LifeStraw Mission gravity water filter (2 stars) V SteriPEN UV water filter (4 stars) REVIEW 

Most cyclists take a water filter system away with them and the choice of which one to get depends on the kind of cycle tourer you are. Do you want to be completely self sufficient in terms of your water consumption or are you looking for something that you will only use in an absolute emergency? How much bottled water are you willing to buy? How fussy are you drinking straight from mountain springs? How far into secluded areas are you likely to go?

We became a lot less fussy as our trip progressed and with this our ability to fight off some bugs and bacteria has probably increased too. (Although we really probably should purify every time!)

Before we left we decided to buy a LifeStraw Mission ($119.15) which works by filling a 5L dry bag with water, attaching it to a special microfilter (gets rid of all viruses and bacteria) via a long tube, hanging it off a tree and letting gravity do its work.


The idea behind this purchase was that we would be able to filter a large amount of water which we could use for drinking and cooking without having to suck or pump the water clean ourselves (as many other filters require). Simple! Once you get the system going you’re left to get on with other things; no further effort required apart from swapping the bottles every so often.

At first the filter worked really well (it improves after a few uses too) but to be honest, we rarely had to use it in South East Asia as we were always buying bottled water. There were a couple of days in Cambodia and Thailand (where we were getting through 8-9L a day) when we found ourselves off the beaten track and needed to filter from a lake or river.

We used it slightly more in China when we were more adventurous in terms of our route and were making a conscious effort to reduce our plastic consumption. But we were often so high and so remote that we simply collected and drank water straight from the mountain streams.

Most of the time the water we were collecting was either very clear or had gone through some kind of pre filter to at least get rid of debris and dirt (e.g. In village wells and water collection points) but wasn’t necessarily treated against nasty bacteria and other waterborne infections. 

With this in mind we bought a handheld UV Sterilisation Pen (SteriPEN Ultra $99.99) and had it shipped to Chengdu. 

We’re currently carrying both the LifeStraw and the SteriPEN…

Why did we only give the LifeStraw a 2 star review?


  1. It’s not very robust. One morning I pulled out the filter and found that the dirty water (red) tap was completely twisted until it was torn and thus completely useless. No idea how this happened but it made us realise how fragile the filter is – not ideal for two travellers covering 80km a day…Due to its simple design, the filter still worked without the red tap but only when one of us sat there holding our finger over the hole. A week later Paddy whittled a simple bung from a stick, not ideal but it works ok and we can again leave the system filtering while we set up camp or relax.
  2. The filter is fairly bulky (measuring over a foot in length even when packed) and isn’t necessarily built to be kept in a bulging pannier, however careful you are when packing it.
  3. There isn’t always a suitable place to hang the bag which means one of you needs to hold the bag up on your shoulder – this gets tiring as a 1.5L of water takes around 4-5mins to filter! 
  4. It’s hard to rid the filter completely of water even if you hang it out overnight or blow air through the system while the red tap is open; This leads firstly, to water leaking into your pannier and secondly, to limescale building up on the inside of the feed tube. I don’t think this necessarily affects the filter too much but can’t be too good for it either?! 
  5. LifeStraw customer service is terrible and it seems it’s impossible to buy more pre-filters. At the bottom of the water bag is a pre-filter which stops all the larger debris before the water feeds through the micro-filter. After a number of uses you must clean and then finally replace your pre-filter. The system comes with a number of spares but it’s common to lose things when travelling, and ours disappeared somewhere near the Tibetan border. After 3 emails (which were ignored) and trawling their website as well as the internet in general we’ve concluded that it is impossible to buy more spare pre-filters…. We even contacted a number of LifeStraw UK distributors none of whom were able to help us. 

In conclusion, The LifeStraw Mission would be a good product for people who are camped somewhere fairly permanently, or at least not packing, unpacking and packing again multiple times a day like we are. It would also work better for people who have more storage space such as a camper-van or car.

It really is great to be able to leave the filter working while you set up camp and have something that works without any kind of power supply but you really need to have the time and space to pack the system away properly and unfortunately this means it just isn’t right for cycle tourers. We still use ours and we make it work but we wouldn’t buy it again. 

The SteriPEN on the other hand is brilliant and we use it FAR more than we have ever used the LifeStraw. Some cyclists have complained about the pen needing to be re-charged but we’ve always been in a position to be able to re-charge it when needed. It’s probably not completely waterproof no but as with all our other electrical gadgets, we protect it by keeping it a waterproof pannier. 

Other cyclists online have complained about their steriPEN braking but ours has been fine.

Of course some would say that the downside of a UV filter is that you can’t be sure you’ve decontaminated the ‘rim’ of the bottle… But if you think that most of the time you’ll be able to get clear water and just need a filter to kill the nasties then consider getting a UV pen instead. They are lightweight, compact, long-lasting and very quick. Just make sure you have a permanent water bottle with a wide enough top to use it correctly.

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Pannier Brands – Are Ortlieb the best?

Every cycle tourer needs a decent set of panniers, buy crap ones and you will suffer for the whole of your trip – it’s the one thing you do not want to scrimp on.

The majority of cycle tourers across the globe will opt to buy Ortlieb bags. They are known in the market and on countless cycle forums as the most reliable, durable and, most importantly, waterproof. Pretty much every cycle tourer we have seen on the road has had a set of matching colourful ortlieb panniers. Are they the best though? We’re not convinced…

Because we are on a tandem without a trailer we were forced to make some alternative decisions regarding our panniers. 

We needed as much as space as possible in our bags and Ortlieb are limited in this respect (the largest back panniers we could find are 40L). Consequently we ended up buying a mixture of four brands of bag for our bike – Altura Orkney, Ortlieb, Alpkit and Arkel.

After five months on the road and having experienced a range of climates and weather conditions we’re in a good position to compare them side by side.

10L Arkel Handlebar Bag *****

The Canadian Arkel company have a good reputation online for making a high quality product but they are notorious for being one of the most expensive. 

We opted for Arkel because their large handlebar bag is the biggest volume waterproof product we could find and at over £120 it was pricey.

It hasn’t disappointed though and you certainly can fit a huge amount of stuff in it. It has a lot of nice small features which we really like too.

There is a large front pocket which although isn’t completely waterproof is great for keeping small things you need to access quickly. There are also two mesh pockets on the side which are super useful for stuffing everything from rubbish packets to keeping gaffer tape.

The bag has zips which we think are far superior to the Ortlieb clip fastening – mainly because it allows the bag to be padlocked shut. This is incredibly useful for when you need to leave the bag containing all your valuable stuff in a shared dorm, sleeper train or left baggage department.

The mounting system for the bag is very effective and strong and it’s easy to clip the bag on and off. The bag comes with a waterproof map case which we never really used and the inside bag is removable so you can wash it. 

The bag is roomy! It’s actually crazy how much stuff you can fit in there with plenty of room to spare. See our Fully Loaded page to see what we keep in ours. The top of the bag is domed which means you can stuff it full with your gloves, snood and snacks on top of all your valuables if you need during the day.

It’s 100% waterproof, has kept its shape well and we would buy it again in a second.

Altura Orkney back 56 L panniers ****

We were slightly weary about buying this brand as we hadn’t read much stuff about them online. However, we found these panniers online and their super size (56 L) won us over into buying them. 

They are beasts and we can carry a wonderful amount of gear in them but they have impressed us in every other way since too. We are so glad we bought these rather than another set of backroller Ortliebs. 

First things first – they are completely watertight. The inside waterproof insert also comes away which is great when you want to clean or empty the inside of your food bag. 

They have front pockets (these are not watertight) which have useful mesh and Velcro compartments – something Ortlieb panniers, in our opinion, really lack. 

The mounting system is really strong and far superior to the flimsy Ortlieb clips – more complaining about these to come… The bags can tend to slide up and down a bit on our rack if we’re on a bumpy road but they have never broken or come off.

Unlike the triangular shaped Ortlieb panniers these bags are more square which means they are far more effective for storing bulkier items such as your cooking gear and the flip clipped top is adjustable to allow you to really stuff the bags with extra food or clothes if you need. 

The bags are incredibly durable and have had a fare number of knocks, scrapes and falls. The only time they have failed us over the Ortlieb was when ants got inside and pincered holes in the inside bag to get to our food. Our Ortliebs have always remained insect free due to their roll down, dry-bag fastenings and thick plastic material. 

Overall they have been a great buy for us and if you are in need of a larger set of panniers we would highly recommend them.

Ortlieb 40L Backroller Panniers and 32L rack bag ***

Our Ortlieb panniers are saved to carry our clothes but we use their largest back rollers on our front rack instead of the back.

The Ortlieb panniers are great (completely waterproof, easy to clean and durable) but they fall down on one feature which makes them incredibly frustrating to use. 

The mounting system just isn’t up to the job of coping with a heavily weighted pannier on bumpy roads. This problem is probably over emphasised with us because we carry large panniers on our front rack but we’re not the only tourer who has complained about this problem.

Once under enough force the bolts which are made of plastic simply pop out of the plastic bar mounts at the back of the bag. In doing so they ruin the threads which means you can’t easily screw them back in. 

We have heard of tourers obsessively checking and screwing back up their bolts after every night to ensure they don’t pop out. 

This major cost cutting design flaw has meant two things for us:

  1. We have to reinforce our bags to the rack with rope to minimise them bumping around on the rack. This is time consuming and means we can’t easily clip and un-clip our panniers taking advantage of the ‘user friendly’ Ortlieb mounting system. Even after this both bags have broken. 
  2. We met a tourer in China who had simply replaced all her plastic bolts, nuts and washers with metal ones. We ended up doing the same. Here is Paddy in a local garage searching for the right width bolts and super large washers for the insides of the bags.

I wrote to complain to Ortlieb and I was very impressed with their customer service. They got back to us within 24 hours and without question offered to send spare parts to us in China. The package arrived 7 days later but we haven’t used the parts because they sent us the same crappy plastic ones.

The fact is, Ortlieb panniers are fine for those cyclists who are taking short tours on nice smooth roads or commuting to and from work but in our experience they don’t hold up well on long bumpy tours unless you make some of your own adjustments.

If you have bought Ortlieb panniers just make sure you replace all the bolts and nuts with metal ones and buy extra large washers for the insides. 

I can’t fault the rack bag. It does everything we need it to.



Alpkit Fule Pod Frame Bags ****

Alpkit are known as a good outdoor gear supplier. They make some good stuff and we’re always happy with the gear we get from them. 


Our two frame bags are durable and are great for keeping all those small items that you need to access quickly. 

They are showerproof not waterproof. 

New wheels and upgrades in BKK

We are sitting here waiting for a train out of Bangkok, so I thought I’d take the time to write a note on some of our repairs and improvements that have happened in the last week. The most significant is a new set of Andra 30 ‘bomb proof’ wheel rims.

On a day off 2 weeks ago I went to fix a small buckle in the back wheel and realised it was caused by a cracked rim.

imageThere is a LOT of load on the back wheel and it probably cracked on one of the bumps along the way. It wasn’t an immediate disaster as the crack wasn’t down the side wall and therefore wouldn’t cause the rim to collapse – it meant basically the associated spoke was doing nothing (the internet is great for all this!). So I marked the crack and we continued on checking it as we travelled. It was fine for 5 days until Bangkok and I suspect it might have been cracked for a good while before…

We needed a new back rim.

First port of call was JD tandems who sold us the bike, Ruth was extremely helpful and fast on email answering all my questions – thanks! Eventually the Andra 30 rims were the obvious choice, not cheap, but the best hardcore touring rims around from a Kiwi company.

After weighing the risk versus cost we decided to replace the front rim also and each wheel needed 48 spokes plus spares. To round things out the braking surface on the rims is tungsten carbide finished and requires special ultra hard brake pads. The pads are a fancy bright blue colour and look really slick, which is nice. The idea is the rims are so hard they will not erode during braking and will never need replacing.

imageAll the work was coordinated by Ma at BOK BOK BIKES, if you are touring through Thailand these are the guys to call. Every other bike shop didn’t know where to start with 48 spike wheels and one of them said ‘just call BOK BOK’. Ma’s brother did the wheel building at KANGAROO BIKES (near Bearing, last stop south on the sky train). They are dealers for Rholoff, Thorn, Surly, CoMotion and the workshop is stacked out with more top end tools than I’ve seen in any London shop. They were quick on email and got the work done on time so we could leave for Myanmar on schedule, including importing the rims through customs. Thanks guys!

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We also took delivery of a spare tyre, after debating whether one was needed and deciding against it in London. In the end I couldn’t sleep thinking about that, so we’ve gone safety first and got one sent over in our ‘bike care package’ from Bren in New York. It is a foldable Schwalbe Marathon Mondial. He also sent spare tandem length gear cables and end caps and other small bits n pieces.

One upgrade Bren sent which we’ve been craving is our new kickstand. It is a Pletcher type that cleverly has two legs that fold to one side. No more leaning the bike on trees, posts, fences or one of us having to stand holding it like a lemon.

Finally we got a little Irish and Welsh flag!!!

Flying the flags!

We are both exhausted as we were up late last night putting the new wheels on. In the process we popped two inner tubes… Annie effected tube replacement and puncture repair expertly. 🙂 We were also hogging the Wi-Fi ordering more spares, downloading maps, books, guides, booking accommodation, route planning… Back on the road proper tomorrow.

Hail the Helinox – the almighty lightweight camping chair

Right, let’s not beat around the bush. We are both basically in love with our Helinox camping chairs.image

To many touring cyclists they are an unessesary luxury, contributing to the weight on our back wheel and putting us in the ‘glamping’ category of tourers.

But we don’t care, because after 8 hours in the saddle and completing 100km, relaxing back in our chairs, away from the dirt, insects and damp ground is quite simply; sublime. Let’s face it, camping can suck a bit sometimes so you need to make things as easy as possible for yourself.

  
Weighing just under 900 grams each, they are hardly heavy, and they pack down into a lightweight durable bag (roughly 14x4x5 inches). We permanently hang ours off the handles of our ortlieb rack bag with cable ties so they don’t take up space in our panniers. Our 1.5L water bottles sit very nicely on top.

  
Paddy and I enjoy having ‘chair set up’ races. They practically fit together themselves and our best record so far is just over 40s.

They are SUPER comfy (you can property lie back) and the mesh material ensures you don’t get too hot. The only improvement we might suggest is that they add a couple of mesh pockets to the sides…image

They are not only useful for sitting in too. They come in handy when keeping food away from ants (by placing each leg in a dish of water at night) and they acted as a brilliant ‘scare shield’ when we needed to shoo away some vicious monkeys while having lunch one day. We also used them as deck chairs while enjoying a day on the beach.

  
We’re 5 weeks in so we’ll see how they hold up after 6 months on the road. 

If you are a cycle tourer reading this, think again about investing in one of these… Granted, they are pricey (£75 each) but they have genuinely improved our camping experience and we probably camp more with them, saving us money along the way.

You deserve some comfort, so sit back and enjoy the view after a long hard day in the saddle.

  

VeloVixen – Urbanist Brigitte – Savvy on PR, terrible shorts for cycle touring

My first gear review had to be my Velovixen (company based in Oxford, UK) padded shorts because I can’t let another day go by without telling other female cycle tourists TO NEVER BUY THIS PRODUCT.

Cycle tourers really should have at least 2 pairs of padded shorts with them and as space was limited I wanted to find a compact, comfy and hard wearing pair to complement my longer B-Twin shorts.

After reading a comparison review which led me to the VeloVixen site I decided that this was a garment which deserved some investment, so I duly dished out the cash (£45!!!!!!). 

All I can say is, whoever wrote that comparison review, had either been paid a nice ‘Christmas bonus’ or had done no more than sat on their sofa for 10 minutes wearing these shorts drinking a cup of tea. Because as far as I’m concerned, no cyclist in their right mind would wear these things on a bike!

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The only way to wear your Velovixen shorts is with another pair of shorts underneath…
I should have been weary from the start – never buy a product which has ‘urban’ in the title.

 VeloVixen describe their product as the following however:

The Holy Grail!, for medium/long rides, with exceptional quality 

That ‘high quality’ they mention; stitching which is already coming loose (and the shorts have spent most of their time stuffed at the bottom of my ortlieb), padding which pokes out into your groin and material which doesn’t breath.

The main problem with these ‘briefs’ though is that they are fundamentally flawed in terms of their design. Cycling shorts should aim to reduce chafing but the seams on these just dig into your groin creating angry red lines and chaffing on your behind area. The back of the shorts also pulls down to show more than you’d like while on the bike. And yes, I did follow the size guidelines correctly. 

In the interest of being fair, I have approved Velovixen’s response to this blog below but, having tested this product for five weeks, I’m afraid I will continue to tell other cycle tourers to spend their precious travel savings on another product.

Two Man MSR NX Hubba Hubba Tent


Being on the tandem means that we have to be very careful about the weight and size of our gear. We needed a lightweight, compact tent which would be suitable in hot desert conditions as well as freezing temperatures. 

We opted (like many other cycle tourers) for an MSR make and decided that the 2 Man NX Hubba Hubba would be a good choice.

After 11 months on the road and 119 nights sleeping in it the verdict is out. We have been very happy with how the tent has performed. 

It has all the features we need – it’s very light and it’s free standing which is great for when you need to camp on concrete. Only the vestibule sides need to be pegged down but if that’s not possible we tie ropes around the hook and weight these down with heavy boulders. If you need to erect the tent in the rain it’s possible to put up the waterproof fly sheet first and then clip the red inside section in after so it stays dry. In hot weather you can sleep without the fly sheet and the majority of the inside section is mesh which helps to keep you mercifully cool. You get to go to sleep staring at the nights sky too… 


We also sometimes used the tent like this in hotel rooms when we needed to protect ourselves from mozzies. It’s the best net system we have – we threw away our other mosquito net in the end! 

You can comfortably both sit in the tent without stooping. There are two useful side pockets and two places to hang camping lights inside. Once erected the tent feels very stable and solid and it’s performed well in strong winds. 

We’ve only had a few minor problems with condensation. The two windows help to keep it minimal. 

The tent is just big enough for us both to lie down with our handlebar bag sitting in the middle at our feet. Paddy is over 6ft and he just about fits. There is not much room for anything else although it’s roomier than some other two man tents we’ve slept in. Our cycling friends Andy and Clare have the 3 Man mother Hubba version of this tent and they like having the extra room especially as they have 2 bikes so more bags than us. 

Because Paddy is tall and we need the handlebar bag in the tent with us it means that the insert does touch the fly sheet at the corners and at the bottom. This is obviously an issue if it rains and we did have a bit of a problem with some minimal leaking in heavy rain. The bottom of the insert is pretty waterproof. However, we came up with a handy way of solving this problem – simply stick your 1.5L water bottles in each corner between the two layers! This pushes the fly sheet out and ensures the rain drips off onto the ground rather than seeping onto the insert.

It’s great that the tent has two vestibules. We don’t like leaving our bags on the bike overnight and we can just fit our four panniers (2 X 27L and 2 X 20L) inside one of the vestibules leaving the other side free for us to use as an entrance and to store our shoes and empty rack bag. This also means you have a vestibule free to cook in if you wake up to rain.

The zip seams are designed well so the water runs downs easily from them. 

It’s quick and easy for one person to erect. 

In our experience MSR customer service is brilliant. Naturally after 1 year there is some minimal wear and tear to the tent (e.g. A few small tears in the fly sheet and a small crack in a pole). They got back to us within 3 days and offered to send us a replacement pole section, patches to fix the tears and four new pegs to a destination of our choice all free of charge.

The ground sheet (and the poles) make a good awning for siestas! 


Other Downsides: 

  1. you have to buy the groundsheet separately. 
  2. Two of our pegs sheared at the top and you don’t get spares with the tent so make sure you take some with you. MSR did replace these free of charge though.