Camping in the rain

This weekend we hit Kilen Woods State Park. It’s a small little park south of Windom that was recommended to us by a friend. It’s surrounded by farm fields and the Des Moines river, existing in a strange place that is neither deep woods, nor open prairie.

On Saturday morning I work up and checked the weather to discover that the storm predicted for later in the day was going to be arriving early. In fact I only had a half an hour or so to move about before it was time to dodge raindrops. Thankfully, we come prepared with a canopy that we set up as soon as we make camp. I was able to grab the cooking gear and make my oatmeal without more than a couple drips of rain on me.

Our camper keeps us dry for sleeping and one of the most relaxing things is lying in the bed listening to the sound of raindrops hitting the roof. Being made of fiberglass and plywood, the sound is unique. It’s not the dull thud of a typical roof, or the ‘pwang’ of a metal overhang. It’s sharp and quick, as if the rain has somewhere else to be and only has time for a brief “Hello.”

Having the morning rained out isn’t a disappointment. It forces us to simply ‘be’ and decompress. We’re pushed into a moment of pause and reflection. The sharp pebble-y sound on the roof, the cool breeze pouring through the small openings in the windows. It’s peace. It’s the point of being here. It’s why we do this.

Sleeping platform for the car

Recently we’ve been talking more and more about our future camping setup. Our Coachmen Clipper 9.0 is a decent tool for camping, but we sometimes muse about other options. We’ve spent some time talking about the difference between camping trailer vs camper van, and the pro’s and con’s of each. For the time being we’re not making any changes, but I decided to make a change to the status quo to address one of the con’s of our current situation.

One of the cool parts about a camper van is that you can simply pull into a rest area or truck stop and crawl into bed. It’s a great option for traveling, since you don’t need a campsite, nor do you need to set up a camper just so you can get a few zzzz’s. It’s also great for traveling to races since your vehicle is easily self-contained, and all you need is a parking spot near the race start to use as your home base.

I’m not going to do a full pro-con list, but I wanted to share how I’m addressing one of the issues we have with our current setup. Namely, trying to sleep in my car. I drive a VW Tiguan Limited and as much as I love it, it’s not the largest vehicle I’ve ever owned when it comes to cargo space. I can fit a fair amount of stuff into the back, but on a few occasions when I’ve tried to sleep back there, it’s just too cramped. I can lower the seats, all the way up through the passenger seat in the front, but there’s gaps between the seats that make it impossible to lay fully extended. What I needed, was a sleeping platform.

On Saturday morning I headed out to the hardware store and picked up a few simple supplies. I got some 1/2” plywood, a couple of posts, and some basic hardware. My plan was to create a platform that goes from the back of the car, 6 feet to the front. In order to that that though I need to support the bottom of the platform so that all the of the weight isn’t resting on the back of the seats.

I went with two pieces of plywood, 2×4 and 2×2. Originally I thought the 2×4 would end up in back, but after putting it into the car, I realized that it should be reversed. So the 2×2 is now sitting on the main cargo area of the car at the back where the lift gate is. Then I put the 2×4 in front of that, and attached the two posts to the bottom using removable bolts for easier storage.

I filled up my sleeping pad and tried it out. Sure enough it was perfectly sized for one person like myself to lay flat or curl up and get some shut eye. Eventually I’ll get some foam cushioning to make it softer, but for now, this actually works. It was a lot simpler than I had anticipated, and some simple planning made it a reality with about an hours worth of work.

The downside is that it’s one person only, so this solution won’t work if I’m traveling with the wife, but for trips where it’s just myself, and I need to sleep along the way, this works great. Creativity! It’s what drives the human spirit forward.

A night in the bivy

In preparation for my first winter ultra I decided to try and sleep outside last night in my sleeping bag and bivy. I wanted to see what it was like, and what I needed to change. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it all night, as I did need to go to work today, but even a few hours would be a huge benefit.

Here was my equipment list:

  • Eureka Lone Pine 0 degree bag
  • Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
  • REI Flash inflatable sleeping pad
  • Two layers of clothing on the bottom, three layers on the top, heavy wool socks

I ended up being outside from 8:30pm to 1:30am. The only reason I got up was that I had to pee. If it wasn’t for my middle-aged bladder I would have slept longer. I could have crawled back into the bag, but decided that I could call it good and go inside, since I had been out there for a solid 5 hours.

So what worked and what didn’t?

First, my bag was amazing. The air temps last night were in the single digits, so it was right in the range for what my bag was made for. I was probably overdressed on top and could have shed a layer there. If anything I could have used another thin sock on my feet. My only complaint about the layout of my bag is that the storage pocket is in an awkward place on the inside roof. I wish it was closer to the side as I felt like my phone was in the way when it was in the pocket.

The bivy sack did it’s job and kept all my heat inside. It actually got to be a bit too warm and I ended up venting the opening a bit, despite it bringing in cold air. The main issue with bivies is the condensation. When I woke up at 1:30 the top of my sleeping bag was a combination of wet and ice crystals. The entire inside roof of the bivy was coated in water as well. Thankfully, it wasn’t dripping on my face or anything, thanks to the pole that holds up the bivy over my head. However, getting my sleeping bag wet isn’t ideal.

Bivies are also somewhat claustrophobic. They’re small cocoons that aren’t much bigger than your body. There were a few moments when I bedded down where I had a brief moment of anxiety, but it passed quickly. It also helped when I vented the bivy as it allowed me to see the outside a bit more. In the summer I could use the screen closure instead of the solid one which would help a lot more as well.

The final piece of gear was one that I wasn’t that pleased with. I love my REI Flash pad, and I thought that its R-value of 4 would give just a bit more insulation below me. However, I tend to sleep on my side which means that my hip compresses the pad completely in a small area. That also meant that my hip got colder than the rest of me. It wasn’t terrible, but I think for my race I’ll grab a foam Z-Pad instead.

Finally, I should have cleared out my sleeping space better. I just plopped everything down and crawled in, and that meant that the snow was a bit more uneven than it could have been. I could have made things more comfortable if I had patted things down with my boots a bit more before laying down the bag. Not a big issue, but something to consider for another time.

Despite a couple of annoyances, I’m incredibly happy with how the evening went. In a winter ultra context, I’m never going to be bedding down for longer than a few hours at a time anyway. Getting 5 hours of sleep, like I did last night, would be a luxury in a race. If I were to go winter camping, I wouldn’t do it in a bivy, but would instead bring along a tent, and additional equipment to make things comfortable. Therefore, I’m counting last night as a huge success. I have a couple things to adjust, but otherwise I feel in good shape for Tuscobia.

Trying out bike packing

Last week my friend Mike pinged me and asked what I was doing on Saturday night. He picked up a bike a few months ago and has been hankering to try out bike packing. We’ve gone on camping trips before, so he knew it’s something I was curious to try as well. Neither of us had tried to deal with the logistics of camping and biking, so he thought a quick, local, one-night trip would be a great idea.

As it so happened, I knew of exactly the place we should go. Carver Lake Park is right at the end of the Lake Minnetonka Regional Trail, down in Victoria, MN. It’s a trail that I’m very familiar with, as I run my Fall 50 Mile bike ride event on it every year. It’s also a park that is very close to a town, which means we can depend on shops for food, instead of carrying all of it ourselves. Since this was our first outing, we wanted to keep it as simple as possible.

img_0061The Lake Minnetonka Regional Trail is crushed limestone, which although being an unpaved surface, it’s very smooth and easy to ride on. It also drains really well, so our recent weather didn’t cause any major flooding. Now that we had a route in mind, we just needed to pack.

I decided to put everything I could into my trunk bag and panniers. I have a Bontrager trunk bag that folds out on the sides with two panniers, that are pretty large. In fact, I was able to fit everything I needed except for clothes into this. The one awkward part though was the tent, as the poles are 20″ long. I have some other ideas on how to deal with this that I’ll talk about later, but for the time being I just packed it all in the pannier and let it stick out the top. I did also pick up a Salsa Anything Cage to strap my dry bag of clothes to.

Saturday afternoon we parked my car in Hopkins, and hit the dirt. You could certainly tell that we were loaded down. Because I put everything on the back of the bike, there was a certain amount of imbalance to how the bike cruised. I certainly wasn’t able to get going quickly from a stop, and turning wasn’t quite as smooth. Where I really noticed it though was when the bike was stopped, and when I was trying to mount/dismount. The weight on the sides just pulled the bike downward, and there was more than one comical moment of trying to get it to lift back up, which not falling down completely.

The ride out to the park is relatively short, only 90 minutes or so. We got our campsite, and set up our tents, as best as we could given the winds. We had timed it so that we’d miss the rain that was earlier in the day, but ended up with a freak shower for about 10 minutes… right when we were setting up the tents. Thankfully, I managed to keep everything mostly dry, and soon we had our shelters buttoned up.

img_0067We had brought a little bit of cold food with us, which we munched in our tents, and then headed back out on the bikes to Victoria and Enki Brewing. There we got to sit back and relax for a bit with food and beer and enjoy a quiet evening of hanging out. Our other option would have been to make a fire, but with the high winds, simply going in to town was a better option.

The night passed uneventfully, also I never sleep well my first night away from home. I got a fair amount of rest, but soon enough it was time to get up and start packing up for our return trip. We once again headed into Victoria to have breakfast at School of the Wise and then hit the trail.

Sunday was a completely different day from Saturday with bright sunshine and moderate temps. We cruised back to Hopkins faster than the journey out, and were back home by lunch time. All in all, a great little adventure, and one where I learned a lot.

img_0042So what did I learn? Most of all, I learned what I need for bike packing bags. When I had a chance to reevaluate my packing, I realized I could have strapped the tent poles to my down tube (though I need to move my bottle cage). That would have allowed me to put the tent itself fully into the pannier, and close it up. I also realized that I need to distribute weight better, and I want to get a nice cradle setup for my handlebars. That, along with another Salsa Anything Cage, should allow me to balance where I put things.

One option I am also considering is to get a full frame bag that would be big enough to carry the poles along the down tube side of the bag. I would then need to get a bottle holder for up on my handlebars, but that could be a good option for even longer and more extensive trips. Oh, and one final thing I want… a top tube bag for snacks. That might be a purchase sooner rather than later.

Overall, I’m pleased with how the adventure worked. We had plenty of supplies, and were able to sleep comfortably, just as if we had hiked in to a site. The Vaya performed great under load, and got me from point A to point B in relative comfort. I’m thinking of a couple more small trips like this next year, as it’s a different way to experience camping than I’ve done before.

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Sibley State Park camping

A couple of weekends ago the wife and I took the camper out for our first weekend of the summer. I had read a news article about how it was the 100th birthday of Sibley State Park, out near New London, MN, so we picked it as our destination. We decided a simple one night trip would be a fun way to kick off the year. Especially, since I had a very long run (20 miles) scheduled for Saturday morning, it was easier to plan to be at more familiar parks for that.

As with many of our trips, I try to find new and unique breweries along the way to sample. In this case, there were two before we hit the park. The first was in Willmar, MN called Foxhole brewing. This brewery is right in downtown, next to a theater, and had a typical taproom vibe to it. We found a table and I ordered up a flight. As I worked my way through the variety of beers I was struck with how none of them appeared to have any brewing flaws. Even the sour ale was spot on. When you’re dealing with small out-state breweries, the quality of the brewing process can sometimes leave something to be desired. However, in Foxhole’s case, they put out a solid line up of beers. Needless to say I was impressed.

After our visit to Foxhole we headed up the road to New London for a stop at Goat Ridge Brewing. Goat Ridge is built right on the banks of the Middle Fork Crow River, and their back patio sat right along the shore. I ordered up a flight and we picked a table outside, listening to the sounds of the river. The beer was adequate, and not quite as good as Foxhole, but it also didn’t exhibit any particular brewing flaws. I think that if I had done these breweries in the reverse order, I wouldn’t have dinged Goat Ridge at all. For a brewery in a town of 1200 people, it exceeded the expectations.

After Goat Ridge, we finally arrived at the park. Thanks to the late setting sun we were able to sit outside and enjoy a bit of the evening before turning in. Unfortunately, the camp site next to us was very close and the people decided to stay up until the wee hours of the morning talking. They weren’t being loud or obnoxious, but their campsite was so close to ours that it was impossible not to hear them. It meant that we got a more restless and disturbed night that we would normally want, but eventually I did manage to get some sleep.

Come morning it was time for an 8 mile run. It was drizzly and a bit chilly, but I knew once I got started that it would be just fine. My goal was to hit a loop called the Mt. Tom trail, and then partway through the loop, head over to the west side of the park and do some of the horse trails. Once I finished with the horse trails I would follow Mt. Tom back around to Lake Andrew and then back to the campground.

One of the first things that struck my about the Mt. Tom loop was how relentless the ups and downs were. The park’s website said that Mt. Tom was 220ft high, which isn’t that big outside of central Minnesota. However, the trail that goes around the mount was a constant journey up and down. There was almost no part of the trail that was flat. Thankfully, the trail was really nice, and it was easy to run on the runnable portions, but by the time I got to the horse trails I was ready for a change.

The horse trails were pretty standard, and they went around a few hills and prairies. I got to see a giant snapping turtle at one point which was fun. They were wetter than the Mt. Tom loop, but since I was already soaked from the drizzle, it didn’t matter that much. I got back to the main loop and continued on my way to the lake. I thought about cutting it short, but knew I’d probably regret that. I did take an alternate path back from the lake that was paved, but it was a nature interpretive trail with placards describing all the trees. It was a fun way to end the run.

As luck would have it my wife was finishing her run at the same time, and we met up a quarter mile from the campsite. She had a blast on the Mt. Tom trail as well, and commented on how unexpected it was to get so many little hills. We also both really enjoyed the Mt. Tom overlook, which is squat little tower on top of the hill. From the second story you can get a beautiful view of the entire area, and it’s actually quite breathtaking.

Once we finished our run it was time to start showering and packing up. Even though it was mid-morning, I still felt a tiny bit bad running my drill to crank up the camper jacks. The poor people in the site next to us probably were unceremoniously woken up earlier than they wanted.

Since it was only an hour and a half drive back we decided to hit a couple more breweries along the way. First we hit Nordic Brewing, a new one in Monticello, MN. We arrived just as they were opening, and got to park ourselves at a nice set of comfy chairs by the windows. Their beer was pretty solid, and I particularly enjoyed their imperial oatmeal stout.

Once we were done there we headed over to Big Lake and one final stop at Lupulin, which is an old favorite that I hadn’t been to in a while. I had a couple beers there and then we headed back to the car for the final part of the trip home. Overall, this was an incredibly fun weekend, and even though we were only gone a single night, it was really easy. Having the camper, and all of our stuff just set up in a box, makes setup phenomenally easy. Most of the time when we get to a campsite, we’re ready to start relaxing within 15 minutes. It sure beats fighting with an air mattress in a tent.

This is the first of a bunch of trips this summer, and I feel like we started off the season right. Sibley State Park was a lot of fun, and the Mt. Tom loop was a great route for a shorter distance run. It was well worth the drive from the cities.