Words and photos by Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
I am a city girl, born and raised. And while mountain biking fills me with a sense of wonder and joy, and the natural world absolutely humbles and amazes me, it does not mean I have the skills to get out there and just do it. Years of living in Manhattan have left me with minimal driving skills, and a ruthless approach to storage of material possessions. Brooklyn has softened me a bit, I keep three bikes in the apartment. And last year my fiance and I bought a car. Mountain biking went from fantasy to reality, and escaping the concrete jungle was now possible. And while my life has improved 1000% because of off road riding, I am still a novice when it comes to gear and the simple act of getting out there.
The first great investment we made was a Subaru Baja. A quirky car for sure, but Subarus in general are perfect all wheel drive city adventure cars. Small and manageable enough for alternate side street parallel parking (the defining ritual of car ownership in the five boroughs). It’s still plenty of car on gravel roads and icy conditions. For me it meant the possibility of having both a cargo basket, and a truck bed for our bikes.
Thule is hands down the best looking and most functional of these two. The Thule Canyon XT is a compact cargo basket that can schlep your gear in the most practical way. Its super quiet when you’re driving, loaded or empty. Like all responsible Brooklynites, we Gorilla glued small ball bearings into each locking nut and covered it with another layer of Gorilla tape. Theft is an unbelievably real problem here, and glued ball bearings are one step down from welding the cargo basket directly to our car (which is the most prudent choice).
We added the Thule Bed Rider with locking fork mounts. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this system. While the locks are really just a minor theft deterrent suitable for short periods of time (we’d never completely walk away from this set up in the city, but outside the city it's nice to pop into the grocery or grab a quick bite without need to have eyes locked on your car at all times). The bed set up means never having to hoist a full suspension bike over my head and on to the roof of the car.
Generally speaking, I think bed and hitch mounted racks are awesome choices for petite women. Unless you have boss upper body strength, roof racks can be a chore to manage. Carbon road bikes are one thing, full suspension is a totally different story. Thule has an amazing selection of hitch mounts for every type of car conceivable.
Besides not having to hoist bikes over my head, the cargo basket had some other amazingly practical qualities over hard shell storage. Paired with Thule Chasm duffel bags, you have this incredibly versatile, modular system. You can bring a bag into your apartment and load up, the bags have backpack straps so you can navigate stairs, or ride over to your car (or the train!) fully loaded. When not in use they compress and roll up for ideal small space storage. They are extremely water resistant, and have several waterproof pockets. I wouldn’t drive with them in the cargo basket during inclement weather, but at a campsite in the rain they do a great job of keeping everything dry. That portability and flexibility made the bags a clear winner for us over a cargo shell type system.
Two budget-friendly stand outs in our outdoor arsenal are REI’s Trail Pod Sleeping bags and Camp Dome Two tent. The sleeping bags pack up small for storage, weigh just under 3lbs, and for women are rated just below 40 degrees for comfort. These are ideal sleeping bags for occasional campers who are navigating the restrictions of small apartment living. The Camp Dome sets up in seconds. Two large doors make it ideal for two adults sharing a sleeping space, and the waterproof rainfly provides optimal weather protection while still allowing ventilations and lovely camp side views from the mesh windows. It rained through most of the night on our last trip, but between REI’s two offerings, we awoke dry and cozy.
The smallest star of the show was definitely the Brunton Litewave Camp Rocker. Tiny and astonishingly versatile, it illuminated the camp (in varying levels of white and red light) charged our power hungry devices, and played our music as it’s also a bluetooth speaker. Its kind of amazing how much functionality they pack into one device, and it performs all of them pretty well. It’s not quite eight inches tall, and would be a great gear acquisition for any city dweller.
Mountain biking is pretty rad, but something about waking up to the sound of wind in the trees makes it all the more special. After a quick breakfast of baked beans and eggs we were off to explore the White Memorial Conservation Area. While not a specifically MTB designed trail system, its multi use trails offer gorgeous vistas, and tons of skinny ladders over marshes. There is excellent hiking and kayaking in this privately run sanctuary in Litchfield Connecticut.
Escaping New York can seem overwhelming, but acquiring a small amount of gear to help you get out and stay out can definitely maximize precious free time. The day that you can ride or hike or kayak without doing a long drive beforehand is precious. I'm excited to continue camping throughout the summer, possibly even staying the night at Floyd Bennett Field and go to the beach the next day, and to camp into the fall.
Cheers to fellow campers - to staying out as the nights get crisper and the campfire get cozier.