Let’s go mountain biking, Mom

dsc_1254I was an avid mountain biker in my early 30s, and once again I have taken up the sport, more than a decade later, to find that lots has changed. The trails and techniques have not changed much, but I have. Luckily, mountain bikes have changed too, and newer models are much more suited for people at various stages of life and skill levels.

The Mongoose Switchback Sport ($399) women’s mountain bike is a great bike for a new or returning mountain biker. The Switchback is tall, with its 27.5-inch wheelbase and a raised handlebar stem, and it allows me to sit high and upright. As I have gotten a little older, my neck and back sometimes feel stiff and painful, so this more erect posture is exceedingly more comfortable than the hunched-over downward-facing position of older mountain bikes.

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The front suspension fork absorbs shock and offers a lower-impact ride than a fixed fork, so again, for an older body, this is more comfortable. The fork features a lockout knob, so that if you are on a paved surface and you don’t require the benefits of suspension, you can change over the fork so that it performs like a fixed fork, which offers a less laborious ride.

The pedals on this bike feature standard platform pedals. When I was a more aggressive mountain biker, I used clipless pedals, which required me to have special shoes with clips, and when clicked into the pedals, my pedal stroke was more efficient. For serious riders, clipless pedals are a must, but for a weekend rider like myself, the platform pedals are more suitable. As I am out of practice with the clipless pedals, the platforms gave me less anxiety. There is nothing worse than not being able to clip out of your pedals in time when you stop, and tipping over like a bad scene from Laugh In.

As this bike is tall, I appreciated the girls’ style lower top tube. While in my younger days I would easily swing my leg over the seat, now I am glad to be able to have the option of stepping through the bike to mount it.

One thing that will take some adjustment for me is the width of the handlebars. Because of the gears and their positioning on the handlebars, I am not able to place my hands close together. At first I felt like my grip was too wide, but I am getting use to this stance.
The aluminum frame keeps the bike lightweight, which is not only good for quick riding on the trails, it makes it easier for me to lift to put on a bike rack on the back of my car or to hang on a rack in my garage. It’s the small things that are important! One non-standard component that I will add to this bike is a kickstand. I’m aware that true mountain bikers do not have kickstands on their bikes, as it could be dangerous if it snags on roots, rocks or other obstacles on the trail, and it also adds a minuscule amount of weight to the bike, but I prefer the convenience of a kickstand to leaning my bike against a pole or a tree, or having to lay it on the ground.

The components on this bike are high-end for the price point. The Shimano Tourney 3_7 drivetrain with Shimano EZ-Fire shifters make shifting smooth and easy, and the mechanic disc brakes with 160 mm rotors are responsive without seizing up. At around $399, this is a great entry-point hardtail bike for a rider who wants the bells and whistles of a specialized bike but who is not yet willing to invest in a bike costing upwards of $1,500 for features like rear suspension. If I continue riding and want to become more competitive, I can always upgrade this bike, or trade up to a more advanced model.

For my weekend jaunts on and off single-track and paved trails, the Switchback is ideal. It is a serious enough bike, loaded with high quality Shimao and Xposure components, that I am not embarrassed riding among avid cyclists on the popular local trails, whereas on my comfort bike I felt a little like an oddball. It has performance features that make it enjoyable to ride but not too high maintenance for someone like myself who just wants to have a great time and not make a career of tinkering with my bike. This particular Mongoose model is among the higher end of the brand’s offerings. Mongoose also makes less expensive models, though for anyone who wants to get carefree, long use out of their equipment, I recommend going with one of their upper-end models. It might be another $100 to $300 to buy the better bike, but in the end you will get your money’s worth.

While certainly the hardware of mountain biking is the most significant investment, the apparel you wear while will riding can make your experience much better. Biking apparel today is nearly as technical as bikes themselves. The high tech fabrics have evolved and to provide more efficient wicking of perspiration to keep you comfortable when you work up a sweat, and they have features that allow you to adapt them as you progress in your ride or the weather or riding condition changes.

Sugoi, a brand that was forged in British Columbia, Canada, is designed to give you all optimal comfort and performance no matter what the weather. They make a great all-around Coast Hoode ($120), featuring a Aero fleece fabric that is a bonded knit with DWR, so that it protects against wind and water. It’s lined with a dry active jersey fabric to keep you warm, and it has two hand pockets for when you’re off the bike, and an inside pocket perfect for a cell phone or wallet. The collar features a media management system so you can secure headphone cords. When wearing this jacket, it is clear it was designed by true bikers, who thought of everything.

For early fall riding were days when it is less cool, the Coast Long Sleeve shirt ($65) is a great option. It also has great styling, so if you slip into a café on a rest break, you’ll fit right in and not look like your necessarily wearing a bike jersey.

For safety, Sugoi also makes an excellent reflective Zap Training jacket that makes you stand out like a radioactive rider when headlights hit you, if you ride after dark.

As I is a have always been a believer in dressing for success, it is my philosophy that if you have the right gear and clothing, you will perform better, and you will get the most out of your ride, whether that it is pleasure or trying to meet a training goal. When you feel comfortable on your bike and in your riding clothes, and you feel confident about your equipment, you can focus on your ride and getting the most benefit from it. As I gear up to get back into mountain biking, and now I have a nine-year-old son to keep up with, I am thrilled to be back in the saddle, and I am ready to roll.

Hacks for the camping newbie

 

As a parent who has not been outdoor camping since I was a Girl Scout decades ago, the experience was all-new to me when I enlisted to accompany 10 boys on a Cub Scout overnight in the Shenandoah National Park this fall. My crash course in roughing it in the woods taught me these hacks that might help other camping rookies on their adventures.

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Arrive early

Reserve well in advance for those campsites that allow you to book online or by phone; but for those that operate on a first-come-first-booked basis, arrive early. Those in the know camp out at the gates hours before opening to get the best spots.  If you are with a large number of people, there are often a limited number of group sites, and these are usually most in demand, so get there extra early if your posse wants to pitch tents close together.

First things first

Set up as soon as you land at your campsite.  It might be tempting to explore or relax after your drive to arrive, but it’s easier to assemble a tent while you still have plenty of energy and daylight, and the warmth of sunshine.  If anything is amiss, you have time before nightfall to deal with it.

It’s in the bag

Snoozing under the stars can be an all-nighter of tossing and turning or a cozy crash until morning, depending on your sleeping bag. Invest in a sleeping bag suited for the weather and your sleep preferences.  I got a good night’s sleep in the Slumberjack Sojourn 20° Sleeping Bag (regular length $179), a warm mummy bag that has an “arms out” feature so you can free your arms to manage tasks without getting out of your bag. It also features a specially treated down filling that stays drier and loftier than common down or synthetic fillers, and the bag is constructed with a water resistant insulation technology and waterproof foot and hood panels in case of wet weather. If temperatures rise, you can vent the bag with dual zippers on the sides. The bag is lightweight so it is easy to carry on a hike, and it is rated for temperatures as low as 20 degrees — or you can opt for models designed for 0 degrees or 40 degrees.

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If the bag fits

Your sound sleep will not only depend on the comfort of your bag but that of your pint-sized sleeping companions. Kid-sized bags are best for children because little ones stay snug and secure in them. Slumberjack’s Go-N-Grow ($69.95), rated for 1 to 30 degrees, comes in boys and girls colors and features an expandable foot section that lengthens the bag by 10 inches, so they can use it through the years as they grow.  It has a snug hood and a two-layer construction to prevent cold spots and an anti-snag zipper for ease of in and out, and it has a built-in pocket in the hood to keep a pillow in place. Lastly, it weighs under three pounds, so they can carry their own bag just like a grown-up camper.

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Freshen Up

Keep your bag fresh and ready for the next night.  Especially if the weather is damp, spread out your bag somewhere sunny to dry completely.  Down bags are light and compressible which makes them ideal for backpacking. The only problem with down is it loses it’s warm in damp or wet conditions. For maximum performance and warmth, choose a bag with a water-resistant down such as DriDown.

After the lugging

After the camping trip, extend the life of your sleeping bag by taking it out of the stuff sack and airing it out and making sure it is completely dry. Then put it in a breathable storage sack, such as a mesh sack. Stuff sacks are great to keep bags compact for backpacking or packing in your car, but constant compression will remove a lot of the loft from your insulation, and loft is what keeps you warm at night.

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From the ground up

It’s a no brainer to choose a flat spot and clear the ground of rocks and sticks where you will set up your tent. Always use a ground tarp with your tent. It will help keep the interior of the tent drier and more comfortable while preventing sharp objects on the ground from punching holes in your tent’s floor. Minimalists may use a roll-up foam pad underneath their bag, but for newbies like myself, I recommend an inflatable pad or air mattress. If you are hiking in from a distance, a compact self-inflating pad will be easiest to tote.  If you park close by and won’t have to haul your gear too far, then an air mattress is the way to go. Make sure you have an air pump that you can plug into your car.  Airhead makes one affectionately called the “Air Pig” which attaches directly to your car batter, while the car is running, to blow up inflatables in minutes.

Pitch a fit

Arguably the most important gear of your camping trip will be your tent, so choose a size and model built to suit. Resist the urge to go big for the sake of it. Large tents may be impressive, but they will take more space and longer to set up, not to mention they are heavier to haul to the site. If there will be only two or three occupants, a two-person or three-person tent will be just right. The SJK Daybreak 3 Tent ($119) was the perfect and affordable tent for us. The simple pole configuration made for easy set up and allowed plenty of living space. It features a single, large mesh door for easy access to the outdoors, and the steep walls meant we didn’t have to sit hunched over inside. A full coverage fly keeps occupants and their gear dry and can be configured into a shaded porch area with trekking poles.  If you’re camping where it’s dry and there is no rain in the forecast, you can leave the fly off for better ventilation and star gazing.  See video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmI0l-407bU

After camping in rainy conditions, dry your tent out completely before storing it for any extended period of time. This will keep mold and mildew from forming which can create unpleasant smells and shorten the lifespan of your tent.

Prevent uninvited guests

Campers must always take precautions to not attract bears and other wildlife by leaving food unattended, even for a few minutes; and of course, never feed wildlife. Clean up all traces of food before leaving your site or retiring for the night.  This means even syrup spilled on table tops or bits of popcorn by the campfire. Other scented items like chewing gum, toothpaste and even cosmetics are also bear bait, so keep these out of reach of bears, such as in a locked car.  Campsites often provide metal lockers with hidden handles, called bear boxes, or a bear pole with hangers and a pulley system so you can suspend items high above the ground where bears cannot climb.

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Breaking bugs

While not as dangerous as bears but also pesky are biting and stinging insects, so bring bug spray and reapply as directed. Beware of bug sprays that contain strong chemicals that can be dangerous. Organic bug repellents can be safer, such as Bugs be Gone (4.5 oz., $11.95), made with herb infused Witch Hazel. For another barrier of protection, wear insect repellent clothing, such as long-sleeve shirts and pants that are triple protection against bugs, sunburn and poison plants.

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A mosquito net is a must-have if you are sleeping under the stars; or if you are in a tent, keep your tent zipped up at all times, even when unoccupied, or else you may find spiders and their six-legged friends in your sleeping space. Just in case you do have a run-in with an unfriendly bug, make sure you have a first aid kit handy. Green Goo makes a line of first aid products using all-natural, therapeutic and nourishing ingredients in environmentally friendly tins and sticks for convenient packing and easy application.

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Woodland style

The scout motto is, “Always be prepared,” so suit up appropriately for the weather. Invest in camping apparel built for comfort and function and quick-drying fabrics, like Craghoppers outdoor clothing with insect shield, SolarShied UPF protection. Dress in layers that you can easily peel off. Look for features like pants that convert to shorts, pockets with a built-in sunglasses wipe, and ventilation panels.  Craghopper’s Nat Geo Response CompressLite jacket ($95) is the perfect outerwear for fickle fall weather. The jacket’s insulating hollow-fiber fill materials and outer ticking with ClimPlus technology make it warm yet breathable, and when not in use it is super light and compressible so that you can carry it in its handy stuff sack. It also features a grown-on hood, zippered pockets for all your goodies.

Treat yourself

The easiest and most convenient meals to prepare cooking outdoors are hotdogs, burgers, and beans, and of course s’mores are mandatory; but for a special treat that’s easy to prepare bring along a Dutch oven to whip up some yummy peach cobbler.  Dump six cans of peaches in the bowl with the syrup drained from three of the cans.  Layer on a box of yellow cake mix, then layer on pats of butter.  Place the Dutch oven in the embers for about 40 minutes, or less if the pot is already hot.  The results will be a steaming crumbly fruity mixture that can be served in a bowl for a tasty and satisfying treat around the campfire.

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