Photo: Tom Robertson

Packing Your Bike and Finding a Campsite

Jul 16, 2020

If the idea of pedaling into the woods with everything you need packed on your bike sounds appealing, you’re not alone. We’re seeing a resurgence in interest in self-supported bicycle travel, including bikepacking and bike overnights. Consider this a quick introduction to packing your bike and finding a campsite near you!

Bicycle Travel 101

First, a quick overview of the terms: We refer to any type of multi-day bicycle trip as “bicycle travel.” Bike travel on mostly paved surfaces with panniers is “bicycle touring.” Bicycle travel on mostly dirt surfaces, typically into more remote areas on mountain biking trails, is “bikepacking.” Bikepacking gear traditionally doesn't include panniers and instead uses bike bags that are tightly attached to the bike so they don't flop around.

You’ll often see these terms used interchangeably, and some folks refer to any type of bicycle travel “bikepacking.” It is useful to know the differences when you’re shopping for gear or trying to find the right advice for your trip. Here, we'll talk mostly about using your bike to travel to an outdoor campsite.

One of our most popular live videos this year featured two Adventure Cycling Ambassadors sharing how they pack their bikes for trips. It’s worth watching the video for a detailed look at two cyclists’ methods for packing everything their entire “house” on their bikes. Further down, we'll explain more about some of the questions that came in during the video. 

Note that Joyce packed her bike like she was going to ride the Baja Divide, a bikepacking route in Mexico, while Sid packed for a bike touring route on paved roads. Also, Joyce packed her bike with panniers, which is different than how many people pack for bikepacking trips.

Covid Camping

First, all of our guidelines come with a caveat that with the rapidly changing Covid-19 situation, nothing is guaranteed, including whether campsites will be open. Find our latest guidelines here. At this time, we're advising cyclists not to travel, and to focus on local rides you can find close to home. This is a great time to discover the outdoor recreation opportunities that might be right in your backyard.

We don’t have the resources to release Covid-specific maps for our 50,000-mile network. If you do decide to use our maps to go on a trip, make sure you've viewed the map updates and corrections addenda for the map sections you'd be using. Find them on our site here.

At this time, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route has the most updated information on Covid closures of all our routes. Thanks to the organizations and communities that have reached out to us and let us know! (We accept updates and corrections to our maps here.)

If you’re unsure about whether a campsite or park is open, it’s best to call the authority that oversees that area before you head out. This website from the CDC has links to each state’s guidelines.

Choosing a Campsite

We’ve received many queries from folks who’d like to know more about the ins-and-outs of camping, including the most basic question: How do I pick out a campsite? First, check the Adventure Cycling Route Network to see if one of our routes near you would suit your journey. Our maps list cyclist-specific places to stay, including hotels, resorts, hostels, and campgrounds (find some examples here.) 

You can also get great ideas from the Bike Travel Weekend and Bike Your Park Day section of our site, which is full of ideas for short local trips and resources for places to stay

Aside from that, many sites can help you find a good campsite near you. Use Recreation.gov to find public land across the United States, and even reserve campsites and cabins ahead of time (note that many popular destinations are often booked months in advance, so keep hunting if your first pick is taken.) National Forest websites also contain useful information and are a good way to find smaller sites along a specific route; start by finding the national forest where you’re planning to bike. Bureau of Land Management areas, state parks and national parks all have good information as well. Check to make sure bicycles are allowed to access the specific trails you're interested in.

Prepare

Packing for self-supported travel can seem overwhelming. It helps to break it down into the three most important categories: food, water and shelter. Bring more water than you think you need, and have a plan for obtaining more if you run out, such as a portable water filter. Pack some nonperishable, ready-to-eat food in case you’re too tired or don’t want to make dinner at the campsite. Expect nighttime temperatures to get chilly, even in summer, when packing warm clothes and a sleeping bag.

In addition, don’t forget your “garage”: basic repair materials in case of a flat tire, and the know-how to change one.

And of course, always make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you expect to be back, even if you think you’ll be in cell service the whole time. 

Not sure what gear you'll need for your bike? Our Cyclosource site has a bikepacking-specific section  that might give you an idea of useful items to pack. Free shipping is included with Adventure Cycling membership.

Call of Nature

Some campsites offer developed restrooms with flush toilets, although in many campgrounds you’re more likely to encounter vault toilets (the kind that don’t have running water or sinks for hand-washing). Either way, prepare for the possibility that you might need to answer the call of nature while out on a ride and realize there’s no facilities nearby. This is where a trowel, toilet paper, baby wipes and hand sanitizer are quite useful! (Don’t litter: stash the trash in a double-bagged Ziploc and dispose of it in a garbage can later.) 

Backup Plans

Sometimes, things go awry and you can’t make it to the campsite you wanted for the evening. There are a few backup plans to keep in mind. Visit WarmShowers.org, which is a network of hosts willing to help out bicycle tourists, to see if anyone along your route might be willing to let you pitch a tent in their yard. It's best to make connections via Warm Showers a few weeks ahead of time to give people time to respond.

Our safety advocates also work with state parks to make sure hikers and bikers won't be turned away from a full campground. Check here to see if your state park  system has a No-Turn-Away policy.

If you’re cycling through public lands, you may want to be prepared to stay at an undeveloped campsite for the evening. If you’re going through privately owned land, you may want to ask around and see if a farmer or landowner would allow you to pitch your tent on their property. Our Trail Angel project certainly demonstrates how often people are excited to help out a cyclist in need.

Practice

If you’re not sure if you can make it out there on your own, stock up on gear and go “camping” in your own backyard, living room or patio. See if you can comfortably set up your tent and make dinner just using your camping items - pretty quickly you might realize something you forgot, like a potholder or a spatula.

Want to learn more?

Our in-depth Guide to Bikepacking will be released soon, so watch our site for that to come! You can also email membership@adventurecycling.org if you have a specific question we haven't addressed here, and we'll try to help you find the answer. 

-Membership Coordinator Kate Whittle

Thanks to Adventure Cycling Outreach Coordinator Eva Dunn-Froebig, who organized the How to Pack Your Bike event and contributed to this piece!