Kit review #2

After kit review #1 a few months ago, here’s the second in a series of blogs reviewing some of our best bits of equipment.

1. Hammock

Camping is the norm for touring cyclists around the world, but in Southeast Asia the combination of wet days, hot nights, rice fields covering lots of the flat land, and an abundance of cheap guest houses meant we decided against carrying the weight of a tent, 2 sleeping mats and 2 sleeping bags (probably 7kgs worth and a couple of panniers full). We imagined we’d be finding guesthoues each night, but we also wanted to be able to sleep independently if needed.

So we decided to carry a pair of hammocks (Ultralight Hammocks from Lifeventure). They weight about 600 grams each, pack down very small and can be strung up between two trees in seconds.

Hammocks are commonplace in this part of the world, and we saw them hung up outside most cafes and village homes as we cycled along. The locals seem to agree – there aren’t many better ways to spend a hot afternoon than swinging in a shady hammock!

Most of the local hammocks were of the string net variety, but ours were made from solid black fabric – vital to keep the mosiquitoes out (when combined with a mosi net) whilst sleeping out. They’re also surprisingly long (another advantage over local hammocks) – I’m way over 6 foot tall but still had plenty of room to spare at each end.

Overall, we found the hammocks really comfy and are glad we carried them through Southeast Asia. Although it was almost too tempting to stop cycling and have a sneaky rest break swinging under a tree (or a hut, as pictured below)!  Hammocks are so much smaller and lighter than the traditional tent & mat combination that people that like to travel ultralight really should consider taking one on their next trip.

2. Mosquito net

Mosiquitoes are an annoyance throughout most of Southeast Asia, and if they’re around then it’s guaranteed that at least one of the little buggers will find a way to eat you during the night. Cheap guesthouses rarely provided nets, so we strung our net up every night whilst in Southeast Asia, and now class them as essential kit for this part of the world.

We have one each, in case we’re in our hammocks or a guesthouse gives us two single beds, but one of them can stretch to cover a double bed if needed (Lifesystems BoxNet). The four hanging cords means it’s nice and roomy inside, and although we’ve had to be inventive, we’ve always been able to tie it up.

The other net (Lifesystems UltraNet) is lighter, smaller and simpler, with only one hanging cord. It goes up much quicker, but there’s much less room to manoeuvre inside – fine if you’re travelling light by yourself, but two people won’t fit.

3. Saddle

We both have Brookes B17 saddles, a common choice amongst long-distance cyclists. Everyone who sees our bikes slaps the firm leather surface, wonders why we don’t have a massive soft seat and asks if we’re mad. The theory is that the wide leather part supports your sit bones, thereby keeping weight off other more delicate areas.

The theory seems to work, as we both find them comfortable – I don’t even wear padded shorts and my rear end has been fine all trip. However, Bex has some problems from time to time with the edges of the saddle rubbing as she pedals, causing some chaffing. We think the overall shape of the saddle perhaps doesn’t quite match her bum – everyone’s a different shape, so saddle choice is a very personal thing. Definitely something to test out before you leave on a big trip!

As an aside, leather stretches when wet (clearly bad news for a saddle), so put a cheap plastic seat cover (or shopping bag) over the saddle when it rains.

4. Buffs

Basically a thin cotton tube that fits over your head, Buffs are great as a warm hat/face mask/bandana/neck warmer/balaclava/sweat band etc etc, depending on how you wear it. Back in the Central Asian winter we wore a couple balaclava-style to keep the ice out, but now we’re in hotter climates they’re good when dunked in water and left to drip down our necks as we cycle in the midday sun along with the mad dogs.

5. Silk sleeping bag liner

If you cycle all day and then dive straight into your sleeping bag, they can quicky get dirty and washing sleeping bags whilst on the road can be hard. Using a silk liner inside your bag to collect the dirt is a good idea as these can be washed much more easily. They also add a few degrees of warmth, so are useful when it’s cold. In hot countries they can be warm enough on their own, or if there are a few too many suspicious stains on the sheets in a budget guesthouse. A useful bit of kit at only 130 grams.

Next time in the 3rd and final instalment: tents, tyres and a few other bits

Kit review #1

After 11 months and 10,000 miles of cycling it’s time for the first in a short series of blogs reviewing some of our top bits of equipment. If you don’t care what we’re carting around with us, then I’m afraid it’s probably best to skip this blog! Here are 5 bits of kit that we wouldn’t leave home without if we were planning another big bike trip:

1. Bike

There are loads of options when deciding what to ride, ranging from converting an old steel framed mountain bike on the cheap right up to top-of-the-range expedition bikes costing thousands of pounds. The choice depends on the type of tour, and fatness of wallet.

As ours is a long ride across multiple continents we decided strength and reliability were more important than speed, and so we prioritised steel frames, steel racks and well-built 26 inch wheels. (Compared with alternative sizes, 26 inch wheels are stronger and more common outside of Europe & America, making repairs and finding spare tyres etc much easier. When we’ve met other cyclists on the road, broken 28 inch wheels have been the most common tale of woe by far).

Our bikes (VSF Fahrrad Manufaktur T400) have been great so far. I weigh 90kg and have carried up to 40kg of kit, food & water in remote areas, but my frame has stayed strong and the wheels still spin perfectly true. Fingers crossed this remains the case all the way to New Zealand!

2. Panniers

We both use Ortlieb waterproof panniers (two front rollers, two back rollers, a bar bag and a rack pack) and they are ace – simply designed, quick to use and 100% waterproof. After a long day of cycling in the rain, the knowledge that your possessions are safe and dry is priceless. Well worth the money.

We both started off with the full set of six bags listed above when we had to carry winter clothes, camping gear and occasionally lots of food and water. Now that we’re in SE Asia we barely need any clothes and have hammocks instead of camping kit, so we only need two back panniers and a bar bag. It feels much nicer travelling lighter – both from a cycling and simplicity perspective.

3. Camera

We started the trip with a small point-and-shoot camera (Panasonic Lumix) which takes reasonable photos and video, but best of all is very small and light. When we emerged from the Central Asian winter we swapped thick sleeping bags and down jackets for a second-hand DSLR camera (Canon 350D). It’s bigger and heavier, but takes better photos.

If I could wind back time I would carry a DSLR from the start, and probably take a photography course before leaving. A few lessons and a decent camera could make a real difference to the photo album we’re looking forward to making when we get home.

As back-up, we upload our photos to Flickr, and also keep a copy on SD memory cards that are stashed in my money belt (which never leaves my sight). For this reason I think a few 16GB SD cards are better than a bulkier portable hard drive, as theft is less likely.

4. Down jacket

Whilst cycling through winter, we always looked forward to zipping ourselves into our down jackets (Montane North Star) at the end of every day – it feels like wearing a nice warm down duvet! It has to be seriously cold to warrant wearing them whilst actually cycling, but whenever off the bike these were invaluable. They also make great pillows if you don’t need to wear them inside your sleeping bag. Hoods are essential for maximum warmth.

5. Cooker

We carry a stove to cook with when we’re camping, or when we’re in an expensive country. The MSR Whisperlite International runs on pretty much any fuel, but we use petrol as it’s very cheap and available everywhere. Ours has worked perfectly and boils a large pan of water nice and quickly. The downsides are:

  • the fuel bottle needs to be pressurised and stove primed every use (a two minute job, but a faff compared to gas canistor stoves that need no preparation)
  • using petrol makes the stove dirty and smelly
  • there’s only one choice of cooking temperature, officially known as “hotter than the sun”. Good for boiling pasta in sub zero temperatures, but a bit annoying when you have to hold the pan above the flame to simmer the pan. I’m no Ainsley Harriott so I’m not too bothered, although there is another similar model by MSR that has a simmer function.

In our view, the downsides are outweighed by the brilliant ease of refilling our fuel bottle. Finding any other kind of fuel would require a lot more effort than simply stopping at the next petrol station and as I’m pretty lazy, this makes our stove a winner.

The medium fuel bottle fits in a normal bike bottle cage but the large 1 litre fuel bottle does not. We found this  adjustable cage from Topeak which holds the large bottle perfectly.

Next time: 5 pieces of summer kit!