Exposure is a killer. You are rarely aware of it until it ups the stress level and smacks you in the face. It is where there is no hiding from Mother Nature and Exposure. The funny part is she usually appears at that point in the trip that you have sought out the most. The killer mountain view overlooking the valley, the desert landscape out of Lawrence of Arabia, or maybe the ridge you just climbed. Just when you get to that place where you want to take it all in, pop out the camera and start snapping photos, mother nature and exposure enter into the picture when you are the most vulnerable. You hear about it all the time but what exactly is exposure?
I was surprised to find out that if you search google on exposure you don’t get a clear link on what exposure means in the context of weather. The Wikipedia also does not produce a clear exposure disambiguation in this context either. Aren’t we always hearing about a hiker who got lost and died of exposure on the news?
Exposure isn’t the weather. It’s more the prolonged effect the weather brings with it. It is your biggest opponent on a bicycle tour. It will determine how far you can ride and how much or little you enjoy those miles. It will determine the equipment you carry, the clothing you pack, and it will change constantly. If you are not flexible it will own your trip and send you scurrying back to civilization with your tail between your legs. Exposure is the physical, emotional, and psycological stress caused by the weather.
Some of my most memorable moments on a bicycle tour have been when I am fighting mother nature and exposure. Most memorable because I got through it, wasn’t expecting it, and didn’t realize what was happening until it was almost too late. Fully loaded, self supported bicycle touring is the very definition of exposure. Mother nature and exposure are always right around the corner.
Intensified areas of exposure like alpine environments, desert landscapes, and extreme climates can be especially tricky. You can be enjoying clear skies at one moment and a different weather pattern will be waiting just over that next climb. Combine an area of high exposure with a poorly timed flat tire and you have a recipe for a very bad day.
Mother Nature and Exposure – Be Prepared to Beat the Heat!
On my first tour a good friend and I were almost out of water as we neared Goffs, CA. It had been a long hot morning of climbing up from Laughlin, NV through the Mojave desert. We were happy to see the ‘Welcome to Goffs’ road sign undulating back and forth through the heat radiating from under it up in the distance. As we neared the sign it informed us that Goffs was closed. I had never heard of a town being closed. This meant no source of water in what was quickly becoming a 110 degree day.
We found a small shadow produced by an out of service rail car and plotted our next move. Worn out by the heat we eventually decided backtracking was our best option. After a nice power nap in the rail car’s shadow we backtracked 20 miles to Needles, CA where we spent the night. The shade was a big break. It revitalized us physically and mentally. I didn’t really understand exposure and how badly it was affecting me. Exposure is at it’s worst when it is augmented by human error. We were in error and had we not found that sliver of shade we could have been in real trouble. Mother Nature and Exposure 1, Bicyclehobo 0.
The next day we beat the heat by leaving at 2AM and riding the 165 miles from Needles, CA to Barstow, CA. We limited our exposure to the sun by riding at night. By daybreak it was as if we were touring on the planet Mercury and we were each carrying our full compliment of water bottles and two additional gallons of water. We took every opportunity to catch a break in any shady spot.
Lesson Learned: Always carry ‘too much’ water and NEVER assume a dot on a road map means anything at all. Wide open spaces in the desert are beautiful to ride through and very dangerous. Look for any break from the sun. Any shady spot along the way deserves a celebratory pit stop. Sunscreen is 100% necessary but it does little to guard you from the heat. Many adventure companies produce lightweight loose fitting clothing that can help you beat the heat.
Mother Nature and Exposure – Getting Your Altitude Attitude Adjusted!
As you near the top of a mountain pass there are all different sorts of weather swirling into one precise location. Fortunately you have done the hard part and a generous downhill getaway is awaiting you.
Atop Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road I got an unexpected and unwelcome surprise. Iceberg Pass is not the highest point of the climb. The summit is between a short down hill and then another 5 mile climb on a completely exposed ridge. The photo below is taken at 12,000 feet of elevation. You can clearly see there is no place to hide from the two distinct weather patterns creeping up each slope and the resulting hodge podge of weather that results when they meet.
The Wind was coming from all angles, blowing rain in my face and making it difficult to maintain a straight line on a non existent shoulder. It was a good 30 minutes of well deserved panic. It did offer a tremendous view at a huge gathering of Elk who didn’t seem to mind the weather as they grazed in the field off to my left. This is the very definition of exposed. My stress level shot through the roof just as I thought I would be celebrating crossing a 12,000 foot pass and snapping photos of the valley below. I didn’t snap any photos, not even the one above, I was too stressed out to stop. Mother Nature and Exposure 2, Bicyclehobo 0.
Don’t get me wrong. I would never give up the grand experience of riding that highway on a bicycle. I did so on a blustery August day that was highlighted with a good deal of wind, rain, and lightning. The temperatures dropped south of 40 degrees Fahrenheit at about 6pm and I was very happy to find a nice place to bivy for the night in Timber Creek Campground. I awoke to clear skies and a nice downhill to start the day. It all worked out.
While battling up Cottonwood pass in Colorado I watched the weather morph from 90 degree summer humidity to freezing rain with a dose of bone chilling wind. Just before I crossed the pass I enjoyed a nice summer phase and got a chance to look down upon all of the exposed switchbacks where the weather was punishing me. Again while I would never say this was an ‘enjoyable’ day in the saddle I would never wish the experience of climbing Cottonwood pass away. It’s not supposed to be easy.
In both of these situations a minor maintenance mishap could have pushed me into a bad place. Imagine nightfall at 12,000 feet fiddling with patching a tube. Mother Nature and Exposure 3, Bicyclehobo 0.
Lessons Learned: Altitude equals unpredictability. When you get up over 9000 feet you should be prepared for anything. Assuming that the weather will be pleasant is akin to thinking you can breathe underwater. Know where you can find safety and shelter nearby or know that you have the right stuff to gut it out. Any time you find yourself on an open ridge at high altitude know that a disaster is brewing in the next breeze. Try to time your ascent so that you have more than enough time to descend while it is daylight.
Mother Nature and Exposure – Precipitation [not just rain] = Wet
Most of my touring has been in the summer months and if it rains I simply prepare to ride it out wet. I have a rain jacket but I find that once I have worked up a sweat and I’m hot I remove it and just ride in the rain. Most of my rain gear is for off the bike when I need to stay warm.
I’m not saying don’t bring rain gear. Definitely bring it. Don’t think for a second that the latest booties, gore tex, fenders, etc. is going to keep you dry. You are going to get wet. You are going to get soaking wet. Your toes and fingers will prune up as if you were in a bathtub too long.
It’s not only rain either. Prolonged riding through a thick fog is almost as bad as rain.
Some of my longest mileage days are when it is raining. I’m prepped and ready with food I can eat on the bike and I force drink water even though I don’t feel thirsty. I throw on the rain jacket to build up some body heat and then remove it, rinse and repeat. I let my bikes engine, my body, keep me warm. I don’t stop riding until I find a spot where I can take shelter and change out of the wet clothes.
I cannot stress the importance of a nice pair of wool socks for on and especially off the bike. I also carry a pair of dishwashing gloves in my rain kit. They pack well and will keep your hands warm and dry. They are easy to replace, are usually a high visibility color, and don’t cost much. When paired with a pair of wool gloves they can be quite warm.
When I was in the army I learned a great trick. If you place your wet clothes underneath your sleeping pad your body heat will dry your clothes out quite a bit. In the morning when you wake up they may not be completely dry but they will be warm enough to put back on. Again it’s not just rain. Try coming down off of a pass through a thick blanket of fog and see how drenched you get.
Lessons Learned: I don’t mind riding wet or being wet when I am on the bike and the temperatures are warm. My system is tailored so that when I get off the bike I can get into some warm dry clothes and be comfortable. Wool is your buddy and every thrift store in america is teeming with $5 wool sweaters.
Planning Ahead To Limit My Exposure
Look at the average numbers coming out of Deadhorse, Alaska in the months where I will be planning to depart. It sure looks like rain and temperature will make a big effect in the equipment I plan to carry and how I will ride. A cold snap that pushes sub 40 degree F temperatures necessitate a change in the way I deal with the rain. No more ‘just riding through it’. I will need rain gear that breathes and can be ridden in comfortably. I won’t have the ability to ‘just get wet’ as I have done in the past. This means there may be times where I ‘just don’t ride’ and stay in my shelter. It also means I will have more equipment with me.
|Climate data for Deadhorse, Alaska|
|Record high °F (°C)||55° (13°)||83° (28°)||82° (28°)|
|Average high °F (°C)||27.2° (−2.7°)||46.0° (7.8°)||53.2° (11.8°)|
|Average low °F (°C)||16.1° (−8.8°)||32.8° (0.4°)||38.3° (3.5°)|
|Record low °F (°C)||−19° (−28°)||18° (−8°)||28° (−2°)|
|Precipitation inches (mm)||0.08° (2°)||0.37° (9.4°)||0.72° (18.3°)|
|Source: NOAA (temperature normals 1981–2010) / weather.com (precipitation and extremes)|
Past experience is helping me to limit the exposure on this upcoming trip. The first 300 plus miles out of Deadhorse will be pure exposure with little or no tree line and extreme temperatures. This will be a real test of everything I have learned on past tours. The timing of the departure will be where I can limit my exposure to the cold. I want to leave late enough to miss the extreme cold swings but not so late that I am riding in a swarm of mosquitoes. It will be a good test and the exact opposite of my current day to day comfort.
The thing is you will never beat Mother Nature and Exposure you can only hope for a tie
What situations have you been in where you realized Mother Nature was getting the best of you and how did you get through it?