Gearing up for South America

Tell me you want me to pay $50 for a designer t-shirt that’s the height of fashion and I will laugh at you. And maybe point a finger while holding my stomach. Because, well, it hurts to laugh that hard.

Tell me you have a t-shirt made from marino wool that dries quickly and resists odor, is ultra-lightweight, not orange, and has a mountain scene on it, and I will rob the nearest old people to pay whatever you ask for it.

Author’s warning: This blog is a rambling journey through a bunch of outdoor equipment related stuff. If you don’t get excited by bike parts or camping gear, best to just skip this one.

The Bike

I had done traditional “bike-packing” in New Zealand and Ireland, with a heavy touring bike plus front and back panniers. This time I wanted to try something a little more radical. I went with frame packs, which fit in and around the bike frame, are more aerodynamic, and much lighter, and I put them on an all carbon cyclo-cross bike setup.

My friend Marty was my guru and coach through the whole selection process, and without him I probably would have ended up with a far far inferior setup, like a Huffy BMX bike with a basket. So kudos to Marty — while a fitting thank you gift would have been one of each of the 3,000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru, I’m sure he’d much prefer being mentioned in my blog.

The bike was an Allied Alfa All-road, with Reynolds ATX wheels, the Ultegra 8800 components for hydraulic disc brakes, and a CX derailleur to help with the bumpy gravel roads.

Allied is a newish American company that’s making some pretty cool bikes.

Aubrey, the Allied Alfa All-Road, in all her glory.

The bike has thru-axles and as a result doesn’t fit my big bag (and Scicon will not make an adapter kit and wants you to buy another crazy expensive bag), but I jury-rigged something so it worked. A little paint chipped off the forks, but otherwise it survived the trip to Chile and back.

The tyres were 35mm Schwalbe G-ones, and they handled most of the gravel roads pretty well, though in loose shale, I really wish I’d had a 50mm tyre to keep from sinking in so much. But once I was on the asphalt I was elated to have these super fast tyres, so in the end they were the perfect choice. By the end of the trip I was a decent gravel rider, though I didn’t enjoy most of it, simply because you must maniacally focus on the road and ignore the amazing lakes and mountains on all sides of you.

I did have three flats, all from the same tiny plant needle that none of us saw when we changed the tyre during the tour of the Lakes and Volcanos district.

This looks much worse than it is. It was actually a beautiful spot for a tube change.

The biggest issues with the tyres were that you could not find a tube in all of Southern Chile that matched the width AND had a long enough stem to deal with the depth of the Reynolds wheels, and no shop I found had a valve extender. In addition, the G-ones need to be pumped beyond their riding pressure in order to snap onto the rims. This stinks when you’re using a hand pump and have to get the tyre to 80 PSI instead of just 40. So, while they are awesome tyres, I would not recommend the G-ones for bike-packing. Though Marty would tell you to just suck it up and go tubeless, and well, he’s probably right.

Bike Bag Dude

As I searched the web for the place to get great frame packs, I found one just a couple hours from Sydney in Newcastle, called Bike Bag Dude. Just the pictures and the web site convinced me that his stuff was different, and so I took the train up to meet him (not necessary, but it was a big deal to see the stuff before my trip) and brought my bike. I almost had two nasty accidents on the ride through bad rain (one thanks to a ute driver who decided to swerve in front of me and slam on his brakes on a wet downhill…), but got to check out the Big Bag Dude operation and it was really cool.

Worldwide HQ for the Bike Bag Dude. I won’t reveal the secrets of the internal operation. It’s quite cool.

The only downside of the frame packs is that they hold a lot less space, so that meant no hardy camping gear, no cooking gear, no room for spare bike parts, etc. I was doubling down on the bet, that fewer metal parts, a cross-bike, and half or less of the traditional weight would be more sturdy than an overloaded metal bike with a metal rack. It would also mean I would have to ride with a lightweight backpack, which is a huge hassle, but also ended up keeping me a bit warm on cold days.

It wasn’t this cold when I was riding, but it did hail during a particular bad week. Pictured is the Perito Moreno glacier, whose name means “People like to come here and make ridiculous poses.”

Cycling in rain, sleet, heat

I knew I’d need good rain gear, and if there’s an MVP duo for this trip, it’s the 7Mesh Renegade cycling rain jacket and Gore brand Gore-tex rain paints that I bought. Dry as a bone inside, even after an entire week of downpour, and I never got that sweaty either. However, My ProViz “waterproof” gloves and shoe covers were great at slowly soaking up water; their waterproof claim is simply false, and while the shoe covers go on well and fit perfectly, the gloves are a complete hassle to put on, and neither are even close to waterproof. Avoid ProViz gear if you being dry is important to you.

I had two marino wool cycling jerseys, which are supposedly superior to lycra in that you don’t smell like a gym sock after a week of riding and rinsing your gear. Seemed to work, though it was not warm enough to fully test the power of litres of BJR sweat versus the magic cycling fleece.

For bike maintenance, I went super minimum. Just chain oil, three spare tubes, the right Allen wrenches, one plastic tyre wrench (in hindsight I could have splurged and brought two…), a mini-Leatherman multi-tool (actually, too small to be useful, it turned out) and I picked up a patch kit on the trip. If something bad happened, I would be stuck. I’d taken out a mortgage on the bet I had just doubled down on. Things had better not break… I knew the one thing I could not replace would be the derailleur hanger, and so I ordered one from the company and asked them to send it express, because I had a narrow window when I could get it in Santiago. They sent it via the carrier that is known for fast deliver at all costs, the US Postal Service (sigh), which handed it off to the Chilean post (arrgh), and it arrived a month after I’d already departed Santiago. Not the smartest approach to a critical part I needed desperately.

The last time I traveled via bike, I think I had a digital camera, and that was the sum total of the gadget gear. This time, I was carrying a Pixel (Android Phone), iPad, Garmin 755xt smart watch, bluetooth keyboard (a man’s gotta blog, after all), charging battery, charging cables, adapter, and a lightweight solar panel. At least I did not bring anything close to the mac duo laptop and two spare batteries like I did when hiking in Banff in my 20s.

My meds took up a lot more room than I’d like, but 120 days of meds at 9 tablets a day means 1,080 pills to bring along with me on the bike, with another 60 days (540 tablets) to have in my trekking backpack for the rest of the trip. If stopped, I was either going to look like a supplement freak or the world’s worst drug smuggler. I’d also started wearing glasses so I needed my usual pair plus prescription sunnies.

So how much does it weigh?

I’d get this question a lot on the road. In total I was carrying 14kg of gear on a 7kg bike, which is feather light compared to most trekking bikes (it’s common that touring bikes are close to 15kgs if they are old school and you’ve got aluminium rails for the panniers) so more than 2x heavier than my setup. In total, 40kg or 50kg is not unheard of when you add on all the equipment.

My gear set up was 34 – 34 at the lowest, which meant I had no triple chain ring and just a compact, not sub-compact setup (the bike manufacturer, Allied, couldn’t make either a triple or a sub-compact work). This meant I could not spin at a lower gear on steep climbs. Without gear, I had one climb at a 20 degree gradient! Fully loaded, I had a lot of climbs of 10 degrees. The gearing was just barely enough – I only had to push the bike through the non-rideable hiking trail from Ushuaia to El Chalten, and once in some slippery shale on the way to Chaiten for about 50 meters. Otherwise, the gearing was just enough to survive.

Before the trip, the first fully loaded (21kg total) test of the bike from Sydney’s CBD out to North Head in Manly. I was so proud of her. She was happy to get a break from the biggest piece of dead weight being off the bike for a moment.

(Foot) Trekking gear

I already had a decent backpack, an internal frame 85L REI bag I had for a number of years and had used on several overnights. I was surprised to see so many people doing treks with only 40ml bags. I also let it double as my suitcase when I was not cycling.

I bought an ultralight tent (a Zpacks Plexamid tent), an Enlightened Equipment ultralight 10 degree Celsius sleeping quilt, both of which turned out to be too light for this year’s summer in Southern Chile, where tents were freezing overnight and sleet was common. My ultralight sleeping mattress (an Exped SynMat) actually worked okay, though the inflation system is ludicrous (it comes with this bag you use as a bellows because they don’t want moisture getting into the mattress when you blow on it). It’s basically the same thing I used to float on in pools as a kid, but 10x as expensive.

I picked up a couple of good quick drying t-shirts (and didn’t have to rob any old people), a new pair of thermal leggings, and joined the marino wool fan club.

And, of course I packed some ludicrously expensive special purpose camping soap, a free buff I’d gotten from a triathlon (weird to give those out at a tri, but, thanks!), a Enlightened Equipment minion (weird thing I used for all sorts of stuff – but overpriced).

Too many hats

There’s always something you forget, and there’s always something you wonder what possessed you to think you’d need so many of these frigging things. I had about 8 different pieces of headgear, and you’d think I was an understudy for To Wong Foo with all the different hats I had with me. (Yes, Priscilla was better, but Swayze in drag needs some love.) Baseball cap, Warm cycling cap, dark lightweight cycling cap, while sun cycling cap, rainproof cycling cap, winter hat for trekking, hipster Italian cycling cap, and heavier winter trekking hat. The Mad Hatter had arrived in South America.

Will it ever end?

The gear shopping spree seemed to last forever. I kept thinking I had all this stuff, and then remember that it was 18 years ago when I last did this.

Research across multiple sites, reading gear reviews, finding if any of the products still existed or were available in my favourite colours – you could lose a month comparing all the options available.

My spreadsheet had the weight in grams of every piece of gear, and I wanted to stay under 13kg, but ended up with 14kg once you include the 2kg of water I would need to carry.

My spreadsheet had separate tabs for cycling gear and hiking gear. Both had status for each item (“packed”, “to be purchased”, etc) My spreadsheet had a tab for each investigation into bikes, tents, sleeping bags, etc. My spreadsheet had a list of immunisations I needed.

My spreadsheet brings all the boys to the yard.

Image for post
Image for post
Just one of the views of my gear. I did not weigh everything and took the leap of faith to trust the manufacturer, and to trust scientists who claim that water weights 1 kg per litre. It felt heavier, to be honest.

Even the last week before the trip I was still buying gear. In my last minute prep for the trip, I made two retail friends at Mountain House and Paddy Pallin in Sydney’s CBD, who would see me coming and know that a whirlwind of gear purchasing was about to ensue.

It didn’t stop, even when I arrived in Santiago, where I picked up one more thermal top layer, and some twine for hanging clothes.

What I should have brought

I had nothing warm enough for the cold snap this year. I ended up having to pick up a Columbia parka in El Chaltan, and that saved me from freezing most nights in Torres del Paine. During the lost backpack fiasco, I also bought a pair of Solomon hiking boot/shoes, which were not as comfy as my North Face shoes, but they were 100% waterproof and handled 200k in hiking over the two weeks with very little signs of wear.

The early bird often freezes his butt off. In the National Park in Ushuaia, near the top of Cerro Guacano.

Conclusion

  • I was underprepared for the cold, and I did have to change plans as a result. It was a very unusual ‘Summer’ for Chile, so it’s not entirely crazy that I wasn’t prepared for the weather I encountered.
  • The Bike “Bet” paid off exceptionally well, except for the fact that I didn’t have room to carry warmer winter gear. The Allied held up really well.
  • Nothing beats great, waterproof rain gear. Nothing is worse than the promise of waterproof and failing to deliver (looking at you, ProViz).
  • Biggest mistake was having a tyre / wheel combo where I could not find a single tube to fit it. I rode most of the trip with no spare as a result.
  • I really like making spreadsheets.
  • Too many hats. Way too many. And yet never enough.

Written by

A man. A plan. Subscribe via email at http://eepurl.com/dhhmvr

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store