Bicycle camping is far and away my favorite cycling-related weekend activity at the moment; summer has found its sweet spot here in the Pacific Northwest, and the city is choking on an influx of tourists from geographic locations with even shittier weather than Seattle. The relatively predictable weather gives us the rare opportunity to make weekend plans to get the hell out of here with some amount of confidence. Worrying about rain isn’t fun, and bicycle camping is supposed to be about fun and leisure with a little pride of accomplishment thrown in as a garnish. Since this publication is pretty heavily race-oriented, and since many cyclists like a bit of variety in their lives, I thought a little introduction to something different (and really fun) was in order.
Bicycle camping (obviously) isn’t new, and there are some really good resources online to get tips, get inspired, and get info on specific destinations that are good for this sort of thing. I’m guessing there isn’t much overlap between the readership of those sites and this one, so I’ll be the one to lead you to the promised land.
The most practical way to do this when you’re getting started is the S24O (Sub 24 hour Overnight), a designation coined by Grant Petersen, an avid practitioner of most things that are fun on a bike, and a guy who designs bikes that are built for fun. In the span of less than 24 hours you pack up, head to your campsite, cook up some s’mores or whatever, and return home in the morning. The S24O lets a busy person get the feel of a bicycle tour without the massive time commitment, the worry of being far from help and supplies, and without having to poop in weird foreign places. Because it’s so easy, requires less gear than a tour, and there’s so much leeway for screwing things up, you can do S24Os all the time and still be a normal person. Another benefit is that you’ll probably be going pretty slow with your loaded bike, which gives you time to see stuff that’s not necessarily obvious at 30mph. You can even stop every once in awhile and snap photos, and you can do it in the same clothing you’ll wear when you get to camp (aerodynamics aren’t really an issue at 14mph). Bringing less stuff is good, and keeping it simple is good.
So what do you really need to do a bicycle camping trip? Not much, since the idea is that this isn’t supposed to be hard. Here’s what I think the biggies are, and you can adjust accordingly.
A campground that’s nearby, preferably less than 15 miles or so. If you don’t have this, you can use mixed transportation to keep things timely; maybe a train or a car to get you outside the city, and then bike the rest of the way.
Storage for your stuff. Panniers are the most popular. I use a large saddlebag and a basket up front, but I’m not a huge pannier fan. If you have really light/small gear, you can even use a backpack. There are also nice trailers for this kind of thing that can hold a ton of gear.
Appropriate tires. The go-to obvious choice is a set of Schwalbe Marathons. They’re incredibly tough and roll just fine. Use whatever tires you want, but these are a safe bet. Great commuting choice as well. They also come in pretty much any size imaginable.
Water. Just like with any form of camping, check your water situation at the camp. I bring two water bottles and a 2 liter bladder just in case. If you have to go far from camp to get water, the bladder will make your life better. It weighs practically nothing and takes up almost zero space when it’s empty.
Food. Keep it simple at first if you’re not an experienced camper. Camp cooking is cool, but it’s easy to get out of control with the cookwear. Chili dogs and s’mores cooked over a campfire are awesome. If you don’t think they’re awesome, then just bring a couple pounds of whatever you like to eat. Get fancy and cook something nice if you’ve got serious camp cooking skills.
General camping stuff. Do you need me to tell you that you need a sleeping bag and a tent? I guess you really don’t, but I like to have them. Sleeping pad, pillow, maybe some wool baselayers. Flashlight, knife, book. Doesn’t matter, just bring what you want. Hammocks are cool, too. Simple, easy.
That’s really it for starters. Just keep it simple, use common sense, and you’ll be a lot more likely to actually go out and try it. If you forget something, just get it at a store on the way. If you can’t get it at a store, then living without it for one night should be easy enough. Bring as many friends as possible, make it an experience or even a once-or-twice-a-month group thing. Cooking, conversing, hanging out in nature, and riding bikes with friends, it’s all good stuff that you can’t get any other way. If you live in Seattle, you can even come along on one of my trips.