In Part Two of the Bikepacking Solo series, we asked about how bikepackers choose a place to camp and about the differences between camping out during a race versus during a tour. You can find their answers below.
If you missed Part One of the series, you can find it here.
How do you choose a place to camp for the night? Is it pre-planned? Spontaneous?
Annie Le: I’m very fussy about where I camp. Mostly it’s spontaneous, I normally start looking an hour or so before I really want to stop to give me time to find somewhere I feel comfortable. Sometimes I’ll sit for a while before committing to putting my tent up, just to make sure I’m happy where I am. I try to be hidden if I’m near any roads, I find it easier if I’m in the mountains away from people.
Eliza Sampey: Always spontaneous. That’s one of my favorite parts of bikepacking and backpacking, coming upon an amazing unexpected camp spot (or making the best out of a shitty one if that’s all I can find!).
Irena Netik: I set time aside before the ride to study the route. This means that I’ll use Ride With GPS to look at elevation profiles, distances between towns, possible water sources and anything that I can glean from the map. I’ll use Google Maps to look up towns and research their hours. I’ll try to find comments on trail conditions from Facebook groups, trip reports, and bikepacking.com. This informs my daily mileage or the number of hours that I hope to ride and from the maps. I’ll try to get an idea where I may be on the route, what’s near, and deal breakers for camping. In all honesty, although I am a planner and love my spreadsheets, reality sometimes deviates wildly from my plan. I don’t let that get to my head. When I am out there and a section that I thought would take me four hours to cover in reality took me eight hours, it just means that I adjust my plan and I fight not to let that get me down. As much as I try to pre-plan, it’s also very possible that I may not follow the plan at all, like in Smoke ‘n Fire last year.
Isabelle Fisk: I have a tricky relationship with camping: I don’t love it. So, for me, it’s helpful to give myself permission to stop and camp spontaneously wherever it feels safe and comfortable. The anxiety of not knowing where I’ll camp can be a little daunting, but the flexibility of not holding myself to a plan feels worth it.
Janie Hayes: Most of my solo camping experiences have been in races, so a bit out of necessity rather than active choice. Quite honestly I prefer to spend my non-racing bikepacking trips with friends so I don’t solo camp all that much. Still, there is something really beautiful and freeing about wild camping alone. In most of my experience, I’ve had a general idea of a camp spot, but sometimes just have to wing it. Like finding a good comfy ditch or a stand of trees with some nice pine needles underneath. This past fall I spent eight weeks hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and it was fun to be in a place with quite a lot of known campsites.
Katie Scott: I do a mix of both. For example, this summer I did a solo (backpacking) trip on a route that I designed. I used CalTopo to make the route and I wrote out a very detailed cue sheet for myself so I could better conceptualize the route- “at mile 11.5, turn W on Johnson creek trail, descend 2,000 ft/5 mi., passing water source at mi. 13, then turn N, ascending to 11,800 ft at CDT junction…” and I also looked at topo lines and satellite imagery to try to pick out where I could potentially camp that would have good cover and be below treeline and near water. For that trip I was particularly nervous about lightning risk because there were very long stretches above treeline. I ended up camping where I had planned on the first night, but the following night I was hiking way faster and ended up camping way beyond my planned spot. For another trip I did solo this summer, I didn’t plan my camp spots at all ahead of time. Lightning risk was also my biggest concern for this trip as well as avoiding camping under dead trees. I ended up looking at my map throughout the day. I’d get to a spot below treeline and then see about how many miles I had to go before the next sheltered spot and ask myself if I thought I could make it there before a storm or before it got dark.
Kristen Tonsagger: I knew I wanted to get to the end of Segment 3 [on the Colorado Trail] and then find a camp spot, so it was a pre-planned area, but completely spontaneous spot depending on time. I wanted to set up before dark, just so I could really enjoy the quiet time and not just jump right into my sleeping bag!
Laura Heiner: If it’s a weekend outing, I plan a sleep location, but I am always ready to change plans and sleep nearly anywhere along the route. That’s just the way bikepacking goes. If I’m in a race setting, I have goal areas that aren’t specific and just choose a spontaneous spot in that area.
Leigh Bowe: When I’m racing, it’s mostly random, spontaneous campsites of convenience. I tend to bikepack on singletrack in very remote country. That makes it easy to just make camp anywhere I please when I get too tired to ride any further. Sometimes weather will play a factor. If it’s lightning storming, or blizzarding in the winter, I’ll do my best to sleep where I have some natural protection from the elements. This is usually provided in the form of trees, but if I’m racing and there’s a decently clean hardside structure, I’m not opposed to sleeping next to a toilet. There is a bonus of convenience for when nature calls in the morning too! When I’ve been on longer tours through less remote places, I’ll look for public parks. Ideally a hard-sided building will be unlocked to avoid the middle-of-the-night sprinkler situation. Post offices and public bathrooms are good finds.
Mary Ehlers: On my first trip, I had 25 days to figure it out, but at first I tried to plan my camp spots. But a couple days in, I realized being spontaneous was much easier for me so I could bike as far or not far as I wanted. It gave me the ability to enjoy the moment more and stress less about if I was going to make it to the given spot I had picked.
What’s it like camping during a race where you know there are other racers? Does this differ if you are just going out for an overnighter or a tour on your own?
Annie Le: I don’t think there is any difference to me. I’ve always ended up alone when racing, so although others camp in groups especially on the first night, I’ve never had that experience.
One thing I do in races, if I’m going to camp near a road, is turn my tracker off about half an
hour before stopping. It makes me feel safer psychologically.
Eliza Sampey: I try to camp away from other racers as I’m a super light sleeper and don’t want anyone else to wake me up if their race-sleep schedule is different than mine (which everyone’s sleep schedules are different, I’d think, in a solo self-supported race). If I’m only sleeping a few hours, I want them to be as quiet as possible. Plus I don’t want to wake anyone else up if I’m trying to sneak away! For me it’s really no different unless maybe the weather is terrible in a race and it’s comforting to know there are others out there somewhere suffering the miserable night with me, haha. But if I’m touring solo and not racing and the weather is awful, I’ll just take shelter and likely I’m bringing a few more comfort items like a stove for hot food and tea, so I’m not suffering anyways.
Irena Netik: During a race, there is a possibility that I may be camping near another person and that can be a sense of comfort. I also know that people are watching the dots and generally keeping an eye out so that gives me some comfort (possibly a false sense of comfort). In a race, I generally ride longer days and sleep less hours, which means that I may lay down to sleep in a discreet spot where I would not camp if I was on a tour. It also means that I am setting up my sleeping accommodations and packing up in the dark. It’s actually easier to find a spot for a few hours during the middle of the night than a camping spot where you may hang out well before the sun goes down and in the morning.
On a tour, if there is an option for a campground, I will usually stay there because it usually means that there are luxuries such as a pit toilet, picnic table and running water. Many campgrounds have spots set aside for cyclists, so a reservation is not needed. On a tour, I will spend more time at camp so finding a scenic spot by a water source is also preferable.
Isabelle Fisk: I still haven’t been on a solo trip that wasn’t part of a race. I love long solo rides that start and end in the dark, but committing myself to that for longer than one big day outside of a race still feels intimidating. It’s a weird mental block I have.
Janie Hayes: I think the main difference is that sleep is just not as pleasant, deep, or long during a race. I really love the luxury of a good sleep on a bikepacking trip, and especially the leisurely pace of setting up camp and having a slow breakfast while the sun comes up. Because in racing there’s always that background pressure of time, it’s tougher for me to really enjoy sleeping outside. Which is something I’ve wrestled with quite a bit in the past. On the Tour Divide in 2019 (which I didn’t complete), I really felt a lot of conflict about rushing through these beautiful landscapes, reaching a camp spot at midnight and then hightailing it out of there at 4am or whatever. In some way I felt like I was doing a disservice, and it made it a very different experience than it would be otherwise.
Katie Scott: During the AZT (Arizona Trail) 300, it gave me a lot of peace of mind knowing there were other racers out. It made me feel a lot less afraid of being alone at night. And I actually only ended up sleeping alone for a couple hours on the last night. My second night I wanted to stop and camp way earlier than I did because I was so tired, but I was with two other riders at the time and I felt like it would be a huge advantage for me to stick with them, both mentally and for the sake of “racing.”
Kristen Tonsagger: In the context of camping during a race, I feel like there is a lot of pressure for me to ride as long and late as I can to give me an edge over people that have already stopped to camp. I don’t sleep well when racing and feel quite restless, despite being so tired. I set an alarm and force myself out of the bivy to just keep pushing. If I’m out on a tour, I don’t set an alarm, I look for camp spots early to enjoy the sunset and get much better sleep! I enjoy the balance of both – it’s fun to throw the bivy down in exhaustion and climb in with your shoes on, knowing that it’s very temporary, but it’s so much more enjoyable to be relaxed, cozy and content on a tour.
Laura Heiner: Racing is different for sure. Other racers are usually happy to see someone come riding up and will be grateful to have a camping buddy, even though you’re a stranger and female. I wish I had a list of all the strangers I’ve camped with over the years. It’s pretty funny to think about.
When I bikepack for fun, I’m usually in a designated campground or in a dispersed camping area. If I’m solo, and not in a designated campground, you won’t know I’m there. I work hard to be stealthy and unseen.
Leigh Bowe: I know some racers like to plop down, just next to the trail so they can tell if they get passed while sleeping. Others like to hide themselves from (a) other racers or (b) creepy dot stalkers. I tend to look for a camp spot that prioritizes my own comfort and convenience more than race strategy. Similar to if I’m out on an ITT (Individual Time Trial) or a tour on my own, I look for natural shelter or an accessible man-made structure.
Mary Elhers: I started the GD (Great Divide) and the CTR (Colorado Trail Race) with the Grand Depart because knowing other racers are a day away is comforting for some reason. Heading on my first overnight weekend gave me a lot of anxiety knowing I was alone, but I quickly found there were cyclists out there too. I wasn’t alone, I was just doing my own thing so it’s gotten easier.
Stay tuned for Bikepacking Solo Part Three: Facing Fears!
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