What I’ve learned about bike camping

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Three days into this tour and I’ve learned that one of my favorite things about tent camping by bike in the Northwest during this time of year are conversations you strike up with friendly people along the way. It certainly helps that the weather is perfect: highs in the upper 70s, lows in the mid-50s, and virtually no chance of rain this week. (If it was raining, like Seattle experiences the rest of the year, this would really suck.)

Bike sites at Deception Pass State Park, WA.
Bike sites at Deception Pass State Park, WA.

When I pulled into Deception Pass State Park, WA, my smartphone had already told me that the regular campsites were nearly full, but I knew that they had 5 biker sites set aside for travelers on two wheels (and additional hiker sites for those arriving on foot). Here I met a trio of older Canadian women who happened to be cycling the same Vancouver-Victoria-Port Angeles loop as me, though in the opposite direction, and at a more relaxed pace. We compared travel notes for about a half-hour, then poured over my Adventure Cycling maps to help me get better oriented to biking into Vancouver, their home town, as well as Victoria, which isn’t on my map. While both of these cities are exceptionally bike-friendly, it turns out that the place where I’ll be staying on Wednesday night requires some creative thinking to avoid a tunnel that is not open to bicycles. Many thanks to the kindness of Canadian strangers for pointing me in the right direction.

But I have a tendency to mentally overcompensate in cross-cultural communication. You might think, “They’re Canadians, eh? What could go wrong?” No major faux paus, thank goodness, but lots of little ones in my mind. While speaking our conversations were occasionally drowned out by fighter jets taking off and landing at a nearby US naval base, and inside myself I was silently apologizing (“Sorry for the intrusive militarism on our otherwise friendly border”). When one of the Canadians asked me if I knew how cold it would get that night, I knew the answer but mentally stumbled around while trying to be diplomatic and attempting to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius in my head. (“Is it multiply by 5/9 and add 32? or the other way around?”)

Kids zipping around the campsite loops on bikes.
Kids zipping around the campsite loops on bikes.

Another personal favorite about riding into state parks is watching and hearing all of the kids have an absolutely fabulous time riding their bikes around the campsites. They’re just going in circles—first one direction, then the other, maybe followed by a game of chase, then another dozen circles—but that’s the simple joy of bike riding, with virtually no danger of being hit by a car. Considering how many kids grow up today in auto-oriented neighborhoods that may not be safe for biking, it’s wonderful to hear the freedom in their voices as they zip along the camp loops. Reminder to parents: if you want your kids to spend less time on computer screens, then get involved and advocate for safer bike routes in all of our communities.

But one downer that I learned last night in Birch Bay State Park, WA, at precisely 1:32am, was the sound of a raccoon clawing open the food bag on my bike pannier. Clever little rascals. I got lucky and chased the the critter away before it busted out my dried soup (yes, I too am tempted by the smell of masala lentil pilaf late at night), but I realized how this experience differs from car camping, where I usually put the food in the van overnight. Next time, should I move the food into the tent with me (I always heard this was a bad idea, especially if you’re around bears) — or hang it by a rope over a tree limb (which sounds like a great idea, if you happen to have a long rope, an ideal tree, and no squirrels). More lessons to learn on the bike trail.

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Jack Dougherty

Jack Dougherty writes about cycling adventures, advocacy, and his growing appetite at JackBikes.org.

5 thoughts on “What I’ve learned about bike camping”

  1. Darned Raccoons!!!! You should NOT put the food in your tent. We will get you some string for your next biking loop. Hey, maybe it can be your birthday present!

    1. I’ve got about 12 feet of cord in my tent bag, but one problem is that the dang tree limbs are much taller!

  2. I love your sense of intercultural awareness. And I need to get you over to this side of the pond at some point so you can take it for an extended spin. On another note, if you happen to have (or can borrow or buy) some fishing line and a a decent sinker, you might be able to use that to hang up your food over some pretty tall limbs.

    Masala lentil pilaf — guten Appetit!

  3. Hi Jack,
    Awesome adventure you are having!

    I agree, don’t bring food into your tent. You can get 3mm or 1/8″ nylon cord at any REI, most outdoor stores, or army surplus stores etc, perhaps $5-6 for 25-50 feet. I use this and a stuff sack to hang food when camping. Tie the loose end around a stick, throw stick over branch, pull up the bag, then tie off the loose end around the tree. This should keep small animals out of your food. It won’t prevent a determined black bear, but I don’t worry about that except in areas with a lot of bear-human habituation (like Yosemite), where there will probably be bearproof lockers.

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