Friday, December 12, 2014

The AlpKit tapered dry bag.

I know it's probably wrong to get excited or even just a touch giddy about something as mundane as a dry bag but when AlpKit first mentioned that they were going to produce a tapered dry bag with 'daisy chain' attachment loops, people did indeed get a little excited.

Code named 'Kuttlefish' the new dry bag was designed to fit neatly inside AlpKits Koala rear pack and luckily, just about every other saddle-pack regardless of manufacturer. The addition of a webbing 'daisy chain' also opened up the option of using it as a standalone bag in its own right.

Square peg fits square hole.

The bags are made from the same material as AlpKits standard Airlok Xtra bags (although I have heard people say that the material feels slightly different - maybe that's just something between material batches?) and feature the same side loops which have become something of an AlpKit trademark. The 13L capacity is just right, not too big and not too small ... you should be able to fit in everything required, while removing the temptation to take those extra bits you really don't need, just because you can.

So far, I've tried the bag in three different rear packs / harnesses and it's fitted each one without problem. The tapered shape really does make packing much easier and helps reduce any dead-space at the pointy end. The bag is probably tougher and more robust than many people would usually use inside a rear pack but from the perspective of someone who managed to put a tear in his brand new quilt while leaning his bike against a fence, I see that as a plus point and any weight penalty is easily off-set against peace of mind.

Daisy chain and webbing strap. It won't fall off but it will wobble.

The bag is supplied with a pair of webbing straps that when cunningly fed through the 'daisy chain' loops, give the option of mounting the dry bag directly to your bike in combination with your seatpost and saddle rails. When you compare the cost of this bag to a saddle pack that idea sounds very tempting and in practice the theory does work but there are limitations.

Firstly, the dry bag has no rigid structure, so unless you can provide some with the contents (think folded / rolled sleeping mat as an example) expect things to get a bit floppy. This tends to get worse the tighter you pull the main strap ... the straps are only 20mm wide so will try to 'cut' the bag and contents in half, resulting in the unsupported end of the bag taking on the appearance of a nodding dog.

The other thing to remember is ... it's only a dry bag. It may be a very well constructed dry bag, made from quality materials but it's no match for the water, mud and grit that's going to get thrown at it. Abrasion (and the odd rodent) is the enemy of bikepacking luggage, even packs designed and built to withstand the onslaught will develop holes and scuffs ... sometimes faster than you might imagine. Even without the addition of natures finest grinding paste, the simple action of the bag swinging will likely shorten its lifespan considerably. Only you can decide whether the monitory saving over a dedicated pack is worth it ... but no moaning if it develops holes or starts to leak, you've been warned.

If you already use some type of saddle-pack or harness then the AlpKit tapered dry bag is a real winner and should be at the top of your shopping list. If you're looking for a inexpensive alternative to a saddle-pack then it's worth considering but just remember that it isn't a cheap saddle pack, it's a dry bag with extras ... so you can't expect it to perform like one.

£15 inc' P+P direct from AlpKit.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The great kit conundrum ... sleeping mats.

When you're all giddy and excited trying to decide what sleeping kit to buy, it's very easy to overlook the seemingly humble sleeping mat, it's often overshadowed by the more glamorous sleeping and bivvy bags ... but at 3.00am when the mercury's hovering around minus five, you might find yourself wishing you'd paid it a little more attention.

The thing we need to remember is that you lose more heat to the floor via conduction than you will to the air above and around you via the magic that is convection. Insulating you from the cold ground is your mats primary role, obviously it also helps make a night lay on the hard ground a more comfortable one than it might otherwise be. Although that comfort is something we value highly, in reality it's really just a secondary function.

There's 3 main type of mat available, each type has good and bad points:

Closed cell foam mat: CSF mats are about as basic as things get but don't automatically think that's a bad thing. They're very light, offer a reasonable degree of insulation, can't puncture and are the cheapest option by a long way. The main drawback as far as we're concerned is bulk, they might not be heavy but they do take up a lot of room. If you're considering one, then you'll have to be prepared to strap it directly to your bike or the outside of a backpack, even the concertinaed 'foldy up' versions will all but fill a 20L pack.

Self inflating mat: The SIM pretty much falls between the closed cell foam and air mat in every respect. They're less bulky than CSF, usually (but not always) cost less than an air mat, are more comfortable than CSF but not as luxurious as an air mat, etc, etc. They tend to be either 25mm or 38mm thick and had largely become the mainstay of mats until the new breed of air mats appeared 4 or 5 years ago.

Air mat: If you're thinking lilo - stop it. Apart from looks, modern air mats are no relation to poolside toys ... well, those that provide insulation aren't, however, those that are nothing but air filed tubes do share more than a passing resemblance. They usually offer the greatest level of comfort, smallest pack size and are often the warmest option but all that generally incurs a higher price tag.

70mm, 38mm or 10mm - similar warmth.

How warm?
The insulating properties of sleeping mats are measured in something called 'R' value. Just think of it as a measure of how warm the mat is ... the higher the number the 'warmer' the mat. All sleeping mats rely on air for their insulation properties ... not just air but still or trapped air. If the air inside your mat is free to move about, it will yield very little insulation. A lilo or basic air mat (because, yes they are the same) has an R value of 0.7, to give you an idea how low that is ... snow has a higher rating with a score of 1! If you ever find yourself in a situation where the ground is warmer than you, then a basic air mat might be all you need but at any other time it's unlikely to do much to keep you warm ... hey, but at least you'll be comfy and cold.

An R value of five is often quoted as the figure required for a Winter mat and by Winter I mean, sleeping on frozen ground. My personal opinion is that for year round use in the UK you can get away with something rated 3.5 or above ... it's not like a mat can be too warm in summer and you can always supplement it with something else if the ground really is frozen.

TOG is not the same as R - some manufactures give their mats a TOG rating (like your duvet at home) ... 1R = 1.8 TOG

How Big?
Obviously mats come in all different sizes and shapes. The 'standard' full length dimensions from most manufactures are 183cm x 51cm which for many is adequate rather than generous ... it does the trick but there's not much wriggle room. Things get a little trickier when you move away from the 'standard' or 'regular' sizes and poke a stick at the smaller / shorter versions. Each manufacturer seems to interpret 'short', 'small' or '3/4' differently, a small from one manufacturer can be over 40cm shorter than a small mat from another ... keep that in mind when comparing weights from different manufactures.

If you do decide to use a shorter mat, then bear in mind that the 'step' where the mat ends will feel much more noticeable if you're using an air (thicker) mat than something slimmer. Everyone's different but I find that I'm happy with a mat that finishes somewhere around mid- calf, any shorter and I can never get properly comfortable, it's fine in a 'race' situation but not for regular use ... oh and remember a 3/4 length mat leaves 1/4 of you with no insulation, so be prepared to improvise with your,luggage, jacket, etc.

Both classed as 'small'.

How Much?
Anywhere between £3.99 to nearly £200 will buy you a sleeping mat ... that's a very wide spectrum and encompasses all and every type of mat available. Obviously you need to narrow things down a little and the easiest way to do that is to work out your own personal criteria by asking yourself a few questions. It's much better to do this and buy one £50 mat than focus solely on your budget and ultimately buying a £30 mat and a second £40 mat months later ... here's a couple of examples of what you should be asking yourself, don't just limit yourself to two questions though, there's lots if you think about it for a bit.

1/ What conditions do you want the mat for? ... If you answer 'all year round' then you can already rule out a basic air mat such as the Karrimor Xlite, Exped Basic or something you saw on Barmouth sea front for a fiver. You now know that ideally your new mat should have an R value of 3.5 or above. You might also start to shy away from 'short', 'small' and 3/4 length mats ... but check the sizes first, you might be surprised by how long some 'small' mats actually are.

2/ How / where am I going to carry it? ... This is much more important than worrying about weight. If you want to carry your mat inside a frame bag, dry bag or seat pack then a 900g mat that packs to the size of an apple (okay, a big apple) will be much easier to deal with than a 150g mat the size of the average 3 year old child. If you are going to carry your mat on the 'inside' then you'll probably rule out CSF and certain SIM mats once you've checked their packed sizes.

If you've asked yourself the right questions and more importantly been honest with your answers, then hopefully you should now have a much clearer idea of what you actually need. It's true that an expensive mat will usually mean a lighter, more compact or warmer mat but don't automatically assume that the more you spend the better it will perform for your given circumstances, I've had some great nights over the Summer using a £6.99 Campri blow up air mat.

Happy shopping.

Apidura luggage ... Tried and Tested.

We had a brief look at Apidura luggage a couple of months ago and since then it's been put through its paces carrying various amounts of gear up, down and across the glorious Welsh countryside ... here's how it got on.

If you were to sit down right now, crayon in hand and try to design a set of bikepacking luggage, my guess would be that no matter what you came up with, it would have already been done by someone else, somewhere else. Lets face it, there's only so much you can do with a bag and a bike. What you need to think about before you get down to your best colouring in, is how you can make your stuff stand out from the rest? Are there any little details you could add to make your designs different? 

I like to think Apidura took this approach when they set about designing their range ... The first and most obvious thing is the colour. I know it's possible to get custom luggage made in a vast array of colours but these bags aren't custom, this is standard 'off the shelf' issue and I think it makes a nice alternative to black. Although it's still subtle enough not to clash with half the bikes in the country, it does brighten things up a little, especially with the white and yellow hi-viz detailing.

Bar bag attachments, simple and effective.

The 'overflow luggage' elastics, although not unique are another welcome touch for those - it's raining, no it isn't, yes it is, days when you need somewhere close at hand to stash your waterproof. Something I haven't come across before are the light mounts, simple but very effective ... the saddle pack actually has two, so one is (nearly) always usable / visible regardless of how full the pack is. 

The accessory pack fitted to the bar bag.

Up front.
It's obvious that the front accessory pack was conceived at the same time as the bar bag because the female ends of the quick release fittings are an integral part of the handlebar harness. In one respect that design trait is great as it allows you to fit and remove the bag in just a few seconds but on the other hand it does mean that the weight of the bag (and more importantly, its contents) are only supported by the bar bag and in turn the straps securing that to the bars. I did wonder whether this might cause the bar bag to 'sag' but in use it didn't cause any issues ... maybe just me over thinking things. The inside of the accessory pack features a single mesh pocket to help organise the contents and the now almost universal 'easy find' yellow interior. The opening gets a 'waterproof' zip and an aforementioned light mount on the front. It's pretty spacious in there, with a capacity of around 5L it'll hold most of those 'might need them on the move' items like tools, camera, money, phone, etc.

Clips for accessory pack are permanent fixtures.

The bar bag is a mixture of harness and drybag ... think harness with an integral double ended 'drybag'. It fits to the bike via 3 points, the 2 main attachments are webbing straps that fit over the bars and are secured by substantial, non quick release buckles. The third attachment is another webbing strap that wraps round the headtube and tightens with another buckle. The placement of the third strap is adjustable by means of a 'daisy chain' on the rear of the harness but I always found that I had to put the strap round the headtube below the downtube rather than between the headtube and downtube. This resulted in never being able to get the strap fully tight, however this didn't seem to cause any problems or allow the bag to move around unduly ... I'm sure a larger frame with a longer headtube would behave quite differently. Although the 'drybag' part looks like a drybag, remember that it isn't actually waterproof, very water resistant certainly but untaped seams mean that sooner or later water will find its way in ... so pack your stuff accordingly.

In use the bar bag feels pretty secure, there's very little 'bounce' on rough trails but just be aware that the design means it's likely to rest against your bikes headtube. The areas of the bag that are most likely to rub are well armoured, so your bike is likely to come off worse in a battle between bag and frame ... invest in some quality frame tape!

If you need more room, hitch the trailer up.

Out Back.
Apidura produce 3 different sizes of seatpack ranging in size from 11L to 17.5L, this one is the 17.5L version which Apidura call 'regular'. It fits in the usual way ... straps round the seatpost and straps over the saddle rails. A second pair of straps hold the roll-top closure secure once you've stuffed your worldly goods inside. As I mentioned earlier, the seatpack has 2 light mounts and a shockcord web for those times when you really need a bit more space.

Now, this thing is a whopper, if you make full use of the entire 17.5L then you might need to add a 'Long Vehicle' sticker to the rear ... it really is big. Not only is it long, it's also pretty deep, you'll need at least 8" of seatpost showing to prevent any tyre / bag contact and if you've got rear suspension, I'd add another few inches to that to be on the safe side. 
If you are going to use something of this size (and fill it), then it will make its presence felt. Even if the contents are light, the attachment points are a looong way towards the front, so the thing will certainly swing about especially with some spirited stood up pedalling. It might be a big bag but the proportions are still correct, with the nose tapering down nicely towards the front, so it doesn't interfere with your legs when you're pedalling.

The construction is similar to the other bags, there's plenty of reinforcement in any areas prone to rubbing, the buckles are the right size to use with gloved hands and the straps aren't too long or too short ... as long as the bag is filled somewhere above half full. 

Long vehicle!

If you really do need a lot of carrying capacity then the 17L version could be just the thing but think carefully about how much room you really need before deciding ... I can quite easily fit everything I need for 2 nights out in this one bag. Obviously you don't have to fill the thing but it does work best if it's at least half full and better still if it's 3/4 or more. Below half full you won't be able to use the light mounts and it will become trickier to get the straps tight enough to hold the bag as firmly as you might like. So, unless you really do need all that capacity, you might find you'll be better served by one of the smaller versions.

Apidura haven't re-invented the wheel with their range of luggage but it's obvious that they've tried to increase the usability by paying attention to the details ... the light mounts are a great example - simple and effective. The choice of materials seems to largely echo industry standards and the quality of construction means they should last a good while - as long as they don't get savaged by a rat, like this seat pack did.

Apidura is available in the UK from Keep Pedalling.

The Bear Bones festive gift guide.

Don't go thinking this is a guide to help you choose gifts and presents for family, friends and loved ones, oh no. This is much a much more selfish type of guide and if used correctly will hopefully result in you actually getting something useful on the morning of December 25th.

Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder and Great British Bike Rides ... both penned by Dave 'sweary' Barter. One will help get you where you're going and the other may help prevent you going where he's been.

Auntie Joan stuck for something to buy you? Send her across to AlpKit ... maybe some lightweight pegs, a tapered drybag or a new MyTiMug ... which is actually like a gift for life.

Optimise your bikes carrying capabilities with the help of a Gorilla cage. Weighs nowt, won't break and can carry much more than you imagine.

Struggling to get it up and keep it up? Then how about some Pole-a-Bear tarp poles? Strong, light and available in sizes to suit any tarp or shelter.
Bear Bones Bivvy Gear

Embrace your inner geek with a TrekkerTent cuben tarp. Stupidly light and built to last, it'll provide all the shelter you need without weighing you down.

Use bottles but want a frame bag? You need a Wildcat Gear Ocelot, an 'off the shelf' frame bag solution. Already use a Mountain Lion? Then treat it to a Lioness and keep all those important bits and bobs safe and within easy reach.
Wildcat Gear

Indulge your down fetish with a handmade Black Rock down beanie. Not only will it keep your head amazingly warm, it'll likely become your most prized piece of kit.
Black Rock Gear

Tour Divide on your 'To do list'? Then you really should read these ... Cordillera volume 6 and Trail Magic. If these don't inspire and motivate you, then chances are nothing will.

Who said something can't be cheap, light and strong? The Rolson clip on head lamp manages to combine all 3 and still produce enough light to prevent you walking into things.
All over the web

A knife's a sensible addition to your kit but it doesn't need to resemble a sword. Baladeo produce a range of ultralight knifes that are perfect the the needs of the discerning bikepacker ... this one's just 22g.

Keep the grit off your bits with some Mucky Nutz Bender Fenders. Front guards, rear guards and ones for the middle, in a variety of sizes including fat bike specific.
Mucky Nutz

Take a little extra capacity with the Sea to Summit Sil' rucksack. Really comes into its own for carrying food, wood, wine or beer to bothies. When you've finished with it, pack it away and you won't notice it's there.

TOGS ... First look.

Altering your hand position on a long ride is second nature but making sure your hands actually stay put, isn't always easy. Bar ends of varying types, mounted in their intended spot and in other less orthodox locations will often add some security to your new favourite hand position but they're not always ideal ... little too big, a bit heavy, not that comfortable and possibly very, very ugly.

Thumb Over Grip System.

TOGS have been designed to offer another position for your pinkies ... 'Thumb Over Grip'. It's something many of us do quite naturally but the TOGS should add a level of security, which will hopefully allow you to maintain that position for longer ... riding with your thumb above the grip usually doesn't feel like the best idea you've ever had when things start to get rough.

Fitted and awaiting test flight.

As you can see, a pair of TOGS now resides on the bars of my Stooge, I'll get them out into the Winter gloop and see how we get on. I'm sure there'll be a few tweaks and fine tuning required along the way but if initial feelings are anything to go on I'm hoping for good things ... I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NEW Bear Bones T shirt.

The all new Bear Bones T shirts are now available to pre-order until November 30th with an expected mid-December delivery.

Tell the world who you are.

If you pre-order a shirt then you get to choose your shirt colour from ten available options. After November 30th shirts will appear in the Bear Bones shop as a stock item but will only be available in limited colours.

Order yours for £9.99 plus a couple of quid postage by going HERE

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Heat Exchanger - yay, nay or maybe?

The thinking behind heat exchangers is pretty simple ... by attaching something to the bottom of a pot, you will increase its surface area and to a degree help contain the flame at the base of the pot. In theory those two things should speed up boil times which in turn has the knock-on effect that you require less fuel to boil a given amount of water.

Obviously there's a downside (because there always is and that's life) and that downside comes in the form of extra weight and a slightly bigger pot. However, if you can speed up the cooking process and use less fuel to do it, then the pros probably outweigh the cons ... particularly on longer trips.

The two pots I selected were both aluminium, the one with the heat exchanger had a capacity of 1L and the other 750ml. The heat exchanger pot has a 10mm larger diameter which should actually help reduce boiling times compared to the narrower pot.

Heat exchanger or radiator?

I made a mesh pot stand so I could see what was going on and got to work. The stand was made so that it would sit within the heat exchanger rather than have the heat exchanger sit on top of it. This meant that the base of each pot would be exactly the same height from the top of the stove.

First up was the 'standard' pot ... 350ml of water and 10ml of meths in the stove. There's no 'bloom time' on the stove, I just lit it, waited 10 seconds to make sure it wasn't going out, placed the pot on top and started the timer. There was a little flame overspill up the sides which should in theory be a plus point when it came to the heat exchanger. 2 minutes 56 seconds later we had a rolling boil.

Standard pot, nothing fancy just aluminium.

I allowed everything to cool down for an hour and repeated the test, the only thing changed was the pot. It was very obvious that the fins of the heat exchanger held the flame and prevented any of it from disappearing up the sides. The flame colour was good, which indicated that the exchanger wasn't restricting the stove in anyway ... so I was a little surprised when the clock stopped at 4 minutes 36 seconds and we'd only just achieved a proper boil. Although I don't tend to believe stuff until I try it or see it, I have to say I wasn't really expecting this ... so I let everything cool down and tried a second time. The results were pretty much the same give or take a few seconds.

Heat exchanger prevents any flame overspill.

I made a brew and had a think ... The theory of increasing the surface area of the base of the pot is sound but in this case it seemed as though the exchanger was actually 'robbing' heat from the pot. I wondered whether there might not be enough of the exchanger element in contact with the pot base ... the concertinaed fins of the exchanger certainly have a large surface area but if that area is acting independently of the pot, it will just behave as a heat sink taking heat away from the pot and radiating it into fresh air, which is the exact opposite of what we want.

MYOG internal heat exchanger, not posh but it seems to work.

After a second cup of tea (and a biscuit), I struck upon the idea of increasing the surface area of the pot on the inside. I theorised that any heat that 'got into' the exchanger would have no choice but to pass over to the water inside. I cut two strips of aluminium and roughly rolled / folded them so they fitted inside the 'standard' pot and held themselves in place. I hoped that being in contact with both the base and side of the pot would mean any flame overspill might also be captured (a little bit). 2 minutes 35 seconds later the water was boiling, now, obviously none of this is particularly scientific but I don't think a 20 second reduction is a fluke. More experimentation is required, so I'm in the process of making something with a little more 'design' to see whether an internal exchanger can produce any significant benefits ... I'll let you know.

Exchanger pot: Fire Maple
Standard pot: Something old, cheap and cheerful
Stove: Proto' Bear Bones