Correspondence: Sleeping gear

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I often receive e-mails from friends with simple questions regarding equipment, routes, or my approach to cycletouring. Some of these questions regard saddle sores, handlebars, free camping, hub adjustment or malevolent rednecks. For their queries, they often receive lengthy, detailed responses. Considering my time and effort, I hope to share more of these correspondences for the benefit of others. These are real conversations, edited only for grammar with some additional links for easy navigation. Illicited by the following question, a detailed response regarding sleeping gear was drafted:

Elise, a friend from Oakland asks, “What are you guys doing for sleeping arrangements these days. Saw some pics on the blog. It looks sweet. No tent? Bivies? Down or synthetic? What sleeping pads have you got?”.

Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2, used this for 4 years

For two people, a real tent makes a lot of sense. For short trips alone, a bivy or tarp could work, but if I expected any rain of bugs, I would grab a tent. I don’t like sleeping in the basic bivies, such as the REI Minimalist. More advanced bivies use short poles for support, ventilation, etc. and approach the cost and weight of a small 1 person tent. Big Agnes has some sweet tents for 1-2 people, all of which would be light enough not to notice on the back of a bike or in a backpack.

Big Agnes has the Seedhouse 1 on sale, which uses slightly heavier fabric than our SL2 (SL=superlight):

The Seedhouse SL or Fly Creek UL tents from Big Agnes are some of the best lightweight tents available. Made in China, but the company is based out of Steamboat Springs, CO and has real people on staff. They have repaired my tent for a nominal fee the last two summers while passing through town and provide excellent customer service on the phone, via e-mail, and in person. Of course, the repairs come after hundreds of nights of use, so I consider the product to be quite durable.



Sleeping pads:
Thermarest Pro-Lite (me, red), Big Agnes (Lael, orange)

I’ve been using the Pro-Lite for years. It is warm enough for anything I do, and I don’t mind that it is only 1″ thick, although some people may prefer more cushion. The Big Agnes pads are 2.5″ thick, but require a lot of huffing and puffing to inflate. There are similar pads from Exped (Synmat UL 7) and Thermarest (Neo-Air), both of which are quite a bit more expensive than the BA, but lighter. The Pro-Lite is nearly as light as any pad available, but isn’t super cushioned. It has some insulation for warmth, and is self-inflating, which means it only requires a few breaths of air.

Lael’s pad is technically a prototype that I bought in Steamboat at BA for $20, but is much like the BA pads you will find at REI or a local outdoor store.

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We have finally settled on sleeping bags after several years of testing different models from REI. In the end, REI simply didn’t stock what we wanted so we bought them at local shops in Missoula and Bozeman. Technically, the REI website lists some nice down bags from Marmot, but most stores don’t stock them.

Mont-Bell U.L. Super-Spiral Down Hugger 3, 30deg, 1lb 6oz (me, green)

This bag uses an elasticized stitching that stretches when you move, but keeps the down close when you are sleeping, improving loft and reducing cold spots. High quality down (800 fill or higher) is the main way to get a lighter warmer bag, although this elastic stitching ingeniously adds some warmth, without adding weight. They make this design at several temperature ratings, in down and synthetic. Synthetic bags are always cheaper, although a bit bulkier when packed and a little heavier at the same temperature rating. Some people say that down will last forever, although it’s probably an overstatement for several reasons. If you plan most of your camping in average to dry conditions such as in most of the mountainous west, down is great. Moisture has never been a serious issue with our down bags, especially with a good tent.


Western Mountaineering SummerLite, 32deg, 1lb 2 oz. (Lael, red)

WM makes the best USA based ultralight down bags, in San Jose, CA. Nice construction with only the nicest down available. Lael’s bag is tiny when packed, although mine is nearly as small. Lots of models are available which basically add more down for more warmth. The UltraLite would be a good 3-season bag, and is slightly warmer than the SummerLite. Feathered Friends in Seattle also makes nice down, although I think WM does better ultralight stuff.


Wiggy’s makes synthetic bags in CO, and prices are very good for USA made gear. It’s not super small or light, but it’s super-durable, cheap and made in the USA and you could ride over to Walnut Creek to pick up the Desert Mummy model from Rivendell.

Great sleeping bag values:
REI has a Halo 25deg down bag on sale for $199, which is pretty small and light for a solid three-season bag. Our old REI Sub-Kilo down bags lost a surprising amount of feathers, so I’m not sure of the quality. That was four years ago.

There used to be a Halo 40 which packed to a nice size and would probably be fine for extended summer travel if you wear some clothing to bed, as we do. It doesn’t make sense to carry a big bag and lots of clothing when you can just put it all together for the coldest nights.

Vapor barrier liners: In the mountains and later in the season, we both use a vapor barrier liner (VBL) which adds a lot of warmth to the system, but can be left at home in warmer weather. For an exhaustive explanation of VBLs see the Rivendell site or this excellent article by Andrew Skurka.

I have the orange sil-nylon VBL from Rivendell made by Etowah Outfitters in Georgia. It was a great value, but is now discontinued. Lael has a fancy, expensive vapor barrier from Western Mountaineering called the Hot-Sac VBL which is a real cooker. You should be wearing long underwear and other clothing before you consider adding a VBL, as an order of operations.

Let me know if you have any more questions. Oh, we sleep “out” as much as possible to avoid the effort of setting up and putting away the tent. We both enjoy the fresh air as well.





Connecting the dots: Rawlins, Steamboat, Kremmling


Divide-style riding– the open dirt roads that are influencing a new generation of cyclecampers– has provided me with a home for the summer.  Daily challenges and joys come from climbing and descending the skeleton of the American west, while every evening is topped with delightful campsites, for free.  The Great Divide Route is the Trans-Am Route of the modern day, as Fargos and Trolls are the equivalents of old Trek and Fuji touring frames.  The Divide is the fusion of our American cycletouring heritage and several decades of mountain biking– it’s a way of connecting the dots and getting away from it all.

Most road maps facilitate travel along the paths of least resistance, though river valleys and along interstate highways.  Lesser known routes encounter greater resistance– in route planning and topography– but uncover the uncommon character that is hidden in the folds of the land.  The Great Divide Route is changing the way American cyclists look at cycletouring and is both ready-made and quite rideable, lessening the resistance to “getting away”.  While a single day’s ride on the Divide might be challenging, the open road ahead is an inviting yellow brick road of logistic simplicity.  Turn-by-turn directions and comprehensive resources for cyclists (groceries, water, lodging, camping, police, etc.) are listed on the maps, in addition to elevation profiles.  Concerns that the Divide reaches deep into the wilderness, days away from food and resources are unnecessary.  Every few days the rider encounters a proper grocery, and water is not an issue in most places; when it is less plentiful one simply carries a little more for the duration described in the maps.  If the Divide calls to you, I’m telling you that you can!  You still have to ride your bike up and over mountains, but it couldn’t be any easier.

The Great Divide Route is the realization of an idea with roots in the original Bikecentennial route (renamed Trans-Am), which was meant to uncover America’s backroads.  As originally designed, the cross-country route included miles of gravel farm roads inspired by terrain encountered on the Siples’ Hemistour ride.   Overwhelmingly, the first wave of Bikecentennial riders complained about the hardship of riding dirt on the typical 27×1 1/4 (630 x 32mm) tires of the time.  The Siples had ridden handbuilt 650b wheels laced to Campagnolo hubs, with an approximate 40mm tire.  Edit: I’m currently researching the tires used on Hemistour, as they are simultaneously and incongruously referred to as 650B (584mm) and 26 x 1 3/8 (590mm).  June Siple has a record of equipment used, and may soon shed some light.  Ten years later as ATBs exploded onto the market. riders finally had the appropriate equipment to explore these dirt routes, especially the more challenging rides into the mountains.  Meeting over margaritas and Mexican food in 1994, as legend has it, Michael McCoy conspired with ACA staff to design a dirt route along the spine of the country. Within the year the Great Divide Route was born, and the rest is (recent) history.

Today, more people are touring on mountain bike tires and mountain bikes, in the mountains.  Riders are discovering the value of lightweight packing as backpackers have known for years.  The combination opens up the opportunity to ride high mountain roads and singletrack for multiple days at a time.  My own evolution as a rider mirrors the history of American cycletouring, and after a few long years the final and most contemporary piece to the puzzle will fall into place on the Colorado Trail, and beyond.  They call it mountain biking or bikepacking, but it’s still just a bike ride.

Connecting the dots from Rawlins, WY to Steamboat Springs, CO:


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I sleep atop mountains and passes whenever the weather is clear and calm, with only my sleeping pad and bag on a nylon groundcloth.  Since entering Montana, most nights have been spent en plain air.  I keep most of my gear packed away, but will remove my cookset for some dinner or tea in the evening.  Now out of grizzly country, I gave my bear deterrent spray to some CDT hikers and I can leave the stove set up for the morning.  When I’m feeling especially organized and indulgent, I’ll prepare the pot with clean water so that it can be heated as soon as I awake for coffee or tea, like the auto-brew setting on your home system.  The Penny Stove that I use was built almost a year ago while in Steamboat Springs, and has seen about 150 days of use.  The steel Klean Kanteen is versatile in that I can defrost frozen water from a cold night, or sterilize stream water right in the bottle.  An enameled steel camping mug isn’t much heavier than popular Lexan or plastic models, and can similarly be used for cooking or heating water.  While I technically only carry one 0.8L cookpot, these versatile vessels allow more creative meals and hot drinks.  A 1L plastic drink bottle contains fuel, of which I’ve mostly been sourcing the yellow bottles of Heet (automotive antifreeze, methanol).  In bigger cities I can buy a full liter of ethanol, or denatured alcohol at paint and hardware stores.  In France, corner stores sold a 95% concentration of ethanol as a household cleaner, always in an inspiring floral or citrus fragrance for two euro.  In Mexico, “alcohol industrial” can be had at some paint stores, which wasn’t an entirely reliable source.  I finally realized that the rubbing alcohol sold in Mexican pharmacies was a 70-90% concentration of ethanol, whereas rubbing alcohol in the US is almost exclusively isopropyl alcohol.   Isopropyl burns incompletely and leaves a sooty mess on your pots.  Inevitably, it makes a sooty mess on other things until you look like a coal miner on a bicycle.  For reference, higher concentrations of isopropyl alcohol burn just fine, if necessary.





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With tired legs from several weeks of riding without a rest, I find cover during the heat of the day along the Little Snake River.  Of course, this was a fine swimming spot, if a little shallow.  My transition into Colorado signals a more temperate climate– surface water and shade quickly reappear after a few scorching days in central and southern Wyoming.  Aspens provide wonderfully cool shade while climbing, and a stark contrast to western skies.

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Steamboat Springs is a tourist town, a ski town, and a little hard to crack at first.  Local businesses are busy crafting and creating, and a visit to the Moots factory is inspiring (10 AM on M-W-F).  Kent Erickson, who started Moots in the 80’s, now crafts fine titanium bikes in a space shared with Orange Peel Bikes, a must-see building and a fine shop.  Smartwool offices are in Steamboat as well, and my host for the night offered some socks and a lightweight merino sweater– he’s a quality control agent for the company, and is full of socks that didn’t make the cut.  Finally, I contacted Big Agnes in advance for some tent repairs after four years of hard use.  I’m constantly seeking better solutions to equipment, but my Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 is hard to beat and while I’ve looked for other options with curiosity, nothing improves upon the blend of durability and light weight.  It sleeps two, but is light enough to carry for solo adventures.  It is conveniently freestanding, which is great during the buggy season and the rainfly can be used without the mesh tent body for good ventilation during a summer rain shower.  In more extreme weather, a total of 13 guy lines ensure a solid stance against the wind and rain.  While in town last year they repaired a large tear in my rainfly due to a zipper mishap; this year, some sections of my tent poles needed replacement and a finicky zipper was repaired.  It’s nice to have contact with real people, with real skills and expertise to help sort out technical issues.  If I had gone to REI, they would have shrugged and replaced the entire product.  Repairs are a much better solution, and the cost to get me back under cover was only $10.









The ride from Steamboat Springs to Kremmling is pleasant and familiar as I’ve now ridden the route over Lynx Pass three times.  It was part of my path from Boulder to Steamboat last fall to meet Cass and Nancy in early October for some Divide riding.  Check out Nancy’s first day of bicycle touring, climbing at 8000ft over Lynx Pass on dirt roads in the snow!  At the same time I ran into Greg Mu on the road, riding a look-alike Surly Troll to what Cass was riding.  Whose Troll was born first?  Greg insists it was his.  We all rode together for a period and had a great time, despite cold nights and some early season snow.

I overheated and perspired through my first freezing night, even though I was sleeping without a tent  After buying and returning a half-dozen sleeping bags to REI over the last few years, I finally found my ideal bag at The Trailside in Missoula, MT last fall.  The Mont-Bell U.L. Super Spiral Down Hugger 3 is filled with high-quality down and is rated to 30, which is an accurate description of it’s warmth.  The bag is constructed in a spiral stitch pattern with elastic stitching which ensures that the down is close to the body while sleeping, but that nighttime movements are not constricted by a narrow bag.  The advertised weight of the bag is 1 lb. 6 oz., and compresses to the size of a cantaloupe or smaller.  An Etowah vapor barrier liner (VBL) from Rivendell keeps me warm down to 10 deg, with a lightweight down jacket and a blend of Ibex and Smartwool long underwear.  I have not been carrying the VBL or down jacket through the summer months.

Connecting the dots from Steamboat to Kremmling:








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My host in Kremmling is a recent Pugsley owner, with a glowing enthusiasm for fat tires.  Without saying, we got along just fine.  In a few weeks, he’ll set off for the Divide with my maps on his new fat tires.  There are great camping and riding opportunities north of town, most of which is BLM property.  Camping along Muddy Creek is recommended.

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