It was 2013, I’d survived 12 months of unemployment and the worst temp jobs after graduation to finally land some stability as an AmeriCorps VISTA, receiving a “living stipend” that amounted to less than minimum wage. I was broke. Cycling had become my primary hobby and means of transportation, its mostly cost-free and body strengthening nature being both practical and appealing for the desperation of my early 20s. I was delighted to meet people who informed me of the possibility of bike camping, the most low-rent kind of travel possible. Not only did it provide the opportunity to ride at a distance that stroked my nascent distance cyclist ego, it also allowed me to go camping, something which I had desperately missed from my childhood in rural America. At this time, I was still tooling around the city on the slightly too big for me 10,000 lb Trek 820 hardtail I’d gotten for free from my college when I agreed to not bring a car for my first year. When the email came in that we’d be going to Illinois State Beach in Zion, and it was about 40 miles away, my confidence wavered slightly. I was sure I could do the ride, but I was well-aware that it was going to be the worst with my beast of a mountain bike.
As I read over the thread now, I cringe slightly at how little of an idea I had about what I was doing and how unconfident and tiny I sound. Thankfully, I went on my first bike camping trip with 6 of the most prepared and supportive ladies around. I ended up borrowing a friend’s 43cm Windsor touring bike for this ride, which was definitely the right choice. The bike was just a little too small for my 62” stature (a feat which has never been repeated!), but I was working ⅓ as hard as my Trek made me work. My kind, beautiful, brilliant friends had convinced me that it was super dumb to even try to bring the 6-person tent I owned at the time (thanks guys!), so I made up for it by offering to bring a lock and carry a lot of snacks as well as my personal sleeping bag and other necessities for the overnight stay. Insisting on carrying stupid amounts of gear on my bike is definitely a personal trait that persists to this day.
I started the trip off with a trek north, the pieces of our Blue Line entourage meeting at various points for our grand départ from California and Devon. Those 6 miles were enough to confirm that I had done a good job securing everything to my bike and balancing my load. I gave myself a pat on the back, feeling more confident already. Before leaving city limits, our group made the very good decision to eat a good breakfast (strata: carbs, dairy, protein, and veggies) and drink an impractical amount of coffee. We nagged each other about sunscreen, refilled water, checked our loads one final time, and headed for the trail.
We headed north on the North Shore Channel Trail, eventually connecting with the Green Bay Trail. At the time I was enamoured with the greenery of the Green Bay Trail, still not being accustomed to places that have trees; subsequent years of riding have placed it in my top 5 most hated trails. We stopped when we reached Highland Park, loitering around the war memorial with our grimy bodies and heavily loaded bicycles, notably lacking in any Rapha apparel. We snacked and refilled our water, confirmed that we knew where the next trail was, and headed out for what would be the worst part of the trip: The Robert McClory Bike Path. When I talked about this with my roommate years later, she remembers this trail as more interesting than I do. The stretch through Highwood is a glorified sidewalk, the part where I first began to regret doing this ride in jorts and Keens (so many bumps, so much irritation). The following portion goes through mostly prairie, which is a real snoozefest if you’re from a desolate Plains State. The true test came after the Great Lakes Naval Station. From this point on, the trail becomes crushed limestone through vacant lots. After 30 miles of riding, this stretch can best be described as demoralizing. We were so close, yet there was no end to the gravel in sight. I became like your 4 year old brother “Are we close?” “When’s the turn?” “How many more miles?” I probably should have looked at the route myself; it would have been way less annoying for everyone.
Half an hour later, we finally turned onto paved roads and made our way eastward to the campsite. Upon arrival, we unloaded, set up, and then got ready to head out for groceries, which were a few minutes away. I was very glad we hadn’t carried any more than we already did to the site, and still follow this practice when I go camping. We got a fire started, I ate a problematic amount of sausages, and we somehow managed to go through 1 box of wine and and 1 ½ handles of whiskey among 7 women. Waking somewhat hungover the next morning, we headed into town for a full-on breakfast and all the coffee in the world at the diner. We rode back to camp, packed up, and rolled out.
The ride back felt different. I felt stronger. I now knew, rather than just suspecting, I’m strong, I’m fit, and I’m completely in love with bike camping. We stopped in Highland Park at the war memorial one more time, this time also getting an extra large pizza, which we finished on the spot. A few hours later I arrived back at my apartment tired, smelly, and completely ready to do this again: bigger, better, and maybe this time on my own bike.
You can really do this on any kind of bike you like. I’ve gone camping with folks riding hybrids, road bikes, cross bikes, touring bikes, single speeds, and fixies. The only limitation on bike style I’d assign is that your bike should have a rack or some sort of bikepacking situation. You will regret your choices if you try to haul your gear in a backpack. With that said, having a bike that fits you that is designed for distance riding, with gears, certainly makes doing this easier and more enjoyable. This trip is what made me decide to buy my Surly Cross Check, which has served me well.
Even the relatively cheap Avenir panniers I bought in college to transport 10lbs of flour from the grocery store did the job, but having waterproof voluminous panniers is a worthwhile upgrade. Most people I know, myself included, use Ortlieb’s backrollers, but my roommate has some sick Swift Industry panniers that are also great.
Eating and drinking while you are riding is really, really important. Not being nourished or hydrated enough is a great way to feel like garbage and be a total jerk to your companions. What you eat matters a lot less than eating something over the course of the ride (though I’d save the flaming hot cheetos for when you get into camp). Do what works for you.
Always have a way to fix flats. Someone is going to get a flat. This should never be a thing that ends your ride. Get a serviceable travel pump, I use Topeak’s Road Morph. If you don’t already know how to fix a flat, a number of shops do a recurring fix-a-flat class and will teach you how in a patient non-cyclebro way. I wish I would have done that because learning on Central Park when you’re a couple miles from home and sort of know what you’re doing is bad.
Tents larger than 3 person are not a good idea. It gets bulky before it gets impossibly heavy. You’re really just better off if you have more small tents than trying to figure out a way to transport a big one.
There is always cycling apparel that can make your ride more comfortable. I’d start with a chamois & chamois cream, then recommend a jersey, finally cycling shoes if you find yourself getting foot numbness. It’s also worth paying attention to bar tape/handlebar grips and gloves.
If you’d like to give this a try, please check out the resources on my blog about this very subject: bikecampchicago.info. I’ve got campsite reviews with suggested routes, gear reviews, and in-depth planning documents from packing your gear to planning your adventure. For those of you who aren’t sure yet, I’ve also been working on reviewing all the bike trails in the region. Know before you go!