I’ve heard that brevity is the essence of wit. This 3 hour conversation does not bode well for me.
Bike specific clothing is often not suitable for all types of bikepacking. After 4 days of riding, padded shorts lose their appeal as they gain in olfactory impact. I like to wear fairly normal clothes, but they don’t always hold up to the biking or to the cold.
I find when riding bikes in the winter, the fronts of my legs get colder than the backs. There have been commercial tights that address this for cross country skiing, but they often lack the taper cuffs that work best for bikes. I also find that most tights fall down when I am riding bikes. I made my tights from windproof fleece in front, and a stretch fleece in the rear. I had initially planned an elastic waist, but decided I would be much better off with suspenders. The suspenders keep my tights from falling down and thus prevent the fabric from snagging on the seat and causing hilarious crashes.
Winter cycling jackets are similar in that a windproof front and breathable back is ideal. Jackets are not as easy to sew as some of the other items, but they are still within reach of most people’s skills. Fiona has what I think is a nearly ideal bike jacket in that the front panel is windproof fleece, while the arms and back are a breathable fleece. This keeps the vital organs warm while airflow to keep dry and not overheat. For cycling, I always cut jackets a little longer in the back and put longer arms on them than on a standard jacket to compensate for the cycling position.
“Don’t forget to mention your mom”
My mom loves to knit. A few years ago, she knit me a pair of socks. She wasn’t sure I would like them, and she was pretty sure that they weren’t as good as the commercial socks that I buy.
It turned out that the socks my mom knits are warmer, fit better, and last longer than any socks I have purchased. So if you knit, or know someone who is kind enough to knit you some socks from Merino wool. (lately my favourites are a Merino/Silk blend) I strongly endorse home made socks.
I have several store-bough hats that do most of what I want. I am fully happy with them as my day time headwear. For sleeping though, I want something to replicate the hood on my mummy bag when I use the quilt, or even just to supplement the mummy bag hood.
The Planned Group
Jeremy and I had not gotten out for a bikepacking overnight since the weather turned winter. I planned to take my family, and invited Jeremy and some other friends to add to the fun.
The Actual Group
By the time Saturday rolled around, it was Jeremy and I and a daugher each. Jeremy’s daughter had been with us before on rides, but this would be her first bikepacking ride on snow. We hoped for a firm or firmish trail.
My family are equipped with fatbikes and winter camping gear. Jeremy’s daughter is still on the small side for a 26″ wheeled mountain bike, so she was on her 24plus bike, she weighs little enough that the tire pressures can be run at roughly what an adult fatbike can. Jeremy is a fatbikepacking veteran, so he has more than adequate gear. He brought his own -32ºC Western Mountaineering sleeping bag for his daughter to ensure that she would be warm while they slept. Their tent was pretty much filled with down insulating products.
The only gear that wasn’t quite up to the task were a pair of Bogs boots. These boots really should come with a warning label. There is way too much thermal mass in a Bogs boot to consider it a viable boot for any kind of long-duration winter activity. There were tears Sunday morning as the frozen boots sucked the life from a young girl’s feet. Thankfully, the sun eventually came over the top of the mountain, and we put the boots in the sun to warm. My new official policy on Bogs is that they should be restricted to the wet season, as they are truly great for keeping feet warm in cold (liquid) wet conditions.
As dads, our job is to help our girls to prepare for life. A bit of challenge and a lot of fun meant that this trip helped the girls get a little extra empowerment, and some of the bragging rights that come from doing something a little beyond what the average kid has a chance to.
The trail was firm enough to ride, but soft enough for a bit of challenge for the snow-bike rookie. Fires are permitted at the SP6 campground, so our burritos were roasted and yummy. The temperature dipped down to something below -18•C at night, so we were glad we brought appropriate sleeping gear. The stars were bright, and we all slept well. The dads did not get their fair share of chips, which was my fault since I neglected to bring a bag of my own like I usually do.
The girls agreed that they were glad they had come, and that’s really what counts.
Many of these photos were courtesy of Jeremy, thanks for helping me get outside.
I have been lamenting the lack of a winter ultra race in the Calgary area for many years. We have a great location for it, all we lack are enough connected winter trails that together could make an exceedingly difficult race. One where if things weren’t ideal, walkers and skiiers would keep up to or pass the folks on bikes. One where some years no one would finish. I also wanted something scenic that most people would not otherwise experience, something that would be a rewarding tour.
Pick a Route, Any Route
I decided to put together a route, any route, where I had ridden most of it in the past. My prime criteria were: it had to pass mostly through areas where random camping is permitted. It had to be difficult to complete in 3 days, and bikes needed to be permitted on the trails.
Once I had something mapped, I thought I’d do a weekend test ride on as much of it as I could possibly do. I was pretty certain adding the Highwood Pass section of closed highway would be too much for me, but I did want it to be difficult.
Winter ultra races like the ITI have always discouraged comparisons between years as invalid since conditions have so much effect on a race. Often, a lead racer will be caught by the rest of the racers when a storm holds them up. Sometimes, an hour’s worth of snow accumulation means the lead racer can open an hour’s lead to days. Some years, a route is impossible.
A 3 Day Tour
I left Friday morning, to start a 3 day full-speed tour. I knew conditions were to be cold. That can be a good thing, so I wasn’t worried. I was concerned about the snow, but I had hopes that someone would have snowshoe packed the first bit of trails, and that snowmobiles would have passed on some more of the trails, and that I could push through the rest.
The “Short Loop” of Prairie Creek and Powderface Creek is one that I’ve done dozens of times, it sees consistent snowshoe traffic and so is generally pretty good. Indeed it started reasonably, having been snowshoed by at least a few people. It was mostly rideable, if a little soft and slow. The trouble started when I turned up the trail to Powderface Ridge. It had only one set of touring ski tracks, and they were not hard enough to ride on, nor to walk on. On top of that, some wild horses had used the trail to move between grazing areas leaving some sections of trail pocked with deep footprints. My progress slowed. I was moving at about 1km/2hr, this was the kind of challenge I dreaded and wanted.
With a race roster, the second through last racers get the benefit of trail breaking by the lead racer, in my case, there was only me. I’m pretty fine with pain and suffering though, so I continued on at a ridiculously slow pace. I moved my gear to a sled that I brought to pull the bike in, the depth of the trail meant the bike dragged on the trail sides, so it was just the gear. Still, the lighter bike was easier to manage.
Then Things Got Worse
As the sunset approached, I started feeling a little chilly. First I had to put on a sweater. At this level of output, it is rare indeed to need much in the way of torso clothing. I checked my thermometer and saw that it was indeed below -30ºC. I was well prepared though, so I didn’t really worry.
The trail didn’t get any better, but there were some more substantial uphill bits, which slowed my progress even further.
As the temperature dropped further, I decided to sleep before I was out of the trees on the exposed side of the trail. My estimating from the bottom of the thermometer scale to the line on the thermometer put the temperature somewhere near -38ºC. That’s into the realm of cold, even for me. Frostbite from touching metal is within seconds, so everything has to be done with mittens on. Even lighting my stove was a challenge, as the white gas fuel needs a flame to it for a couple seconds before igniting.
A Good Night’s Sleep Always Helps
I wasn’t racing, but I was tired from the effort. I slept soundly from about 10:30 until 7AM. When I woke up, it was near enough -40º. Making coffee was tricky, everything wanted to freeze, I don’t think the makers of Aeropress intended it to be used at -40º. I had to use my hot water to thaw it to open it, then I used more hot water to warm it, then I had to quickly make the coffee before it froze again, and yet, my coffee was very satisfying.
Now, the logical choice when faced with such an obstacle as this trail, is to turn around and go the way that you know will be easier. For some, this would be the fun way. Instead, I wanted to stay on my intended route. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from doing something hard.
Packing up is never my strong suite, but packing gear in -40º is a real challenge. Taking mittens off for even a few seconds is uncomfortable, not just while they are off, but because when they go back on, they have cooled enough to be painful to touch. Either way, I got myself packed and underway.
And Then Things Went South.
I knew by this point I wasn’t making it the full distance. I was fine with that, because I was in the backcountry, in the cold, and well away from my comfort zone.
The 2.5 hours for the remaining km to the saddle at the top of this section of trail was not that onerous. I was feeling good after a nice night’s sleep, and I was in a good frame of mind (though a horrid song was stuck in my head). I reached the top and decided to send Tania a reassuring message about not worrying that I was so slow, when I discovered my InReach Mini was missing. I ordinarily have it mounted on my bars with a carabiner to secure it to something in case it falls or breaks off the mount. But, the InReach Mini is only rated to -20ºC at which point it starts to turn itself off, so in the cold I had to put it in my pocket. One of the times that I put it in the pocket, I must have failed to zipper it in (it was -35º, I was wearing mittens).
The InReach Mini is an amazing piece of technology. It allows me to reassure my family that I am okay, it lets me call for help in an emergency, in short, it is a great communication device for the backcountry. It is also very small, and pretty much impossible to find when it’s dropped in the snow. I had no choice but to stop my trip, go home where I could retrieve the last position the InReach sent, and to go back to try to find it another day. I was devastated. I had not had a solo winter trip in years, and here it was cut short by my carelessness.
The Consolation Prize
When I got home, I looked up the track from the InReach and it had sent a final location. Fortunately I had had tracking turned on. After driving back and skiing up to the place where my GPS showed the device should be, I started raking the snow with my ski pole. Less than a minute later, a little orange device popped out from under the snow on the trail. I was thrilled, both at not having to replace it, and that it was so accurate that I could locate it within a ski-pole’s length.
- I was prepared for comfort at -40º
- Tether the indispensable electronic device (if you have to move it from its correct spot)
- I don’t mind when things are tough, but I don’t like when I mess things up myself.
- My previous philosophy of no sled with the bike was mostly correct.
- Count calories: I know how much food I can eat, and I brought too much of it.
- In the end, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame.
- km travelled: 13 of 178
- Hours moving: 12
- Hours sleeping: 10
- Hours searching for device: 3, with a 5 hour trip the following day
The Gear That Worked:
My sleep system as always was a -10ºC down sleeping bag with a home-made -10ºC synthetic quilt over it. My sleep system is a Thermarest Ridge-Rest with a Neo-Air Xtherm over top. I was comfy at -40º, my only complaint was that it was hard to see the stars with my sleeping hood done up. I brought my tarp but did not use it.
My bike is my usual Salsa Mukluk Ti with a Rohloff hub. I was pleasantly surprised that the Rohloff shifted well at -35ºC.
My bike luggage was my usual Porcelain Rocket bags with a custom spacer for the bar bag from Tadhg.
Pogies were my own design, they were warm enough but I really should have insulated my brake levers as I have done on my kids’ bikes.
As I read this I realize that I have not put the most positive spin on it. While this was not a successful trip, it was a trip, and I didn’t see anyone else out there, so that’s something. Also, while I did mess up my weekend, I can honestly say that I lived it, rather than wasted it.
How it started
Back in the 90s I started riding my bike to work after a hiatus of a few years. My coworkers would regularly ask me if I was going to be like Tom, a notoriously all-weather rider. As winter came on, I realized what most people who cycle in the winter do, it isn’t as hard as it looks. It can, however, be cold. With the internet in its infancy, it wasn’t easy to find quality information on how to stay warm in winter, but I knew at the time that my airways were a weak point in that I couldn’t really insulate them from the cold air that passed over them. Then I read about a product called LungPlus and my obsession began.
The Untold Story
The human body is remarkably good at keeping itself heated. The circulatory system will gradually move blood flow away from the surface and away from extremities to keep its vital organs warm. Activity, including shivering, will help by generating heat. But in order to do any sort of activity, one needs to breathe, and in the cold, that means breathing cold air.
The air passages are designed to warm up air as it enters the body so that the blood can pick up oxygen from it. Unfortunately, this is exactly the same as wind chill. On top of that, the airways are damp, which means they are subject to evaporative cooling just the same as if a person was to go outside still damp after a shower. Except that the lungs have approximately 5 times the surface area of skin, and they are always naked.
Well, What the Heck am I Supposed to do About it?
If you stop breathing you will die.
The simplest form of heat retention is the extended hood that Northern peoples have used for millennia. It creates a pocket of warm air around the person’s face, and helps take the edge off breathing in extremely cold air. In turn, this pocket of warm air requires less warming by the airways and lungs and so is pulling less heat from the body.
The next low-tech solution is the scarf, Buff, mask, or bandana across the face. These do capture some heat from the outgoing breath to warm the incoming air, but their primary purpose is to warm the face itself. They are great for preventing frostbite on the face, but they do relatively little to prevent heat loss through breathing.
The next technological step is to use a heat retention or heat exchange device to capture the heat from outgoing air and return it to the incoming air, and that is what this article is about.
Yes, 6 Heat Exchanger Masks.
What follows is a brief description and mini-review of the 6 heat exchanger devices that I personally own. Yes, I could have gotten away without buying more of them, but in my efforts to optimize, I have continued to purchase more.
This device is the only one on this list that does not have a mask with it. It was the first one that I used back in ’99 or ’00. The device is a bit like the mouthpiece of a snorkel with a heat exchanger built in to it. It isn’t fashionable, or really even dignified, but it does work.
- It helps keep glasses unfogged by routing breath away from the eyes.
- It is an effective heat exchanger and helps to keep the body warm
- it routes the captured water away from my chin and reduces beardcicles.
- Looks like a science fiction device worn by Venutians to breathe the earth’s poisonous oxygen.
- It routes air through the mouth and I find it sometimes makes my teeth cooler
- droolcicles at the end
Oh yeah, this device lets you breath warmer-than-room temperature air. Oh damn, when I exercise it is like breathing through a straw. This is the best device for waiting for the bus.
This device is great, if they still made them, I’d have bought more.
- great heat exchanger
- close fit to the face
- low profile balaclava works well with other hats
- very free breathing and the air path does not ice up
- the exchanger sits close to the lips and can contribute to chapped lips
- the exchanger forms a shelf that can collect snot
- they were bought by another company and were discontinued
This unit is a little more sophisticated than a long hood on a parka, but not much.
- Simple, never clogs
- keeps the mouth and nose clear so skin stays un-chapped.
- no real heat exchange, only a pocket of exhaled breath at the mouth
- some (Tadhg) find it restricts breathing
I bought this one based on a review from a friend with more cold weather experience than me (yes, those people exist).
- Very effective heat exchanger
- good airflow for high-output activity
- keeps wet parts off the face
- the “Darth Vader” look
- great balaclava
- does eventually get somewhat wet
- the “Darth Vader” look
- the great balaclava is a bit tight on my enormous head
This and the Ergodyne are my go-to masks for cooler days. Back to back testing today gives the edge to the AirTrim for warmth.
- doesn’t restrict breathing
- away from the mouth and nose for reduced chapping
- doesn’t put pressure on the nose – less runny nose
- is available with a selection of exchangers with greater flow, or warmer air depending on activity
- Recently, a grade 2 kid said it looked like a pig nose
- it does not cover the upper cheeks – risk of frostbite
- if you neglect to blow the water out of it the water can drip on clothing
Finally a recommendation
On the bike, and this is at least partly a blog about bikes, the Ergodydne has the edge because of its coverage of the cheeks. However, if you have or can get a face mask that covers the cheeks and leaves the mouth and nose free, the AirTrim’s superior performance will win out. All this week, I was outside in temperatures as low as -29ºC with the AirTrim on, and I dressed exactly the same as I would have for -12ºC without the AirTrim (yes, it is that good). I don’t get a commission, though if the good folks at AirTrim were to send me 3 more for the rest of my family, I’d be mighty grateful (hint, hint). I bought my AirTrim from skiwax.ca
If anyone thinks I am exagerating the benefit to these masks, they should head on over to https://thismombikes.net/ to ask he how inadequately she has seen me dressed in this cold snap. Below -25ºC roughly 90% of a body’s heat is lost through respiration. if you could reduce even 15% of that it would be equivalent to doubling your clothes. When you keep your core warmer, it signals the brain to send more blood to your extremities, so in a way, the heat exchanger mask is a handwarmer too.
What About Medical Benefits?
We’ve all heard about the dangers to lungs and airways of breathing extremely cold air. I am not a physician, nor do I play one on TV. I am way too lazy to do the research as to what medical benefits these masks may give to users. Even if it were no medical benefit, I would still use one for comfort and for warmth. Airtrim and Lungplus have some medical articles on their sites that I have not read.
Lungplus sent me free product in about 2000 with no conditions attached. I have purchased all the other products myself with my money. At the time I am writing this, I derive no benefit from sales of any of these devices. I have received no money for this review, but I won’t turn down offers of free product.
Fiona was recently featured in this Instagram video from @getkidsout . I hope y’all enjoy it as much as I did.
Previously, I had written about making your own bike pogies. Now, I’ve made a video. It isn’t winning any awards, but it may help you to make your own bike pogies.
Back in June my friends and I went for a bikepacking weekend up the Cascade valley, it was fun, except for the mud, rain, and the broken arm. This weekend, Jeremy and I set out with our daughters for a night at Lake Minnewanka’s LM11 campsite. Our prime goals were “no whining” and “no broken arms”. We amended the latter to “no broken limbs” when the girls pointed out that they were allowed to break legs.
There is no fast in family bikepacking. I’ve grown accustomed to that. Jeremy has the calm dad vibe as well, so we did not suck the fun out of riding by hurrying the girls along. Unfortunately, this meant that our we rode for almost an hour in the dark (we had many lights) and supper was delayed past the point where girls were ready for it. There may have been complaining.
Though we realistically only accomplished the one goal, we did have a successful overnight, and we definitely had fun.
The biggest accomplishment was how much confidence Cadence gained over the course of the ride. As each hour passed, she gained comfort and proficiency on the bike. It was great to see.
Of course you can’t dismiss the value of dads riding with their kids. The healthy lifestyle we are nurturing will hopefully stay with our kids for their entire lives.
Luggage, It’s All About Lugging.
You kids these days have it easy!
Back when I started bikepacking, there were few options for bags. I tried panniers a few times, and while they were fine on gravel roads, they sucked a lot once the trail closed in and they started grabbing on rocks and trees. In snow, panniers start to drag in deep snow, and they often sit exactly where I want to put my leg for pushing. These days there are many commercial choices for bikepacking bags.
The ideal bikepacking luggage is none at all. Bikepacking Nirvana would involve endless singletrack while carrying nothing but the clothes on your back. Of course then you wake up and realize that you need food to live, want shelter from the elements, and want to be able to fix your bike when it breaks. You’re going to need something to carry that with you.
Back in my day we had the strap!
My first ever MYOG project for bikepacking was a strap. I then made two more. I rode for years with dry bags strapped front and rear on my bike. While it isn’t ideal, or as slick as the modern systems, it worked well enough, and it is hard to beat nylon straps for lightness.
There are many people who build their own custom frame bags as well. Usually, these are for unusually shaped frames that do not have easily available commercial frame bags. Sometimes they are simply to save money. In either case, they are a great addition to any bikepacking rig, since they place weight low and in the center of the bike. I haven’t ever made my own frame bag, I’ve modified some commercial ones, but one of the first things I do when I get a new bike is to buy a frame bag from Porcelain Rocket. If I was making my own, I would probably copy some of the features of their roll-top frame bags, especially the 52Hz with its Voile strap closure.
I don’t really make frame bags, but here is someone who did.
Here are some pictures from my friend Sheldon (link is to his InstaGram feed), he is a newcomer to bikepacking and made sure his family were properly equipped for their adventures. His family’s bikes range from small, to very oddly shaped frames. The level of customization to make these bags work would have been outrageously expensive from a commercial builder, so he sewed his own. They are very polished for a first bag and have some pro features like key clips, foam to prevent rattle against the frame and contrasting liner to be able to find things in the bottom of the bag.
For more on DIY frame boxes, check out my friend Vik’s piece on a coroplast frame box.
Sometimes home-made gear is nothing more than modifying a “real” product to make it more suitable for your style. My go-to hydration system for winter bikepacking was a hydration pack that I altered to have the hose exit via the bottom so that it went under my arm. I then insulated the hose with pipe insulation and sewed some more insulation to the back of the pack to shield it from the cold. I still have not seen a commercial version of this winter hydration pack.
Seat bags are a great way to get rid of the rear panniers that are so prone to dragging in the snow and catching on my leg. My original seat bag was nothing more than a dry bag strapped to a seatpost rack. I do not recommend seatpost racks in any way, especially after breaking a seatpost on the second last day of a 550km winter race. These days, I use Porcelain Rocket seatbags since they are lighter than the rack and drybag and they are certainly better integrated.
Handle bar bags are a mainstay of the bikepacking scene. Front panniers are great on any kind of tour that doesn’t involve technical terrain. As soon as the snow, singletrack, rock gardens and other technical terrain hit, front panniers become a liability. A bunch of people have sought to address this with bar mounted bags. My first bar bag was supported by a set of Profile aero (aka triathlon) bars. The Aero bars supported the bag away from the cables and provided a bit of lift so I could easily stack the bags and strap them on. This was and is a huge step up from the classic system of strapping a dry bag to the bars. As time goes by, I have used several different systems, including, baskets, porteur racks, commercial harnesses and others. All of the systems work, but they also all offer varying levels of functionality at vastly differing weights.
The ideal bar system in my mind would allow the bag to be supported without affecting pogies or brake levers, and would be light and versatile. My MYOG versions have ranged from the aforementioned strap and aero bar systems, to the most recent which is 3D printed spacers and Voile ski straps. The next step is to integrate it with a bag harness so that a quick-access pouch could be added to the front.
There’s all kinds of inexpensive custom bikepacking gear on the market, so why would you make your own?
Bikepacking styles vary greatly, and making your own gear can allow you to customize to your particular style without paying for custom or small scale production. The small boutique brands are not out to rip you off, but need to charge more for higher quality and small-scale production.
By making your own gear, you can customize it to your style, your budget, and your size.
What bikepacking gear can you make?
Bikepacking requires few essentials. a sleep system, luggage, a cook system, and clothing. Through this series, I am going to share some of my experience with making some of each of these.
In a cook system, you can buy any of a number of sophisticated stoves, chose from a wide selection of cutlery, pots and pans. It would seem at a glance that DIY has no place here.
What if there was a stove that weighed in the single digits of grams, could be easily assembled at home, only cost $.10 and offered a chance to drink a delicious can of beer as part of the build process.
Yes, the beer can stove is by far the lightest, the most reliable, and the most home-made cooking gear that the average person can build.
I use the design from https://tomsbiketrip.com/how-to-turn-a-beer-can-into-the-only-camping-stove-youll-ever-need-video/ because it has consistently works really well for me, and it had the best fuel efficiency of the 6 types I tried. It has worked for me in temperatures below -30ºC right up to +30ºC. It is tricky to light below about -10ºC but as long as you have patience to wait for the side jets to warm up and light, it will boil water. I made one for some Czech backpackers who were using a cat can stove and they loved it and said it used about half as much fuel.
It sounds too good to be true!
There are disadvantages to beer can stoves. First, they are generally not as safe as a contained white gas or canister stove. There is substantially more opportunity to set a forest ablaze by accidentally tipping a stove or spilling fuel and igniting it accidentally. Some parks prohibit them as open fires.
Second, they are slow. Really slow. If you are on a casual tour, then you can just set your stove alight and go set up a tent or something, but if you are trying to fuel up on instant noodles at lunch time, then they are a substantial delay.
Third, some types of alcohol are quite toxic, and health can be affected if the fuel accidentally leaks onto clothing or cooking utensils. In Canada, the alcohol fuel that I find most often is methyl hydrate, and it is a substance with well known health ramifications – it is directly toxic, not just a long term potential hazard. The least toxic alcohols aren’t available in Canada since Canadians apparently cannot be trusted with 90%+ grain alcohol.
Last, beer can stoves are super fragile. Though it can be a good thing to have to bring an extra beer in order to build a new stove, those grams add up. I’ve heard suggestions about bringing stoves made from cat food cans, and they are more durable, though I prefer the beer can.
For me, the biggest limit on beer can stoves is that after about 3 days out as a family, the extra weight of the (less energy-dense) alcohol is greater than the weight of a white gas or canister stove. I also don’t like the burns I get when I use my hand to see if the stove is lit, this might not be a problem for other people.
What other cooking supplies can you make?
I was going to mention carving your own chopsticks as a home-made gear item, but realistically, they probably aren’t worth making unless you forgot your spoon or takeout restaurant chopsticks at home. That said, I have carved at least 6 spoons (only 1 for myself) on several bikepacking or hiking trips.