How To Try Bike Camping

In the past few years, more folks have been combining riding their bikes with their love for the backcountry and sleeping under the stars by trying bike camping. Why not? Moving at 16 miles per hour is much more fun than walking, but it’s not so fast that you can’t appreciate the world around you. Then at the end of the day, with a tired body and full soul, you can climb into your sleeping bag for a night in the great outdoors.

Something magic happens the minute you throw a leg over the top tube: The nostalgia of freedom and exploration from your childhood. The desire to sweat your butt off before flying down a large hill, the thrill of balancing between elation and destruction as your gears whir furiously. If someone could bottle whatever the feeling of pedaling a bicycle, they’d make a fortune.

Bike camping isn’t as simple as just jumping on your bike, though. I mean, it kind of is, but you’ll save yourself a lot of saddle sores and headaches by reading through these five tips to know before you go bike camping.

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Learn to turn a wrench

Tools and the smell of oil can be intimidating. Lucky for us, a bicycle is a bit simpler than those internal-combustion engines that usually take us to the trailhead. Learn to change a tire, tighten up your brakes and adjust a derailleur before heading out the door. Like anything in the outdoors, self-reliance is worth its weight in gold. Invest in some tools and take a maintenance class from your local bike shop. No classes offered? I’ve found bike mechanics to be pretty good-natured people who are often pretty willing to help people who are psyched on bikes. You can also find more than a few resources online (Park Tool’s YouTube channel is a gold mine). You can even learn how to change a flat from Lance Armstrong.

Pay attention to fit

While there’s no Lance Armstrong “how-to” video on this, your bike fit is crucial if you plan on spending more than a half hour in the saddle. A good bike fit will keep you comfortable, engage multiple muscle groups and prevent injuries. If you’re already in a shop for a tune-up or to pick up some form-fitting bike shorts (which I highly recommend), a few friendly questions and small tweaks could make a big difference.

If you’re thinking about riding your bike consistently, it’s worth considering paying for a bike fitting. Most bike shops offer a professional fit where they’ll watch you ride your bike and use a variety of tools to help you and your bike move as one. Make sure you write down key measurements in case you end up traveling with your bike or buying an entirely new whip. If you can’t get with a pro, find a friend to help hold your bike upright while you look at your three contact points: your feet on the pedals, your butt on the saddle and your hands on the bars.

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—Pedals: With your foot at the bottom of the pedal stroke, make sure your leg is mostly straight without becoming locked out. Your heel should be slightly raised. Adjust your seat post until your leg is in this athletic position.

—Saddle: With your feet on both pedals and your hands on the bars, feel where your sit bones are making contact with your saddle. Make sure they're comfortably positioned on the wider section of the saddle. If you’re too far back or too close, slide the rails of the saddle to an appropriate position and ensure that your seat stays level before bolting it down.

—Bars: Now that your saddle and seatpost are in the right place, look at where your hands are hitting the bars. Are you overextended? Are your arms and core in an athletic position? Can you easily manipulate your brakes and shifters? Is it easy to look out in front of you? There are myriad ways to fix any or all of these issues—from stem angle and length to bar adjustments. If you can’t figure out a good solution, take it to your local bike shop.

Take a load off your back

Backpacking is aptly named, but walking with weight on your back is very different from riding with weight on your back. A cumbersome pack can affect your balance, breathing and, sometimes, your ability to turn your head or look up while you're on the saddle. A small daypack is fine to wear, but putting most of your gear on your bike instead will give you a much more enjoyable adventure. There are thousands of bags and racks out there, so pick the one that suits your bike, camping gear, and personal taste the best.

Just like packing for a backpacking trip, where you put what gear is crucial. Focus your heavier gear—stove, food, tools—toward the front of your bike while keeping your lighter gear in rear bags. This will maximize your bike handling. Once you’ve chosen how you’ll carry your gear, make sure you take a spin around the block. You’ll want to be familiar with a laden-down bike before you head out.

*Total transparency: On my first bike camping trip, I carried a loaded-down pack right between my shoulder blades. I had a stupid amount of fun, but was also unnecessarily miserable.

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Layer up

Like in any backcountry adventure, when bike camping, the line between sufferfest and suffer-less can come down to the clothes on your back. Since your space is limited, picking versatile pieces can help make sure you stay comfy without getting weighed down. As when backpacking, you’ll want to pick layers for high-output, low-output and camp clothes. A piece of active insulation (like OR’s Ascendant Hoody) is great for pedaling through the flats and staying warm at camp. Always bring a rain jacket for big, windy descents and as a “just-in-case” if conditions turn soggy. It’s also important to think about ways to protect your hands and face.

The shortest way isn’t always the best way

Now that you’re geared up and ready to go, you have to pick where to go and how to get there. You could just insert point A and B into Google maps, but I recommend digging a little deeper. Is that a greenway a little further north? Is that closed gravel road open for cyclists? Can we avoid that big hill by taking a three-mile detour? Isn’t that delicious pizza a few miles down the road? Whatever you do, make your ride an adventure. It’s what bike camping is all about.

Bonus Tip: Bring your hiking boots/climbing rope/fly rod

Once you get a few bike camping trips under your belt—or if you just feel like charging it—bring more gear along. Catch some fish by the river, tag a peak or climb a few pitches at your local crag. Your bike will take you anywhere you’re willing to pedal.