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We joined two established bikepackers for an adventurous three week video shoot on the trails of northern Thailand. After experiencing the giddy highs and the food poisoning lows, we reflected on our five biggest challenges from the project, and the lessons learned.

1. Humans are batteries too

We planned the battery life for our gear meticulously. The last thing we wanted was to run out of juice in the jungle. But the one big battery we overlooked was our own. If you don’t look after your blood sugars, manage your water intake and limit your sun exposure, 0% creeps up very quickly. And it happens so much in the bikepacking world that the community have their own special word for it: ‘bonking’.

From impossible-to-ride-uphill 28% gradients, to rutted buffalo herding tracks, these trails are no joke. So throw in a full day of concentrated filming, pointing cameras during downtime and that battery depletes at a crazy rate. We learned the hard way, but we corrected quickly. Stay hydrated, snack often, force yourself to take breaks.

2. Good, better, best.

From the second we left Chiang Mai’s airport our camera fingers were itching. Everything around us felt like a potential shot. Smoke billowed from street sellers’ food grills. Low hanging swathes of electric cables formed black arches along narrow city streets. As you start to dial into your new foreign surroundings you have to recalibrate on what ‘special’ looks like.

The bar continually raises on what deserves to be shot, and that one-of-a-kind temple in the foothills can suddenly feel small fry compared to the towering golden spires from later in the journey. And yet sometimes a smile at the smallest market stall won’t ever be topped. Appreciate what’s in front of you at the time, go with your gut feeling, but accept that you might be re-shooting down the track. 

3. Follow the light

We camped a lot on the road: next to lakes and rivers, in temple gardens and in tourist friendly campgrounds. It helped us to immerse in the action and get away quickly in the morning. Shooting was our priority most days so we’d rise around 5.30am to capture the magical morning light. To protect our beauty sleep, ‘bedtime’ shifted forward to a toddler-worthy 7pm. In these remote areas the cockerels would screech and roaming dogs would bark to announce a new day. And First Person Content would be roaming too.

In Chiang Mai, it was a special time when pink hues would appear in the sky as shop fronts rolled open, as mopeds emerged as streets and alleyways came to life. From 9.30am the light changes to be more severe and with it comes the dry heat. If you’re not prepared for the early starts, your shooting time will be cut in half – and so will the impact of your final footage. Prioritise the light and your future self will thank you in the editing booth. 

4. The shot that got away

We left the logistics of route planning to our bikepacking experts. And they left all video making calls to us. It was a clear split of responsibilities that helped keep us moving safely and efficiently. But naturally, there were times when priorities conflicted. They learned that shooting video takes time. A lot of time. So whilst it’s easy to feel antsy during the 15th stop of the day and rush the process along, sometimes you have to put your filmmaking foot down and remind everybody of the common goal.

But this negotiation works two ways. We learned to better respect the weather conditions and the physicality of bikepacking. You can’t put shooting first every time. If you’re losing daylight fast or you’ve got 800m of vertical climbing still to go, sometimes it’s essential to find that remote campground first. And whilst it’s tempting to stop at every hairpin curve and vantage point, it takes time and energy to set up the camera rig or send the drone up. So pick your shots, pick your battles and be prepared to regret the shot that got away.

5. Tears before calltime

Contrary to what some Directors will tell you it’s important to remember that the talent in your video are humans too. Even our veteran bikepacking pals were susceptible to the emotional ups and downs that come with endurance riding and sweltering temperatures. To get the most out of your talent, be prepared to put them first, continually read the room and compromise when needed. Although it’s tempting to capture raw emotion, a zoom lens in the face of somebody who’s ‘bonking’ isn’t comfortable – even if it’s agreed upon in advance.

So if you’ve got an interview planned, allow for enough downtime before the calltime. It isn’t fair to roll in from a 20km ride to a 90 min interview sitting. And if you’re requesting talent to climb a steep section of track in high humidity, ask yourself whether you really need a 3rd take. Look after your talent, and expect the same care in return.

The final bit of front bag kit was the DJI Mavic Mini 3 drone, control pad, batteries and repair accessories – all housed neatly within the DJI kit bag. Amazingly our big ticket items fitted perfectly together within the front bag to limit movement and comfortably ride out the bouncing trails.  

It took a lot of convincing from our bikepacking pals that our custom-padded backpack should remain at home. But if there’s one key takeaway from our trip’s gear choices: a backpack is a definite no-no on the road. Terrible for balance, terrible for overheating and sweat, and a total liability if you should fall off your bike.

Having easy access to your camera is essential. Firstly, you don’t want to miss the time-sensitive shots. But also, because you’ll be packing your gear dozens of times per day, any finicky processes get old fast. And if you’re hangry, it’ll feel even worse. Trust us on that.

Dan

Dan has been in the engine room of video production and marketing agencies over the last 10 years, delivering content, campaigns and strategies for some of Australia’s most well-known brands - and some fun, feisty challengers.

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