The night before you set off on your first ever cycle wild camping trip on your own, you will probably be nervous. And more than a little excited! It’s a big thing you’re doing – stepping out of your comfort zone, and into the unknown. Of course, when we’re nervous, we’re most likely to forget things. Go have a look at my suggested cycle touring packing list, and edit it to suit your own needs.
You will, in time, develop your own packing style, but there are some common points. For starters, never pack food, and anything that can contaminate food, in the same pannier. Many people rely on spirit-burner stoves, mostly using methylated spirits (meths for short) as fuel. Meths doesn’t have to be spilled onto your food to ruin it. Even if it’s just kept near your food, you risk ending up with food that carries a rather vile meths aftertaste.
Also, when packing your stuff, consider what you might need, and when you might need it. For example, you won’t need your sleeping bag while cycling, but you might need your rain coat. You won’t need your cooking utensils, but you might need your spare inner tube. Things that you might need in a hurry should be packed last, so they’re easily accessible. If you’re unfortunate enough to suffer a puncture, in the rain, you really don’t want to have to unpack everything! I have posts on carrying luggage on your bike, and on how to pack your panniers you may benefit from reading.
A laden touring bike handles differently. It’s a good idea to load up your bike before your trip, then go for a test ride. Doing so will get you used to the changed handling. It will also help you decide if the load you’re carrying is too much, so be sure to include some hills on your test ride. It’s normal to try and pack too much the first time. Try to whittle down the list of items you carry.
On the day
If you did proper preparation, you should be good to go from the outset. Initially, I expect you’ll be more excited than nervous. Once you’re on the road, and riding, you should soon calm down. I usually suggest people keep their first solo cycle camping trip short, but that decision is ultimately yours alone to make. If you can, stop off somewhere for lunch. Just try to keep your lunch break short: once your muscles have cooled down, you’ll find it hard to get going again.
Always, ALWAYS lock your bike! Yes, even if you’ll just be popping into a shop for 30 seconds. 30 seconds is enough for someone to steal your bike. You can’t lock your panniers, and more often than not will have to take your chances. Sometimes, I’ve offloaded my bike and too the panniers inside a shop with me. Trust your gut in this matter. Always remove valuables, such as your cycle computer, phone, etc, before walking away from your bike.
At the spot where you’ll be camping, at very least lock the front wheel to the frame. If you can, use a D-lock to secure your bike to a fence, tree, or similar. When no such option is available, I use a second cable lock, and lock the bike to my tent. The idea is, in the very unlikely event of someone trying to steal my bike, it would shake the tent and wake me. That said, I’ve never been woken in this manner, and I expect nor will you. I do suggest you read my post on security on tour though. It deals with this topic in far greater detail. Don’t forget digital security! Don’t announce on social media where you will be camping. You can post all that after you packed up the following day! After all, do you really want to announce to the world exactly where you’ll be lying fast asleep?
It really helps if you managed to scout the spot where you’re planning to pitch your tent beforehand. Don’t worry if you haven’t, though. When you arrive where you are planning on camping, it’s normal to feel nervous. There’s the not-so-insignificant factor that, strictly speaking, wild-camping is against the law in England and Wales. All sorts of thoughts will be running through your mind. “What if someone sees me?”, “What if I’m robbed, or attacked?” and “What if I get told to move on?” will be a few. However, once darkness falls, also be prepared for the “What was that?!!” thoughts every time you hear a sound. All of these are normal, and you’ll adjust to it. Just be forewarned that often people have a somewhat restless night when they first go wild-camping on their own.
The secret to wild-camping is stealth. Often, that will mean only actually pitching when darkness starts falling, and packing up early in the morning. That said, when I cycled the Kennet And Avon Canal with some mates, we camped out in the open, next to the canal, on a popular dog-walking route. And it was fine! We said good morning to a whole bunch of different dog walkers the next morning, and encountered no animosity. Think about it: if you saw someone pitch a tent in a public park, will you walk over and tell them to go? The vast majority of people won’t do so either.
If you pick a spot away from the public eye, you’re onto a winner. After all, if nobody knows you’re there, then nobody will disturb you. Obviously, whenever possible, try to avoid urban areas. Rural wild-camping is best. Farmers’ fields can make good camping spots, but have a lot of consideration for the farmer! That means you should never camp in a field with livestock in it. Fields with crops planted can be fine, but only as long as you stay away from the crops! Camp on the strip of land around the outside, which doesn’t get ploughed. Very, very importantly, don’t make a fire! Fires leave ugly scars behind that’s not compatible with the Leave No Trace principle. The smoke will attract attention, and in the countryside, a seemingly-random fire will be alarming to the locals. Remember, you can smell even a small fire from afar.
As night falls
You’ve cooked your meal on your gas stove, and you had a lovely hot drink, so finally it’s time to settle down for the night. You get inside your tent and zip it up. (Related, always keep your tent zipped up, even when spending time outside it. You don’t want creepy crawlies to enter the open door, do you?)
You crawl into your sleeping bag and close your eyes. But wait! What was that? Did it sound like someone’s there, outside your tent? Hurriedly, you get out of your sleeping bag, unzip the tent and tumble outside, only to startle a pair of blackbirds in the hedge. With a sigh of relief, you realise there was nobody, and you get back in your sleeping bag. But wait! What was that! Surely this time there’s something there! Quite near your tent! In a mad panic, you fumble to get outside, swinging your torch this way, and that way. It takes a little while for you to notice the startled hedgehog right next to your tent.
Night sounds in nature are different to what you’re used to. Especially the first night of solo wild-camping, every noise you hear might alarm you. This is normal, and you will learn to relax while all the nocturnal animals around you are perplexed about this strange canvas structure that’s suddenly appeared in the middle of their world. Once you realise there’s nothing to be concerned about, you will relax and drift off to sleep.
A new day
I expect you’ll wake quite early. The birds will start the dawn chorus, and if that doesn’t wake you, the light will. You can relax now, because if someone comes along and tells you to clear off, you don’t have to think about where to move to. (I’ve never been asked to move along, so it’s extremely unlikely to happen, anyway). After your morning wee, it’s time to make a hot brew, and perhaps sort breakfast out. Once you’re done with that, it’s time to pack up. With everything back on the bike, take a final walk around where you camped. Check for anything you may have left, and also pick up any litter you see. Yes, even if it’s not your litter!
Next, you can mount your bike with a big grin on your face. You’ve done it! Your first solo wild-camping trip! That smile should last at least all the way back home.