Routes and maps

Get lost! Or not, as the case may be. I’ve been thinking about grabbing a dedicated GPS unit, something like the Garmin Etrex 20 or similar. I do like the freedom of being able to ride anywhere I want, but I also like the ability to turn on some gadget to see my location, overlay-ed on a map with a route indicated too. This means I’m free to ride around for a bit, looking at interesting things, then get back on the pre-planned route to get to some destination. Easiest way to achieve this is by utilising a GPS unit, loaded up with some maps and some GPX files for routes. Or, you could always use a smart phone instead of a dedicated GPS unit like the Garmin. The question then, is which GPS / mapping application do you use? Also, how would you deal with the power requirements of a smart phone over a multi day trip? I’ve tried a couple of apps including BackCountry Navigator and I recently downloaded an app called Maverick, which seems to be a little simpler to use, which is a good thing for me. Both of these apps allow you to download maps for use offline, meaning you don’t need a mobile data connection in order to use them.

BikeHike course creator

BikeHike course creator

I’ve always found planning routes to be fun but challenging. I’m aware of my own limitations as a rider, so try to avoid huge ascents and try to be a little more strategic about climbs on my routes for example. There are plenty of tools out there that can help you plan a bikepacking trip, and by this I mean both on road and off road, one of my favourites is BikeHike. The course creator lets you see both a Google maps / OSM style view and a more traditional OS format map. It’s really, really handy, especially when you switch over to “satellite view” too, just to check there’s actually something on the ground.

As you can see from the images below, both Maverick and BackCountry Navigator revolve around similar map view screens showing a map, your current position and, if required, a GPX route overlay. These GPX files are very useful, especially when riding an ITT with a predetermined route that is new to you as a rider. Most of the well known ITT (Independent Time Trial) routes have freely available GPX files hosted around the internet, information on many of the UK routes can be found at: Self-Supported, including the basic rules of self-supported, or ITT, routes, which I have helpfully stolen and copied here.

  1. Complete the entire route, under your own power  – no drafting
  2. Be completely self-supported throughout the ride – absolutely no support crews, absolutely no gear sharing
  3. Only use commercial services that are available to all challengers – no private resupply, no private lodging
  4. If you have to leave the route, you must re-join it at the exactly same spot
  5. No caches of any kind
  6. No pre-arranged support, which means before you begin your ride – e.g. booking a B&B, arranging to meet a vehicle
  7. No travel by any motorized means during your ride – by all means do so if necessary, but understand if you do your attempt is over

All common sense stuff really. However, this is for the “competitive” types, personally I’m out there to enjoy myself, not try and beat someone else’s times. Anyway, that’s beside the point. At the end of the day the routes and trails exist, if you want to pootle along enjoying the scenery or absolutely cane it to see your name on a website leader board, then so be it, the choice is yours. I’ve got a stash of GPX files, some I’ve created myself using BikeHike or are made from previous routes I’ve ridden, others are taken from various resources around the internet. You can take a look at the files in Google Drive by clicking here, help yourselves. Oh, and if you fancy planning riding a little further afield, I’ll just leave this here, European Bikepacking Routes.

BackCountry Navigator

BackCountry Navigator

Maverick GPS map screen

Maverick GPS map screen

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A day at the beach

OK, so due to workload I’ve barely left the house so far this summer, which, given the weather we’ve had, hasn’t depressed me too much. However, the wife and I decided to head out over the August bank holiday for some day rides, one of which was heading down the Lon Las Cefni cycle route from Llangefni to Newborough Forest on Anglesey in North Wales. This meant a nice easy ride along a dedicated cycle path from Llyn Cefni lake, following the river down to Malltraeth on the coast, then through Newborough Forest to the beach (probably the best beach in North Wales!). I’ve recently found out that Malltraeth literally translates to English as “Desolate beach”, which is a little harsh as it’s actually quite a nice area.

Anyway, this day ride allowed me to try out some of the kit I’ve accumulated, not for carrying bikepacking gear, oh no, I was carrying a picnic blanket, toy cars, bucket and spades, a mini wetsuit and all the other things required to keep a 2 year old boy happy on a big sandy beach. Of all the kit on the bike, I’ve got to say I’m pretty much impressed with everything. The Blackburn outpost handlebar system is great, considering I got it at a bargain price of £30, not the usual rrp of £70+, the Apidura frame pack is worth it’s weight in gold and the Stem Cells are about the most useful thing ever invented to go on a bike, other than wheels probably. As I said, this was a day trip only, but I did get to set the bike up with all the usual overnight / bikepacking gear so it was a good “no stress” test of the current kit.  Here’s a picture of the setup:

From left to right we have the AlpKit Airlok tapered dry bag, Apidura Mountain frame pack, two AlpKit Stem Cells, Blackburn Outpost handlebar system and finally my first aid pack strapped to the harness.

From left to right we have the AlpKit Airlok tapered dry bag, Apidura Mountain frame pack, two AlpKit Stem Cells, Blackburn Outpost handlebar system and finally my first aid pack strapped to the harness.

I also got to have a go at riding on the sandy beach itself, which was actually easier than I’d imagined. The chunky Schwalbe tyres definitely helped out.

One thing this particular ride has done is inspire us to start planning a circumnavigation of the entire island of Anglesey. Updates to follow!

The cook kit – pt 1

Mountain biking is hard work, hungry work, and after a day in the saddle being able to cook a hot meal and knock up a brew is simply essential. In the past I’ve used a big old bulky combination of a 900ml pan, a camping kettle, big gas stove etc Basically, cheapo camping kit that really didn’t lend itself well to the lightweight world of bike-packing. But things have changed! Over the winter I’ve picked up a few goodies that have helped me shed weight and space, but can still provide a decent meal for one, or a hot snack for two. The original cook kit wasn’t particularly heavy, but it was bulky and was one of the main reasons I had to use the rucksack. The new and improved cook kit all fits in to one of the AlpKit Stem cells, which is utterly brilliant.

Cook kit components

Cook kit components

It all revolves around an AlpKit 650ml MytiMug. This titanium contraption is somewhere between a large mug and a small cooking pot, inside it I can fit my Vango ultralight gas stove, a back up lighter, a folding spork, some instant coffee sachets and a few sachets of salt and pepper, stolen from a motorway services, if memory serves. You can just make out some black bands at the top of the MytiMug, these are silicon wrist bands, you remember them? “Make poverty history”, “Make cancer history”, “Make wristbands history” etc. The thinking behind this is that titanium mugs get very, very hot while they’re on the stove which can result in basically setting fire to your lips whilst trying to drink your freshly made brew. These silicon bands stop that from happening. It also happens that these two silicon bands just happen to be in support of the mighty Opsreys! Which is nice.

Cook kit components nested inside the Mytimug

Cook kit components nested inside the Mytimug

Anyway, back to the cook kit. So everything gets nested inside the MytiMug itself, which comes in a handy mesh bag, to help keep the lid on whilst riding. Also, by going for a slightly smaller gas can, I can get the MytiMug, with all it’s contents, and the gas can in to a single Stem Cell. As you can see from the pictures, it’s snug but if anything that helps stop it all from rattling around too much. The Stem Cells fit using simple velcro loops around the stem and handlebars of the bike.

Here’s a few more images to give you an idea of how it all fits together.

MytiMug, gas can and Stem Cell

MytiMug, gas can and Stem Cell

Everything inside the Stem Cell

Everything inside the Stem Cell

New Toys – pt1 : Frame bag and tyres

So, over the winter I’ve bought a few bits and bobs. Trying to save money as and where I can and trying to find bargains, but in some cases, simply stumping up the cash was required. The following is an example of both finding a bargain, and stumping up the cash.

Firstly, the frame bag, or should I say partial frame bag. I’ve been after something like this for a while as I’ve been fed up with having to take the ruck sack. Why should I have to carry the weight, when the bike should be doing that? One of the drawbacks of frame bags is that they do have a tendency to be rather pricey, especially the custom fit jobbies. Another drawback of the custom fit bags is that, by their very nature, they’ll only fit one frame properly, so swapping between the KTM and the Ridley would be a no go. So I’d set my sights on a partial frame bag, specifically the WildCat Ocelot, I’d heard good things and they seem like a decent bunch of guys. This plan derailed when I spotted an advert on the BearBones forum for a second hand Apidura frame bag in the right size and in mint condition. So I grabbed it. £40 delivered, as opposed to £70. It fits perfectly along the top tube, however it’s a bit squishy from top to bottom as I think my downtube angle is a little shallow. To be honest, it’s not a big deal and I’m very happy with it. It’s the perfect shape and size for carrying tools, tubes, torch batter, pump, tent pole, food, spare warm bits… The list goes on. Must say, I’m very impressed by the Apidura build quality. The bag itself has two full length zippers allowing access to the two main compartments; one is a large cavity for “dumping stuff” in, the other is smaller, and contains a few small net pouches for organising things a little better. It also has a small opening on top (under the top tube) for allowing wires or water bladder tubes through. Very well though out bit of kit! Just to be on the safe side, I gave the frame bag (and my AlpKit dry bags) a quick coat of Fabsil. I’m sure the VX21 is waterproof enough anyway, but it seemed like a good idea just to add a thin layer of silicon, every little helps ‘n all that.

Now the tyres. The KTM was running 2.1″ Schwalbe Rapid Robs which were OK on hard pack surfaces and tarmac, but very skittish and unpleasant off road. I had to run them at around 40psi to avoid snake bite flats which meant they bounced around a lot and had very poor traction in proper, actual mud. So they had to go, I did a fair bit of research on t’interweb and asked for advice here and there and eventually decided on the Schwalbe Nobby Nic / Rock Razor combination you can see below. The Rock Razor is a rear specific tyre, it has a semi-slick profile in the centre to ease rolling resistance and keep things nice and fast, but has exceptionally soft side lugs designed to really dig in when the bike is leaning over. Hopefully this might keep things a bit more predictable at the back, the Robs had a tendency to just lose traction whenever they felt like it. The Nobby Nic up front is much chunkier and more of a classic mountain bike “all trail” design, this is the tyre that provides control and braking, so there’s nothing semi-slick about this tyre. I chose the 2.35″ varieties of both tyres and also went for the more expensive Snake Skin, TL Easy Evo versions of the tyres, this means they have much, much thicker side walls, meaning better protection, but also the added strength means I can reduce each tyres pressure without too much of a risk from snake bite flats. Another benefit of these tyres, is that if and when I decide to try tubeless, the tyres are ready and waiting. The Nic is the “trail star” (softer compound) and the Razor is the “pace star” (harder, faster compound). I’m currently experimenting with pressures, but 33psi at the back and 30psi at the front seems brilliant so far. Also, they look far, far chunkier and meatier than the Robs. When swapping the tyres over I really couldn’t get over just how thin and crappy the Robs felt, no wonder my tubes were covered in little green scab patches. These tyres were NOT cheap, they were the expensive variants and came in at £30 for the Nic and £35 for the Razor.

I forgot to weigh the tyres before they were fitted, but from the Schwalbe website:

  • Nobby Nic, 27.5 x 2.35, Snakeskin, TL Easy, Folding = 720g
  • Rock Razor, 27.5 x 2.35, Snakeskin, TL Easy, Folding = 695g

The Rapid Robs were 680g each, so it’s a weight gain, but not much.

EDIT As you can see in the picture below, the frame bag does make accessing bottles tricky, so I’ve used some of those “Elite” bottle cage strap thingys to shift the bottle cages down. I’ll add some pictures soon.

Frame bag and tyres

Frame bag and tyres

Abbey

I’m not dead

No I’m not, I’ve just been hibernating. I’m still trying to pluck up the courage to do some proper, actual winter bikepacking. So what have I been doing in the mean time? I’ve been eating and drinking over the festive period mostly, but I’ve also been buying a few bits and bobs and doing a bit of tinkering. So, in the next couple of weeks expect some info on: My new cheap as chips sleeping mat! A budget down jacket. A new set of handlebars on the KTM! And some other bits I’ve forgotten about. Also I’ll be doing some more kit fettling and rearranging as I now have a few new bags that will be replacing the old rucksack, at last!

Either way, 2016 is the year I’m setting myself targets. I’ve decided by March I want to get the Triban Trail under my belt, it’s a nice triangular 3 day circuit in North Wales. By May I’d like to have complete the Sandstone Way, and then by July I want to do the Trans Cambrian Way And then hopefully by the end of the year I’d like to have completed the Sarn Helen, which is a huge North to South route right through the heart of Wales. Also I’d like to get in to the more social aspects of bike packing and participate in events like the WRT with bearbones gang.

Same mountain, different hill

So I headed up Moel Y Parc again. Long rides are a bit of a struggle at the moment due to juggling work, Zoe’s working hours and trying to look after George, so I tend to be heading for Saturday afternoon rides, over night camps and heading home early on the Sunday morning. So, for a quick over nighter, it seemed to make sense to head back up Moel Y Parc, as per: https://bikepackingonabudget.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/up-a-mountain-down-a-hill/

This time I was alone, which meant I could ride a little faster, carry less kit and the equipment I was carrying could be a little lighter. As summer is drawing to a close I noticed two things along the trails, they’re heavily overgrown with nettles and the wasps are more aggressive than usual. The climb up the “mountain” was utterly leg destroying as usual, I reckon I managed a 50/50 split between riding and walking. This time round I was chasing the sun so had to move a little quicker, I didn’t want to have to pitch the Yellowstone tent in the dark. I got to the pitching spot for around 18:00, so had around an hour of proper sunlight left, which was plenty. I pitched the tent, phoned home to confirm I was still alive and got a brew on.

Home, sweet home

Home, sweet home

This was quickly followed by boiling up 500ml of water to cook my cheapo fresh pasta. I’d decided bringing a sauce pot or sachet was a faff and didn’t bother, this was a mistake, scoffing 400gms of spinach and ricotta tortellini ‘dry’ can become a chore! Next time, a sachet of tomato sauce of similar will be on the cards. After dinner I went for a walk around the summit and just sat there staring out at the views, it’s amazing, I’ve got the Wirral estuary to the North, Vale of Clwyd and Snowdonia range to the West and to the South, the rest of the Clwydian range and Berwyn mountains in the distance. As the sun finally set turning the sky pink and purple, the lights of Ruthin, Denbigh, St Asaph and the coastal towns changed the view completely, but made it no less beautiful. A nice, bright, half moon meant I could basically wander around without needing any kind of artificial light too! Which was nice…

The Snowdonia range in the distance

The Snowdonia range in the distance

But, back to the kit, as usual I had to use the Karrimor AirSpace rucksack to carry my cook kit and clothes and it’s really starting to annoy me, sore legs is one thing, sore back and shoulders is something I could do without. At the moment the rucksack carries the cook kit and warm clothes, so I’ve decided to start improving the cook kit first. I’m swapping the 900ml pan (over kill) for an AlpKit Titanium MytiMug 650. It’s big enough that I can stash a fair bit inside it (wind shield, coffee, spork etc), but still small enough that I have more options available to me on how to carry it on the bike,  I think a Stem Cell or WildCat Ocelot is the best option so far. I’m hoping once I’ve got my hands on the MytiMug the Vango stove will fit inside it too, if not a little more thinking may be required. When it comes to the clothes I’m currently taking a pair of CragHopper walking trousers, an Under Armour t-shirt, thick socks, wooly hat, neck buff and a cheapo Berghaus fleece. Might seem overkill but I don’t like being cold. It all fits in a 5l Karrimor dry bag at the minute, with the bulk of the space being taken up by the fleece and trousers. I’m going to swap the fleece for a down jacket, and there are hundreds of options available, most of which are quite expensive. However, SportsDirect are flogging Karrimor 750fp down jackets for £50.00, which is a bargain, and I’m my opinion, worth a punt. So with that in mind, I’m thinking the wooly hat, socks and down jacket will join the sleeping bag in my AlpKit AirLok dry bag / seat pack. The trousers, and whatever extra I decide to carry, may have to go upfront on the handlebars. I’ve bought one of the dual ended 13l AlpKit dry bags with the intention of filling it with the tent and maybe a dry bag with clothes in. At the moment this idea is not working. Although the space isn’t an issue as such, getting two dry bags inside another is causing issues with “friction”, they simply won’t budge. I could stuff the clothes in loose but I’m a little worried about them getting wet along side the tent’s dry bag. Might be a valid concern, or I could be worried about nothing. We’ll see.

Morning mist over the Vale of Clwyd

Morning mist over the Vale of Clwyd

Snowdonia mountain range

What’s next on the shopping list

There’s a few bits and bobs I’m not happy with any more. I know I originally said I was over the moon with how well the Vango Ultralite sleeping mat worked, and to be fair I still am, but I’m not happy with how big and heavy it is when packed, so I’m thinking of upgrading. In keeping with the “on a budget” aspect of this site, I’m very interested in the AlpKit Numo, it’s light and compact when packed, nice and thick when unpacked and very cheap at £35 delivered. The only thing I’m not sure of is it’s thermal / insulation properties being that it’s an air mat that is completely empty and devoid of any insulation materials. I’ve just been sent a link to this to: the Thermarest Neo-Air Venture WV mattress, that’s a mouthful eh? Currently on offer too…. Hmmmmm.
I’m also getting hacked off with riding with a rucksack on, so I’m considering a bigger frame bag, a custom AlpKit Stingray would be nice, however a fair bit of advice I’ve had recently indicates the Wildcat Gear Ocelot may be a better option, in that it can carry as much stuff, but has the advantage that it’s not a custom fit, so may fit both the KTM and the Ridley, which is definitely a plus point.
The only other upgrade I’m thinking of is the cook kit, but this isn’t a particularly high priority as it’s not always required, I’m thinking of ditching the big ally pan and going for a couple of nesting Ti mugs, again, AlpKit are looking good for this. I feel like a walking / riding AlpKit advocate at the moment, but you can’t argue with decent kit and decent prices…
I’m open to suggestions on all of the above by the way!

Snowdonia mountain range

Snowdonia mountain range