[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Bicycle Camping
Bicycle camping or bikepacking, also called low-impact camping or primitive camping, is the best part of a loaded touring trip. A discussion of how and where to camp with information about trespass laws and government regulations.

How are the terms camping and touring misused? What can bicycle touring mean? What is loaded touring? What can bicycle camping mean? Where does the true bike traveler spend the night? What are low-impact camping and primitive camping? Is there a paradox involved with loaded, self-sufficient tourists who are camping in public campgrounds? Is camping in the woods an anti-social or anti-environmental act? What is self-sufficient bicycle touring? How are we becoming estranged from Nature? Do touring books explain about backcountry camping? How did I begin camping? How did we cook in the woods? What kind of simple camping equipment is needed? How should you pitch a tent? What are the advantages of a tarp tent? Where and when should a tarp tent not be used? What are the advantages and disadvantages of cooking on an open campfire? Is first-rate equipment necessary? Why do I use a gasoline stove to cook on? How can one cook in a simple fashion? What foods are suitable for a bicycle camping trip? Why is a campground a poor place to camp? What are the restrictions on camping on public land? Why are most of these restrictions unnecessary? Why are bikepackers like backpackers? When is it illegal to camp on private land? What are some of the penalties for trespassing? Where are some other places for free camping? What are the advantages to camping in the woods? Are the woods dangerous? How do I pick a camping site? How do I safely use a gas stove? How do I pitch my tent? How do I keep the site sanitary? How do I keep clean while bicycle camping?


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Bicycle Camping and Touring

What Is Camping?

My first task is to deal with terminology problems. A "camper" could refer to someone traveling in a forty-foot motorhome towing a forty-foot boat and a car. And "camping" could refer to the daily or weekly task of squeezing such a motorhome in among a couple of hundred similar motorhomes that are jammed closer together now than they were in the salesman's lot. The fellow driving such a vehicle could be called a "tourist" and his trip a "tour." When he gets back home, he'll have pictures of himself on top of high passes and in various beautiful natural area and parks. Somehow, he sees his trip as being the same as mine; in his opinion, he just was able to do it an easier and a better way.

Even a term like "bicycle touring" is much too broad. It is often used to describe short day rides. Or it can mean spending every night in a motel and eating every meal in a restaurant, which has sometimes been called credit card touring. Or it sometimes means traveling with in a group with a sag wagon or alone with a spouse in a car, so that no equipment has to be carried. The expression "loaded touring" also exists, but it is a very unclear moniker, generally used by those who feel they are traveling light; it's unclear because it provides no explanation for the load nor how much of a load is involved.

Even when I encounter the term "bicycle camping," I still am quite uncertain: Are the "campers" actually carrying anything? Or are they traveling with a sag wagon? Are they spending the night (camping) in a building? In a motorhome village? In a public camping area? Where? Are they cooking anything? It's amazing to me how many cyclists who have written about their trips are unclear about how or where they spent the night; it's almost as if their night really wasn't part of the trip. I have even caught the idea in a cycling publication that having to pitch a tent is sort of a shameful and desperate act (the article actually suggested that the camper might sleep in a culvert!), and that persuading a stranger to share the home (perhaps even the bed?) is the sign of a true bike traveler.

The point in asking these questions is to be clear, not to put people down (well, maybe the guy in the motorhome) but because the one kind of touring is as different from the other as daylight is from dark.

As a result of this confusion in terms, it becomes difficult to explain to others what I do. If I say I camp, they probably see me nestled among the motorhomes. I had that experience on my first trip to the Smokies in 1965: I had only a tarp for a tent, but it was illegal for me to find my own spot in the national park; the park rangers could offer only a small treeless area jammed with people, vehicles, and TV sets for me to camp in. Some terms have been coined to describe what I do. It's been called low-impact camping and primitive camping for instance. But I just stick to saying that I camp in the woods. Of course, camping alone in the woods requires me to be a little more self-reliant and knowledgeable and to carry more equipment, especially more water.

Practical Problems with Loaded Touring

Besides the terminology, there are some very practical problems involved. For instance, I have met touring cyclists who were carrying the same amount of weight I was, yet were spending their nights in motels. Why carry the extra weight if it's not needed? On my 1996 trip, I met two touring cyclists, carrying plenty of gear, who were bothered at learning I was camping in the woods, even though we were surrounded by national forests. So, therefore, they were ignoring the surrounding natural areas for what I considered to be unpleasant campgrounds or motels.  If the only places where I could stop on a tour were campgrounds and motels, I would choose the motel as a better value and therefore also carry less equipment.  With less time tied up in cooking and camping and less weight to carry, I'm sure I would travel enough extra miles each day to make $25 motels cheaper than $15 campgrounds, especially if I could include a few $10 hostels in the trip.

I think at least some cyclists might be carrying all that gear as an act of desperation. It's as if they are say, "We don't intend to sleep out for the night; we'd rather beg, borrow, or steal a bed for the night, but if we have to, we need to be prepared." Perhaps they see camping as an anti-social or unenvironmental act. But camping for the night neither harms society nor disrupts the habitat of animals. The places that are suitable for me to camp have no food resources and are not sleeping areas for wildlife, although I may be blocking some deer's usual path.

The True Delight of the Trip

And these people are missing out on the true delight of the trip. Riding through beautiful forests and not pitching a tent is like going with friends to a gourmet restaurant and watching them eat, without sharing any of the food.

Wild Camping
Wild camping.

From my very first tour, I have been another kind of traveler, one who is as independent of public facilities as I am of the gas pump. I don't camp back in the woods because I'm poor, because I can't make friends with people, or because I can't reach my destination. I camp because it's the greatest experience on earth. I don't camp out to travel nearly as much as I travel to camp out. I remember one song that I sang with feeling while on my bicycle trips over thirty years ago:

    I don't care when the sun goes down
    Where I lay my weary head.
    Green, green valley or rocky road;
    It's there I'm gonna make my bed.
And another one:
    Under a willow, there we will rest,
    Watching the fading light.
    Earth for a pillow, dreams that are blessed,
    Darkness enfolding the night.

Our Estrangement from Nature

People are growing up so far from Nature and the outdoors that they no longer have any sense of what such a natural experience such as camping must be like. They somehow picture my camping as being a pure act of desperation -- the madman who can't live among people; However, I am not a recluse or a law-breaker. I think the nine-to-five crowd are the ones with poor human contact and poor understanding of our natural world.

The Difference between Camping Equipment and Camping

It bothers me that when I read a book on bike touring that the authors have said nothing whatsoever about the act of camping. Oh yes, they might have a very good chapter on how to pick camping equipment. But there is as much difference between camping equipment and camping as there is between a rifle and hunting. Therefore, I'm going to explain the mysteries of the act and art of camping. Excuse the shaggy dog story that follows, but it provides a camper's view of life.

How I Began Camping

To go back to the very beginning, I began acquiring my camping skills as a boy. I was very fortunately to live next to woods full of creeks, cliffs, and sandstone "caves." We kids first started camping in back yards and then in the local woods. We also cooked our own meals; indeed, one camping trip with my best friend ended early when we had cooked and eaten everything we had and were "starving" long before dinner time. We used every method to cook. On that trip, we had hung pork chops from strings above the fire. Shishkabob was also very popular, usually using a coat hanger with the paint burned off and pieces of meat, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and cheese skewered on. I also used a "buddy burner," the stove top being a #10 tin can, the uncut top up, with three triangular vents punched right underneath and with a door cut in the bottom, and the burner being a tuna can with a coil of thick cardboard for the wick with wax melted between. Because we had no camping equipment, we would spend the night in natural rock shelters, using whatever blankets we could convince our parents to let us take. In my case, it was some old wool blankets that I used later to camp in caves and on my first bike trip to Canada.

College Camping vs. College Football

In college, I would spend the whole weekend camping in the woods while the other students went to football games. They thought I was strange; I thought they were strange. I went to a football game once: first, there is the terrible traffic jam that eventually turns itself into a mass of humanity; second, there are the painful seats; third, there is horrible weather, usually both cold and raining; fourth, there's an overwhelming noise; fifth, there are some tiny people doing something on the field that you can't see; and finally, when you think something is about to happen and want to see and hear, everyone stands on the seats and yells like crazy. I must admit that I have read some other people's descriptions of their camping trips that sounded just as bad, but my own trips have never been miserable experiences.

Camping near Jacksonville, AL

Just three miles from the school was a valley surrounded by high ridges that was never visited, as far as I could tell, by anyone but me. From there, I had miles of hiking, all the camping sites that I wanted, streams of pure water to drink, rocky vistas overlooking isolated valleys, and all the peace and solitude that anyone could wish. To make camping possible, I bought a simple plastic tarp as my only special equipment. To make a backpack, I put my spare clothes, food, and gear onto the tarp, I tied the tarp into a square bundle, and I tied a spare pair of blue jeans to the bundle, so I could use its legs for arm straps. Thus I had a comfortable backpack.

Ground Preparation for the Tent

Because I was not used to using a tent, on the first night I slept under my tarp, I followed the advice in books on camping and dug up the ground that I slept on and dug trenches around it. Much later, I learned that trenches are considered destructive, but I learned in one night that digging of any kind is counterproductive. If you have ever camped in a campground, you know that the ground there has been packed harder than a brick. However, the natural soil in the woods has never been packed and is naturally soft. Digging, on the other hand, breaks up its structure, causing the soil to quickly pack down under your weight during the night. In addition, removing or adding leaves or pine straw is also a mistake. They serve as natural cushions only when undisturbed. Even removing rocks creates problems. The hole left after the rock is removed is very likely to create as much discomfort as the rock would have done. Therefore, before pitching my tent, I learned to remove only loose stuff lying on top of the ground such as branches, nuts, and pine cones. I solve the problem of half-buried rocks by laying on the ground before pitching the tent, to make sure I have no rocks under me. I dig no trenches because they only destroy the natural ability of the ground to absorb water. Only an extremely heavy rainfall will cause water to stand on the ground anyway, and then only on very flat ground. I also am very reluctant to cut living plants; it's usually better to just pitch the tent on top of them. I use no tarp underneath my tent; it's not needed to protect the bottom of the tent from leaves and pine straw, and I seldom find soil stains.

The Simple Tarp Tent

To get back to the tarp tent, a simple tarp rigged to sleep under has many advantages compared with a tent. The tarp weights much less, takes up less space, and can be pitched more quickly. Although many ways of pitching the tarp work, the method I preferred was to run a line about two feet high between two trees four or more feet apart, and then to drape the tarp over that, so my head would be under the cord, six feet of the tarp would extend on the lower side for my legs and feet, and two feet on the higher side for my head. Cords from each of the four corners of the tarp would then be tied to nearby trees. The greatest advantage of this tarp-tent was the ability it gave me to enjoy the night. I could look out and see the stars and any wild animals that approached. I really felt a part of the natural world. I also had a great deal of space under a 9X6 tarp. I can approximate this experience with my current tent by sleeping without using the door fly and by leaving the door open. This is only recommended for nights with small chance for bugs or rain.

The disadvantages of the tarp tent were also great. I never did sleep soundly, awakening at the smallest noise. There was no protection from either flying or crawling insects. While the flying insects were generally more troublesome, it does not take very many ants crawling through the bed clothes and biting every now and then to make sleep impossible. Nonetheless, I used a tarp tent exclusively from 1963 to 1968 and again in 1986 and 1987. This was possible because there are many sites in Alabama with few flying and crawling insects. Tarp camping in Michigan, Ontario, and Minnesota in the early summer of 1966 was most unpleasant, however. Only my blankets protected me against massive numbers of mosquitoes (and, in Canada, black flies).

Cooking on a Campfire

During those first few years in college, I cooked over a campfire on my trips. Not satisfied with just normal cooking, I also experimented with baking bread -- an outdoor cooking task that was never quite satisfactory. While cooking over an open fire added a flavor to the trip, it also added a smell. It was also a time-consuming process as well. It seemed to be part of those early trips to come back smelling like a fire, tired from lack of sleep, and thoroughly satisfied

How Much Equipment Is Necessary

Part of my reason for bringing up such topics as tarps, open fires, and wool blankets is to point out how little is necessary to enjoy camping in the woods. In some ways, simple methods make the trip more interesting. And I certainly wouldn't want anyone to be discouraged from having a good time due to lack of money. Homemade equipment made not only local camping possible but my early touring trips as well. I have never forgotten the answer someone received on a Sierra Club hike. He had simply asked what minimum equipment he would need to start camping, and the person leading the trip -- who evidently considered himself a great expert -- rattled off the brand names of and details about hundreds -- if not thousands -- of dollars of equipment, saying each item was absolutely necessary. Actually, on a warm night in many areas, one can sleep right on the ground without any gear whatsoever, although a ground cloth would be a good idea. I have slept without pitching my tent many times (I've also had to pitch the tent in the middle of the night too, when the weather changed). But my real point is that it doesn't take first-rate equipment to have a first-rate time, nor will first-rate equipment do you much good if you don't understand what you're doing.

My First Bicycle Camping Trips

At the end of November in 1964, I bought a bike and used it to explore the countryside as thoroughly as I had the woods. By the end of the summer, I was ready for my first bicycle camping trip to the Smoky Mts. The next year, I went on my trip to Northern Ontario.

Gasoline Stoves

However, for my first trip I borrowed, and for the second I bought a gasoline stove. This was a necessary change for several reasons. 1) I wanted to be able to cook my meal quickly with little work or fuss; a campfire would require time to gather the wood, build up the fire, slowly cook the food, careful extinguish the fire, remove all signs of the fire, and scour the black off the pots. 2) I wanted to keep very clean, yet the fire would give me a foul smell and make getting dirty much easier. 3) I wanted to do nothing to endanger or destroy the beauty of the places where I was camping.

Simple Cooking

Cooking on the stove is just like cooking indoors except that I am confined to a frying pan and pot. The equipment needed for outdoor cooking is small. I usually don't even carry the frying pan. I do most of my cooking in a single three-quart pot that I also use to eat out of. The pot weighs much less than a cooking kit and is more practical anyway. Beside the pot, I carry the stove, a fuel bottle, a can opener, a knife-fork-spoon set, the pot lid, and a sharp knife. When packing my bags, I use the space inside the pot to hold food that must be cooked, such as rice.

While I never did learn the art of fine cooking, I learned how to cook practical, simple meals for myself, and I have cooked most of my meals since I was 17. Basically, cooking in a pot means just boiling water, and putting some things in the boiling water before others. A piece of chicken needs 30 minutes or more, rice takes 20, and many vegetables will cook in ten. In using one pot to cook in, I just cook everything together, adding the ingredients at separate times, so that they'll each receive the proper amount of cooking. I even cook spaghetti this way, getting the spaghetti fairly soft, emptying out most of the water, and adding the sauce a little at a time (spaghetti, however, is not a good choice for a small pot and a hot stove). Usually, while my pot is boiling, I'll be doing other things, such as pitching the tent.

In choosing foods to eat on a trip, I buy fresh fruits and vegetables, yogurt, rice, pasta, and bread. I keep my meat-eating down on bike trips: first, small quantities of meat are usually expensive, and second, they spoil very easily (this is especially a problem due to having to buy food when the opportunity presents itself and to not being sure of my camping place that night). So, I sometimes buy sardines and chicken bologna on trips, when I rarely use them at home. In areas where hoagies are cheap, I buy them; and in other areas, I make sandwiches for lunch. I eat most of my vegetables raw. I now usually eat so well during the day that my evening meal is often slight or skipped altogether. (A note about my food: I don't eat beef, pork, or the flesh of any mammal.)

Places to Sleep

On all of my trips, the greatest number of nights are spend neither at campgrounds nor at motels but at sites of my own choosing. What is wrong with a public campground? There are several problems with car campgrounds for cyclists. First, bicycle campers must often travel long distances and up steep hills to reach campground locations. For a motorist, to travel an extra five miles one way to the campground is no big deal, but to a cyclist the ten-mile round trip to the campground is likely to be 20% of the day's travel. Second, campgrounds often offer little privacy and quiet. Unlike a motorist, the cyclist lacks all the extras to ensure privacy, is physically tired, and just wants a quiet night's rest. A cyclist does not travel with a mob of screaming kids, a pack of dogs, a noisy radio, a color TV, a supply of charcoal or firewood, great slabs of meat, a cooler full of beer, a standing tent with auxiliary sleeping tent and connecting canopy, a full set of cookware, a gas stove, one or more gasoline or electric floodlamps, a bug zapper, fogs of chemical spray, a motorhome, a boat, a spare car, or an extra trailer. Nor is a bicycle camper thrilled with acre after acre of parking lots with mandatory gravel "pads" for the tent, open and smelly trash cans, a scarcity of scrawny trees, cigarette butts and beer tops littering the ground, and the obviously mandatory mowed grass. Frankly, sleeping in the backyard at home is a lot more of an adventure, and a lot quieter. Third, bicycle campers do not share the cultural attitudes of the others. It's sort of like being the only Buddhist at a Baptist church.

When I returned to cycling in 1985, after an absence of eight years, I assumed that all these cyclists traveling around with their loaded-down bikes were like me. However, in talking to the few I met, I discovered that they were staying in campgrounds or motels. Then when I bought some books on bicycle touring, I discovered lots of material about equipment for camping, but no advice whatsoever about how to camp. That reminds me of the "safety information" that tells you to obey the law but that doesn't tell you what the law is. There is good advice in the hiking books about camping, but unfortunately, some of it is wrong or misleading for bicycle camping. So I want to set the matter straight here.

What Does the Law Say?

In traveling by bike, does the law require me to beg or buy a place to sleep at night? There is no such law. People who rent cabins, rooms, and camping sites would like for us to believe that we have to stay at their facilities, but no law requires me to do so. In fact, if I can't find a place to camp near a small town, I will contact the police for advice. It's a waste of time to do so in a city; however, because the city usually has lots of local ordinances to avoid "vagrancy." I wouldn't recommend just pitching a tent along the public road in the US, although it's common in many countries. Getting out of sight is a sensible idea since it avoids hassles from passers-by. The only time I camp in a spot visible to others is in a public area approved for camping or well off of the road, such as in the far end of a field or up on a hill.That doesn't mean that I can't see the road from where I am camping. If the brush and/or leaves are heavy, I might camp within 50 feet of the pavement.

Camping on Public Land

Is it legal for me to camp on public land without asking permission? The answer varies from place to place. Public land is owned by federal, state, and local governments and is controlled by different agencies of the above, each with different rules. Camping in national parks is usually limited to backpackers, but Shenandoah is an exception. I can always camp in a national forest if I abide by its restrictions (the most common restrictions are to camp a certain minimum distance from the road and to not camp at all in a few areas). State parks and forests vary quite a bit; sometimes they allow "no overnight use" or permit no camping or backpacking at all. In other cases, they allow backpacking but don't want me to camp; sometimes I am told I can camp if I leave the bicycle tied up at the road, a sure way to invite trouble or lose a bicycle. The most irritating restriction to me is this simple one: I can camp anywhere if and only if I let the ranger know exactly where I am. That's fine for car campers but makes bicycle camping impossible. I would have to find a site, then ride miles to hopefully find the ranger and then return. There's also a strong tendency to have a few dumb rules that have nothing to due with safety, reality, or anything. North Carolina goes to the greatest extreme with its watershed lands where it is illegal to even stop on the road to look at the view. On the other hand, one official in one state said he could give me no official opinion about camping on state lands, but he advised me that there was no one charged with seeking out such individuals nor any punishment listed if they should be found. He suggested that if I was just spending one night and moving on that no one would care one way or another. Some national forests have problems with people living on them, so they have a two-week camping limit as a result.

Why Most Restrictions Aren't Necessary

By the way, almost all the restrictions on camping are a lot of foolishness. There's not that many campers, they do little harm, and they create a fire hazard in only a few regions and/or times of year (campers with stoves create no hazard). These rules against camping are mainly designed to get everyone to use the facilities for motorists, but they foolishly prevent people, especially children, from enjoying the woods who would otherwise more strongly support those parks and forests. They are also based on the idea that everyone arrives by motor vehicle. The restrictions do make sense in very small or crowded parks, but even there some seldom used corner could be designed for primitive camping. If you think these restrictions are designed to protect wild animals, I can point out that almost all of these places are open to hunting. A few campers are going to have little effect on the animal populations.

Bicycle Campers Have Not Been Good Advocates

In regard to camping on public land, cyclists have not been good advocates of their interests. Many public forests and parks that are publicly and openly in favor of backpackers sleeping out in the woods feel that cyclists must stay in pubic campgrounds which poorly accommodate them. An important question here is, are bicycle campers more like motorists or like backpackers? The similarity is that the equipment used in bicycle camping is the same as the equipment used in backpacking; perhaps we ought to call ourselves bikepackers. The cyclist needs the same kind of camping spot as a backpacker with one exception, the cyclist can carry all the necessary water. This makes it possible for the cyclist to camp on the mountaintop while the backpacker has to camp in the valley. On the other hand, the bicycle camper is not going to want to travel long distances from the pavement. For instance, I seldom camp more than 400 feet from the highway and often less than 100 feet. To some rangers, this presents a great problem, but I always get out of sight and camp in an area where there are no trails for people to hike. Thus my camping sites are less likely to be discovered than those of a backpacker. And unlike the motorist, I don't need a road or even a path. In regard to trash, it is true that a bicycle camper could carry more in than a backpacker, but it is also easier to carry it out as well. When I break camp in the morning, the only sign that I have been there is that the ground is "flatter" and drier where my tent was.

Camping on Private Land

Is it legal for me to camp on private land without permission? Yes and no, as there are two kinds of private land. Improved property is land that has a building, a fence, mowed grass, or other signs of occupancy and use. I can legally camp on these lands only if I have permission. Otherwise, I am automatically trespassing. Unimproved property is unfenced, unposted, woodlands, fields, or scrub, that shows no sign of the owner's hand. This land can be camped on without violating the law in most states. If the owner wishes me to stay off of this property, he must place a "no trespassing" sign. If no such sign is posted, he can ask me to leave, he can charge me for any damage to his land, but he cannot charge me with trespassing (which is a misdemeanor, and not a felony). Fenced land, by the way, seems to be regarded as open land in some ways (remember the rules about closing the farmer's fence?) and as closed land in other ways. I just made the decision to never camp within fenced-in land.

It must be stressed, however, that I am fully liable for any damage I do while on another person's property. In an Alabama case, a man prepared a picnic area but did not mark it "no trespassing." When people stopped there to have a picnic, he sued them in court. Since the people had left some trash on the ground, they had to pay $5. Later, some other people cut trees on the same land, so he took them to court and won a settlement of thousands of dollars. Therefore (and also because of my sense of civic responsibility and my love of Nature), I cannot cut any trees or shrubs, start any fires, leave any trash, disturb any farm animals, or leave open any closed gates. My policy is that when I leave a campsite, there must be no sign that I've even been there.

I need to point out that trespass laws are state laws, as are the traffic laws. Thus, they vary from state to state. The wording of the following Alabama State Law is an example of such a law, but it is not the law in other states. Section 13A-7-1 of the Code of Alabama states, " A person who enters or remains upon unimproved and apparently unused land, which is neither fenced nor otherwise enclosed in a manner designed to exclude intruders, does so with license and privileges unless notice against trespass is personally communicated to him by the owner of such land or other authorized person, or unless such notice is given by posting in a conspicuous manner."

It is also important to note the traditional laws about trespass are under attack by landowners because they do not wish to have to go to the trouble of posting their land, and they want the privilege of being able to arrest anyone for trespass who they happen to find there. Trespass laws are especially used against hunters, homeless people, dumpers, and vandals, as getting a conviction for trespass is easier than getting a conviction for any actual crime. They are also used in property disputes. Recently, in Wisconsin, a law was passed which "makes a person liable for trespass even when unintentionally entering anotherís land, and it eliminates the requirement that land be posted or marked. Under this bill, which passed into law, a hiker or hunter lost in the woods may be held liable (a civil forfeiture of up to $1,000) for mistakenly wandering onto someoneís unposted property." Laws like this one and the decision in Illinois that cyclists "are not the intended users of the road" violate the principles of common law and common sense and will probably be overturned.

When to Ask Permission on Unimproved Property

When should I ask permission to camp on private land? If there's a house nearby, so the people could be aware of my presence, I need to talk to the people in that house. Even if they don't own the property where I'm camping, they're going to be concerned about my being there. If they feel uncomfortable, I won't stay, whether they own the land or not. Also, if the land has been improved or is marked posted, I must ask or risk charges of trespassing. Posted land is not a reaction to bicycle camping as bicycle campers are very rare, except in a few parts of the country. People have different reasons for posting their property; sometimes, for instance, they just want to limit their liability. Often the land belongs to a hunting club. In other cases, they have had trouble from or want to keep away dumpers, snowmobile operators, hunters, thieves, or unknown strangers.

Penalties for Trespassing

What can happen if I camp illegally on public or private property? Some people told me about being fined $300 for picking blackberries along the side of the road in Alabama, but that is an extreme example. The Blue Ridge Parkway, even more extreme, threatens six months in jail. In most places, if I was found camping on posted property, I would probably just be told to leave, but I don't count on it. Instead, I just avoid posted or ambiguous sites. I admit, however, that I have camped on such sites by mistake. Sometimes a sign is almost impossible to see. In such a case, I would have a strong defense in the unlikely event that charges were pressed. In any event, I have never done any harm to anyone's property.

Confronting a Land-Owner

Although I have never been confronted by a property owner (indeed, my camping spot has never been discovered), if such an event happened, I would be very polite and immediately offer to leave. I would never argue, as I have no right to remain after being asked to leave, nor would I want to remain even if somone other than the landowner asked me to go. Most of the private land I camp on is probably owned by corporations with little immediate interest or concern about what happens there.

Other Free Camping

Where else can I camp free? In small towns, I have often camped in the town park; it's best to check with the local police, if the town is large enough to have them. If the town is too small for police, I ask at a nearby store. I have also camped at a police station and at fire stations (in pretty spots too!).

There are also bits and pieces of ground that I use that no one has much interest in: under bridges, along right of ways, within wooded traffic islands, and behind guard rails. I just make sure I'm out of sight and that the spot shows no signs of recent use.

Some cyclists often camp in churchyards and cemeteries. I have camped at both locations on occasions. However, I have also had trouble finding someone to ask permission. People can be touchy about someone camping in these locations, especially on Sundays.

Finally, I have done a fair bit of camping in people's yards; usually, it was their idea when I asked about places to camp.

Disadvantages to Camping in the Open

A lot of people think of camping as being something someone does in a field rather than in the woods. I have to admit that the original Latin word referred to a field, but fields have several problems: 1) the campsite is visible from the road, so one may be bothered by by-passers, 2) there is no protection from the sun and the heat, 3) the wind can be a problem, 3) the ground is harder, 4) the opportunities to see wildlife are greatly reduced, and 5) the tent is likely to be soaked by dew, requiring a separate stop to spread it out to dry. And frankly, I just don't go on camping trips to camp in fields.

Fear of the Woods

The problem for many people is that they are not used to camping in the woods. I agree that it's best to begin gradually. A good method would be to only camp in the very most suitable spots until familiarity is gained. Another idea is to make several practice camping trips before starting on a long trip; this is a good idea anyway.

I must acknowledge that there is often a great deal of fear connected with camping in the woods. People have heard all kinds of horror stories about snakes, wild animals, and poison ivy, to go along with a natural fear of dark and unknown places. Thoreau said, "I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced." The truth is that poisonous snakes are rare in the woods, and they are not interested in bothering people at all. In walking in the woods, I have learned to watch where I put my feet, but I rarely see any snake, let alone a poisonous one. More likely I'll get a scratched ankle from a saw briar. The few poisonous snakes I have encountered made no attempt to attack me. Attacks by wild animals are rare. In one recent year in the US, one person was killed by mountain lions and bears (combined), 15 by snakes, 20 by dogs, and 150 by striking deer with their motor vehicles. Poison ivy is also greatly overrated. It runs as a heavy vine up tree trunks, and a related plant, poison oak, is a frequent ground cover. But few people are allergic to either one, although it's best not to dig, tear up, or disturb any forest life anyway. Insects are no more likely to be a problem back in the woods than anywhere else. In any state, it's best to avoid camping in low swampy ground, but in some areas of the North and West, mosquitoes and/or black flies are a real problem. However, the use of insect repellent, long clothing, and mosquito netting on tents mainly solves the problem. Basically, it's no more dangerous to camp in the woods than it is to live next to one.

How I Pick a Camping Site

The first step is early in the day, usually before I get up, when I check over my maps and make some predictions. Usually, I am on a strange road, and I have no certainty as to which way I'll go. So, I'll choose a route on the map that connects two towns rather than two large cities, and I'll depend on my observations during the day to make a final decision. I might have a topo map or forest map to help me make a better decision about camping possibilities, but most often I just plan on being in a rural area towards evening and seeing what I can find. If I start looking for a camping place at six in the evening, I still have plenty of time to find one before dark.

As part of my plans for camping, I make sure all three of my quart water bottles are full in the late afternoon. I like to say, one bottle is for drinking, one is for cooking, and one will get me to my first stop in the morning. I could camp on two bottles and still cook, but it would be close. I would only camp with one bottle if I had already eaten and was showing no signs of thirst. To aid in getting water, I carry a water filtration system. Otherwise, I would have to boil all the water that I get from streams or add iodine tables to it.

As I ride along in the late afternoon, I am looking for a suitable spot. On some roads and in some regions, finding a camping spot is so easy that the only problem is picking the best one. On other roads or in other regions, I can ride for hours without finding anything at all, but my study of the map in the morning and my observations of the area in which I am riding help me understand what to expect. As I ride along, I see some good sites near houses. If it were later in the day, I would be more tempted to stop and ask permission, but for right now, I continue riding. Here's another good site, but there's a fence. In some states, every patch of property, no matter how useless, is fenced in. Now I see another place, but there's a dirt road leading into it. I don't like such places generally. Anyone traveling in a motor vehicle can pull off here. So, I only camp along such a road if I can find a spot that can't be seen from that road. But even then, the possibility that someone will pull off onto that road is good. My worst experience was on a local trip in 1997. I crossed the railroad track at a parking site and went way back over a hill to camp, but in the morning, some people arrived at the parking site and used my hill for target practice for an hour. Since I was safe from their shots, I just kept quiet, but I felt extremely uncomfortable. It's just much better to stop where others won't.

But now, riding along, I see a favorable area. There's woods on both sides, no houses near, and the land is high and dry (I carry enough water and avoid low sites to avoid wet ground and/or mosquitoes). Looking back into the woods on either side, something the motorists can't do, I notice that the trees are of reasonable size, and that the land on the left is higher. It's a plus if there is no place to even stop a car; certainly, I avoid a frequently used pull-off.

The size and spacing of the trees is an important indication that can be seen from the road. If the trees are all very small and widely spaced, the "woods" will be a weed field. If they are small and tightly spaced, I will have to camp like a hobbit. If they are large, the open spaces will be wide and handsome. In fact, the size of the trees often determines how far from the road I'll camp, since I want to be back far enough to not be visible and since small trees and thick growth with not only hide me quicker but will also make traveling back into the woods more difficult. Of course, traveling at 15 mph, I can also look back into the woods and see details that a 55 mph motorist can not.

Whether the land is higher or lower than the road also has some importance. I don't want to be seen, and it is easier for a passenger to see deep into the woods from above than from below. Occasionally, I will camp on a bluff, hill, or road cut that gives me a balcony on the night sky yet allows me to be invisible from below.

Pulling off the road, I let some cars go by and then push the bike off the road out of sight. In pushing the bike into the woods, I am careful not to let limbs get hung in the wheels or chain. At the edge of the woods, next to the road, the brush and leaves very thick as everything is fighting for sunlight. A few feet back in the shade, there are more open spaces. If everything looks good, I'll keep moving back while looking for a small natural open spot. On the other hand, if the ground is rough, wet, or covered with briars, I will leave the bike and check out some of the other surrounding woods before moving on.

Provided everything is suitable, I will make camp a distance from the road in keeping with the thickness of the cover; the farther I can see, the farther I move off of the road. Often I can see the faces of the motorists as they pass, but I am invisible to them because I am so much darker than the brightly reflecting leaves next to the road (this doesn't work on overcast days). All I really need is enough space to pitch my tent, so sometimes my "clearing" is minuscule. Once in Colorado, I had one little scrubby tree to hide my presence. In fact, in a few cases, I have camped where there was no space for a tent. One night near Murphy, N. C., I felt that it was too dangerous to proceed, but while I found cover, there was no spot to lie down, so I just slept in a sitting position, as I would go to sleep in an arm chair. I have had much worse nights in a fine bed.

What is a good site? Besides giving me enough room to pitch my tent, it must also be on fairly dry ground without many saw briars or other unacceptable weeds or trees. Second, the ground should slope slightly for drainage and yet not be very steep. I always pitch the tent with my feet downhill, so the proof of the ground being too steep will be a tendency for me to slide towards my feet.

Before making my decision final, I look around at the trees. Dead trees or large dead branches must be avoided. Once, on my own property, I looked up and studied a large dead tree, and then I traveled about a hundred feet, climbed on a large rock, and looked back. At that moment, with no breeze blowing, the tree came crashing down! Camping under a dead limb could be fatal.

A few trees received undo attention from lightning, so I look for scars as well.

Activities after Stopping

My next step depends on the time of day. If I have arrived near dark, I quickly prepare my meal and pitch my tent. If the day is early, I usually walk around and check out my woods.

In walking around, the greatest risk is being bitten by insects. There is a mild danger from Lyme disease, spread by tiny deer ticks. While I ignore this danger, I could spray my socks, shoes, and legs with repellent, so the ticks won't get on my body. After my walk, I inspect for the large dog ticks. Due to spending much time in the woods since childhood, I am very sensitive to insects landing or crawling on my body, and I always kill them immediately. I tear dog ticks in half with my finger nails.

If the place I have found has a lot of mosquitoes, I am likely to leave for a better site. However, all nearby land might also be low, or it might be time for the mosquitoes to naturally arrive -- mosquitoes are always worst at dusk. Although I could spray myself with repellent from head to foot for mosquitoes, I generally prefer to wear my jacket and rain pants instead. If a site is on a hill, mountain, or lake shore with a good breeze, the problem of mosquitoes will be minimal.

By the way, there are worse insects than mosquitoes. No-seem-ums are very tiny flying midges that are very difficult to see. Usually, I recognize their presence by my hands and arms burning. While not as painful as being bitten, the sensation becomes overwhelming very quickly. At the campground on the Chesapeake Bay in '93, they appeared in clouds at dusk. I first encountered them in the Smokies and later in Alabama, but Thoreau first met them in Maine. The Canadian black fly is the same creature that we call a gnat in Alabama. However, in Alabama, the gnats fly during the day and just get into your eyes, looking for moisture. In South Georgia, they can appear in clouds. But in Canada, the black flies crawl under clothing at dusk to bite, leaving small bloody marks. Repellent works, and a tent with tight netting is a necessity. All these insects are best avoided by not camping in or near low, wet ground.

Using a Gasoline Stove

My preparation for setting up the stove is minimal. If there is a large flat rock, I'll put the stove on that. Otherwise, I'll just scoop some leaves out of the way to place the stove on the dirt. It is important to be careful when fueling the stove. Any gasoline spilled on the ground can explode into flame later. A good idea is to walk 50 feet away to fill the stove or attach the fuel bottle. My stove also requires spilling a little gas on the outside and igniting it. Again, this is an opportunity to get burned or to burn the woods down, so I use caution. I always carefully tighten the top of the fuel bottle before going on to the next step.

For nearly 35 years, I have been burning white or "unleaded" gas from the gas pump in my gas stoves. For years, Amoco was the only station that carried it; now it's the most common gas in America. However, I have never burned -- and would caution against using -- MTBE gas, oxygenated gas, or gasohol. Coleman sells a fuel very similar to white gas which is often called white gas, but it would not burn properly in a combustion engine as it contains naphtha, aliphatic petroleum distillates, Xylene, and Toluene. Some recommend against using any gas other than Coleman fuel in small gas stoves because of the additives found in unleaded gas or because unleaded gas is more explosive. However, because Coleman gas is sold in gallon containers while a pint of gasoline will last a week, it's not a practical solution for the bike traveler. The solution, in my opinion, is to buy a stove that does not require a special fuel, to be careful about not spilling fuel, and to not breathe the fumes from the stove (which would be hazardous even with Coleman fuel).

I also am very careful while boiling water. One quart of boiling hot water is enough to kill someone (cold water is the best remedy for hot water or a burn). My stove, the old reliable Svea 123, is not too steady, so I always make sure that it is firmly on the ground before adding the pot of water. Losing that much water because of an accidental spill could also leave me thirsty for the night (a terrible experience) or make me break camp.

Often while my stove is bubbling, I am busy with my tent. But I never leave due to the fire hazard and because gas stoves are quick at burning the food in the pot. I have already explained how I cook, so I will pass that by, but I will suggest watching the pot closely as the rice or whatever absorbs water and the rest boils away. A nice pot of food can become a mess within half a minute. Spaghetti is especially troublesome, wanting to either lump together, turn into a sticky, slimy mass, or burn on the bottom of the pan. It is much easier to cook at home, even in the same pot. A good way to prepare for a trip would be to cook the kind of foods that you are going to eat in the same pot and even on the same stove, but use the camp stove only out of doors away from any fire hazard, and don't breathe the fumes.

Pitching a Tent

A good tent should pitch quickly and easily. Remember your feet must be at the lowest spot. As I have already said, remove loose limbs, cones, nuts, or rocks before spreading it. Lying on the ground first is a good quick test. In the tent, I always place a light so I can get up at night, although I use a light very little. Basically, I go to sleep when it's dark. In the tent, I also place a Thermorest pad. I must admit that I was suspicious of these pads when they first appeared, but I have used mine on all my trips for eight years now without a leak. Then, I put in my sleeping bag (I have two: one much lighter than the other to be used for summer trips only. They both are mummy bags with synthetic fill -- down is horrible about absorbing water and clumping into tight, wet balls). I put in my maps, etc., so I can study my route before I go to bed.

Cleaning My Pot

After eating, I clean up my pot with a little water and my fingers. I've become very good at not making a mess. If the pot needs more attention, I will add a touch of soap and some more water. I might use a stick or my fork to clean a tough spot.

"House-Keeping" in the Woods

Then I repack as much as I can into my bags and fasten everything up. I pay special attention to the possibility of rain in preparing for the night. It makes no sense to put a dry sleeping bag into a wet pannier.

Many books insist that it's necessary to hang all food from trees. Since I usually don't have meat and don't camp in public campgrounds, I have only once had visitors to eat my food in the night, and they were mice. I carry trash away when I leave, although I do leave banana peels and other organic wastes in the woods.

Campground Sanitation

Usually, I do my urinating and defecating in the woods on a trip. Many books and some state and provincial laws suggests that human wastes must be buried one or two feet deep. When I first started camping, I carried a small trowel, then used a folding shovel, and finally realized that nothing short of dynamite can make a two-foot hole in the woods; there are just too many rocks and roots. And the truth is that anything buried beneath the active part of the solid just stays there without decomposing. On the other hand, most people just use the top of the ground and leave their wastes exposed to flies, a very unsanitary and unsightly method. On my own property when first camping out there, I used the space under some large, flat rocks, and I discovered that my feces were returning to nature within two or three days. So, on a trip, I first find a place that is not near running water or a path, I second use my foot and shoe to scoop off the leaves and as much of the dirt as I can, I next pull down my pants and then squat in this cat hole (using the natural position) until I'm done, sometimes steadying my bottom against my leg, I then wipe before standing, and I finish by carefully covering everything up.

Wild Animals

Late afternoon is the time when wild animals are likely to show up near the campsite. It is rare for me to encounter animals while hiking because 1) they hear me coming and 2) many animals are more active in the evening and the night anyway. I have seen nearly every wild animal while traveling on my bike or at my cabin or while camping in the woods. None of these animals made any attempt to bother me, and most disappeared as quickly as they were aware of me. My most common visitors are deer, and they will come within 50 feet at times, trying to figure out what I'm doing. On the other hand, at many campsites, I only hear their snorts. Among the few animals I have never seen are coyotes, but I was serenaded by them at a spooky close distance once. I never identify large numbers of my night visitors; they are just sounds in the dark.


I find, when I camp in the woods, that I usually sleep much better than in my own bed. I think part of the reason is being tired from a long ride, but the woods is also very dark and quiet at night. Usually, at home, when I wake during the night, I can't get back to sleep. But in the woods, I'm sleeping again before I have time to get worried.

Getting Back on the Road

In the morning, I make sure that I didn't miss anything before I go out to the road. I also check the bike before I get on to make sure some stick is not jammed into my derailleur, under a fender, or in some other bothersome spot.

Keeping Clean

The most common argument I get against camping in the woods is, "I want to be able to take a shower." Our society has developed a fetish for cleanliness that does not allow smelly bodies and clothes or dirty fingernails. However, the problem of keeping clean on a touring trip is not as great as people imagine. First of all, the cause of much sweaty odor is being out of shape. Second, the cause of most dirt is from working around dirt. As a cyclist, I don't get dirty or sweaty in the normal sense of the word. On my trips years ago, I used to get pretty dirty from the dust of the road, but most of our roads today are clean pavement and grass. Third, a common cause of odor is the clothing, especially soft cotton, which not only captures and holds odors but also rots easily, producing odors. I use only synthetics. Fourth, an additional cause of dirt is skin and hair oil which gradually accumulates. This can create a very sticky feeling. I solve the problem in this fashion. At some point in the afternoon, while my water bottles are still hot from the sun, I find a shady spot off of the road and give myself a little sponge bath, using a touch of dish-washing liquid and an already worn shirt. This cleans the oil off of my skin, so I feel fresh again. Usually, I wait to clean my hair until I have a lake or stream to swim in. Of course, I can't use soap in a lake or stream, but it doesn't seem to be necessary. If it was, I would get out with my hair wet, and clean it with a touch of soap and a shirt, then rise with a water bottle.

The problems of camping in the wild, if done in a careful and conscientious way, are largely imaginary. The pleasures are great.

NOTE: This article once contained a list of the gear I carry on my trips, that information has been moved to Camping Gear.

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