Admissions of an Amateur Bikepacker (Film)
With absolutely zero bikepacking experience, Ben Johnson had a brilliant idea: set out on his first solo adventure in the rugged Peruvian Andes. Along the way he shot this honest and beautiful short film. Watch it here, read a Q and A with Ben, and see a nice gallery of photos from the trip.
Admissions of an Amateur Bikepacker is a new film by Ben Johnson (@johnsonstudios.co). It wasn’t far into the trip when Ben realized his limited biking and backpacking skills might not have prepared him for a solo adventure through the high-altitude Peruvian Andes. Admissions was self-shot along the way and is his attempt at an honest documentation of the victories and struggles of a first time bikepacker. Watch it below and scroll down to see Ben’s photography from the trip and read a Q&A about this expedition, his bike and kit, and what’s next for him…
First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself. Was this really your first bikepacking trip!?
I was born and raised just west of Calgary, Alberta, a 45-minute drive from the Rocky Mountains. Getting outside was never a chore as a kid. Having parents who valued the outdoors, as well as competed in hi-level hockey and downhill skiing, it was in our blood to be outside and play. I now call British Columbia home, and I continue to explore locally and afar. Along the way I discovered a love for photography and design and have always enjoyed combining these passions with the outdoor sport world. These days, I hope to tell powerful stories that inspire and motivate people to get on their bikes and ride.
And yes, it was my first bikepacking trip! To help put it in perspective for everyone, I had never used panniers or a rack prior to Peru. As I say in the film, I had experience backcountry backpacking and road cycling, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for what 12 days of solo bikepacking in Peru would look and feel like.
Where did you get the idea to venture out on a solo bikepacking in Peru?
Years ago, I started following Ryan Wilson on Instagram. He has an incredible way of making you wish you were wherever he is riding his bike. For as long as I can remember he has been solo bikepacking through South America (from the Gram it appears he is currently exploring the southern tip of South America, in Patagonia). I was amazed at the landscapes and the roads he was on once he hit Peru, around a year ago.
Seeing his perspective of Peru sparked an idea: what if I went there and bikepacked and tried to film it? This was a rather radical thought as I had never bikepacked before, never solo backpacked before, and had never attempted a self-filmed project. But when I get an idea in my head it is very difficult to remove, so this began my journey in to bikepacking and travelling to Peru.
Tell us about your route. Was it what you expected?
I began my journey in Lima. With limited time, I jumped in an Uber van with all my things and went straight east. A few hours later I was sitting in a valley at 1400m, staring at giants. My total route was actually only 250km but the kicker was that I actually did 9000m of climbing. That was significantly more than I was used to, especially with a loaded bike with camp and film gear. I also wanted to allow myself to take it slow to capture what I wanted and adjust to the altitude.
There was no doubt in my mind I would need to push my bike, but I wasn’t expecting the altitude to have such an effect on me. Some days it took me hours to get my camp packed up. And the altitude wasn’t always the issue; sometimes it was the many physiological responses that go hand-in-hand with adjusting to a new land…and new food (you’ll have to watch the film for more details ;)).
My goal was to get to a set of three lakes near a tiny settlement called Milloc. After a quick warmup lap near San Bartolome, I set out to Cocachacra, riding down the main highway, Carretera Central (I suggest avoiding this road if possible. It is very busy and there are many many aggressive dogs. If you have to ride it, keep it to a minimum). Once I reached Chosica I went north on the 116 where the gravel began.
Over several days I rode through smaller and smaller villages and finally arrived at the lakes. Shortly after, I reached my max altitude of 4900m. This is where the rock turned from gold to red and black. Alpaca also dotted the landscapes. I finished at the end of a 30km descent through Casapalca, a point near the beginning of the Peru Divide (updated route coming very soon), which I hope to do one day. I opted not to ride the Carretera Central back in to Lima, instead opting to hitch a ride in a van cranking Peruvian tunes. This was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the previous wild 12 days.
You captured some pretty unique angles with your camera. Can you give us a breakdown of that setup?
The obvious challenge with self-filmed projects is the tricky task of filming yourself. We are fortunate that we have smartphones that can capture spontaneous and real moments, but given that I am a bit of a creative nerd and my curiosity easily turns into obsession, I tried some other methods of capturing myself.
One specific method was rigging a tripod (that I was packing anyway) to my front rack and pointing my mirrorless camera back at myself. Yes, I know about GoPros, but I was after a higher image quality and figured it was worth a shot. After discussing ideas with Morgan Taylor and applying a decent amount of duct tape and zap straps I had a version one prototype. It worked surprisingly well! I was lucky to score a few materials from Scott at Porcelain Rocket to further refine it, and there it was: a self-filming front rack tripod mount. You can see a few photos of the mount on my site johnsonstudios.co/admissions. I should note that this setup probably isn’t the safest method and I am keen to try out a version three in the future that is safer and easier to use.
You’re a talented photographer – is this your full-time job?
I am a full-time filmmaker/photographer. My wife and I run a media agency called Johnson Studios. It is my passion and I dove in head first after leaving my first job out of university around five years ago. Bike travel really feels like the ultimate combination to fuel my passion for film and photography. Being outside at a comfortable pace, experiencing a new place/culture, and finding new stories everywhere you look? It’s tough to beat.
Any major takeaways from your first big bikepacking trip? What will you do differently next time?
Some days I had to remind myself to just ride and put the camera away, especially when dealing with altitude. I had to take a couple rest days off the bike as the altitude and foreign foods started to catch up to me. From what I have read, it is advised to do high-altitude travel with other people so you can watch each other for changes in behaviour or appearance.
From a filming perspective, there was one item I never used on this trip: my one-handed stabilizer. I thought it would be a good tool to get smooth POV shots from the bike. It certainly would have, but it was at the bottom of my bag and it required too much work to pull it out. I never found the energy, so I lugged around this 2lb brick for nothing!
Any tips for others heading out on a solo trip?
As mentioned, make sure you allow time for rest days, especially up high. Also, pack a satellite communications device. I brought a DeLorme inReach that allows you to pair up your phone with bluetooth so you can message anyone. It also has SOS capability.
I recommend learning as much of the local language as possible before traveling to any foreign country.I jumped on an app called Duolingo to learn as much Spanish as I could before arriving in Peru. It may seem inconsequential to some, but knowing some Spanish was invaluable when I needed to ask a stranger for a floor to sleep on when I was sick. It also helped me say yes and no to foods offered to me during my ride. More than anything, attempting the language with the Peruvian people brought about a special bond – and many laughs – between me and the people.
Travelling solo often equals a lot of gear and a heavy setup. When you’re the only rider, there is no one else available to help carry the load of your tent, camp stove, or tripod. You need to carry everything. If I’m going on a long trip, I like to count up the weight of all of my gear using a spreadsheet to know what I’m getting in to. Including the bike, my setup was weighed around 100 pounds!
Tell us about the bike you rode on this trip.
I was very fortunate to work with Morgan Taylor on the bike build—a Kona Sutra Ltd. Because I had no bikepacking experience, it is difficult for me to compare this bike to anything else, but it felt very comfortable and I had zero issues. One key part was running a 28t chainring due to the endless steep climbing. Another key was a wider set of 46cm bars from Easton to have more room for bags. The bike ran with a SRAM Rival 1 11spd 10-42T drivetrain and 700x50c Clement MSO tires. I’m thankful for Kona who lent me the Sutra, and Easton who gave me a few parts!
I really cannot understate how much help Morgan was in my planning process. Considering I had absolutely no experience on how to attempt this thing called bikepacking, his wisdom and expertise was invaluable. He also lent me a few bags and items to set me up for the trip.
Speaking of bags, I ran a Porcelain Rocket Mr. Fusion seat pack. The seat post mount is rock solid, so there is no sway, and the waterproof dry bag system is brilliant. I also loved the Bunyan Velo x Porcelain Rocket Mini Slinger bag, which allowed quick access to my Sony mirrorless camera. Up front was the Outer Shell 137 Basket Bag. I like a square bag where I can add separators to divide and protect my film gear. The front panniers were waterproof Ortlieb Sport-Packer Classics – pretty handy to keep the goods dry!
One last note on gear is that I am a bit of a wool fan. Friends at Cima Coppi Custom mentioned they were designing a set of merino wool bibs and wanted to put a set to the test on my ride in Peru. Sure glad they asked! For a 12-day trip, wool is king in my opinion. Less odour, warm on cold days, and comfortable on warm days. Pretty killer, especially in a place with a mix of weather and few cleaning opportunities.
Any trips planned for 2019?
I am working on a few at the moment. Two of the bigger trips being a week in Vietnam and a week in Taiwan. I am also keen to explore my hometown mountains, the Canadian Rockies. I’d love to get lost out there on a bike for a while. I’m also making some plans for a few shorter local adventures in my backyard.
About Ben Johnson
As the founder of Johnson Studios, Ben Johnson lives to combine his expertise in filmmaking/photography with his passion for cycling. His inquisitive nature has led him up and down old growth forests of the Coast Mountains, the hairpin turns of northern Italy, the precarious mountain roads in South America and the unmarked trails of the Pacific Northwest. He does it all with camera in hand. It is his desire to tell powerful stories that inspire and motivate people to ride. For more, visit johnsonstudios.co or follow him on Instagram @outsideandseek and @johnsonstudios.co.