Gear Reviews from a Month on the Road

In my last blog post, I talked about Lynn and my month-long road trip camping, mountain biking and exploring Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

With a month on the road, more than a dozen campsites, a bunch of bike rides and almost 3,000 miles on the road linking it all up, I think I can safely say we put our gear through the ringer. Some of it we’d been using on past #toasterroadtrips, while other items were wedding presents from generous friends and family members. Here are some of the highlights:

Big Agnes Tensleep Station 4 Tent:
At 5’11” and 6’3″ respectively, Lynn and I were ready for an upgrade from our little two-person backpacking tent. After a month of camping in it – I’m happy to give this one a glowing review. Tall enough to nearly stand up in (huge for getting dressed), long and wide enough that we can sleep pointed in any direction inside the tent depending on slope, and with plenty of pockets – it gave us all the room and comfort we wanted. Add on a huge vestibule for storing wet gear in the case of wet whether, an easy setup and tons of guylines to stabilize the tall structure, and I can’t think of a single complaint.

Nemo Cosmo Insulated Sleeping Pads:
So. Freakin’. Comfy. I’ve had a Nemo Astro sleeping pad for a while, so I was already familiar with the comfort of their thick, horizontally baffled design, but add on the extra width and length, plus the convenience of a built-in foot pump, and I can say I consistently slept better camping than I do on an average night at home. My only nitpick is the built-in pump makes re-packing tricky, but we got the hang of it pretty quickly, and Nemo doesn’t hose you with a stuff sack too small to ever use again.

Goal Zero Yeti 150 and Nomad 20 battery and solar panel:
I’d like to say we unplugged, forgot electronics, and harmonized with nature, but electronics – especially on a month-long trip, are pretty key. Keeping our phones and cameras charged has been an ongoing challenge in past trips – but with this solar setup it was a breeze. Both Lynn and my iPhones have pretty crummy batteries, but we never went without power thanks to this super useful setup. We charged both with solar at campsites and 12 volt off my car on longer drives, and the Yeti never dipped below 40 percent.

Yeti Tundra 35 Cooler:
We’ve had this for a while now, and while it is better insulated than an average cooler (by a long shot), it isn’t made of magic, and has a learning curve for packing and accessing to keep its cool. Those thick walls also mean a small interior volume compared to the amount of space it takes up in the car. Still, we never had any food spoil from getting too warm, so it did its job.

Yakima Rocketbox Pro 11:
It was clear that the toaster – my Honda Element, needed a little help in the storage department for such a long trip. Lynn and I combined our REI dividends to pull this one off, and were pleasantly surprised how little it effected gas mileage and wind noise. We did, however, discover that it isn’t waterproof. Pools of water formed inside after driving through rainstorms, meaning we had to store any gear inside the box in plastic bags for a little extra insurance.

Packtowl Robetowels:
As seekers of swimming holes and hot springs, and generally in no position to turn our noses up at campground showers, Lynn and I have been a fan of the light, absorbent and quick-drying Packtowl. The robe version makes deck changes in and out of bike clothes at trail heads easier, and walking to and from hot springs, showers etc more comfortable. The only small downside with the really absorbent fabric is it tends to stick to wet skin, making putting the robe on when wet a little tricky.

Sea to Summit Collapsible … everything:
This was a popular wedding gift for us – collapsible cups, bowls, even a metal-bottomed pot you can put on the stove. Accordion silicon sides not only let these pack down tiny, but made them easy to clean, mildly insulating (compared to our normal stainless steel cups). Our number of visits to local breweries rivaled our number of campgrounds or mountain bike trails, so the cups in particular got a lot of mileage after we filled our growler and headed back to camp.



Transition Patrol Demo Review + Galbraith Ride

Transition Bikes have been on Lynn’s and my radar for a while now, not only because they’re from her neck of the woods, but because we’ve seen a lot of solid reviews and get a vibe from the company that we both appreciate – fun first.

With a trip up to Bellingham, Washington planned, Lynn called ahead to see if we could demo some bikes – for her, to find out if the Transition Smuggler was what she wanted in a 29er trail bike (we rode the Trek Remedy and Trek Fuel a while back), and for me to ride whatever awesome bike I felt like, in this case the Transition Patrol.

We walked into their unassuming warehouse on a drizzly Friday afternoon, got our pedals on, suspension dialed in and seats adjusted, then handed them $20 each that goes entirely to local trails.

That was a $20 well spent, it turns out, as Galbraith, a dense and extensive network of Bellingham trails, was awesome.

We went full enduro with clear-lensed Smith Squad MTB goggles (more on those down the road) and pedaled up the trail. This was my first time on a really slack (65 degree head angle) enduro-y bike with a super short stem and 800 mm bar, and I was curious if the archetype lived up to the hype, or if they were wasted on all but the most extreme terrain.

While I can’t speak for the whole 6-inch travel slack, long and low genre, the Transition Patrol was definitely not hype.

Climbing was a pleasant surprise, which, for my 6’3″ self at least, was largely due to the steep seat tube angle, which kept me over the cranks, not hanging out over the rear hub. The suspension always moved slightly with each pedal stroke, no matter the position of the climb lever, but never excessively, or to the detriment of forward progress.

Even the long, slack front end didn’t wander as much I worried it would. Being generally out of shape and not having a lot of time on one-by drivetrains, I was wishing for an easier gear or two, but other than that, there isn’t much to say about the way up.

Then we got to a trail named Family Fun Center on our way to SST and Golden Spike, where the fun really began. My bike, a Giant Trance 27.5 isn’t some old-school XC geometry relic. In fact it’s pretty awesome. But the stupid stuff the Patrol let me get away with left me grinning ear to ear – whether it was dipping a bar into a bermed turn or letting it roll over a steep drop without really checking out what happened on the other side.

Quick in the corners yet stable enough to save my bacon in some rough spots, playful yet burly, it would be fair to say this short ride left me impressed. Next time I’d set up the suspension a touch softer (never bottomed out on either end), and had no idea how to make a 1-point turn around a couple of switch backs at the end of the ride, but I can see how this bike could be a quiver-of-one for many riders.

Tight chainstays are all the rage these days, and while I’m no manualing monster, it made small corrections and steering from the hips a little easier than on bikes like my Trance or the Remedy.

As for the trail itself – a couple slick, muddy spots were to be expected this time of year, but the mix of tech and flow were really something. I can see why backyard trails like these shaped Transition bikes the way they have.

I’m not in the market for a new bike, but I’ll be taking some lessons away from my time on the Transition, with plans for a shorter stem, wider bars and a couple suspension tweaks in the works. If I were in the market, my usually conservative tastes might be swayed by this big goofy-fun bike.

As for Lynn, who was testing for more serious purposes – well I’m sure she’ll write up here own review, but I think the Smuggler may have unseated the Remedy for her number one contender.

Photo credit: Lynn Baungartner

Deuter Pace 30 Backpack Review

Finding a good day pack was tougher for me than for some – I wanted something I could take hiking, backcountry skiing, climbing, even mountain biking – growing and shrinking to carry minimal gear or a DSLR camera with multiple lenses on any given outing.

I haven’t come across the perfect day pack yet, but my Deuter Pace 30 has been serving me well for the last 4-5 years. It’s been on countless day hikes from the High Sierra to the coastal redwoods, backcountry skiing in Tahoe and Yosemite, carried rock climbing gear to crags near and far, and even done admirable duty as a mountain bike hydration pack, until a smaller, more dedicated pack filled the role recently.

Continue reading

Review: Five Ten Kestrel Bike Shoe

After upgrading my 1998 Psycle Werks Wild Hare to a 2015 Giant Trance 27.5 in the last year, the next important upgrade was my Sidi Dominators of the same late 90s vintage.

When new, they were stiff, efficient, light and the Italian leather broke in to fit me like a glove. Fast forward to now, and the soles have gone soft, the leather is getting thrashed and the cinch straps are chewed up.

I also found the hard plastic lugs about as useful as ice skates on Sierra granite, so I wanted something with a sticky rubber sole. The pedals would remain the same – you’ll have to pry my Time ATACs from my cold, dead fingers.

The short list:IMG_1698

  • Pearl Izumi X-Project: Seemed nice, but the ratchet strap bottomed out before snugging on my B-width low volume foot.
  • Specialized Rime: A good fit with a descent looking sole. A strong contender.
  • Giro Terraduro: A great fit, but stories of soles peeling off had me gun shy.
  • Five Ten Kestrel: I didn’t get a chance to try these on, but like my Five Ten climbing and approach shoes, and had a REI dividend burning a hole in my virtual pocket.

Continue reading

More Fun, Less Forum Fighting

I’ve been in and around the outdoor industry for years – bike shops, ski shops, outdoor gear shops etc. I have been a gear geek and outdoor sports enthusiast for longer. The internet has been a great tool for sharing information.

And it’s also been a great way to get countless users to lose sight of the whole point of mountain biking, skiing, or whatever sport they’re trying to enjoy in the first place, instead spending countless hours going down the rabbit hole.

Internet forums are a great place to ask advice – what type of tires are right for the region I live? What skis for my terrain and ability level? There is so much choice (too much choice? See the million wheel size and hub standards in mountain biking now) in outdoor gear, it’s nice to get a little advice along the way.

But experts of the internet, kings of the digital domain, before you lay down the law with a snarky retort to the 3,001st person asking which ski is best or which bike is better, please remember one thing: The point of these activities in simple. FUN. Sure, fitness, competitiveness, mastery of skill are nice, but the underlying purpose is to have fun.

That means there isn’t a right or wrong ski, bike, shoe or backpack. I see this over and over again on internet forums: if you use a 98 mm waisted ski, not a 88 mm ski, you’re doing it wrong. If you are on a 120 mm travel mountain bike, not a 160, you’re doing it wrong. This is moronic, plain and simple.

If you have fun pedaling smooth XC trails on a slacked out enduro sled and you’re having fun, good. If you’re arcing turns down the groomer on 120 mm fully rockered powder skis and having a blast, you’re doing it right. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.

Sure, there may be a better tool for the job, but getting bogged down in number crunching is the opposite of what these sports are about, and looking at your skis, reading they’re 10mm too wide for the day and deciding not to ride is just sad. Go outside, have fun.

Another trend I see on the forums that drives me nuts are what I consider fashion questions. 29ers don’t look cool. What color helmet should I wear? Wearing a full face helmet on a cross country trail makes you look like a tool. STOP! If you want to play fashion show, pick another sport. I hear if you pick a team sport, they’ll pick a cute little color coordinated number for you. These are individual sports. Be an individual.

I’d probably get more clicks if I wrote a top 10 list of fashion flops in sport climbing, taking the 1,327th cheep shot at the shirtless bro with a beanie, but I honestly don’t care what other people wear while climbing, and neither should you. It affects our climbing zero percent. What skis you are on affects me zero percent.

The only place one person might voice objection to another person’s gear selection is if it’s doing harm – violating Leave No Trace, damaging a climbing crag, putting downhill skiers in the backcountry in harm’s way.

So that’s my rant. Do your homework, but don’t get bogged down in minutiae. Offer advice, but don’t mistake your opinion for gospel. Go outside, and have fun.

Tarptent Double Rainbow

Interview with Tarptent, From the Archives

For the hardy few willing to hike miles on end, sleep on the ground and cook over a sputtering stove, backpacking opens up wilderness places and experiences inaccessible to the average day hiker.

But it requires skills of self-sufficiency, a sense of adventure and – increasingly evident as the miles add up and the mountain looms – a heavy backpack.

That was the problem faced by Henry Shires, now of Nevada City, when planning a 2,650-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Canada in 1999.

Continue reading

2015 Giant Trance 27.5 1 Review

If you’re looking for a comparison to every other current bike on the market, this isn’t the review for you. This is my first new mountain bike since 1999. Aside from a demo on an Ibis Mojo HDR 650b, this is my first bike with 27.5 wheels, tubeless tires, 5.5 inches of suspension, disc brakes, a 2×10 drivetrain and a dropper post.

So I won’t try and put this bike in context of its competition. I can’t. I can only tell you how the Giant Trance 27.5 rides. And the best way to describe that is balanced. The 140mm Maestro suspension is balanced between plushness and efficiency, the geometry is balanced between stable and playful, the whole bike is balanced between uphill and downhill. This bike has a lot of Goldilocks going on.

Continue reading