Exped Synmat UL 7 Review

Your sleeping pad can make or break your camping experience. When touring the primary concerns for a sleeping pad are comfort, weight, durability, size, and ease of use. The Exped Synmat UL 7 exceeds expectations in all of those categories.

a woman holds a rolled up Exped Synmat UL 7
Pam holds the Exped Synmat UL 7

Comfort is the whole reason for bringing a sleeping pad, and can be difficult to quantify. Pads typically can be broken down in to two categories: Solid foam or Air Inflated. The Exped is air inflated and has a maximum inflated depth of 2.8 inches; the amount of air in the mattress can adjust pad firmness. The Exped also has insulation inside the pad to keep you warm on cool nights. Not much is worse than sleeping on a cold pocket of air. There is some concern that this insulation may work to keep you warmer on hot nights, however neither Pam nor I noticed that the pad was uncomfortable even in the hot humid nights in the South Eastern United States.

Weight is where the Exped shines, at only around 400 grams (depending on the size of pad you choose) it is one of the lightest pads available. Lighter weight pads tend to be made of crinkly plastic; this pad is constructed of a material that feels like very tightly woven nylon. It does not stick to the skin and can be laid on directly with reasonable comfort. Noise-wise this pad does create a bit of sound when laid on and if you toss or turn during the night, however we have yet to find a magical silent pad and you quickly get used to this sound.

Durability of any inflatable pad is directly proportional to how you treat the pad. If you throw it on the ground and aren’t careful about where you put it (like Matt) it will probably get a hole or two (read here about how to patch holes). However if you are careful and make sure you only place the pad on surfaces free of debris (like Pam) then you can go an entire tour with no problems. We did not find any appreciable difference in the durability of these pads compared to other pads we have used.

The size of the pad you choose can be very personal and also depend on weight. If at all possible try out the pad in the store, make sure you can inflate it to a firmness you like, and lay on it to verify comfort. Matt and Pam both prefer pads that go from head to toe. Matt is 6’1” and chose to go with the M size (72 in long) and Pam is 5’6”, so she went with the S size (64 in long). An option for those looking to go ultralight is to get the smallest pad possible, just covering the shoulder, torso, and hip area, letting the legs hang off the edge. This reduces overall pack weight, but might also reduce comfort.

A woman lays on a yellow synmat sleeping pad
Pam lays on the Exped Synmat UL 7 Sleeping Pad

The pad has two valves similar to all other Exped products, one for inflation which has a flap to prevent air leaking out between breaths until you close the cap, and the other to allow for deflation. Both of these have a hole approximately the size of a quarter to allow for rapid inflation and deflation. Compared to twist valves used by other companies these valves operate much easier.

To inflate the pad we use our Schnozzle Bag which takes about 4 full bags to completely fill it. If you elect to fill it manually it takes quite some time. In fact we have never even tried; just get yourself the Schnozzle bag! Inflation pressure can be tweaked by keeping the inflate valve cover open and pressing on the flap to release small amounts of air. Deflation is quick due to the large opening deflation cap, it takes about 30 seconds to deflate to where you are touching the ground and no more air is exiting.

an exped synmat ul 7 laid out in preparation for inflation
Pam prepares to inflate the Exped Synmat UL 7 with a Schnozzle Bag



Overall we have been very pleased with the Exped Synmat UL 7 and highly recommend them. In our opinion these pads are the best all-around pads available. They are a good compromise between weight and comfort. We used them on our Southern Tier Tour and our New Zealand Tour and they continue to be our go to choice. When combined with the Schnozzle Bag we find it difficult to imagine we will be looking for other pads in the future.

Detailed Specs:

Name Exped Synmat UL 7 S / UL 7 M
Weight 399 g / 463 g
Packed Dimensions* L x Diameter (cm) 24 x 9.5 / 24 x 10.5
Inflated Dimensions L x W x Thickness (cm) 162.5 x 53 x 7 / 183 x 53 x 7
Temperature 25 F (-3.8 C)

*Dimensions will vary based on how tightly you roll the pad. This is just an example of what you could expect when you pack the pad.

Disclaimer: All opinions about any products mentioned in this article are my own.  I have not received any compensation for this review. This review is for informational purposes only.

Pest Control

There are many things I enjoy about bicycle touring. I love the fresh air, the beautiful scenery, and the grand vistas. There is definitely one thing I DO NOT like: bugs. A perk of living in southern California is the lack of bugs (sure, there are bugs here. But not like in other places. Trust me.) On our tours, we’ve had to deal with mosquitos, ticks, chiggers, mites. I’m like a bug magnet, if there is a bare patch of skin the bugs seem to find it. So how do we handle all the bugs in the world?

One thing we did on the Southern Tier was to treat our clothing and tent with a product called Permethrin. We picked up a few bottles from the sporting goods store, and treat all our camp clothing, plus our socks and tent. The active ingredient is Permethrin, a synthetic insecticide that was developed by the US Army to prevent its soldiers from being bitten while on duty, because of this it has been tested for safety and currently seems to pose no issues. Maybe you’re hesitant about using a “non-natural” product? Well, I have misgivings, too, but if this stuff can keep me from getting bit (or sick) then I’m all for it. This stuff should be sprayed directly onto clothing or gear, but never onto skin. It’s highly toxic to fish and cats, so if you have a cat, keep it away, and it smells very strongly upon initial application, however that fades as it dries.

In addition to treating our clothing, we also like to bring along a few repellent products. Two sprays, one cream. One spray is Repel Natural, a more natural product, with the active ingredient citronella (the stuff in those candles people burn to keep mosquitos away). If that’s not working, we break out the Ben’s 30% Deet spray. And if we’re still having an issue, Ultrathon Insect Repellent cream by 3M has 34% Deet. Now, I hesitate to use Deet, so we try to be sparing with it and only use it as a last resort. But, honestly, if the bugs are bad, it’s totally worth it.

We have yet to tour in the rain forest or jungle, so our experiences with bugs has been mild so far. But I’ve heard the sand flies (or no see ums) are pretty bad sometimes in New Zealand, so we’re going prepared. And as we plan grander tours in the future, bug-infested places might be on our list. It’s a good idea to think about it before you’re attacked by a swarm of mosquitos with no place to hide. What are your tricks to avoiding bug bites? Let us know in the comments below!

Update: Now that we’re back from our New Zealand tour (didn’t read the journal? Catch it here!), here are my thoughts about the repellents we used there. We went at a great time of year, just cold enough that the bugs weren’t too terrible. But the sand flies were very annoying at times. We found that using the Repel Natural worked as a quick fix. If we weren’t going to be stopped for very long at a time, like for lunch, we’d spray it on the exposed areas and it worked well enough (especially combined with movement, which seemed to also work well. If you keep moving, the sand flies don’t have a chance to annoy you.). I felt good using it when we didn’t have access to water for washing, as its non-toxic. A few times we were in a sand fly infested area for longer periods of time, and the Deet cream or spray worked very well at keeping the bugs away. We just made sure to keep it away from our faces and wash our hands well if we could.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert and these are only my opinions. Consult a health care provider if you are concerned about any ingredient. I have not been compensated in any way by any of these manufacturers.

Shoe Fetish

I am not a shoe girl. I don’t like going shoe shopping and I don’t have a closet full of shoes. I’m more into having a few pairs of practical shoes that I wear all the time. But, I recently became the proud owner of a third pair of cycling shoes. When I was a kid, all my shoes were cycling shoes. They were simply the shoes I wore when I rode my bike. Now, it’s more complicated.

I have Time ATAC clipless pedals, which are really the pedals with the clips on them, and my shoes need to be clip compatible. My first pair of cycling shoes were Keen Commuter Sandals. I loved them, and I still do. They’re really versatile, easy to clean, and keep my feet from smelling too funky.

When I got a new, fancy bicycle, I wanted a new pair of shoes, and got a pair of mountain bike cycling shoes, Velcro and all. I choose the Black Shimano SH-WM51 Mountain Cycling Shoes  because they have a recessed cleat to allow walking around and they are fully enclosed shoes for foot climate control. These shoes ended up being super comfortable, and kept my feet warm on the frigid mornings in the mountains of the Southern Tier. I could add an extra layer of socks, and adjust the shoes to fit snugly. My biggest complaint was the lack of breathability. After a good rainstorm, my socks would be as wet on the inside, from sweat, as the shoes were on the outside.

As we made plans for a New Zealand bicycle tour, I decided to purchase a brand new pair (New bike, new shoes? Maybe there’s a theme). This new pair, Shimano SH-WM34, could be easily mistaken for a pair of hiking shoes. Which is perfect, since we plan to spend a lot of time off the bike on this trip. The shoes lace up, and are pretty comfortable to walk around in. The traction is similar to a hiking shoe, and makes hiking up the hills a breeze. The hiking shoe look helps me blend in with all the other outdoor adventurers for those days off the bike.

Update: And now that we’re back from New Zealand, I’m happy to report on how the SH-WM34 performed. On the bike, the shoe performed exactly as needed, providing a solid platform for pedaling. In addition to cycling, we did plenty of “tramping” off the bike, that is, hiking, and the shoe was very comfortable. There was just enough traction to make me feel secure on the moderate hills we hiked. I wouldn’t do very much advanced hiking, however, as this is a cycling shoe, not a hiking shoe. The inflexibility of the sole takes some getting used to, though, as I’m used to a little bit more flex in my hiking shoes. But overall, I was comfortable on our hikes. In the cool weather, I was able to wear thicker socks, which helped keep my feet warm. When it warmed up, I didn’t like how sweaty my feet got, however, so I wouldn’t recommend these shoes on a tour through hot, humid areas.

What kind of shoes do you wear when you ride? Do you go for comfort or style?

We Are A Team

So, what are you going to do while your husband is on his bike ride? Are you going to drive the car for him and carry his gear?

This question was recently asked of me, by a stranger, who had just learned that we are planning a long distance bicycle tour. Even though we said “we,” the guy didn’t seem to understand that we were doing it together. When I explained that I would be riding my bicycle alongside my husband, carrying gear and camping out with him, he was stunned. Apparently his wife would never agree to even try something like that.

My wife would never do something like this with me.

Part of a conversation I had with a man while in the middle of a particularly tough obstacle course race. My response to him: You didn’t marry the right woman. Some of my favorite memories have happened while my husband and I work as a team to complete the obstacles in the races.

When my husband and I got married, I had no idea where our marriage would take us. Did I think we would become long distance bicycle tourists? Not really. And I had never even heard of obstacle course races. But I did know that we were both adventurous, and willing to try new things. And I knew we liked to do things together. And once we tried this whole bicycle touring thing, we loved it. Yes, we have separate hobbies. But there are many activities that we enjoy doing together.

I think the key is finding something that you both like to do, that requires cooperation. Whether we are riding our bikes, setting up camp, or finishing a race, my husband and I are a team. We rely on each other to meet our goals. We have become closer as a couple, and learned to appreciate each other.

What kinds of activities do you enjoy with your significant other? Give us some ideas in the comments below!

ZPacks Sleeping Bag Review

Pam and I love cycle touring, and if you check out our gear list you know that we hate lugging extra weight. Our previous sleeping bags collectively were weighing in at around 4 lbs (1.8kg) each. Considering that our total gear weight was about 50 lbs, the bags accounted for almost 10% of the weight we were carrying. After some research I decided to try to reduce that weight and try out the Zpacks ultralight sleeping bags.

A woman laying inside a green sleeping bag on top of an air pad.
Z-packs sleeping bag


About the company: Zpacks is the brain child of an avid ultralightweight hiker, and they manufacture most of their products in Florida and are currently some of the leaders in the ultralight hiking market. Since Pam and I try to support people who provide good products and pay their employees well so it is easy to support Zpacks.

Spec: Zpacks sleeping bags are available in four temperature varieties: 40F, 30F, 20F, 10F. They come in 5 different sizes based on your height, and 2 widths based on your girth. Either 900 fill or 850 fill water resistant down is available. The outer and inner fabrics are Pertex GL, a durable, lightweight material.

size comparison for xped sleeping pad and z pack sleeping bag
Z-pack sleeping bag and xped sleeping pad

About the bag: The fabric feels similar to other tech materials: smooth, slippery, and thin. This doesn’t bother me at all. Most of the time I do use a silk liner, but that is mainly to keep the bag clean or to sleep on top of the bag during warm nights. The bags are designed to be slept in with the zipper on the ground underneath your back to reduce drafts. While the zipper is small and doesn’t bother me laying on it, I tend to toss and turn all night so I added an optional draft tube to prevent drafts as I do my nightly roll overs.

The bag is shaped so that it is larger at the top of the bag and tapers down to a small foot area. The whole idea is to minimize the space inside the bag which you have to heat up; this will keep you warmer with less extra material and therefore less extra weight. The zipper extends to about ¾ down the length of the bag which is plenty for climbing in and out.

One of the most amazing things about this sleeping bag is how much you can compress it down. Fully compressed it is downright tiny and as soon as you pull it out of the bag it starts inflating back up to full size. With a little fluffing it is perfect every night. The second amazing thing is Matt’s bag only weighs ONE pound. A one pound, 20F rated bag has kept Matt plenty warm even on a 15F night.

Durability: Initially I was very concerned about how the bag would hold up to continuous use on a bicycle tour. In hindsight this is probably a silly worry as a bicycle tour is not any more taxing on equipment than 3 months of hiking which is what this bag was designed for. Through 45 days of bicycle touring on the southern tier, this bag performed like a champ, and continues to perform as expected.

Overview: The Zpacks sleeping bag comes highly recommended by me. The weight and comfort are amazing. This is a great place to spend a little extra money to ensure that you get a warm comfortable night’s sleep and slash a few pounds that you have to carry around on a tour.

Disclaimer: This review contains my personal opinions. I have not received any compensation for this review. This review is for informational purposes only.

New Zealand Lord of the Rings bicycle touring sites

I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan. I’ve read the series at least once a year for the last 15 years. Of course I was thrilled when the movies were releases, and I was very impressed with the cinematography. When my husband first mentioned New Zealand as a possible bicycle tour, my first thought was: I’m going to get to see Middle Earth.

We’re focusing our tour on the south island, which means we will miss out on Hobbiton and Mt. Doom, which are on the north island. However, there are many iconic vistas and scenes from the movies that we will have the pleasure of witnessing. This list is not all inclusive; I’m sure there are more places to see. But here’re the places I’m most excited to see on our tour of New Zealand.

South Island:

  • Canterbury:
    • Twizel-Fields of Pelennor, where the epic battle took place between orcs and Rohan/Gondor
    • Potts Station-Edoras and Meduseld (Mount Sunday)
  • Nelson/Marlborough:
    • Mount Owen – The Fellowship escape Moria, sans Gandalf
  • Otago:
    • Cardrona Valley/ Mount Cardrona- Panorama View of Middle Earth
    • Arrowtown (Arrow River) Skipper’s Canyon- Ford of Bruinen, where Frodo crosses the river with the elf, the wraiths in hot pursuit, and the water rises up to drown the wraiths.
    • Glenorchy-Misty Mountains
    • Kawaru River, Otago- The Argonath on the Anduin River (computer generated statues)
    • Cadrona Hotel – Prancing Pony (Between Queenstown and Wanaka)
    • Poolburn Dam – Rohan (one of Jackson’s favorite filming location)
    • Sutton Salt Lake near Middlemarch- ambush scenes in Rohan
  • Southland:
    • Kepler Mire, Te Anau – the Dead Marshes
    • North Mavora Lake – The lake at the end of the Anduin River
    • South Mavora Lake- The Fellowship leaves Lothlorien
  • West Coast:
    • Mount Gunn, near Franz Josef Glacier- Warning beacons from Gondor to Rohan

For a list of filming location in Department of Conservation areas along with the GPS coordinates, visit: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-visit/lord-of-the-rings-locations/

If you’ve been to the South Island of New Zealand and have stumbled upon a filming location, sound off in the comments below!

Life and Hills-Metaphors for biking and life

Why are there so many references to hills in our language?

  • An uphill battle
  • It’s all downhill from here.
  • Over the hill.
  • King of the hill.
  • Making a mountain out of a mole hill.

I think hills play a big part of our psyche as humans because they’re so visual. Starting as a little thing in the horizon, it grows and grows, then when you are standing at the base of the hill looking up you finally begin to understand what you are about to undertake. We’ve all climbed a challenging hill, felt the burn in our legs, lungs screaming for air. And then, eventually, the top is reached. With a sigh of relief, you catch your breath, and continue down the other side. Trust me, after our most recent tour in New Zealand, I have an even better appreciation for the incredible feeling of reaching the top of a hill.

But it’s not just climbing a hill on a bicycle. The same goes for any challenge in life that I face. I see it, and I’m a little nervous. Am I ready? Then I face it. I begin, and it may be hard, for a time. I might even want to stop. And sometimes I do. I take a little break, regroup, and collect myself. I might climb off the bike and walk up. But, I keep going, and then, I find myself at the “top,” where I can catch my breath and appreciate all the hard work I’ve just done. With a bit of pride, I continue on until the next challenge, the next hill. And this time, I’m a little stronger, the climb a little easier.

In his book “Spartan Up!” Joe De Sena, the creator of the Spartan Obstacle Course Races describes it perfectly: “To move freely, to breathe fully and deeply, and to have the ability to surmount physical obstacles is a privilege.” Just because something looks hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In fact, it’s really just the opposite. Every “hill” that comes our way is an opportunity for growth.

As Nelson Mandela said, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” But it all starts with that first one. The next time your route goes across a great hill don’t skip it, don’t go around, look at that hill and realize that hill is exactly why you are out here touring, to see the amazing world in ways that most people don’t, to feel what it takes for you to view the world powered by your own muscles, to conquer anything that mother nature can put in front of you. You can do it.

Eat to Ride, Don’t Ride to Eat

A common question that I get asked when I tell people I’ve ridden a bicycle across country is, “How much do you have to eat?” This is a great question. The answer is complicated: it depends. On our first tour, my husband and I definitely didn’t eat as much as we needed to in the beginning. We struggled with flagging energy levels by mid-afternoon.

At the two week mark, we assessed how much we were eating, versus how much energy we were using every day, and determined that we were eating about half as much as we needed. No wonder we were so exhausted! Once we figured it out, and started eating more and more often, things got a ton better.

I know a lot of people who exercise just so they can eat whatever they want. I can totally understand that. And it is really tempting when you’re cycling 7+ hours a day to go straight to the junk food aisle or the fast food restaurant. Cheap, easy calories are very appealing.

But here’s where I would caution you.  You’re not riding to eat. You’re eating to ride. That food is your fuel. Sometimes you put the low-grade, cheap gas into your car because you don’t have a choice. But if you want your car to perform its best, you usually want to give it the good stuff. The same goes with your body. Yes, it’s about calories and energy. But it’s also about nutrition and vitamins and minerals. Taking a multivitamin, although probably not a bad idea, won’t make up for eating a ton of junk on your tour.

Bottom line is, eat as much as you need to. Listen to your body, and find out what that means for you. By all means, enjoy yourself while you’re out there. Maybe even give yourself a reward for a particularly difficult ride. There is nothing wrong with that. Just don’t compromise your health by eating junk all the time. Eat some fruit and vegetables every once in a while. Buy some whole grain bread instead of bleach cheap white bread. Your body will thank you.

Bicycle Helmets for Women

Ok, I don’t know about you, but it drives me crazy when gear manufacturers try to tap into the female market by changing nothing about the product except the color. Like making something in a pink color suddenly makes me want to buy it. No thank you! There are some differences between men and women, and color preference (while maybe a somewhat important consideration) is not the only one. I’ve been thinking about bicycle helmets lately, and one key difference between men and women could have a big impact on whether a helmet is perfect, or unusable.

Hair. Yep that’s right, hair! Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’ll tell you why hair is such an important consideration when choosing a helmet. My hair is of medium length right now. That means there are about 5 different ways I can style my hair before I put on my helmet. Each hairstyle adds a different amount of bulk to my head. Which in reality means my head could be a different shape each time I ride. In order for a helmet to do its job, it needs to fit snugly. If the helmet has no easy way to adjust the fit, it’s pretty much useless in my book. It needs to fit right, every time.

At the moment, I’m riding with a Lazer Genesis helmet. It has a knob on the back of the helmet that I can turn to tighten (or loosen) as needed. This ensures a good fit every time, regardless of how I decide to do my hair. (Within reason, ladies. Obviously a pony tail right on the top of the head is not a good idea when you’re putting on a helmet.) So, the next time you’re in the market for a new helmet, don’t get drawn in by style. Make sure the helmet has everything you’re looking for. And don’t forget to look for those micro-adjustment knobs. You won’t be sorry.


Disclaimer: This review contains my personal opinions. I have not received any compensation for this review. This review is for informational purposes only.

Maintaining Fitness While on a Long Bicycle Tour

Ok, I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t cycling enough physical activity? Why would you need to maintain fitness while on tour? Well, let’s think about it. Bicycling is a very leg dominant activity. Sure, you need a strong core to hold yourself up. And the calves of bicyclists are notoriously huge. But, generally speaking, the majority of your power for cycling is going to come from your upper legs. A bicycle is a very efficient machine, and over time, you’ll get more efficient at riding. That means you can actually lose some of your fitness over the course of a long tour, if you’re not careful.

So what do you do about it? I have some ideas. I am planning for an upcoming tour, and I want to incorporate some extra-curricular exercises to help maintain my strength and endurance, for when I get off the bicycle. Here’s what I’m thinking: Each day incorporate some or all of these into a post-ride workout. Nothing too strenuous, and followed by some good yoga stretching poses, such as downward dog and pigeon.

  • Core
    • Planks
    • Wall Walks
  • Upper Body
    • Handstands and Handstand Pushups
    • Pushups
  • Lower Body
    • Squats
  • Cardio
    • Running
  • Total Body
    • Burpees

It’s convenient to focus on bicycling while on tour. But let’s not neglect the other aspects of health and well-being. By adding some of these other activities in, we’ll be more ready to tackle any challenge that comes our way. What kinds of exercises do you incorporate into your daily lives? What about when you’re on tour? Let us know in the comments below!

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor an exercise expert. This post is intended for information only and contains my opinions. Please seek medical advice before beginning an exercise regimen.