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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mr. Slo, What Exactly Is Bicycle Camping?

Interesting question hahaha.  Well, to me bicycle camping is as simple as riding your bicycle somewhere outdoors and hanging out and spending at least one night.  If you don’t spend the night then there’d be no way to distinguish what you’re doing from a picnic… or a rest break… or some creepy thing you do while hiding behind bushes hahaha.

So you’re saying that for it to technically be bicycle camping, it’s necessary to stay overnight?

I’m going to agree with that.  In fact, the word “camping” implies bringing some sort of shelter and probably a sleeping bag.  If you spend the night in a cabin… do we really think of that as “camping?”  I don’t.  To me, camping implies mobility plus temporary shelter; like a tent, or a bivy sack, or a hammock, or at least a tarp to protect you from the elements.

Interesting.  So if you rode somewhere and simply lay down on the ground and spent the night unsheltered… you wouldn’t consider that “camping?”

I wouldn’t.  I mean, have you ever tried laying on the naked ground and sleeping outdoors?  That is, without being drunk?  Well, I tried it as a very young guy when I was out of work and temporarily out of someplace to stay…. this was some 40 years ago… I tried sleeping in the canyon and I was miserable the whole night.  Happened a few times, actually.

I wasn’t camping… I was just down on my luck.

So I’m going to say that camping involves mobility plus shelter.  You can camp in a car.  You can camp by spreading a tarp next to your bicycle or motorcycle and setting a sleeping bag on top of that… I’ve done that before and slept quite well… you can even camp by laying a sleeping bag on the bare ground.  I’ve done that too… but it gets the bag dirty and there’s little protection from the elements.

In my opinion the best way to camp is by bringing a tarp, a sleeping bag, a sleeping bag pad, and a tent.  These four items are all the difference between a miserable night and a comfortable night.

I notice that you seem to ride significant distances to your camping destination.  Does bicycle camping involve traveling a long ways?  Or can you ride somewhere close by and call that bicycle camping?

Absolutely.  My first bicycle camping trip involved riding to the KOA less than 5 miles from my house.  And that was one hell of a great bicycle camping trip.  Great facilities!

Pretty soon I’m going to camp at Sweetwater Campground which is maybe 12 miles from my house.  It won’t take me long to get there.  But I consider that a perfectly legitimate bicycle camping trip.  I look forward to it!

Bicycle camping has nothing to do with how far away is the destination.  It has everything to do with mobility (using your bicycle) and temporary shelter (setting up your tent and sleeping bag) and spending the night.  I don’t care if it’s only across the street from where you live.  The object is to enjoy yourself!

When people see you carrying all your camping gear on the bicycle, do they ever get the impression that you’re simply homeless rather than engaging in the pastime of bicycle camping?

I think in San Diego more so than other places that might be true.  Especially in San Diego we lean toward a motorized vehicle consciousness.  We tend to think of camping as driving to the campground.

The pecking order seems to be RVs, followed by trailers, then car campers (who usually bring a tent), then motorcycle campers (who are suspect… as motorcycles are not self-contained vehicles) and then lastly bicycle campers.  We truly are the lowest rung on the totem pole in some campers’ imaginations.  Even backpackers seem to get more respect.

I know that one time I was bicycle camping I attempted to say “hi” to a young lady passing by with her kid and they scurried away.  That was upsetting – to me!  Because she clearly thought I was homeless or a wino.  I hadn’t shaved in two days but, hell, I didn’t look that bad.

So, yeah, to some people there’s a stigma to bringing in all your gear on a bicycle.  In fact, some parks will not allow people to camp who do not have self-contained vehicles.  Silver Strand comes to mind.  This is clearly to prevent homeless people from using the park as their rendezvous.  I can’t say I blame the park system for this… dealing with the homeless is tough under any circumstance… and the rangers have enough to do as it is.

As gas prices climb, though, that stigma will slowly go away.  For instance, Europeans are supposed to hold a positive impression of bicycle campers – or so I’ve been told.  As they are well aware, camping can be an inexpensive recreation ideally suited for students, for families on a budget, for people who who enjoy exercise, etc.  From a heath standpoint bicycling combined with camping really is the perfect activity!

I’ll tell you who gets intrigued by bicycle camping, and that’s other bicyclists!  I get asked lots of questions and in each instance the bicyclist imagines that what I’m doing is loads of fun.  People who enjoy vigorous physical activity see the allure.  As I say, the stigma associated with bicycle camping will slowly go away.

So when you get to your campground, what do you do that’s so fun?

Well, bear with me here.  I’m the kinda person who enjoys planning things, organizing, setting goals, and then accomplishing them.  For whatever reason that’s just how I’m wired.

For me the satisfaction from bicycle camping doesn’t come so much from doing exciting things at the campground as from the fact that I’ve researched the park, I’ve researched my routes, I've set a rough time-table, and then I gauge my progress as if on a checklist.  Out the door by 7:00 am?  Check.  Texas St. by 7:40 am?  Check.  On and on until finally: arrive at park?  Check.

Regardless of how tired I am I immediately set up camp so that I can stow my gear; I lock my bicycle if I plan to explore on foot; I drink some water.  If there’s a soda machine in the park (generally there isn’t in the State parks) I’ll get two sodas, one for immediate calories and the other to have with dinner. 

After a bit of exploring if I feel myself cooling down I usually hit the showers.  When I return to my campsite I might read, or listen to the radio, or simply sit still and enjoy the peace and quiet.  I might reflect on how my ride went, how I might do it differently next time, what things I could improve, etc. 

Notice that I don’t immediately look for something strenuous to do.  I don’t scout out guys for a game of touch football, or try jogging around the park, or ride on trails seeing if there are any hills to jump… nothing like that.  I like camping because it’s reflective time.  Bicycle camping to me is as much mental exercise as physical.  Does that make sense?

At any rate, these might not be things you consider “fun.”  You might very well do things differently.  I encourage you to enjoy the experience in your unique way!

I notice you ride solo and camp solo.  Don’t you get lonely on these outings?

If there are a lot of people in the park someone almost always ambles by and wants to talk.  As I said, a lot of people are intrigued by the concept of bicycle camping.  I meet some very, very nice people that way.  And sometimes they offer me a beer and I gotta tell ya, I don’t argue with that.

One gentleman who stopped by to chat told me about the Katy Trail (Missouri) and how he and his wife plan to ride it this upcoming October.  Sounds damn interesting.

If there’s hardly anyone at the park then, yeah, occasionally it can be a little lonely.  So bring something to read.  Or ride into town for a meal… that’s a great way to enjoy yourself!  Have a couple beers.  Watch a ballgame on the big screen.  Then ride back to camp before the sun goes down so you can enjoy the gathering darkness.

But on the subject of camping solo I guess I enjoy doing things by myself.  I can’t say I’ve ever really suffered from pangs of loneliness.  Hell, I’m usually only gone two or three days.  Before I know it I’m back home with my family.

Having said that, I do not – I repeat, do NOT – encourage the ladies to bicycle camp alone.  Some parks are remote… Dixon Lake comes to mind.  If you encounter a creep out there you might not be able to alert the rangers or even other campers for that matter.  For the ladies I not only encourage the buddy system but bring a man… no matter who he is… the presence of a man has at least some deterrence value.  And it’s a shame I have to advise that but … reality is reality.

One more thing: as the moniker implies, I don’t ride very fast.  Especially when loaded with camping gear, my average speed is between 10 to 12 mph.  That’s probably a little too slow for most young people.  But one thing I’ve learned: I’ll break long before the bicycle breaks.  On a couple of occasions I rode a little too vigorously and painfully pulled my back.  A bad back takes all the fun out of camping… thus, it is wise to avoid injury.  Ergo, I make the determination how fast or how hard I ride. 

I don’t want to risk injuring myself by trying to maintain someone else’s pace.  I also don’t want to slow anyone down.  And so I ride alone.  The end. 

Do you cook your own food?  I mean, isn’t that supposed to be part of camping?

Well, again with the definitions.  I don’t consider cooking your own food indispensable to bicycle camping.  I’m fine with picking up food along the way or riding into town for something to eat.  If the park is remote then you’ll have no choice but to cook your own food.

I have a nice little camp stove – it’s tiny! – and the butane canister that it screws into.  Light a match and POOF… a roaring flame that’ll heat a pot of water in 4 minutes.  I also have the pot and mug.  But since I’m not adverse to buying something at a market along the way it isn’t always necessary for me to bring these things.

If you insist on doing things “right” then you bring camping-approved freeze-dried food.  But freeze-dried camping meals are expensive.  It’s sort of like Cliff Bars.  Cliff Bars are supposed to be great energy food… but quite frankly so is a Babe Ruth.  Or a Three Musketeers.  And they cost a hell of a lot less.

So here’s my rule: when faced with expensive options versus low-cost options, go low cost.  Because to me bicycle camping should be highly economical.  You can bring expensive freeze-dried food or you can bring a can of chili that costs about 74 cents.  The problem with canned food though is it’s heavy.  So bring one can at a time.

Here’s my dirty little secret: when I’m riding long distances and I feel the need for big calories, I’ll stop at McDonalds.  I know we enlightened people are not supposed to patronize McDonalds, but McD offers cheap calories.  And when you’re burning calories up… cheap calories are what you need.  It’s simple economics.

Consider this: you’re driving through the Central Valley to Sacramento and you need gas, specifically, you need about 20 gallons of gas.  Station A offers gas at $3.60/gallon, Station B offers gas at $3.90/gallon.  Which station do you patronize?  Well, presuming rational behavior you’ll stop at Station A.  Foregoing Station A for Station B will result in an additional cost of $.30 times 20, or $6.00.  If you’re wealthy, no biggie.  If you’re like the rest of us, you prefer to save yourself the six bucks.

Let me add, I don’t eat red meat (I hardly ever eat red meat), so I don’t get burgers at McDonalds, I usually get the fish sandwich.  So there’s another variable which I suppose I could somehow incorporate into my gas station example (hi octane versus lo octane) but… why bother?

Long answer short: sometimes I cook my own food at the campsite but not always.

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