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The cycling photographer

A story of being (mostly) car free and running a landscape photography business. In association with Cycle Heaven in York, and Carry Freedom Trailers.

I've always been one to wear my heart on my sleeve and tend to act on this. There is no point in talking about something when you can do it instead! As a business and an individual I am concerned with both climate change and the damage that we do to the environment. As a business I try to do my best to minimise my impact by recycling, avoiding air travel, using low energy devices, using environmentally friendly products etc and promote climate protection and the landscape through my photography and charitable donations. My wife and I take similar steps in our personal lives also. 

However when I setup this business we needed a second vehicle, and transport has one of the biggest influences on our carbon footprint. (Just use one of the carbon calculators to see your own carbon footprint. Ours was over 80% travel!) I need to get to remote locations. Notionally my wife can get to her work via public transport as it is not actually that far as the crow flies, but due to the area we live in and the slightly erratic nature of some of the buses as well as her sometimes needing to travel for her work it was simply not practical to have one car between us. Even though she cycles there twice a week, there were still days when we both needed the car. Having two cars has always sat uneasily with me with respect to our carbon footprint, and it costs a fortune to run two vehicles! I'll get to some figures in a minute.

About a year ago one of our cars gave up the ghost and I was fortunate enough to have enough money to buy a van which I converted into a (basic) camper van. And it was great. It really was. I could drive to any location and have a warm and safe base to work from whatever the weather. I could take as much gear as I wanted and take the dog with me.

But that second vehicle thing nagged at me. And nagged. Driving a van as opposed to a small car also didn't help. As a way of comparison the CO2 produced by the van for my mileage was about 4metric tons/year, a small car will produce about 2 metric tons of CO2. (The calculator used for these figures is listed in the Resource section at the end of this article.) A camper van was good though.

Eventually however, my conscience nagged too much, and following a odd year as a business when I realised I wasn't really meeting my targets I started to think about how I ran my business. I've set some new goals, and removed some old ones which weren't working. And decided to sell the van! 

Back to one small vehicle for my wife (and my occasional use). Using a basic carbon calculator shows the immediate effect this has on our household carbon footprint. With 2 cars and our mileage we produced 12.7 metric tons of CO2/year. With 1 car and an associated increase in bus and train travel our footprint is 6.4 metric tons of CO2/year. By way of comparison the average UK value is 9.8 and the industrial nations average is 11 (source - carbonfootprint.com. The Act on CO2 site values were a UK average of 4.46 which I seriously don't believe is a valid average for the population at large, quickly plugging in values to their comparison page gave a UK average of 12.3 for people in a similar rural situation.) Quite a difference by ditching the car, in fact we halved out footprint. And my conscience feels better. As does our bank account - no more car insurance (although I do now pay 3rd party liability insurance for when cycling), repairs, vehicle license tax, depreciation and no more being subject to increasingly high fuel prices. And I've put some of that saved money towards other things, see below.

But, train and bus stations are rarely in remote locations, so how was I going to get from them to the wild places. The answer for me as a keen cyclist was easy - get a suitable bike and gear carrying system. Easy, fun, healthy!

It seemed to be a plan, but like all plans, there are chances of failure so I have decided to try being (mostly) car free for 2 years and then review the situation. I guess that my requirements, experience and equipment will change over time, so this is probably the first article in a series.

[A first bike camping and photography trip out, in the worst snow in 30years!]

Choosing a bike and gear carrying system

Most trains these days seem to be bike friendly without a reservation, at least in Scotland and Northern England, I get the impression the South is very different. Also, buses are not at all bike friendly! So this only really left me with the option of a folding bike. Luckily a friend of mine has a decent one that I had tried in the past so I knew they were past the days of cheap and wobbly 'shoppers'. After a bit of reading up the shortlist came down to:

Each of these bikes is unique and has it's fans. I went round a few bike shops and rode some to get a feel for each bikes capabilities and features. In the end it was an easy decision. There was only one whose ride characteristics appealed to me and that was the Birdy by Riese and Müller. It:

Close second was the Brompton. With a very small fold size and practical design they are a great bike, but at 6'2" I found them a little small feeling and couldn't imagine riding one up a farm track or remote bridleway.

I had superb buying advice and custom bike build by the friendly and professional guys at Cycle Heaven in York. I would definitely recommend them to anyone looking to buy a quality folding bike.

[Custom built and resprayed, my Birdy folding bike with disc brakes and Alfine hub gear]

There are many ways to load gear up onto a bike. Panniers, new lightweight bike bag systems and trailers are the most common options. Despite having access to super lightweight camping gear, my camera gear is heavy and bulky especially the tripod, so I felt a bike trailer was the best place to start. I also wanted a trailer that I could use for more general duties like shopping or moving framed prints, so two wheels was a must rather than one which ruled out the dependable and popular Bob trailers. Again I did a bit of research, and this time one company stood out above all others - Carry Freedom. These trailers are designed in Britain by Nick Lobnitz who is passionate about getting more people and their luggage on bikes. The trailers are really practical and are designed to take a beating and be repairable in the field. They have another nice feature which is that they fold or pack down really small for storage or transport.  They make two trailers:

I'm currently trying both. The City packs down very neatly, but the small wheels don't roll so well over rough ground (hence the City name!) and the bag is not waterproof. My preference is for the Y-frame which rolls well over rough stuff, can be adapted to take boxes or my dogs crate and actually packs down pretty small. 

[Birdy and Carry Freedom Y-frame trailer. I call my bike 'The Seville' on account of the colour.]

One thing to note is the supplied bike to trailer hitch is worth some consideration! Nick has designed a much more robust and easier to use hitch that can be bought separately, but the bracket interferes with the Birdy fold a bit too much, so I've chosen to use the Chariot hitch instead. It's really easy to use and very robust.

For gear carrying on trips I am using a North Face Duffle bag as they are dependable, PVC free and can be carried as a rucsac too.

I have attached the trailer bed to the bag and they stay attached when the bag is used as a rucsac. Normally the bag is covered by a rain cover, mainly to protect me when I have to put the bag on my back as the bike wheels spray mud and water all over the trailer and bag.  When packed up the wheels are removed, attached to the back of the rucsac and the rain cover goes over the whole lot to make it look like one big bag (to reduce interest from transport staff) and to keep everything in place.

[Everything all packed up and ready to go.]

Camping gear

I'm not going to go into the why's and wherefore's of my camping gear, this article is already getting to long, so instead I will list the items I carry along with any notes:

[My bike bivi setup. Room with a view or what?]

Photography gear

It's all the usual suspects, just a bit more pared down than usual! They are all stored in a Deuter rack bag [www.deuterusa.com/products/productDetail.php?packID=rackTopPack⊂=bike&tert=bike] which attaches to the bike rack and has a handy shoulder strap for carrying it and also has a rain cover and bottle holder. Maybe a bit big, but I don't want to get started on buying another camera bag. This is what I take on landscape photography trips:

Food and cleaning up inc. teashops

A big part of riding bikes for me is finding nice little teashops and cafes to sample their wares. And I have no intention of changing this habit. A lunchtime stop fulfils a number of practical issues also:

[Time to refuel. Another teashop stop!]

In the evening before or after the shoot, I will prepare tea then a hot meal on my stove. I tend to use good quality readymeals, such as Look What We Found pouch food as it is tasty, nutritious, quick to prepare and there is no extra preservatives or nasties in there. I used to mix in some pasta to bulk this out, but it used a lot of gas cooking the pasta, so I now bulk out and get carbs in with homemade bread. I add some extra water to make it into more of a stew or chunky soup. This stops it burning when cooking on the typically hot camping stove, makes it easier to clean the pan after and aids absorption into the gut of the water. Speaking of cleaning pans, I use no chemicals at all. I tend to wipe the pan out as best as possible with a chunk of bread. I then boil up a little water and let the steam clean the pan. This water is then a very thin stock which can be drunk. No wastage, no chemicals, improved hydration. A winner!

[MSR Reactor stove. One of a new breed of stoves that makes camp cooking light and super efficient.]

Breakfast will typically be muesli made up with hot powdered milk and sugar and a cup of tea. I will snack through the day on nuts, biscuits etc or find a bakery or similar to get some tasty treats.

Public transport

I was really worried about this part. I had heard so many horror stories about bikes on buses and trains! But so far the worst that has happened is that I have been asked to put the (bulky) bike in the guards van as it was a bit big for the carriage. I think I have mostly avoided trouble by covering the folded bike with a cover and the trailer is strapped to the bag and covered so it looks like I just have a very large rucsac and item of hand luggage. I also tend to keep out the way of staff and never mention the word bike! 

In fact, some companies are quite forward thinking with regards to bikes. Scotrail have dedicated bike racks in the carriages and Cross Country Trains have plenty large luggage space. East Coast are also helpful. 

Local buses on the other hand, whilst the staff have been helpful and accepting, are often not designed for large luggage at all, let alone a folding bike. They just seem to want to minimise the individual passenger space with no though for luggage. Some are better, my local company GoNorthEast could do better as they have tiny luggage racks.

Staying in touch with the iPhone

Not being especially sociable I only begrudgingly had a mobile phone for business use and emergencies. However I have long been tempted by the shininess of the Apple iPhone and having saved a bit of money each month on car insurance I signed up for an iPhone contract. The main justification was that I would be spending long periods of time travelling and would have plenty time to keep up with my email etc. I really hate coming back to hundreds of emails, it takes ages to get through them and I sometimes miss urgent ones. However, the iPhone has brought far more. It's actually made me more sociable as communication is so easy. I phone more, text more, started tweeting, look at silly websites that normally suck up time at home and then there is all the extra apps. Here is a list of my key iPhone apps:

There are a few issues. Battery life sucks. I have to charge it on trains or in cafes at lunchtime. I'm considering getting an external high capacity battery such as the PowerTraveller Mini Gorilla to get a few days uninterrupted usage. The GPS map relies on an internet connection, which in wild places is unlikely, but at least the GPS itself can be used for geo-tagging.

However on balance, the iPhone has been almost a big a revelation as the folding bike. You can follow my cycling photographer Twitter feed at mikejmcfarlane.

Getting to and from suppliers and clients

Getting rid of the van has actually been slightly more problematic for visiting suppliers and clients. Whether I am dressed smartly for a meeting or needing to move framed photographs, a bit more thought is required. Often this means waiting for decent weather or relying more on public transport. At worst it means using my wife's car or hiring a vehicle for the day. A bit more time and patience are required, but this is no bad thing now I am used to it.

So why not totally car free?

Ironically it is to go cycling with my friends who live in the next valley. I can cycle there but it adds 30miles to the ride. Also a vehicle is required for some meetings and my my wife and I also have a few 3-4day backpacking trips to Scotland a year in remote areas. Often we only have small periods of time because of work commitments so we need to use a hire car. It's not ideal, but I also don't think a small transgression or luxury once in a while hurts too much.

Tax

Running a van, I could claim 40p/mile for tax purposes. If I was employed I could do one of the Bike to Work schemes e.g. Cyclescheme. But being self employed the options are different. A quick call to HMRC was really useful. I can offset a fair proportion of the bikes cost against tax. I use the bike roughly 50/50 for personal and business use, so half the purchase cost can go in my tax return next year. Also, I can claim mileage of 20p/mile (for business miles) on the bike. That is pretty good. 

Other things

Bike insurance insurance is a must these days. I mean third party liability in case of an accident. Theft cover is probably optional. I use CTC for 3rd party insurance and also because they work hard for cyclists rights.

Conclusion

So far, this seems to be a winner on all counts. I feel happier and am doing less damage to the climate both personally and as a business. But other things have happened that are a benefit too. Going by public transport is less stressful for the most part and gives me more time to read, sleep, listen to music and stay in touch with friends (the iPhone has been a revelation) or just have some plain thinking time. Although I had some initial concerns about carrying all this gear by public transport the buses and trains are often not too badly setup in this regards. And it feels more natural to wake up in the wild places with the wind in my face than waking up in a van. It's just good!

[The Holy Island crossing on a recent trip. February is not the best month for photography, but it is good for testing gear!]

Resources

  1. www.cycle-heaven.co.uk/ - A fine shop for folding bikes.
  2. www.carryfreedom.com/ - Useful bike trailers. 
  3. www.ridecycles.co.uk/ - My local bike shop in Newcastle upon Tyne.
  4. www.en.r-m.de/products/productfinder/faltgenie/birdy/ - Birdy folding bikes.
  5. www.bikepacking.net/ - bikepacking advice.
  6. www.adventurecycling.org/ultralight - more bikepacking advice
  7. www.backpacking-lite.co.uk/ - get your camping gear weight down!
  8. hikinghq.net/gear/tarp.html - ways to erect a tarp or basha.
  9. www.ldmountaincentre.com/ - good source for outdoor gear.
  10. shoestring-racing.blogspot.com/ - Paul Errington's blog on cycle trips and races.
  11. carboncalculator.direct.gov.uk/ - Act on CO2 website with more detailed analysis carbon footprint analysis
  12. www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx - quick to do, figures are comparable to detailed direct.gov.uk site

5 Comments

Thanks for the post a really good read. You lead a very free life. I also have an iphone and was looking for a way of extending its battery life. It’s so annoying having to charge it up everyday. Actually just as I am writing this comment the battery has gone, typical! So thanks for the link. Also you may want to check out these apps:
Tunein radio
ichess
Tubemap
vouchercloud - get nearby discounts

by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 10th March 2010

Thanks for the article, Mike, there is lots of useful information here which I plan to make use of. Whilst cafe stops are one way of charging up, you can find there’s only one power point and someone already sitting there !

I’m planning a cycling trip to the Outer Hebrides this year and current thoughts are to take just one small and light film camera (Canon EOS300) with 50mm and 24mm lenses, a few rolls of Velvia, and a gorrilapod.

by Kevin Allan on 13th March 2010

Hi Mike

I just wanted to say how glad I am to read an article like this.

I’ve become increasingly frustrated by photographers who travel all around the world and somehow seem to be able to rationalise this by stating that by showing that they are actually doing a good thing as by showing people the beauty in this world they will inspire them to look after their environment, when in reality its just an excuse.  Quite frankly, it probably encourages others to carry on doing the same.

This article raises the issue of our impact on the environment and asks a difficult question about how we need to reduce our carbon emmissions.

Good on you

Mark

by mark murton on 27th May 2010

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by Appodohow on 29th August 2010

Great post, thanks. As a keen cyclist, photographer and mountaineer I enjoyed your solution.

One tip: Cut the corner of a “Look What We Found” pouch (I like the Herdwick stew) and stand the pouch up in a pan of water. The meal will heat in the pouch and can be eaten straight from there meaning less washing up and boiled water is available for coffee!

Happy trails!

by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 26th July 2011

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