Standing at the top of yet another hill in Cottage Grove, I felt the heat of the asphalt radiating up through my heavy hiking boots. I surveyed what lay ahead. The descent below was a race to a stoplight that guaranteed we’d be starting up the next monster hill with zero momentum and fully loaded panniers. Pushing away the most disconcerting question of all — how many more hills until we get to Afton? — we did the only thing we could: Continued on our way.
The second annual “Kids Camping Trip” was a first try at bike camping for my brother, sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law. We didn’t have to make the two-night outing an exercise in endurance. There are seven state parks within 50 miles of the Twin Cities and not all of them through hilly terrain. But if we hadn’t fought up to the rim of the St. Croix River Valley, we wouldn’t have been treated to 360 degrees of fireworks July 4th.
Camping is a chance to wring the most out of a short and glorious season, making camping by bike ideal. But is it practical?
Bike tourists David Byrne and Julie Retka, of St. Paul, are experts in packing light. The pair, now in their late 50s, spent two and a half years biking around the world — “500 day trips” is the way Byrne described their journey. Recently, the two opened up their panniers during a presentation to the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club. The first thing Byrne pulled out was a collapsible wine glass, his birthday present.
Certainly, bike camping forces you to pare down to the essentials, but it doesn’t mean depriving yourself either. If you desire a different take on camping, here are some ideas for making a weekend bike camping adventure as simple and pleasurable as possible, combining my lessons learned with their experience.
about the Bike
Essential: A bike with gears and a rack. If you don’t have panniers and don’t want to spend the money, Byrne has a solution: bike buckets. These DIY panniers also can function as wash bucket, stool and cooler. All you need are two buckets with lids — he recommends Menards’ brand — and some basic tools. Check out his blog called Crazy Guy on a Bike for the full directions (tinyurl.com/oce8bk8). To keep your bike going, lube, a patch kit, tire levers and extra tubes are musts. We went through three tubes on our return ride.
Extra credit: We borrowed a trailer, and it was useful because we had a five-person tent and zero lightweight sleeping bags or mats. Nevertheless, you could do without. Keep in mind Byrne’s words of wisdom, “There’s some kind of a Murphy’s Law that however much space you have, you’ll fill it.”
about the Food
Essential: Cook ahead and freeze so you don’t have to fuss with the extras that add flavor to food but are heavy and fussy to pack (see olive oil and mustard). Your dinner will double as ice coolant, and defrosting is easy over a campfire. We used a soft-sided lunchbox as our cooler, a trick also recommended by Byrne and Retka. For lunch, we made a giant sandwich out of a baguette before leaving home. The crusty bread held up well for 24 hours. For dinner, we had chorizo and beans folded into burritos the first night, and chili the second night. With both meals, we had easy-to-transport tortillas, which taste great toasted. For breakfast, we had instant oatmeal, nuts and dried fruit. We ground coffee beans ahead, brought some filters and the plastic basket from the inside of a coffee maker. Who says you have to pay $5 for a pour-over cup of coffee? Other gear included a pot, knife, Thermos, water bladder, kitchen towel (doubles as a potholder), dish soap and matches. Each person had a set of plastic silverware, a metal bowl (doubles as a mug) and a plastic water bottle. Rope is handy, too, for hanging food away from the tent, where you risk attracting unwanted visits from wildlife.
Extra credit: If you are thinking about any canned beverages (remember alcohol rules at state parks and forests), leave a little space and make a last-minute stop. As Byrne pointed out, a person has easy access to stores when biking.
about the Clothes
Essentials: If Byrne and Retka can make it two years with one outfit to bike in and one to lounge in, the rest of us can probably go minimalist for a weekend. Their philosophy: It’s better to wash than carry a load of dirty clothes. “Wool provides warmth while wet,” Byrne said. They are proponents of long sleeves, hats and other protective practices against sun.
Extra credit: Riding a bike in hiking boots is doable and certainly preferable to carrying boots in your panniers, but if you are doing a quick trip, consider running shoes. Byrne and Retka have hiking/biking shoes that are lightweight and a pair of sandals for lounging by the fire.
Byrne said he never leaves home without a smile — and indeed, a good attitude is essential in that moment when you are forced to push your bike up that last long hill of the day because it’s too steep to ride. You can call these moments disastrous, or you can eat some chocolate and remember you are on an adventure.
Good company makes the latter approach easier.
Annie Van Cleve is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.