Mack and I went on a training ride of sorts the other day in preparation for the tour this July. We cycled a whopping 40km, which is 25 miles, and never felt better. How could I possibly call this a training ride when we need to average just over 73 miles a day for three weeks? Well, this wasn’t a physical ride to get our bodies used to the effort, but rather a ride into the psychological expanse that comes with a tour of this nature.
We went over my gear-list-in-progress item by item, picking it apart, turning it over, evaluating, scrutinizing, and tossing ideas back and forth. With my recent purchase of Beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardine’s Guide to Lightweight Hiking, I’ve learned a hell of a lot about making do with less, getting more out of what I do have, and cost and weight effective ways to reduce pack loads. And in recent days when I actually broke out the medical scale and started weighing a standard tour load versus my proposed lightweight, streamlined load, the results were amazing.
I had planned on revamping my proposed gear list, writing something up explaining my reasoning in more detail, and letting everyone know of the update so I could possibly collect valuable feedback from readers. I didn’t quite get to the write-up before I received a scathing email from Dale, my supposed third team member for the North Dakota portion of the tour, about my changes. He was livid. He was fired up. He simply couldn’t believe why on earth I’d ever want to make the changes I made for whatever reasons. He raised a few good points about a handful of items in question, but his anger and bewilderment seemed focused on my decision to carry a trap instead of a tent. Rather than go into painstaking detail and regurgitate everything he wrote, let me quote Dale himself on the pertinent “issues”.
Since we are both thick skinned opinionated  I figure you can take me chewing on you a bit, nothing personal just making a few points you may have over looked. No trailer huh. What is up with that? Alright I can buy the no trailer thing, but no tent. Do you remember what mosquitoes, rain, the storms and the wind are like around here. You are going to need to get a good nights sleep or it will start to wear on you if you are riding a lot each day. I mean a tarp, your are never going to keep out the bugs with that, and what are you going to do when there are no trees. Or if it rains too much you will wake up in a pool. Just a few thoughts, its not like you are going to be out there for a few days and unless you plan on spending some money on a room here and there I would bring a tent. Of all of the tour journals I have read they all have brought a tent, with the exception of the ones who stayed in rooms and even some of them brought a tent.
Obviously, Dale has some issues.
So Dale, this post is for you, primarily you, and if any other living soul on the planet can learn something from this then I’ll die a happy man.
Let’s follow two riding pairs as they cycle 1,969 miles of the Lewis and Clark trail: Jim and Wally are camping with a 10’x16′ tarp. Phillip and Lyle are camping with a dome tent equipped with a full sized rain fly. Here’s the breakdown.
Phillip’s tent is a top of the line 3-season tent. It has a million and one features that make it the best. That’s why he bought it. Add a cut-to-fit ground cloth and the total weight of tent, poles, stakes, carrying case, and ground sheet is 8lbs. He knows this because he weighed the damn thing before the trip. This weight is average as far as two man freestanding dome tents are concerned.
Jim and Wally are carrying a standard 10’x16′ tarp, the blue kind you can get at any hardware, sporting goods, or department store. It weighs 2.75lbs. Add 150′ of cord (Wally’s theory is that a man can’t have enough cord) and tent stakes and the weight increases to 4lbs even. A ground cloth is not needed because the tarp can be folded on the 16′ side and a portion, about 5′, can be designated for sleeping on (which is above average width for sleeping space of a two man tent). In summary, Jim and Wally’s tarp/cord/stakes combo cuts the weight in half.
2. Water repellency.
Let’s began following Phillip and Lyle as it’s time to set up camp. It’s raining like a bastard as they began setting it up. Phillip read the directions on the box and noticed the rain fly goes on last. By the time the fiberglass poles were inserted and the rain fly was attached, the portion of the tent that wasn’t supposed to get wet is just that. In fact, it’s pretty soaked even though it didn’t take long to get the poles in place. With the rain fly now assembled and attached to the tent body, the men comfortably assume that the interior of the tent that was drenched in the process of setting it up will dry when they crawl in from body heat alone. Wrong! They failed to remember a tent rain fly is nonbreathable. That means that no water is getting in, and no water is getting out. Rain flies are not like Gore-Tex. If anything, they’re like plastic or rubber that breaks down over time that causes post-production applications of waterproofing in order to maintain water repellency. Jim had just done it with his 7-year-old Eureka Prism tent, which he left at home in favor of the tarp, and it was once again a pleasure to camp in during inclement weather on weekend campouts. Prior to that it leaked like a siv. In addition, Jim’s Eureka Prism has a standard rain fly that extends to the ground on either side, and has beaks in the front and rear, allowing him to open a window or door if its not raining too hard. Anyway, the rain fly of Phillip and Lyle’s tent extends all the way to the ground on every side to prevent water from splashing back up on the underside and entering the tent. This full rain fly also keeps the Phillip and Lyle from getting wet if they should come in contact with the sidewall. Of course, all this is based on the fact that both they and the tent were dry before it started raining. So now Phillip is in the tent, and probably Lyle too because he’s tired of getting his ass rained on, and they’re changing out of their wet clothes. It’s literally turning into a steam bath in there. The rain fly prevents all that excess moisture from getting out. 99% of tents Jim has seen are not designed to have an open window or door and still keep out rain, therefore if something is opened up to ventilate while its raining, even more rain will be allowed to enter and soak the dry clothes that were just put on. Get the point?
Moving on, it’s morning. It had rained sporadically throughout the night and the weather stayed cool. Phillip had been cooped up in the steam bath (a.ka. his tent) with his smelly riding partner Lyle for at least six hours, and there’s a river of condensation clinging to the roof and walls of the tent from wet gear, breath, and body heat throughout the night. Phillip carefully tries crawl out without disturbing the condensation, but his elbow smacks the door and a shower of water comes crashing down on his exposed back and still sleeping Lyle. He’s not too happy. Phillip gets out into the sunrise and sees it has finally stopped raining, the clothes he had changed into are dry but that’s about it, and it’s time to pack up and go.
In 30 minutes they eat breakfast and pack up everything but the tent because it still hasn’t dried. The morning is like any other morning: cool. Phillip and Lyle pack up the tent with the wet rain fly and condensed interior and ride on into the day. If they’re lucky they’ll be able to attempt to dry it out during their lunch break. Nylon absorbs water in various degrees. It’s a proven fact. But in addition to the water that was on the tent when they packed it, there is also whatever it absorbed by being in a deluge overnight. Regardless, Phillip and Lyle have effectively added a few more pound of moisture to their already 8 pound behemoth tent.
Now let’s zip over to Jim and Wally who are carrying a tarp. Once again it’s raining cats and dogs, but let’s think worst-case scenario. They’re in the middle of the prairie, nothing but grass for miles (no rocks, no twigs, no sticks), and the wind and rain are howling. They unpack they’re 10’x16′ tarp in the rain and the side exposed to the rain is immediately wet. Okay, so they fold one end under to the third grommet (about 6′, leaving 10 more feet to work with) and stake it down to the ground by the end grommets. Keep in mind it was folded under the portion that is being rained on, hence the side on the ground now facing up is dry. Stakes are also placed at the second grommet and now Jim has a 6’x10′ area on the ground that hinges and is covered by the remainder of the tarp he and Wally are holding. Following? Jim takes his side of the tarp and places it directly on top of itself on the ground, burrito rolls it underneath itself and stakes it down using movable after market tarp grommets that are about $3.99 for four at any department store. So now two out of four sides are 100% sealed from wind or rain. There is the original hinge side and now the burrito rolled side. That leaves two sides open. In true, intelligent form, Jim and Wally had the common sense to put one of the two sealed edges into the prevailing wind. Remember, there is still 10′ of tarp that can be used, and right now it’s keeping the staked down 6’x10′ section of sleep space bone dry.
With the flapping edge of the 10′ that is left, Wally takes it right to the ground where it is staked, burrito rolled under, and re-staked. So, with the right folded edge, the bottom burrito rolled, and the left burrito rolled, Jim and Wally now have effectively 5’x9′ of floor area with 12′ burrito rolls (and that’s a lot). If you’re doing the math, that’s 45 square feet of floor space, but we’ll get into more detail later. All that is left is one open end. What are they going to prop it open with?? Well, depending on how high they want it open, Jim or Wally can simply arrange one of the bikes and tie it off to that. They can also tie the bikes together and lean them inward, and could then tie off the door as high as the handlebars. By turning a bike upside down and tying the door off to a chain stay or something similar, they have effectively lowered the door to that height. It’s up to them depending on what the weather is doing.
Jim then puts a couple pieces of gear underneath the tarp at the door so water won’t run in due to runoff. Wally pulls a tire off a bike, sets it up lengthwise in the interior, and just got 26′ of ceiling space. It’s more than enough to get comfy and change into dry clothes. The tire also keeps the tarp taught in the middle and helps reduce flapping in the wind. Oh yea, Jim and Wally’s 5’x9′ sleep area was never even exposed to the rain, so it doesn’t have to dry. The same goes for the walls and ceiling. With nine feet of vertical living space, they can afford to scoot down if by some odd chance rain is misting in the door or wind is howling in a bit (but proper tarp orientation will prevent that). Jim and Wally change into dry clothes and any condensation from thier effort or wet clothes is immediately evaporated out the front door. Throughout the night they don’t worry about touching the sides of the tarp with their shoulders or feet because a tarp with no holes is 100% waterproof for the life of the tarp. It’s not silicon impregnated or any other crazy crap. It is simply a tarp and the material absorbs absolutely no moisture.
Let’s move on to the morning. At sometime during the night the rain shifted directions so Jim simply retied the door to about six inches from the ground. Even a 5’x6′ gap provides a hell of a lot more ventilation that any tent with a full rain fly. Jim and Wally wake up dry and refreshed because they’ve have had the chance to air out.
But what’s this? It’s still raining! No problem. Jim cooks breakfast in the mouth of the tarp knowing that superior ventilation will prevent carbon dioxide buildup and they eat chow nice and dry. They pack up their things while in the tarp and stay dry. Knowing they’re going to get wet on the ride anyways, they crawl out of the tarp, remove the tire from the center, untie and unstake the tarp, and proceed to fold it dry side inward, thereby keeping it dry indefinitely. With one shake of the tarp they eliminate 99% of the water that may have been clinging to it. Jim then rolls it from one direction and squeezes any rain that had fallen on it during the packing process out the other end. In total, mere ounces of water may have been accumulated during a rain which lasted over 8 hours. Wally straps everything down and the two men ride off into the deluge.
3. Configuration options.
With a tent of any shape or form, Phillip and Lyle can only assemble it and place it on the ground as is. Maybe they add or remove the rain fly depending on weather, but Phillip has exactly what he bought. End of story.
The varying ways Jim and Wally can pitch a tarp is practically limitless. The way they did it in the previous section is for extreme conditions, but it doesn’t stop them from doing it whenever they so choose. In their opinion, the beauty of using a tarp is that of choice. Other popular methods they plan on implementing are a single pole design, similar to what was discussed with one closed end and one propped open, the classic “A’ frame with two open ends, and the reliable lean-to that works great as a temporary shelter in any conditions from extreme heat, rain, or even snow. All angles, dimensions, degrees, and guy line techniques can be adjusted however they see fit to meet any weather condition presented.
Phillip and Lyle’s tent measures 7’7″ x 3’6″ which equals 30 square feet of usable floor space, all the time, every time. It is a non-negotiable number.
As Jim and Wally have proven, even in the worst weather they still have 45 square feet of floor space to use. In a standard open “A’ frame design without the utilization of a floor and a 7′ ceiling, the floor area increases to 90 square feet! Of course these are ridiculous dimensions that would really only be used with six hookers, a keg, and a four hose beer bong, but easily doable with a tarp of that size.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Jim and Wally’s tarp method is head and shoulders above a tent. I have no intention of staying in hotel rooms unless the urge strikes me. Mack agrees. Being the rainy season in Brazil right now, I plan on testing my various tarp-pitching techniques extensively to see what works and what doesn’t. Even though my tarp-pitching experience is based on reading and not doing, both Mack and I have extensive knowledge in knots and resourcefulness in general. If it’s one thing we’re used to is being uncomfortable in the outdoors if need be. But as Mack pointed out, our definition of mild discomfort would make most people hop a Greyhound bus and go home. We will live and learn, and if it happens to be on the trail then so be it.
Another issue Dale pointed out is the presence of bugs. Of course a tarp won’t keep any bugs out. That’s a no brainer. But how much time would we actually spend in a tent? My only intent would be to sleep in the tent, not hang out in it for whatever reason. A man doesn’t cycle halfway across the country so he can relax in a tent when the ride is over for the day. I plan on relaxing completely outdoors until it’s time to sleep. Then, and only then, would I retire to the tent and could experience bug free sleep. Outside of shelter everyone is subject to mosquitoes and the playing field is even. So how to we, the tarp dwellers, get around the bugs? Mosquito netting of course!
Mack’s sleeping bag has an integrated mosquito net over the upper torso that stows conveniently in the hood of the bag. Although mine does not, I’m retrofitting a similar system on my bag. I’ve recently purchased a 15’x54′ roll of mosquito netting and a 15’x1′ black roll of Velcro adhesive tape. I will ring the top half of the mummy bag with the hook portion of the Velcro, beginning with the right side underneath the zipper at waist level, over and around the hood to the left seam, down the bag to the same point as the right side, and directly across to the zipper. The Velcro will start and end at the same point with zipper separating the single piece. I will then fashion a section of mosquito netting with the loop portion of the adhesive Velcro. I will leave enough netting available in the design to allow me to fold the mummy bag open at the waist and sit up while still being covered my netting. When properly applied, only the 1/4″ or so gap where the zipper separates the strip of hook Velcro will be exposed. But “exposed” is a bad word. If the mosquitoes can find a gap that is smaller than a quarter is thick they deserve to feed on my head. The sleeping bag netting system that Mack and I will have on our bags will also allow us to sleep worry free under the stars without fear of some gangly spider crawling into the sleeping bag with us. Damn, I hate spiders. I will test the adhesiveness of the Velcro and possible take the mummy bag and netting to a local tailor to get it stitched into place for added security.
One more thing that Mack is implementing is a waterproof bivy cover that compresses to the size of a baseball and weighs much less. All in all it’s a good idea, but I haven’t decided if I can justify $120 on one. Bivy covers are generally breathable and totally waterproof, which makes them more expensive than the sleeping bag in most cases. They are great in all types of weather but tend to restrict ventilation somewhat. I will continue to scour the net for a good deal and let everyone know what I come up with.
I almost forgot about my other weight saving decisions. I spent the majority of yesterday painstakingly weighing all my equipment and writing down accurate packing dimensions. The only items I don’t have in my possession to perform those tasks are the B.O.B. trailer, rear rack, and panniers. I’ve asked Dale to weigh them for me to the nearest ? lb and let me know so I can plug the numbers into my spreadsheet.
My major weight saving takes place in three areas: my sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, and my tent. As the post is about, I’m swapping out my 8-pound tent for my 4-pound tarp. My 3-pound, 72″ self-inflating sleeping pad is being nixed in favor of a 48′ closed-cell foam pad weighing in at 9ozs. In all actuality, a sleeping pad needs only to extend from your hipbone to your shoulder, the points of your body that contact the ground and require the most insulation. Spare clothes can be used as a pillow and nothing is required for your legs or feet. If I wanted to get really anal about it, I could trim the sleeping pad down to 36″ in length and wide enough to extend 1′ around my torso print. Weight savings would not be dramatic at all, but the sized rolled would be. I’ll look into that as well. And last but not least, my sleeping bag that I’ve had for over 15 years and weighs over 5-pounds, is being replaced. I’m buying a Kelty Stratus mummy bag rated down to 35 degrees and weighing in at 2lbs 3ozs. And what’s the dollar cost of the weight savings? Well, the foam pad cost me $10.97 and the sleeping bag cost me $49.99. Not bad considering it will be the first new sleeping bag I’ve ever owned. With the three major weight savers and a few other odds and ends, I’ve chopped 10lbs off my pack weight so far. If you don’t think 10lbs is a lot, weigh it out in a book bag and carry it with you wherever you go for three weeks. It sucks.
In spite of Dale’s seemingly foolishness with the tarp, he did point out a couple items that make sense that I forgot about. For instance, I have chain links mentioned but no chain. He was right in saying that once a chain is broken it continues to break so a completely new chain would make sense. I’ve decided to carry one new chain between Mack and I. We will also carry one new tire. If we need to replace more than one tire in the time it takes us to replace our reserve, we’re in more trouble than anticipated.
If nothing else, Dale, Mack and I all agree that a simple canteen cup for all-purpose dining and cooking as required is the smart way to go. Credit goes to Mack for the idea. I will also be purchasing a stand and fuel tabs for the canteen cup. Just think instant chicken noodle soup or chili con carne or even hot cocoa. It’s the little things that count on a trip of this magnitude.
Dale asked the question if all my weight saving options would be traded off for the associated bulk and weight of MREs. One case of 12 MREs weighs 35lbs. That’s a shit load of anyone is doing the math. I bought three cases for Mack and I. We plan on field stripping the MREs to the bare essentials. We also don’t plan on bringing 18 MREs each. We have 25 days on the trail. How heavy our gear is getting as we move towards the MREs will determine how many we bring. A majority of the food on this trip is being oriented towards cafes, gas stations, and general scrounging, but a package of 12 instant soups will go a long ways if we really need to stretch it out.
The one thing I can’t stress enough is that my gear list is a work in progress. I’m learning new things every day and developing new resources I can apply to the tour. My biggest concern right now is whether I should stick with the B.O.B. trailer as originally planned or scrap it in favor of a rear rack and panniers. With a reduction of the overall gear list I won’t require the shear carrying capacity of the trailer. I know the weight savings will be considerable, but the really issue is efficiency in transporting a load. Dale has decided to test both methods of travel so I’m relying on him for an accurate report. It’ll be an enormous factor in what I end up using.
This is enough for now. There are other developments with the tour but I’ll save them for another post. You can expect pictures and detailed reports of my tarp pitching experiments, as well as more training information as I load up my rack trunk to the max and take off on overnight tours in the one-day range of Brasilia.
Until next time… live to ride.