MAY bank holiday. Weather forecast was good so ideal for a little run-out to test drive the bike with all the camping gear I’ll be taking to France next week for our La Manche to the Med tip.
Last year on our LEJOG trip Hamish and I stayed in B&B’s. It worked well. The B&B’s were invariably excellent, we ate out every night and we didn’t have to carry much gear. How much does a credit card weigh? But for the French trip we thought we’d camp most of the time, and perhaps stay in a gite or something similar every third night or so to charge up batteries, take a shower etc. I don’t know about Hamish but I enjoy camping and even after 40-odd years backpacking I still get a kick out of putting the tent up and crawling in to cook a meal and falling asleep to the sound of birdsong. Other than that I’ve just been voted in for another term as President of the Backpackers Club and since the club caters for bikepackers as well as backpackers it’s only right that I should camp on any trip like like.
But bikepacking isn’t quite like backpacking. Over the past few years I’ve managed to pare the weight of my backpacking gear down to very acceptable standard. On normal weekend trip the base pack weight of my gear – that’s everything other than food and water, is in the region of 7-8 lbs/3-4kg but when bikepacking there’s a temptation to carry more gear in the false hope that it’s the bike that’s carrying the weight, and not me. It’s easy to conveniently forget the fact that no matter how good the bike is my feeble, ageing body is the engine that propels it!
That’s not helped by the fact that the makers of bike touring panniers appear to have been bypassed by the ultralight fashion that has taken the outdoor industry by storm. My two Ortlieb Bike Packer Classic rear panniers weigh 2.08kg, and that’s each. Almost 9 pounds before I put any gear into them! And that’s before I consider the weight of my front panniers which are another 1.4kg each. If someone was to suggest I use a backpack that weighs 9 lbs empty I’d laugh in his face.
Now, to be fair, I haven’t carried out an exhaustive search to see if there are lighter panniers on the market. I suspect there are, although my old Karrimor panniers are just as heavy as the Ortliebs, so what I have to do now is make sure I’m not tempted into carrying too much of everything else. In that mode, I’ve carefully chosen my camping gear for a balance between weight and practicality and that’s what I wanted to discover on my little shakedown trip over the May Bank holiday.
May Bank holiday. Huh. You’d expect decent weather wouldn’t you? After all it’s been a long cold winter and the spring has been non-existent. You’d the think the weather gods would feel sorry for us and give us some sunshine over the holiday weekend. Well the gods that look after Badenoch and Strathspey must have a mean streak because it’s been lousy. No sooner than I had set my wheels in motion that the rain started. Not just a little spring shower but that wet, drizzly stuff that soaks you through, especially when it’s propelled by what feels like a gale force wind.
Of course the wind was in my face. Usually is, and by the time I had gone 10 miles I felt as though I was soaked through. I’ve been using a Montane Velocity jacket, made from Pertex Shield, and to date it’s worked beautifully but today I felt damp and chilled inside it. I was wearing a pair of Altura full length trousers (I think they’re made for mountain biking) as I’ve been searching for decent cycling leg wear other than lycra, but they were soaked through in no time at all and my gloves felt squishy and slippery on the handlebars. It wasn’t a day for cycling.
Fortunately I wasn’t going far. About 20 miles up to Melgarve at the start of the Corrieyairack Pass. When I arrived there were about 50 red deer stags milling around, looking as wet and miserable as me. A band of trees gave me some shelter from the wind and a bit of a view and I had the tent up in minutes, my new MSR Carbon Reflex1. I had been a little worried because this is an inner erecting first tent and I was scared it would get soaked through before I got the flysheet over it but I guess the experience I have from my old MSR Hubba helped. The inner stayed dry.
My new NeoAir Xlite was blown up pretty quickly and the accompanying Thermrest Antares sleeping bag was unstuffed for its stuff sack. Although I won’t be taking it to France I was using my beloved titanium Caldera Cone meths stove and in no time at all I have water boiling for a brew.
Despite the patter of rain I had a good night and everything worked as it should. I suspect the Antares sleeping bag might be a bit on the warm side and I found it to be slightly voluminous and a bit bulky when packed. Might need a re-think on the sleeping bag. The problem is my other lightweight bag, a Rab Neutrino 200, only has a half length zipper and if the nights are warm in France I think I’d prefer something that allowed me to unzip the whole thing and use it as a quilt. I wish I knew what the weather was going to be like over the next few weeks!
I think we’ll be cooking by gas so I’ll take my Whisperlite gas stove. It’s not the lightest on the market but I do prefer a ground hugging stove as opposed to something you screw into a cartridge and then have to balance a pot on. A titanium MSR Kettle, a couple of water bladders and my usual knife/fork/spoon will complete the kitchen. Not to forget my 35 years old Sierra Cup which doubles as a plate and whisky sipper!
As regards clothing them simplicity will be the key. Although it looks silly on me I can’t find a practical alternative to lycra cycling shorts. I’ve tried some Altura padded boxer shorts to wear under ordinary shorts but they are not as comfortable as regular cycling shorts. I might take one pair of bib tights in case it’s chilly and I have a very nice Scotland/Lion Rampant cycling jersey from Impsport to wear. I’ve been told that if the French think I’m from Scotland and not England then the positive feelings from the Auld Alliance will kick in – it’s worth a try!
As well as my Shimano touring shoes I’ll take a pair of sandals for evening wear, or perhaps even a pair of Crocs. Although they do look hellish and are not particularly comfortable they are extremely lightweight. Evening dress will be further enhanced by a pair of Rab trousers, a couple of tee shirts and a lightweight Mammut soft-shell.
I’ve no ideal what the final weight will be but I’ll also need to carry my bigstrawberry8 juicer (to recharge iPhone, camera battery etc), and my iPad so I can write up my daily blog. I’ll also take my little Leica d-Lux6 compact camera, a little camera with an amazing lens quality. A couple of water bottles and that, as they say, will be that!
If anyone has a good alternative to lycra pants please let me know…