Written by 6:19 am bike

Your Guide to Bike Camping

Camp By Bike

It is basically camping with a bike involved. Bike camping is gaining ground among those who would like to cover more distance and who don’t want to restrict themselves by camping in the same place over and over again. It is basically a camping tour but the focus is on exploring new places.

Then Why Not Call it Touring?

Touring is a scary word for many people.  They’ve come to associate it with having to buy lots of expensive gear and specialized equipment, and riding alone.  Really you can get away with spending less than $100 (sometimes much less), and lots of people camp together in groups by bike.

What Do I Need to Camp By Bike?

Surprisingly, you need very little gear to camp by bike.  All you really need is something to carry stuff in or on, and the basics to be able to sleep overnight.  Everything else is just luxuries.  The bare minimum is a rear rack or a trailer, something to shelter you from rain and wind, some food and water.  Generally you’ll want a few “emergency” items for, well…. emergencies.  Here’s a couple examples from when I started camping on my mountain bike with a friend:

These bikes both have rear racks – one has soft rear panniers, the other has hard panniers made from plastic buckets.

You can also make a cheap system to lug things with by “acquiring” a milk crate and using Velcro strips or to attach the crate to the rear rack.  The crate can be used to carry the loose gear, and your tent, sleeping bag and other large items can be strapped to the top and sides of the milk crate using bungie cords.

Milk crate system

The biggest drawback to the rear rack and/or the milk crate is that it places all the weight directly over the rear wheel.  This can increase the possibility of flats and broken spokes.  To avoid these problems, you can get a beefier rear wheel, mount a front rack and bags to distribute the weight more evenly, or use a trailer.

Trailers take the weight off the back wheel, but add drag and additional weight.  Depending on the trailer used, they can make it difficult to squeeze through tight spaces and can affect the handling of the bike.  They also add another set of tires and tubes that you need to worry about repairing if a flat or blowout occurs – and those tubes are rarely interchangeable with the ones for the bike.  They do, however cost less than a full set of waterproof bags, and they hold a lot.

Trailers typically come in two types.  The trailer attaches to the rear skewer.  Other mounting systems may attach to the rear triangle, or replace the rear skewer with a longer one built to accommodate the trailer mount.  The second trailer type has a single wheel in the center and allows items to be stacked in front of or on either side of the wheel.  These trailers are lighter and more efficient, but more prone to stability issues if the weight on them is not carefully balanced with the heaviest items centered at the bottom of the trailer.

No system is right for everyone – try them out and see what works for you.

Do I Need High-Tech, Low-Weight Expensive Gear?

Nope.  Whatever works for you is what works.  Use what you’ve got, see how it works, and if you have the money and desire to upgrade to something lighter or smaller, then go for it.  Many people start out with whatever gear they have lying around the house, and work their way up to lightweight equipment over time.  Don’t feel the need to overload yourself with gear, or to have the newest, lightest or most expensive.  Most importantly, know how to use the gear you own – the gear is useless if you don’t know how to set it up, or operate it.

Minimum Gear List

Yes, you can travel lighter than this, but here’s the recommended minimum gear to take with you for an overnight trip in the summer.

Bike (duh.) Tent / hammock / tarp Food
Rear rack Sleeping bag Water
panniers / milk crate or trailer First Aid Kit Cellphone
Bike lights Map(s) Patch kit
Small flashlight or other “camp light” Sunscreen and lip balm Frame pump
Extra batteries for all lights Bike tool Tire levers

THESE ARE THE BAREST MINIMUMS!

The above list presumes an overnight trip in the summertime with no rain forecast and nighttime temperatures above 55°F / 13°C.  It presumes you’re going to wear the same clothes on the ride back as on the ride out.  You can make do with the above list but it won’t be a comfortable (i.e. “fun”) stay in camp.  A more complete loadout would include a spare set of clothes for Day Two, a spare set of socks, an extra layer for warmth in the evening, and possibly gloves and a knit hat.  While Oregon is generally dry in the summer, you should also bring some form of rain protection.  If camping in the spring or fall, you’ll want more layers.  Use your common sense – if you bike commute or ride regularly in greater Portland in the wetter months, you probably already know how many layers you need to wear for given conditions.

The items required to be safe and comfortable will vary according to the weather, distance from “civilization”, and the facilities at the designated campsite.  You can cut into your safety margin if you know there’s a 24-hour convenience store 2 miles from camp, but it gets problematic when you’re 25 miles from the nearest water source and outside cellphone range, or when the only store is closed after 5pm, the night temperatures suddenly drop 20 degrees and you find you’ve forgotten your sleeping bag.  Check the weather, know your route and the nearby services, plan for both and plan for unexpected situations if possible.

Example “Full Load” Gear List

Here is one example of what a fully-loaded (tour-loaded) bike might carry (loaded for off-season camping):

Air pump, frame Earplugs Paperback book
Bicycle helmet Eating utensils Patch kit
Bicycle multi-tool Elastic leg band Rain / wind jacket & pants
Bicycle tubes (2) Fingerless gloves Sandals
Bike lights Firestarters Scrub pad
Box of matches First aid kit Shampoo
Brake pads (spare) Flashlight Sleeping bag
Bug repellant Fleece pants Sleeping pad
Bungie cords / zip ties Fleece vest / sweatshirt Soap
Camera Handlebar bag Socks (2 pair)
Camp pillow Handwarmers Spare batteries
Camp stove & fuel In-camp clothes Sunblock
Camp towel Knit cap Sunglasses
Campfire forks Large trash bag Swimsuit
Cellphone Liner gloves Swiss Army knife
Chain lube Lip balm Tent
Cookware Long-sleeve shirt Tent footprint
Cycling jersey (2) Maps Tire levers
Cycling shoes Notepad & pens Toilet paper
Cycling shorts (2) Painkillers Toothbrush & toothpaste
Deck of cards Pajama bottoms U-Lock
Dental floss Panniers (rear & front) Underwear (2)
Deodorant Pants w/ zip-off legs Water-resistant gloves

Anything Else I Should Know About Gear?

Here’s some specific notes:

Food

You can get as minimalist or as ornate as you want.  If there is a store en-route to your campsite, then you can stock up there instead of hauling all the food out with you.  Fully-cooked meats (or their veggie equivalent) provide a lot of protein, and spoil less-readily than uncooked meats.  Packaged, dehydrated food has the advantage of low weight and a self-contained mess, but tends to be expensive.  Vacuum packed foods and most canned foods are a great item, since they can be eaten straight out of the package whether you have a fire or not.  (though cans are heavy)  Many people carry some sort of camp stove, so they can at least heat water, either to rehydrate food packets or to make ramen, soup, or hot coffee. (Yes, they have French Presses that can pack on a bike)

If you have the money, for about $100 you can equip yourself with a tiny camp stove, fuel container and titanium cookset and folding spork.  It’s pricey, but it’s the ultimate in lightweight.  And if you want to be sure not to burn your food, you can go the other route with heavy steel or cast iron, but you’ll pay a penalty in weight.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can always go to the grocery store and make some “gorp” – an example “recipe” would be a box of Corn Chex, jar of salted cashews, and two bags of dried fruit.  Cheap, and a great survival food.

I’ve also carried a cooler on the back of my bike with ice, bacon and eggs in it and had a great breakfast in the morning on a number of camping trips – you can get pretty ridiculous with the culinary luxuries if you’re willing to carry the weight.

On another trip I carried out tomato sauce in a thermos and brought pasta with me that I cooked on-site.  I carried out parmesan cheese in the aforementioned cooler and had a great dinner.  A hot, cooked meal can make all the difference if the weather riding out to the camp really sucks.

The important thing is to bring food you like and equipment you know how to use.  Many of the camp stoves require special fuel, so if you’re going to be out for more than a day, make sure you have enough fuel or know where you can go to resupply yourself.

Shelter

The obvious choice is a tent.  You can get a cheap tent for under $40, but it’ll likely weigh 10 pounds or more.  After a couple of trips, you’ll be looking for something lighter.  To go lighter, you’ll either sacrifice comfort or money.  REI and other camping / sporting goods stores will have 3-season and 4-season backpacking tents that come in under 6 pounds.  They will typically cost $100-$250 depending on the time of year – try to get in on a sale or when they close out a particular tent model.

Another choice is a lightweight hammock – the disadvantage is finding 2 trees the right size and distance to sling it.  Also, many state parks and private campgrounds won’t let you attach lines to trees or other objects in the park – if you buy a hammock, check the local regulations before toting it out there, unless you like unexpectedly being forced to sleep on the ground.  Some hammocks have an optional stand which allows the hammock to be set up without the use of trees – these stands tend to add significant weight, and can be unwieldy to pack on the bike.

A third option is really cheap and lightweight – a tarp.  You can prop the center up with a stick and tie the corners down to stakes, trees, or whatever.  It’s incredibly cheap and lightweight, but the wind will go right through it.  Great if you’re wearing a lot of clothes inside a beefy sleeping bag, or when you only need protection from the rain and not the cold.  A tarp won’t provide any bug protection, so keep that in mind during mosquito season and plan accordingly.

The real luxury option is not to bring anything, but to rent a cabin, yurt, teepee, or fire lookout.  State and USFS campgrounds have all of those as options – they vary from site to site.  The disadvantages are that typically they are over $30 a night, and if you don’t jump on them 6-9 months in advance, they may already be booked.

Clothing

Don’t wear cotton, or if you do, make sure you’ve got a dry set of clothing you can change into if you get soaked riding out to your destination.  When cotton gets wet, it loses all its insulating value, and your campsite may be miles from the nearest town.  Whatever you wear, wear it in layers – layers provide the most flexibility for temperature control.  The bottom layer should wick moisture away from the skin, and you should have an outer windproof shell.

Last modified: December 26, 2020
Close