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Heat Exchanger Masks – a Love Story

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.

from top right: Airtrim, Polar Wrap, Psolar, Ergodyne 6970, and Lungplus with a modified face mask. (5 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.

Lungplus

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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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

Polar Wrap

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.

Psolar

This device is great, if they still made them, I’d have bought more.

pros

  • 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

cons

  • 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

Cold Avenger

This unit is a little more sophisticated than a long hood on a parka, but not much.

Pros

  • Simple, never clogs
  • keeps the mouth and nose clear so skin stays un-chapped.

cons

  • no real heat exchange, only a pocket of exhaled breath at the mouth
  • some (Tadhg) find it restricts breathing
Cold Avanger on a cold day.

Ergodyne 6970

I bought this one based on a review from a friend with more cold weather experience than me (yes, those people exist).

pros

  • Very effective heat exchanger
  • good airflow for high-output activity
  • keeps wet parts off the face
  • the “Darth Vader” look
  • great balaclava

con

  • does eventually get somewhat wet
  • the “Darth Vader” look
  • the great balaclava is a bit tight on my enormous head

AirTrim

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.

pros

  • Warm
  • 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

cons

  • 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. 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.

Yes, that thermometer reading below its -30ºC lower limit.

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.

Disclosure

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.

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Redemption

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.

 

 

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MYOG Part Deux: Luggage.

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.

 

 

 

 

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MYOG Prologue and Cooking Gear

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.

Cook system

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.
But Wait…

(pause dramatically)

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.

 

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MYOG part 3: You Can Make Pogies (or Buy Them)

Prologue:

Pogies are giant mittens that go on the handlebars of bikes to allow the user to wear light gloves but still work the controls and not freeze their hands. They are a not necessity for winter cycling but they sure are a great way to keep hands warm. If you know how to sew, you can make pogies and have toasty warm hands on your bike this winter.

For those who don’t ride their bikes in the cold, pogies might not make sense, but they are probably the single most important piece of equipment for making me comfortable on the bike in the winter. It is entirely possible to ride a bike in mittens, but brakes and shifters wear out mittens at a very quick rate. I would not go bikepacking in winter without them.

For anyone who doesn’t care about making their own, or hearing my philosophy on making pogies, go ahead and scroll to the bottom or click this link to just buy some.

 

 

How I started making them.

My second bikepacking specific item I ever made was a pair of pogies. At the time, there were few options in pogies commercially available, and I wanted some specific qualities. First I wanted them warm enough to keep my hands from freezing. Second, I wanted them to be roomy enough the I could fit some snacks thawed in them, third, I wanted them to serve extra duty as emergency booties. What I missed out on was the part where they would be better if they stayed better attached on the bars. Though they worked well enough, the outer edges would rotate outward unless I left the zip ties that I designed to hold the corner tethers in place. Unfortunately, the zip ties would rub on my hands causing serious wounds after a few hours.

The first pogies I ever made, filling with snow.
My ITI bike from 2002 – scanned from disposable camera film.

How do you make them stay on the bars?

There are a bunch of commercial solutions to the problem of securing pogies to the ends of handlebars. A very popular method is a velcro strap and tether. It works, but does not really address the issue that I had of my city-boy hands rubbing on the strap. It also does not do an ideal job of securing the pogies. My favourite way to secure pogies is a bar plug that clamps the pogie to the end of the handlebar. Conveniently, Tadhg took up 3D design and printing just as I was trying to work out how to modify some off-the-shelf bar plugs to work with pogies. He has refined the design enough now that a pair of his clamps comes with all the pogies I sell. One of the big advantages of home-made gear is that you can modify it easily, or at least easilyish, if it doesn’t do what you want.

My pogies have changed over time

I modified that first pair of pogies several times, and I still have them, they now use a plug in the end of the bar to keep the pogies on. The number one issue I have had with them is that they can fill up with snow if I leave them on the bike without rotating them downward. They were, however designed to be used as booties when they are off the bike. I have not made any more pogies that fill with snow.

As time goes by, my preferences change, and many things that I liked about the first set of pogies were not what I ultimately wanted, and so I have tried several other styles over the years.

Upcycled Children’s Jackets as Pogies.

I have made many pairs of pogies from children’s size 12 to 14 jackets where I simply hem the cuffs, turn them inside out, sew each side of the zipper to the back of the jacket, cut them in half, and voila, a pair of pogies. They are warm reasonably light, and aren’t too expensive to make. They are not the most attractive pogies, but they are simple, warm, and are reasonably light. I still have several pairs of these in my collection (how many people have enough winter cyclists and winter bikes in their family for a pogie collection?) and they are great for around town and even for longer trips. Several of my pairs of this style don’t have mounting holes in the sides, so they are quicker to install and remove than the newer style that I make.

They are a great first MYOG project, and I can definitely endorse finding a relatively simple style of kids jacket in roughly a size (US age sizing) 14 and making it into pogies.

Pogies from Scratch

When I first started selling pogies, I made them by upcycling children’s jackets with faulty zippers. These eventually became harder to source in sufficient quantities, and I eventually decided to make my own design of pogies from scratch.

My experience had shown me by then that I wanted several things in pogies. First was simplicity. I have made pogies with complicated vent systems, food thawing pockets (it is exceedingly difficult to eat things that are frozen to -30ºC), storm cuffs, and a number of other “features”, but I gravitate toward simple styles.

 

My preferred style for the last few years has been a simple shape with roomy hand area, longer arms (to keep the blood warm on the way to your hands) and enough stiffness to help me get my hands in but not so much that they face upward and get filled with snow in a storm. They are fleece lined, which is comfortable and reasonably warm, they are large enough to fit a couple of snacks in the bottom for thawed food.

 

I Sell Pogies

I encourage people to make their own pogies, but people have lives. Not everyone wants to make their own, and not everyone likes sewing as much as I do. Some sewing machines won’t punch through the materials well enough to make pogies. For this reason, I sell my own pogies on this blog. Feel free to buy some, also feel free to ask me questions about building your own.

Since I am not only a winter bikepacking nerd, but also a dad, I of course make the pogies in smaller sizes for kids (or anyone with smaller hands).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MYOG Part 4: Sleep System

[Editor's note, I know this is technically the first published, but I wrote it as the 4th in the series. Read them in any order and  they should still make sense. Also, I get asked a lot of questions about my tarp.]

MYOG Sleep Systems, introduction

Canada can get cold. The Canadian Rockies can get even colder. I like to sleep comfortably and warm, but I’m lazy and I don’t like to carry a lot of weight. My current system of a tarp and quilt is what I consider a great compromise between weight and warmth.
When I started out, I used a commercial down sleeping bag, and a backpacking tent. These can be great, and modern tents have come a long way in the last decade. 10 years ago, 5 pounds was considered light for a 2-person tent. Now, I have a commercial 4-person tent that weighs 3 pounds with a pole and mosquito net insert. Weight is no longer really the savings when making your own gear.

Most of my backcountry trips seem to involve rain or snow (except if I bring my friend Jeremy, who also does not mind adverse weather). A few years back, I did some experimentation to see what would happen to my sleeping bag after a few days of sleeping out. I was surprised to find that my sleeping bag took on several hundred grams of moisture the first night of sleeping in a tent. Even with draping my bag out in the sun to dry, by the third night I was sleeping in a less effective, and heavier system.

But Why a Tarp?

This is part of how I came to be sleeping under a tarp. Sleeping outside greatly reduced the amount of condensation in my sleeping bag, but if it rained, the rain would get in. My bivy sack had the same problem as the tent. The tarp would keep the rain off me, but trapped far less condensation in my bag than the tent. I used a commercial rectangular tarp for a few years, but found it was hard to pitch so that it consistently kept out the rain. In other words, I wanted a custom tarp. The other half of the tarp origin story is that we “allowed” Fiona to sleep out under a tarp with me one night and she awoke in the morning and said, “I only sleep under tarps now, no more tents.”

Tarp Design

There are about 7 million tarp designs available on the internet, and I took ideas from a few of them. I wanted it to shed wind and water better than a rectangular tarp, so I made it with a catenary cut ridge line and front. I also wanted not to adjust in the middle of the night, so I chose silpoly as the material for minimal stretching. I also wanted light weight but enough durability to hold up in a substantial wind.


The holy grail of bikepacking tarps is one where your bike fits inside, or can be used to support the tarp. I also hike and ski, so though I think bike-supported are extremely cool, I opted to use bike supports only for treeless bikepacking situations and use hiking/ski poles as primary supports where trees are not available. The tarp weighs in at 300g, so it ended up being on the lighter end of the shelter scale.

The silpoly does not stretch in the rain and doesn’t need to be re-tensioned when it rains. I do not recommend it as an easy fabric to sew, it is like sewing live squirrels to each other.

Quilt design

Not Exactly a Bed Quilt

Since I’m foolish enough to think that winter is the primary bikepacking season, I wanted to have some versatility to my sleeping bag system. I wanted lighter weight in summer, I wanted synthetic material for the outer since down performs so poorly in wet conditions. I wanted light weight since my daughter would be carrying one.
In the 80s, I used a dual bag system of a sleeping bag with an overbag. I really liked it, but I had also been interested in quilts as an alternative to sleeping bags. I talked up the concept of a down bag with a synthetic quilt over it for cold, with the quilt on its own for more moderate temperatures (well, moderate for the Canadian rockies). Camping quilts are not exactly like a bed quilt, they are usually shaped in some way, and many (like mine) have a footbox like a mummy bag and a drawstring closure at the top.

Testing the new quilt

The home made portion of the combo ended up as the quilt – down sleeping bags are relatively available, and affordable. I used Climashield Apex as my insulation layer and the lightest nylon I could find, Membrane from RSBTR. The sleeping quilts have simple ribbon loops to attach them to a sleeping mat, so they can tuck under the sleeper at the sides, and they work well down to about -10ºC.

The quilts being about 800g each puts them as competitive weight wise with the commercial versions, but they were about half the price to make as the commercial equivalent. In winter, adding a -10ºC sleeping bag yields a combination that is comfortable below -30ºC, theoretically to -40ºC, but we have not been out that cold since I made them.

No Hood, No Problem

A big problem for me with traditional mummy bags has been that the hood can end up in the wrong spot when i roll over, and then the hood fabric gets wet from breath condensation. With the quilt, this doesn’t happen since the quilt lacks a hood. To deal with the lack of hood, I made sleeping hats from the same material as the quilts themselves. the hat acts like a hood, but turns with the sleeper allowing them to not get wet from breath.

 

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Castle Wilderness – New to Us Route

I tried to talk Tadhg into bikepacking the Alberta Rockies 700 but he thought that sounded like a 2 week rather than 2 day ride. So, in the tradition of compromise, I scaled back. I may have to do it solo next year. I did want to do a new and hopefully a bit challenging bikepacking route. After communicating with an Instagram Friend, I was inspired to try a route in the Castle Wilderness area. There are several mentioned in Doug Eastcott’s Backcountry Biking in the Canadian Rockies. It is an older book, so some of the routes may have become impassable from floods, avalanches, landslides, and fires.

The plan was to take a route from Castle Mountain Resort to Sage Creek recreation area in BC. The first night we’d random camp somewhere on the Alberta side, and the second night at Sage Creek. I plotted out a route on my GPS and we had a plan.

We had previous plans to go watch the Stampede Parade. So, we did, as usual bringing our stepladder in the cargo bike so we could avoid the hassle of showing up early to get a good spot. We just saunter up and set up the ladder behind the crowd. We have a great view of the show and we can sleep in as well.

After a run to get groceries, we headed off in the van (yes, I did suggest riding there) at around 3:45pm. Since it is over a 3 hour drive to the trailhead, we weren’t riding until 7:30.

I started us off on the right foot by misinterpreting the route I had planned and staying on the wrong side of the river. The trail on that side was much more hilly than I expected. Eventually, it ran out entirely in a maze of game trails, forest, and river. I checked the GPS, and when zoomed in, realized we needed to be on the other side of the river. Rather than backtrack, we forded the river, technically, I forded the river, and I carried Tadhg on my back so he could keep his shoes dry (I wore water sandals). After a hundred meters of bushwacking, we came to a quad trail (a handy thing about quads is that they create a lot of braided trails that you can use to get back to the main trail) and we followed the network of progressively larger quad tracks until we got back to the main trail. The real trail was a hard-packed gravel road and we made good progress to the start of the climb. The climb quickly got steeper, but mostly it got more rutted and rocky. My goal was to make it to the gate about 1.5 km from the top of the pass where there was an unserviced camp spot. We made it before dark fell, set up camp and had a great night’s sleep.

There were a couple of creek crossings to negotiate while climbing the pass, but since I had anticipated having to ford the Castle River, I wasn’t too put out. Again I ferried Tadhg across on my back since I didn’t want him to have to take off his shoes. The non-water parts of the climb were mostly loose, steep, washed-out, and rocky, so we pushed most of the way. I expected this, since this route had been a road designed for motor vehicles and so it was no surprise to find it was steep and rutted.

The view from the top though, was stunning, other than a few unsightly (illegal, rogue) quad trails braiding the pass, the view was quite spectacular. The wind was also quite spectacular. Like many mountain passes, the wind funneled up one side and was ferocious in the pass proper. The frame bag on my bike was catching enough wind to cause the bike to weathervane around the front wheel as I pushed.

The descent was, of course more fun. The highlight was a series of pump-track style bumps near the top. I amn’t sure if they were original, or from or to stop vehicles, but they were fun on the bikes (watch out for the fallen trees!). The next section featured dense bushes that were crisscrossing the trail at about face height. We had to go slowly, or risk not seeing obstacles. One tree leaning across the trail snagged my backpack and almost removed me from my bike. The bushy section was occasionally interrupted by sections of avalanche debris. As we got lower down, the debris from the previous years had been cleared, or a path cut around it, so it was easy to negotiate, even if it wasn’t all rideable.

Our brakes were given some respite as the valley leveled out somewhat. The riding continues to be fun and occasionally interrupted by more debris.

Part of decommissioning a logging road is to remove the drainage pipes and leave the ditch in place as a water bar. These make fun little jumps if you can manage to take them at speed. As we neared the end of the “trail” section toward the logging road we met some folks from BC Fish and Wildlife who were studying wolves in the backcountry. They told me they had seen at least 14 distinct grizzlies on a single wildlife camera. Given the number of berry bushes, I was not surprised, but rather glad that I had arrived out of season for the berries as well as singing heavy metal and punk rock songs on the way down.

There were a couple more creek crossings (shallow enough for pickup trucks) and then we had a section of smooth logging road to our goal, Sage Creek Recreation Area. This flat creekside campground was nothing super special, but it did have an outhouse and picnic tables, and it was clean. We met some folks out on a forest road drive in a quad and a jeep, and they offered me beer from their seemingly infinite supply. I was glad for their hospitality, even if they didn’t seem to understand that I really wanted to eat all of the food I had brought so I wouldn’t have to carry it back over the pass.

As we were getting to sleep around 10, Tadhg started pestering me about how we would make it back over the  pass the following day. I really wasn’t that concerned, and I probably should have spent more time calming him down before going to sleep.

Getting a teenager up at 8:30 AM is not easy, and of course, since this one had been worrying all night about the pass, he didn’t get the great sleep I did, and he felt sick. This translated to possibly the slowest riding I’ve ever witnessed, with me riding ahead at just fast enough to balance my bike, waiting, and him catching up at practically trackstand speed. I soon decided that taking the other, possibly harder, route back would be a mistake.

Since we were going so slowly, had the chance to observe more around me, so I took more pictures of roadkill than I usually would.

In spite of Tadhg’s lack of energy, we eventually made it back to the top of the pass. Though the downhill on the far side was not always rideable, it was at least downhill. Once we hit the bottom of the hill, Tadhg’s energy returned and he found himself able to keep up with my fastest pedaling.

In hindsight, I would probably chose to climb the pass and then proceed to one of the lakes near the top of the pass to camp. Another good possibility would be to attach this to another route such as heading through Cabin Pass and the Wigwam Valley to Fernie. Either way, I’m glad to have seen it and I’ll definitely be back to see more of the Castle area.

For those that are into these things, I posted my ride track on Ride With GPS.

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Mud, Sweat, and Tears: Family Bikepacking in Marginal Conditions

Jeremy loves to take his family on bikepacking weekends. That’s mostly because he loves his family, but also because he loves riding bikes and sleeping outside. He was kind enough to invite me on a weekend ride to celebrate his birthday and to have fun with the kids.

For bikepacking with kids, it is very helpful to have a bunch of trail characteristics. First, things are much easier if there is no motorized traffic on the trails. Second, a place to sleep with only a short distance to ride. Third, a fairly short drive to get to the trailhead. For us, that leaves essentially 4 trails available for weekend riding. Since 2 of them were closed and the third was booked up, our choice was made for us.

Cascade Fire Road is an old fire road, now a trail. Of our options, it is the least technical, and sees the most equestrian use. It has 2 campgrounds that can be reached by bike. We booked our sites, and watched the weather forecast go from cloudy to showers to rain. As the forecast grew worse, the number of people coming with us dwindled. By Friday, it was Fiona, our friend Carla, and me for Friday night, with Jeremy and Cadence joining us for the Saturday night.

The car ride out to Banff park was fairly constant rain, but by the time we pulled into the parking lot, the rain had let up a little, and as we started riding, it stopped raining entirely. About 3 minutes after we had set up our tarp. Conveniently, someone had stacked some firewood at the eating area, and though it was raining fairly steadily, we managed to get a fire going to roast our Burritos (well, alternately roast 1 side while the other got soggy). We didn’t hang out long after dinner, it was late and raining, and we were ready for bed.

Since Carla hadn’t been bikepacking before, I lent her some stuff, including a hammock, bags for the bike, and a bike. While the hammock wasn’t ideal for her, lending her Tadhg’s fatbike was a great idea since the trail was ridiculously muddy. It didn’t take much pushing downhill for Fiona to wish that she had brought her own fatbike. Carla was also glad that she spent the last few winters riding bikes so she was a bit more familiar than most with slippery surfaces.

Last fall, I started using a new tarp that I sewed up myself. I used a caternary cut to try to have a shape that would hold up better in wind as well as shed rain with less pooling. I used Silpoly instead of Silnylon to avoid having to re-tension the lines in rain. This was its first major rain test, and it rained steadily  and sometimes heavily nearly all night. I am happy to say that we were dry in the morning, though the rain was not as wind-driven as it sometimes is. The second night I pitched the tarp lower to shelter us more from the wind. Although it worked very well at wind blocking, we did get a little more condensation, which is typical in any shelter with minimal airflow.

Fiona had some minor clothing issues, her “magic” raincoat, that we had purchased a couple of years ago for a trip that seemed likely to be ridiculously rainy, had lost its magic, and its waterproof quality so that her down puffy jacket underneath got quite damp. The following day she used her SOL Emergency Poncho as her rain layer. The poncho provided excellent protection, especially since the adult size reached nearly to her ankles. I had my MEC cycling rain cape. The MEC cape was a nearly perfect cycling rain garment and surprisingly affordable, so of course it was discontinued a year after its release – I will miss it terribly when mine finally wears out. As my warm layer, I had my new favourite jacket, the Men’s Essential Jacket from Spirit West. I cannot say enough good things about this jacket, it is warm, still warm in the wet, and is 260g of ridiculously light. I can’t imagine that it will be very abrasion resistant, so I have no plans to wear it when trees are whipping at my arms. Disclaimer: I paid full price, I am not affiliated with them, though I won’t turn down a discount on the rest of the family’s jackets, there are no arrangements or expectations of such, I just love the jacket.

Jeremy did arrive with his daughter Cadence on Saturday afternoon. I had no concern that he would arrive since he is so consistent with his lack of concern about rain. Cadence had been a real trooper and had ridden most of the way in spite of her skinny 20″ tires and the slippery mud. The whole time he was riding in, he was thinking of how glad his wife was that she had stayed home, not because of the rain, but because of the deep mud that would probably have prevented her from getting her cargo bike and 2-year-old in to the campsite.

The rain had mostly cleared by the time Jeremy arrived, but made further appearances during the evening to prevent our drying of clothes. It wasn’t a big problem, it simply forced us to put our rain gear on. As we sat around for the evening and Fiona and Cadence played, several Elk walked by just the other side of the river and then forded the river just upstream from us.

Morning dawned sunny. Though I woke up early, I managed to get myself back to sleep to let the grass and shrubs dry out a bit before getting up. By the time Fiona and I got up, Jeremy had eaten breakfast already. Friends don’t let friends drink bad coffee, so I had promised Carla some Aeropress as an alternative to her having to choke down the foul-tasting liquid known as instant coffee. Jeremy takes care of his own coffee needs with a pour-over filter and premium coffee – he is one of the few friends of mine who have more sophisticated home coffee setups than me.

While packing up camp, we were treated to a bear walking by. It was the best kind of bear encounter, with the bear completely unconcerned with us. It’s always encouraging to see wild animals that don’t think people are a source of food. Of course I had my bear spray in hand with the safety off, but my camera was already on my bike. Jeremy was more prepared.

In spite of the dry morning, the trail remained quite muddy. There was a great deal of pushing bikes through mud on our way out, but there was more downhill than up, so progress was made.

The last 4km are an enjoyable smooth downhill. We had to encourage the kids to keep in control, especially Cadence with her small wheels that are much easier to knock off track than the adults’ big wheels. In spite of Jeremy’s encouragement to use lots of brakes, Cadence did catch the edge of a rut and went down hard. She didn’t cry for long, and she got herself back up, so I thought she was just bruised. Jeremy carried her and her bike in his cargo bike the remaining 100m of trail and bit of road. She did complain about her arm being very sore, and Jeremy was thinking there could be a fracture. In fact, when they got home, they made a trip to the hospital and she had in fact fractured both bones and is now wearing a cast. She is definitely a tough girl!