One student's essential gear for bikepacking across America

From the gear you need to go the distance, to what you need to leave at home.

Chris Hytha is a 23 year old architecture student at Drexel University that just biked across America.

I stumbled upon his Reddit thread and decided to catch up with him because I, too, would like to bike across this great, beautiful land one day. After all, there are over 5,000 miles to cover, and it couldn’t have been easy. I talked to Hytha about his photography and editing workflow, his bike gear and camping equipment, and how much a trip like this might cost. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

Evan: So, how did you come to the decision to bike across the United States?

Hytha: Well, I’m an architecture student at Drexel university here in [Philadelphia, PA] and I've been doing photography for about five or six years now. I'm not a cyclist; I don’t ride on the weekends with the shorts and the jerseys and all that. I'm into the adventure, and exploring the country on a bike just happened to be the best way to do it.

The biking thing started in high school with a friend that actually went on the cross country trip as well. We were just kind of daydreaming about doing something ambitious.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

So we started talking about biking to Florida, which is a thousand miles from Philadelphia. And it was kind of a joke until it just happened a day after our high school graduation. We were still 17 so we couldn't even get campgrounds or hotels, so we just went out on our bikes.

They were awful, awful bikes. I think mine was like $200 on Amazon. The bikes broke down a bunch — it was definitely a learning process. But we really enjoyed the experience, just the kindness of people and seeing the world on a bike, and that kind of mobile lifestyle was incredible. Right away we started to daydream about what the next trip would be.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

And the cross country trip was kind of the next logical step. We went from a thousand-mile trip to an almost 4,000 mile trip from Philadelphia to San Francisco. And the one regret from the Florida trip was that we didn't really capture it at all. I wasn't into photography at the time, so now after doing photography and architecture stuff and learning how to create content and tell stories, I felt in a way better position to actually capture the trip, and that's where the photographs and the blog kind of came in.

Evan: It looks like you were posting on your blog and your Instagram while you were on the road, how did you do that?

Hytha: So I purchased a iPad Pro because [Adobe] recently released Photoshop on it. That's supposed to be like a full fledged version of Photoshop which I was really interested, plus they have Lightroom, so the whole workflow for photographers has been thought about on an iPad.

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So I gave that a try and it was really incredible. I mean, I could do 80 to 90 percent of what I do on my desktop with this tiny piece of paper, basically. But we also had a rest day each week and while all my friends were out like swimming in pools or doing anything else they could do to relax, I would spend that day holed up in a cafe.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

I'd be writing the blog for hours and editing all the photos and getting all that together. It's definitely a challenge just to have the energy after being physically exhausted from a whole week of biking.

I was a little overambitious, but the blog was a great way to consolidate the photos, sketches, and the writing. So I stuck to that goal, which I'm pretty happy about.

Evan: Let’s come back to the photo stuff in a minute; what kind of bike do you need to make it across the country?

Hytha: So I rode a 2016 Specialized AWOL, which is kind of a hybrid bike. We all ended up getting hybrid bikes just because you never know when you’re going to be on gravel, plus it’s intended for touring. It has a steel frame, so you don’t have to worry about packing it too heavy.

I actually got it used from my brother. He wasn’t using it for its intended purpose anyway. My friends all got gravel bikes from Trek.

So I saved a considerable amount of money going used. And after doing some research I realized that the Specialized AWOL was perfect for this type of tour. I mean, it’s a little heavy for sure, and with the photo gear my load ended up being a little bit heavier than the other guys’.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

It held up great, but my one regret was not getting new tires before I left. The ones that were on it were a couple of years old and not really top of the line. If there’s anything you can invest in before a long tour, it’s good tires, saves you a lot of trouble with flats.

Other cycling gear:

Evan: So how many miles did you cover? Like in a day?

Hytha: Our shortest days were, you know, zero miles, but my longest was 122 miles and one of the other guys was 180. But our average was closer to 60 miles in a day.

Evan: What about your sleeping situation? How did you find camp spots?

Hytha: We went into it with a plan; one rest day a week, and we got a hotel on those days.

Then the other days we just planned on stealth camping, which is where you don’t have a real campsite and you just try to hide yourself. It’s not really legal, but you know, if you’re not seen and you’re not disturbing the area and you’re not making a ruckus, no one will even know you’re there.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

But there were plenty of times when that didn’t quite work. And actually we went into the trip planning on stealth camping, but once we got into the thick of it, we realized that in Kentucky and Virginia, where you don’t want to be caught on a farmer’s property when they come out with a shotgun in the middle of the night or something. So we ended up calling a lot of churches and fire departments. And it got to the point where we were calling literally every business in town. We got permission to camp behind a liquor store once, and a tattoo shop.

We followed the Trans-Am adventure cycling route, and we bought a bunch of maps that list bike-friendly businesses. It has all the phone numbers and a directory of churches that know about biking, and you know, some of the churches even had hostels for cyclists. So being on that established route really helped.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

Evan: Do you remember what tent, sleeping bag, and other camping gear you took with you?

Hytha: Yeah, I took a Kelty tent, and I really recommend it. It’s not manufactured anymore, but you can get it on Amazon. I did a lot of research on the tent; it’s a freestanding tent, and that’s important because we ended up sleeping on asphalt a lot, and you can’t stake into the ground on asphalt.

You’d think you’d want soft grass, but it was so humid. On the east coast everything is wet [in the morning]: your tent, your sleeping bag, and that stuff doesn’t dry out very easily.

Other camping gear:

Evan: Did you use a bike computer at all?

Hytha: Oh yeah, we all had bike computers. I would say that’s definitely a central piece of gear, just logistically to keep your phone charged and keep track of directions and mileage. And it’s just convenient when it’s mounted. You could get a phone now, but yeah, we all had little bike computers. I got mine for around $30 on Amazon.

Evan: Did you take any particular clothing with you?

Hytha: Actually no, not really. In fact, as the trip progressed, we ended up shipping most of our extra clothes back.

I sent back some boxers and some long-sleeved shirts. I shipped back a lens to make room for a bigger one, and I bought some gloves along the way because I didn’t realize it would get so cold.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

Evan: Oh, what lens did you end up shipping back? And what lens did you end up using most?

Hytha: Originally I had a Canon L 24-105, which I love because it’s a great range for anything and everything. Then I also brought a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens, and that’s more of a portrait lens. I just wanted to try that out, but it was a very hard choice to bring it because I knew I could get away without it. I could take portraits at 35mm on the 24-105mm, just without that wide aperture.

But eventually I planned on getting this Sigma 150-600mm lens. You know, you need perspective, and halfway through the trip we were getting into the mountains in Nevada and I knew the telephoto might open up some interesting possibilities.

So I decided to get it and had it mailed to a post office in Pueblo. We were kind of spending a couple of days there before heading up into the Rockies.

I also bought a mirrorless camera — a Canon M50 — which is just smaller and much lighter for sure. And I intended to bring that on the trip and then the week before I just couldn’t leave my Canon 60D Mark II behind. I just knew the photos wouldn’t be quite as good, and it would’ve been clumsy to learn and get comfortable with a new camera. So I ended up just not caring about the weight.

Evan: If you were doing it again would you take the same gear?

Hytha: Honestly I would keep the same gear; I didn’t really mind the weight. If anything my legs just got a little bit stronger trying to keep up with the other guys, but I was able to keep up.

I mean, the only thing that made me fall behind is because I was stopping all the time to take photos. And honestly, to prioritize photography I would change the mission, because I was the only photographer stopping for shots.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

Evan: Changing topics a bit, would you consider taking an electric bike? Some of them have some pretty insane range.

Hytha: I don’t know, it wouldn’t be the same. Definitely not the same. For us, as far as the challenge, we wanted to make it kind of hard. We like the challenge, we’re young, but I have nothing against [electric bikes.] They’d be good if you were focusing on photography and trying to document these small towns across America and have that immersive experience.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

But I think the physical aspect was a huge component in the overall experience. I think being that physical definitely improves your mood. And even though we were sometimes in these awful situations, we were always in great spirits and the four of us got along really well. And I don’t know how it would’ve worked if we weren’t all super physical.

Evan: Okay, let’s talk about your workflow on the iPad.

Hytha: Yeah, for sure. I used Procreate for sketching. I had been getting used to that before the trip and understanding the tools — you can adjust it and make your own brushes to suit your workflow. So before the trip I set up all my pens and markers and the other stuff I use when I do an analog sketch. It was great, I didn’t have to bring all these physical art supplies.

I edited photos the same way I would on desktop: I started in Lightroom with some basic edits and brought them into Photoshop and exported the finals from there. I also used Luma Fusion for video, and I just kind of did some low-key video for the blog and Instagram.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

Evan: If someone wanted to plan a trip like yours, what would you tell them?

Hytha: I think the biggest thing is just not to worry too much about it and just go for it. The biggest thing that stops anyone from doing anything is over-planning and feeling like you’re not ready, and you’re never going to be 100 percent ready unless you actually go on the trip and find out exactly what you need.

I mean, I did relatively minimal research — read some forums and blogs, and I researched the gear. But I wasn’t, you know, reading every single night on what I would need to worry about and what I would need to do. I just kind of thought it through and trusted myself that I could get through whatever situations were thrown at me. Oh, and there are Walmarts along the way.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

Evan: Can you give me a ballpark number for what a trip like this might cost?

Hytha: I’m still tallying up my credit card purchases and factoring in donations and all that, but one of my friends said he spent $6,000 total on the gear and the three months of travel expenses. I think I’m a little under that, maybe four or five [thousand.]

I’m working on a book right now, actually, where I’m compiling all the frequently asked questions, all the gear, and packing diagrams of where I put all the stuff. Plus all the charts and budgets and stuff.

Photos by Chris Hytha.

Hytha is still working on his photo book, and you can sign up to learn more about it here, on his website. He completed his journey with the help of his friends John Plenge, Jake Casmay, and Jason Miller. If you have an adventure you think I should know about, DM me on Twitter about it.