It’s warming up again (finally!) and that means one thing: Camping Season. I’m here to bring you the scoop on camping in the Chicago region. Some of you may remember Kaz’s post about this subject, and I highly recommend also checking that out. Last season, Tiny Fixers Anna and Lisa (me!), and a bunch of friends decided to go camping at Blackwell Forest Preserve. I found this campsite through the rad Chicago Bike Guide, which you should totally check out if you haven’t yet. This post will take you through the planning process, the ride, and the subsequent camping experience. If you’re thinking about going bike camping or are trying to convince people to try it for the first time, I hope this will be helpful!
The Very Beginning
I started my camping adventure with a poll. I tweeted, facebooked, and emailed all of my friends and asked them to fill out my camping survey:
After gathering responses, I emailed all my friends with a couple of proposed dates. I strongly suggest setting dates at least 2 weeks out from when you would like to go camping, because campsites fill up quickly in the summertime so being able to reserve further in advance increases your chances of getting a site. Look for future posts reviewing places I have personally camped at.
When you’ve picked a time & place, confirm with your attendees who committed to going. A lot of campgrounds have a hard 2 tent per site rule, but say that up to 8 people can be on a site (which is fine if you’re car camping, but most people bike camp with 1-3 person tents). Make sure that you’ve reserved enough spaces for the number of tents you’ll need rather than just the number of people!
You’ve got your site(s) reserved and you know who is going, what’s next?
The Actual Planning
Spreadsheets! Who has what? Who is bringing what? Check out this example.
Route planning: Google is frequently dumb about this, I’d use street view and OpenStreets data to determine the actual best route.
How much riding do you and your companions usually do? How fast? SLOW IT DOWN, you’re hauling gear. You might want to consider training for the ride depending on how much riding you typically do and how far you are used to going. Before I go on a trip, I like to make sure that I have ridden at least 5-10 miles further than my one-way distance before without being completely exhausted. It’s worth noting that as your distances get longer, it also becomes less likely that you’ll be able to do this. In this case, my advice is: if you can ride more than 60 miles in a day without feeling like complete shit afterwards, you’re probably experienced enough to know what your personal limits are.
When I am on a camping trip, I typically ride 5 mph slower than my typical commuting speed and my range is reduced by around 7 miles.
Packing: bungees OMG bungees. I seriously contemplated whether or not I needed to say more. Go buy a pack. Make good use of them. There is no such thing as “too secure”, but I would recommend making sure your flat fix necessities are pretty accessible because chances are high that someone will need them. On top of just securing everything, you should also try to balance the weight you are carrying evenly between both sides. This will make your ride significantly more comfortable. If you’re not sure if you did a good enough job, take it out for a few blocks and see how it feels before you leave.
Make sure you have some basic repair tools (tire levers, pump, patch kit/spare tube, lube is not a bad idea, hex tool set) in addition to your camp gear and clothes.
Stop for water, don’t be a hero. On average stopping every 10-15 miles is a good idea. You can also plan on stopping briefly every hour. Make sure you drink water, refill your water, and eat something. Are your friends (or you) acting weird? They should probably eat something.
There is a lot of information out there about what sort of snacks are best for this kind of activity. Feel free to read up on it and follow expert advice, but at the end of the day you should continue to do what feels best for you. My typical packed snack foods are: Sunflower or Pumpkin Seeds, Dried Figs, Beef Jerky, Cheese. A lot of people like to bring granolas or some variety of shot bloks.
Few things are more satisfying than stopping for frozen treats on the way back. I make it a point to check my route for the nearest Dairy Queen or Culver’s. Not only are you bike camping all stars, you’re definitely #DairyQueens
On Camping Itself
Tents: Tents are win/loss game of spaciousness, durability, affordability, size, and weight. I would personally never ride with a tent that weighs more than 7.5 lbs. It may be tempting to leave your rain fly to reduce weight, but I’d not recommend it as weather can change quickly, and camping is way less fun when you and all of your gear are completely soaked. I’d also recommend keeping your gear either inside of your tent or under a vestibule of your rain fly. Sometimes even heavy dew can put a damper on your fun.
Groceries!!! Bike camping is your chance to eat WHATEVER you want to and feel completely justified in doing so. While you can certainly ride out with groceries, I wouldn’t. Most of the time you’re not going somewhere so remote that there isn’t a grocery store within 5 miles. I prefer to save weight and just make a trip after unloading my gear on site. While most campsites have grates you can cook on, you may wish to ask when booking, and consider tin foil and roasting forks to make your life easier. One of the best things about camping is campfire cooking. You can certainly make this as classy or trashy as you like. While I’m a big fan of meats on sticks (Cheddar Brats Wrapped In Cheese Slices, for extra extravagance, wrap bacon around the brat with toothpicks), you may also want to explore more refined options like Campfire Pizza. While it’s probably prudent to go to the grocery store with a plan, not doing that and buying whatever my distance cycling crazed hunger demands has always worked out pretty well. I do highly recommend purchasing some extra large marshmallows. . . the way they puff up when thrown into the fire is simply a thing of beauty. #MarshmallowHellfire Depending on where you are camping, some sites let you have alcohol. This can certainly make your stay more enjoyable, but make sure to hydrate extra well or you may find yourself with a surprise hangover (it was only 1/2 a box of wine!).
Breakfast!!!!!! Wouldn’t you? Sometimes going into town and eating at a random diner can be just what you need. You can dazzle people with your bike camping prowess. This also gives you time to let your tent dry out in the sun; however, cheddar brats in cheese slices are an anytime food, and not having to carry out leftovers is wonderful. Never leave without eating first. You WILL regret it.
Ways I’ve Been Burned
- I am not convinced that there is ever too much mosquito repellent. Living in the city can kind of make you forget how much of a problem this really is, but the second you get on an unpaved trail or near any body of water, you’ll be reminded.
- You brought your flat fix kit, right? I will not leave town with you unless you have at least 1 spare tube or a flat fix kit. This is a no-brainer. With the extra weight and the more rugged terrain, your chances of getting a flat are higher. BE PREPARED.
- Torrential Downpours, or The Importance of Waterproofing: I once got a weird swamp rash on my thigh for a week and a half because it started raining so badly, and so suddenly, that I had to pull off the road mid-ride and find shelter under a Morman church. I now own rain shorts. Rain jackets, goggles, and waterproof panniers (at a minimum for your sleeping bag) are highly recommended.
- Check your gear before you leave! On top of flat tires, I have also had to adjust brakes that were rubbing mid-ride, had a companion have to bail because there was a tear in the sidewall of her tire, and had someone else’s brake cable pull out of the lever mid-ride. These things are much more troubling when there isn’t always a bike shop within 3 miles of you. No one wants to take the Metra home. Take a good look at your stuff before you head out.
- Your rack: make sure it’s got rigid sides or your panniers might smack your wheel constantly leading to all kinds of problems. Fixing this with a bungee cord may work temporarily, but it’s also a great way to rub all the way through a bungee cord. Also, I highly recommend not exceeding the weight limits for your rack, the last thing you need is for it to fail mid-trip. And YES you should use a rack. While you CAN put all of your gear in a backpack, you definitely shouldn’t, as you’re going to find yourself being way more tired than you would if you had shifted that weight to your bike.