Tips for bike camping and capturing your adventure

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Inspired by Swift Industries’ Swift Campout initiative, some friends and I celebrated the summer solstice with a one night bike-camping trip right out of the city. A local bike shop here in Pittsburgh, Thick Bikes, was hosting an open ride on the Great Allegheny Passage, so I joined them for a jaunt along the river. The GAP is a great option to travel south of the city by bicycle and the perfect opportunity to do a shake-down in familiar territory for future summer exploration.

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My goal for this trip was to carry just the gear I needed to be comfortable, plus camera gear. There are different schools of thought with weight distribution on a bicycle, and I’ve historically carried most of my weight on the rear rack. However, knowing that I could store all but a tent in front panniers and a frame bag, I was intrigued to see how it felt with my weight forward.

It wasn’t perfect, but I did my best to balance my pannier weight and didn’t have any noticeable issues with pulling in one direction or the other. Gear weight adds up quickly and too much weight on the back can create light steering, which may feel unstable.

On the other hand, having the weight up from meant that there wasn’t a way to lighten my front end over uneven terrain. I just ran into the changing surfaces with a sluggish bounce. This aside, I liked the feeling of having my front end anchored and I wouldn’t hesitate to carry my weight front heavy in the future. If you’re interested in the physics of weight distribution on a bicycle, check out this informative article from the Adventure Cycling Association.

The frame bag was a great way to carry gear without adding extra bulk. I used this area to store the majority of my food, along with some toilet paper and my sunglasses. That way I could access these items easily during a stop or while pedaling.

I affixed my tripod on the front rack via a traditional buckle strap which is one aspect of my setup I’ll change moving forward. I went on this trip with the plan of taking video, so I needed the tripod often and the constant on and off of the bike was time consuming. In the future I’ll use a quick release strap like these Rok Straps, which are lightweight and secure up to 40 pounds.

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For me, documenting the adventure is half the fun, so I couldn’t leave my camera behind. I’ve been using the Case Logic DSLR Camera and iPad Backpack for my camera gear, both for its affordable price and size. DSLR backpacks trend large, but this storage solution provides adequate space for what I want without allowing me to carry what I won’t use, and it’s also an appropriate size for my back.

For the Campout I carried my DSLR body and two prime lenses, 24 mm and 50 mm in the bottom section and a 70-200 mm in the top, with space to spare for a strobe, sunglasses or a shirt. I tucked my wallet and phone in the top zipper pocket so I didn’t leave any valuables behind when I walked away from my bike. The supplied rain cover has effectively repelled the rain over the past several months, but when we rode our last few miles to camp in a complete downpour I threw a plastic sack over the bag to ensure dry equipment.

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The likelihood of rain on this trip was 100 percent, but I still wanted to capture the event, so I invested in a Manfrotto rain cover for my camera. The cover is quick to throw over the camera via a velcro opening. Elastic cords cinch around the both the lens and the user’s arms. A transparent shell allows one to see and manage all controls in a dry environment. Expect to use “live view” mode with it, opposed to the viewfinder in rainy weather. It can be tough to keep the collar out of the way on a short prime lens. I found that folding it in the reverse direction was helpful to keep it from interfering with my shot.

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Tripods are a cumbersome thing to carry on a bicycle, but the ideal option for video or night photography. I carried a Rocketfish 2.9 pound carbon fiber tripod. It’s not the lightest tripod you can purchase, but in terms of the amount of weight it will hold, 15.4 pounds, compared to weight of the tripod it’s fairly impressive. It folds to 20 inches—or 16 inches if you disassemble it into two pieces. There are times I wish for some extra height, beyond its 47 inches, but not so much that I want to carry extra weight around. This tripod is discontinued, but Photography Gear Guide has a great comparison chart if you’re in the market for a lightweight option.

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Packing Tips

  • If you’re in a rainy climate keep your gear protected using dry bags or waterproof panniers. Alternatively, clothes will fit nicely into two gallon baggies and garbage bags.
  • Look ahead to see when you’ll have access to water and bring a filter.
  • Extra shoes aren’t a necessity, but it sure is nice to slip your feet into something dry at camp. Sandals worked well for this warm weather trip. They pack flat and dry fast.
  • Roll your clothes.
  • Pack inside of other cavernous gear, like pots.
  • Keep your gear light by making a pile of the necessities and then add wants.
  • Make a list and check it twice.
  • Pack heavy items and gear you won’t immediately need at the bottom of your bag.
  • Seek out possible shelter ahead of your trip for if the weather turns sour.
  • Bring both matches and a lighter.
  • Be prepared for rain, mechanicals and a change in plans (within reason.)

Did you participate in the Swift Campout? Let us know about your adventures in the comments below.

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