Tips for going cycle camping
Recently, I was asked what cooking gear I use when I go cycle camping, and that made me think about a general post about cycle camping.
I’m a very big fan of cycle touring, and to me, cycle touring means cycle camping. Ernest Hemingway said it best: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them“.
Cycling allows you to travel far faster than walking, but still at a human speed. As a result, you see and experience so much more than you would have from being in a car, and cycle touring means you can go on multi-day rides.
Cycle touring in the UK is easy – there are usually back lanes you can take, which vary from relatively quiet to absolute rural bliss. Also, in most parts of the UK, you’re never very far from a shop, café or pub, though of course, certain areas – the Scottish highlands, for example – presents more challenges.
Of course, some people stay in B&B’s, or hotels, when cycle touring, which is perfectly acceptable, but my preference always will be to camp.
The fact that you’re cycle camping in a well-developed, fairly densely-populated country simply means there’s far less need to be ultra self-sufficient.
There are downsides to cycle camping in the UK: in England, wild-camping is permitted only on some parts of Dartmoor, or with the land-owner’s explicit consent.
As a result, there’s a common misconception that wild-camping in England is illegal – let’s put that fallacy to rest immediately. Wild-camping, in legal terms, is considered trespass, and trespass isn’t a crime. If I was wild-camping on your land, you simply cannot have me arrested for it. The most you can do is ask me to leave, a request I will of course comply with.
In practical terms, there are some unwritten, but extremely important rules to wild-camping, and they are summed up simply as this – leave no trace. I simply cannot stress that enough!
|Leave nothing but footprints|
Whatever you carry in, you also carry out again. Yes, even coffee grounds. Also, do not ever make a fire, and be extremely vigilant with any waste, including organic waste, such as uneaten food. Bag it, then carry it away with you.
Contrary to what some may think, farmers tend to be nice and friendly, and if doubt, simply ask if you may camp on their land, explaining how responsible you will be. Never, ever camp in a field with livestock in it. As friendly as farmers are, messing with their livestock is a sure-fire way to get their backs up, and rightly so! I prefer to scout for a site while it’s still daylight, ideally out of sight, and away from what is obviously land in agricultural use. I try to set up camp fairly late (and may even cook my evening meal before setting up camp) and I leave early. The mantra of pitch late, leave early will help you remain undetected, and undetected means left alone in peace.
Look at the lie of the land – where will the water rushing down the hillside go, in case of unexpected heavy rain? Obviously, you don’t want to camp in what could become a stream later on! Usually, it’s best to avoid camping near water – it will be significantly colder, overnight you may experience far more condensation, and there may be far more insects (especially midges!)
If camping in a pine forest, be very careful – pine needles are extremely flammable! Before lighting your camping stove, ensure there are no branches immediately overhead, and that you cleared an area of at least half a metre around your stove, down to bare earth. After all, you don’t want to be responsible for starting a forest fire, do you? Oh, and when packing up in the morning, recover that cleared are of bare earth.
Have a trial run
The 1st time you wild-camp, you will probably be extremely nervous. You’ll lie awake at night, jumping at every noise you hear (and you will hear much – the countryside is never perfectly quiet). The sound of a hedgehog snuffling right outside your tent – spitting distance from your face – may sound like a ferocious beast about to devour you and your tent. Rabbits innocently scurrying around may sound terrifying. And yet, you’ll be perfectly safe. At this point, I’ll rather strongly suggest you go look at Kajsa Tylen’s rather excellent video about wild-camping (and while you’re there, subscribe to her YouTube channel).
I find the best way to overcome these nerves is to have a trial run. Consider camping in your garden (if you have one), or perhaps a camp site (when COVID permits). I usually test new kit by camping overnight in my garden. That way, if I suffered disastrous kit failure, I can simply go indoors, and go to my warm bed.
Doing a trial run will help you fine-tune your kit-list, too, and figure out the best order in which to pack things. Remember, you’ll be carrying everything on the bike, so weight distribution is as important as being able to access stuff as and when needed.
Wow, now it’s starting to sound very Bear Grylls-like, isn’t it? With any activity, there is scope for things to go wrong, and the 5P principle applies here, too: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.
The first point is simple: if camping on your own, consider what you will do if things go badly wrong. Though there’s a minute likelihood of you needing an ambulance, if you did, how will you direct them? “Turn left after the 2nd big tree” won’t cut it!
I suggest you consider letting others know the route you’re planning on taking, and when you’re due back, so they can raise the alarm, if needed. Next, consider using an app such as Glympse to share your location with someone you trust, in real-time. Besides, this can – in a way – make them share in your adventure.
Have a first aid kit, including various plasters, bandages, sterile water (to wash your eye out with, if needed) and (check with your doctor in case of doubt) antihistamine. Also ensure you carry a space blanket. They take up almost no space, are cheap, and could make an enormous difference.
Obviously, ensure your bike’s in good condition, and that you know how to do basic maintenance, such as replacing a punctured inner tube, or a failed brake or gear cable. Naturally, you should carry spare cables, and spare inner tubes, as well as a pump (I favour a CO2 inflator). You also want a basic toolkit, carried somewhere you can easily access it, without having to go digging through your panniers.
Bike packing, or cycle camping?
If you don’t know the difference, I’ll suggest cycle camping, and if you know the difference already, you can choose for yourself.
Bike packing is more hard-core, more aero-dynamic, more concerned with weight and speed of travel. I do cycle camping, and prefer to travel at a less-rushed pace. I also prefer to sleep in a tent, instead of a bivvy, which is what bike-packers usually use. While you’re on that site, have a good read of what Al Humphries has written, especially about micro-adventures, and consider buying his book – you’ll thank me later for it!
Cycle campers usually carry their kit in panniers – I use 2 rear panniers that clip onto my bike’s rack – while bike-packers tend to rely on frame bags and large seat bags.
You will need to find the option that works best for you, though for me, cycle camping is the way.
You will need water! Do NOT be tempted to drink from streams, as you have no idea whether or not there’s a dead sheep carcass lying in the water half a mile upstream. Ensure you carry enough water on the bike, and crucially, top up at every available opportunity. You need water for drinking, cooking, hot drinks, washing up and brushing your teeth. On a hot day (yes, the UK gets surprisingly hot) you could easily go through several litres of water in a short time.
This is my kit list, and you may find others have totally different lists. There’s no such thing as the definitive list of cycle camping gear, though there are some basic essentials, with everything else being pretty much what you find works best for you.
I’ll start with my tent. Shelter is a basic survival need, and while it may be glorious to fall asleep under a starry sky, it’s less thrilling being woken by the cold rain at 03h30! Though South African, I live in the UK, and in the UK it rains a fair bit. You get 2 kinds of tents: those that pitch outer first, and those that pitch inner first, before fitting the outer, weatherproof cover. I prefer tents that pitch outer first, as I can pitch it while it’s raining, yet keep the inside dry.
Many people will link you to wonderful, expedition-grade tents, but I got my little tent from Tesco, for £11! It’s served me very well over the past 9 years or so that I’ve had it. It certainly isn’t the smallest (when packed) nor the lightest, but I’m perfectly happy with it. Before COVID put a stop to my plans, I was going to cycle Devon Coast To Coast on the 1st and 2nd of January 2021, wild-camping overnight.
Prior to doing that, I tested my tent overnight in the garden, at temperatures that dropped to zero, while it was raining, and I was fine inside it.
I use a Vango 3cm self-inflating sleeping mat – again, far from the best, but perfectly adequate for my needs. Top tip: give your sleeping mat 10 minutes to self-inflate, then use your mouth to blow it up as much as you can. That will make a surprisingly big difference.
My sleeping bag is a 2-season bag, but I use a fleece sleeping bag inner during cold weather. I also use an inflatable pillow. Finally, because I shave my head, in cold weather I wear a Thinsulate beanie, and I sleep with it on.
I have a Vango gas stove that screws directly onto gas cylinders, with a fold-flat aluminium wind blocker. Without the wind blocker, cooking takes far longer and uses far more gas. My only criticism of my little stove is that it doesn’t self-ignite, and I have to carry a lighter to light it.
I used to carry an aluminium cooking set, but very recently upgraded to a Kampa collapsible saucepan (1 litre capacity) and a collapsible kettle. I also have 2 collapsible bowls I take and the lid of one serves as a plate.
I recently got an Aeropress Go and I’m extremely happy with it. So much so that it has now been upgraded to an essential part of my camping gear, but then I’m a big coffee lover. Oh, and if you wanted to have some seriously good coffee, from a very ethical company, can I suggest the Machu Pichu blend from Café Direct?
On trips where I only overnight for a single night, I might not cook, but that does depend on the weather and the season – with cold-weather camping, you really do want warm food inside you. Sometimes, I take long-life camping food, which requires no cooking as such, just warming up (and the hot water is then used for coffee). Most camping supplies shops stock these. I try to always take a peanuts and raisins mix with, as emergency food, and I also take SIS energy gels, for absolute emergencies.
All my gear, except for the tent, fits inside my panniers, though I am planning on getting 2 podsacks (with mounting brackets) to carry the sleeping mat at sleeping bag inner on the front forks of the bike.
My panniers themselves are from Lidl. They cost me £10 each, if I recall, and they’re rather nifty, in that they also convert to backpacks. I’ve had them for several trouble-free years, during which they saw daily use on the bike most of the time.
I always take a 20 000mAh power bank with – that can charge my phone and Garmin cycle computer up at least five times. In addition, I have dynamo lights on my bike, with USB power, and during the day, when I don’t need lights on, I charge the power bank as I’m cycling, and you can read about my setup here.
My Garmin is a veteran – an Edge 500 – and is showing it’s age, so these days I’m increasingly finding myself relying more on my phone. My phone is waterproof, and I mount it on the handlebars with a quick-release mount.
When riding routes I don’t know, I now rely on the excellent RideWithGPS app on my phone for navigation, and when my phone’s battery starts running low, I simply plug it into the power bank.
Planning that first trip
To me, planning an adventure is an essential part of the whole adventure. As I’m a massive map-geek, and my starting point is always the RideWithGPS web site. I plot all my routes on there, as it allows me to quickly and easily switch between Google satellite view, or Open Cycle Map, plus a few other map options. Crucially, I can use Google Streetview from there, too, and that’s proved very useful in finding potential camping spots before.
Once you have an idea for your first cycle camping trip, look at the forecast (I’m a believer in using the superb Norwegian Meteorological Institute’s site) as there’s no point in picking a weekend of rubbish weather for your first adventure, now is there?
You don’t have to go far at all, and you don’t have to be away all day, overnight, and all of the next day. Once you have that first trip under your belt, the bug will have bitten, and you can start planning more, and perhaps bigger adventures.