Some Things I Learned Bike Camping For The First Time This Summer

My bicycle is stopped on the Gateway State Trail in Washington County, MN.
I recently went bike camping for the first time — and solo! — this summer. It was a great experience and I can’t wait to do it again. Pictured, looking east, is my bike on the Gateway State Trail just west of Myeron Road, which I took on my way back from William O’Brien State Park.

I went bike camping for the first time this summer. It was wonderful seeing countless acres of farmland as I biked alongside a calm county road.

I’ve gone camping before, but never by bike. Before I moved here, the only times I went camping were with youth groups in high school. It was too structured and chaotic for me, and I desperately needed alone time.

I don’t have a car and didn’t want to rent one. I could never coordinate schedules with my friends who do. The pandemic has made coordinating such a trip harder. Some of my friends, who are interested in living car-free lifestyles, also couldn’t bike far. I’m also introverted and find it difficult to maintain a conversation with someone while I’m on a ride.

So I decided to go myself. It managed to work out because I was also working on another project. Since April, I was visiting bike fix-it stations throughout the Twin Cities in order to make a map of where they all were. Such a map didn’t exist, until now.

It was frustrating at first. My payload — aside from my panniers, I packed a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a bag of food — kept falling off of my bike, I kept getting stung by mosquitoes, and I was rained on my most recent trip home. Squirrels got into my food and ruined one of my lunch bags. And now, as I write this, my left wrist hurts, probably because I was balancing my bike and payload with only my left hand at times.

I’m hoping my wrist heals up soon. I am almost done with my project, and I plan on doing two more bike camping trips later this summer. Until that day comes, I wanted to share with you all what I learned, so you too can give it a try before winter comes around.

I wrote this primarily for those living in the Twin Cities. However, much of this content can be adapted to other geographic regions.

Water Is Life

2 48-ounce bottles used for water, with a donkey for scale.
2 48-ounce bottles used for water, with a donkey for scale.
Pictured are two of the 48-ounce bottles that I use for long distance riding. These bottles are repurposed kombucha bottles. The donkey is used for scale.

Any form of exercise will make you thirsty. This especially goes for long-distance rides to campsites. Make sure you have enough water.

I love glass bottles. Albeit fragile, they’re reusable and recyclable. Every now and then, I’ll pick up a large bottle of Kombucha from my local coop. Once I finish it and have it cleaned in my dishwasher, I’ll then fill the 48-ounce bottle with water. In 80-degree weather, one bottle lasts me about 30 miles. But you may need more water than I do.

During the pandemic, don’t count on getting water from any public spigots. The only places where I was able to get water were from the campsites I visited and the restaurants I dined at. Feel free to bring the amount of bottles you think you’ll need based on how many places you think you’ll stop at that has running water.

Gear Up

Before you can bike camp, you’ll need to outfit your bike. Your bike must have a rear rack and a strong double kickstand. My bike came with a rear rack that supports 55lbs in payload. It’s more than enough for what I’m carrying. However, the kickstand my bike came with failed on my first bike camping trip, so I replaced it with a stronger and sturdier one. It’s held up my bike so far!

You will also need waterproof and durable panniers. I bought twin panniers from PUBLIC, a San Francisco-based bike shop, several years ago. The panniers are waterproof and are secured with clip straps. It has enough room to handle my large water bottles, as well as changes of clothing, toiletries, tinder, flip flops, camera gear, jacket, and any supplies to repair my bike.

The panniers I have serve me well. Unfortunately, they are no longer being produced. While I’ve never personally had an Ortlieb bag, I have friends who do and can vouch for their quality.

Grab two bungee cords. The bungee cords will keep your sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping pad in place. I used one on my first trip, and my gear constantly fell off my bike as a result. When I used two cords on my most recent trip, my gear stayed in place.

Don’t forget your lights. It may take you longer than anticipated to get to or from a campsite, and you might not arrive until after sunset. Both times when I’ve gone bike camping, I didn’t arrive until close to midnight. Make sure your lights are charged and bright enough so you can see in the darkness, and don’t forget to bring a battery pack so you can recharge them in case the lights (or your phone) die.

Ride with an appropriate saddle (or shorts? both?). Make sure you feel comfortable riding in the saddle that you have. You will be riding for hours on end. I recently upgraded to a Brooks C-series saddle (I have the C17), and while it makes me slip less and virtually maintenance-free, it hurts my butt bones unless I’m wearing bike shorts. Nonetheless, I’ve had very comfortable rides on Brooks’ B-series saddles.

Speaking of repair supplies — don’t forget to bring some tools and a spare tube, just in case you have a flat and need to fix it. I brought a multi-tool, tire levers, a spare tube, and a 15mm wrench with me. These are the bare minimum tools you need to repair a flat, just in case.

Don’t have tools? You may be able to use tools at a bike fix-it station in the Twin Cities. There are over 100 of them. Click here to see where each of them are at. Note that as of this writing, they haven’t all been mapped — exactly why I’m working on this project.

Google Maps Doesn’t Necessarily Know All

Nason Hill Rd. at Paul Ave., just west of Marine on St. Croix. Google Maps did not suggest this as part of the route, but only did I saw it lacked a shoulder I understood why Google Maps did not recommend it as a route.

I use Google Maps to plan my route. It’s not always the best, however, sometimes it is. Coming home from my most recent bike camping trip, Google advised me not to take the road that was pictured. I later learned why — the road lacked a shoulder.

I also learned that not all trails are in Google Maps. For example, I biked the Northwest Greenway in Plymouth to get to Bunker Hills. Both that trail, as well as a newly-opened trail between Hastings and St. Paul, are not yet on Google Maps.

You may also happen upon construction along those routes that aren’t yet reflected in Google Maps. Sometimes the detour signs are helpful, and sometimes they’re not. If you have Facebook, check-in with the Twin Cities/MN Bicycle Advice & Discussion group to see if anyone has encountered any detours or route advice.

Start Close, Then Go Far.

Before you go bike camping, consider these two questions:

  • What’s the longest ride I’ve done?
  • How far is the campsite that is closest to me?

If the longest ride you’ve done is less than the the distance of the campsite closest to you, I don’t recommend doing it until you ride the distance equivalent to the campsite closest to you. The last thing you want to happen is to suffer heat exhaustion in the middle of nowhere and not having a contingency plan.

I held out for years because I wasn’t sure if I could go long-distance. This year changed everything. Not only did I realize I was going on 20-mile rides while running my errands with little problem, I found myself going on 30-mile bike rides in suburban Hennepin County because the buses were off-limits and I was bored out of my mind in the first weeks of shelter-in-place. After doing these rides, I realized I could go farther.

Long story short: practice and understand what you need so you can bike the distance you want.

Take The Day Off (Going To And Fro)

You’ll need all the time you can get to and from the campsite. I guarantee that you will see something along the way that will catch your eye — like a lake or a small town — and that you’ll kick yourself for not stopping because it was beautiful. You’ll also need stops for water and food, and to take a break from pedaling. Spend as much time as you need, there’s no rush!

Don’t forget to warm up and take breaks. I cannot stress this enough. Stretching your legs will help you bike more efficiently, and reduce the likelihood of cramps developing. Doing arm circles before your ride can reduce the chances of your wrists hurting.

Don’t forget to eat smart. For my first two trips, I brought a pot to cook food. I only used it once on my first trip. Two problems: not all campsites have firewood, and my bungee cords weren’t long enough for me to tie down firewood on top of the gear I was bringing. Depending on your schedule, you might be better off ordering takeout from a restaurant. I guarantee you’ll discover some restaurants along the way. Just be sure to observe social distancing protocols and call ahead to make sure they’re open.

Not near a restaurant? In case I get hungry, I have a couple of granola bars packed with my gear, as well as trail mix. Also, bananas have potassium and are great at managing cramps.

Queasy after riding? I got queasy one day after a long ride to and from Delano. Wondering why, I later found that eating small portions and carbs before and after your ride can help.

Do it on a weekday. I’ve been privileged for the past year to have weekdays off. It’s easier to secure campsites, and there’s fewer people around. But I’m biased as, again, I’m introverted and want to spend more time alone.

Use Both Your Hands

When you ride, both your hands need to be on the handlebars and you need to focus on the trail or road you’re biking on. You will not only need all the strength you can muster to keep your equipment upright, you will also need to ensure you don’t crash into someone or something. Do not use your phone while biking and moving. If you must use your phone, pull over and set the kickstand down. If you use your phone while moving, at best, you may end up with a sprained wrist.

Repel Those Pesky Mosquitoes

Be prepared for mosquitoes. They will suck your blood at all costs. Have repellent handy. Wear light clothing, so mosquitoes have a harder time finding you (because you’re not radiating as much heat). Bring a tent (because I didn’t the first time and was eaten alive).

Deal With Animals After Your Food

My lunch bag, infiltrated by squirrels, enclosed in a baby blue bag.
My lunch bag, infiltrated by squirrels, enclosed in a baby blue bag.
Press F to pay respects for my lunch bag that was infiltrated by squirrels.

Once you get to the campsite, secure your food. Animals, like squirrels — or bears — will find it and do whatever it takes to steal your food. I learned it the hard way when I placed my lunch bag in a tree. It was destroyed the next morning.

While I personally haven’t found a solution to warding them off, people have told me to use parachute rope to hang the bag from a tree. I hesitated because I wasn’t able to find a branch low enough (and admittedly, I’ve never climbed a tree before), but I guess I’ll have to do this next time.

If you have any other ideas, let me know.

Have A Plan In Case It Rains

I tried to plan my bike camping trips around the rain. I hesitated leaving my camping gear in the yard to dry, because my roommates value the turf in our backyard. While I managed to avoid the rain on my first trip, I was rained on my last trip.

Ideally, you’ll want to bike camp on days when there isn’t rain in the forecast. But I understand that it’s hard to coordinate days off. So, be prepared for you and your gear to get wet.

Have a weather app handy. Some weather apps, like Weather Underground, have radar maps that can help you locate where a storm system is at before it gets to your campsite. With this app, you can decide on the following:

  • Do I try to pack up and bike home as fast as I can before the storm passes over my house? Or
  • Do I stay in the tent at my campsite for as long as my reservation allows, and hope the storm passes before my reservation ends?

Sometimes the radar app won’t help you because rainstorms can materialize if the conditions are right. Pay attention to the sky. If it — and the clouds — get darker, and sunset isn’t for another couple hours, watch out.

Have some towels on hand. In case your tent gets wet during a rainstorm, you’ll want to dry the tent as much as you can before packing it up. If you pack it up wet, you risk incubating mildew. If you don’t have towels, but have a spare change of clothes, use dirty clothing from the night before.

If you get caught, ride to the nearest shelter that you know of. I managed to get caught in a rainstorm on my ride home from my second bike camping trip. Fortunately, I was able to find shelter at Pine Point Regional Park, which I got to 10 minutes after it started raining. While myself and my gear did get wet, I managed to avoid the thunderstorms.

Once all is done, dry your gear overnight. As soon as I got home, I unfurled my camping gear and set it on the grass in our backyard to dry overnight. That way, I minimize the chance that mildew can grow in my gear.

You might not necessarily have a backyard. An unused basement shower works for a friend who also solo bike camps, and — if you live in a high-rise — you might also be able to pitch your tent on your balcony to dry. Just make sure you have enough room to pitch your tent and lay out your gear.

Bike Camping Is A Work In Progress

I highly recommend going bike camping at least once in your life. It’s a lot of fun, and takes a lot of problem solving. You’ll get to reclaim your time and absorb the scenery more than you would be able to do encased in an air-conditioned metal box on wheels.

You don’t necessarily need to have everything when you plan your trip. Use this guide as a starting point. I’m excited to hear about what you’ve learned, and I hope to share more about what I learn as the summer comes winding down.

Two bells for bike camping!

Minnesota-based transportation wonk, photographer, writer, evaluator, mapper, graphic designer, and community organizer.

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