Bike Camping for Beginners
It was late one night in September 2014, probably past midnight, and my wife, Sarah, and I were in the garage, bolting 5-gallon buckets onto our kids’ bikes. Together with a bike trailer, these “poor man’s panniers” would carry all of our food, clothing, equipment, and tools for the five-day bike-camping trip on which we would embark in just a few hours. Piles of outdoor gear lay nearby, ready to get packed. On the kitchen counter sat five days’ worth of meals, divided into piles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The kids slept soundly in their beds, resting up for the next day’s 30-mile pedal.
We had been asking ourselves if this trip was a good idea. It certainly sounded like an adventure, but would the kids like it? Would the uphills on loaded bikes be hell? Would an 11- and a 13-year-old’s complaining drown out the joys of the downhills? Would it be safe? We’d all done plenty of cycling, but heading out on a 120-mile ride with young kids would be a whole new ballgame.
The only way to find out was to give it a try. At around 1 a.m., we strapped the bikes onto our utility trailer and finally went to bed. The night was still. Adventure awaited.
DAY 1: ON THE ROAD AGAIN, FINALLY
The sun rises as we cruise east in our van, trailer in tow, en route to Deer Isle on the Maine coast. We arrive in Blue Hill, Maine, and find a spot to park for a few days. We unload the bikes, drink some water, and are on the road in five minutes. Or what seems like five minutes. Looking back at our family trip journal now, a year later, I realize my happy memories are not quite accurate. My 13-year-old’s entry from that day:
“It took Papa and Tasha a while to find a parking spot where they could leave the van for five days but they asked around and we parked behind a carwash, one of the only places we were allowed to park. It took us a while to get going due to some crying and grumpy attitudes. Once we got going though, everyone had smiles on their faces.”
Once on the road, Jackson leads the way, with Sarah right behind. Tasha, 11, and I take the sweep position at the rear. Jackson and Tasha are on old mountain bikes; Sarah is on a cruiser she just got at our local bike shop; and I’m riding my trusty, 20-year-old, all-steel mountain bike, outfitted with slick tires, fenders, and a yard-sale trailer full of camping gear.
I hear hoots of joy ahead as Jackson and Sarah crest the first big hill. One mile down, 29 more to go—today. We are cruising on smooth roads, the sun is shining, and the wind is in our hair. Kids are smiling. Wife is smiling. Life is good.
GETTING GOING, SLOWING DOWN
Twenty miles later, we eat lunch in Brooklin, Maine, at a roadside general store. The beauty of a bike trip is that it turns a ho-hum pitstop into something exciting. Getting there via your own power makes you appreciate all of the details more: crusty bread from the local bakery, homemade ice cream from the general store, meeting strangers who offer to let us camp on their property. We realize we’ve tapped into something special: a form of travel that slows you down and introduces you to new people. Out of the social confines of our car, we are in the open air, exploring, living.
Onwards to our first destination, Reach Knolls Campground. The place is new, as in they just cut down the trees to make a clearing last year. It’s a little raw and the grass hasn’t fully grown in, but the owners are delightful and so excited about accomplishing their dream of opening a coastal campground. There are rustic pit toilets, great secluded campsites, and a short path through the woods leading to one of the most beautiful and sunny pebble beaches we’ve seen. We spend hours playing in the water, burrowing our bodies into the sun-heated beach, and soaking in the late September sun.
We relish the down time in camp. The aches and pains of a bike trip are real, with sore legs and sore rear-ends as the prime culprits. This is normal. You just have to grin and bear it. It will get better, especially if you remember to bring lots of baby powder—or, my personal favorite, Gold Bond Medicated Powder—to treat chafed skin. Sweet relief.
After a dinner of pesto pasta, coffee, and cocoa, we turn in early, in preparation for tomorrow’s hilly ride. We sleep soundly.
DAYS 2 AND 3: GEEZ AND WHINE
An early rise leaves time for a breakfast of pan-fried bagels, cream cheese, fruit, and coffee. Today will be a challenge: 30 miles of rolling hills and a couple of narrow bridges first thing. A narrow bridge presents a stressful situation on a bike. With no shoulder, cars have difficulty giving bikes a wide enough berth. I planned our route to avoid busy highways, but to get to our destination, these bridges had to be crossed. We ride two at a time, making it easier for cars to pass us in a small group. No problem.
Some big hills loom, and with loaded bikes, they’re tough. Whining ensues, and I whip out my best words of wisdom to keep everyone rolling. A good friend of mine calls these nuggets “dadisms.” His choice picks include: “Whining won’t make it any easier,” and “Doing hard things is hard.” My own perpetual favorite? “Every time that wheel spins, we are getting closer to our destination.” (A note to the wise: These usually don’t work. Just keep quiet, keep pedaling, and keep some chocolate handy.)
The rest of the day is delightful. We follow rustic back roads that meander along the coast, with slate blue water, gray rocks, dark green trees, and a deep blue sky as our backdrop. We breathe deeply, and the salt air and earthy fragrance of the forest mulch fill our lungs. During a lunch stop at another general store, an acoustic jam session is just getting underway in a park across the street. Old-timers and young folks gather with banjos, guitars, mandolins, and fiddles. We eat and drink and lay in the grass and listen. We are not in a rush, taking it all in.
AN EQUIPMENT INTERLUDE
A word on our gear: We all have basic bikes outfitted with sturdy rear racks, onto which we’ve bolted square, 5-gallon buckets—a perfect and cheap DIY pannier system. Round buckets won’t work. They have to be square to fit snugly against the rack. Almost every restaurant has spare square buckets. Pickles, soy sauce, and olive oil all come in them. Ask around, and you’ll find some for free.
Secure the buckets to your rear racks using U-bolts, nuts, and a few washers (less than $5 at the hardware store), and you’ll have a sturdy, 100-percent waterproof pannier. If you mount one on each side of your bike, you’ll have a nice, flat platform onto which you can strap larger items, like tents and sleeping bags. Jackson bolted some sections of vertical PVC pipe onto the back of one of his buckets for handy fishing-rod holders. Sarah and Tasha used the wicker baskets attached to their handlebars for maps, cameras, and snacks. Again, nothing fancy. No need to spend hundreds on custom touring gear. Just grab what you have or make something. It’s easier than you think.
Because we wanted to limit the weight the kids were carrying, I took a larger share of the group gear. I ended up using a combination of a square bucket on one side and a bike trailer that I got for $40 at a yard sale. I ripped out the trailer’s seats to make a giant cargo bay, which left so much room that I could pack a LOT of gear: two tents, tons of food, clothes, games, even a mandolin and some books. This setup is heavy on the uphills, but on flat ground, the rear momentum kept me rolling.
The sight of our bikes tricked out with buckets, baskets, and fishing rods made us look like a band of gypsies on bikes, so we dubbed ourselves the “Bicycle Hobos.” Somehow it got into our heads that “Bicycle Hobos” sounds a lot like “Buffalo Soldier,” the Bob Marley tune. So, as we pulled our heavy loads along the road, we spent hours deliriously making up lyrics and belting them out at the top of our lungs on quiet stretches of the Maine coastline.
DAYS 4 AND 5: HEADING HOME
With lobster boats coming and going, Old Quarry Ocean Adventures, at the southern tip of Deer Isle, is on a busy part of the coast. But this amazing little kayak outfitter is nestled among the back coves, with plenty of secluded tent sites. We hang out here for a couple of days, taking day trips by bike, eating good food, playing cards, reading, and catching sun on the granite slabs that lead down to the water.
Old Quarry is just a few miles from historic Stonington, which is distinctive in two related ways: More pounds of lobster are brought into this port than any other in Maine, and more cans of Red Bull are sold at the tiny general store than at any other in Maine. The lobstermen have some very early mornings, often heading to their boats around 2 a.m., and many prefer Red Bull to coffee.
We spend a great afternoon at Stonington, exploring the history of the place and fishing off the town pier. Eventually, we head north again, passing farms, blueberry fields, and granite outcroppings en route to the van patiently waiting at the car wash. We have a big last day: close to 35 miles on loaded bikes, over hilly ground. It’s a tall order for an 11-year-old, but Tasha is a rock star, and we don’t hear a single complaint. Jackson is a true gentleman and takes some of her weight. These are the moments that make you a proud parent. We think maybe the sense of adventure outweighs the physical difficulty. In any case, Tasha keeps pedaling with a smile, while Bob Marley’s famous melody echoes through these Maine hills.
Bicycle Hobos, cruising down the ro-o-oad.
We’ve got fishin poles and mandolins, a very heavy lo-o-oad.
Bicycle Hobos, riding through Ma-a-aine.
When we wake in the morning, our rears are in pa-a-ain.
I said whoa-oh-oh, whoa-oh-oh-oh,
Bicycle Hobos, sometimes we take a wrong tu-ur-urn.
It’s a very long detour, a hard lesson to lear-er-earn.
Bicycle Hobos, on our bikes we carry bu-uh-ckets.
When we get to the campground, we make quite a ru-uh-ckus.
Bicycle Hobos, at night we eat pa-a-sta.
When we wake up in the morning, we are singing like a ra-a-sta.
I said whoa-oh-oh, whoa-oh-oh-oh,
WHAT TO BRING ON A BIKE-CAMPING TRIP
Bike. Bring the bikes you already have—just make sure to get a tune-up beforehand. I don’t recommend buying new bikes unless you’re planning a cross-country expedition.
Panniers/trailer. I highly recommend a sturdy bike rack (about $30 to $40) with square, 5-gallon buckets bolted onto the rack. Panniers made from waterproof nylon or Cordura are great but pricier. If you want to bring a lot of gear, which can be necessary when travelling with younger kids, a bike trailer is perfect. Having your stronger bikers tow more gear improves group dynamics, as it slows them down and keeps everyone at the same pace.
Handlebar bags/underseat bags. These are essential for the small items you’ll use all day: sunscreen, maps, camera, phone, wallet. I carry all of our tools and patch kit in a small case under my seat.
Bike tools. At the very least, you’ll need a tube patch kit, a small adjustable wrench, screwdrivers (regular and Phillips), an Allen wrench set, extra batteries, spare tubes, tire levers, and spare hex-head bolts. A squeaky chain will drive you nuts on a long ride, so bring some chain lube.
Maps. You can’t rely on cell phone coverage, so print out and pack very detailed maps. The beauty of a bike trip is being able to take the back roads, which won’t show up on a standard highway map. Get USGS or similarly detailed maps of the area you’ll be riding through or make copies of a good quality gazetteer. If you’re really on top of things, you can laminate these ahead of time.
Bungee cords. Can’t have enough of these to keep everything battened down and strapped on your bike.
Zip-locks and trash compactor bags. You can use zip-lock and trash-compactor bags (a.k.a. extra thick trash bags) to line your buckets and panniers. They’ll also add an extra layer of waterproofing to keep your sleeping bag, food, and clothes dry. Nothing ruins an experience like being cold and wet, but sitting in your warm tent in a dry sleeping bag, listening to the rain outside, is awesome. Dry campers are happy campers, and the difference is good waterproofing!
Sarongs. I know this one sounds a bit weird, but after years of trial and error, we’ve found these lightweight rayon wraps can be used for just about anything while camping: an absorbent towel that dries in minutes, a picnic blanket, a tablecloth, a wraparound skirt for trips to the campground shower, a makeshift shade on a sunny day—even an emergency sling.
Zip ties and duct tape: With these, you can fasten just about anything that comes unfastened.
10 essentials: Matt Heid, AMC Outdoors‘ gear guru, has a great take on the 10 essentials. For water, you can probably carry 1 quart per person when bike camping, instead of the usual 2 quarts, since you can refill as you go. You’ll want a tent, as opposed to an emergency shelter. And for tools, I don’t go on any adventure without a lighter, a Swiss Army knife or a multitool, and 50 feet of parachute cord.
Lightweight games: Cards and dice never get old.
Small musical instruments: Even a couple of kazoos or a harmonica will keep folks smiling around the campfire at night.
Plenty of cash for ice cream: As all parents know, nothing motivates like sweets.
Swimsuits: You might see some great swimming holes you would have missed while whizzing by in a car.
Patience! Don’t get too preoccupied about reaching your destination as quickly as possible. Some of our best memories involved stopping at flea markets, lemonade stands, and random roadside attractions we found along the way.
WHERE TO GO BIKE CAMPING
- Burlington Bike Path and Island Line Bike Trail. This is the perfect introduction to bike camping: 19 miles each way, flat, great spots to pitch a tent (including Grand Isle State Park), and beautiful. The best part? You get to cross Lake Champlain by bike ferry! About 90 percent of the route sticks to dedicated bike paths along the shore, with only short sections on state roads that have wide shoulders. For details, see AMC’s Outdoors with Kids: Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
- Maine Coast. There are too many great trips to list here, but options range from our Deer Isle route to the carriage roads of Acadia National Park. The state’s countless inlets and peninsulas also make for great exploring. Roads can be narrow, but if you veer off of Route 1, they’re pretty quiet.
- Cross-Vermont Trail. This meandering, 90-mile bike path follows roads and dedicated bike trails through Vermont, from Wells River to Burlington. There are great camping options all along the way, as well as swimming holes and plenty of ice cream. You can find more information on the Cross-Vermont website, and sections of the trail are highlighted in AMC’s Outdoors with Kids: Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
- Leave from your own home. This could be the simplest option of all for those who live in rural regions or urban areas with good bike paths. Nothing can beat the adventure of a three-day loop from your driveway to a nearby campground. Or do a one-way trip and have someone pick you up at your final destination. Happy riding!
MORE BIKING RESOURCES
- Follow a solo cyclist on his bike-camping tour of the Mid-Atlantic Highlands.
- Looking for shorter rides with kids? Try these family-friendly rail-trails in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
- Need to start at the very beginning? Get tips on selecting bikes for kids.