With travel having opened up and the event calendar (largely) back to normal, for me this year was about packing in adventures of all descriptions. Chief among those was a two-week bikepacking loop from the heart of Budapest out into the mountains of Slovakia and back again. But there were also two rides taking in the length of Wales (one racing, the other bikepacking) and then a clutch of camping weekenders, including Gritfest, Grinduro and the National Gravel Champs.
As a result, my kit picks are a somewhat eclectic mix, demanding both performance but also practicality. Either way, every one of these items really impressed over the last twelve months and I’d fully recommend them (although some with a few nuanced caveats).
Garmin 1040 Edge Solar
It’s hard to fully cover the features of a bike computer packing as much tech as this in a bite-sized chunk, so I’ll focus just on the aspect that’s impressed me most: the battery life.
Even with a power meter and heart rate monitor both connected – and having the screen switched on and displaying my route for the entirety of the ride, I the Garmin 1040 solar still only dropped to 76% charge after cycling the entire Welsh-English border, from Chepstow to Chester.
That’s just astounding. Doing that distance with a Hammerhead Karoo 2 (which is utterly excellent in many other ways) and it needed to be put into an extreme battery saving mode with about 20% of the ride left.
Interestingly, I don’t believe that the Solar functionality really added that much to the battery life, I think it’s mainly down to the size of the battery and the energy efficiency of the unit. I haven’t had a non-solar Edge 1040 to cross reference this with, but from the solar data it provides, apparently just under one hour and 20 minutes of runtime was added by the British sun – that shouldn’t have been enough to keep the charge at 76% on its own.
But whatever reason truly is, I can at least say that the Edge 1040 Solar is simply superb for battery life. Which was a massive help when riding through the remoter parts of Northern Hungary and Easter Slovakia, when opportunities for recharging weren’t so frequent. I was able to save the power bank for my phone and camera, trusting the 1040 Solar to see itself through until the next major town.
You can read my review of the Garmin Edge 1040 Solar here.
Rab Obtuse shorts
You would have thought that with the profusion of all things gravel, a good set of overshorts would be easy to find. Certainly enough cycling brands now offer baggy shorts within their ranges. Still, despite their seeming abundance, none of these shorts quite hit exactly the right spot for me.
My first point of issue is the cut. I really don’t want my baggies too baggy and flapping about ridiculously in the wind. I also much prefer a slightly shorter short, and the current fashion that is being pushed by many brands of having the shorts finish dead on the kneecap just ends up rubbing and irritating me.
And then second is the looks: I just want a plain and simple short that can be worn anywhere. Ironically, this is the self defined purpose of a lot of gravel kit, but in being bedecked in quite so many zips and pockets, they just don’t quite hit that mark.
So enter Rab’s Obtuse Shorts, ostensibly intended for rock climbing.
It might come as a surprise that these should perform quite so well – but perhaps it shouldn’t. Rock climbing demands much more flexibility than cycling, and so the clothes are designed to match. The result being I had more freedom of movement than what I'm even able to take advantage of.
Similarly, the hard physical effort of rock climbing generates a lot of heat, but there isn't the same cooling effect from the relative wind speed that you get when cycling. As such, the breathability and wicking capacity of these shorts have been designed to be superb. Robustness and a long wear life are dealt with, too. Butting up against a sheer rock face is at least as abrasive as the grit-accelerated wear that shorts are subject to from the saddle.
They have been absolutely superb and were excellent on a two-week bikepacking trip from Budapest to the mountains of Slovakia.
MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent
It’s not the lightest option, using metal poles rather than the carbon fibre which some models come with. But it’s a very good balance of robustness, packability and general ease of use which is ideal for bikepacking trips.
On the packability, the bag it comes with is excellent, being generously sized and using compression straps to eliminate the bulk. Getting the tent into it is a breeze and whole things doesn’t take up much space. In fact, it fitted pretty much perfectly on the Old Man Mountain rear pannier rack.
The rainfly, which got some extremely heavy use over the course of the Hungary-Slovakia bikepacking trip, also did a highly commendable job. The water beaded well on the outside of the fabric and, although not quite like a Gore Shakedry jacket, it was possible to get much of the dew (and rain) off in the morning with just a firm shake.
Given how wet I often ended up in the evenings – coupled with the reasonably warm temperatures – I really pushed the limits of what the rainfly could handle in terms of the humidity and the rate at which it could move water vapour from the inside to the outside of the fabric.
Despite the testing conditions, Hubba Hubba rose to the challenge. I never felt too clammy and, although the inside of the rain fly would sometimes bead with the condensing water vapour, this was held separate from the inside part of the tent. That is to say, I stayed dry and comfortable even though the rainfly was having to deal with water droplets both outside and in!
Therm-a-Rest Space Cowboy Sleeping Bag
Sleeping bags are a very tough one to get right. Although it’s nice to be warm, you don’t want to go too luxuriously thick otherwise you won’t find a place for it on your bike. Equally, too much weight weenism and too minimal a sleeping bag will leave you shivering through the night – a mistake (I hope) you only make once!
With a ‘comfort’ rating of down to 7°C and a pack size easily small enough to fit into a handlebar bag, the Term-a-Rest Space Cowboy exactly hit that perfect Goldilocks zone. I’ll keep the ‘comfort’ rating in inverted commas as, although I was warm enough in this sleeping back down to even 6°C, I was also wearing all the layers I had with me.
I won’t begrudge the Space Cowboy for that, the same is true for all sleeping bags of a similar degree of insulation – and I had those layers with me anyway, makes more sense to use them at night rather than overpacking with a huge sleeping bag. But it is still something to be aware of.
In addition to its packsize and insulating qualities, there are three really stand out aspects to this sleeping bag. The first is the straps that allow you to attach the sleeping bag to your mat, so you don’t wriggle off in the night. The second is the tapered cut around you legs, further saving space without sacrificing insulation.
And the third is the very neat bag the sleeping bag comes in. At its largest, the bag is huge and half mesh, so it doesn’t overcompress the sleeping bag and reduce its insulating properties and also keeping the sleeping bag a little bit fresher. There’s then a second draw string halfway down that allows you to use the bag to compress the sleeping bag and really shrink the size – and in a much neater way than compression straps tend to. It’s a very good design.
Tailfin Mini Panniers
Now these are really neat. The Tailfin Mini Panniers have a quick release mechanism for easy removal, a matter of seconds, just like Ortlieb’s system. But where Tailfin outperforms Ortlieb is that the Mini Panniers actually clamp onto the rack and stay steadfastly in place. Of course, Ortlieb panniers don’t have issues with auto-ejections, but they are prone to rattle about, which is quite annoying on rough terrain.
The profile of the mini panniers is also nice and low. Whereas a standard, larger set of panniers almost act as a parachute, catching the wind and slowing you down, Tailfin’s Mini Panniers don’t have anywhere near the same effect.
Although aero might not be your first thought when it comes to bikepacking, it really is worth considering. You might not be going so fast, but a headwind makes your effective speed much greater, and you can end up catching a serious amount of wind with a standard pannier setup.
Putting things in perspective, on the trip around Hungary and Slovakia and sporting a set of rear panniers, I barely needed to touch the brakes on the mountain descents. I’d get up to about 55kph and then just stay there, not going any faster as gravity and the aerodynamic resistance reached an equilibrium. Anna, on the other hand, using a full complement of Tailfin bikepacking bags, would easily pick up much more speed.
The low profile design and the excellent quick release locking system make these one of the best bikepacking bags I’ve used.
Fjällräven/Specialized S/F Wool Caliswe T-Shirt
It might not be the most exciting piece of kit, but there’s a lot to be said for something that just gets its job done perfectly and without a fuss.
When it comes to it, you don’t get many T-shirts that blend a light coloured styling (that reflects the sun and really keeps the heat off), whilst also not ending up with a garment that's too fussy when it comes to showing up the dirt. Mud splatters and leafy detritus don’t stand out as they do with other, more plain, light coloured designs.
Ortlieb Handlebar Pack QR
There are so many elements to Ortlieb’s Handlebar Pack QR, but let’s start with the mounting mechanism because that is quite distinctive. Most brands go one of two routes: either attaching directly to the handlebars through some combination of straps, or having a solid, bolted-on bracket which the bar bag then can clip on to and off.
With straps it’s quicker to go from completely clear bars to attaching the bag, but these systems are more prone to rubbing and wear on both the bag/cradle and the bike. With a bracket, it’s faster to take the bag on and off and generally there’s less chance of rubbing, but it does mean you’re stuck with a bulky bracket on your bars when not using the bag.
The Handlebar Pack QR tries to offer the best of both worlds. The attachment system employs a hard plastic bracket to mitigate problems with rubbing, but this fixes to the bike using just a couple of cords, making it tool-less and quite quick to do – once you’ve learnt how the system works.
Columbia Men’s Outdoor Elements II Flannel Shirt
Finally, I had a plaid shirt from Columbia, the Men’s Outdoor Elements II Flannel Shirt, to be exact. This is made from a much heavier material than you might expect just looking at the photos, and it did an excellent job at insulating me from the cooler temperatures in the Carpathian mountains and the long, fast descents.
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