What gear for the Wildlife Trusts trips?

A very blink Birdy folding bike

I’ve been a cycling photographer for a few years now, and it has worked really well. The trips for The Wildlife Trusts have forced a bit of a gear rethink as they are typically two to three weeks long rather than the week max I have done in the past, and the work is a bit more specialised for producing 360×180 panoramic VR tours, so I have had to rethink a lot of what I take, and don’t take.

The bike setup

People tour on all sorts of bikes, for me, a folding bike is the tourer of choice. Sure there are a few compromises, but not that many, and the ability to easily get on any train or bus with the bike folded and covered without having to make a reservation makes my travel arrangements more flexible and easier. In fact I would go so far as to say I couldn’t do this without a folding bike, the travel is too complex and with over 120 locations to visit in the next ten months I need to minimise hassle.

(Disclaimer – I am sponsored by Riese und Muller although I have been using a Birdy folding bike for about two years before they sponsored me, so it was not an influence on my buying or travel choice.)

  • Birdy Alfine Disc, with Easton carbon bars, Ergon grips, Schwalbe Marathon Racer tyres, Hope headset, Specialised saddle, R&M Expedition rack (rollers removed as they are a waste of time), Chariot tow hitch (for the trailer), SON dynamo hub and Edelux front dynamo light.
  • Carry Freedom small Y-frame trailer. I use a large The North Face duffel bag velcro strapped to the trailer bed and in the rain I use a rain cover over the bag to stop wheel spray getting the bag filthy which would make putting the bag on my back very messy. When I need to get on a train, the wheels come quickly off the trailer and go in a cloth bag which is clipped to the back of the duffel, the trailer arm is stowed along the side of the bag with the trailer bed left strapped to the duffel. The whole lot is then carried as a rucsac on my back.
  • Cateye rear LED flashing light.
  • Spares – inner tubes for bike and trailer, puncture repair kit, disc pads, length of chain, chain powerlink, Topeak pump, Fat Spanner chainbreaker, 15mm ring spanner (for the hub nuts), allen key set, chariot hitch, trailer bearings and axle, trailer spring clip, Finish Line dry lube, velcro strap, Birdy rear pivot axle.

My camera bag

I started with quite a lot in my camera bag, but it has been quickly reduced to save weight and also to reduce the chance of biking vibration loosening parts in gear I am not using. I started the trips with both my 24mm and 85mm tilt/shift lenses, but I’m just not using them and despite the quality build there is no point risking shaking them to bits. This also means the Lee filters have been removed, they are no good on the fisheye and I’m using HDR so that was another few grams saved. What’s left?

  • Nikon D700 – Easy to use, built like a tank with environmental sealing but small/light enough to travel with.
  • Nikon 16mm fisheye – Not the sharpest, chromatic aberration is present (but easily correctable), but it’s just the lens I need for the job.
  • Nikon remote release – not totally sure why I bother as by the time I’ve taken five bracketed shots for the HDR, usually in strong winds with the camera mounted on top of a slightly wobbly panoramic head there is often plenty shake anyway, but it helps.
  • Lakeland e-cloth – by far the best lens cleaning cloths, ever.
  • Turbo-blower.
  • Plastic shower cap – covers the camera in bad weather, not because I think the camera will be damaged by the rain, but it keeps raindrops from obscuring screens and the viewfinder and means the camera is ready to go as soon as the rain stops and the sun comes out.
  • Leica 10×25 Ultravid binoculars – for checking out the wildlife.
  • Panasonic GF1 with 20mm f/1.7 lens – for making supplementary images and video.
  • Notebook and pen – records my ramblings.
  • iPhone charger and lead.
  • Lexar Professional USB card reader and lead.
  • Spare batteries for both cameras and the audio recorder. The Nikon EN-EL3 normally lasts for about a week, the Panasonic DMW-BLB13E9 normally lasts for about ten days.
  • Three 8GB Sandisk Extreme Compact Flash and three Lexar Professional 4GB SD cards.
  • Just Mobile Gum Pro iPhone battery.
  • Moo cards.
  • My lucky little duck – a good luck friend from my wife.
  • Survival whistle – for emergencies.
  • Manfrotto 055MF4 carbon fibre tripod with 460 Mg head. I’d like something lighter but this is a a good compromise that is stiff for the weight and size. I replaced the rubbish central column with an aluminium one from another tripod to allow the centre column to be easily removed for making the nadir shot.
  • My camera bag is a custom modified (by me) LowePro Nova 190 with Ortlieb pannier parts affixed to make the bag into a pannier. I added a Sea to Summit corder raincover as the LowePro one was rubbish.

Audio gear

I’ve been through a steep, and expensive, learning curve with field audio recording. I started with a Rode Videomic and Roland R-05 digital recorder, but for quiet recordings, think birdsong in an other wise quiet forest, it was simply not up to the job. Why would it be? Audio pros spend thousands on mics alone, a £200 setup was not going to cut it. A bit of research and forum reading led me to the following combo:

  • Marantz PMD661 digital field recorder. Easy to use, robust and with dual XLR inputs, it’s only real downside is a relatively short battery life (about 6 hours). This lives in my camera bag.
  • Sennheiser ME-66 mic with Rode foam windshield and Rycote windgag. The ME-66 is probably a little long in the tooth (according to the forums) but it is a proven and robust mic. I’ve also constructed a basic sound isolating grip (to prevent hand contact noise as this mic even picked up my knuckles creaking never mind hand movements on the mic body) from 1inch plastic pipe and some bungee cord. The plastic pipe was then covered in a neoprene sleeve to neaten it up and add further isolation. I keep the mic and lead in the robust plastic box that the mic came in which is bulky but it protects the mic. I normally carry this on my back or in the trailer duffel for longer journeys.
  • Beyer Dynamics DT-100 headphones – bulky and definitely long in the tooth compared to newer headphones, never the less they are robust, comfortable, isolate outside noise and they have been good enough for generations of sound engineers, so they will be just fine for me. Besides, a good friend of mine gave me this set as a birthday present, so I love using them. I keep them in a Exped padded dry bag.
  • 2m XLR lead.

Panoramic gear

I’ve been through a few panoramic heads over the years including some I made myself in the machine shop. I used the Manfrotto 404SPH for many years, but it is bulky and flexy so I wasn’t so sad when I sold.

  • Nodal Ninja NN3 – nice build quality, field serviceable, light, compact and easy to use, the Nodal Ninja gear has a good reputation for a reason. It’s not perfect although to be fair this is partly my fault. The main joint slips a bit with a D700 on it, but a D700 is at the upper end of the weight limit for the NN3. I could use a NN5 but it is larger and heavier, so I’ve roughed up the joint metal/rubber interface for a bit more friction to help prevent slippage.
  • Maplin laser pointer glued into a flash coldshoe – allows accurate positioning of the nadir shot and was a big improvement over doing the alignment by eye. I chose a green laser as according to the specs the green is brighter than red, but in sunlight on green ground a red laser would have been better.
  • Note card with the Nodal Ninja setup dimensions recorded.
  • Again I keep the whole lot in the box the head came in, it protects the head, and it feels a bit James Bond unzipping the case to reveal the custom foam insert holding the head bits. Yes, I am shallow!

Computer setup

A key part of my workflow for these travels is to be able to download, organise and select images whilst I am away to I can begin stitching as soon as I get home.

  • Apple 2.4GHz 13″ MacBook Pro with 8GB memory and Crucial RealSSD solid state drive. Fast, good battery life and the SSD makes it even faster and more reliable. Also power supply. It won’t do the battery any good, but I charge it whenever I get power.
  • Adobe Lightroom, PTGui, Photomatix Pro, Kolor Panotour Pro, krpano, Pages, Numbers, Garageband, Photoshop CS3, Text Wrangler and Cyberduck (an FTP program).
  • This lives in a Tucan neoprene sleeve, then in a Exped padded dry bag. I carry this in a Deuter Pace 35 rucsac on my back to reduce the vibration to the laptop that would occur in a pannier or in the trailer duffel. There is spare room in the rucsac for the days food and water.

iPhone

I had high hopes for my iPhone use on this trip. GPS logging, flickr uploads and tweets from location, lots of phone calls, bike routes with the iPhone charged by the dynamo via a Dahon Biologic battery. Sadly, and not sure if there is a fault with the Dahon Biologic setup or not, my iPhone died on the second day of bike charging and I’m not willing to chance killing a second with bike charging. I might look into the Busch und Muller e-werk voltage regulator and battery as this has a solid reputation, but right now I’m keeping my phone usage to a minimum, tweets via SMS, wifi/3G turned off, the phone turned off at night and charging via the Just Mobile battery or by blagging power in pubs and cafes when I stop to eat. It’s kind of sad, I would love to having all my travels GPS logged and do more conversational tweeting, but it is also kind of good not having the phone on all the time as it can be distracting from the experience of being in these places. I’m using the following apps:

  • phone – duh.
  • messages – keep up with friends and to push tweets.
  • safari – for occasional web browsing.
  • maps – when I get lost.
  • Panovision Panascout – to GPS log and photograph locations.
  • National Rail Enquiries – so useful.
  • GPS2OS – for converting lat/long to OS coordinates.
  • AyeTides – for tidal and sunrise/sunset info.
  • GoodReader – for reading my travel spreadsheet and location info forms submitted by each Trust as a Word doc.
  • Compass.
  • Met Office – it’s there, but I consciously ignore it, a bad weather report just depresses me, and will probably be wrong anyway:-)
  • Dropbox – still exploring how useful this is.

Camping gear

After years of camping and cycle touring experience I should have this list dialled, but it changes every trip and requires lots of thought through every trip. I think I am probably at a bare minimum now, but it still fills the 90L duffel bag. (To be fair that also includes the tripod, head, mic box and panoramic head box and varying amounts of food.)

  • Mountain Equipment summer down sleeping bag. I use a Rab Summit 600 in winter.
  • Thermarest Prolite 3 3/4 mattress. In winter I will put clothes/rucsacs/empty dry bags under my feet to insulate them.
  • Rab Event bivi bag – I’m wondering if I will drop this from my kit bag. It is permanently on the sleeping bag with the thermarest inside, the three items get rolled up and stored in a compressing dry bag when not in use. I notionally carry it to keep my down bag dry from tent condensation, spilt liquids in the tent and from any water ingress into the duffel during wet weather travel but as we get into summer it is becoming a bit warm and sweaty and seems like a slightly useless bit of overkill. I like the idea of biving out, but in practise the risk of getting the down bag wet if the weather changes means I generally always put the tent up. Procrastination, procrastination! UPDATE – I’ve ditched this from my bag to save space.
  • Trangia 25 stove with a single large pan, frying pan, lid (you can only buy these in Sweden but it was worth £40 to prevent steam condensation) and gas burner. I have been using the highly efficient and very compact MSR Reactor, but I feel the need to cook slightly better food and the Reactor is useless for simmering so I’m trying my well loved Trangia again. It is a bit larger and more awkward to pack, so it might be swapped back. With the Reactor I normally got about 7 days use from a 220g cylinder, so carried one cyclinder for each week away. UPDATE – I am going back to the MSR Reactor stove to minimise weight and pack volume.
  • Spork
  • Tea strainer thing – a little luxury, tea tastes so much better when it is made from tea leaves.
  • Two lighters.
  • Rain cover for duffel bag.
  • Nylon slip on cover for folded bike.
  • Spare merino top, three pairs of cycle shorts, two pairs of pants, three pairs of Thorlo liner socks and dry powerfleece leggings for warmth in the tent at night.
  • Haglofs Syberia fleece – it packs really small, is warm when wet and looks very stylish.
  • Prana 3/4 trousers.
  • Mountain Equipment Firefly Paclite jacket. UPDATE – replaced this and by backpack rain cover with a AGU cycling poncho which is more effective.
  • Berghaus Deluge overtrousers – no point in buying expensive ones as I just trash them.
  • Sealskinz waterproof socks – I hate wet feet.
  • Cycling gloves – Gore full hand for spring/autumn, Roeckl fingerless for summer and Eider Softshell for winter.
  • Buff.
  • Haglofs sunhat.
  • Icebreaker merino beanie – I wear the two hats together on cool days, I’d also carry a fleece balaclava in winter.
  • Gore arm and leg warmers – these are a revelation with their temperature control flexibility. Useful on the bike and on foot.
  • Gore Bike Wear Phantom II soft-shell – I’m not a big soft-shell fan, I personally think it is overrated as it is not that waterproof in the UK damp conditions, but this jacket is showerproof enough, has large back pockets for hats, gloves and lots of camera bits and critically, the sleeves zip off making for a very flexible outer layer that allows me to stay cool or warm on the bike, then zip the sleeves quickly back on when I stop to photograph. Sounds like sales gush, but it works well for me.
  • Shimano MT41 MTB cycle shoes with Superfeet inserts – good performance for the money and like most Shimano footwear these are comfortable (on my feet) and last for years even with heavy use.
  • Trainers with Superfeet inserts – I wear these when I am wandering around as cycling shoes can be slippy and the hard soles of cycle shoes can do a lot of damage to fragile plants if I am spending a while in one spot whilst photographing. Trainers have soft soles, are light and quick drying after I’ve been photographing in the sea or rivers.
  • Trowel – for digging toilet holes.
  • First aid kit – bandages, Melolin dressings, micropore tape, triangular bandage, ibuprofen, savlon antiseptic cream, spare lighter, Chlorine Dioxide water purification tablets, emergency cereal bar.
  • Pocket tissues – go with the trowel!
  • Dry wash – also go with the trowel! Waterless hand washing. Also a pack of wet wipes.
  • Silva Expedition prism compass.
  • Petzl MYO XP headtorch with spare batteries carried in a film canister packed out with cotton wool for rattle reduction and firelighting.
  • Midgeproof head net.
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, cotton wool buds, dental floss, talc (see practical issues below), lightweight pac-towel.
  • ME Ultralight AR tent with two modified titanium trekking poles – I have also used a MSR Hubba HP tent, but find it a little cold, and the Ultralight also has room in the second porch to stow my folded up Birdy which feels a little more secure. The Ultralight isn’t a great tent, it has spent a lot of time on my wife’s sewing machine to improve it and it is still not great, but I’d like to use it having bought it and getting my bike inside makes it worth using. The original poles were wrecked in a storm, so I cut down two Leki titanium trekking poles to make strong but light replacements.
  • Kryptonite cable with padlock – a bit lighter and more versatile than the D lock I carried previously.
  • OS Road 1:250 000 maps stored in an Ortlieb map case, the travel locations are marked up with PostIt index stickers.
  • A good book, also stored in an Ortlieb map case. No batteries, every ready entertainment and time filler.
  • Two water bottles, usually supplemented with a 2L bottled water.
  • Leatherman Wave – to be honest a Swiss Army knife is probably lighter and more useful, but very occasionally pliers are useful. UPDATE – heavy, rusts and not that well designed, I’ve gone back to a Swiss Army knife.

Food

I generally shop at supermarkets for cheapness and to get food that will keep for a few days, and stop at local independent shops for treats like cakes. Much as I would like to do all my shopping in the local shops, they don’t usually have foodstuffs that are high calorie, with longer shelf life and that will take being knocked around in my bag for days then be easily and quickly cooked with a minimum of gas. Yes, I could make it work, but at the end of the day it is not that practical. A typical days food will be something like:

  • Breakfast – about 200-300g muesli made with hot water and honey, a large mug of tea.
  • Snacks – chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, fig rolls, a visit to a bakery:-)
  • Lunch – possibly also a bakery visit or oatcakes with cold meat, fruit and chocolate.
  • Dinner – often filled pasta, it’s high in calories and very quick to cook. Probably not that nutritious, hence the Trangia stove so I can quickly cook rice or similar with a few more vegetables in. Chocolate. I clean the cooking/eating pan by boiling water in it then drink the soup like water. No chemicals, good hydration.
  • I probably need at least four litres of water a day, but in summer I’m closer to six litres. Bottled water is my dirty secret!

Practical things

  • I wash cycle shorts in whatever clean water is going, rivers, streams, reservoirs, supermarket toilets sinks, pub toilets sinks.
  • Wearing lycra a lot tends to make me a bit sweaty, and has led to thrush infections in the past, so I carry a little talc powder for warm days, soap well when I get a shower and have also started wearing cotton pants underneath my cycle shorts as the cotton seems to prevent the stickiness a bit. Notionally a good chamois cream should help, but applying chammy cream in a tent with no hand washing water is generally impractical.
  • I favour merino tops as they can be worn for a week with minimal pong, and I’ll then change tops after a week. My Prana 3/4 trousers don’t get washed mid trip, so after 2-3 weeks they are ‘characterful’.
  • I try to use public toilets for poo, but if none available I have a small trowel to dig a toilet hole.
  • I will probably stay at a campsite once a week to get a shower and battery charge up for iPhone and laptop.
  • Water is a problem. I hate buying bottled water, but sometimes it can be the easiest choice. I will also often knock on house doors to ask for water and this is normally OK and a good chance for a chat. I used to carry an MSR water filter, which in theory removes all chemicals and bacteria/viruses/protazoa but in practise I couldn’t face pumping water from some of the water sources I was near – too polluted/grotty.

Conclusion

Lots of gear, no idea! If you have any tips let me know.

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