Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Bikepack 100 - An Alpkit Bikepacking Luggage test in the Peak District

Since buying a set of alpkit's bikepacking luggage I'd been itching to give it a good test and to see how it performed on a multi-day adventure. From my previous post you can see I had done a couple of overnights and the luggage performed as expected but I really wanted to see how it and myself would fare on a multi-day epic.

I had been planning on doing the Trans Cambrian Trail before winter set in but due to work commitments I was unable to pull it off, although I did make an attempt, but unforeseen circumstances made me very late leaving home,and meant it was nearly 14.00 pm when I left the train station car park in Knighton.  I was determined to at least have a go but I was unable to get the 50 km to Rhayader done before it got dark, with still nearly 20 km left which meant I would have to do at least 80 km the next day. I wild camped that night and knew that it was not going to happen this time.

With half term holidays approaching my partner and I, Debs , had a few days holidays booked off work and wanted a bit of an adventure.  Debs started a new job lately so she hadn't  been able to get out on her bikes as much as she would of liked and was worried her lack of fitness would hold her/us back.  My fitness had also slipped a bit  lately so another crack at the Trans Cambrian was out of the question which meant looking for a challenge a bit closer to home and I knew just where to look .

Peak District Bikepack 150

The map above shows a route I have had planned for quite a while but just never got round to doing. It is a 154 km loop from home up into the Peak District using National Cycle Network   rail trails & canals to get us into the Peaks using as little road possible. Then it hooks up with the Pennine Bridleway to head south and on to more rail trails in the form of the Manifold Valley from where we head over to the Churnet Valley and get on the Caldon Canal which takes us right back in to Stoke on Trent and home.

So we had now got our route we now just needed to get a plan and get our gear setup's sorted.

My Gear List

Bikepacking Luggage

We would be both carrying our gear in bags strapped to our bikes and wearing back packs for extra gear/food & hydration bladders. I would be using a full set of Alpkit Bikepacking Luggage consisting of -
Stem-Cell stem mounted bag

I would need to use a lightweight backpack in the shape of my well loved OMM 32L Classic backpack which is a bit of a legend in ultra mountain marathon circles and has served me well for a few years now and is in my opinion the best pack for this job. I would be carrying a bladder in it for hydration and all the bulky items plus what else I couldn't get to fit in the bike bags.

Debs Setup

Debs would be making do with a more simple but no less effective DIY approach with a matching in fluro yellow 13 L airlock-Xtra drybag strapped to her handlebar, and one of alpkits new tapered airlock-xtra drybags ,which has been designed to fit in seatpacks but can be used on it's own as a lightweight & very cheap option with the supplied straps and the very useful webbing ladder that's stitched on the bag. Using the drybags on their own is a great way to get yourself started if your just getting into bikepacking as like I said alpkit supply the drybags with straps so your good to go for not a lot of money, as it can start to get a bit pricey for a full set of bikepacking luggage, especially some of the USA made setups.

Debs would be using an Osprey Valkyrie 9 hydration pack for her water, carrying personal items, spares, waterproof jacket and food.

Camping & Sleeping Set-up 

We would be using a Terra Nova Laser Comp 1 which is a one man tent, but at a squeeze will take two and believe me it is a squeeze with Debs & I stuffed in it even though she is only 5 ft tall . The main reason for using this tent though is that it's one of the lightest you can get and when it first came out it was the lightest in the world at just under a kilo. It has the option of going even lighter if you just use the fly but we used it with the inner.

Sleeping Setup

Both Debs & I would be using 1 season synthetic sleeping bags, mine is a cheap Vango one and Debs  an even cheaper one from Hi-Gear. The reason for using these was that it was what we had and also they pack down smallish, though for their size are not that light. I am currently researching for a good lightweight probably down 3 season sleeping bag for my bikepacking trips . We backed up the sleeping bags with Snugpack TS1 sleeping bag thermal liners which we found to be really warm liners and felt lovely & cosy in them. Also if needed we would be carrying our  Alpkit Filo Down jackets to help keep the cold at bay but luckily for us the night time temp only dropped to about +3 C.

For sleeping mats I would be using my Klymit Static V Sleeping mat which Klymit have designed with side sleeping in mind using their Body Mapping system . I have used a few different mats from basic old school foam mats, self inflating mats and inflatable's and I can say that this is hands down the most comfortable sleeping mat I have used, and is by far the quickest to inflate with no more than about 20 breadths needed to inflate it. There are lighter mats and Klymit  have them in their range but I will stick with the Static V but cut it down in size to reduce the weight a bit as it's easily done by hot ironing along the seams and then just cutting off the excess. If you have been wondering what the weight is it's about 500g which is quite a bit more than a Neo Air but these are wider and if you shorten the pad it wouldn't be far off the weight of the Neo Air.

Debs used an old mat of mine in the shape of an Alpkit Numo Inflatable , about the same weight as the Static V but this is only a 3/4 length,  but as Debs is only 5ft tall it is full length for her size . I never really got on with the pad myself but Debs is ok with it which is probably down to her smaller size & lighter weight and an ability to sleep on a clothes line if she had too.

Cooking Set-up

For cooking we would be turning to Alpkit yet again with a Mytimug & Mytipot for cooking in and eating out off. We used a plunger out of a caffitierre which fits nicely in the mytimug for a much needed fix of fresh coffee in the morning. Our stove was an Alpkit Kraku micro titanium canister stove  with a solid fuel Esbit Ti folding stove for back up . We packed porridge oats for breakfast & for our evening meals we packed Look What We Found Staffordshire Chicken Tikka packet curry's and some fresh nambreads from our local nambread shop. This isn't a very light option as the curry's are in a wet sauce but worth carrying the extra grams  for a meal this tasty when you're out in the sticks and was something to look forward to at the end of a hard day .  

Time for the off

Day One

With our gear set-ups sorted it was time to keep a check on the weather for the days we had booked off and with about 5 days to go it looked like we would get a weather window of 2-3 days of dry weather and mild temps during the week we had booked off, so we committed & readied ourselves .

The first day didn't start as planned and we didn't get going until gone midday as usual , but as most of the first day was going to be flat I was optimistic we could get into the Peak District before it got dark.
We headed north east along the Caldon Canal for a few km's and then picked up Route 55 of the NCN (National Cycle Network to head north to Congleton. Although this is a disused rail trail it surprised us how much steady climbing we were doing as it was basically uphill all the way to Congleton. On the way we passed by the old Chatterley Whitfield Colliery with it's Wheel tower and a lot of the 19th Century buildings still intact . It opens on certain days for tours and at one time was a working museum but sadly like a lot of things these days had to stop due to lack of funding. Just after the mine the track surface changes from tarmac to dirt and quite muddy in places due to all the rain of late. It was obvious that this stretch past Biddulph got a lot of horse traffic and because of this the going was getting quite heavy especially with the weight we were carrying. Even though this is a NCN trail it is amazing the dirty looks we got from walker's,  especially ones with dog's when you have to inconvenience them with having to bring their animals under control to let you pass safely.

As we came into the outskirts of Congleton the track passes under the Macclesfield Canal which was going to be our next leg on our journey. It was a tough scramble to get the bikes up the high embankment onto the canal towpath. The GPS was playing games trying to send us in the wrong direction but after riding a short way in the right direction towards Macclesfield it righted itself and was now pointing us the right way. There wasn't much of a towpath and it was deep mud in places which made our pace a lot slower than I'd expected it to be on this stretch so I decided to jump off at the next road bridge and join the road to Macclesfield to make up some time as we only had a couple of more hrs of daylight left. We picked up the canal again just outside Macclesfield as the towpath had improved. As we meandered round the town thoughts started to turn to where we were going to camp and we needed to stock up on some water for cooking and a few more provisions. We ended up coming off the route to find a shop which wasted about 1/2 hr. North of Macclesfield we picked up route 55 NCN rail trail again and put the hammer down to try and put some distance between us and Macclesfield. It was starting to get a bit stressful as it got darker because we were intending on wild camping but suitable spots were proving to be difficult to come by as there were just to many houses about . Just as daylight had almost gone I spotted a small field of over grown grass surrounded by trees to give us a bit of shelter and provide a bit of stealth too. It meant we had to clamber 15 ft down the embankment from the trail and then climb over a barbed wire fence, this wasn't ideal but we had little choice. We quickly put the tent up and got settled down. We got the coffee sorted and then filled our belly's with the Look What We Found chicken curry's and Nan breads we had bought freshly baked from our local Nan bread shop . We were both asleep by 9 pm which meant it was going to be a long night in our tiny Terra Nova Tent . I never get what you would call a good night's sleep in a tent but this was one of the better ones with me waking up briefly every 2-3 hrs. Debs could sleep on a cloth's line and this night was no different with her only waking when I disturbed her whilst trying to pee in my pee bottle. Sounds cosy doesn't it !

Day One distance covered 50.5 km 3 hrs moving time 1-2 hrs pushing/stopped, 229 m elevation gain

This was where we camped the first night we were in such a hurry to pack up we almost forgot to get a picture hence why we're packed up and ready to roll

Day Two

After coffee & porridge we sluggishly packed up and hit the trail again but as usual we were already behind schedule with the time already past 11 am. We put the hammer down with the incentive of a nice pub lunch in Hayfield. We reached the end of the Middlewood Way section of Route 55 NCN at Marple where we headed east through the town to pick up the bridleway path that follows the River Goyt along the valley bottom. This was proper mtbing now as the path went from rocky double track to even rockier singletrack that climbed & fell as the path followed the river up stream.

The Goyt Valley
The route now would take us on a very steep climb out of the valley up a bridleway on to and across the hill tops and then dropping down into New Mills where we would join another rail trail to Hayfield . We were now in the heart of the Peak District and were quite chuffed we had made it this far on our bikes and to think Debs had doubt's that she could ride her bike this far with all her gear. We stopped for a steak & ale pie in one of the pubs in Hayfield before we hit the Pennine Bridleway .

Refreshed we started the long & steep push out of Hayfield up the Highgate road which hits 20% in places, as we passed some cottages near the top I glanced to my left to see a guy pushing a wheelbarrow, we both said hello and then I thought I recognise that face. He pushed the wheelbarrow inside then quickly came back out as he seemed interested in  us, It was then that I realised it was the former pro road & track 3 time Olympic medallist & World Champion  and now BBC & British Eurosport commentator Rob Hayles . The situation became a bit embarrassing as for the life of me I couldn't remember Rob's surname so I just said to him hi' it's Rob isn't it and to which he said yes and to which I said to Deb's who by now was thinking he was somebody I knew, you know who this is don't you ?  She said no she didn't. So now I'm saying to her you do you do whilst trying to remember his surname. I said to her you have seen him loads of times when we're watching the cycling ? It was a bit of an embarrassing moment as she hadn't a clue what I was on about, anyway Rob said who he was to Deb's and she still said she hadn't a clue ! He made a few nice comments about Debs bike being pretty but by now I just wanted to crawl under a rock & die and couldn't get out of there quick enough and luckily there was a shout for Rob from inside the house so we said bye and pushed on. I was still trying to jog Debs mind about who Rob Hayles was because I knew she knew who he was especially as it was only a week or so before I had been reading an article about Rob's best mate Mark Cavendish in Rouleur Magazine in which Rob had been in and I had explained to her at the the time who he was ? Frustratingly I now remembered his surname and the penny dropped with Deb's on who he was. It was a shame because it would of been nice to get a couple of pics with him. It turned out that it was his cottage that he is renovating which explained why he was pushing the wheelbarrow.

All the fuss over who Rob Hayles was a good distraction from how brutal the push up Highgate rd had been. The effects of  a couple of days hard riding with loaded mtbs on top of that push were now starting to bite and we were begining  to worry about making Rowter Farm, our planned camp spot for the night before it got dark, especially as we were now facing the most technical piece of trail on the whole route. We took a left turn onto a rocky sunken bridleway and skirted round Mount famine hill and onto the the famous/infamous Roych Clough , a track open to 4x4's which descends & climbs steeply with big stone slab drop offs and baby head size rocks everywhere. To say this stretch pushed us to our limits as we pushed and carried our bikes up & at times down would be a huge understatement. To make matters worse it was getting darker by the minute and Debs was now seriously questioning my judgement on tackling this segment and if we should have taken the road to Rowter farm. We were now at the highest point on the ride and our bodies were feeling the strain from the effort .I was starting to scout for spots to wild camp but it wasn't looking good, there were a couple of old drystone walled sheep pens where the track crosses the stream at the bottom of Roych Clough that Debs was happy with for pitching our tent, but I was pretty sure if we dug in for one last big effort we could make Rowter farm in less than an hour and just before sunset.

The climb out of the Roych was an absolute brutal slog. We pushed,carried and cursed up every drop off and we were both struggling mentally now and the doubts were creeping in but I just reminded ourselves that we wanted a challenge and this was THE challenge.

We were both very glad and relieved to reach the end of this section and join the road for a bit of smooth  tarmac riding to Rowter Farm . We have camped at the farm before and if your looking for a campsite to base yourself in the Peak District for mtbing or any other outdoor stuff that the Peaks offer then I doubt you'll find a better location than Rowter Farm. Its basic but that's it's charm as you get the full camping experience but with a few conveniences and it's only £5 p.p.p.n.

We pitched the tent in the dark but it only took a few minuites and we had everything setup and the stove on. After getting some grub into us It didn't take long before we were both falling asleep  helped by watching a bit of the bikepacking film Reveal The Path on my mobile phone.

We knew day 2 was going to be tough and it didn't disappoint it was one of the toughest days I have had on a bike and it really pushed me physically and at times was on the rivet but how was Debs coping ?
Well she was coping like a trooper and for someone who hadn't done much riding in the run up to the ride and who only started riding 12 months prior was becoming a bit of an inspiration for me. I just couldn't believe that someone who is only 5' tall and weighs next to nothing can drag herself & her loaded bike up hill & down dale for mile after mile and come back for more and put me to shame at times as I was struggling but she was just soldiering on and was offering to drag my bike up the steep sided valleys. I just want to take this chance to say thanks to my Debs who was the real Mighty Atom on this ride, I am really proud of her and contrary to what she thought was really glad she came on this ride. I have to say this because Debs always worrys  that she will be slowing me down and holding me back. Far from it, towards the end she was the one leading from the front so Chapeau Debs in my eyes you are the real deal, a proper mtb bikepacker !

Day Three

Day three started the same way as the previous 2 days with a late start. We had a short ride along the farm tracks heading south from Rowter Farm to pick up the Pennine Bridleway again.

The Peak District is famous for having two distinct parts with the Dark Peak in the north and the White peak to the south. We were now leaving the high moorland Gritstone plateaus of the Dark Peak and moving into the Limestone Dales that the White Peak is famous for. We were going to have to descend and then climb back out of a series of deep, steep sided dales/gorges which was going to be another tough test for our aching bodies. First up was Monks dale which we descended into by road but half up the other side we had to go through a gate and then climb the rest of the way out of the dale by scrambling/pushing a long rutted sheep tracks. By the time we topped out we were both gasping for our breath and were not looking forward to having to do it all again on the next one which quickly followed, to bloody quickly for me.

Monks Dale

Wye Dale
Wye Dale was next, which is more like a deep gorge than a valley. The steep singletrack decent with really tight,technical switchbacks gets the blood pumping as it's a long way down if you cock up here. There's a narrow footbridge across the river Wye and a little cafe/hut which would be a nice place to stop for refreshments but there were quite a lot of day trippers queueing outside and we were already behind schedule due to the late start so we pushed right passed the crowd and straight into the long and torturous push up the steep valley side . We got some looks of sympathy and bewilderment and some comments about it being more fun going the other way which we didn't argue with. The push out of Wye Dale took us nearly half an hour and we were really feeling the effects of our adventure now with Debs asking how far now every 5 km with me replying not far now which was obviously a lie.

The Plan for the day had been to make it to Hartington for a late lunch as there are a couple of nice pubs there and it was half way between the  High Peak/Tissington Trails and the Manifold Valley which was our next leg home and from there we would use a few road sections to take us into the Churnet Valley and the Caldon Canal and back to Stoke.

I was caught out by how long it was taking us, I had got the timing wrong badly and this coupled with the late start meant it was 16.30 hrs by the time we hit Hartington. The only thing that had kept us going the last couple of hrs was the thought of a nice pub lunch but the pubs stopped serving food at 15.00 pm  and it was now raining. Given that we were both at the end of our physical tethers, it was now dark, it was raining quite heavy, we couldn't refuel our bodies properly and there was probably another 4 hrs of riding left and some of it was going to be along a canal in the dark oh and the battery in the GPS had ran out, this was looking like a DNF. We decided to have a drink in the pub to get warm & dry off a little and weigh up our options. The more we warmed up in front of the fire the less appealing going out in the cold & rain on our bikes again became. We were both quite worried at this point as to how we would be able to get home. I suggested to Deb that the best option now was to try and get a taxi which at first she wasn't happy with because she didn't want to DNF the ride but neither did I but I had now resigned myself to the fact that the ride was over. After sitting in front of the fire & watching the rain for a bit longer Debs came to that conclusion too.

It wasn't a given though that we could get a taxi especially one that would take us and the bikes at night but we managed to get a minibus from Leek that could take us and the muddy bikes.

It was two very tired & weary and relieved bikers that unloaded the minibus when we got home and although we were disappointed to DNF we knew we made the right choice to pack it in at Hartington.
We slept like the proverbial babies that night and the following day we reflected on our little trip.
We had wanted to have an adventure and for the ride to be testing but not for it to be a death march.
We also wanted to test our equipment and to see what gear we needed to take/not take and what in our gear needed to be upgraded to better/lighter for future planned trips and hopefully bikepacking races like the Bearbones events. For  the most part I think the trip was a success even if we didn't finish it. It lived up to our expectations for an adventure, it certainly tested us and we learnt a lot about the limitations of our gear and also our own physical limitations.

So all in all it was a great little trip which as only whetted our appetites for more of the same and just remember this little adventure started right from our front doorstep. What can be better than that ?

List of things I'll change for next time

To really enjoy a trip like this you need to be really fit - need to train more

Make my set-up light as possible

Better lighter sleeping bag

The two people in the one man Terra Nova tent for three nights is pushing it - need new two man tent

Full frame bag

Need a Revelate type bar harness so I can use bar mounted lights

The route as endless possibilities, it could be reversed/shortened/lengthened easily

Be more organised and get earlier starts