Riding gear update

As you may have read in the TAT post mortem, I need to update my riding gear. Specifically, the jacket and pants.

I was considering a few different jackets; my main criteria is that the jacket shell is waterproof (when the vents are closed) and that a liner can be used for warmth. I don’t want a jacket where the liner is required to make it waterproof. Good ventilation is also a necessity, as is proper protection from impacts and sliding.

The candidates (so far) are:

  • Olympia AST
  • First Gear Kilimanjaro
  • Aerostich Darien Light

I have an Olympia Air Mesh jacket now, and I like it. The things I don’t like are that it’s black and the liner makes it waterproof so the jacket shell soaks through in a downpour. The AST has a waterproof shell and is available in a light color.

The Kilimanjaro seems to have the features I’m looking for, but I’ve not seen one in person so I’ve relied on reviews. I will need to see one before using any of my plastic money.

From all the reviews I’ve read the Darien seems to be the top of the list, unless style is a primary constraint. The fact that the Darien is made in the USA (and can be altered and repaired by the manufacturer) is a huge factor in it’s favor. The time-proven reliability and quality are undeniable.

Pants will be the second part of the equation, and the Darien pants seem to fit the bill as well. I’ll continue to read and ask questions so that, hopefully, I’ll make a good decision and can ride both the road and trail in comfort and safety.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

A new GPS

I just purchased a DeLorme PN-60w + SPOT from Amazon.com for $100 less than I have seen elsewhere. I have a fair amount of experience with Garmin GPS units, over the years I’ve had a 2610, 2730, 478, and a Nuvi 760. I’m getting tired of the roadblocks Garmin puts in the way of using the maps that I’ve paid for – and it REALLY irritates me that they would suggest that I need to buy the maps AGAIN to use them on my PC to create routes for the GPS. Exactly how many times do they expect me to buy the same maps? I got around that little problem, but I’m voting with my $ and Garmin lost the election.

I just used the Nuvi on the eastern part of the TAT and it worked very well. In a waterproof bag (as the unit is NOT waterproof) it routed us reliably on the trail. It doesn’t understand tracks at all, but it does keep a tracklog. I wrote a small program to convert a gpx track file to a route, and then the Nuvi can use it. It recalculates the route when it is loaded, but if you use enough trackpoints when defining the original track the route will follow your track exactly. For the money I spent, the Nuvi has worked well.

I have an original SPOT tracker (the orange one) and used it on the trail as there are long stretches without cell coverage and peace of mind for my wife while I’m out riding is a real benefit.

But it was time to move to a unit that really handles tracks well. So I’m waiting for the PN-60w to get here. I just need to swap the SPOT tracker to the SPOT communicator in my SPOT account and it should be ready.

I will have the winter to set up the tracks for NM, CO, UT, NV, and OR. Using it in the truck will let me learn the track and route functions so that I’m familiar with it when spring comes and the trails call.

Stay tuned for the next installment.

Eastern TAT – post mortem

The short version is that our planning was very good, but some changes will make it even better.

Navigation: Making tracks using the paper maps and then converting them to routes for use in the Nuvis worked very well. No real changes necessary here. It would be better if we could mark the fuel stops so that there was an alert when you are close, but that’s about it.

Tools: We had the tools necessary. John patched a screw hole in his rear tire using the tools he brought. I didn’t have any flats, but I had the necessary tools and the air compressor ready to go. My new username of DirtNap was earned, and the bike’s mirrors survived. The threads loosened just as they should have and there was no damage to the mirrors from any of the naps. It seemed like I was tightening them a lot, but I had the tools and it was nothing more than a minor nuisance.

Luggage: We packed fairly light, but the duffels weren’t light. I would guess 30-40 pounds. Mine included the first aid kit, tool kit, air compressor, spare tube, computer, clothes, toiletries, shoes (sandals and slip-ons), and jacket liner. In the tankbag I had my iphone, camera, earplugs, ipod, earbuds, paper maps, windshield / faceshield cleaner and diaper, eyedrops, charging cables, cable lock, headband flashlight, and tire pressure gauge.

Changes for the next trip:

Luggage / packing: It would definitely help to get the weight down to lower the center of gravity, so I think waterproof soft saddlebags will be the choice for next year. I probably will carry pretty much the same items in the tankbag. We are planning to camp next year, so that adds some items to the list. Tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, food, and water will have to be carried with us.

Gear: I need to get a better jacket and pants. I wore kevlar-lined jeans and while they may help while sliding they provide no impact protection. I’m considering the Firstgear Kilimanjaro jacket and TPG pants. Regardless of the jacket I select, it definitely won’t be black. My current jacket is waterproof because of the liner, not the exterior shell. That means the jacket shell will be soaking wet in the rain. I would rather that the jacket shell be waterproof and the liner be used for warmth. It just works better on the trail. Same for the pants, a liner for warmth only.

I bought a pair of Aerostich Combat Touring boots before we left, but they needed to be resoled. That’s now done, so my boots are ready to go.

Misc: I’ll add a bottle of ibuprofen and benadryl to the first aid kit. It would be good to have some cotton handkerchiefs on the outside of the packs so that you can wipe your glasses and/or faceshield while riding in the rain (which happens a LOT when I’m riding). Maybe an easy way to attach them so they can dry in the wind would be useful too.

I’ll need to come up with camping gear too.

TAT day 6 – headed for home

Well, this was unexpected. Went to bed expecting to get up and hit the trail to Braman, Oklahoma but woke up to a line of strong thunderstorms in northern Oklahoma and south-central Kansas moving east. They had dumped a lot of rain directly on the secondary roads we would be on today. Not what we wanted to see. We had a couple of hundred miles to ride to get to Braman, and slogging through mud would make that seem like an insurmountable goal. Since we were going to Braman, just to head home the next day, we took another look at the weather and decided to head for home today. We’ll meet here next year for the ride to the Pacific, instead of meeting in Braman.

John saddled up and headed southeast, I headed northeast on I-44, trying to get ahead of the storm. The storm was tracking roughly parallel to I-44, and I knew that I would turn north after going through St. Louis. If I wasn’t far enough ahead, when I turned north I would get caught and get seriously wet for a while.

I made fairly good time, and came through St. Louis around 3pm, leaving 5 hours or so for the rest of the trip. We had just visited Dave and Lynn in St. Louis, so I was confident in the 5 hour estimate. I stopped for gas in Springfield, and it looked like the rain was beginning to cover my route. Unfortunately, the look was right. I was soaked through until I got north of Champaign. It had changed to a drizzle and then stopped shortly after my last gas stop. I got home around 8pm, after a 12 hour day on the road.

Let’s just say the KTM seat isn’t made for long distance riding, and over 600 miles in a day on the KTM was definitely a long day’s ride. I got home after dark, again not my first choice, but home was a powerful draw. I hadn’t seen my wife Amy for a week and I missed her.

I’m glad to be home and I’m also glad John and I rode the eastern part of the trail. Next year, we’ll be better prepared and likely on different bikes for the western trail.

Stay tuned for the eastern TAT post mortem.

The stats from a long day in the saddle:

TAT day 5 – Tuesday

Today we had approximately 100 miles to go and we would be at the Oklahoma border. It would turn out to be some challenging miles over some terrain made more difficult by the weather.

I love the way paved roads become gravel at any time. We’re on a fully striped two lane highway, and then the sign “Pavement Ends” and end it does. Just as we start up the mountain. In the rain. In the harder rain. With lightning. And thunder. Great. Arkansas just won’t let us have an easy day. Oh, well, we aren’t giving up either. We just stayed on the trail, stopping a few times to clean glasses and face shields so that we can actually see the trail we’re riding. In some places the runoff has washed out some good-sized ruts in the road, so you have to really watch the road.

Eventually, we get over the mountain and onto the more level ground. As we cross into Oklahoma it begins to rain harder and John spots a church with a porch that we can tuck under for some shelter. We see the rain on the iphone weather radar, and it looks to be moving to the southeast, leaving us clear skies but wet roads. We head out and almost immediately find mud, but it’s not nearly as bad as we’ve seen and the roadbeds seem to (mostly) dry out rather than turning into a mudfest. That’s good news.

Then, we see a single motorcycle headlight coming at us. The first TAT rider we’ve seen, moving west to east. It is Brienne (Grlstar on ADVRider) on her KLR650. Soon after that, Ted (tcourdin on ADVRider) comes up on his GS1200. He’s from Fayetteville, not too much further down the trail. We talk for a few minutes, take some photos, say goodbye, and continue on our way.

A few miles down the trail, John turns right, but I need gas and the map says Moody’s is a little over a mile away. he doesn’t turn around, so I go on to Moody’s, fill up, and head back to pick up the trail. A couple of miles down the trail, he’s waiting and he’s found a Best Western in Locust Grove. It’s been a longer day than either of us expected and we take a odd route to the hotel, but at least we found it. Dry clothes, a hot shower, a hot meal – they seemed a long ways away when the rain was pouring on us as we started UP the mountain in Arkansas.

The stats from today:

TAT day 4 – Monday

Today’s highlight was the General Store in Oark, Arkansas. This is a must-stop for any and all TAT riders. Apparently the owner is into dual-sport riding and is supportive of the TAT riders. Gas, a good meal, and a slice of pie in a unique setting is a welcome respite from the trail. This was to be a fairly low-mileage day, but the miles were not easy ones.

The trail gods were at it again. “Nope. Too fast again. Why don’t you take White Oak Mountain Road?” Rocks, rock ledges, narrow roads, and great vistas were all thrown together. John and I got separated and we decided to meet where the trail joins AR-123, but he wasn’t there when I got there. I waited a while (no cell coverage) and decided to ride down the road to where the trail leaves AR-123. Not there either. I was just about to go back and ride up the mountain to get cell coverage and call him when I heard the unmistakable sound of a BMW boxer. While we were figuring out our next move a logging truck came by, just under the speed of sound. Man, those guys can really move.

After getting beaten up on White Oak Mountain road, we decided to pass on Warloop road and headed on into Alma for food, gas, and a place to sleep.

At least we didn’t have to slog through any mud today.

On the replacement bike front – I came to a decision today. I’m changing bikes. I put a deposit on a 2007 BMW F650GS with a factory lowered suspension. As soon as I’m back home, I will clean up the KTM and put it up for sale. It’s a great bike, but not a great bike for me.

The stats from today:

A new bike

After a couple of days on the trail with the KTM, it’s obvious that the bike is not the right one for me, and that’s a shame. It’s a great bike – power, handling, suspension, reliability, easy to work on, etc. This will definitely be a reluctant sale. Even more than on the road, an off-road bike needs to fit. Having to select the places to stop based on the surface so that you can get the kickstand down, not being able to dab effectively at the necessary times, too heavy to pick up while loaded – these are all issues that make off-paved-road travel frustrating. And when you’re frustrated, you’re not having the fun that you should.

So I made the decision to buy a BMW F650GS with the factory lowered suspension. The seat height is around 30 inches, and the bike is 100 pounds lighter as well. The 4 gallon fuel tank is under the seat, the bike gets 60+ miles per gallon, and the 650cc Rotax engine is very reliable. Accessories are readily available, so setting up the BMW for the trail should not require a machine shop.

My main concern is the suspension. I know that the conventional forks up front are not the best, but there are a number of options. One of the better choices appears to be Yamaha YZ450F USD forks. With a respring and revalve, they reportedly transform the bike. There are some issues with the ABS, but they can be worked out to retain the ABS function. In the back, the choice seems to be a custom shock by Wilbers. You can specify overall length, stroke, and spring rate, so by using the appropriate suspension link you can set the rear suspension height where you like. Not cheap, but those options should get you not just a good suspension, but a really good one. And, the updated front and rear suspension is fully adjustable where the factory one is not.

This will probably be my winter project. The plan is to be ready for the western TAT next year, probably a July departure. The snow will have to melt from the Colorado passes before we can go, and the passes we will be riding over aren’t plowed. A busy winter is coming, methinks.

TAT day 3 – Sunday

After having earned our Mud merit badges, and a new username of DirtNap, I had high hopes for today and the weather looked really good.

The roads were (initially) fairly dry gravel in good shape and we could make good time. True to form, however, it didn’t take long for the trail gods to say “Nope. Too fast. How about some mud right HERE?” The trail gods were serious. This was the worst mud we had encountered and since you can’t tell when it will end, you carry on. The road was running alongside a creek that had been out of it’s banks very recently and the road was berm-to-berm mud. My favorite. Red, slimy, sticky and slippery. After rolling a few feet the bike is taller because of the mud stuck to the tires. After putting your feet down a few times you’re taller as well – for the same reason.

We slogged on through 4-5 miles of this and finally came to a turn onto a paved road. Right there we decided that we were going to bypass the next mudfest we encountered, as our Mud merit badges had been earned many times over.

The terrain was starting to change too. More hills and less bottom land. But at the same time, the hillsides and roads are becoming more rocky with exposed ledges and big rocks.

Now we’re getting into the Ozark National Forest on the fire service roads. These roads aren’t in the best shape and are usually narrower than the county roads. After passing a ranger station, there was a switchback and a rocky and steep climb. Picking your line on this type of trail just about requires that you are up on the pegs, looking ahead and once chosen, committing to the line. Throttle and clutch control will help avoid wheelspin and keep the rear tire hooked up. I got the KTM a good part of the way up and chose a line to the right, which turned out be a bad choice. John was able to back the KTM up a bit and get it over to the left side, which was clearly the better choice.

In the Ozark Mountains the scenery (when there was an opportunity to look around) was really nice. You have to concentrate on the trail, because the margin for error is pretty thin when you are a long ways from help. Some of these roads don’t see traffic except for TAT riders, so waiting for help is futile. We both have SPOT trackers, so we can summon help even without cell coverage, but it seemed better to avoid the need to summon help in the first place.

We decided to stay in Clinton, Arkansas, and John saw an opportunity to head for Clinton that saved us a few miles today and tomorrow when rejoining the trail. We stayed at a Super 8 and were both able to get laundry washed and dried. We had intended to bring enough clothes for 3-4 days of riding and then to wash them and have enough for the rest of the trip. So far, other than the miles per day, our planning was working out well.

While we were riding today, I mulled over this thought – is the KTM the right bike for me? Given the past couple of days, I’m thinking no is the honest answer. There may be a replacement that is a better fit – but I need to do some research before making a decision.

The stats from today:

TAT day 2 – Saturday

Slightly surprised by the number of miles ridden yesterday, we got going early as we were about 15 miles from the trail in Ripley. We stopped for gas on MS-15 so that we would start the trail with gas tanks as full as possible. Today looks to be wet and rainy (big surprise) but so far the skies have held off – no rain. I expect that today will be a lot of gravel and mud, with little pavement in the mix.

Well, it didn’t take long to find out about riding on slippery red mud. To be slightly more accurate, it didn’t take long to find out how NOT to ride on slippery red mud. Mainly as a result of today’s ride, I will change my ADVRider username to DirtNap. I can state with certainty and experience that Scorpions are not great mud tires.

The real fun began at Tubby Bottom. The first indication that it’s going to be fun is the “bridge out” sign. Having read many TAT ride reports we knew that it isn’t really out, it’s just sort-of out. I’m hoping that yesterday’s rain wasn’t going to make it really out, and it did not. First you ride over a couple of feet tall mound of dirt and then across a concrete slab “bridge”. Now, you can see the actual place where the bridge ought to be – but it isn’t there. What’s there is a shipping container dropped into the creek. The doors are open on each end and the creek is flowing through the container. It was used as a bridge by at least one vehicle that exceeded the container’s weight limit, because the top was caved in. Both ends were still straight, but one end was unreachable due to erosion around the container. The other end had dirt piled against and across it and it was rideable. John rode his GS1200 across easily and because I couldn’t count on getting my feet down in an emergency, he rode my KTM across too. Better safe than in the creek underneath a KTM. Actually not nearly as difficult as I first thought. As it turned out, I should have kept that thought to myself.

Getting into Tubby Bottom was much easier than getting out. Slimy red mud was the next challenge and we probably burned at least an hour of daylight to get 2 or 3 miles. Finally, we seemed to be out of the really bad mud section and we came to the often-photographed Mississippi water crossing. The bottom looked and walked pretty solid so I went first. It looked much harder than it was, but if the water levels were higher it could be a real challenge.

We still had some mud to deal with but we kept at it. We’re not going back, the only proper direction is forward. But, the mud really takes a lot out of you and it was good to see the river levees for the Coldwater River. Shortly after that we were in Arkansas and found a Best Western in Helena. A long day, a lot of work, and not nearly as many miles as we had hoped. But a suggestion of a good Mexican restaurant from the desk clerk resulted in a good, filling meal. Then I headed off to a hospital I had seen to get my finger looked at – it was swollen and very painful. The emergency room was backed up with the uninsured getting “emergency” care for their coughs due to cold, so I got some paper clips and a lighter to solve the problem.

The reality of actual miles traveled is setting in – Trinidad, Colorado is looking very unlikely unless we have several days of dry roads and can increase our moving average. Clearly my estimates of how many miles we can manage in a day is based on road miles and not on trail miles. They’re not remotely close.

The stats from today: