My 5 Must-Have Camping Gear Items

I was catching up the other day with a friend who I hadn’t seen since April and we got to talking about our summers. He asked me what my favorite trip was and I had a hard time choosing. For some reason it feels like I haven’t gone anywhere, which is frankly not true at all. I’ve gone around the globe.

From the Dalles to Sweden to the San Juans to Montana, summer of 2017 has been one for the record books for me. I slept outside more than I have other summers, did more multi-night camping trips, and pushed myself further.

 Rolling into our dream spot on the Deschutes River in May

Rolling into our dream spot on the Deschutes River in May

All of this camping gave me a great opportunity to get really really familiar with a few pieces of gear that are now in my pack every time I go camping.

There are some pieces of gear that rotate depending on whom I’m going with, the weather, and how I’m getting there. These include my stove, sleeping system, and tent. If it’s super nice out with no rain in the forecast, I might forego a tent and sleep on a ground cloth. If I’m with my boyfriend, we’ll take the bigger tent and big stove. If it’s going to be cold and I’m going solo, I’ll take the insulated pad, warmer sleeping bag, and tiny stove. All sorts of variables going into picking these things.

But there are a few specific pieces of essential gear that absolutely must come with me EVERY SINGLE TIME. This is regardless of weather, destination, or company:

1.       Fozzils Folding bowl/cutting board combination

This bowl/cutting board combo is exactly what it sounds like. Folds up into a bowl, lays flat for a cutting board. I *think* it comes in a 2 pack, which is perfect for prepping on one, and then eating in the other. For any weight weinies reading this, each bowl is 1.4oz (40grams), so pretty damn light for a cutting board & bowl!

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2.       GSI Drip coffee maker

This is another folding contraption, and while there are fancier ones out there, this GSI Collapsible coffee maker does the job perfectly. Collapses super small, never retains odors/colors/stains, easy to use with a variety of filter sizes when I inevitably forget one and have to borrow from somebody.

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3.       Black Diamond Headlamp

Just like the coffee maker, there are fancier versions of this out there, but I arbitrarily picked the $20 headlamp a few years ago at REI and have been happy with it ever since. The battery lasts forever, it’s easy to operate, dims when I want it to, goes to red light for reading/not blinding people. Overall, just a functional headlamp.

4.       Paradox baselayer

Underwear are particular for every person. Wool underwear are like underwear, just longer, and more people see them, at least if you go camping with me. So, take this recommendation with a grain of salt. I absolutely LOVE my Paradox baselayer from Paradox that I got at Costco four years ago. They’ve got a few holes in them from embers around the fire and have been on countless trips. But goddamn do I love them. Perfectly soft (even from the first wear) and just the right weight that they’re great as a single layer on warm nights, or as a base layer on cold nights.

5.       Ditty bags (Waterproof and non. I have both.)

The secret to enjoying camping is staying organized. Knowing where my snacks are when I get hungry, socks are when my feet are cold, and Tylenol is to beat the hangover before it starts is the magic that keeps me coming back. Staying organized also makes packing and unpacking a breeze. The only way I’m able to do this is with ditty bags. I use these for everything – food, clothes, underwear, toiletries, bike tools. Everything.

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So what are your go-to pieces of gear? (Also, sorry for the ads/affiliate links. I’m trying it out- let me know any feedback. Also, you should buy from a local shop and not Amazon, but if your'e gonna buy from them anyway, use these links and I'll get a very very very tiny %.)

To Take the Lane or Not – Rural Road Conundrums

I’m lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest, where great rural roads are a quick ferry ride away from downtown Seattle. Depending on the ferry, I can go from my doorstep to relatively quiet rural roads in under an hour. Not bad for the fastest growing city in the US with a metropolitan population of more than 3.5 million people.

Riding these roads is usually pretty uneventful, if not downright serene. Many of my favorite routes to close campsites (see this post for a quick rundown) have great shoulders for riding bikes on, and some even have dedicated bike lanes.

I get bored with the same destination over and over, however, and often find myself exploring new roads and route. These routes come to me from a variety of places – creeping on randonneuring maps, zooming in on Strava friends’ routes, and crowdsourcing. I’ll often fall back on the Washington State Gazeteer I invested in last year, which is always the most helpful in figuring out actual routes.

The challenge with these rural and suburban roads is that often they lack critical infrastructure that makes the kind of riding I like to do safe and comfortable. Sure, it’s legal for me to ride my bike there, but is it actually safe?

 Bike train climbing up and out of Seabeck

Bike train climbing up and out of Seabeck

I’ll give you an example- the route to Scenic Beach State Park. This park is 18 miles from the Bremerton ferry terminal, which for many people (especially weekend warriors and bike camping beginners), makes for a pretty good distance bike camping destination. The route even looks pretty benign on Ride with GPS and Google Maps- a few decent hills, and only one road named “highway.”  (Caveat- there is an actual highway option on route 3, which actually does have shoulders, but I don’t recommend it.)

 Google Maps suggested route to Scenic Beach

Google Maps suggested route to Scenic Beach

The actual ride to get out there though is a frightening mix of blind uphill corners, long climbs, and narrow shoulders. (Another caveat, it starts out with these signs through Bremerton, which quickly transition into “Watch out for Cyclists, in Memory of XXXX”)

 These signs are the best

These signs are the best

I have Scenic Beach as a recommended spot on my list of spots within an hour-ish of Seattle, but might need to edit the description a bit. The last time I rode out there this summer I was white knuckled with fear the entire time I climbed up Northlake Way, a long, slow, twisting climb with no shoulders. As cars came up behind us, I could hear them swerving around us, as they didn’t know we’d be in front of them going so slow, nor was there a safe space for us to ride off to the side.

 Notice the speed limit and shoulder conditions. Where would you ride?

Notice the speed limit and shoulder conditions. Where would you ride?

So on rides like this, what do you do? Obviously, safety is paramount, as there are already far too many bike/car collisions. Also, I think it’s important to recognize our vulnerability on the road as cyclists, as we are by far the softest thing out there.

With those in mind, here is how I handle situations where I don’t have a bike lane, limited shoulder to ride on, or poor road quality:

I am as assertive, yet empathetic to road users as possible, while still taking up as much space as is possible and safe for myself. Often, this means riding just to left side of the white line (in the car lane), or sometimes, even taking the full lane. I try and wave to drivers who slow down for me, pull over when climbing in a pullout to let cars who are going slow behind me to pass, and in general, be a cooperative road user. As somebody who drives (occasionally) it can be very frustrating to see what appears to be a selfish person on a bike. I try and avoid that situation, smile at drivers, and yet still take the lane.

I also recognize my position of privilege in making this statement. I am a white woman in the USA. I do not look threatening while on a bicycle. I go slow. I am fat. Most car drivers look happy and encouraged to see me on a bicycle and more often than not, I get encouraging remarks from them. (Another post on that on another day.)

I’ve ridden with men before who get honked at, yelled at, and things thrown at them. Their experiences touring/traveling in a rural area is way different than mine, so I can’t really offer any advice for that.

CitiBike NYC - Catcalls and Close Calls

I'm in New York City this week for a few days for work meetings. NYC makes me feel so alive and is probably my favorite city. The diversity of food, people, languages- it's always so alive and happening!

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Yesterday for my meeting in SoHo, I biked from Williamsburg and while it was fun and exhilarating and lovely, it was also a bit infuriating. And scary. I'll tell you why in just a minute. But first,  I'm going to digress briefly into a personal history of New York, and then I'll get back to yesterday's bike ride.

I lived here for a short in 2007 when I had an internship in Flatbush, Brooklyn. That summer was actually one of the worst summers of my life. I was newly 21, kind of figuring out that I might be bisexual, didn't really have a good handle on my finances, and was working a really crappy internship. I didn't have a good idea of the hobbies I liked to do, wasn't confident in who I was as a person, and definitely didn't take advantage of all that New York had to do. I spent most of that summer going on awkward JDates trying to meet people, taking the Q line to Coney Island and Brighton Beach, and exploring some of New York (all by train.)

I've subsequently come back to New York a number of times since 2007 and the bike culture has exploded since then. This wasn't by mistake or happen-stance either. Janette Sadik-Khan (the bike tzar) was appointed NYC Transportation Commissioner in 2007 and served until 2013. During her tenure, she implemented tons of bike-friendly policies in NYC, including building over 400 miles of bike lanes and 60 pedestrian plazas. She also led the creation of , which now has over 56,000 bikes all across New York. 

Seriously, the work she did is nothing short of transforming New York from an auto-centric city to a pedestrian and bike friendly city. You can now eat lunch in the middle of Penn Plaza (I just did today) and play ping pong, see art in the middle of Times Square, and ride your bike through dedicated bike lanes in Uptown. None of this was in place 10 years ago and it has totally transformed how people interact with the city.

 

Ok, so yesterday's bike ride. I'm staying at a great AirBNB in Bushwick, and it turns out, CitiBike hasn't quite made it out that far yet. The hipsters are there, but the bikes aren't yet. So I walked the half mile to the nearest station, installed the app, paid the $24 for a 3 day pass, and was off. CitiBikes are damn sturdy bikes and riding them feels good. No issues there.

I loaded up the route to Manhattan on Google Maps and had one headphone in, feeding me turn by turn directions. The ride was pretty uneventful, until I got close to the Williamsburg bridge. Here, bike traffic started to increase. I'm fairly used to Seattle super commuters passing closely and without warning, but this was on a whole different level.

Admittedly, I was going pretty slow, even by my standards. My foot is still technically broken and I wasn't super confident in where I was going, but I wasn't in people's way. I was riding to the far right of the bike lane, leaving plenty of space for folks to pass. And pass they did. Holy shit. So many people brushed by me with seemingly no concern that I was there. 

Eventually we made it through the narrow construction zone (oh hey signs in the middle of the bike lane) and onto the bridge, where there was a decent climb up the span. Morning rush hour was crawling along side us and I kid you not, I got cat called 3 times during my ride across the bridge. When I got off the bridge and riding through Manhattan, I got hollered at 4 more times. I don't know if things are just different, or I looked really good yesterday, or what was going on, but I have never felt so objectified in my life as I did yesterday.

The afternoon commute wasn't much different. 5 men hollered at me on the way home, with 2 explicitly commenting on my ass. I also almost got rear ended once on Bowery Street. 

So, while I was initially really excited about the prospect of biking in the city and how small it made this huge city feel, I'm not so sure how I feel anymore. I'll probably give it another go tomorrow, but I might stay on the Brooklyn side.

 

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Bikepacking Montana Trip Report

Shortly after the Gals at the Dalles trip in May, Whitney Ford Terry from the Montana contingent sent out an invite: 

Round TWO, Montana remix. I know its only been a few days but i'm always scheming. August 4-6th Whitefish loop through Glacier National Park to the lovely Polebridge Mercantile and back. You can roll your bike right up to the Amtrak station in PDX or SEA and take the train to Whitefish!
Who's in?

Without hesitation, I booked my Amtrak tickets, asked for vacation time, and it was a done deal. Logistics of figuring out how to bikepack on my bike would come later. I was going to Montana!

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Gear

I rode my bike that I ride for every other ride, Surly Straggler 650b. The primary modifications I made to make this a "bikepacking" trip (instead of bikecamping) was to add a framebag, butt rocket, and a Tubus low-rider front rack. I also removed my rear rack and fenders to make it as light as possible. 

Big thanks to my friend Greg for letting me borrow his Tubus rack, Madi for letting me use her panniers, and Josh for selling me his Blackburn buttrocket!

I didn't do a good job taking a photo of my pre-packed kit but basically I took everything I usually take bike camping, with a bit more attention paid to how I pack and food. With 1 planned resupply, it was important to know exactly what my meals were going to be.

Day 0 - Transportation, Whitefish, & Whitefish Bike Retreat

I took the Amtrak train from Seattle to Whitefish on Wednesday night. The train left Seattle around 4pm and got to Montana at 7am. This gave me lots of time in Whitefish on Thursday to explore town, stop by the local bike shop (with tons of touring cyclists in town), and get some fresh veggies at the grocery store.

The plan was to meet up with the Montana contingent at the Whitefish Bike Retreat around 2pm, so I had 7 hours to relax and explore town. My initial plan was to bike the 10 miles from town to the bike retreat, but after chatting with the folks at Whitefish Cycles, they warned me that the road was an 80mph highway and I'd be better off calling the free shuttle. Taking their advice (and free gear storage), I unloaded my panniers and set off to explore town, while waiting for the 3pm shuttle.

Google Maps doesn't a very good job routing you onto the bike paths, but I eventually found a great route to the local state park where I ate lunch and psyched myself up mentally for the upcoming ride. I also found a great hidden little spot to jump in the river naked (or so I thought until a few kayakers went by. Sorry!)

After a lazy day exploring, I eventually made my way back to town where I caught the shuttle out to the Whitefish Bike Retreat. There, I met up with Whitney Ford Terry, Laurie, and Annette who drove in from Missoula. We set up camp for the night, put together their bikes, and then explored the single-track by the bike retreat. 

 Single track at the bike retreat!

Single track at the bike retreat!

Now, I don't love single-track. At all. But this was fun to ride on. We rode 3 or 4 miles to a hidden alpine lake where we were the only people for miles and  I skinny-dipped for the 2nd time that day. Pure perfection!

Day 1 - Whitefish to Apgar (by way of FAFFING around)

Friday was our first actual day of planned riding, and with 30ish miles planned, we had a fairly easy day planned. We took the free shuttle back into Whitefish where we met up with the Portland based crew made up with Jocelyn, Molly, and Christy, who had just arrived on the train.

In what would come to be a theme of the weekend, we fucked around forever in Whitefish, adjusting gear, buying coffee and more groceries (is 5 tuna packets enough? No...better buy one more just in case!), and reapplying sunscreen. Finally, around 11:30am we rolled out.

The first 5ish miles were on pavement, but we quickly made a turn onto gravel and didn't see pavement again until late in the afternoon. 

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The riding was super enjoyable, with mellow climbs, fast descents, and signs of wildlife all around (but no actual bear spottings.) We made a brief detour at lunch to eat by a lake and all throughout the day, our spirits were super high. We even found a spring water cache of fresh, ice cold water on the side of the road! Does it get any better?

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Eventually, the gravel ran out and we were forced back into civilization in West Glacier. But civilization also meant ICE CREAM and beer! It was like Disneyland! A quick resupply, and then we were back on the path into Glacier.

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Through some sort of magic, just after the entrance to Glacier National Park, we took a bike path all the way to the Apgar Campground. This meant we avoided all the cars and were able to ride on most of the most beautiful bike paths I've ever been on. Highly recommend!

Day 2 - Apgar to Polebridge

I had been nervous about Day 2 since seeing the route. It was planned to be 44 miles and nearly 4,200 feet of climbing, including a mountain pass.

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Our route was intended to take us through Glacier National Park on the Inside North Fork Road , which is the least visited part of the park. Only the first 6 miles are open to cars, after which it is hiker-biker only. The entire road is also gravel and dirt. Woo wee, here we go.

 Jocelyn admiring the scenery on Day 2.

Jocelyn admiring the scenery on Day 2.

We did not make it all the way to our intended destination. A combination of rougher going roads, slower traveling speeds, and challenging riding slowed us down. 

But oh my gosh was it pretty. After a seemingly endless climb, we eventually hit a plateau that was bursting with wild flowers and new growth. As you can see in the photo of Jocelyn, the area had a wildfire a few years ago, so most of the big trees were gone, but there was tons of new growth. 

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We also encountered more bear poop than I ever want to see again. Thankfully, no actual bears, but I was definitely on watch for them. Most of us, myself included were riding with bear spray. Mine was in my feedbag (attached to my handlebars), which is usually used for snacks and a camera. For this ride, it was for bear spray.  At some point I noticed however that my feed bag was empty. Bummer. Somebody gets a good ground score!

Anyway, late in the day we eventually made it to Polebridge, which is the cutest little town ever. They've got a bar, a mercantile/bakery, a few houses, and a hostel. But that was the best damn little town I've been to in my life. 

The bakery offers up excellent home baked goods, cold beers, and great food. They also give a free pastry if you arrive via foot or bike, which was absolutely amazing after riding all day.

All of us practically collapsed on the porch of the mercantile, replenishing calories and dreading the remaining 17 miles for the day. It was all uphill over Red Meadow pass. And boy did we not want to do it. Somebody came up with the idea of sleeping in Polebridge and once I heard that, I knew I wasn't getting back on my bike for any significant distance.

We made arrangements to camp at the hostel, which offered a real kitchen and SHOWERS! I know it had only been 2 days, but damn did I need a shower. I'm not really cut out for the life of a long-distance/real bike packer. I like my creature comforts.

We also got to watch a solar film festival that was touring through the town, which was pretty cool.

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Day 3 - Polebridge to Whitefish

Sunday presented two options: complete the original route, including Red Meadow pass for the return to Whitefish, or a much lower elevation, similar distance route. I was still pretty gassed from the previous day's riding and was not stoked on a huge climb. I made the decision to take the alternate route, which looked to be about 50 miles back to Whitefish through Columbia Falls. One of the other women, Christy also decided to join me.

 Our plan to get back to Whitefish from Polebridge

Our plan to get back to Whitefish from Polebridge

We all left together early Sunday and split off at mile 1 for what would prove to be the longest distance day yet. The first 30ish miles were all gravel, but they followed the river from Polebridge to Columbia Falls. This meant the elevation gain/loss was minimal and the riding was pretty easy. The kind of gravel riding that I love and excel on.

 #roadslikethese 

#roadslikethese 

At some point, the gravel transitioned back to pavement, the speed limit went from 25 to 70 (WTF?!) and the magic sort of drained out of the trip. It was also nearing 95 degrees, and we were ready to be done with the riding.

After many stops in the river to cool off/refill water (hooray for portable filtration), we made it back to Whitefish. About an hour later, the rest of the crew arrived who had taken the other route and we were a big happy family yet again.

We stuffed our faces with celebratory burgers and beers, took lots of pictures of our dirty bikes, and said our goodbyes. I got on the train back to Seattle with a full heart, tan (and dusty) legs, and a yearning for more riding in Montana.

Huge thanks to Whitney for putting the route together for us (adapted from this Bikepacking route), and for all of the other women for their encouragement and companionship on the ride!