Friday, June 26, 2015

Bicycling the Americas, a book review

In 2008, the Sathre-Vogel family--mom, dad, and two ten-year-old sons--began their bicycle trek from Alaska and the Arctic Circle to Argentina's Tierra del Fuego. The trip lasted about three years, and mother Nancy Sathre-Vogel chronicles the family's adventure in her book Changing Gears: a Family Odyssey to the End of the World.

Quite a journey it was, with desperately difficult terrain, medical emergencies, and equipment failure. Nancy Sathre-Vogel honestly tells their story, including her doubts and weaknesses, the powerful strength of family bonds, and the innocent exuberance of the boys.
>>Read more>>

Friday, June 12, 2015

Overnighter Bike Camping (S240): Lake Darling

It never works out quite as expected, but that's part of the adventure!

Lake Darling is about 15 miles from Fairfield, most of it on the hilly Pleasant Plain Road. The traffic was light and respectful, but the headwind wasn't. I arrived at 5 o'clock to Lake Darling State Park that has just received a multi-year makeover. My tent campsite was nice with a view of the lake and not too far from the restrooms and showers.

I had fun cooking my noodles with my Emberlit wood-burning stove, adding the noodles to my stew that I had brought in a Thermos. It's a pretty great little stove that focuses the heat of twigs that I collect from nearby.

The unexpected was when Bob from Arkansas showed up on his Long-Haul Trucker. He's traveled over 50,000 miles on bike trips and had gone104 miles the day I met him. We had a good talk and I picked up a few tips.

The night was pleasant in the park, and the sound of owls put me to sleep.

The trip home began as an easy morning with no wind, but the wind picked up about halfway home so I dug in for another headwind. I am finding that on overnighters, I have less energy the second day. I guess that's because I haven't built up my conditioning yet since it's still early in the bike season. Bob heads out every day, and that builds up his stamina.
I got home, though, and have good memories of Lake Darling. I had remembered that the tent sites were out in the sun but were actually tucked in among trees. Very nice.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One Apple 6+ Smartphone Equals 6 Electronic Devices

Well, I did it. I bought an Apple iPhone to replace all the electronics (and chargers) I was packing around on my bicycle.

Here are the devices I've accumulated and have been packing on my bicycle:
  • Kindle eReader
  • Canon movie/still camera
  • Tracfone (buy minutes of phone time)
  • HP mini computer
  • Verizon MiFi wireless 
  • Garmin Edge Touring GPS

What I've Learned So Far

I'm still on the learning edge regarding the iPhone 6+, but I'm very impressed and believe adding a new, monthly "communications utility bill" to my expenses is worth it. Buying the 64G phone should provide me with plenty of space for all my needs.

What have I discovered so far? One important fact is that such a consolidation is a compromise. The iPhone is in many ways less than the original device it replaced--yet so close that the bulk elimination is the deciding factor.

One reason I bought the larger 6+ phone is that I thought it would be easier to use as an eReader, and I was right. Reading a book on the phone is very easy, and it was easy to download the Kindle app and to use it. I have to say, though, that I still really like the Kindle E Ink reader, but not enough to pack it with me when I travel. The phone's screen size will do just fine.

I'm still playing with the phone's camera and video options, but the quality appears to be quite good. I've downloaded the iTunes app to my PC and am getting used to the new system. I think the MOV video files will work with my video editor, but if not, there are converters out there I can use. I have bought a phone holder to attach to my tripod, and also a selfie stick that will hold the camera while I ride and record. Hopefully it will also provide some better angles for clips.

The iPhone, of course, replaces my Tracfone. In terms of quality, the Apple phone wins on all counts, except for cost and size. The iPhone 6+ is a little big and heavy if I were a big-time phone chatter, but I'm not. The larger-sized screen comes in handy for options other than a chat on the phone.

For instance, my HP mini computer has a keyboard, larger screen, and more options, yet it is also at least six times bigger than the phone. I will miss the keyboard and will sometimes write by hand in a notebook now. However, I have downloaded Google docs on the iPhone and am also playing around with the dictation option. My step-daughter has also told me I'll get faster with touchscreen keyboarding options, although that keyboard is small. Viewing movies on the 6+ screen is great--yes, a smaller screen but excellent quality. I've learned how to move my mp4 movies to the phone, no conversion necessary. I will also be able to download some audios to the phone. A big choice also was that the phone's FaceTime will replace Skype for my face-to-face chats with my family.

I am pleased with Verizon's reception. The MiFi I used was also a Verizon device, and the iPhone will render the MiFi unnecessary. The phone will even work as a WiFi hotspot if I ever need to bring my HP.

Finally, I have downloaded Google's GPS maps app, and it looks like it will be great. However, there are other apps I can try also if I need to. The screen on the iPhone is larger (another reason why I bought the 6+) and the app even includes voice directions.

Bottom Line

The Apple iPhone 6+ will meet my daily and travel needs quite nicely, and with greatly reduced space. I believe quality may also be improved with the little device, but only time and interaction will tell me that for sure. It has all been about compromise, but in this case, it seems the compromises are all very easy to make.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Electronic Equipment Consolidation--Too Many Devices!?

Slowly I keep plugging along, buying the electronics I need at the moment, but now that I'm doing more traveling on Amtrak with my folding bike, and more bicycle camping, maybe it's time to consolidate my devices.

Here are the devices I have at this time:
  • Kindle eReader
  • Canon movie/still camera
  • Tracfone (buy minutes of phone time)
  • HP mini computer
  • Verizon MiFi wireless 
  • Garmin Edge Touring GPS
And, of course, all these come with cords and chargers.

All these devices fit my needs.
  • I enjoy the Kindle's E Ink screen for its ease of reading.
  • My Canon FS10 suit me well with its video/still photo capabilities. I like the lens clarity.
  • The Tracfone is minimal. I mainly use it for check-in's with the family.
  • A mini-computer fits a pannier easily and is fairly small.
  • The MiFi allows me access to the internet while on the go.
  • The Garmin accepts my custom routes, is good for through-town guidance in strange cities, and provides directions to stores and points of interest.
I believe I can consolidate this to 3 items:
  • an Apple iPhone
  • a Galaxy 7" screen tablet.
  • retro pencil and paper journal
On the upside, this is quite a reduction of weight and equipment. I could even minimize more and just go with the iPhone. (By the way, the brand specificity is because my wife has an iPhone; otherwise, I could also go with Android, which my son uses.) Just an iPhone would be quite a bit of minimizing. However, on Amtrak, I think I'd enjoy movies more on the 7" pad, and reading eBooks on that size screen would be a basically book-sized screen. The pencil-and-paper journal? I could use the touch-screen pad or phone approach, but I think I'd be faster with a pencil. Showing my age, I suppose.

On the downside, there will be a loss of capabilities. Generally speaking, each of the devices can fit my specific needs just a touch better--bigger screen, more options, a little faster. I do not think, though, that the "touch better" warrants all the clutter and weight. I might add the video camera to the mix if I had a specific project in mind and wanted an external microphone. I might find that not necessary, though, as I explore and learn the possibilities of the new devices. The main downside, of course, is the monthly fee for the phone. My Tracfone costs me about $7 a month for the minutes I buy. For the MiFi, though, I usually spend $60 four times a year.

I'm also realizing that people who own smartphones really don't put them in the "optional" category. The smartphone is placed in the "necessary utilities" category--an information necessity. Water, electricity, and information. The main reason I bought the Tracfone was for emergencies, but that little hand-held device can be a lot more.

The website reveals quite a range of possibilities. Right now I'm mostly focused on keeping weight down. I'm not on a world expedition, and my panniers are not my permanent home.

Any suggestions or experiences to relate? I'm still in the speculating stage.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Bike Overnighter (S24O) to Jefferson County Park

I left my house at 4:30 PM, the Thursday night before Memorial Day weekend, figuring that I'd beat the rush. Well, that was partially true. I found a campsite, but most were already taken.

As a guy with a 5th-wheeler across the way explained, "Some folks pay for a space starting on Monday, even though they show up on Friday. I got here Wednesday this year, and my usual spot was already taken."

So much for my forward-thinking plan! I did find a spot, though. The ride along the loop trail was fun, all loaded up with my panniers and drybag. I saw a neighbor walking his dog and gave a nonchalant nod.

The ride through the park set the mood. The trees shaded the lime chip trail, and the immediate mood was "outdoors and away from the bustle." That was somewhat dampened when I reached the campsite, already 75%  filled with RV's. I soldiered on, though, setting up my one-person tent, my bike leaning against the campground table. I wondered if some RV would pull in and tell me my little tent and bike didn't really count so hit the road.

I did get some looks from the folks who sat watching me in their lawn chairs beneath awnings extended from their 5th-wheel trailers. One guy came over and asked if I was from town.

"Yes," I said. "I'm just having fun and checking out how the equipment works."

"Looks to me like you could just take off with that rig."

"That's the idea."

Equipment Tests
  • Tent: My little $50 tent worked fine. Not much room in the outer vestibule for equipment . . . and not much room inside, either! One of those weight vs size things. For $50, I'm careful with this item. Not sure how it will hold up.
  • Toaks titanium cooking pot: It has a lid, handles, and is 550ml, a touch less than 2 cups volume. Nice for quickly heating water. Cools quickly so can be used as a mug. A touch small for real cooking.
  • Emberlit wood stove: Works great. Focuses heat upward and I just used sticks/twigs from the trees around. It could be a challenge on a wet day! Very light, packs flat. I brought along lint from the clothes dryer and a fire starter cube that I shaved pieces from as the fire base.
  • Topeak bike rack: My panniers mounted well, and the lower mount gave me room on top for the drybag. Also allows for sliding on the Topeak top bag for day rides (or an Amtrak journey).
I packed up the next morning and was only 10 minutes late to work. I would have easily made it on time, but I was playing with my stove, making hot tea, and I waited longer than I needed for the tent to dry.

I was pedaling home, though, and had the thought, "Maybe I should just ride straight to work and show up early." I opted for home, a quick shower, and work clothes, though.

A real shame, actually. My loaded bike leaning against my desk. . . The faint smell of woodsmoke in the air. . .  Tee shirt and black baggy bike shorts. . . It would have been a hoot!

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 25, 2015

SOL Escape Bivvy Tactical Breathable Survival Sleeping Bag - Olive Drab, Review

About 30 state, county, and city campgrounds are within 50 miles of my home in southeast Iowa, so I plan to do as many bike overnighters as I can this camping season.

I was looking at lighter gear and ran across the SOL Escape Bivvy. It SE Iowa in the summer, not much sleep gear is needed because the nights are hot and muggy. I thought maybe I'd take a light flannel travel blanket, one of those that roll up into a little pack, and the SOL bivvy. I could pull the bivvy over me toward morning when it cooled.

What are the limit for low temperatures, though? I'd watched the YouTube videos, I'd just seam-sealed a little tent I'd bought, so why not try out both? Yesterday, April 24, the forecast was possible rain and thunderstorms with a low of about 45F. I set the tent up outside the house and got in about 9 PM, the temp in the 50's.

I set up with a Thermarest pad and a Big Agnes blow-up for support. I brought along a cheap fleece bag liner that I bought a couple of years ago for $10. Some reviews online had said a liner would "up" the bivvy's warmth. I was wearing a light cotton sock hat, thermal underwear, and insulated socks. Soon I inserted the fleece liner, not because I was cold but because I wasn't cozy. There were some areas where I was cool, notably where my shoulders and hips stretched the bag.

As the night cooled, the cool spots became cold spots. I put on a light cotton flannel shirt, then my fleece jacket, and then my cotton cargo pants. I slept, never really getting cold during the night, but definitely having cold spots. The low of the night was 46F, but with winds the "Real Feel" was down to 32F. The little tent is a single half-dome, net with a cover. I got some wind.

What I feel is that I would have been better off using my down bag. I camped in mid-March on an overnighter, used my down bag, and was cozy all night until dawn when I could feel some coolness rising from the still-frozen ground.

Here are some specific comments about the SOL bivvy:
  • It works as a survival sleeping bag. I never got chilled.
  • It's a lean sleeping bag. I'm 5'8", 145lbs, and I was fine but with no extra room. Add the clothes and the fleece liner, and maybe I wasn't cozy-warm, but I was certainly snug.
  • The zipper zips halfway, so with the clothes, the liner, the bag, each bag with a zipper, it was an expedition taking a mid-night pee!
  • The tightener for the head works great, but the bag's zipper is right at the edge of the tightened face enclosure. I padded the zipper with the fleece liner's top edge.
  • The inside silver liner feels cold to the touch, so the fleece bag really helped, as did socks and thermal underwear.
  • The bag's material does breathe. I didn't have any condensation except when while asleep I hunkered down some in the bag. When I woke, there was condensation right at the edge of the face opening when I had been breathing inside the bag.
  • The specs say the bag has waterproof seams, so if my tent had leaked, I'd at least not been soggy, like I would have been in my down bag. It's raining cats and dogs right now as I write this, so I wonder how that little tent is doing!
The bag does retain your heat, but it seems that where the bag is tight one feels the outside temperature more. This was not true for my contact with the sleeping mattress. That was fine.

The bivvy folds and rolls into a little sack with a shape of about 5" x 6". It's light. I'm looking forward to using it in warm and hot weather, and I'll update this review when that happens.

Last words? The SOL Escape Bivvy Tactical Breathable Survival Sleeping Bag is a useful addition to my bicycle camping gear, but it's one that has its limitations and quirks. By knowing the quirks and using the bivvy within its performance parameters, I believe from my night's experience that the bag will lighten my load and keep me warm.

I'm not throwing away my down bag, though, and if you buy the SOL bivvy, neither should you. I'd rate this bivvy bag with three stars at this time, just an OK score because of the cold-spot experience. Once I really come to know the bivvy's limitations, though, and work within them, I think the bag will serve me well.

I spent another overnight in the front yard with the SOL bivvy. This time the low was 60 degrees. The results were much more comfortable, but I want to detail the process I followed.

First, going to sleep at 77 degrees, I just slept on top of my fleece liner (with only the air mattress beneath me and dressed in my light thermals as above), the bivvy bag pushed to the side. As the evening cooled I experimented: first in the fleece bag, then in the fleece bag with the bivvy on top like a blanket, then solely in the bivvy bag, then in the bivvy bag with the fleece on the outside. Finally, around 2:30 AM, I slipped into the fleece bag then the bivvy bag and slept comfortably for the rest of the night.

I fall asleep easily, so this experimentation was not an ordeal. I'd just wake, adjust, and fall back to sleep. There were still cool spots, but with the warmer temps, that was not uncomfortable. Now, all the survivalist types might call me a wuss, but I wasn't looking at this bag as survival equipment; I was seeking a high comfort level. When I go bike camping overnight, I'm just looking to enjoy myself in all phases of the experience.

My bottom line is I like the lightness of the bivvy, and with the fleece liner it will provide me with many options over the summer. If not for compactness and the waterproof feature, doing it all over again, I would probably look much more thoroughly at summer bags, even with the greater size and weight. However, I'm adaptable and it gets damn hot and humid here in SE Iowa in the summer, so probably in this case, less is more.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Friday, April 17, 2015

Round Prairie Park Campground Overnighter--An Adventure

RPP Schoolhouse at campground
My first overnighter bicycle "tour" of the year wasn't exactly a flop . . . but it wasn't exactly not.

The third Sunday in March 2015 was unseasonably warm, the next day even hotter, highs of 70 and 83. I was looking for a date for an overnighter, and on Saturday my wife said, "Why don't you go tomorrow afternoon and come back Monday morning?"

"Yeah," I said, "It's only 14 miles to the Round Prairie Park campground. I can pack up and get back in time for work."

It all worked out pretty well. The camping was nice. I had the little county campground to myself. My new wood-burning Emberlite "rocket" stove worked great. There were some details, though, some things I didn't realize . . .
  1. I had just gotten past a cold, so even though I felt fine, I didn't have any stamina.
  2. I had not ridden all winter, and "a 14-mile jaunt" was more than my body expected.
  3. Seeing how my Travoy bicycle trailer handled by loading it up immensely was probably not the best way to begin the touring season.
  4. Headwind! I had thought, It'll be okay because I'll have a tailwind coming back the next morning. How foolish was that? Headwind both ways!
You can see how innocently naive I was. It worked out, though. And my first overnighter of the year was a great learning experience.

Sleeping in temperatures of the 40's was comfortable with my sleeping bag. Wussy that I am, I'd never slept out in the cold. (And some hardy souls would say temps in the 40's is not cold.) About 4 in the morning, I could feel the ground chill creeping up through the pad and bag, but nothing excessive, even though the ground gets cold over Iowa winters. I took my heavy North Face tent--less netting and more solid covering than my other tent.

My ride to the campground was a battle with headwind the whole way, but I made it, tired but satisfied. The next morning I was more tired than expected, so with the headwinds back it actually took longer to return. I walked the bigger hills. I walked sections of the 2 miles of county road gravel just before the park. The family was considering sending out a search party. I was late to work. I picked up a cold again, no doubt my depletion of energies contributing.

However, it was ultimately a good experience. I learned. I enjoyed (pretty much). I returned.

And today I write about my experience and look forward to my next.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved