Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 Tent Review

Home sweet home!

Home sweet home!

I’ve been using a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent as my primary bikepacking shelter for two seasons now so I thought it was time to share some thoughts. My previous tent was a Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2. The motivation to get a new tent was reducing packed weight and bulk. The Seedhouse SL2 is a light compact tent for 2 people and a luxurious shelter for 1. However, the Fly Creek is 1/3rd lighter and much more compact. For trips where you are at your limited saving a pound of weight from your gear is very nice.

Zipped up tight...

Zipped up tight…

There is no free ride. The ultra lightweight comes at the expense of durability and interior space. As compromises go they aren’t too bad. I should add it’s fairly expensive compare to other UL shelters so wait for a sale at REI to grab one.

Cozy...

Cozy…

I’ve spent rainy nights in this tent and stayed nice and dry. The small aerodynamic shape means it hands high winds during storms well and it’s free-standing so you can skip the pegs on nice nights and just use it as a bug shelter. The tent uses a single shock-corded pole that setups up very quickly. If you are facing a storm you can get a shelter up and your gear inside quickly.

Works great as a bug tent in good weather...

Works great as a bug tent in good weather…

At nearly 6′ tall the Fly Creek is big enough for me to stretch out in when sleeping with personal gear on either side of me. I can sit up cross legged at the front of the tent to get dressed or read a book. Having said that I wouldn’t want to spend 2-3 days waiting out rainy weather inside this shelter.

Strategically placed mesh for ventilation...

Strategically placed mesh for ventilation…

The fabric colours are warm and pleasant while staying subdued for stealthiness. It’s fairly thin so you have to treat the tent gently if you don’t want to be repairing it. I’ve skipped the footprint and put the tent on the ground without any damage.

Single free-standing pole design...

Single free-standing pole design…

There are lots of guy point on the sil-nylon fly to get the tent ready for high winds during a storm. Although once wet the fabric stretches a bit so you usually end up adjusting it at least once. The pegs that are provided with the Fly Creek are high quality and easy to penetrate into hard ground – so far!

Compact packed shape...

Compact packed shape…

The tent is a front entrance design which saves weight, but isn’t as easy to use as a side entry shelter. There is a small vestibule area for your pack and shoes, but if you plan to enter and leave multiple times it can be a pain. Especially when it’s wet as water from the fly can get knocked off and drip inside.

Easy to setup...

Easy to setup…

All in all these short comings are worth it to me to get a light compact tent for demanding mountain bike tours. I’ve kept an eye out for a better option, but so far I haven’t found one.

Therm-a-Rest Alpine Blanket Review

Alpine Blanket on my Therm-a-rest pad...

Alpine Blanket on my Therm-a-Rest pad…

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of using a specialized camping quilt as part of my lightweight sleep system for years. With more and more of my time spent bikepacking the benefits of going lighter and more compact became important enough to spend some money to investigate this concept. I chose the Therm-a-Rest Alpine Blanket because the cost and specifications looked good. Especially since I was able to buy it at REI with a 20% coupon and use my annual dividend. Additionally REI is great about taking stuff back which means low risk when I am unsure if a product is as awesome as they say it is. Therm-a-Rest offers a lifetime warranty on this product which seemed like another plus.

View from the bottom...

View from the bottom…

What is it?

The Alpine Blanket is a specialized camping quilt designed to be used with an insulated camping pad. Since the down insulation underneath your body is compressed it’s useless and this blanket gets rid of it. The benefit is less weight and a smaller packed size. You also get more freedom to move around and it’s easy to dump heat by pulling the quilt open as much as required.

This quilt weighs 1lb 12 oz [800 grams] and the long size I got is ~52″ x 80″. It is rated for 35 Deg F/+2 Deg C. The fill is 700 goose down.

In addition to the blanket you get a medium sized stuff sack and small stuff sack as well as a connector kit you can use to attach the blanket to a sleeping pad.

Home sweet home...

Home sweet home…

How was it tested?

I paired the Alpine Blanket with a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite which is one of their new ultralight sleeping pads. I used it for approximately 10 nights of camping this summer. Temperatures varied from 5 deg C to 18 deg C at night. The humidity varied from low to high including a couple very wet nights.

View from the foot box...

View from the foot box…

How did it perform?

Although I never believe sleeping bag ratings will be totally accurate this blanket that was rated for 2 Deg C was only comfortable when the night time temperatures were above 12 Deg C and that was with the use of thermal under wear and an insulated puffy jacket underneath. I did have a couple comfortable night’s of sleep, but my main recollection from this summer is waking up cold at 3am and trying to make it through until sunrise. It was fair to say I was very disappointed.

Alpine Blanket pulled back...

Alpine Blanket pulled back…

Construction

The materials used for the blanket shell and the sewing were good through out. The down fill was lacking and the large lateral baffles across the top of the quilt did a poor job of keeping the limited fill in a useful place. It tended to clump up on each side leaving the central portion of the quilt uninsulated. The reason I was cold is that there were many spots in the blanket where there was simply zero down between me and the cold air. If I jumped around shaking the blanket like a squirrel on crack before I went to bed I could get a better distribution of down, but it still wasn’t great and that was a level of effort I’ve never had to exert with a sleeping bag in the past to make it barely functional.

The solution to my problems would be:

  1. use more down fill
  2. use a better baffle design that kept the down in place

Interestingly the perimeter baffle of the blanket was well stuffed with down and very effective at sealing the blanket to pad interface avoiding cold drafts.

Close up of side snap...

Close up of side snap…

The quilt concept

Although  I was disappointed by how cold this particular quilt was at night the way it connected to the sleeping pad and the room I had to manoeuvre at night without having the quilt move around was great. Even without using all the connectors to attach the quilt to the pad I only had the quilt move out of place once.

The small packed size and light weight were appreciated when I packed my bike and as I rode it over challenging terrain each day.

Support

I contacted Therm-a-Rest twice about this quilt. Once by phone where I had a pleasant, but totally useless conversation with a support agent. I also emailed them about this product asking if the issues I was having were typical or perhaps I got a poorly built blanket. I did not get any reply to my email.

Getting a crappy product is unfortunate, but getting a crappy product and crappy post-sales support makes me less than stoked to buy another Therm-a-Rest product.

I should note I have no REI store near me. Based on my previous experiences I’m sure they would have helped me the first time I asked for it.

Close up of a side baffle...

Close up of a side baffle…

What now?

I’ve got the Alpine Blanket packed up and will be shipping it back to REI for a refund. Thankfully despite Therm-a-Rest being lame REI stands behind the stuff they sell.

I think the idea of a quilt is a great and I really enjoyed the Alpine Blanket when I wasn’t shivering, but sadly that wasn’t frequently enough.

I’ll buy one of the other high quality backpacking quilt options that are out there:

2 Deg C?? - lies all lies... ;)

2 Deg C?? – lies all lies… 😉

NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad

Just so this review isn’t all negative I should note that the NeoAir XLite Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad I used with the blanket was great. It’s light, compact, very comfortable and warm. Since it’s a keeper I’ll hold off on a review until I’ve had a chance to use it more, but so far it’s been a pleasure to use.

Close up of snap foot box...

Close up of snap foot box…

Delorme InReach SE Review…

Delorme InReach SE...

Delorme InReach SE…

What is it?

The Delorme InReach SE is  a GPS sized device that communicates with the Iridium Satellite Network. It allows you to send text messages back and forth with the outside world anywhere on Earth. You can request help, leave a set of track points on a web-map of your trip or just say hi to your significant other.

I do a lot of solo trips. Sometimes quite deep into the backcountry where help is not easily available. I try to act like I can’t afford to get hurt and avoid risky behaviour which has worked so far, but I started to feel like having some communications back up would be a smart move.

Side view...

Side view…

How was it tested?

I’ve had the InReach SE a couple months now and have started carrying it in my pack on any trip where I’m not likely to have reliable cellphone service. I have not had an emergencies so I have just tested it sending messages to my own computer and cellphone to see what things look like from both ends.

Package contents...

Package contents…

MEC Spew

I bought my InReach at MEC.ca here is their product spew:

Stay connected where there’s no cell phone coverage. This compact device uses satellite technology to let you send and receive text messages anywhere on the planet, and update social media from the ends of the earth. Use it on its own, or pair it with your iPhone®, iPad® or Android device to download maps and access GPS features.

  • Housing is water-resistant and dust-proof with an easy to read colour display.
  • Uses Iridium’s constellation of 66 satellites for coverage of the earth’s entire surface. Messages are buffered for up to a day.
  • Intuitive LED indicator shows satellite availability.
  • Virtual keyboard allows you to compose text and email.
  • Stores predefined text messages for anticipated situations to send as needed.
  • Tracking feature allows your friends and community to see your progress.
  • Social media function lets you post messages and waypoints to Facebook, Twitter, or your own shared map.
  • World coverage SOS feature gives you a confirmation message from rescue centre, if you use to send an SOS. 2-way texting allows them and you to provide situation updates.
  • Messages have your GPS location embedded for faster finding in emergencies.
  • High-sensitivity GPS chip provides position accuracy to within 5 metres.
  • Free DeLorme Earthmate application available through iTunes and Android Marketplace. Allows you to download maps and nautical charts to smartphones and enables inReach and iOS communication features such as native GPS to display location.
  • Downloaded maps are stored in your phone and are available even if there is no cell phone signal.
  • Internal rechargeable battery uses long-lasting lithium technology.
  • Requires a separate satellite plan to activate.
  • Canadian monthly plans are available, as well as seasonal hibernation options that allow you to pay a minimal fee during months when you are not using the device.
  • Dimensions are 62 x 26 x 149mm.
  • Weight: 200g.
Interface...

Interface…

Physical Package

The InReach SE is the size of an average backpacking GPS [62 x 26 x 149mm] and weighs 200g. It fits easily into my hand and has a removable belt clip as well as a removable hand strap. The front of the device features a small colour screen, a 4-way mouse flanked by “no” and “yes” buttons. The “yes” or checkmark button is also the power button. Below the mouse there is a SOS button with a slide lock to prevent accidental SOS messages. On the right side of the device is a covered USB port for charging and talking with your computer. On the top left of the unit is a stubby antenna encased in hard plastic to avoid damage.

Inside the device is a rechargeable lithium battery. This isn’t user replaceable. Internal power can be supplemented by a USB battery pack.

Using the InReach SE is easy. The buttons, screen and interface all work well and are fairly intuitive. The level of refinement feels like something from 2007 or so. It’s no iPhone.

The device is waterproof, dust-proof and impact resistant. It should survive “normal” use in the backcountry biking or hiking as well as for water sports like sea kayaking.

Stuff I would like to see improved:

  • 4-way mouse works fine, but being able to press down on the mouse to start an action or add a letter to your message would make using the InReach much faster and easier. Currently you have to use the mouse to move to a letter on the virtual keyboard then lift your finger and press the “yes/check” key and then go back to the mouse to find the next letter and so on. Typing a 100 character message this way gets old fast.
  • a thin rubberized coating would help mitigate the slippery hard plastic shell from leading to drops
  • a swappable battery would be awesome
  • a larger screen would be nice
  • a safety lock on the power button would avoid accidental in pack power ups
  • weight and size is acceptable, but a reduction to something more pocketable wouldn’t hurt
Canadian Plans 2013...

Canadian Plans 2013…

Service

Just like a cellphone the InReach requires you to subscribe to a service plan to communicate with anyone. You can read up on the plans here. In Canada we have more expensive plans than the US or EU. I could rant about that for a couple pages, but I won’t.

I took a the Canadian Chat Plan which gives me access to the SOS function and a 100 free text messages as well as 25 tracking points per month. I could burn through those tracking points in a day or two, but my primary purpose for carrying this device is to call for help and to keep in touch with my friends and family from the backcountry.

You can turn the device off in Canada for ~$5/month if you don’t need it and you can get a more expensive $50/month plan that gives you 250 free text messages and unlimited tracking each month. There is also a $15/month safety plan that gives you the SOS function and you pay for each text and tracking point you use.

I haven’t figured out exactly how I will use the InReach each year. I suspect I’ll run the $50/month plan during the peak activity season which on Vancouver Island is April – Sept . For the remaining months I’ll probably switch to the $15/month plan so I can send SOS messages and pay for specific texts if I feel the need.

That would cost $50 x 6 + $15 x 6 = $390/year for service or $33/month on average.

All in all this is not cheap – especially living in Canada.

However, as somebody who is frequently out of cellular service range and who undertakes relatively risky activities the cost relative to the peace of mind it gives me and my loved ones is reasonable.

The rear...

The rear…

Coverage

The InReach uses the Iridium Satellite Network. These satellites are not-geosynchronous. That means they are passing overhead regularly. This works very well with the short-burst message requirements of the InReach. Since you are not trying to have an uninterrupted conversation the InReach saves any messages and as soon as a satellite is in view it fires it upwards. That means biking in a steep-sided valley you will still be able to communicate even if you wouldn’t be able to “see” a geosynchronous satellite which would be above the equator to the south in North America.

Another feature I like is the InReach confirms with the satellite that the message was received and lets you know so there is no second guessing.

Most importantly the InReach is a two-way communications device so you can send your messages and get replies back then follow up again. Rather than pressing a SOS button on a SPOT Messenger and not knowing what is happening with an InReach you get confirmation that help is on the way. You can describe your problem [ie. broken leg] so the rescue personnel come prepared. You can get an ETA for how long they will take and if you need medical advice you can get some so that you can keep the injured person in the best condition possible while you wait for help.

It was this feature that really sold me on the InReach. I had quite a few poor experiences with reliability using SPOT Messengers and when it came time to buy an emergency device I had to ask myself if the shit really hit the fan and somebody’s life was on the line do I want the best shot at things coming out positively or do I want to save some $$ and get a device that offers significantly less performance? Put into those terms the answer was easy.

GEOS info...

GEOS info…

SOS

The SOS button has a safety lock to prevent an accidental request going out. You have to unlock it and then hold the SOS button down for 3 seconds. The device will confirm when the SOS has been received and I assume the emergency centre will contact you to find out what the problem is to fine tune the response. I can’t say for sure since I don’t plan to ride my bike off a cliff just to test out what happens! 😉

Your SOS message includes your GPS position automatically.

You can cancel an erroneous SOS if you need to.

Sample screens...

Sample screens…

Texting

Although I bought the InReach for its performance when things are life and death those situations should be rare and the rest of the time you just have normal stuff to deal with like being late for supper or getting lost or a bike failure. I really liked the idea that I can chat with my friends and family from the backcountry. I’m not trying to have extensive conversations, but being able to say “Hi. Made it to my planned camp. Wildflowers are amazing!” means that the people at home get to stay connected with you and that keeps them happy. You can also avoid unhappiness by letting them know when you’ll be late and when to expect you.

The InReach can send text messages to cellphones as SMS, to email or even to other InReach devices. If you split up a group deep in the woods and want to be able to coordinate a meet up at the end of the day that last feature is very handy!

Now you might be thinking you don’t want a texting fiesta ruining your backcountry contemplation. I don’t blame you! The InReach’s texting experience is a lot harder to use than a typical smartphone so I find it hard to imagine anyone carrying on extensive conversations via it. You can also turn it off when you don’t want to be disturbed or arrange a set time [maybe in camp at night] when you’ll be available to the family. If you don’t give anyone your InReach contact info then you’ll be on your own without anyone bothering you until you choose to contact them.

Tracking myself on a commute @ 10 min intervals...

Tracking myself on a commute @ 10 min intervals…

Tracking

This isn’t a feature I’ve used much beyond testing to see that it works. The basic idea is the InReach will send a message out with your GPS coordinates on command or at a set interval. You then provide your contacts a URL that will allow them to see where you are.

Keep in mind you will be using your internal power for this function and at some point you’ll run out or have to stop the tracking function to have some emergency power left.

One feature interesting feature is the ability of select contacts you pre-approve to turn on your tracking function and find out where you are. So if your forget to activate the tracking function in the morning and your wife wants an update she can trigger one. Of course your InReach has to be turned on and be in a position to “see” satellites for this to work. You also have to activate this feature as the default is set to off.

USB for power and data...

USB for power and data…

Power

The reason Delorme went with an internal Lithium battery is to keep the weight and size of the unit down. That makes sense. It would be ideal if the battery was user swappable so you could carry spares and put them in as needed. Sadly that’s not an option.

So on multi-day trips you are left with:

  • conserving power carefully
  • using an external USB battery pack to recharge the unit
  • using a solar panel to recharge the unit
  • carrying the charger and finding an AC outlet or USB power if you pass through civilization mid-trip

Delorme says the unit has power for 100hrs of non-stop tracking at 10min intervals with a good view of the sky [ie. not trying to send the same point multiple times]. That’s over 4 days of continuous use and you can set the tracking interval for a longer period to use less power.

On the whole I think the power capacity of the InReach is sufficient for my needs. I am not going to use the tracking feature on multi-day trips. I’d rather send messages in the AM, lunch and in the PM then keep the unit turned off in my pack. Since the service is paid for [when I have the $50/month summer package] I’ll probably use the tracking feature for 1 or 2 day trips where I am unconcerned about power consumption.

At the moment trips more than 9 days are unlikely.

Currently I just carry the InReach in my pack powered off. Sharon has been with me so I have no texting needs, but I do want to be able to call for help if someone has a bad crash on their bike. I’ve notice that the InReach holds a charge well and I lose very little even after a week or more sitting unused.

Note that the power button is raised slightly which means it can accidentally turn on in your pack if it presses against something. I just ensure the device is not up against something hard and so far I haven’t had the InReach turn on unintentionally, but I have read reviews where other folks have. The firm has been updated in this device so that it is virtually impossible now to have an accidental turn on in the pack. 🙂

Since the battery is internal frequent users such as commercial operations may need to replace the battery. I assume that’s possible through Delorme service, but it would be worth checking if you will use your device frequently. The typical lifespan of a lithium battery is 300+ charges. For me that would be more than 3yrs of use and after 3yrs I would just upgrade to something new rather than invest more $$ into the InReach. Technology in this market is sure to improve rapidly.

Smartphone or tablet pairing...

Smartphone or tablet pairing…

Smartphone Pairing

You can pair your InReach to a smartphone via bluetooth. This gives you the ability to use the much larger screen and better user interface of your phone to access all the InReach SE’s functions. You can also use the InReach’s accurate GPS plus Delorme’s maps [downloaded to your phone when you had internet access] to navigate.

I haven’t tried this and I don’t plan on using my smartphone with my InReach. That just starts to be a complex arrangement of devices and services that all need power and to be stored and carried.

It’s possible I will change my mind about this, but for now I’ll let other folks explore this possibility.

Location map generated from sending a SMS...

Location map generated from sending a SMS while at Nithant Lake…

Social Media

You can connect your InReach SE to Facebook and Twitter as well as the Delorme MapShare website. I don’t care about the first two, but MapShare lets your contacts see where you are when you message and track

Size comparison...

Size comparison…

Why not a SPOT?

The other main contender in the satellite beacon world is the SPOT Messenger. I have used them when I borrowed them or when I have been on trips with folks who own them. On the whole I have not been impressed:

  • dealing with SPOT customer service has been a PITA for everyone I know including myself when I called about a friend’s unit
  • SPOT uses a different satellite network and does not have true global coverage and does not work well if you can’t “see” the equator such as a steep-sided valley
  • the reliability of SPOT units has been poor in my experience…for example we’ve gone on 4 day trips where the SPOT didn’t track us properly at all leaving people at home wondering what happened…at the time we thought it was functioning perfectly
  • I’ve seen several broken SPOTs and poor customer service when the owners tried to access warranty help
  • SPOT does not offer 2-way communications so you can’t let anyone know what is happening or get confirmation that action is being taken
  • SPOT consumes a lot of power [however, you can replace the batteries]
  • on the plus side the SPOT is smaller and lighter as well as cheaper to buy and use

What it came down to was that I could save money by buying a SPOT Messenger, but its primary functions [tracking and more critically SOS help] were not nearly as reliable or useful as the InReach SE. It’s a bit like going emergency parachute shopping – do you buy based on price or reliability/performance?

Width...

Width…

Bikepacking Cooking MK2…

My revamped cooking setup...

My revamped cooking setup…

I posted about my bikepacking cooking setup back in April and recently posted a review of the Trail Designs F-Keg Stove System I tried out this summer. The F-Keg really impressed me with its lightweight and how it all worked together so well as a system, but it proved a bit delicate. So I went back to my old cooking setup [Trangia stove + titanium pot] to see if I could improve it so that it was comparable to the F-Keg with the benefit of being robust enough for longterm use.

The contents...

The contents…

My main issues with the existing cooking setup were:

  • relatively heavy
  • stove stand and windscreen did not fit into pot

I resolved these issues by replacing the Trangia with the homemade alcohol stove shown in the video above. It has the benefit of being light and it acts as its own pot stand. I cut down an MSR windscreen to fit the new setup and used a metal document clip to hold it closed.

Pot on stove - no stand req'd...

Pot on stove – no stand req’d…

The DIY stove boils 2 cups of cold tap water in 6.5 mins and will burn for 10 mins on 30ml of fuel. This is comparable performance to the F-Keg and the Trangia.

6.5 minutes to boil 2 cups of cold water...

6.5 minutes to boil 2 cups of cold water…

The whole MK2 cooking setup [stove + screen + pot] weighs 155g which is 50g more than the F-Keg and 225 g less than the MK1 Trangia setup

  • Trail Designs F-Keg Stove System = 105g @ $60
  • Trail Designs F-Keg Stove System w/ protective caddy = 190g @ $60
  • my cooking setup MK1 [Trangia] = 380g @ $80
  • my cooking setup MK2 [DIY stove] = 155g @ $66
Robust and a nice shape for my backpack or framebag...

Robust and a nice shape for my backpack or framebag…

The MSR 700ml Titan Kettle is a handy size for solo or 2-3 person trips.

Stove with windscreen...

Stove with windscreen…

The Good:

  • robust when packed and in use
  • pot can be used on fire or other heat source
  • pot is a useful shape for cooking a real meal not just boiling water
  • stove is most delicate component, but it can be built in the field for free from a pop or beer can
  • cost is comparable to other options
  • fuel use and boiling time about the same as other options
  • less than half the weight of my MK1 cooking setup
  • everything fits neatly into pot
Stove in action...

Stove in action…

The Bad:

  • 50g or ~30% heavier than the Trail Design F-Keg
  • not as stable as either the F-Keg or the Trangia with stand

Overall I’m pretty happy with the results of these changes. It eliminates the major problems of the other lightweight cooking systems I was using the only real downside being it’s not as stable in use so I’ll need to be a bit more careful I don’t knock it over.

Flame on...

Flame on…