LIVING WELL OUTSIDE
I’m currently living mostly outdoors for more than 4 months (bicycling solo coast to coast across America) and I’m rediscovering the simple joy of waking up in the wilderness. At the age of 51, I don’t enjoy emerging from my tent in the morning stiff and damp to discover my food’s been stolen by bears. I am happy to report that, if you make the right choices on gear, you can actually be quite comfortable “living outdoors”.
I’m not talking about “sort of cold but getting by” or “sleeping on and off waking up with an aching back.” To use a technical phrase, I’m talking about being “snug as a bug in a rug.”
If you haven’t been bike touring, bikepacking or backpacking in a while, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to be warm, dry and comfortable and get a great night’s sleep out here. Even on a rainy night with temperatures in the low 30’s (or lower…. I haven’t slept with temps in the teens or twenties yet, but all indications are that 4 season gear has made similar advancements).
Admittedly, this has been a journey of discovery. It’s taken me a while to make the right choices on gear and send home, trade-in or sell the things that weren’t working. But once I did, I discovered that I’m as comfortable out here in the wilderness as I am at home.
If you have gear you’re not using, sell it and get the right stuff. If you can’t afford the right gear, trade for it or buy used. I sold a bunch of things I wasn’t using (gear and otherwise) and, after much trial and error, I got the right equipment in good condition for less money than you might think.
If you’ve been living indoors and are thinking about getting back outside where the simplicity of a sunrise soothes your soul, I highly recommend investigating the new advancements on design of gear. It’s not gear for gear’s sake. It’s gear so you can forget about gear and enjoy the journey. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but you do have to invest some time doing research. If you allow others to help reduce your learning curve, you’ll be delighted at the results.
For example, tent technology has really advanced since I was a teenager in the 80’s. I’ve already slept in my tent in the pouring rain on chilly nights during this #COASTtoCOASTbicycleride and I’ve been dry and comfortable. Even on clear nights, the smartly designed tents of today keep you dry and warm because they stave off dampness.
Modern tents are also easy to set up. I’ve reached the point that I can set my MSR Hubba Hubba tent up by moonlight in a matter of minutes… by feel. New tent design has also made it possible to store most of your gear outside the tent under the fly “wings” so that gear is dry on rainy nights and dew free on clear ones. These new tent flys are away from the actual tent at all points to prevent moisture from sneaking in. They really do keep you warm by keeping the moisture off of you.
It seems that body heat is able to warm things up too. I estimate that it’s 5 to 10 degrees warmer inside my tent than it is outside. The good news is that, on warm nights (even on a rainy night when I have the fly fully zipped) there is plenty of air movement when you open the ingeniously designed vents. They’re crafted like swing out windows on a house so rain stays out but air circulates well.
The tents are only the beginning folks. There are insulated ultralight air mattresses that are super comfortable and quiet. They’re also easy to blow up with an included ingenious non-powered vortex inflation pouch. (That’s right… You’re not out of breath after blowing one of these babies up). These new air mattresses are 3 inches thick and, even if you’re a side sleeper, you won’t even feel your hip touch the ground.
This same new style light air mattress also separates you surprisingly well from the cold ground with built-in insulation. I am sleeping as comfortably, soundly and warmly tonight in the woods as I do at home.
It gets even better. There’s a new style of sleeping bag that isn’t really a bag at all. It’s more of a lightweight sleep system: a quilt that buttons to a sheet. When paired with a lightweight air mattress (to which that sheet attaches), this “sleeping bag that’s not really a sleeping bag” allows you to roll around like you do at home rather than experience the constriction of a traditional mummy bag. And this new system is just as warm and just as light as a good regular sleeping bag.
Attention folks getting back into bicycle touring or bikepacking: New style panniers ride lower than the old style cordura cannondale panniers I remember. And, as anyone who has toured on their bicycle even for a weekend can tell you, keeping weight lower on bike makes all the difference in comfort, stability and safety. New advancements in pannier technology and design have made them pretty much waterproof. I accidentally fell asleep the other night with my panniers outside in the pouring rain and my clothes inside the panniers were dry in the morning.
Bear containers have really improved as well. The latest Ursack Major bear bags are lightweight, made of bullet proof flexible nylon and certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Paired with Odor Proof Opsack Bags, the Ursack Major bear bag is a recognized method of reducing chances of a bear being attracted to or stealing your food. (Of course, even when using a top quality bear bag with Odor Proof Opsack bags inside, one should hang food a good distance from campsite). Not every place will accept the Ursack as suitable (as compared to hard-sided containers), but most will.
Even the little things have changed. Flat pedals used to only come in one variety. When I was young, those flat pedals were the first thing you replaced on a bike in favor of toe-clip style pedals (remember them?). But being clipped in isn’t for everyone, especially while bike touring. When you’re carrying weight on your bike, you want to be able to get your feet off your pedals as fast as is humanly possible when necessary. And you want your feet to come off the pedals as fast as possible in the unlikely event you fall. As we all know, there are occasionally unexpected things in the road, cracks or pot holes that make you swerve in an awkward way, and get you off balance. When that happens, even the best clip-less pedals sometimes won’t let you escape your pedals fast enough to make the tiny shift in weight that’s required.
That’s why, after trying various high quality clip-less pedal systems, I was pleased to discover that flat pedals have advanced in a huge way. Mine are big, light and tough and they have a dozen tiny adjustable spikes that grip onto your flat bottom shoes. This arrangement lets you really crank pedaling but also allows you to remove your feet from the pedals in an instant.
Shoes have also advanced in a big way. I actually wore racing shoes when I rode a thousand miles through England, France, Belgium and Holland as a teenager. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without falling in those things so I had to change my shoes as soon as I got off my bike (an awkward thing while stopping in little towns each day). Today I’m riding with shoes that I can comfortably stroll in, but they’re stiff in rear two thirds of the shoe. That makes them efficient for pedaling.
I would add that there are studies out now that show that there is no discernible difference in efficiency between pedaling with flat pedals and pedaling with clip-less pedals so long as you have the right flat shoes and flat pedals. For decades, I was one of those folks who scoffed at such claims, convinced that I was getting so much more efficiency from clipping in (despite the undeniable compromise in safety even with the best binding systems).
I still like clip-less pedals for day trip road rides with no load on the bike. The shoes are lighter since you don’t need to walk in them. But I am no longer one of those folks who claims he’s sacrificing efficiency when he uses flat pedals. Many people are biased because they remember the flat pedals that came with their bike as a kid. With the new grip technology on flat pedals, I think you’re as efficient with flat pedals as you are clipless.
I’ve only scratched the surface. If you decide to get back outside, be sure to invest in the right gear. The result will be that you are able to forget about the gear and fall in love with the wilderness all over again.
PS – Some people have asked for gear list as a reference to help them plan for their own journeys. I’m certainly no expert, but I am happy to provide that list. It took a long while to gather and save up for this gear. I also sold a lot of things to do so. Sold a lot of my worldly possessions to help raise the funds. It also took a lot of research and some trial and error, of course:
– $650 Trek Verve 2 bicycle with disc brakes and extra small 3rd front chainring for hills (Lightweight aluminum frame, adjustable handlebars, shock absorbing hand grips/handlebars). Mostly a stock bike but made some modifications as anyone familiar with basic Verve 2 will see. This bike was really built by Trek to be a recreational cruiser or commuter bike, but the geometry fit me so well that I decided to use for this journey.
– Salsa rear rack
– Ortlieb classic panniers
– MSR “Hubba Hubba” 2 person tent w/ separate lightweight MSR ground cover (roomy, durable, well-designed, easy to set up in the dark & keeps you dry even in heavy rain)
– Bontrager rechargeable front and rear lights
– 1st sleeping bag: Zenbivy light 25 degree sleep system with two pillows
– 2nd sleeping bag: Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) lightweight down sleeping bag (mummy style)
– Nemo lightweight insulated sleeping pad (inflatable)
– Counter Assault Grizzly Tough pepper spray (works from up to 30 feet away)
– Bontrafer flat shoes
– Bontrager flat pedals with adjustable “spikes”
– Specialized lightweight helmet
– Specialized bib bicycling shorts / specialized regular bicycling shorts
– Specialized knee, leg and arm covers for easy on and off warmth
– LL Bean hiking t-shirts
– MSR pocket rocket stove
– Bio Lite stove (It’s a cook stove and a mini-campfire fueled by sticks and twigs and, while you’re cooking or enjoying the glow of this “campfire”, the heat recharges removable battery that can be used to charge cell phone or bike lights later that evening while you’re sleeping in your tent).
– 2 Bushnell roll up solar panels (3 hour full charge of cell phone on sunny day, durable, small when rolled up in hard cover case).
– Patagonia zip up down sweater
– Volkl shell jacket (thin, waterproof, breathable and insulated)
– smart wool hats (2)
– smart wool long underwear top and bottom
– iPhone with google maps app (which has bicycle setting that gives you options along the way to take less traveled roads and rail trails / bike paths. Those rail trails go near railroad tracks so they’re pretty flat) and Dyrt app which makes finding campgrounds easy and quick (including reviews, directions, amenities etc.).
– “Rite in the Rain” journal books and write in the rain type pen
– 4 Nalgene 32 oz. water bottles
– SOL very lightweight emergency blankets for inside tent underneath sleeping pad (fold down very small a just a few inches)
– GARMIN 66i GPS / 2 way satellite communicator with SOS emergency beacon (a luxury item for sure, but also a real safety item for solo travel in the middle of nowhere)
– JBL “clip 3” small waterproof Bluetooth speaker
Website exclusively devoted to my solo coast to coast bicycle ride (includes photos, stories, social media links and donation link): http://www.thisclearbluesky.com . All donations to Bell Socialization (which runs the family homeless shelter in my hometown of York, PA) are tax deductible. All donations to Bell via this GoFundMe fundraiser are all processed online and go straight from GoFundMe to Bell. firstname.lastname@example.org (Note: Photo credit goes to a fellow traveler who took on his own journey).