mattresses - you blow into it and it fills up like a balloon - very light and compact. I had always thought that just getting you off the ground, so that heat can not move by conduction away from your body into the ground as you sleep, was central to how sleeping mats of all types worked but using the Numo demonstrates it's more complicated than that. Once inflated the Numo probably is about 10 cms thick – a lot more than most Thermarest style mats (a couple of cms) or closed cell foam mats (>1 cm). This makes it super comfy but also allows for some interesting physics – because the Numo is just air inside (thermarests hold air in a complex lattice of open cell foam that it inside the mat) you get convection currents in it. Because the air can move inside the mat as it cools it will move around - not working well as insulation. Alpkit obviously knew this as in the body section of the mat (about shoulder to bum) they put insulation, this was some sort of synthetic strands stuck to the two inside-sides of the mat. When you blow the mat up this stretches forming a lattice structure and stoping convection in that section of the mat. 

Late summer bivvy.
The difference this insulation made is very noticeable – I first sussed this on a wild autumn night in upper Glen Nevis, near Steall waterfall. It wasn't terribly cold, maybe around 5 degrees and I had a bag plenty warm enough. I slept fine but it was quite noticeable that whilst my body was warm my legs (where there is no insulation in the Numo) were getting cold from below – just like the feeling of trying to sleep on ice with a too thin mat. Hence despite being both really comfy and also light and the most packable of my mats, I decided it was best to use it for 3-season camping only. 

In the pictures above, on the left you can see the insulation still adhering to one side of the mat but on the right you can see where most of the insulation has come detached and collapsed back on itself. 

This is issue is compounded by the design problem with the mats – the insulation comes unstuck from one side of the mat and collapses back against the other side hence doing nothing. When I first noticed this with my first Numo, Alpkit in their normal very customer-first way said “no worries, we'll send you a new one”, but then the same thing happened with our second Numo (my wife had discovered how much comfier my Numo was than her old thermarest), and then more recently with the replacement to the original one. I've come to the conclusion that you can get about two weeks use out a Numo before the insulation peels away. I used one of them in that state on my recent bikepacking trip where it was just below freezing at night and even sleeping on the wooden floor of the laavu, I got cold enough from below to wake me up (the first night in my tent in the car park I had slept perfectly on my much thinner foam Z-rest). So the failure of the insulation really limits the Numos to summer use only.

Slightly grumpy bikepacker in the morning twilight after a long chilly December night on a not warm enough mat.
Alpkit admitted that the problem is that when you breath into the mat blowing it up – they aren't self inflating like Thermarests – the moisture in your breath gets trapped and the sogginess inside makes the glue holding the insulation in place fail. Alpkit have stopped making the Numos and aren't going to do any more – they told me they're redesigning their whole mat range for next summer – so of course that makes this whole post sort of pointless: if you don't have a Numo you can't buy one and if you do have one and it fails in the way mine did, Alpkit can't really do anything about it now. But at least I've proven to my own satisfaction that air alone isn't sufficient insulator for sleeping. I guess it has to be stable air that can't circulate, and the problem also shows how small a sealed space -inside an air mattress- is enough for convection currents to have a significant impact on the insulation quality of that mat.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

An early winter bikepack

It seems that a late November weekend scout camp is now part of my kids's annual schedule, so a couple of Fridays back I found myself back up in the Forssa area, about 100 kms northwest of Helsinki with 36 hours to kill. It was mid-evening, slightly below freezing and very very dark. Last year I had taken my mountain bike and tried bikepacking the hiking route, the Lynx Route/Ilvesreitti, with limited success. The 'trail' was marked by waymarks but not enough people had actually walked it to make much of trail on the ground. I did a lot of pushing and carrying the bike through forest brush. This year I decided to stick to roads and forest tracks, including riding sections of the long distance bike route the Häme OxRoad/Hämeen Härkätie, that goes from Turku to Hämeenlinna, so took my cyclocross bike. A lot of the roads and trails are unsurfaced so the CX was a great choice, I could nip along paved sections at a decent pace, but had plenty of grip on the gravel.

Last year it was grey and just above freezing for the whole trip, and in November in Finland the days are so short and the sun always so low that it brings a whole new drab meaning to “grey”. This year I lucked out and the sky cleared early on Saturday morning and stayed clear until after I was asleep that evening, the temperature never got above 1 degree and was often just below freezing according to the thermometer on my excellent newish bike computer.
Saari Folk Park
The Saari viewing tower
I camped in a carpark in LiesjärviNational Park on Friday night with the luxury of a tent and left the car (and tent) there on Saturday morning. That day I rode a bit over 90 kms; this included some hiking single track in the Saari Folk Park but mostly was on unsurfaced roads and forest tracks. A good day of gravel grinding. It didn't feel that big a day but I ran out of daylight and had to ride the last hour or so with lights on to get to the laavu (lean-to shelter) I had decided to use that night. This was actually the same one as I had camped in last year, but it was much nicer this time with all the stars out above and no wind.

I lit a fire in the fireplace with out much trouble, although it never really got to that pleasantly roaring stage. There was only the dregs of the woodpile left, I guess after a summer of visitors, and although the logs burnt they didn't seem to put out much heat. I made lots of hot drinks to rehydrate – it's easy to not drink enough riding in cold weather – and ate my dubious far-eastern pot noddle thingy for supper, but with an indifferent fire retired to my sleeping bag very early.

Sunday morning, I didn't have much time before needing to go and pick my son up from scout camp so got up early, made some hot drinks with breakfast and packed up. It was still only getting light as I left the laavu and the moon was shining brightly over the lake. I only needed to ride about 20 kms back to my car that morning. It had snowed over nigh; enough to make most of the world white but not enough to bother me in terms of riding. My new tyres seemed to grip through the snow perfectly well and reasonably soon I was back where I had started and putting the bike back on the car.

Overall, the Häme Lake Uplands area is nice region to ride and the available map designed for hikers andother outdoors user is a great resourse. The roads away from a couple of highways, that I only crossed, are almost deserted. I reckon only around a dozen cars went past me all day. At this time of year in particular though, it is rather lonely – even though there are national parks with the related infrastructure you might expect, everything was closed. I found one cafe in the post office in Porras open, where I had a lovely chat with the ladies picking up their parcels and having coffee (I suspect and Englishman on a bike speaking very bad Finnish might have been one of the more novel events of their day), but beyond that I went past no open shop, cafe or similar. Make sure you have enough food with you. There are also large numbers of abandoned and decaying buildings in the area, barns and old farm houses like this are quite normal in rural Finland, but the empty petrol station and shops (see photos above) had an unnerving feeling of looking a bit too much like a scene from "The Walking Dead".

Of course you can camp pretty much anywhere, but I pushed on to get to a laavu I used last year – knowing it was great spot and has a fireplace, wood and a compost loo. But because of the hiking, riding, canoeing and cycling routes around that area there are quite a few similar laavus around.

I had new tyres for the trip, SchwalbeMarathon Plus Tours. I was still using my original Marathon Pluses through this summer on that bike. They came on my last bike and have been absolutely superb. I must have done at least 10,000 kms over five years on them and have never had a puncture but they're showing their age with the sidewalls beginning to crack and the tread must be wearing somewhat even if it doesn't look like it. I've ridden a few cyclocross races this autumn and using my light CX tyres and have had a puncture in one race then a double puncture in the next – all pinch flats from hitting rocks and having the tyres blown up firm doesn't seem to help. Hence deciding to try the Marathon Plus Tours – the same hopefully bombproof construction as the normal Marathon Plus, but with a bit of tread that seemed more suited for gravel roads and forest tracks of Finland. On this trip they were great – the grip felt great, even on Sunday morning riding back on snow. The only downer is that with those very meat tyres plus mudguards on, the bike felt bloody heavy. I'm not sure if serious CXers would want to race on them, although for me if they didn't puncture it would offset any slowness caused by their weight. For touring like this though they seem perfect, hopefully I'll get 10,000 trouble free kilometres out of this pair.

For cold weather bikepacking you need a bit more gear just to keep warm. I used the same set up as in September with my new Alpkit bikepacking bags and lashed-on dry bags but also took a waist pack; just that bit more capacity than I needed in summer. One of those bigger things for winter is the excellent Jöttnar Fjörm down jacket that I'm reviewing for UKClimbing currently. It's very warm and a nice “insurance” layer to have, obviously designed as an belay jacket for ice climbing but works great for any cold weather camping. It was stuffed with my sleeping bag in the dry bag that goes under saddle. This is fine when riding, but I need a number of straps to hold it in place which makes getting things out of the bag a hassle if you're not stopping for long. The obvious if a bit expensive solution to this is to buy one of Alpkit'sKoala seat packs, meaning retrieving a jacket from the seat pack would be easy, but I'm not convinced the Koala packs would fit as much as my current arrangement despite supposedly being the same size as my current dry bag I use there. Nevertheless, I know from winter climbing that your belay jacket HAS to be easy to reach because otherwise there is the temptation not to use it with the inevitable downwards circle into shivering. I guess with cold weather bike touring the situation is not dissimilar so I need to work this one out.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

DMM Renegade 2 harness - a review

Relaxing in the Renegade 2 at the top of the corner of Engelskdiederet, Eidetind.
 I think DMM probably asked me if I wanted to review the new version of the Renegade because I had given the original version a rather glowing review on UKC back in 2008. It became my main harness after that and did sterling weekly service for the next five years. It still looks in pretty good nick now so shall emigrate to England, and my mum and dad's attic, where it will reside with various other bit of older gear as my "UK rack", helping me cut down on how much baggage I take backwards and forwards across Northern Europe.

Simon borrowing the Renegade - fully adjustable to fit different sizes

I stand by my original opinion that the Renegade, before and now in its updated "2" version, is an excellent all-round harness. It's not the lightest, but it is supportive when you need to hang in it for a long time; it has loads of racking possibilities; it is very adjustable allowing you to put it over winter layers or lend it to a differently sized mate; and at least the original one I know was very well made because it lasted so well.

The stuff we lugged up Stetind, plenty of racks are helpful. The Renegade is the red and grey harness as the back.

Some people, for reasons I never got, hated the racks on the Renegade 1. They sloped forward a bit, something that I never really noticed but others clearly did. On the Renegade 2 DMM have done away with the sloping style. They have though kept the same seven loop-layout that I love. There are climbers who I respect who say they've never felt the need for more than four gear loops even for complex trad climbing when you carry lots of stuff, but personally I love the ability to split big racks between the seven loops and know exactly where some bit of kit is going to be. When I went to Norway in August I took with me the Renegade 2 and another very nice Edelrid harness that I was reviewing for UKC. The Edelrid is great, nicely made and super-comfy for long days, but as we racked up for our big day on Stetind I took the Renegade 2 without much thought; I just knew I would want the familiar ability to spread a big rack out over the seven gear loops and find what I wanted quickly. I'm sure I would have done fine with the Edelrid too; but for the me the Renegade works so well for big routes and big racks, it is reassuring.

Me sorting all the gear out on the summit of Stetind after 13 pitches of climbing; photo ©D. Smith
Of course a review isn't a review if you don't try and break the thing, even if just a little. One change DMM made between the 1 and 2 versions is that the tubing to stiffen the gear racks used to be pushed over the sewn on tape that makes up the racking. Now the tubing is pushed into the tubular tape before the racking is attached. This perhaps looks a bit smarter and avoid small krabs getting caught at the top of the plastic tubing on the original harness (cue much patting your bum whilst gibbering "dammit, where's my effing nut key gone!?" when it's not hanging as expected in the middle of the back loop). Nevertheless at some point on Stetind my inelegant chimneying technique, most likely, led to one of the stiffener-tubes pushing through the tubular tape that should have been enclosing it. Needing a field repair the next day and not being able to just push it back into the tape, I trimmed about 5 mms off the plastic tube to allow it to go back in, and then put some finger tape over the damaged bit. This has been fine since. I don't know if I just got really unlucky managing to snag the rack leading to this or whether it's a design weakness and DMM are going to see some returns from other people, but users should perhaps keep an eye on the racks to check it doesn't happen to them.

Where I broke the Renegade.
Nevertheless, overall, the Renegade 2 is great. Everything I liked about the original Renegade: loads of racking; the free floating padding meaning the harness is always straight; supportive and strong; is here and the "2" irons out a few kinds from the original. A total weight-weenie might want something more compact and lighter but if you do a bit of everything the Renegade is still a great choice.

Monday, October 28, 2013

DMM Shadow, DMM Alpha and DMM Aero quickdraws - a review

Simon escapes the dour Australian winter for some sunny Finnish sport climbing: lower bolt clipped with an Aero QD, upper with an Alpha QD
Back in the summer DMM sent me the new version of their Renegade harness to test, which is a good un' but deserves it's own post soon. They they also sent me some of their newest quickdraw models to try out at the same time. This post is going to focus on the quickdraws. Amusingly, considering I'm a pretty lousy sport climber, I got three plain gate models which most people now associate with sport climbing. More and more people use wire gates for trad and I think arguably wire gates make the best all-round krabs if you have only one set to do everything from summer, sunny sport climbing to brutal winter ice or mixed. Nevertheless, wiregates can mix badly with old school bent plate bolt hangers at the top end of quickdraws and some, I think including me, believe that a well designed bentgate is easier to clip in extremis than even the best wiregate krabs. Hence there is still market for plaingate krabs. Personally when there isn't going to be snow and ice around (with the possibility of gates freezing) I also find that plaingate models like those below work great as general trad cragging as well as for sport.

DMM Aero quickdraws

The Aeros are DMM's budget plaingate krabs, they're kinda heavy by modern standards at 47 grams for the bent gate, but they are burly at 9kn gate-open and shop around and you can find them for as little as £12.50 for a full quickdraw. They don't come with the fancy variwidth dogbones that the more expensive quickdraws do, but with plain 16 mm nylon tapes that I find found perfectly comfortable to grab and cheat on! The gate is exactly the same as on the more expensive models and is fantastic - getting the rope in is easy even for a total clipping-klutz like me. So yeah, if you needed to carry a rack of twenty up some enduro-sports-monster pitch they're gonna be a bit heavy on your harness, but still nothing like scared-trad-climber-rack-heavy and you're more likely to be able to afford twenty of these!

DMM Alpha quickdraws

Gio doing a tricky move past the Alpha quickdraw
DMM make two wiregate versions of the Alpha, a little one called the "Light" and a full size one - the "Trad", but I got sent the plaingate quickdraw - the straight-gate is called the "Pro" and bent gate the "Clip" - joined together by a variwidth nylon dogbone like the classic Petzl sports draws. This is DMM's full-on, top of the range sport climbing quickdraw, I felt a bit lame using it on 6as and the odd 6b or whilst trad climbing HVSs, but still I can say they are very easy to clip and reassuringly burly when you are working moves (yes, I work moves on 6bs - the shame...). At 45 grams for the Alpha Clip, they aren't a lot lighter than the aeros, so the technology has all gone into the ergonomics rather than weight saving, but on projects where the quickdraws are in place, that's what you'll be interested in anyway. So overall, super-luxury sport krabs - not very cheap - but you'll probably know whether the step up in price from aeros is worth it for you.

DMM Shadow quickdraws

The Shadow quickdraw (second runner down) on a trad route
I got a bunch of Shadow quickdraws to review for UKClimbing from DMM six years ago. As soon as I got to use them for regular summer cragging, I liked them a lot and my opinion hasn't changed in six years; they remain my favourite all-round rock climbing krabs. Those first six I got all those years back are normally the first six QDs I still use on just about every single-pitch route, be it sport or trad. The updated version of the Shadow hasn't changed hugely, the bent-gate version now shares the same great gate as the Aero and Alpha. They weren't hard to clip before, but I guess it's even a little easier now. The notching has changed very slightly on the straight-gate too; can't say I noticed a difference but DMM are sensible about these things and I'm sure its the result of suggestions from people who know what they are talking about. They now come with the variwidth dogbones, good for the sport climbers, although I've been perfectly happy with the narrower original dyneema tapes: fine to grab when dogging, but perhaps a tad more flexi for trad? It's not a huge issue though. The bent gate version is 43 grams, so the lightest of the three here. Not super-light by any means compared to modern crazy-light krabs; but these are big beefy easy to handle krabs that do everything well. The Shadows cost about halfway between the price of the Aeros and Alphas and I think are great value considering they make such good krabs for both sport and trad and, as my original ones will attest, they last very well too. The new colours look funky as well, although of course we're all too serious to care about such matters aren't we? One odd thing; the Shadows used to be rated at 10 kn for gate-open, now it's 9kn. 9 is plenty but 10 looks reassuring and I'm not sure why it has changed when I don't think the krab itself has changed much.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bikepacking - new bags, new camera.

Autumn is here and the sky is full of skeins of geese
So far all my attempts at bikepacking have been made with gear that on the whole I already had. I did buy a cheap bar bag that worked well but it won't fit the wider bars of my cyclocross bike. I also bought a seatpost rack, but that snapped on my last trip. Mainly I've just lashed dry bags to various parts of the bike. But with the bikepacking idea taking off in the UK as well as elsewhere, the British firm Alpkit (who I've written about in the past) are now offering custom frame-bags and are bringing out additional bikepacking luggage. I invested in the Stingray frame-bag for my CX bike and also bought one of their "beta" Fuel Pods.

Packed up and ready to go
 Last weekend I went for an over-night trip to try the bags out. The morning before the ride had also seen the UPS guy deliver my new camera - a rather fine little Canon - so I was keen to try that out too. The photos in this post and video at the bottom were all taken with it.

Quiet Finnish roads #1
Quiet Finnish roads #2
It's pouring with rain now but last weekend was far closer to the glorious summer Finland has had this year, rather than this newly arrived, business-as-usual autumn. The sun shone until it set and then through the forest canopy I could still see lots of stars. I rode about 85 kms to a little beyond the town of Karkkila, around 100 kms northwest of Helsinki on Friday afternoon. Just west of the town the land becomes more forested and less agricultural, and with lots of lakes. I wanted to camp on a lake edge; for aesthetic reasons and simply as a source of water, and despite there being lots of lakes around those parts, I was quite surprised by how many summer cottages there also are - so it took me a few attempts at following various quiet gravel roads to find some lakeside forest that kept me a respectful distance from people enjoying the last weekend of great weather in their summer places.

I had thought perhaps optimistically that the mosquito season was now over so took a tarp but no mossie net. At first in the evening there were more than enough mossies to be annoying but interestingly later at night they all seemed to dissappear allowing me to sleep with my head out of my sleeping bag comfortably. It was just below 14 degrees when I went to bed (my new cycle computer very handily has a thermometer on it) and just below 12 when I woke up, so I'm now theorising that there must be some magic point between 12 and 14 degrees Celsius where its gets too cold for mosquitoes!

The morning sun starting to burn away the mist
Overnight camp
A bit before midnight I could hear in the distance some interesting howling, that at least to me didn't sound like a dog. Noting this on Twitter as I lay in my sleeping bag, caused some amusement amongst other late evening Twitter perusers around the world, along with some useful research done for me on the most southerly sightings on wolves in Finland, some terribly bad lupine-themed jokes, and even a friendly suggestion from the deputy mayor of Helsinki to make sure my tent zip was done up tight. This of course made the howls feel closer as I lay there under my door-less and indeed side-less tarp!
The only nighttime visitor
Dew droplets on a spider's web
Morning arrived sunny and wolf-free with the forest glistening in its thick coating of dew. I had some breakfast and coffee and made a reasonably quick start as I had promised to be home by lunchtime in order to be ready for the family's annual trip to Linnanmäki, Helsinki's long established amusement park. Overall I was gone for less than 24 hours and rode about 170 kms, probably split evenly between surfaced and unsurfaced roads - the kind of riding that my CX bike is perfect for.

Greeting the morning sun with coffee
Packed and ready to leave where I camped
 There's been some good stuff written, originating in the UK, about "microadventures", whilst from the US there's the idea of "S24O" - or sub-24-overnight bike trips. It's taken off in Helsinki too which is really great. The ideas are simply about encouraging people to get out, see some countryside and sleep under the stars. I think it's a great concept; not everyone has the time, money or family situation that allows them to go off for months to some far-off wilderness, but most of us can nip off for 24 hours, and some exercise plus a night out in the woods listening to the bird calls (and maybe even a wolf howl in the distance) has to be good for your health - physical and mental.
It's probably not funny at all to Finns, but I would love to live in a place called "Ahmoo"
Somewhere in the Finnish countryside
 The Alpkit bags seem great so far. The frame bag takes quite a lot of gear but doesn't bulge enough to rub. I picked the thinnest option, 4cm bulging to 6cm width, as it was for a CX bike. On a MTB you might be able to get away with a slightly wider bag. The 'fuel pod' also worked well, although due to the hydroformed frame shape at the front of the cross-bar on my bike, I could do with the velcro tabs being a little longer, whilst the tab that goes around the stem could be thinner. They only had them in size large when I bought it, so went for that size by default. Nevertheless it's not that big, so I think the smaller option must be tiny with room just for some energy gels or similar. I wasn't sure when I ordered it, but I'm glad I got the bigger size.

The Alpkit "Fuel Pod", size large
Drops bars on a CX bike making attaching luggage to the handle bars trickier. A small-ish dry bag packed no bigger than to fit between the drops works OK, and for this trip I had some much better straps to hold it on. These are from the Aussie firm, Sea-to-Summit, which make some of the most intelligent little bits-and-bobs for camping and outdoor pursuits, as well as some amazing if very pricey serious gear like this very high quality sleeping bag that I reviewed for UKclimbing a couple of winters ago. They were sillily expensive for a couple of nylon straps - about €10 - but the alloy locking buckles on them work very well and didn't loosen despite hours of vibration, particularly riding on gravel road - so as long as I don't lose them they should pay off in the long term!

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