Cargo Camping in Wisconsin

Dec 1st, 2022

The first bike trip I ever did, a bike overnight, is one I bring up a lot. I believe in “Run What Ya Brung.” Back then I “brung” my 1970s Schwinn Varsity, converted to singlespeed. It was the bike that taught me I could really go places — I’d ridden up to 60 miles, wandering past the Port of Chicago into Indiana, amazed I could do so. An overnight with some acquaintances, with a child’s sleeping bag in my messenger bag, and a stop for sodas on the way to Illinois Beach State Park didn’t intimidate so much as bemuse me. 

Something like a decade later, as the last of the summer began to move on, I found myself with the same feels. I planned a brief bike trip on a route I’d done before in Wisconsin, around 40 miles a day with two nights of camping and options to stay longer. I was about to take my trusty Trek basket bike with a couple pairs of jorts and instant coffee when a friend’s generosity brought a temporary option into my life: a cargo bike.  

The Omnium Cargo V3 is the most recent cargo release from Danish cargo bike company Omnium Cargo. My personal Omnium showed up in shiny Diablo Red on the sidewalk outside my apartment. Soon I was unloading the bike from a truck in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Camp and (car)go slow

The first time I did a version of this trip, my inaugural multiday bike tour, I had no idea I’d be riding the United States Bicycle Route (USBR) 30 in Wisconsin, which will take you from Lake Michigan all the way to the Mississippi if you’d like. My version this time was to go eastward along the Great River Road to a midpoint on the Elroy-Sparta Trail in Wilton, Wisconsin.  

A loaded cargo bike sits on a dirt rail trail overlooking trees and farmland for many miles.
The USBR 30 follows a well-developed rail trail across Wisconsin.
Carmen Aiken

If you’re a Midwesterner, bike travel is an amazing opportunity to enjoy the incredible variety of landscapes our states have. While others may turn their noses up at the idea of riding through flyover country, I haven’t found nearly as many places where you can begin a trip with multimodal transportation. In Illinois, it’s possible to take Amtrak from Chicago to Winona, Minnesota, where the Great River Road is, or the town of Red Wing if you’d like a longer trip, or heck, Minneapolis. Regional rail in Illinois has multiple connections to rail trails where you can enjoy cute B&Bs or the glory of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  

The Great River Road, WI-35, runs along the Mississippi with beautiful towns, bluffs, and shoreline. Eagles are easily spotted, as well as herons and other raptors. The traffic isn’t too bad, but it is the shoulder of a highway, and traffic can get heavy during the summer. I rode it midweek, just after Labor Day en route to the La Crosse River trailhead where the Bike4Trails portion of USBR 30 begins.  

I’ve never owned a cargo bike, although I’ve used them for former jobs, and I’ve never really been a big fan of longtail bikes — just not as fun for a shorter-bodied person who really loves commuting around town. Not to mention, for work, I once hauled e-assist longtails in and out of warehouses, and they’re heavy, clunky, and expensive. They didn’t really make sense for me, and touring on one seemed out of the question. 

The Omnium was a whole different ride — easy and fun. With an extender bar and webbing, the front rack is an enormous platform for whatever you might need on your trip. Yes, I haphazardly packed, but that’s the beauty of a Bike Overnight for me! I want as few barriers to adventure as possible. As I’d be camping at our gravel event later that week, I placed my sleeping bag, tent, and lock on the bottom. I grabbed a small backpack and tossed in a multitool, patch kit, and handpump, along with my medication, Dr. Bronner’s soap, toothbrush, comb, and three-too-many books. I bungee corded a couple pairs of shorts, skivvies, socks, and a bra, and threaded my sneakers to that. Finally, I grabbed my handy grocery bungee net and tucked it all in.  

I picked up some fresh farm raspberries and planted them in the net, snacking as I cruised by farmland, trains, and I-90. The bike smoothly crunched on its 2.15-inch tires along the rail trail, and I happily rang my bell. People called out, “Quite a load there!” and “Cool bike!” 

Carmen takes a selfie of them and their cargo bike on the wide, dirt rail trail.
Cool bike selfie time.
Carmen Aiken

In West Salem, I stopped to take pictures of signs reading WELCOME TRAIL BIKERS and considered the beautiful existence of a rail trail with towns for cyclists. I’d already passed two campgrounds, and each town had signage indicating where I could use a washroom. In the late afternoon I arrived in Sparta, where I chewed on a beef and cheddar stick and refilled my water bottles. I could feel the sun on my shoulders and the dust on my tank top, noted where my sandals were creating tan lines.  

You’d think all that sun would make me grateful to encounter the tunnels on the Elroy-Sparta Trail. The Elroy-Sparta Trail, also part of USBR 30, is considered the first rail trail in the U.S. It deviates from the interstate after it crosses I-90, and the alternating forest and prairie are magnificent. The tunnels themselves are imposing and not for the faint of heart. It’s not possible to ride through the tunnel (although I’m sure people have tried) as the ground is wet and there is no light. Walking the Omnium through the tunnel was no harder than the loaded touring bike I took on this same route six years ago. If anything, it was a more stable experience thanks to wider tires and straight handlebars. 

After I exited the second tunnel, I could see dusk coming on and Wilton in the distance. I have a soft spot for this small town in Wisconsin. On that first tour, I spent an evening in the municipal campground, happily full of cheese curds and Spotted Cow beer. In the morning, I was invited to the Lions Club pancake breakfast.  

This time, though, it was Labor Day and no Tuesday pancakes. I bounced into the campground and rolled through the grass to a spot by the playground, chuckling at the only other bike camper there who seemed to be … efficient. I kicked out the kickstand, set up my tent, threw my sleeping bag inside, then grabbed my backpack and rolled back out for pizza and beer at the Hitchin’ Post. In the morning, I slept in and did the reverse, sitting on the front webbing as I brushed my teeth and thought about coffee.  

I went back the way I came the next day, wondering if I’d be bored. But I wasn’t. I was riding my bike and thinking about what lunch might be and autumn and if I’d ever write about this. I swapped my sandals for sneakers and shoved a pork chop gas station sandwich where the raspberries had lived, eating cold pizza as I took pictures of my favorite sign in Wilton.  

A bike leans against a brick wall painted with a Gold Medal flour advertisement.
Why not now?
Carmen Aiken

Now maybe someone sees my bike, loaded as it is, and tut-tuts. Maybe it’s not neat or tidy enough, or it needs to be in bags, or whatever preference someone may have. But I’m someone who rides with a jacket wrapped around my waist, in high-top shoes, in jean shorts, with the same sleeping bag I bought on clearance at REI, and I like riding like that. Being able to do something like this so casually is born of experience and confidence. The truth is that it’s more expensive, harder, and scarier to begin, to go on that first bike overnight. That’s why having groups to help you — with accessible and kind information, with gear to loan that isn’t a million dollars — is REALLY important.  

But honestly, this cargo bike was SO much easier to load and go than the cute little touring bike I had a long time ago. It fits with my style: no spending tons of time shoving the exact right item into the exact right tiny, expensive bag.  

Plus, the Omnium XS frame ACTUALLY fits me, and I never felt overextended. I don’t really like riding front-loaded because I find it hard to climb and sketchy to descend. Not so with this bike — it’s smooth. Because of where I sat over the larger, wide back wheel, I was even able to take on a very, very small segment of singletrack on the evening I crossed into Minnesota to watch the trains and rivers from the hiker-biker site. Honestly, when I got back to Chicago and jumped back on my basket bike, I almost felt ALARMED at how twitchy it felt.  

I can’t speak to other cargo bike touring, but as I think about what bikes I see in my future, having an Omnium would be a perfect way to bike travel, especially for bike overnights or bike travel weekends with groups. I already know I can fit a cord of firewood on it, and I’d love to carry camp cooking tools for friends. If you’ve been thinking about adding a multitool-type bike to your quiver, well, step aside “all terrain” or “gravel,” I’d highly recommend a cargo bike like the Omnium V3.  

Route Details 

USBR 30: from Bluff Siding, Wisconsin, Winona, Minnesota, to Wilton, WI. Another option is to start and end at the Elroy-Sparta Trail Terminus. Wisconsin Bike Fed has excellent county-by-county maps of the best riding in the area as well.  

Places to stay: Perrot State Park, Trempealeau Hotel (reservations needed seasonally), Sparta DNR Campground, Norwalk Village Park Campground, Veterans Memorial Campground, Wilton Community Campground are all near the route. There are also lots of B&Bs and small hotels or Airbnbs along the Great River Road.  

Mileage: I rode Trempealeau to Wilton, which is about 56 miles, but breaking the route into shorter chunks is easily possible, especially if you want to take more time and photos (which you should!). 

How to get there: Although you can’t take a cargo bike on Amtrak (yet), you can take a standard bike on the Empire Builder in Saint Paul or Chicago and get to USBR 30 via Winona, Red Wing, or Tomah. If you’re taking a longer Midwest journey across Wisconsin, Milwaukee is also a great hub for multimodal travel.  

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