Oh, the places you’ll go with nothing but two wheels and some lightweight camping gear.
I like to take off into the wilderness looking for nothing but huckleberries and adventure, and I've found a new method of doing so: Bike Camping. I had never thought of combining my love for hiking and biking until I came across a group of bike campers on a trail south of McCall last June. I made eye contact with one and it was like a Vulcan mind meld—I could sense the fun and adventure they were having, and I wanted some of it.
Like any good explorer, a little research was in order before I struck out on my own. I used the power of social media to contact a few bike camping experts, looking for advice. First, I contacted Fred Ellis, a bike camping racer (yes, that is a thing). Then I contacted Aileen Frey, an avid bike camper and member of local biking club Wandering Wheels. I also spoke with Go Bike Idaho founder Amber Daley about some more general mountain biking dos and don'ts. Here's what I gleaned:
From Daley: "Decide if you want to try bike camping by riding paved roads or gravel roads. ... Once you have gone out and done your first bike camping trip, then you can decide where you really hope to travel and start purchasing specialized gear.
"When on a mountain bike, you're able to experience Idaho backcountry in ways you simply can't in a motor vehicle. Even when backpacking, you still can't cover as much ground as you can on a bike."
From Ellis: "Every year we do a simple overnight tour out to Celebration Park off the Snake River. ... It is fun to watch the newbies carry in way too much stuff ... then we set up a campfire and tell horror stories about bike camping adventures. It's really fun."
With millions of options to choose from, I asked this question of Ellis: "What kind of gear do you need to successfully bike camp?"
"The basics," he said. "I always bring a water filter, a 32-degree sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a wool sweater and generally enough clothes to cover the temperature difference of the sleeping bag and what the temperature is supposed to be."
From Frey: "Figure out if you are comfortable camping in the great outdoors. ... Start by planning an overnight to an area you are familiar with; that way you will know if water is available on site or will you have to carry your water, and possibly learn to use a water filter. Go as light as possible, but bring everything you think you need to use."
Daley noted, "I always pack a ton of water, plenty of snacks, an extra tube and a pump or CO2 cartridges, protective biking gloves, moisture wicking clothes, a pocketknife, a multi-tool, a headlamp, an easily condensable rain jacket or windbreaker and a flask, of course. I have never regretted having all of those things on every ride in the backcountry."
Transporting the Gear
Just as important as the equipment used is the method of strapping it down to the bike for easy mobility.
"The old school way is the rack/pannier system," said Ellis.
Basically, that means equipping a bike with saddle bags that function as the main gear hauling points via a rack over the front and back tires.
"The newer systems take advantage of that big triangular gap in the center of the bike," Ellis added. "Now you will see folks with a pad and sleeping bag over the front handles, a pod sticking out the back of their seat and a big sack Velcroed to the frame."
Either one works, he said, but the newer system is less cumbersome.
"It is very nice to start with a bike that can have a rack attached on the back, or on the front," Frey said. "A lot of camping equipment can just be strapped onto a rack. Stuff sacks can be secured to the rack to carry your personal items. ... I use the same tools and principles as backpacking, just strapped down to my bike."
I asked Ellis for a quick list of locations—from easy to hard—where I could bike camp.
Easy: Riding and camping at Celebration Park is great. Bonus: Lots of other non-riding activities including the petroglyphs, the atlatl throwing area (Stone Age spear throwing mechanism) and Snake River make it a great introductory location.
Medium: Biking behind Arrowrock Reservoir. This one is tricky with traffic in the summer but you can see some cool stuff and have a great adventure.
Stupid Hard: Smoke 'N' Fire 400. "This is a 400-mile-plus unsupported race for adventure bike campers; it is not for the faint of heart. It took me five days to complete," Ellis said. "Last year with all the re-routing due to fires it was actually a 468-mile ride."
With advice in hand, gear in mind and destination determined, I will be headed out to Celebration Park soon to test my skills as a bike camper. With any luck, I can mind meld with a hiker and inspire him or her to take up two wheels.