Experimental music, photography, and adventures

First bicycle camping trip (S24O)

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Sarah was in Fort Wayne this weekend, so I figured it’d be a great opportunity to do my first bicycle camping trip. Since it was only for one night, this fits under the “Sub 24-Hour Overnight” (S24) heading, as described by Rivendell here, a term also used by others such as Kent Peterson and John Speare of the Cycling Spokane blog, as well as many others. Their accounts of S24O trips (particularly Kent’s “A Very Vague S24O“) in part inspired me to try this.

I learned some interesting lessons from this trip:

  • Riding a bicycle loaded with camping gear is a lot harder than riding an unloaded bike.
  • It takes a long time to load everything on the bike. In fact, everything takes longer than you’d expect when you’re doing something like this.
  • Firewood can be harder to come by than you’d think (bring the stove).
  • My road bike may not be very well-suited to this kind of thing.
  • Getting up early to beat the heat would probably be worthwhile.
  • Things you normally take for granted seem more significant when you have to haul them on a bicycle, and even moreso when you don’t bring them and have to go in search of them.
  • A sleeping bag is optional in warm weather, just bring a sheet.
  • A full-sized pillow, or at least a thicker one, would be great.

I didn’t decide until the last minute where to go, or even which bicycle to take. I was leaning toward going to Yellowwood State Forest, but that would mean taking my commuting bicycle instead of the road bike (miles of gravel roads), and the commuter is having some steering problems. So my decision was made for me: I’d take the road bike. I decided to go up to Morgan-Monroe State Forest since it’s not too far, has a decent campground, and isn’t underwater like some of the other local campgrounds (Paynetown, at Lake Monroe).

It probably took me a good hour and a half to get all my stuff together and loaded on my bike. I headed out around 4:00 pm on Saturday. It was a warm day, in the mid to upper 80s, sunny, and quite windy, with gusts approaching 30 mph. My first thought when I started riding was “Wow, this is a lot harder.” The bike handled completely differently fully loaded, and my handlebars wobbled sometimes. I thought I could feel the frame flex a bit, and it was disconcerting. But I kept on riding and everything seemed to work fine, I just had to adjust to how different it felt. I also quickly dispelled any notions I had of trying to ride quickly and just took my time and focused on reaching my destination. I threw my chain within the first mile. Not a good start!

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View from Old 37

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My bicycle, loaded with camping gear, food, clothes, etc.

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Loaded bicycle, from behind

The winds weren’t helping. I was headed north for most of my trip, and unpredictably-gusting crosswinds made it very difficult to stay upright, let alone ride in a straight line. The extra weight probably actually helped keep me stabilized against the wind a bit, and also increased my momentum. Sometimes this made it easier to carry my weight over a hill after going downhill, but sometimes the weight suddenly slowed me down. The wobbling in my steering worried me, and I wondered if my wheels could really handle this load. But the bike actually felt more solid at speed, and the wheels held up fine.

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Vectren (our gas company)

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Sheep

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I wished for some apple cider as I rode by the Musgrave Orchards.

I think I saw more roadkill on this trip than ever. Opossums, squirrels, raccoons, turtles, snakes, skunks, you name it, I saw (and smelled) it dead in the road. I also saw this guy scampering across the road, moving surprisingly quickly. He made it safely across.

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Turtle

There were a couple of climbs on Old 37 that are hard even without the extra gear. They were particularly difficult now, but I was able to keep the pedals turning long enough to make it. Sometimes I can attack these climbs with some zest and make it up fairly quickly, but this time I only made it to the top out of sheer stubbornness. Once I reached the top of one of the hills, I was at the forest entrance.

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4.8 easy miles to the campground

The ride through the forest is on smooth, gently rolling/curving roads. It felt good to be in the shade and on the home stretch, an easy one at that. My riding to this point was surprisingly draining — normally I ride to here and back home in about two hours.

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Notice the tent poles strapped to the top tube of my bike … a trick Sarah read about somewhere and suggested.

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The heavily-wooded Main Forest Road

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Glad to be almost there

I stopped at the forest office to pick up an envelope to register for whatever campsite I chose. I rode around the campground, on the gravel drive, to find the best spot. To my surprise the quietest spot seemed to be in campsite #1, which is right by one entrance to the campground.

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My bicycle at the campsite, overlooking the unused parking space

I unloaded my gear and started setting up camp. Most of this gear I had not yet used. In particular, I had never set up the bivy tent I bought online. I really should have tried setting it up before this trip, I know, but I didn’t find time to do that. I also left the instructions at home, so I assembled it the best I could. It went together pretty easily, but I’ll have to review the instructions to see if I left out any steps. I had leftover parts.

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Cheapo bivy tent

I inflated the sleeping pad and unrolled the sleeping bag that Sarah got me. These things rock, they are small and light as they’re made for backpacking, but they are perfect for this purpose. I also brought a small pillow and a sheet.

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My bed

I unloaded most of my gear and set out to drop off my registration and find some firewood. I decided not to bring my backpacking stove (another awesome gift from Sarah) and instead bring pre-cooked brats and build a fire to heat them over. I’m also just used to the campfire being a part of the camping experience — a habit I may have to break when I do bicycle camping trips, since it’s just not very practical.

Unfortunately there was no firewood at the forest office. As I was stopped there, I helped some bikers (of the motorcycle variety) find Draper’s Cabin on a map, and told them about the allegedly-haunted Stepp Cemetery. I remembered seeing a firewood sign some 10 miles back so I headed in that direction to hopefully procure some. I had my panniers with me, but they were mostly empty at this time, so I could put firewood in them. I took a different route than I did on the way in, heading down Beanblossom Road to Anderson, then back over to Old 37. Beanblossom has a great descent that felt really good; although I was still weighed down more than usual, I felt fast since there was so much less weight on the bike than before.

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Scene on Beanblossom Road

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My shadow

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Old barn

After climbing one of the big hills on 37 again, I saw the place with the firewood sign. It seemed to just be someone’s home Unfortunately there was nobody home, and there were some business cards with a phone number to call, but it had been disconnected. And I would have approached the house to see if anyone was there, but there was a dog guarding it. I gave up and continued on my way.

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Part of a climb on Old 37

I rode down the other side of the hill, not picking up as much speed as usual. I spotted another firewood sign on the left and pulled into the driveway there. I saw a big pile of wood but continued on to the house. I knocked, and asked if I could buy some firewood. The guy who lived there said “sure” and walked out. I told him I needed whatever I could fit on the bike. He told me he had sold wood to people on all kinds of vehicles, but never a bicycle.

We walked back to the stack of firewood, discussing the campground at the state forest and lamenting all the logging that’s going on there. He told me they are planning on logging some new sections … pretty sad. I cracked a joke about how with all the logging, you’d think they could keep some wood at the forest for firewood. “If you’re not a logging company, you can’t touch a stick of it!” he said. The man let me pick whatever pieces of wood I wanted and helped load them in my panniers. After all that, I ended up with 6 pieces of firewood. I could have strapped more to my rack, but the load was already quite heavy.

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My bicycle by the stack of firewood

“No charge,” the man said. I tried to get him to take my money, but he wouldn’t. I thanked him and prepared for the final climb back to the state forest. As you can imagine, it was pretty brutal, even heavier than all the gear I was carrying before, and I had ridden close to 40 miles, most of it heavily loaded. I saw a deer bounding through the woods on my way to the campground.
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Riding back, firewood in tow

It was getting fairly dark by the time I got back to my campsite. I still had to build a fire and cook dinner.

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Finally back, with firewood (and a map)

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Driveway through the campground

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Campfire

My dinner was tasty, brats and chips, with some Oreos for dessert. I forgot to bring mustard for the brats. Alas … actually the campfire imparts a great smoky flavor, even with the pre-cooked kind of bratwurst.

Once I finished eating, I wasn’t sure what to do. I talked to Sarah on the phone a little bit, and I intended to do some writing, but it was too dark. I had a flashlight, but I wasn’t really feeling the writing thing anyway. So I decided to go for a little walk. This was fun but didn’t last long as it was really pretty creepy. I kept hearing weird noises and wondering what they were, and since I know there are some coyotes in that area, I got a little worried. I just headed back to my campsite. I did, however, record some cool sounds to hopefully use in some music later on (I brought my minidisc recorder). Maybe I’ll even post some here as I think they should give another cool way to convey the experience.

I messed around with my minidisc recorder a little more once I got back to my campsite, but I didn’t stay up much longer. I was damn tired and didn’t want to sleep in too late anyway. My neighbors were being pretty loud, unfortunately, but I was tired enough that I didn’t have too much trouble sleeping. The sleeping pad was astonishingly comfortable for something that small. It’s only a couple of inches thick when inflated, but it’s pretty firm and I found sleeping on it was pretty good. The only real point of discomfort was that I could have used a thicker pillow. Not bad.

I woke up a few different times in the morning. I woke up early and just recorded some bird sounds and fell back asleep. I got up again around 10:00 in the morning and stayed up this time. I was tired but glad it wasn’t too hot yet.

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The inside of the bivy tent, with most of my gear in it.

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View out the front of my tent. Each site has a small trail, as you can see here.

Of course it took quite a while for me to pack up all of my things and hit the road again. I hope I’ll get quicker at packing up the tent/sleeping bag and loading everything on the bike. I think I did a better job of loading the bike this time around.

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Sleeping bag and sleeping pad, with a water bottle to give you a sense of scale … these things are small!

I really took my time riding back, and it was getting quite warm once again. It was windy, but not nearly as much as it had been on Saturday. I enjoyed the ride home, even though I was tired. I was really wishing for some lower gears, and still dealing with wobbling in the steering. I also felt my handlebars were too far away, something I’ve felt a bit in the past, but was really noticeable with a heavy load. I will try my old mountain bike for my next bicycle camping trip, maybe that will work better?
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Field

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Flowers by the side of the road. Taken by swooping the camera back as I rode past.

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Power lines and grader

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Share the road

I saw a few other cyclists on my way home, but not as many as I would expect. Old 37 is pretty popular for cycling, and I often see a lot of other riders on it.

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Vine-covered electrical pole

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Taking a break, shortly before the big climb by the fire station

The big hill by the fire station was gruelling. I actually stopped halfway up, which I very rarely do. But my legs needed a rest. It’s not a very steep hill, but it is long.

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Rogers Farm

Fortunately once I got back to 45, the trip was pretty easy. I was moving very slowly at this point, but I was on the home stretch and still enjoying myself.

I arrived at home, tired but satisfied. I have been wanting to do a trip like this for some time, and I was glad I finally did. It was harder than I expected, but I learned a lot and didn’t have any major problems. I’m looking forward to my next S24O.

14 Responses to “First bicycle camping trip (S24O)”

  1. furiousball Says:

    what a cool adventure bro

  2. robert Says:

    Hey congrats on the overnighter. I almost did one myself last weekend but wussed out. 🙂 Maybe this weekend.

    The loaded bicycle is certainly something to get used to when I did my first tour I was somewhat overloaded and it is so much more work pushing that extra weight. I learned to pare my load way down from that. The handling issue is certainly a factor, but with touring bicycles the handling actually kind of improves when you are loaded. The key really is putting the bulk of the load in the front, but I can’t really say how that’d work out in more traditional road geometry.

    It does take some experience in optimizing your load as well. I’d say it took maybe a week on that first tour before I had it totally wired. Then with everything always in the same place it just becomes routine. Of course the best part of being on tour is you don’t need to rush anything. It just becomes this zen thing where you collapse your camp, pack it up and set out. Good times.

  3. Dan Says:

    This is an inspiring story. I had a little experience with bike camping last year during my RAGBRAI adventure, but it was obviously much different than your solo trip. For one thing, I didn’t have to carry food.

    On the first day of that trip, I noticed the handling issues and a bit of a wobble. After I changed the way the tent and bedroll were mounted, it got a lot better. I’m in the market for a small sleeping bag and sleep mat like yours before the next trip, although I have no idea where I’d carry them. A trailer might be fun.

    Maybe it’s a old guy thing, but there is no way I could sleep in like you did. I’d be up and packed by 6:30 – looking for a diner for breakfast.

    There’s a state park about 12 miles from here that could make a short trip for me – well under the 24 hour limit. I could probably even get my wife to drive up to meet me for supper! (I wonder if I could get WiFi there?)

  4. Noah Says:

    I had to load my bike up just to see what it looks like after reading this. Thanks.

    http://kc-bike.blogspot.com/2008/06/fake-bicycle-camping.html

  5. Jennifer Says:

    Fun! It really makes me want to… continue spending the night in a motel, actually. I’m not sure I could camp AND haul a bunch of stuff a long distance at the same time, at least not yet.

  6. MRMacrum Says:

    The first trip is always the most interesting. I will say you were much better prepared than I was when I went bike touring the first time. I had a blue tarp for a tent and some blankets rolled up tight. A pot from the kitchen and some eating tools. It went ok, but like you I learned quickly what I should do differently.

    I envy you this first trip. I remember discovering things about myself I never really paid attention to. I remember the satisfaction of being self sufficient and how that bolstered my confidence. I remember how reliant I was on everyday things I could not use because I did not have them. Solo Touring is a trip only some people thrive on. I miss it.

    Your firewood trip reminded me of a trip I took with a buddy on an off-road tour. We had been out for 4 days and decided that it was time to unwind. So we stayed in one spot for 2 nights. The day we did not travel we spent riding over a huge mountain in the woods to a beer store on the other side, Bought a 30 pack of Pabst and I crammed all but 2 into my huge Jannd messenger bag. The 15 mile trip back up and over that mountain was tough. But we had a grand time that night. A ranger found us the next morning pounding the aluminum cans into flats so they would pack out better. He was scratching his head over how we had all this beer so far in the woods and no vehicle.

    If you really get into it as I did, think about a trailer.

    Excellent breakdown of your trip. The Rogers Barn pic is great.

  7. John Says:

    Fun wasn’t it? Part of the adventure is when we have to make do because something we really wanted is nowhere to be found. We always seem to get by.

    Brandon, my Erie Canal riding partner and #3 son will have all his touring gear procured within two weeks. His birthday is this month and he has a registry at a LBS. The only thing left on the list is the seatpost touring rack. He and I will do two S24O’s before leaving for our nine day bike ride on July 18th.

    I have read a couple of times that if we are doing light tourning to use front panniers. The people who have done that say is better stabalization.

    Brandon and I have two choices of campgrounds which I have written about recently. Myles Standish State Forrest and there is also a capmground on the Cape Cod Canal.

    If we keep going at this pace, maybe one or both of us will do a cross country trip and cross paths.

    Great job writing up this one. There will be more, I’m sure.

  8. Tim Says:

    What a great report. I took the opportunity of looking at your roads on google maps, surveying the whole area. I’m pretty jealous of your area up there. Here in L’Ville we have fewer parks and fewer empty roads to choose from. I think, though, that your entry has inspired me to consider a S24O. I don’t have all the accoutrements, but I do have the Surly LHT to carry it. Keep posting great stories, and if you’re ever in the mood for a Kentuckiana adventure (road or mtbike), let me know.

  9. Pete Says:

    Great report. One of my unofficial goals for this summer is to take a similar trip. Reading stuff like this inspires me to keep working toward that goal. Thanks!

  10. Dave Says:

    Congratulations on completing your first bikecamp trip! The first few are learning experiences; you’ll soon figure out what to take, how to pack, etc — this seems to have gone well for your first trip. Way to go!

  11. Jeannette Says:

    Very inspiring.I came across your report while trying to prepare for a trip from home to a mountainbike race.Only about 45 miles one way,but I will be going with my 17 year old son and 8 year old daughter(both mountainbike racers) and we have to go through the Berkshires.We’ll see who hold up best.Might not be me.My husband is doubting that we can do it.

  12. Apertome Says:

    Thanks all … Jeannette, that’ll be tough. Are you carrying a lot of gear? I’d suggest some trial runs with the bikes loaded down before you try to make the trip. This will let you tweak any problems beforehand and see if you think it’s doable.

  13. Jeannette Says:

    The trial run is great advise. We are keeping gear down to a minimum (sheets instead of sleepingbags,etc)and we are planning to leave around 6am to allow for plenty stops to rest.Thanks again.Hope my pictures will be as good as yours.

  14. joe Says:

    Hey! I’m about a year and a half late on this, but I found your post while googling “bicycle camping”. I’m from Bloomington (now living in Champaign, IL -via New York City) and it was a nice surprise to see pics of Musgrave Orchards and old 37. Having lived away from b-town for a few years, I’ve come to realize how distinct and recognizable the landscape is–even without your description. I really enjoyed reading your write-up. I’ve been planning to do a similar trip out here (also on a road bike).
    Anyway, best of luck on any future adventures (and wish me luck on mine).
    Take care!

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