A First-Timer’s Guide to Bicycle Camping

If you’re thinking of planning a ride, you could stay in hotels, hostels or… camp! There’s a real thrill to carrying everything you need and as traveling by bike is becoming more popular than ever, and casual cyclists everywhere are packing their panniers, setting off beyond their backyards, and roughing it under the stars.

An overnight or weekend trip is the best way to get in the groove before tackling a long distance ride. While some touring cyclists choose indoor lodging, most tend to camp, strapping their gear to their bikes for the full experience. Pedaling all day can awaken a self-sustenance in you that you never knew you had. Stepping off your bike to a tent, crackling campfire, and stove top meal you set up yourself can be extremely satisfying, not to mention budget friendly.

What to Take

The gear you bring along – and how you use it – will define the quality of your getaway. Most long distance riders choose to pack up touring or gravel bikes, which are built to carry a load. A mountain bike is also a viable option if you’re planning to take on an off road trail. You can generally do a first overnight on any kind of bike, as long as it has gears, racks and tires fit for the surface you’ll be riding. If your first bike overnight rouses the travel bug in you, you’ll want to consider investing in a touring-specific bike.

If you’ve ever been camping, you’ll know that the right tent and sleeping bag make all the difference; after all, they’re your temporary furnished bedroom as long as you’re on the road.

The sleeping bag

A lightweight sleeping bag is the norm; even sleeping bags rated for colder nighttime temperatures come in lightweight options under four pounds.

Your bag should come with a stuff sack for compression purposes. You’ll also want a temperature-rated  sleeping pad to provide insulation and cushion your back from the ground. Sleeping pad temperature ratings are measured in R-values (the higher the warmer), while sleeping bags usually advertise an ideal “comfort” temperature to pay attention to.

The tent

Your other priority is your tent; you’ll want something packable yet roomy enough to be comfortable. It’s worth seeing the ten you plan to purchase in person before making a commitment. Big Agnes specializes in producing long-lasting, lightweight tents meant for backpacking. A waterproof guarantee is a must, and your tent should come with a rain tarp.

Consider a footprint to lay underneath your tent for added coverage. Make sure you practice setting up before you leave; stakes, ropes and poles can get confusing, especially when you’re looking forward to nothing but a good night’s sleep. Get familiar with breaking your campsite down as well; every tent has a way of being packed away efficiently to minimize bulk. A fabric patch kit could come in handy in case of rips and tears.

Clothing

In terms of clothing, bring a variety to be prepared for unexpected temperatures. Base layers and a waterproof outfit are best when there’s a potential for wet weather or nighttime chill. Wool socks can be a lifesaver, as can a hat pulled over your ears, a gaiter tucked around your neck, and waterproof gloves.

Bring sweat-wicking essentials to wear while on the bike; quick-dry clothing can be washed and dried overnight, meaning you can reuse the same couple of outfits and save packing space. Reflective gear is a staple; something as simple as a safety vest can keep you visible on unknown roads.

Camping supplies

Other camping supplies that might make it onto your list include fire starters, waterproof matches, bear bags, and an air horn for added measure. A versatile bike lock long enough to fit around a tree or fence post is good to have if you’re planning to arrive at a busy campground.

What to Eat

A home cooked meal is the perfect way to round out a full-day ride. Eating out while traveling isn’t always plausible, and can end up being one of your biggest expenses. A portable gas stove, along with some cutlery and basic groceries is a foolproof way to save money and get your fill of calories.

Stoves

A stove like one of these, made by Olicamp,  runs on isobutane/propane gas canisters, and folds up for easy storage. Canisters come in various sizes, will last you through at least a handful of meals, and can be readily found at outdoor shops, big-box stores, and even gas stations.

Camping pots

Bring along a camping pot, keep your cutlery in it to condense space, and stock up on pasta. If your route takes you by convenience or grocery stores, get your veggies as close to your destination as possible; you don’t want to be carrying fresh fruit or vegetables in a hot, dark pannier all day.

If you won’t be coming across any services, consider canned veggies and/or an insulated cooler lunch bag for produce. Try to minimize perishables; rice meals, granola, and good old peanut butter sandwiches are all calorie-rich choices. Dried fruit, nuts, fruit strips and other savory snacks are all good options for something to munch on throughout the day. Though pricier, dehydrated meals are another quick and easy option that require only heat and water.

Water supplies

Be aware of water options at your chosen campsite. Most established campgrounds will have drinking water available, but always double check. If you’ll be staying at a primitive site (a designated campsite without amenities), use your panniers and extra bike space for a hefty supply of water.

Even if you assume you’ll be able to refill during your ride, stock your cages with full bottles and consider adding a water bladder or two to your bags. Bladders are a compact way to carry large amounts of water without stacking gallon jugs on top of each other. Keep in mind that you will also need potable water for most cooked meals and to clean your dishes. Avoid using water from natural sources and resort to filtration systems or tablets only when absolutely necessary.

Where to Go

If you’ll be starting from home, research all your camping possibilities in advance. If you’re planning to stay at established campgrounds, many require advance reservations. Primitive campsites are less structured, but require more planning in terms of food, water, and basic amenities.

Consult a local bike shop or cycling group for tips and route ideas; some shops even organize day or overnight trips that you can join. If you won’t be biking round trip, make return arrangements in advance and always keep an eye on inclement weather. Start out slow; it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the demands of cycling and sleeping outdoors at the same time.

When planning a ride to a nearby camp spot, make sure you’re following an established local bike path or a known cycling route. Most campsites accommodate drivers and reaching one by bike may not be as easy as it seems.

Pedaling out of larger cities can be a headache to navigate; highway ramps, freeways, and heavy traffic are a cyclist’s nightmare. Try not to solely rely on your smartphone for directions; a cycling-specific paper or digital map is always the safer choice. Consider driving or taking a train (provided your train service accepts bicycles) to your starting point to make sure the first few hours of your mini tour are stress-free.

Tour Bike Packing Setup

Your packing setup will depend on how many days you’ll be spending on the road. For a weekend trip, you can get away with a frame bag, a handlebar bag, and a seat bag. A weeklong trip, on the other hand, might require two rear panniers. The combination of bags you choose is really up to personal preference; don’t forget to utilize rear and front rack space as well.

An example of an average setup would be two rear panniers attached to your rack, along with a handlebar bag in the front for small valuables. Your tent and sleeping bag can be strapped to racks with bungee cords, while your panniers can hold clothing, food, extra water, and cooking supplies. A full set of four panniers is usually better suited for longer trips. Pack minimally, but don’t be afraid to strap on an extra bag to make sure you have everything you need; the bike can handle it! Be familiar with basic repairs before you depart and always carry a tool set containing spare tubes, an allen key, patch kit, hand pump, and tire levers.

Summary

Though cycling long distance can seem hard enough on its own, let alone sleeping on the ground after a rough ride, challenging yourself is an essential part of touring. Emerging from your tent to a crisp morning and brand new day is an invigorating feeling (even if packing your tent right after breakfast is a little less enticing). After downing your first cowboy coffee and getting your gear together, hopping back on the bike will feel more natural than ever. There’s something special about carrying all you need, minus the distractions of life back home. A few more overnights will get you in the rhythm and ready for longer adventures on two wheels.