"Evaluations: Bicycling & Touring Gear" Archives

Sep 01 2017

The Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System: Small Is Beautiful by Tamia Nelson

Quenching your thirst is surprisingly difficult, whether you’re cycling through rural country or trekking in the backcountry. You just can’t assume that wild water is safe to drink. Which explains why clever people have devised many ways to disinfect questionable water. Tamia has weighed her options for how to treat wild water, and the winner is… the Sawyer Mini.

Whether I’m heading out on a long bike ride along back roads with no services, paddling a lonely stream, or bushwhacking into a favorite beauty spot, I have one nagging worry: drinking water.

The Adirondacks, my backyard, is a well-watered place, but trekking is thirsty work, and there’s really no way for me to know if wild water is drinkable. The only valid rule of thumb was articulated many years ago by veteran desert walker Colin Fletcher: “If in doubt, doubt.”

Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon to find a dented tin cup upturned on a stick alongside a stream or spring hole. And I drank my fill at such informal watering spots many times without any qualms. But times change. Nowadays there’s likely to be a 100-unit second-home development just a mile upstream. Or maybe the last person to pass by thought the spring hole was the perfect place to take a bubble bath. Or the trail might be popular with local dog-walkers, all of whom think pooper-scoopers are for city folk.

Which is probably why you don’t see many tin cups by streams these days — and why I’m left with only Fletcher’s Law to guide me: If in doubt, doubt. And then? Treat the water! It’s not as if there aren’t a lot of options. But before deciding on the best method for my trips, I thought I’d better get a clearer idea…

WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST

The answer? Just about anything I cared to name. Pathogenic bacteria. Protozoan parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium. The eggs of infectious tapeworms (Echinococcus). Even waterborne viruses. Not to mention chemical contamination — that devil’s cocktail of subtle, insidious poisons that we regard as the inevitable price to be paid for progress and prosperity.

That said, I’m not likely to find all of these in one cup of water. But who wants to play Russian roulette with her health? If in doubt, doubt, and take reasonable precautions against foreseeable risks. The bad news? The risk posed by the chemical contamination of surface waters and aquifers can’t really be assessed or addressed in the field. While the activated carbon filters found in some portable filters may indeed improve the taste of water,…

ACTIVATED CARBON FILTERS DON’T REDUCE THE BURDEN OF TOXIC ORGANIC CHEMICALS

Is this a concern? Yes and no. Though there’s not much heavy industry in the Adirondacks, there are mines, commercial forests, farms, and lawns, all of which are fertile sources of noxious pollutants. (Yes, even lawns. Could any McMansion owner forgo having a vast sweep of lawn, maintained with an arsenal of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? Certainly not. What would the neighbors think?) There’s also direct contamination of surface waters by runoff from parking lots and highways, not to mention the oil-rich exhausts of the outboards, jet-skis, ATVs, and snowmobiles beloved of many outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen.

The bottom line? The water flowing brightly under the road bridge, gurgling down the trailside stream, or passing under my keel may well be chemically polluted. And there’s nothing I can do about it, except hope that the risk is small. Or drink only bottled water — not really a practical alternative on long trips away from “sivilization.” Having said that,…

SOMETHING CAN BE DONE ABOUT PATHOGENS AND PARASITES

In fact, when it comes to disinfecting water, I have an embarrassment of options. I can boil it. I can dose it with a germicide. I can filter it. I can even zap it with ultraviolet light. That’s almost too much choice, which is why I decided to narrow the field before coming to a decision, weighing the merits and demerits of each method in turn, beginning with …

Boiling.  What could be simpler? Fire up the stove. Bring a pot of water to a good, rolling boil. Then — since I won’t be camping above 14,000 feet — I’m done. But nothing’s really this simple, is it? Boiling water has to cool before you can drink or decant it, and I’d need a big pot (and plenty of fuel) if I were going to boil up enough to see me through a sweaty day. In other words, boiling makes sense if I’m just brewing a pot of tea or making coffee for breakfast, but it’s an awkward and time-consuming way to meet all my drinking water needs.

OK. Boiling’s out, at least for disinfecting water in bulk. But I can always fall back on science, can’t I? What about …

The Pharmaceutical Option?  There’s nothing easier than popping a pill or two in a bottle of water, is there? No, but many devils lurk in the details, nonetheless. To begin with, two old campaigners are off the list. Halazone [4-(dichlorosulfamoyl)benzoic acid], the chlorine-releasing tablets handed out to GIs during World War II and still in widespread use as late as the 1960s, start losing their oomph almost as soon as you open the bottle. And tetraglycine hydroperiodide (the original Potable Aqua), though made of sturdier stuff, with much greater staying power than Halazone, is off-limits for anyone with thyroid disease, a cohort that now includes both me and Farwell. That leaves chlorine dioxide. The upside? Treated water still tastes like water, rather than disinfectant. The downside? Treatment time is four hours. And the tablets aren’t cheap. Moreover, it’s by no means certain that any chemical germicide is effective against the embryonated eggs of hydatid tapeworms, an emerging concern as Adirondack waterways become busier (and doggier) places.

My verdict? The pharmaceutical option was also out. But I thought I might have found my answer in another fruit from the tree of technology:

The Lightsaber.  This is Farwell’s whimsical name for the SteriPEN, a portable ultraviolet (UV) generator that bears a striking resemblance to an electric carving knife. UV radiation doesn’t kill microbial pathogens outright, but it does damage their DNA, limiting their ability to reproduce and thereby preventing them from overwhelming a human host’s defenses. The SteriPEN is an ingenious device, light in weight and easy to use. That said, it isn’t without drawbacks. It’s fragile, for one thing. For another, its efficacy is somewhat impaired in turbid water, and not all Adirondack waterways are crystal clear. But here’s the clincher: I’ve found no evidence that it inactivates the embryonated eggs of the hydatid tapeworm, surely one of the nastier surprises lurking in wild waters. Bad luck, that. Looks like it’s Worms 2, H. saps 0.

And that’s three down, with only one to go:

Filtration.  Portable filters have been around for a long time, and they do a good job holding back pathogenic bacteria, protozoan cysts, and tapeworm eggs. But many that I’ve seen (and used) have struck me as impossibly fussy and rather accident-prone. One of the best, the venerable Katadyn Pocket, is not only breathtakingly pricey, but it also boasts a ceramic filter. The filter is easy to clean, and it lasts a long time in ordinary use, but if you drop it on a rock, you’re back to boiling water. Moreover, like many other portable filters, the Pocket allows pathogenic viruses to slip right through. That said, an MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter has been our go-to solution for bulk water purification for some years now, though we also zap the filtered water with the Lightsaber to hobble any viruses. As the AutoFlow’s name suggests, it has no pump, and that’s a very good thing, indeed. Pumping is always a bit of a nuisance, and the absence of moving parts in drip filters like the AutoFlow eliminates many failure points. Still, the MSR is rather bulky, and packing it up is a little like wrestling an octopus. Ours is also getting a little long in tooth.

Which is why I started looking around for a smaller (and hopefully cheaper) alternative. And I found it on the shelves of the local HyperMart:

THE SAWYER MINI

Sawyer calls it a “water filtration system,” and I won’t argue, but it’s really just a small filter cartridge paired with a sturdy laminated “squeeze pouch” and a short length of rubbery tubing, plus a plastic syringe thrown in to make backwashing easier. And at around 20 (US) bucks a pop, it’s pretty cheap.

Sawyer Mini Filtration System (c) Tamia Nelson

Photo A above shows the Sawyer Mini in its retail garb. Stripped of its packaging, the entire “system” — filter cartridge (B), rubber tubing, rolled squeeze pouch, and a 60-mL syringe (C) — weighs less than four ounces. Simple it may be, but the Mini is nothing if not versatile. You can …

  1. Use the squeeze pouch to force water through the filter into any handy container (Photo D below).
  2. Attach the tubing to the intake end of the filter — do NOT confuse the intake and outflow nipples! — then immerse the end of the tube in a water source and suck away at the outflow till your thirst is quenched (E).
  3. Screw the filter directly onto a plastic seltzer or soda bottle filled with “wild” water and drink from the outflow nipple.
  4. Mount the filter in the line leading from a hydration bladder.

Sawyer Mini Filtration System (c) Tamia Nelson

I mostly stick to Option Number One. And how does the Sawyer Mini work? I’ve no complaints to date. It’s easy to pack and simple to use. But does it do the job? Good question. Sawyer has lab data supporting the filter’s efficacy against bacteria and protozoan cysts, and the filter itself seems reasonably sturdy.

So far, so good, but…

ARE THERE ANY DOWNSIDES?

There are. If a Mini is exposed to freezing temperatures after its first use, it’s toast. That drawback isn’t unique to the Mini, by the way. All hollow fiber membrane microfilters share this vulnerability. And since you can’t inspect the filter element without sawing through the housing, you’ll have to take its integrity on trust. Or not. Which is why I’d be inclined to season Sawyer’s claim that the filter is good for “up to 100,000 gallons” with a fistful of salt. In fact, one preliminary study reports that samples of a nearly identical Sawyer filter succumbed to irreversible fouling (and possible burst fibers) after two years’ household use, with consequent loss of efficacy. That’s why I intend to replace my Mini every year, without fail. Better safe than you-know-what.

THE BOTTOM LINE?

The Mini ticks all the boxes: It’s small. It’s light. It’s simple. Keep it warm when the thermometer dips to freezing and below, and carry a box of chlorine dioxide tablets to serve as an emergency backup in a hard chance. The Sawyer Mini’s not perfect, but it will do the job I need done. It might be just what you’re looking for, too.

Sawyer Mini Filtration System (c) Tamia Nelson

Product Evaluations Policy  TN Outside never accepts payment for product endorsements, nor do we accept product samples from manufacturers or their representatives. We write about the food we buy on our weekly rounds, and about the gear and books we’ve purchased, rented, or borrowed (from friends, family, or the public library) over the years. That said, on rare occasions we’ll write a product analysis of something we don’t own and have never used, based solely on the manufacturer’s claims, published specifications, or others’ experiences. But when we do that, we’ll tell you.

This article is an updated and modified version of one that appeared originally at Paddling.net on 12 May 2015.

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Aug 11 2017

A Kickstand Support Keeps Your Bike Upstanding and It’s Absolutely Free! by Tamia Nelson

Road shoulders aren’t always wide and paved. More often than not, the verge is adrift with sand, loose gravel, or unconsolidated soil. This doesn’t bode well for cyclists who use a kickstand to keep their bike upright when they pull off the travel lane to get off the bike. Why? Because you may walk away from your parked bike only to hear it topple over before you’re more than a few steps away. Luckily, there’s an easy way to prevent the slow subsidence that sometimes topples our bikes: the kickstand support. Tamia tells you how.

Are you tired of having your bike’s kickstand sink into sand or slide sideways in gravel? Here’s an easy solution to this common problem, one that weighs very little and costs absolutely nothing — a stout metal jar lid. Almost any lid will do, though a wide lid works better than a narrow one.

The principle is simple. The lid spreads out the load, providing a stable base of support for the kickstand leg and reducing the likelihood that it will punch down into soft sand or slip on loose gravel. Just put the lid on the ground with the threaded flange uppermost. Then maneuver the kickstand’s leg into place. That’s it. Mission accomplished.

My kickstand support is a lid from an empty jar of salsa, if you’re interested, but just about any metal jar lid will do. It’s a good idea to check that the lid doesn’t shift when you release your grip on the bike — and that the kickstand leg doesn’t skate across the metal surface. Sometimes you have to move the lid a bit to find a more stable lie. But that’s about all. Once your bike is standing pretty, you can walk away, confident that it will remain upright.

Outstanding!

After many months of use, however, your support may begin to show its age. When it starts to look like it’s been hit with birdshot, it’s probably time to consign it to the recycling bin and get a new lid. But you’ve really no cause for complaint. The price is right.

Will this work with a two-legged kickstand like the Pletscher? I haven’t tried it, but I can’t think of why it wouldn’t. You’ll need two lids, though —and it will probably be a bit fussier to get the legs where they have to go. Anyway, even if you need two supports, they shouldn’t weigh your down, and it’s not hard to keep it stowed but handy. I slip my lid into the map slot of my handlebar bag:

It's Not Heavy

But if you don’t use a bar bag your can probably find room in the seat pack that holds your spare tube and tools. (You do carry a tube and tools, don’t you?) Or just tuck your lid into your jersey or jacket pocket.

However you decide to haul your support around, you can now leave your bike on its kickstand without a qualm, knowing that you’ll find it upright and undamaged on your return. That’s a happy state of affairs, isn’t it?

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jul 06 2017

The Performance Transformer Jacket Transformed by Tamia Nelson

The Performance Transformer jacket is a lightweight wind shell. It’s got a lot going for it: It’s reasonably priced and the hi-viz color stands out to alert drivers you’re there. Moreover, the polyester fabric not only blunts the edge of cutting winds, it sheds light drizzle, too. Best of all, the jacket can morph into a vest by unzipping the sleeves. But there were two complications Tamia had to overcome before it went from good to best.

Some eight or nine years ago I bought the Performance Transformer jacket on sale from online retailer Performance Bike. (Amazingly, an updated version of the Transformer — the Elite Transformer — is still carried by Performance, though with a critical alteration as well as a much higher price.) Though not available in a women’s version, the Transformer appealed for several reasons. It’s a lightweight wind shell made of polyester, which blunts the edge of cutting winds and blunts a light drizzle. It’s predominantly hi-viz yellow, though unfortunately with black sleeves, shoulders, and chest pocket. The black swatches reduce the Transformer’s overall brightness, though as the photo panel below indicates, the hi-viz is very bright, bright enough to throw off my camera’s sensor.

Performance Transformer Jacket Photo (c) Tamia Nelson

The jacket folds up into a tidy packet for carrying in my handlebar bag or small pannier. But best of all, the Transformer lives up to its name — the jacket can morph into a vest by unzipping the sleeves. The mesh upper back help reduces condensation even when the sleeves and cape are in place, as a scoop vent at the cape’s lower seam allow ventilation. And if a bright jersey is worn beneath the vest, its color will show through the vest’s mesh. Did I say the Transformer is light?

Performance Transformer Jacket-Turned-Vest Photo (c) Tamia Nelson

So far, so good. I planned to wear the Transformer when the weather was too warm for my heavy-duty foul weather Canari Barrier Commuter jacket, but still too chilly for just a long-sleeved jersey. And I looked forward to being able to zip off the sleeves when I warmed up. But, there were…

TWO COMPLICATIONS TO OVERCOME

The first annoyance? Zippers that join the cape and sleeves to the vest jam very easily. Secondly, the Transformer is cut for a man’s body, and a slim man’s body, at that.

I’ve come to terms with the zippers. (I no longer try to unzip on the move.) The tapered fit defied easy accommodation, however. Most women’s bodies are hourglasses, not inverted pyramids, and mine is no exception. When I pulled my Transformer down over my hips I felt as if I was riding in a badly fitted straitjacket. Which, in a way, I was.

After wearing the jacket for a few months, I concluded that it didn’t live up to its promise. But I’m loathe to give up on anything. Especially when I can’t find a suitable substitute at price I’m willing to pay. Convertible jackets are rare beasts. So instead of leaving my Transformer to gather dust in the closet, I decided to tackle the fit problem head on. And that meant…

TRANSFORMING THE TRANSFORMER TO FIT A WOMAN’S BODY

This meant sewing. Now I’m not one of nature’s eager seamstresses, but my mother was a genius with a sewing machine, making many of her own and her kids’ clothes from scratch, as well as remodeling ready-made garments to fit her (and us) better. I figured I’d see if I could live up to her example. After all, what did I have to lose? As it was, I had a jacket which was so uncomfortable that I rarely wore it. If my alterations failed, I’d be no worse off. But if they succeeded, I’d be ahead of the game. So I grabbed a sheet of paper and sketched out a plan:

Sketchy Business Photo (c) Tamia Nelson

My Transformer had black triangular gussets separating the hi-viz front and back panels. I began by slitting these gussets (step 1 in the sketch) from the hem to a point just below the arm hole and opening them up by some four inches (2) on each side. Next, I split the seams of a hi-viz nylon stuff sack I found on the verge of the highway. This gave me a large rectangle with a preformed drawcord hem, from which it was child’s play to cut two additional triangles of fabric (3). (I used a laundry maker to trace the outlines before cutting.) Then I heat-sealed all the cut edges — and almost set fire to the jacket. Polyester is tricky stuff!

Turning the jacket over so that the inside was facing up on my work table, I matched the cut edges of one green nylon insert with the cut edges of the corresponding black gusset, being careful to align the tunnel hems (4). Then I pinned the insert to the jacket to hold everything together and stitched it in place (5), doubling the lines of stitching before going on to tackle the second gusset. In just a few short minutes it was time to try my newly tailored jacket on for size. And the result? Perfect. No more straitjacket! It was just loose enough to accommodate a long-sleeved jersey under a light fleece top. Here’s what one side of finished garment looks like:

The Finished Product (c) Tamia Nelson

You can see the black lines left by my laundry marker. I should have placed them on the inside where they wouldn’t be seen, but I can live with it. The green color also clashes with the hi-viz yellow, but I can live with that, too. Someone with more skill and patience than I would have done a far neater job, I’m sure, but I’m pleased with my transformed Transformer. It’s now the versatile garment I wanted when I bought it. and has been keeping me warm and dry for many years.

 
Send a Comment

Jun 11 2017

The Relaxed Alternative to Finding Your Cycling Comfort Zone by Tamia Nelson

Bicycling isn’t only for jocks in lycra, and there are alternatives to a traditional diamond-frame road bike, too. So if you’re looking for a more relaxed ride, consider one of these bikes.

My article on a friend’s Day 6 Dream semi-recumbent bike sparked the imaginations of readers who wanted for more information about a kind of bike which they’d never seen before. Clearly there are plenty of folks who would go cycling if they had a choice beyond the mountain bike or road bike. They like the idea of a more relaxed frame geometry, because that gives them a bike with traits such as these:

  • Upright position when cycling
  • Little to no pressure on hands and wrists
  • Comfortable seat
  • Feet can be placed flat on ground while sitting in the saddle
  • One size of bike frame can fit a range of riders
  • Lower center of gravity inspires confidence
  • Easier to straddle than diamond frame bikes, especially if the bike has a step-through frame

Bikes with qualities like these are known by a number of terms, including:

  • Comfort Bikes
  • Crank Forward Bikes
  • Semi-Recumbent Bikes
  • Relaxed Geometry Bikes
  • Flat-Footed Bikes

Whatever they’re called, one thing is universal—bikes of this design allow a cyclist to put his or her feet flat on the ground while still sitting in the saddle. That seems to be the most appealing characteristic for most folks, and it’s easy to see why. If your back or hips have a limited range of motion, or if your balance is wonky, you don’t need to be quite so concerned about toppling over when you slow down and stop. Furthermore, saddling up is easier, especially if the bike has a very low top tube or a step-through frame (often seen on women’s bikes, but also with some unisex frames).

Here’s a diagram showing six different models of relaxed frame bikes, with a Surly Long Haul Trucker at the top for comparison’s sake:

Name That Bike

You can see how the main elements of the different bikes compare with one another and with the more traditional diamond frame of the Surly. Note hot the saddles on relaxed frame bikes are below the level of the handlebars, rather than on the same level like with the Surly. The pedals are very much further forward of the saddles of the relaxed frame bikes, too. Moreover, your sitting position is lower to the ground with a relaxed frame. All these features endear the relaxed frame bike to folks looking for a more relaxed ride.

RANS Crank Forward Bike Photo (c) Vik Banerjee

The six bikes in my graphic are but a sample of what the marketplace has to offer. So, if you’re intrigued by a bike which offers comfort and sure-footedness when you come to a stop, you can find a model to suit your needs and pocketbook. Prices range from below USD100 for a sale bike in Walmart to a few hundred US dollars. They’re becoming more popular, and it’s possible you might even find one used. Before long, I’m betting you’ll be finding your comfort zone with a relaxed alternative to the diamond frame bike.

This article is an update of one originally published on 22 August 2009.

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Older Articles »