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Our First Bike Camping Trip

We don’t own a car so we walk and bike everywhere in town. Biking is fun and it keeps us in great shape. There was even a cool article in Bicycling Magazine recently about how Chris inspired a co-worker to start biking to work. Basically, we love bikes!

As readers of this blog, you already know that we love spending time in nature. We’ve always wanted to combine these two loves, bikes and backcountry camping, into one trip. This is the story of our first bikepacking trip. Not everything went as planned, but we definitely came away with good lessons we can apply on future trips.

On a Friday night in August we pulled out all our normal backpacking equipment, minus the backpacks. Instead we packed our gear in panniers. Then we added some additional bike-specific items: a mini pump, tube repair kit, tire lever, spare tubes, a multi-tool, bike water bottles in place of our water bladders, mountain bike shoes for easy walking and good traction, padded bike shorts, bike locks, and helmets. We also included a full 10-liter dromedary since our destination wouldn’t have any water sources.

Saturday morning we were filled with excited and nervous energy as we headed out for a new type of adventure. We rode north on the Poudre River Bike Trail. It’s a paved, flat path with great scenery. We were off to a good start.

Biking along the Poudre River

Biking along the Poudre River

Crossing one of the bridges on the bike trail, we met a cool multi-species team out for their own Saturday adventure.

Pony and dog pulling a small carriage

Pony and dog pulling a small carriage

After 7 miles on the bike trail, we turned left onto County Road 23. One and a half miles later we made a right onto County Road 25. The rolling hills in this section had us working harder, especially with the added weight of the camping equipment and water in our panniers. We considered the extra challenge a good excuse to pause and look at the rock formations and birds around us.

Biking to Lory State Park

Biking to Lory State Park

One of the first bike camping difficulties we noticed was that our cameras, stashed in our panniers, were hard to access quickly. We ended up using them less than we would have on a hike, where they’d be close at hand on our backpack hip belts. Instead we took lots of phone pictures, since our phones were always in our pockets as we rode.

Red siltstone formations near Lory State Park

Red siltstone formations near Lory State Park

We pedaled onwards and soon reached the Lory State Park visitor center. There we picked up a first-come first-served backcountry permit for $10. We also paid our $3/person park entry fee, then headed to the trailhead. Camping on a bike is cheap!

The backcountry sites were located on a ridge 1000 feet above us. The topo map showed the Timber Trail winding its way up a gradual ascent for the first two miles, then sharpening into steeper switchbacks for the last mile. The plan was to bike the flatter, easier sections, then walk our bikes up the switchbacks at the end. Things didn’t go quite as planned.

The Timber Trail was rocky, and we had to completely focus on maneuvering.

Biking the Timber Trail

Biking the Timber Trail

Within minutes, Anna hit the edge of a big slanted rock. It shifted her balance far to the left. She tried to correct but the weight in her panniers had already taken over. Down the hillside she flew!

Luckily she skidded to a stop quickly. Anna’s heart was racing. She had to pick some dirt and pebbles out of a bloody knee and palm, but she was fine. The bike got a bit dinged up, but had no serious damage.

Some cuts and scrapes couldn’t stop us. We biked on more cautiously, getting off and walking over more difficult spots. Even if we had to walk our bikes the remaining two and a half miles, how bad could it be?

Walking difficult spots on the Timber Trail

Walking difficult spots on the Timber Trail

Unfortunately the trail became rougher and rougher. Our touring bikes didn’t have the beefy tires and tall ground clearance required to tackle this technical terrain, and the panniers made weight shifts much more challenging. Soon we’d completely given up trying to ride. It was time for hike-a-bike.

We quickly learned that walking a bike on technical singletrack is much more difficult than walking it on pavement. The trail was so narrow in spots that our legs got scratched against all the brush. Sometimes there were cacti on both sides of the trail. We tried to avoid spines in our skin and in our bike tires. When one of us heaved our bike up and over a large rock or bump, the bike would lurch forward on the downslope, often causing the pedal to painfully slam into our calf. (Both our right calves turned black and blue a few days after this trip.)

Despite getting beat up, we were gradually making progress towards our backcountry campsite for the evening. With about a mile to go, we reached the switchback section of trail. Pushing our loaded bikes up the steep, tight, rocky switchbacks was much harder than hiking with a backpack. Our progress slowed even further.

Pushing a bike up a switchback

Pushing a bike up a switchback

Our arms were exhausted from pushing and lifting these pannier-laden bikes. We took many breaks, propping our bikes against the hillside. Eventually we made it to the top of the ridge and saw a campsite! We plopped down in the shade. Once we regained some energy, we checked out the 3 campsite options in this area (sites 4, 5, and 6). We opted for site 6 since it looked west, away from town, and the ridge blocked any sounds from boaters far below on the east side.

Backcountry campsite in Lory State Park

Backcountry campsite in Lory State Park

We ate a hearty dinner, hung our bear bag, then went for a little walk to explore another option for descending from the ridge in the morning. We ultimately decided that going back the way we came would be best. The views on the walk were lovely and the setting calming in the early evening light.

A few late-blooming wildflowers showed their colors in the meadow.

Blanketflower

Blanketflower

We found a sitting rock and took in the quiet. Wind blew through the grasses making beautiful textured patterns.

Grasses in Lory State Park

Grasses in Lory State Park

Tired, we went to bed early. Sunday morning was our wedding anniversary, and we laughed about how our vows said “I pledge to support your dreams and encourage us to try new and strange things.” This trip was definitely a new and strange adventure for us!

As we were eating breakfast we heard some odd noises. A whole gang of wild turkeys came up the path. They were munching on the grasses we had admired the night before. They wandered all over the ridge eating. Suddenly a turkey fight broke out. There was much squawking, gobbling, and flapping of wings. It was quite comical.

Wild turkeys

Wild turkeys

We packed up the panniers and headed back down the ridge. Gravity was on our side so going down was a bit easier, but we still accumulated plenty of additional scrapes and bruises. We held onto our brake levers tightly as we walked, so we wouldn’t lose control of our bikes. Walking our bikes that first mile down rocky switchbacks took us 1 hour and 45 minutes. For comparison, hiking down a steep mile with backpacking packs would take us less than 30 minutes. There was definitely going to be a learning curve with this bikepacking idea.

Down off the switchbacks, the trail opened up and flattened out, but we still opted to walk. It was easier to take in the great views on foot.

Birds swooped in and out of the brush.

Back at the trailhead, we mounted our bikes for the ride back home. The route began on a dirt road which soon transitioned to pavement. This part of the adventure went off without a hitch.

Biking on County Road 23

Biking on County Road 23

Despite this trip not going completely as planned, we had a great time — and not a single flat!

Here are a few of our thoughts regarding future trips:

  • Road riding with the loaded panniers worked perfectly. The only paved riding change would be easier gearing for steeper hills.
  • If we decide to do more dirt and gravel riding, we’ll get wider tires (Anna’s 29 mm tires didn’t cut it off road).
  • Bikepacking frame, seat, and handlebar bags would provide plenty of storage while keeping the weight centered on the bike.
  • Ideally we’d have serious mountain bikes for an off-road adventure like this trip.
  • Alternatively, we could bike to the park, then lock our bikes at the trailhead and carry our camping equipment in normal backpacking packs up the trail.
  • A third option would be to bike down sparsely-traveled National Forest roads and find a good dispersed camping site. Our bikes should handle these smoother gravel roads just fine.

We don’t yet have all the answers, but we’re positive there will be more bikepacking in our future.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Patricia Rice #

    Bravo for going into “territories and modes untried!”
    This is a captivating entry on your blog and, as always, the photos are top notch. Thinking of you down in AT-territory, Patricia and Michael

    October 8, 2015
  2. Stephen #

    Rad post. Bike packing is the best. I’m looking forward to reading more cyclo-ventures. Also, happy anniversary.

    October 9, 2015
  3. Loved reading the down to earth and tech details – and the top gun photos

    October 9, 2015
  4. Jackie #

    Love this! My husband and I took up mountain biking this year (correction, he did it a lot before we got married but now I’m joining him). We’re going on a 60 mile ride this week (not all mtn biking), I would love to try bike packing though! Thanks for the insight :-)

    October 9, 2015
  5. Sounds like a great adventure! I’ve always wanted to try bike camping but I am not sure my knee will agree :)

    October 9, 2015
  6. Great introduction to adventure cycling, I don’t know anybody who has a successful first off road trip. Be careful, it’s addictive!

    October 9, 2015
  7. That was quite an adventure… The hike a bike did not look like a lot of fun. But you both persevered. Great job, love reading about your adventures on your blog.

    October 9, 2015
  8. This is great! Bike camping is something we’d also like to try, but for all the reasons you mentioned, we aren’t ready yet. What kind of bikes do you guys have? Justin has a great mountain bike and I don’t. We’ve gone off trail without equipment and know we need more practice before trying with paniers! Kudos for trying and sharing your adventure!

    October 10, 2015
    • Thanks! We have a Salsa Vaya and a Specialized Dolce. They both work really well on paved roads, and they’re good on well-packed dirt roads. However, they struggle on deep gravel and technical trails, which is where a real mountain bike is best. We’ve decided there’s no one perfect bike for everything. It’s all about finding the right compromise for what you want to do.

      Frame bags, handlebar bags, and seat bags are preferable to panniers for off-road riding because they keep the weight centered for easy maneuvering. We had our panniers because we use them for grocery trips, but they aren’t the best for bikepacking. We’re looking forward to experimenting with other types of bags in the future.

      October 22, 2015

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