DIY Bikepacking Within Reach of New York City

DIY Bikepacking Within Reach of New York City

Two first-time bike campers find peace, quiet, and adventure in the Delaware Valley

I woke up in my Brooklyn apartment, grabbed some dirty clothes off the floor, shuffled into untied shoes, and groggily headed out the door. The façade of my local coffee shop beamed like a beacon as I anticipated that first sip. As my feet hit the pavement my daydream was shattered—I notice my bike was not locked to the fence outside of my building. I looked around and tried to remember the last time I locked it up. Had I left it somewhere else the day before? I got my coffee, and with a caffeine-aided mind, realized that yes, in fact, it had been stolen.

“I need to get the hell out of the city,” I thought.

I was bummed but not too bad. It was a cheap single speed I’d been riding around NYC for probably five years. I’d been eyeing mountain bikes for a while, thinking of how nice it would be to have gears and to be able to go off-road. This seemed like a sign. Time to upgrade.

I strolled by my local bike shop and had a look around. One stood out to me almost immediately. A used Bud Light branded Cannondale. One of the larger frames they had, in complimentary colors of yellow and purple. It was a convolution of contradiction–amazing, terrible, hilarious, so-bad-it’s-good. I had to have it.

Around the same time a good friend of mine, Nick Kuszyk, had been getting into building bikes from scratch. With no prior training—aside from being an artist by profession—he had taught himself to build frames and was in the process of customizing several very artistic bikes. He had recently introduced me to the world of bikepacking and was constantly nerding out on various Instagram feeds of these characters living on the road. I love camping, and the idea of biking in and out seemed super appealing, so I pitched him an idea.

We’d find a fairly easy trail within driving distance of NYC, ride the trail, camp, and ride out. A quick weekend trip and much needed break from city life. The only problem was I had no bikepacking gear whatsoever. Nick and I discussed some possible configurations and soon I was walking out of a bike shop with the bare minimum essentials. Namely, a new front cradle and dry bag setup from Salsa cycles, a rear rack, and some water bottle holders. We were ready to go. Or at least, close enough.

We headed out to the Delaware Valley to hit the McDade Recreational Trail along the river. It was early October. We planned our route with the MTB Project app, working out a 20-25 mile section between an overnight parking lot at Smithfield Beach and a riverside campsite near Milford, PA.

It took a little while to configure my camping gear on the bike since I hadn’t splurged for the more expensive mounting hardware. I devised a complex series of knots and loops with a single rope threaded in and out, over and under my rack to hold everything in perfect balance. The smaller items and food I put in the Salsa setup attached to my handlebars. I filled my drink holders with water bottles, and a couple Bud Lights—as seemed only appropriate—for later that evening.

Nick’s bike looked like something out of Mad Max with an oxidized, unpainted frame, large tires, and unsanded brazing job. He had put nearly everything he needed in a huge front basket from the hardware store. Though not a recommended backpacking setup, but manageable nonetheless. Without much more thought we headed out along the trail.

Near the parking lot we passed several people but as we gained more distance the people thinned out and before long we were just cruising through farmland, over rolling hills, and bobbing in and out of sight of the river. It was a good ride. There were a few somewhat technical sections but nothing a first time trail rider couldn’t handle.

We hadn’t hit the trail until 2 PM or so, but powered through and made our campsite by 5:30, just before the sun began to set. It had been a seamless journey, surprisingly.

We ate dehydrated chili for dinner and crashed, me in my tent and Nick in just a bivy sack on the ground. I was glad I had hauled the tent, sleeping bag, and air pad all the way as our conditions the next morning would tell. I slept considerably better.

The morning was foggy and cold. The river was almost completely obscured. We moved slowly, warming up with coffee and snacks. By 9am we had repacked and heading out, northward, toward a nearby wooden bridge that sounded photogenic.

The bridge had a toll, which we were allowed to pass by without paying (shout out bikes) but when the workers saw us taking photos halfway across they lost their shit and started yelling at us to get off or pay. We pretended not to hear them for as long as possible, even as they had a conniption fit in the booth at the far end of the bridge. This would have been even less of a concern except that we had to ride back by them on our way out. Nevertheless we cruised past as they yelled at us to pay the toll, offering a smirking smile and wave instead.

Our return trip on day two was considerably more difficult. I was super sore from the day before, and after riding several miles further north that morning we had added some distance to the ride back to the car. We took it much slower and didn’t hesitate to take several breaks to shoot photos and eat more often. As we approached the parking lot it felt like a small victory. The perfect getaway for breaking in the new bikes and a good test of the waters for longer, multiple night rides to come.

Jonathan Mehring is a Brooklyn-based professional photographer and former staff photographer of Skateboarder Magazine. In 2015 National Geographic published his first book, Skate the World – Photographing One World of Skateboarding. Follow Jonathan on Instagram

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