Despite my tricked out Trek 520, and all my plans for an “epic” summer tour, bicycle touring has, as of yet, remained theoretical. I bought my bike with the pipe dream of someday bike-camping my way across the coast of New Zealand, the vineyards of Italy or the cool forests of the Pacific Northwest. But not unlike the Bullet Blender purchased with the best of intentions for healthful life renovations (and then only used to mix margaritas) my bike has never really been used for its intended purpose. Sure, I’ve been logging miles on it, practicing climbing and even completed a few centuries - but never actual touring.
All that being said, I am 12 weeks out from my summer trip (#weeksout)!
Bike Camping: A First Try
The first time we tried to bike-camp overnight (as in: pack our bikes and ride out to a campsite, fully self-supported), it rained so hard all the trails flooded and we ended up driving out to meet our friends at the hot springs where we had planned to camp (Tonopah, AZ, about 65 miles from home). My boyfriend nearly choked when they told us they managed to out-ride the rain and never even felt a drop. We were both so disappointed until the next morning when the downpour was so intense that we ended up SAG Wagon-ing all five of us home (and bikes, and gear) in our tiny Jetta. So while it was a fun camping trip (we swam in natural hot springs and pet a turkey!), it was an utter failure as a bike-camping trip.
Bike-Camping Version 2.0
This weekend my boyfriend and I, along with a group of cycling friends, went on the most wonderful bike-camping trip! For our second try at bike-camping, we picked a closer location (Lower Salt River, East Mesa -Tonto National Forest, AZ, about 35 miles from home). While not New Zealand or Italy, the route was beautiful - we started in the afternoon and hit some pretty serious rush-hour traffic and road construction (lesson learned!). Once out of the city, though, it was like an idyllic bike-version of On The Road. We stopped at a citrus field and picked some fresh oranges. We bought beers from a sketchy corner store and drank them in the crumbling parking lot of an abandoned McDonalds hiring center, laughing about who to blame for the terrible traffic route. We checked out a new bike park where we randomly ran in to another cyclist who works at the same shop as my boyfriend and one of our travel companions. As the sun set, we whipped down King Kong, an infamous descent known for propelling cyclists to over 50 mph (it was nearly dark, so I hit the brakes at about 35).
What Worked and What Didn’t
We planned to use this mini-trip as a way to evaluate our gear and prepare for our Epic Summer Trip. The weather at Salt River is similar to the weather we will likely encounter on our summer bike trip around Lake Michigan (warm days and very cool, damp nights) so we thought this would be the perfect way to test out our gear and get a feel for touring. While the actual tour part was amazing - here are some things about bike-camping that I learned on our first overnight.
The list of things that worked was long:
- bungee cords are very useful!
- bringing both shoes and flip flops was not overpacking, but indeed a smart move
- carrying our own beer and snacks was not an issue at all, and stopping for beers along the way was fun and helped keep the weight down
- the route was beautiful
- bringing a fleece and lots of layers was smart, since the weather varies about 30 degrees from day to night
- tarps are also useful, we brought one and may up that to 2 for next time (shade structures, ground cover, bike covers - many uses)
- sanka-style coffee was a God-send in the AM when everyone was crouched over their complicated little one-brewers
- our cheap-o Wal-Mart tent worked just fine, though we’ll need to upgrade before summer since it’s not waterproof
The list of things we'll bring next time was not so long, but VERY IMPORTANT:
- beer koozies- your hands get pretty cold!
- camp chair - and so does your butt on that cold ground!
- sweat pants - see above
- pillow - call us wimps, but scrunching up clothes just didn't cut it for us
- allergy meds - I thought I could make it just one night, but I'll never skimp on packing my allegra again - lesson learned!!! I could barely breathe all night
What Absolutely Didn't Work (a shorter list, still!):
- Marmot nanowave 45 Mummy sleeping Bags
- Relying on Others
Notes on Why Things Worked or Didn't
In the words of my boyfriend when discussing the successes of the trip: I feel like I overpacked and under-packed at the same time.
Food: (we under-packed on this one)- We were worried about carrying the weight of food and pitched in with the group for a supported dinner/breakfast deal. This brings us to the second bullet point of what Didn't work: We absolutely should have carried our own food/beer. The weight was not really an issue and it would have been more comfortable for us to be in control of our own eating situation. Our girlfriends who rode with us said they never buy in to group pot-luck/semi-supported deals because they don't like being rationed or having to eat/drink on someone else's schedule, and they hit it on the head with that logic. That being said, here are some tips for packing food:
- Food while touring is complicated, because not only is athletic nutrition important (and that can be heard when doing the majority of your shopping in Quickee Marts), but you also have to think about carrying the weight of that food and the practicality of cooking/preparing that food. So for example, cereal for breakfast is super easy and no-cook, but a standard size box is too big for two people to finish in one sitting, so then you have to carry around a half-bag of cereal that will likely get crushed in your bags, and now you’ve wasted $2 and a meal for two. Much more practical is one or two pre-packaged oatmeal packs, which are uncrushable, but require some heated water - which means cooking gear must be packed, set up each morning, used and then cleaned and re-packed. Quite the process.
Carrying Weight (we underestimated our strength to pull weight and thus under-packed) - I once borrowed panniers from my ex-boyfriend and filled them up with snacks for a long ride we did. I guess he didn’t realize that was my plan, because after a while of riding I offered him a Gatorade. When he declined, saying he didn’t like that flavor, I pulled another one out of the bag. He laughed and said: Are you weight training?! No wonder you’re so slow. (Lovely, I know… ) And so that comment stuck in my head, forever marrying full panniers with being super-slow. But circling back to the above point, carrying the panniers- even fully loaded - doesn't slow a seasoned cyclist down that much (I was VERY new to cycling the first time I carried panniers). We maintained an average of 14 mph carrying 15 pounds of gear, which is my leisure pace anyway.
Sleeping (we totally under-pakcked) - If we plan on riding 50-75 miles per day for two weeks straight, one night of bad sleep could ruin the next few days - causing physical and emotional melt-downs. For this trip, we tested our Marmot nanowave 45 degree sleeping bags, and immediately returned them the next day. We were freezing all night.
The good folks at REI gave me an informative explanation of how the heat ratings on sleeping bags work (45 is just a "survivable" temp, meaning you will be "comfortable" using the bag at more like 65 degrees F, and this also depends on weight and gender). They suggested that we use 32 or even 20 degree bags, but I just didn't believe it. Plus the Marmots were on sale.
So I went for it and LESSON LEARNED. Also, Mummy bags make me feel like I'm suffocating, so that is taking camping to a new level of uncomfortable... but I guess I'll just need to learn to deal, because apparently Mummy is basically the only option for bike-camping in terms of packability (size and weight). Or this...