Bike Travel Best Practices for State Park Campgrounds

Jan 15, 2014

After a long day of biking you’re ready to set up camp, eat a big meal, and hit the sack. You’re planning to camp at a state park campground, but you haven’t made reservations because flat tires and headwinds have set you back on your schedule. You roll into the state park, talk with the campground attendant, and find that the campground is full and there are no other viable options within bikeable distance. The sun is starting to set, so you get your sore behind back on the saddle and look for a piece of land to stealth camp on, or you walk around the campground hoping to find another camper who is willing to let you set up in a corner of their site. Or perhaps the campground attendant understood your situation and designated a small space for you to camp overnight, charging the regular fee. The attendant went the extra mile and spared you from having ride further to look for alternative accommodations, and the experience gave you a favorable impression of the whole state park.

If you’ve been on a self-supported tour that involved camping, you may have had a similar experience. We’ve heard from a number of cyclists who have had both types of experiences, and it piqued our curiosity about what kinds of camping accommodations state parks currently offer bicycle travelers. It came to our attention that Virginia State Parks had implemented a camping policy guaranteeing space for small groups of self-supported bicycle travelers in the event of a full campground. After further researching state park camping policies, we found that a handful of state parks, including parks in Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin have adopted similar policies, which we are calling “no-turn-away” policies. In addition, a few other state park systems indicated that while they have no documented policy, they would provide this service if needed in emergency situations.

It’s great to see that there are state parks that have recognized this issue and taken action, however, these parks represent only a fraction of the state parks that bicycle travelers visit. Because this continues to be an issue for bicycle travelers, we are reaching out to state parks and encouraging them to adopt official no-turn-away policies and other hiker/biker-friendly practices. We want to connect with and educate state parks about bicycle traveler's needs and the benefits of promoting bicycle tourism. 

Why should cyclists get special treatment?

Self-supported bicycle travelers carry their own gear and do not have vehicular support, so if their itinerary is impacted by unplanned factors (weather, terrain, gear malfunctions, illness or injury, etc), keeping reservations becomes difficult. It’s also harder to bike even 5 or 10 miles to the next available accommodations after a tiring 70-mile day, especially if there is limited daylight. Bike travelers often only need accommodations for one night, as opposed to motorized travelers who often camp in one place for multiple nights. Bikes also need less space than cars or RVs, since they don’t require a parking space or hookups for electricity. For these reasons, a no-turn-away policy is a practical and immensely helpful solution for bicycle travelers who show up at a full campground with no nearby alternative accommodations.

Why should State Parks care about promoting bicycle tourism?

Bicycle travel is a clean, healthy, and low-impact mode of travel that requires very little maintenance (i.e. road repairs). Cyclists travel more slowly and require more frequent services (restaurants, camping, hotels, etc.) than motorized travelers, which means that they spend more money in local communities. Studies show that states can significantly boost their economy by attracting bicycle tourism, and these economic benefits are a significant part of why states and state park systems across the country are taking initiatives to promote bicycle tourism.

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD), for example, has made traveling in their state very easy for cyclists, and as a result, Oregon is a hot spot for bicycle tourism. They have designated numerous scenic bikeway routes for cyclists and provide hiker/biker campsites at many state parks. OPRD is also currently working to improve their hiker/biker site locations and offer more bicycle-specific amenities, such as fix-it stations with bicycle tools, covered group shelters, and food-storage lockers. It is because of efforts like this that, according to a 2012 Travel Oregon study, bicycle tourism contributes more than $400 million annually to the state economy.  

Wisconsin has also recognized that attracting bicycle tourism is a key strategy for economic growth. The Wisconsin State Parks System instituted a no-turn-away policy to attract bicycle travelers, which explicitly states their intention to be “’thru traveler friendly, encouraging non-motorized travel, and accommodating non-motorized travelers overnight whenever possible.” A 2010 Wisconsin study estimated that bicycle recreation and tourism generates $924 million for the state annually.

Best Practices Recommendations

Many state parks may be unaware of this issue and unfamiliar with the idea of providing specific services and accommodations for bicycle travelers, so we created a list of best-practices recommendations for state parks to incorporate into their camping policies. This list integrates all of the best components of no-turn-away policies as well as general bicycle-friendly best practices. We recognize that each state park is unique in the services and accommodations it offers, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” policy that can be used. These best practices are intended to help state parks understand the needs of bicycle travelers and identify which recommendations would best fit their existing services and accommodations to effectively serve this demographic.

1. Welcome non-motorized travelers (bikers, hikers, kayakers, etc) and be as accommodating as possible to their needs.

2. Promote bicycle-friendly policies — let bicycle travelers know the accommodations that are available to them.

a. On the website (see Oregon State Park’s website for an example)

b. On a brochure for non-motorized travelers

3. While it is reasonable to recommend that bicycle travelers utilize a reservation system, recognize the challenges that bicycle travelers face in making and following through with reservations, and make the reservation process as convenient and easy as possible.

a. Bicycle travelers are more likely to only need a one-night stay before they move on, so it is best to exempt them from two- or three-day minimum reservations.

b. If reservations are required, allow cancellations 24 hours before the reserved time (as opposed to multiple days in advance). 

4. Make available camping options for bicycle travelers that do not require reservations and implement a no-turn-away policy or directive.

a. Provide first come, first serve hiker/biker campsites (individual or group sites) that do not require reservations and are only for visitors arriving by bicycle or on foot. They should be accessible from the road (i.e. not primitive sites located alongside a trail) and be near restroom facilities and water.

b. If the campground is full and there are no available overflow sites, designate a common area near drinking water and restroom facilities for the non-motorized traveler to camp in.

5. Promote bicycle tourism benefits on the website or other appropriate outlets.

a. Economic

i. Bicycle travelers move more slowly than motorized travelers and require more frequent services, which means that they spend more money in local communities than motorized travelers.

ii. Bicycle travelers typically avoid high-traffic urban areas, which brings them into rural areas and can make a big economic impact in state parks and surrounding communities.

b. Health/Environment

i. Bicycling as a mode of travel has lower impacts to roadways and the environment than motorized travel and requires less maintenance.

ii. Bicycle travelers reduce traffic congestion that can occur during peak tourism in popular areas.

iii. Bicycling is a healthy activity that reduces health problems related to lack of exercise, such as obesity.

6. Provide as many bicycle-specific amenities as possible or applicable, such as bicycle tools, bicycle racks, covered group shelters, electrical outlets for charging cell phones, or wildlife-proof storage containers for food.

7. Policy instructions should be clearly outlined to maintain consistency in implementation between state parks and so that bicycle travelers know what to expect from each state park.

If you know of any other state parks that have implemented a no-turn-away policy or other bicycle-friendly initiatives, please share your knowledge with us! We are still collecting information and refining our list of best practices, so let us know if you have any suggestions for best practice recommendations. Our goal in the Travel Initiatives Department is to make bicycle-travel conditions as good as possible and we hope that reaching out to state parks will open up some great opportunities for discussions about bicycle travel and developing bicycle tourism in state parks across the country.

First and third photos by bikercap on Flickr | Second photo courtesy of zoom images on Flickr.

BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM is posted by Ginny Sullivan and Saara Snow of the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on news related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Mississippi River Trail, Inc.

Comments

Jay Hui

On the Great Divide, camped on a weekend at Wayfarer's State Park by Flathead lake, MT. Being a weekend all the sites were full but there is an overflow area the attendent let us a few other GDMBR riders to camp and also some other folks for a small fee. It was kind of obvious the area was made for overflow campers and since we weren't in RVs or even cars, we don't need that much space so it worked out really well. I think it should be a state law to accommodate bike tours at state campgrounds when the normal sites are full. Most private campground would accommodate tourers, its good for them as paying customers and good for tourers. I've also been turned away too so it is not a rule in every state...

January 15, 2014, 8:29 AM
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Josef Forsberg

I've also run into this situation at a national forest campground where the camp host did accommodate us by letting us setup in one of their day use areas. After our trip I investigated which campgrounds in Washington State had hiker/biker designated spots and I don't think any of them did. It would great to see more bike friendly options in the national forest areas too.

January 15, 2014, 8:38 AM
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Rico

I have learned to treasure State Parks with Hiker/Biker-Sites on my bicycle trip down the West Coast. I know about the importance of a no-turn-away policy especially for remote sites. Bike travellers need only little space and basic infrastructure such as a shower and drinking water.

Camp sites in Europe and some commercial ones in the US designate an area to non-motorized travellers without designated spaces, which works quite well for backpackers, cyclists and Interrailers with tiny tents. Most State Park campsites are huge by European standards and could easily accomodate several cyclists, yet are given out to only one. Flexibility is the key!

January 15, 2014, 3:01 PM
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Jim Guenther

This is great that your negotiating with state parks. We have found the west coast and rocky mountain states are very accommodating. When we toured the Atlantic coast it was more difficult. Many times on busy weekends we just did not travel and waited for Sunday night to move on. As far as private campgrounds most had a site but would charge us the same rate as a RV. Some privates did not even want us. On the east coast wild camping is hard to come by and illegal.

January 16, 2014, 10:48 AM
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Brenton

China Camp in San Rafael, CA has a couple hike/bike sites, and I don't believe they'll turn you away if you arrive by bike and it's full. We did an overnight trip there with 12 people and had a lovely time.

January 17, 2014, 1:56 AM
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Brian McCarty

Is there a link where the Wisconsin policy is spelled out? Plenty of people have experienced it, but I'd like to see it in writing

January 20, 2014, 8:04 AM
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Stanley Sokolow

California & Oregon parks with hiker/biker designated campsites won't turn you away even if the H/B site is full. They'll find some other place for you for that one night, such as in the day-use picnic table area but you'll have to be packed and out of there before the park opens for day-use. I don't know if parks without hiker/biker sites would be so cruel as to turn you away if you arrive late in the day with an explanation of why you can't reach your intended destination that night. If faced with that situation, I'd offer to pay for camping but only set up in the picnic area and be packed up promptly in the morning. That should be standard policy everywhere.

January 22, 2014, 8:53 PM
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Dale Oswald

Your recommendation specifically mentions cyclists and walkers, but it should also include non-motorized boaters. They have even less flexibilty to find an alternate space.

January 23, 2014, 10:34 AM
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Jose Miguel Pasini

Does anyone know if Canadian camping grounds have a hiker/biker policy? I want to do a camping tour of Nova Scotia, but don't want to be bound to arriving at campgrounds on specific dates. Thanks!

February 11, 2014, 8:53 PM
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Gail Artrip

So glad you're working on this! I sure wish our country were more relaxed about wild/stealth camping in rural or undeveloped areas.

February 13, 2014, 11:43 AM
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Nick Wright

For the record: Indiana does not have a no-turn-away policy.

Last night, I was turned away from Indiana Dunes State Park on my bike during a bike overnight, looking for a campsite, after riding 70 miles from Chicago. The park was predictably full, as it always is during the summer weekends. I explained that I had learned Indiana has a no-turn-away policy, and no one there knew what I was talking about, including the attendant, the head of security at the park, and a ranger.

I see the link you cited, but that's more than 10 years old. I'm sure it's not part of the regular intel given to new rangers, rather it has probably been relegated to a line-item in a long list of unseen park regulations that are unknown as much as they are unenforced.

July 27, 2014, 8:24 PM
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