How to Set Up a Tent in the Rain and Other Skills from a Rainy Intro to Road Touring Course

June 29, 2016

Heather, Cara, and Ed on the ferry.

Cara Thompson and Nathan Dorfman, both winners of the Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship, recently returned from Williamsburg, VA where they attended Adventure Cycling’s Intro to Road Touring course and learned the basics of bike travel, including the added element of rain — a lot of rain. (Thankfully, Cara’s Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship application mentioned that her friends call her “The Biking Viking” because she bike commutes throughout the Pacific Northwest’s rainy winter months.)

We caught up with both Cara and Nathan to get the details.

Here's Cara:

Thinking back to when I packed my bags for the Intro to Road Touring course, my first self-contained road-touring trip, it probably would have been more appropriate to have shoved sails and oars into my panniers than spare tires and patch kits. As our touring group’s self-proclaimed “weather bug” put it dryly, “We’ve got three systems coming our way.”

In other words, our group spent more time rowing through rivers of torrential rain around Williamsburg, VA than repairing tubes, unless you were Dave, who I often found doing both. Although we were never short of ominous weather updates or soaking wet tents, our group of beginners was intrepid, upbeat, diverse, and restless. I will wholeheartedly agree that a few days in this cycling squall taught me to ride wisely, stake my tent tightly, put everything in a ziplock bag, pack quickly, and double check my maps and bike, before leaving camp.

Along with storm preparedness, I learned a bunch of bike-touring tips and tools, including how to avoid canine attacks! Plus, I learned how to cook lipsmacking-buttpacking food from a Dollar General Store and when to just order pizza, how to check my bike in the morning before riding, how to communicate a route change via the peel-off method, and what to do when you spot a pie shop on the side of the road: STOP!

Leaders Barb and Arlen, the Yin and Yang of Adventure Cycling leaders, taught me the full particulars of a successful bike-touring trip. They even drowned us in the knitty-gritty stuff like how to handle dietary restrictions, how to bring out the best in fellow group members, and how often to wash your bike shorts. This important bike wisdom is helping me to plan my community outreach project this summer as part of the Adventure Cycling's Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship. Thank you Barb (Diehard Folgers Queen) and Arlen (Pie Man)!

Also a big thanks to my fellow bike-touring beginners, some self-described as “restless retirees,” others as “gearheads,” who brought life to our campsite evenings and clued me in to everything there is to know about road-touring gear.

I will never forget one night in particular at the Chippokes Plantation campground, when several sleepless members of our group coaxed the younger folks out of their tents to “start some mischief.” We ended up playing volleyball in the dark with headlamps, a blow-up beach ball, and a log as our net. Some other highlights from the trip were a group map meeting in the women’s bathroom at Newport News Park, Tom singing “Raindrops keep falling on my Mazama” during breakfast, and strawberry picking near Surrey with Heather and Ed. Clearly the most awesome part about bike touring is the people you meet.

 Bathroom map meeting.

For the sake of scientific survey, I interviewed some of the other members of the group for two words that best described the trip; results were:

“Flat Tires” ~ Dave

“Self-washing Underwear” ~ Barb

“Lipsmacking Buttpacking” ~ Rita

“Fun and Rain” ~ Group

“Agony and Irony” ~ Nan

“Constant Learning” ~ Nate

I will agree with Nate that being around these good biking folks was a constant learning process, especially when bundled together under a makeshift tarp tent or huddled into a camp restroom looking like wet rats. I now have a few bucket lists full of gear to look for and trips to take, as well as some new ideas for touring. Some considerations include a Bike Opera, in motion, bikes that transform into instruments, and a gourmet pizza bike tour.

Now I have more confidence and motivation to mess around with my old bike in a dry garage while I think about the logistics of a biking adventure on the Olympic Discovery Trail, including where to stop for pie!

Stopping for fresh strawberries at a u-pick farm near Surrey.

Nathan Dorfman had previously cycled across the U.S. with Bike and Build, but camping was completely new. By the end of the course, he was a pro at the fine art of setting up a tent in the rain.

Here's Nate:

Nate Dorfman

All of the riders in our group were laid-back, helpful, and great to be around. Even though this was an introductory class, the riders had a thorough knowledge of cycling as well as camping. Everyone in our group helped make the Intro to Road Touring course a memorable experience. Some of my favorite moments included cycling along the scenic Colonial Parkway with Tom and Dave, exploring the historic Jamestown settlement with Rita, and riding with Julie through the College of William & Mary campus.

Our group knew how to have fun and embrace spontaneity. For example, one night we were in Chippokes Plantation State Park, and we started an impromptu volleyball game at our campsite. Even though I was ready to go to sleep early, I realized firsthand that in making the most of bike touring and the camaraderie that goes with it, it is important to be flexible, creative, and most of all, fully present in the moment.

My fellow riders helped me learn a variety of cycling and camping-related skills. For example, I learned how to efficiently pack clothes and gear in panniers, and load the panniers on the bike. In the past, I was familiar with riding road bikes, but this trip helped me get used to carrying much more weight while cycling. I also learned how to pitch and pack a tent.

As importantly, given that it rained each day of the trip, I learned how to ride a bike in unfavorable weather conditions. Bike travel on a pleasant day would seem even easier! I'm especially grateful for our tour leaders, Barb and Arlen, who taught me.

Through firsthand experience while riding, I realized that trusting one another is an essential component of cycling overnight with fellow riders. Group road travel involves more than looking out for oneself: it involves looking out for one another. So many decisions on bike tours involve team collaboration, for example, how far to ride, where to stay overnight, what food to buy, and what meals to prepare. Because of this, in order for a group bike tour to be successful, functioning as a team is key.

Having not camped at all before this trip, I gained awareness that I can learn new skills, even in areas completely unfamiliar to me, within a short amount of time. This knowledge provides me with strength as I try new things and face new situations, whether I am cycling on the road, completing my community project with the Tulsa Hub nonprofit, or even working at my job in Tulsa’s City Hall.

I also gained outdoor leadership skills while identifying a safe, alternate route for our group to take on the final day of the class when the original route was not rideable due to the rainy weather. Whether coordinating cycling lessons for children in Tulsa, or on a long-distance adventure with peers, I realize that confident leadership and knowledgeable navigation are essential components that make a group bike ride successful. Taking the initiative to hone these skills enhanced my personal experience on the Intro to Road Touring course.

I was surprised by how time intensive setting up campsites, finding food, and organizing trip logistics can be. But I believe that the joys of bicycle travel make the work associated with it more than worthwhile.

My favorite part of the trip was stopping in towns where we would break for a meal or snack and, naturally, talk with local residents. I loved hearing their stories, and it was awesome meeting other Adventure Cycling Association members, who were not in our class, but on adventures of their own, and excited to hear what we were doing.

For example, at a coffee shop along the Yorktown riverfront, we met a couple from the Netherlands who were just beginning to cycle the TransAmerica Trail across the United States. Talking with them inspired me to want to ride across the TransAmerica Trail as well at some point in my near future. As importantly, our conversation made me realize that even though it was the final day of our tour, it was only the beginning of my bicycle touring journeys.

Overall, the trip was a fantastic growth experience unlike any other, and I am inspired to embark on other bike tours, hopefully with Adventure Cycling Association, in the near future.

We'd like to thank all our donors who supported the Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship and made it possible for Cara and Nate to attend the course. Keep your eye out for updates from our Outdoor Leadership winners, Luke Kantola and Rachel Irving.

If you'd like to support our future leaders of bike travel, donate to the Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship program.

Photos 1,2,3 courtsey of Cara Thompson | Photo 4 courtsey of Nate Dorfman


The Thomas Stevens Fan Club is brought to you by the development team, Annette, April, and Michelle. They share an office with a classic Parisian Metropole bicycle. Want to know more about how you can support Adventure Cycling and all the amazing work they do? Call them at 406-532-2760 or email them at


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