David's Equipment Reviews

Here you'll find a list of most of my major gear, past and present, followed by a blurb about how I liked each piece of equipment: what worked, what didn't, how it could have been better, etc. I am NOT getting paid for ANY of these reviews! They are my honest opinions, both good and bad, based solely on my own experience and nothing else. Enjoy!

While I welcome any comments you may have about this page, please do not send me email like "Hey, you're an idiot! Jandd panniers are the best, Ortliebs suck!," because A) it isn't going to do any good (I'll just throw it away without responding), B) it will clutter up my mailbox, and C) you're wrong, Ortliebs are 100% awesome. ;-)

If, on the other hand, you have something constructive to input (e.g., "Don't be TOO hard on Marmot, I've tried 13 different Goretex jackets, and they all seem to do the same thing."), then by all means, email me. If it seems appropriate, I may just include your comments with my reviews.


Bikes

Trek 520 (touring bike)

I'm currently riding a mostly-stock Trek 520 touring bike. I switched out the rear rack in order to put on a longer, sturdier Jandd Expedition rack, and I switched out the rear derailleur for the next step up on the Shimano component chain, just for a bit of added reliability. I added Jandd low-rider front racks and a Profile aerobar.

This bike is a sort of mixed bag. It's a fairly sturdy bike with a steel frame, which I consider necessary for a really extended tour. The steel will wear better and, in a pinch, can be welded or even bent back into shape. Most other materials will break rather than bending. You can ride a bent frame, but you can't ride a broken one.

The drop-bar configuration of the Trek 520 gives you more hand positions than a mountain-bike style handlebar, particularly when combined with the aerobars. The disadvantage of the aerobars is that it basically makes it impossible to mount a handlebar bag, which is something I really like to have, as it's a very convenient place to put tools and snacks.

The 520 comes equipped with bar-end shifters, which I have come to detest. When climbing, I find that my knee occasionally hits the shifters, and I have even fallen over once when I was making a slow, sharp turn in a parking lot and my knee pushed the shifter (and thus the handlebars). The rear shifter is a switchable index/friction system, which is a good idea in case your derailleur goes out of adjustment while you're on the road and you don't want to take the time to adjust it. The front shifter, however, is a friction only system, which seems really stupid to me. It does not shift easily from low to middle gear on the front derailleur.

The stock pedals are a combination SPD/flat pedal, so you can ride either with your SPD clipless shoes or with any standard shoe. They're not weighted as well as I'd like, though, so you have to give the pedal a "flip" to put the SPD side up before you can click in. I would prefer that they be weighted such that the SPD side is automatically up.

My old mountain bike (a Kona Lavadome) had a headset that didn't require any large wrenches, just a standard hex wrench. The 520 headset requires a very large monkey wrench (I'm not a tool nut, I don't know what else you'd call that kind of wrench) to adjust, which seems impractical for a touring bike. If you ask me, a touring bike ought to be set up to require the least number of tools possible, since most of us do not want to just take tours around big cities where there are bike shops on every streetcorner, and carrying a 1-pound monkey wrench is a ridiculous waste of your weight budget.

The rear wheel on a touring bike should, in my opinion, be able to accommodate a tremendous amount of weight. It should be able to accommodate somebody larger than myself, say 200lbs, and 50 pounds of gear. After riding less than 500 miles on this tour, I had already had to true my rear wheel twice. I was a bit worried that I was going to start breaking spokes (which I absolutely loath fixing, especially on the gear side), but since the first couple truings, I didn't have to touch it again for 1000 miles. I carry a fair amount of weight, but I have certainly seen other people carry more, and I only weigh 165lbs. In fact, the 520 wheels held up quite well, but I still would have felt more comfortable with mountain bike wheels.

Last but not least, the 520 is geared more like a road/racing bike than a mountain bike, which doesn't seem sensible for touring. When you're climbing big hills with more than 50lbs of gear, you want to be able to spin slowly up the hill, rather than either walking it, straining your knees forcing it or standing up. The 520 is not geared low enough to do that. In my opinion, a good touring bike should be geared more like a mountain bike.

On the whole, the 520 is a rideable, comfortable bike, which worked reasonably well for me through northern Europe. With all its modern, fancy parts, however, it's definitely a "first world" touring bike; outside of big cities, it's very difficult to find parts. So, on the whole, it's a nice bike, but it does not seem particularly well-designed for touring.

Kona Lavadome (mountain bike)

Ironically, I think my Kona was better suited for touring than my new "touring bike." The frame was sturdier, as were the wheels. The frame was more compact, the only problem with which is the fact that my heels hit the panniers too often. That would be remedied with the addition of an Expedition rack, however.

The Lavadome did have one design problem as far as touring: the rear axle interferes with placement of a rear rack. In fact, I had to grind down the corner of my rear rack arm about 1/8" in order to make it fit without impeding on the placement of the rear wheel.

I absolutely loved the GripShift shifting system, and it never failed me, but it's not friction-shiftable, so if you did have a problem, it would have to be serviced, and I've never tried servicing the GripShift myself; it could be tricky. My derailleurs never needed substantial adjustment or replacement over 5000 miles, and I only replaced my chain once. The gearing was much more suitable for touring than that of my current bike. The Kona took a tremendous amount of abuse, and the only thing that ever gave out was the rear wheel. If Kona offered me a new Lavadome or better in exchange for my Trek, I'd take them up on it.

Last but not least, Kona does an excellent job of mixing and matching high-quality components in order to give you a lot of bike for your buck. They're not cheap, but for the quality, Konas are an excellent value.

The Panniers

Rear

Jandd

I rode for over seven months with a pair of Jandd Large Mountain panniers, and I have one word to describe them: crap. The mechanism for hooking them to the racks is atrocious. It's extremely difficult to get the packs on and off, and the attachment is unreliable: I had my packs come off more than once. They are not waterproof in the least, and yet are very nearly as expensive and heavy as their waterproof counterparts. They are not particularly durable, and I had worn a hole in the side of my right pannier after I brushed against a guardrail a couple times (better the rail than a passing car!). It was the waterproofness, though, that became my main concern. I don't mind getting wet myself, but riding when you're worried about your gear getting wet ceases to be fun.

Ortlieb

For this trip, I've switched to a pair of Ortlieb Back Rollers. These 100% waterproof panniers have the most ingenious rack-mounting system of any panniers I've seen. They mount and unmount in about 3 seconds flat, they can't "pop off" like the Jandd's, and they're TOTALLY waterproof. They're wonderful. I can't possibly recommend any set of panniers over the Ortliebs. If you shop around, you can buy a pair for less than $150, and they're well worth it.

Front

TAQ-33?

When I was in Germany, I picked up a pair of what I consider basically no-name front panniers. They say "TAQ-33" on them, but I have no idea if that's a brand name or what. They're designed for standard, not low-rider racks, but they work fine on my low-riders. They're not waterproof, but the mounting mechanism is better than the Jandd's (though not as good as the Ortliebs). Most of what I put in them is camping gear, so I just wrap it in garbage bags for waterproofness. Half the time it's wet when I put it in there, though, so it doesn't matter much.

Ortlieb

Before my second trip, however, I found a sale on a pair of Ortlieb Front Rollers, and based on my experience with the Ortlieb Back Rollers, decided that I couldn't pass up the deal. I will now be happily riding totally Ortlieb.

Handlebar Bag (Jandd)

When I was riding my Kona, I spent $50 on a Jandd handlebar bag, and it was the only Jandd bag I'd still use. I don't think it's worth the expense (there are other similar bags on the market that are better and cheaper), but it works quite well. It clicks on and off the bike with a simple release mechanism, and you could even attach a shoulder strap, if you wanted to. The map compartment is NOT waterproof, and nor is the rest of the bag. My maps regularly got soaked in this bag, which was the only thing that really irritated me about it.

Bike Gear

Pump

At least once in my life, I've ruined an innertube by yanking the stem back and forth to much with my pump. I decided on the Topeak Master Blaster Combo (MBC) for two reasons, both of which have proved wise. First, the MBC has a flexible tube which attaches to your stem, so even if you use it as a hand-pump, you won't crank on the stem too much. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the MBC has a foot-lever which you can step on, allowing you to put the pump on the ground and pump with both hands. When it works, this is an incredibly fast pump, and pumping my tire until it's rock hard takes virtually no time or effort.

Unfortunately, it usually doesn't work. The concept behind this pump is a great one, but it's not engineered very well. It leaks air from several different spots, making it just barely good enough to pump up my tire enough to get to a gas station. I eventually threw it away and replaced it with a standard hand-pump. Though the hand-pump didn't work as quickly or easily, it was considerably more reliable. For my opinion of how a pump ought to work, check out my Equipment Wishlist

Computer

Trek Radar

The Trek Radar computer has a bunch of cool features, most of which even work. With a fairly large face, it allows you to view a great deal of information all at once. For example, you can see time, temperature, current speed and trip distance all at once. The temperature gauge, however, is pathetically inaccurate. It is highly susceptible to direct sunlight, and in hot weather can easily be off by 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It seems fairly accurate below 50F (10C), but how many of us like riding when it's that cold? Nice idea, guys, try again.

The other really cool thing about the Trek Radar is that it has settings for two bikes, so you can pop it off your mountain bike and onto your racing bike and still get an accurate reading (as long as you remember to set it appropriately to bike #1 or bike #2). While not terribly important for touring, it's handy when you get home.

Unfortunately, I had to replace my Trek Radar computer, because it started totally tweaking out. I checked every connection, including the battery housing, and they are all fine, but it continues to bounce around between 0kph-150kph indiscriminately, and while I'd love to think that I'm a studly enough rider to handle a bike at 150kph, I'm pretty sure it's not true. I'm pretty sure that I'm not just imagining the sensation of motion when it reads 0kph, either. I just replaced the battery before I left, so either I got a bad battery or my computer is just plain dead.

Avocet

It's simple, but it works. I have a bottom-of-the-line Avocet computer which just does current/average/max speed, trip distance, odometer and has a simple clock. You can only see one thing at a time. The bottom line, though, is that it's cheap and it works.

SigmaSport wireless

It's cool, but it doesn't work. It worked for about 700 miles on my first trip, and then just up and died. I never figured out what the problem was, I think it just decided to commit suicide. Unfortunately, I bought it in Italy, and I think the shop would just laugh at me if I sent it back and asked for a replacement.

Shorts

I don't know how anybody goes touring without cycle shorts. THEY'RE NOT JUST FOR LOOKS, PEOPLE! Cycle shorts serve two main purposes: 1) They're padded, so your rear doesn't get sore and your prostate (if you're a guy) doesn't swell up like a balloon, and 2) They're "slick," so they slide instead of chaffing. There are companies that make non-lycra cycle shorts, but I don't think I'd ever wear them, since the abscence of chaffing is something I really appreciate. I've tried two different brands of cycle shorts, and unfortunately the ones I liked best are very difficult to find.

Pearl Izumi

For my first trip, I wore a pair of Pearl Izumi's, which are okay, but not great. All the chamois paddings are synthetic these days, but at least some of them feel a bit more like suede, which I prefer. Thick, cloth pads (like those on the Pearl Izumi's) just bunch up and get uncomfortable after a while. The seam down the middle is somewhat poorly placed, though I've seen the same design on many cycling shorts. Pearl Izumi makes a pair of shorts that almost fit the bill for me, but they're $75. I may go ahead and spring for a pair some day, but it'll make my pocketbook squeal.

InSport

The brand I particularly like, which I wore for a couple years and have not been virtually unable to find since, is InSport, based in Beaverton, Oregon. Unfortunately, virtually nobody carries them anymore. I was able to find a pair at their outlet store, so I bought them, but they're still not as good as the ones I bought a couple years ago. Those were much heavier-duty material. Nevertheless, even the InSport shorts that I just bought have chamois padding that's vastly more comfortable than that of the Pearl Izumi's. They have no center seam, either, which is nice, since the center seam tends to be right where you rest most of your weight, making them a bit uncomfortable on long rides.

Shoes

I'm not a cycle-shoe expert. In fact, I've only tried one kind, but I've noticed a distinct difference between this year's model and last year's. Unfortunately, I can't even tell you the model number, since it doesn't seem to be printed on the shoe. All I know is that they're made by Shimano. Anyway, they're a mountain-biking shoe, with a recessed cleat. Last year's model seemed to have more tread, though; I remember walking around for a couple months in them before I started clicking the cleat on the pavement, whereas in this year's model, the tread and/or cleat recess wasn't deep enough, so the cleat started hitting the pavement right away. It's still a lot better than racing-style shoes, though, which have huge cleats that make it almost impossible to walk.

Tire Liners (Mr. Tuffy)

I do not recommend this product at all, particularly for touring, since the extra weight exacerbates the product's design flaws. It is currently a poorly designed product which, in my experience, is more likely to wear a hole in your tube and CAUSE a flat than to prevent one. See my Journal Entry for 3/27/98, Mr. Tuffy Strikes (out) Again.

Gloves

On a recommendation from somebody else's site, I decided to try a pair of gel gloves. When non-gel gloves get wet, they completely lose all padding (it just squishes down), so gel gloves seemed like a great idea. My Pearl Izumi gel gloves, however, have not been terribly impressive. The seam between the ring and little finger of the left hand tore after less than 200 miles of riding, and the padding is insufficient whether wet or dry. It is true that the padding retains its shape and function when wet, but since it doesn't function all that well dry, that's not much help. (So, I guess the lesson to be learned here is "don't believe everything you read on a stranger's website"...) ;-)

The Camping Gear

The Bivvy Bag

I use an Outdoor Research (OR) Advanced Bivvy, and I really like it. The mosquito netting is small enough to keep out even the smallest no-see-ums, and the small, lightweight posts provide just enough space around my head to keep me from feeling claustrophobic.

If you don't know what a bivvy bag is, it's sort of a substitute for a tent, generally designed for mountaineering. Some have no posts at all, some (like mine) have two small, lightweight posts in the head-section which form a sort of "clam-shell" shape which allows for ventilation in good weather, or you can close it down when it rains. Basically, the bivvy is like a rain jacket for your sleeping bag. It has just enough room for you, your sleeping bag, your sleeping pad and only the smallest of gear (I bring my camera bag in with me).

The bottom line (in my opinion) is if you're touring with other people, get a tent. If you're solo touring, get a bivvy. The bivvy is much lighter (mine weighs 30oz (1.9lbs, 0.85kg) and much smaller than a tent (I don't know the dimensions, but it's tiny), and is totally waterproof. It can be set up just about anywhere, requires no stakes, and can withstand basically any wind. (If the wind is too strong for your bivvy, then you better lock your bike up tightly, lest your bike blow away.)

The big advantage of a tent over a bivvy is space. You can bring your gear inside a tent, which alleviates some of the worry of theft, and keeps your gear out of the rain (important if your gear isn't waterproof). You can sit up, change clothes, etc. I can change clothes in my bivvy, but it's a royal pain in the butt. Try changing clothes inside your sleeping bag some time, and you'll understand. When I'm out in the middle of nowhere, this is no big deal; I just hop out of the bivvy and change outside. When I'm camping in somebody's back yard or field, I like to be a little more modest than that, so I have to change inside the bivvy, which is annoying. Also, when you've got more than one person in your group, taking two bivvies eliminates the advantage of weight and space, as two bivvies will take up nearly as much weight and space as a two-person tent. You might as well have the comfort of a tent.

The other disadvantage of the bivvy is condensation. While most bivvies are made of Goretex, the breathability still isn't enough. You are almost guaranteed to have some degree of condensation inside the bivvy, which means you'll end up with condensation on your sleeping bag. I have never found this to be a great problem, but if you went for several weeks without being able to lay your bag out to dry, it could get pretty disgusting.

Goretex Shell Jacket

I was wearing a Marmot Thunderlite Goretex shell jacket, but I got sick of dealing with it, as I didn't feel it lived up to my expectations. Goretex is vastly more breathable than other waterproof fabrics, and vastly more waterproof than other breathable fabrics. It's only breathable when the shell repels water, however, and the Thunderlite lost its repellancy way too quickly. I returned it to Marmot once, and got a replacement. Just recently, I decided I was fed up with the replacement, as well, so I took it back and asked for my money back, but R.E.I. wasn't willing to take it. They said that bike touring was too rough on it, and I shouldn't expect it to work very long without re-treating the shell. I told them to send it back to the manufacturer, which they did. When I get the replacement, I'll keep it for skiing, or other general-purpose uses. I'll probably buy a cheap, $10, waterproof/non-breathable shell for when it gets really wet. I'm not planning to be in any cold weather in the near future, so I don't anticipate needing to ride waterproof and breathable anymore.

In its favor, I must say that the hood of the Thunderlite seems like it was almost designed to be worn over a bicycle helmet, and the "pit-zips" (zippers under the armpits) allow for additional ventilation even when it's raining, without compromising waterproofness. Because I'm very active in it, I don't like to wear a jacket with any insulation; the windproofness of the Goretex is sufficient to keep me warm, so long as I remain active.

Sleeping Bag

I've been using an REI -5F DownTime sleeping bag with DryLoft shell for about a year now, and I find it warm enough for even the most bitterly cold nights. More often than not, I go to sleep freezing my butt off (not having given my body enough time to warm the inside of the bag) and wake up sweating like mad, dying from the heat. The DryLoft shell is designed to repel water, and I suppose it does, but I'm not sure it's necessary. The only water that my bag has ever seen either comes from the inside (sweat), which the DryLoft won't protect against, or from condensation inside the bivvy, which is never substantial enough for it to really matter. The DryLoft makes it slightly more difficult to stuff the bag, as it holds the air in a bit more. I suppose that might make it a bit more insulating, too, as it's slightly wind-proof, but since I generally sleep in my bivvy, I wouldn't notice the wind, anyway.

The only problem I've had with the DownTime is that it seems to absorb scents more than some bags, and, being made of goosedown, it's a real pain to wash. Since it's just me who sleeps in it, it's not too bad, but when I take it out in a hostel or other public place to give it some air, it's a bit embarrassing, 'cuz it don't smell so good. (I also use a thin cotton sleeping sheet to try to protect the bag, but it doesn't seem to help enough.) The DownTime's washing instructions say to hand-wash with gentle detergent and then drip-dry or tumble-dry in a commercial-size drier. I decided that if it didn't stop smelling so terrible, it wasn't going to work for me, so I washed it three times in my parents' over-sized washer: once with Lysol disinfectant soap, once with regular laundry detergent, and once just with water to rinse all the soap out. My parents' drier is about as big as a commercial drier, so I dried it on low heat; it took about four hours, but it worked. I was a bit afraid that it would ruin the bag, but I've looked it over pretty well, and not only do all the seams seem to be intact, but it lofts even better than it did before washing. I suspect that 8 months worth of my body oils were hindering the loft somewhat, and the thorough, against-the-instructions washing did it some good. I don't take any responsibility, though, if you do this to your bag and it falls apart.

SleepingPad (Thermarest full-length)

The best way to discover the utility of a Thermarest is to try camping without one. I camped with an Australian cycletourist for a couple days, and he had just bought a Thermarest for the first time. All his life, he had been camping right on the ground. "Well, I finally get to try out this Thermarest thing," he said before going to bed the first night. The next morning, one the first things out of his mouth was "I can't believe I've been sleeping on the ground all these years!" Thermarests are considerably heavier than closed-cell foam pads, but they're much more compressable (mine fits in one of my front panniers), and the comfort difference is worth it.

Tarps

I carry two tarps with me, both from REI. They're combination tarp/space blankets, so I could conceivably wrap myself in it and keep warm if necessary. Mainly I use them as additional waterproofing, though: in heavy rain I put one over my bike overnight, I tie them to trees to give me a dry shelter to sit under, I put them under my bivvy to protect it on rough ground, I have even tied them above my bivvy bag so that I could open up the bag and have some ventilation without getting soaked. They're bulky, but they have about a million and one uses, so I think it's worth it.

The Computer Gear

It ain't cheap and it ain't lightweight, but if I didn't carry this stuff, you wouldn't be reading this.

CPU

I am writing this from a youth hostel in Ireland on my Newton 2100. I did a lot of research before buying this expensive gizmo, and so far I've been very happy with my purchase. I checked out all the WindowsCE machines, the PalmPilot, the Psions, and the Libretto, and none of them could do what I wanted to do. My main concern was the keyboard. None of the WindowsCE machines or the Psions had a touch-typable keyboard. The Psion claims that you can touchtype on its keyboard, but that's a bunch of B.S., unless you have EXTREMELY small hands. Since I type about 80wpm, I wanted a touch-typable keyboard. The PalmPilot has an adaptor for a Newton keyboard, but the PalmPilot has a pathetically small screen, and very, very little memory. In case you haven't noticed, there's a lot of writing on this site. I've done it all on this Newton, and it's still stored here, in case I want to make modifications. The Libretto is a fully functional Windows 95 machine, but the battery pack only lasts a couple hours, and would require that I carry a charger, power adapters for different countries, etc. The Newton runs for about 20 hours on four AA batteries, which are available just about anywhere in the world.

Basically, the Newton rocks. Steve Jobs is a complete and total moron for axing the Newton department at Apple. They claim that they're going to make a new PDA with Newton-style power and a mini-MacOS, but I'm not going to hold my breath. The Newton is by far the best PDA on the market, but it may not be around much longer. Personally, though, I don't care, because it's the only one that will do what I need it to do, right now.

Modem

I bought the Pretec 33.6 PCMCIA fax-modem for two reasons: 1) it was cheap, and 2) it claimed to be a "low-power" modem. It turned out not to be, unfortunately, which really irritates me. Using the modem, my battery life drops from about 20 hours to about 10 minutes. That doesn't seem like "low-power" to me... In fact, I finally found some statistics on PCMCIA modems, and this one draws about 350mA, whereas the average is closer to 250, and some draw as little as 170. Nevertheless, it seems to work. (You're reading this, aren't you?) I haven't had a chance to test out its fax functionality yet, though.

Acoustic coupler

I purchased a Road Warrior acoustic coupler, in case I couldn't find an adapter to jack into the local phone system of whatever country I'm in. The idea is that you attach this thing to the handset of the telephone, and it listens/talks into the handset just like you would. It took me a while to get it to work on payphones, but now that I've figured it out, I think it's one of the most ingenious devices I've ever owned. I can do my email from just about anywhere, which is simply incredible. If necessary (because of bad lines), I think the key may be to force a lower speed connection.

Carrying Case

The Newton carrying cases are ridiculously expensive ($35+) and not all that great. I went to Office Depot and bought a Royal Traveller satchel-style bag for $17, and it works great. It's inconspicuous, fits the Newton, keyboard and acoustic coupler all in one bag, and has several small pockets for other things (like change or business cards). It's much more convenient to carry the Newt on my shoulder than to have to hold it in my hand all the time, especially since I never leave my Newt unattended, which generally means carrying it with me everywhere I go.

The Walkman

This might not seem like a piece of equipment that deserves a review, but this one really does. I purchases a Sony Walkman WM-FX121 over a year ago for about $20, and I've beat the hell out of it. I've dropped this thing off of bunk beds more than once, it's fallen off my bike onto the pavement, I've even dropped it hard enough to crack the case, and it still keeps working. The battery life is phenomenal, too; I'd guess that I get over 20 hours of radio time with two AA's, or at least 10 hours of tape-playing time. The headphones were crap, so I replaced them with Sony MDR-A30G folding (very small) "Sports" headphones, which I have also abused fairly badly, without any apparent damage or degradation of performance. This is an awesome travel walkman.

That's it for the equipment reviews, but that's not my whole gearlist... If you want to see a list of every single piece of gear that I carry with me, check out my equipment list.