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Descending with a rear load

Old 05-21-18, 07:32 PM
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Descending with a rear load

In anticipation of our tour to Montreal in a few weeks, a friend and I took our "test tour" yesterday from Brooklyn to Harriman State Park. (Ironically, we had to take a number of detours and even almost turned around to go home, after we failed to realize the Grand Fondo had closed off almost our entire route until 7PM.)

I'm new to touring, so I'd like to bring up some observations and see what people opine, theorize, and whatever else it is that people usually do on this forum.

I put about 32 pounds on the rear rack, nothing up front. (I'm taking my 4x5 camera and tripod HAHAHA.) It's amazing to me how much heaver this weight feels when it's attached to the back of a 27 pound bike as opposed to being in your hands. Even more amazing is how it (mostly) disappears when you're actually riding the bike. FWIW, Miyata spec'd this bike with a 40 spoke rear wheel which I have come to understand is quite rare. But it suggests to me that they were assuming that most people would be heavily rear-loading the bike.

Flex! It's so much more real when the bike is loaded. My favorite observation was how, moving at a slow speed, i could wobble the front moderately quickly and hear the brake pads gently scrape the rim, alternating sides. Hm, maybe I'm just assuming it doesn't do this unloaded. I'll check next time I go out for a casual ride. Who knows what's flexing in this case though? The tire, the wheel, the fork, the whole frame connected to the fork? It's not really a problem, whatever it is.

Descending! This one I think is the most important for me (us, actually, my friend and I were comparing notes and seemed to observe similar effects). There are quite a number of steep climbs and descents going up to and coming out of Harriman (the last of which leads up to the campsite and was impossible for us to get up without pushing). Descending at first was a bit worrying because it felt sometimes like the back of the bike was threatening to fishtail, or wobble. The conditions of some of the roads also seemed to exacerbate this feeling, so going through patches of gravel or narrowly missing one of those awful long valley cracks was a bit scary.

However! The next day, many, if not all of my descents felt remarkably better! Here are my theories:
1) Slightly underinflated rear tire (going from 75 to about 85/90 PSI seemed to improve the situation)
2) Weird old tires: I actually did this ride using the original Miyata RADIALS, a category of bike tire that I have only read are floppy/noodly/weird feeling, and generally non-existent (I definitely plan to change these before the Montreal trip).
3) Wind. It was much windier during our trip up.
4) Water. For whatever reason, I hadn't bought any bidons, and when we failed to find any deli water that fit well into the cages, I strapped about 2 liters on my rack next to my sleeping bag, about 1 liter on each side just above the panniers. By the time we were hitting the dramatic descents, each of these bottles was only partially full, so maybe the relatively high-up sloshing of about 5 or so pounds of water was contributing to the weirdness? The next day we didn't need as much water (we crossed the Bear Mt bridge and rode down to Garrison where we caught the train back to Grand Central) so I had no such silly apparatus
5) Braking technique. I generally only use the front brake during my normal urban commutes, however, the fishtailing sensation seemed to be exacerbated by using it exclusively during descents. So I took to weaker speed modulation using the rear brake mainly, and adding a bit at a time with the front, which seemed to improve things as well. Again, the next day, this did not seem at all an issue.
6) I realize that apparently everything improves and the angels sing for you when you distribute weight to the front with low rider panniers, so maybe this is just a risk of having all the weight on the back of the bike. However, front panniers just aren't in the budget right now, so other improvements will have to do.

Interestingly, my buddy is riding a Cannodale ST400, which is supposedly very rigid, and described a feeling of incipient fish-tailing as well, loss of stability when passing through patches of roadside gravel, etc. But also noted an improvement the next day and attributed it to a reduction of water weight. He's also a less meticulous packer than I am so may have simply randomly shifted the weight in his panniers into some more commodious arrangement.
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Old 05-22-18, 06:39 AM
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You can toss all of your theories of why the bike handled poorly out the window, except for the part about putting weight up front. Front panniers may not be in the budget, but can you manage a cheapo Nashbar low rider front rack? If so, get that rack and put your panniers on the front. Bam, your bike will handle much better just like that. Then take some of that gear and strap it to the top of the rear rack that you already have. That’s free assuming you have a small bag of some sort and some rope or something. Otherwise hit up Goodwill for a small bag and it’s close to free. Put a small amount of heavy, compact items on the rear rack if only running two panniers in front. The bulk of your gear/weight should be in the front. Then you won’t have any of that squirrelly “tail wagging the dog” handling. Light load? Put it in the rear. Heavy load? Put the bulk of it in the front. The bike actually handles better with the load in the front either way, but riding with no hands is easier with the light load in the rear since you can pack lazy and not worry about balancing the weight evenly on each side. If you search you’ll find many people in many threads talking about how a front biased load handles better. As for the 40 spoke rear wheel, people used to load more weight on the bike in general. You have 32lbs. That might have been 52lbs 20yrs ago. That between front and rear, and then consider that the bulk of your weight(150-250lbs?) is on the rear wheel. Wheels were also built with less spoke tention and weaker spokes back then. You won’t find 40 spoke wheels much anymore, even on hardcore touring bikes. As for evrything feeling better the next day, maybe you just got used to it? I know I still do that at the start of a tour when I haven’t ridden loaded in a while, and I’ve done a couple decently long tours now.

Last edited by 3speed; 05-22-18 at 06:43 AM.
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Old 05-22-18, 08:48 AM
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Originally Posted by 3speed
You can toss all of your theories of why the bike handled poorly out the window, except for the part about putting weight up front.
Thanks for your insights. I am looking into affordable front racks, it seems like a dark, dark world. (I would rather not one of the un-reinforced models twist into my wheel, no thanks, but at least the Nashbar model has an over-the-wheel strut.)

Instead of dealing with the limitations of trying to use full-size panniers on the front, I may look into cheaper panniers for up there. A pair of Ortlieb front-rollers are slightly more expensive as the back rollers! Though I know someone who is looking to sell his for $100, so I may bite the bullet for those (even though they are the incorrect COLORWAY).

I am not throwing all my theories out, however, since I think that addressed individually or all together they would improve the handling of the bike no matter how it's loaded front to rear.
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Old 05-22-18, 09:10 AM
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32 pounds is a pretty good load to put at the back, but I've managed loads that are similar without much drama. (How much can a bushel of apples weigh, anyhow?) A couple of thoughts:

Wind can make just about any bike feel squirrely, especially at high speeds (30 mph plus, IME). Headwinds turn into crosswinds going into turns, or in a ripple in the mountain, and if you're not on top of the situation, it gets interesting fast. Passing traffic can also blow you around. If you've got drop bars, this is the time to use them!

If you start feeling a shimmy, skip the front brake (unless you're executing a panic stop). That rear load is going to keep your back tire on the ground, so rear braking will be effective. Think of an 18 wheeler, using trailer brakes to help stop, or a car pulling a trailer that tries to fishtail under hard braking. If the braking is in the back, it's not going to be dancing around as you slow or stop.
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Old 05-22-18, 09:27 AM
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Something else to consider: At 32 lbs you are close to the load capacity of an aluminum rack, assuming that you are using the stock rack that came on Miyatas. One of the biggest differences that I found on my touring bike was going from an aluminum rack to a steel Tubus. It's stiffer and less prone to flexing. On my tour down the Columbia River (see Picking the Scablands), I was amazed to watch the aluminum rack on my daughter's bike sway back and forth under the load as she pedaled. It was bad enough that we swapped out the old rack at some point for a better (but still aluminum) rack.

They are worth the investment.
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Old 05-22-18, 09:34 AM
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[TL, DR]

is your rear rack rigidly fixed, acting as if part of the frame, and the load strapped down tight ?

if not, work on that.. make things not move at all..
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Old 05-22-18, 10:27 AM
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If you could hear your brake pads rub from bike flexing, have your spoke tension checked to see if your spokes are all a bit loose. I think all bike shops have a spoke tension meter, but many mechanics in the shop might not know how to use it, someone that knows wheels would have to check it.

Descending on hills, if you start to feel any wobble or shimmy, put one or maybe both knees against the top tube of the frame, that can absorb some of the shimmy and bring things under control. You might want to try a few descents with one or two knees pressed against the top tube to practice it first so that the leg position becomes something you are familiar with.

One of my bikes has a very slight shimmy when it is fully loaded at about 27 km. I find if I loosen my grip on the handlebars, it goes away. This is counter intuitive, you would think a tighter grip would be a sensible solution, but in my case too tight a grip makes it worse.
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Old 05-22-18, 10:44 AM
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I'll put in another second for front LowRider racks and small panniers. My city/winter/rain bike is a fix gear, I can go up hill out of the saddle with no issues at all (except th e amount of work!) with 30 pounds in the small Ortleib panniers. Putting far less weight on a rear rack on that bike would take all I had for arm strength just to control the bike. (My fix gears never have a rear rack.)

I haven't toured my Mooney for may years, but when I did, I put everything heavy in my front panniers (LowRiders) and used the rear rack and panniers for bulky stuff.

I have used the Blackburn LowRider racks only except on pair of Jannd (sp) front racks, The Jannd's are far better racks, both stiffer and stronger, but a new pair of Blackburns will get you through your tour with no issue loaded with 20 pounds per side. (They do break at the fender bolt but that will take a lot longer than your usual tour and won't be catastrophic when it happens. I've got a few dead ones.)

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Old 05-22-18, 11:43 AM
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That's a lot of weight. My tours always consisted of rear panniers and tarp, sleeping bag, pad and tent which was about 10 pounds less.

On a much more important note, you may do damage to your knees/body if you don't train your body for the ride. Why you'd pack it all on and go out for a test ride instead of little by little over weeks is beyond me. By doing it properly, you won't feel the weight difference.
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Old 05-22-18, 11:51 AM
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Great responses everybody, lots of stuff I hadn't considered. Thanks!

My friend and I discussed getting simple cycle computers, which would let me know how fast I'm going. I'm not an adrenaline junkie like he is, so I find it hard to believe that I was approaching 30 MPH, but maybe...

I know of the knees-on-frame wobble reduction method, and definitely was using it. I suppose it may have helped! So did reducing my speed. I'm always trying to stay loose and relaxed, but I don't have a lot of experience with very fast downhills on mountain highways so I definitely white-knuckled it a number of times.

Yes, the stock Miyata rear rack flexes a bit when loaded. So either replacing it, not loading it so much, or both would help with that.

I will be getting my wheels looked over, definitely. I'll see what they have to say about checking the spoke tension. Going by pitch, they're all reasonably close to one another front and and back. This may just be a reality of the flexibility of the fork. My Kool-stops are quite close to the rim because the offset mounting post design means that the trailing end of the pads land between the fork and the rim. In fact, I just held the front wheel between my knees and twisted the handlebars, and was able to twist either the fork or the wheel enough to notice the gap between the pads and the rim changing. Normal?

At the moment, REI (an outdoor gear co-op of which I am a member) has an unfortunately limited selection of front racks. However, the Salsa Low Rider looks decent. Any opinion or experience with these? I think I might be able to bite the bullet and get Ortlieb Sport Rollers for the front, but the compatibility between the two is somewhat debated. There's an older video that shows how the lower attachment point doesn't seem to fit anywhere, blah blah blah, but then I've seen pictures and read reports of people using the two together. I think the compromise might be that you have to re-tighten/loosen the bottom mounting hook in order to secure and remove the panniers from the rack. In practice, this might not be such an issue, as I found that I removed the panniers from my bike very rarely.

The Blackburns are also available, and I'd get a 20% discount on those. I'm not opposed to getting them, I think I just have a totally nonsensical resistance to a front rack that doesn't make use of my mid-fork eyelets.

So, on a budget, would you
1) stiffen the rear rack by replacing it or
2) lighten the rear rack by getting a front rack and panniers

And how about those tires? At least they didn't flat! We made so many jokes whenever we had to go over a patch of roadside gravel... Is your frame compatible!? Have you changed your tires!? WHAT PRESSURE ARE YOU RUNNING!?
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Old 05-22-18, 11:54 AM
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Originally Posted by travelinhobo
That's a lot of weight. My tours always consisted of rear panniers and tarp, sleeping bag, pad and tent which was about 10 pounds less.

On a much more important note, you may do damage to your knees/body if you don't train your body for the ride. Why you'd pack it all on and go out for a test ride instead of little by little over weeks is beyond me. By doing it properly, you won't feel the weight difference.
I have been training, if by training you mean carrying more and more in panniers during my normal urban commutes which regularly take me over the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Pulaski bridges several times a week.

My 4x5 equipment accounts for those ten pounds which seem to be vexing you. It's a type of large film camera. I do landscapes.

I don't recall noting any issues with my body. Thank you for your concern, however.

I think you've made a lot of assumptions about what I wish to do with my bike, and how. Clearly you do it differently, and it works for you. Congratulations!

Last edited by zygomorph; 05-22-18 at 11:59 AM.
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Old 05-22-18, 11:55 AM
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You might also want to check for play in your hub bearings. Also, placing the heaviest part of the load low in the rear panniers will help. My wife uses two large panniers plus a rackpack on the rear rack.She seldom exceeds 35 lbs. She has pulled away from me on the downhills when I'm clocking over 40 mph. However, she has a small rigid frame.
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Old 05-22-18, 12:06 PM
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Originally Posted by Doug64
You might also want to check for play in your hub bearings. Also, placing the heaviest part of the load low in the rear panniers will help. My wife uses two large panniers plus a rackpack on the rear rack.She seldom exceeds 35 lbs. She has pulled away from me on the downhills when I'm clocking over 40 mph. However, she has a small rigid frame.
I recently repacked them myself. So that can't be it. So I will definitely double check.
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Old 05-22-18, 12:10 PM
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Go to the bathroom before descending. If it's too steep, it will scare that load right out of you.
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Old 05-22-18, 12:12 PM
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Originally Posted by revcp
Go to the bathroom before descending. If it's too steep, it will scare that load right out of you.
LOL. Best advice so far.

However, I must demur! I feel that the pre-bathroom lower center of gravity would inspire more confidence in bike handling.

My friend (who is also from the Twin Cities) and I actually want to make an annotated route map that has cues such as "emergency cat hole with spectacular view". I won't tell you which end of the Bear Mountain bridge inspired that idea...

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Old 05-22-18, 04:44 PM
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Originally Posted by zygomorph
Great responses everybody, lots of stuff I hadn't considered. Thanks!

My friend and I discussed getting simple cycle computers, which would let me know how fast I'm going. I'm not an adrenaline junkie like he is, so I find it hard to believe that I was approaching 30 MPH, but maybe...

Get a wired computer. They are simpler and cheaper than wireless or a GPS. GPS ones are horribly expensive and have a horrible battery eating problem. I recently purchased a Garmin Edge 25 (for very, very cheap) which is okay but it won't last for more than 8 hours and needs constant recharging. Just not worth it.

I like Sigma Sport computers. The BC8.12 is basic but really cheap. The BC14.16 has an altitude function. I'd probably opt for the cheaper one. I didn't find the altitude function that useful. They have others as well.



Originally Posted by zygomorph
So, on a budget, would you
1) stiffen the rear rack by replacing it or
2) lighten the rear rack by getting a front rack and panniers
Go with the front rack and panniers. It will make a much bigger difference in how the bike handles. You can't go wrong with Tubus and Ortlieb. They last forever. I bought mine in 2003 and have used them for a lot of touring. Same with the racks. I've even moved the racks from bike to bike as I've made changes to my bicycles.

But I do realize that they are very expensive. The Blackburn style lowrider and a less expensive pannier will last quite a while too.

A note on training. You say that you are adding weight to the bike for training which is good. However, if you are adding clothing, camping gear or cameras, I would suggest you use something else. I use rice and beans which can be purchased in 1, 2 or 5 lb packages. That way you aren't carrying around expensive equipment that can get damaged or stollen. And you can eat the beans and rice afterwards.

Just don't do rocks. They wear holes in the panniers.
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Old 05-22-18, 05:18 PM
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What kind of panniers are you using on the rear now? You don't have to have tiny panniers, or ones marketed as "front" panniers. As long as they're not Giant, just use them. You can also just not load them completely if you feel like it's too much bulk. If they're full now, but you keep some of the load on top of the rear rack, you'll have some extra room and can put a strap around them if you feel like you need to bring them in a little.
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Old 05-22-18, 05:24 PM
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The anecdote shared in the OP is precisely why I tour with front panniers only (lowriders), and the total of my luggage never exceeds 18 lbs including the bags.
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Old 05-22-18, 07:08 PM
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I'll definitely make an effort to move some weight to the front. With the sale prices at REI right now, I think I can swing it.

If I CANNOT aquire the new stuff to do so, I'm sure I'll survive, seeing as how nothing actually horrible or insanely scary happened.

Or I'll give up on the Graflex and tripod and take my Mamiya 6 instead. Plus, there's something about having a Japanese camera on a Japanese bike: Mamimiyata. Or the new Broadway smash hit, Mami Yata!
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Old 05-23-18, 08:55 PM
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It ain't hardcore if it ain't got 40 spokes!

Those Miyata radials sure did ride smooth, but they squirmed badly under load. You have the 615 or 1000?
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Old 05-23-18, 09:26 PM
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Originally Posted by TiHabanero
It ain't hardcore if it ain't got 40 spokes!

Those Miyata radials sure did ride smooth, but they squirmed badly under load. You have the 615 or 1000?
​​​​​​If money was really tight I could probably get away with careful rear loading and a new rear tire, I guess.

It's the 615 GT.

Yes, there's something weirdly buttery about the bike in general that I like, but maybe the tires are contributing to the lack of confident feelings in cornering or under load at speed. Like I said, things definitely improved after I went up to 90 PSI, and could no longer make the sidewalls near the ground wiggle like an aspic.
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Old 05-24-18, 06:42 AM
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On day 1 of my 2015 bike trip I was riding in CT, I believe it was on Rt 4 headed west. I saw a sign indicating a 9% grade drop coming up. I didn't think much about. I was riding with 30 pounds of gear in the kitty liters on the rear rack, no front rack. I started down the drop and tucked it, rather weakly like. Next thing I knew I was looking down as I was a bit shocked at how fast I was going. Turns out I hit 50mph going down the drop. I was shocked. I had finally found a drop, on a highway, here in the eastern part of the US where I could go faster than one of the local drops I have within 6-7 miles of my house...hadn't happened until then or since then. I had no kind of trouble with the speed, or any kind of wobbling. The bike was new bike, only around 500 miles on it before I left for the trip. I did have the weight split evenly between the two kitty liter buckets. You might want to make sure you have the weight distribution evenly. I could see that could cause trouble. Otherwise nothing else makes much sense other than lack of being comfortable on the bike in the first place due to you not having much riding experience, or maybe having a wheel that isn't made quite right...some wheels can do that and do it to a point where you think its going to throw you right off the bike because of the wheel vibration as higher speeds.
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Old 05-25-18, 09:17 PM
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Ive worked with 4x5's a fair amount, and it's your decision, but I can't imagine lugging one around on a bike trip, but then folks carry laptops and whatnot also, but generally with four panniers to even the load around.
Even taking a med format, again, its up to you, but as someone who worked in commercial photography for decades, mixing a bike trip with heavy, expensive and fragile camera equipment never really appealed to me.

if you do take it, from someone who has travelled with lots of equipment over the years, including a lot of car travel , isolating your camera from vibrations and shocks is the name of the game.
Use common sense and use clothing or whatever as cushioning, and just be aware that a lot of vibrations can loosen internal screws. We've had to take Hasseblads to the repair guy to put back little screws back in and go over things after our usual shooting on location, and therefore lots of travel and transport in cars and you name it. I know a 4x5 is pretty simple, but at least be aware of what attaches to what with small screws, and perhaps take a mini tube of blue loctite if ever you start to get loosening issues, and maybe have the specific tiny screwdriver with you in case.
Same goes for the mamiya 6, although it is a fairly compact camera (lovely camera, I seriously thought of getting one once) which would be easier to isolate with foam or whatever improvised system you can do that will greatly reduce vibrations. Surrounding either with soft stuff, even a sleeping back or whatever, will help it.

and re a view camera, this isnt even touching on the space taken up by camera, let alone film holders. Even as a bar minimum, heck, if you took 5, or lets say 10 film holders, they take up space, and you would need to put each one in good ziplock bags to avoid the whole dust and crap issue, which if you shoot 4x5, you know what I mean. If not, you will just be giving yourself grieve down the road with dust issues.
I still have a Graphlex or something , "press" film holder, a doo dad that held something like 5 or 6 or 7 sheets, but in an object similar in size to a pola back, with an ingenious spring loaded "layer" system inside. Space saving, but more prone to dust. Again, havent used it in lord knows how many years now.
Its been ages since Ive touched a view camera, but all these details are still pretty relevant, especially the film holder details.
Add in a light meter too to the list of "taking care from vibrating the crap out of it" ......(but again, small , so fairly easy to isolate, but all this stuff adds up to a stupid amount of space and weight, not to mention the work involved--but its your party.
Extra film boxes, the necessary "darkroom tent" if you go that route...all extra space and weight, and I still come back to the dust issue. I was a real stickler for cleaning and loading holders, and know how a non darkroom location for loading unloading can be tricky, and has risks for both light and dust infiltration.

good luck on your project, whatever route you go, panniers and photo equip wise.
djb is offline  
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