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

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Swiss Postmen on Eco Electric Trikes

This is the largest version of the picture

The Swiss postman in Basel uses an electric scoot mobile with trailer to deliver the mail. Swiss Post currently has around 5,000 electric scooters used for deliveries, the largest fleet of its kind in Europe.

By 2016, Swiss Post’s entire fleet of scooters will be run on environmentally friendly eco-electricity.

Powered by battery, the scooters produce no emissions and are virtually silent. The required electricity comes entirely from renewable sources in Switzerland. The electric scooters save 4000 tonnes of CO2 a year.


Crazy Guy on a Bike bicycle touring website, journal by Ciska Keerssemeeckers and Michael Verhage
L.A to South America on 2 tandems and onwards to Timbuktu.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Coming Home: Amtrak and a Folding Bicycle

The modern bicycle is an intricate machine, one designed to roll along the earth, to gear up or down according to the terrain, and, of course, to brake when necessary.

Traveling with a folding bicycle that is protected only by a soft bag presents other challenges because the bicycle is no longer meeting the planet as designed--tires to the ground. With a second Amtrak trek across the country with my Montague Navigator, I better understand the unique challenges of traveling with a folding bicycle by train.

Folding and packing the Montague into its soft traveling case was easier than my first time, chronicled in my January 17, 2014, blog entry. This time I had removed both fender attachments. In the California Central Valley's Mediterranean climate, rain really isn't an issue. When I travel this route again in late summer, I may not bring the fenders, or I may protect them with bubble wrap and attach them to the bike's frame during the trip.

I covered the gearing and chain with a protective cover as before and also slipped the shipping protectors onto the rear hub over the derallieur and through the front fork wheel slots. My one concern now is that the large front gear sprocket rests on the bottom of the bag (and, hence, the ground). It seems this may be a potential cause of damage if not to the sprocket then at least the bag. I tried placing insulating foam tubing around the sprocket, but the wheel and sprocket can turn some, dislodging the protection.

My additional protection I'll try next time is pretty simple--a  piece of rug that fits the bottom of the bag. The rug should be thick enough to protect the bottom of the bag from the sprocket and the sprocket from the ground. I'm not sure yet what dimensions the rug will be. I'll have to think that through and probably experiment.

Other than that, I think further discussion should be on the Amtrak experience.

My return route with the bike this time was from California to Iowa. The first leg of the trip was on an Amtrak Thruway bus from Oroville to Sacramento. When the bus arrived at the pickup location, I told the driver that my "package" was a folding bike and that I'd like it stored with the derailleur up.

The driver said, "We're instructed with folding bikes to not touch them and let you store them exactly as you like," to which I replied, "That sounds perfect." I placed the bicycle in the lower storage area of the bus myself and also removed it at destination.

In Sacramento, the train tracks are about three hundred yards from the station and Thruway bus terminal. Electric shuttle carts are available for passengers and luggage. The cart driver told me that I could load "my more delicate items" myself. So once again I was able to take care of the bike myself. Riding on the cart, I situated the bike case so that I could sit in my seat and hold onto the carrying strap to keep the bike from shifting.

Once the Zephyr arrived, I asked the official where to put the bicycle on the coach car. "Just in the lower level luggage area if there's room." There was room for me to place the bike on top of luggage already resting on the floor section of the luggage section. My concern, of course, was luggage leaving and arriving as the train progressed on its journey, and whether the bike would end up being jerked around by passengers unaware of spokes and derailleurs, or whether new passengers would pile luggage on to of the bike.

I was traveling with the bike bag as one piece of my carry-on luggage, though, so the only solution I could think of was to walk downstairs after train stops and check out the bike, moving any luggage if needed to secure the safety of the bike. If I felt it necessary, I would talk with the conductor about any problem.

Folding bike = lighter grey bag, lower left
Sure enough, the next morning when I went down to the baggage area, there was a large suitcase on top of my bicycle. Had the bike been damaged? Was the derailleur bent? I found out when arriving home that the bicycle was okay.

I talked with a conductor about how the Amtrak folding bike policy was great--right up to when the carry-on bike was piled with other baggage. At that point the policy becomes risky or not user-friendly.

We considered options and decided that the lower coach area could be utilized. Sometimes there are no seats in this area, and sometimes seats are added for customers who have difficulty climbing the stairs to the main coach area.
  1. Could the seats in the lower seating section, which mount on rails that run the length of the area, be mounted starting 16-18 inches from the back wall, leaving two spaces at the back in each lower coach section where folding bikes could be stored?
  2. Could eye fasteners be added to the front of the seating area so that folding bikes could be placed against the forward bulkhead and fastened with bungee cords?
Either option could provide safe space for folding bicycles in every coach car for little or or no cost. Another conductor (who owns a Fuji folding bike) also mentioned that the bikes might be placed in the above-the-seat baggage area in the lower section. It will have to be seen how stable that situation would be. I might suggest it my next trip, bringing along a few bungee cords to further stabilize the bike if need be. 

I am sending a letter to Adventure Cycling Association, which as created a task force with Amtrak regarding bicycle policies, in order to forward my experiences and suggestions.

I arrived home in Iowa from a sunny and warm spring in California to a cold, wet spring--from green and blue back to greys and browns. It's still above freezing, though, and I'm glad to have my Montague Navigator back home for riding. I think I'll put the fenders back on, though.

Copyright 2014 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Friday, January 17, 2014

Montague Navigator Folding Bicycle, Burley Travoy Commuting Trailer, and Amtrak

Two carry-on bags and an underseat bag.
Last April, 2013, I was planning to take Amtrak with my Navigator and Travoy out to see my parents. I chronicled my hopes in an April 21 post. Then I had to suddenly leave by airplane and stay six months. Now I'm ready to try again. Writing this on a Friday, I will be on the train Sunday, January 19. (Article updated at the end, describing my--and the bike's--journey.)

It's in the 40's to 60's in California. Below is what it looks like in Iowa. I'm looking forward to some warm bike-riding weather, even though my 89-year-old mom is saying "it's cold out here" in California.

This is the bicycle weather I'm leaving for two weeks.
The Montague Navigator will be packed in its soft carrying bag. I'm hoping that the carrying and stowing will just be done by myself as I board and depart the train. I also will be taking the Amtrak shuttle bus from Sacramento to Oroville, California. I plan to add to this post after I arrive, detailing the ease of Amtrak service.

Although Montague boasts its under-a-minute breakdown of its folding bike line, I'm being more cautious because of the length and manner of the bike's transport. Here are some precautions I've taken while packing the bicycle:
  1. I've added folding pedals. Montague provides this option when purchasing. I bought folding pedals online from a different source at a later date. The folding pedals really slim the width and allow for easier bagging because the slimmer profile allows for more space when zipping.
  2. I removed the fender attachments which are added to the braking bolt assemblage. When the bike was folded the "prongs" for the fenders stuck out and could easily be bent, could scratch the bike, or could damage the bag--in my opinion, anyway. This will add maybe ten minutes bike assembly, but if it's not raining, I'll just add the fenders later. Hey, it's the California Central Valley.
    The folding pedals and the sprocket protection are shown.
  3. I've bought some plumbing pipe insulation tubing. Cutting a section, I slipped it around the sprocket to protect and lessen grease stains. I also bought an inexpensive backpack rain cover that I've slipped around the drive train.
    Drive-train cover, fenders, and extra bags.
  4. I'm adding some ditty bags with clothes and sundry to the bag, since my two carry-on bags for Amtrak will be the bike and the trailer. Both bike and trailer bags can hold extra. If I were really serious, I'd tuck more carefully, but I have cooking access and extra clothes at my parents' place, since I go there regularly to support them. If I were heading out to tour, I'd probably send a general delivery box to my departure town in advance of the train trip. I could include food and cooking materials in that box.
    I might add a small ditty bag to this.
The entire arrangement will consist of three "bags," the bike, the trailer, and my underseat knapsack, which fits with the Amtrak folding bike policy:
"Folding bicycles under the dimensions of 34" x 15" x 48"/860 x 380 x 1120 mm will be allowed onboard all trains in lieu of a piece of baggage. They must be considered a true folding bicycle."
 A recent flap regarding folding bicycles and Amtrak was posted by BikePortland. It involved a Texas route and car attendants who were under-informed and probably over-worked and tired. The article makes me nervous, so I'll see what happens in a couple of days. My feeling is that the folding bike policy states they are allowed on "all trains" and count as one of the two carry-on bags. My bike bag fits easily within the allowable size standards, the Zephyr certainly is one of "all trains," so I see no problem. I'm bringing along a hard copy of the online policy.

Wish me luck--and I'll add an addendum after I reach California.


At the Sacramento Amtrak train/Amtrak bus terminal

The stationmaster and the Amtrak conductor at the Zephyr's arrival in Ottumwa never questioned the "oversize" bike bag, although I did at the appropriate moment state, "It's a folding bike." I did not have to use my printing of Amtrak folding bike policy or explain anything.

The conductor at boarding told me to put the bike in a separate storage room right next to the baggage area, a room whose sliding door was marked "Authorized Personnel Only." Opening the door revealed a large room that was empty except for a scoop shovel and a broom in one corner. I leaned the bike upright against the wall nearest the door.

This was great because placing the bike in the bike in the storage area would have meant placing it on its side. During the trip I could peek through the door's lower ventilation grate and see the bike safely upright in its bag. Later, the last Amtrak crew before arrival brought the bike out and placed it on the baggage rack near the coach car's door. Luckily, it was placed on the side that kept the derailleur up.

Arriving at Sacramento, the train arrives about a half mile from the station because Amtrak is in the process of moving and upgrading the facility. Little electric shuttle cars transport passengers and luggage to the terminal building. The driver of the electric shuttle asked me, "What's that?!" in a somewhat panicked voice when seeing the size of my bike bag, and asked me to help him load it. I was more than happy to help because it allowed me to keep the derailleur upright so it wouldn't be bent.

The Amtrak "Thruway" shuttle bus driver didn't blink at my mention of the folding bike. I helped load again, mentioning that I wanted the derailleur up when placing the bike on its side.

Arriving at the Oroville pick-up and drop-off site, I assembled my rig on the sidewalk before a gas station (having the station's canopy lights as an aid) and then rode my bike nine miles to my parents' place.

Ready to roll after two days of sitting
As a folding bike traveler, Amtrak was very easy for me. Amtrak personnel seemed knowledgeable in policies--at least, there was never any questioning of policy. The bike was not damaged in any way, and I felt just plain smug-happy self-sufficient to slap my bike together and pedal on down the road.

Rocky Mountains, sightseeing and heading toward warmer climes
For a fuller description of the Amtrak journey (with more photos) see my January 22 writing blog post at Tom Kepler Writing.
Copyright 2014 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Monday, October 28, 2013

An Enjoyable Ride to the Top of Table Mountain

North of Oroville, California, are the north and south Table Mountains--and on a Sunday morning, October 20, I finally rode to the top of the north mesa. The photo at the right is a view from Oroville of the south table with the north behind it.

Sunday morning was a good day to make this ride because the traffic was light. I rode almost the whole way but walked toward the top off and on while taking photos. Also, to be honest, I felt no compunction to bust a gut. The road is steeper as one approaches the top! I had not been on this road for many years. There is a bleak beauty to the place. I really enjoyed the climb, so I must be getting in shape. The ride from my parents' place was about 25 miles roundtrip. Table Mountain is a big part of Oroville, dominating the landscape above the town and being a winding trip all adolescents seem to drive at least once.

The beginning of the ride is like much of the outskirts or Oroville--some flats and a bit of climbing as the road eases into the foothills.

I chose this ride on Sunday morning, October 20, because I just felt like climbing. I'd grind down to my low gears, and when that wasn't good enough, I'd gear up about three and stand and mash the pedals.
The green sack is filled with all the clothes I took off between eight and nine o'clock. The sun heated the mountain up quickly, and maybe the climb warmed me, also! The fall is the perfect time to ride and climb because the temperature misses the extremes.
Because the road skirts the ravine and is not at the top of the mesa, the views are bound by trees as the ride ascends. Colors are faded by the morning sun, but the silence and the space were just what I needed.

That's California's Central Valley in the distance.
In the haze are the Sutter Buttes, the smallest mountain range in the world. One thing I like about riding into the foothills is how quickly one can get above the valley and gain a new view of the environment.
There are several "tables" to Table Mountain. Cherokee Road goes to the second table, wending its way between the two mesas. The road is twisty and quirky, often leaning the wrong way into a turn or sagging at the road's edge where the earth has slipped away. Sunday morning allowed me to enjoy the road with little traffic.
This is the top--looking pretty normal until turning around and seeing the vista from the mesa's edge. Because the mesa is big, except for the lava runs, much of the environment looks like the valley with scrub oak and bleached grasses. The road across the top is pretty flat, having some ups and downs as it winds through the lava flows.

This is me at the top. Further on, according to Google Maps, is a ecological research station. If I would have known that, I'd have pedaled a little more. It's a unique experience to pedal up the steep hills and then to reach the top and see a flat expanse. Where's the downhill? In this case, a ways across the mesa.

Here's standing on a bluff after ducking through a barbed wire fence.
It appears that the slopes ease off to the valley. It was not possible from where I was to capture the precipitous drop-off of the mesa that is so dramatic from the valley.

On the way down are a series of ravines and saddles as the lava spread and cooled.
Bypassing the first table is a climb and then a drop down between the two tables to a short series of meadows. These meadows were used for dirt and mud trucking and other motor mayhem, at least in my brother's time.

Cherokee Road continues on as Oregon Gulch Road heads off and on into the boondocks. These steep roads are OK because it rarely freezes or snows. On those rare occasions that it does, folks just stay home till the sun melts the freeze. I stopped off here on way down the mountain.

At the bottom of the gulch is a stream. The road continues on into the canyon "breaks" as washboard gravel. Even though close to town, one can quickly get into an area where few people travel. People live on these roads, but there certainly is little through traffic, although the road does loop around to Highway 70. This photo is a "where the sidewalk" or paved road ends moment.

I didn't want to mess with washboard gravel and the possibility of puncture vine thorns. However, up this road my mom attended a one-room school in the boondocks over 70 years ago. The school is gone now. This photo is at the bridge where the pavement ends. There was a pretty stream below. Maybe the trip to the school site is one I'll take in the spring before all the puncture vine thorns mature and harden, as they are now in the fall.
The reservoir above the powerhouse diversion dam creates a quiet boating experience. I saw folks kayaking there the first morning I rode this far. I ate a 2nd breakfast beside the water on my first trip in this direction a few weeks ago. I only got as far as the reservoir on that first trip and had to return because of limited time.
My gag shot. Here I am next to the bridge over the aqueduct that moves the water to Southern California. I wonder if someone called the sheriff: "We've got a 555 on the Cherokee Road aqueduct bridge . . . " As I was setting up and taking the shot, a couple in an SUV came whizzing by, shouting "Woo Hoo!!!" Let my freak flag fly.
Then it was down to the Feather River and across the pedestrian/cycling bridge. When I went to high school, this was the only bridge. Now just east of this bridge is one for cars.
This trip may be the cap of my biking here in Oroville this year. It looks like I'll be going home in a little over a week. I'm glad to be going home (I've been here for 6 months), but the riding here in Oroville is a great variety of valley riding and mountain climbing, whatever I want. I can always visit again, though--and I will.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Raleigh Detour 2.5 Bicycle Review

"Probably the best buy for a light touring bike," said my local bike shop guy in southeast Iowa, "is the Raleigh 2.5 Detour."

"A touring bike for $350?"

"Well, it's got a steel frame, no shocks, a granny gear, and 700C tires. Sure, you get more for the Detour 5.5, but it costs $300 more. If you're looking for solid yet inexpensive, then the 2.5 is a great buy. An extra $70 will get you a rear rack and fenders."

A sudden trip to California to take care of my elderly parents for six months led me after two months to remember this conversation and purchase the 2.5 Detour. I can say that I am satisfied with the results.

I have to be with my family every day, but once my brother (who had broken his leg) was able to cook breakfast for my parents, I began taking day rides in the morning, usually from around fifteen miles (we're six miles from town) to thirty miles.

The bike has handled very well--it climbs well, the components have held up, and I've found the bike comfortable. I've managed to put in about 300 miles a month, so I'm now probably close to a thousand miles on the bike.

If I had to change anything, I'd probably get a better seat. The stock seat squeaks a little and is somewhat wide--not restrictively bad, since I haven't been cycling over 3-4 hours, but a more upgrade seat would probably be my first choice.

The granny gear helps a great deal on the mountain roads here in northern California in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. I use a Bike Pro canvas folding bag that hooks onto the rear rack. This combo lets me shop and also carry around a few bike tools and spare tube.

Greenline Cycles, the local bike shop in Oroville, California, ordered the bike for me, and it arrived in a week. I received a free tune-up after three months. I'd feel pretty comfortable using this bike for touring, as long as I didn't weigh it down excessively. Using my Burley Travoy trailer, which would lessen the strain on the wheels, I think I could even do longer tours.

My point, though, is that this is a great bike for the money. For $350 plus another hundred for accessories, a chance to hit the road with a new bike is pretty wonderful.

Plus, it comes in blue.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved