If you like motorcycling and camping separately, you'll find that putting the two together is a hard combination to beat. When you're motorcycle camping, the adventure doesn’t end when you stop for the night - it continues. Instead of lying around in a boring, overpriced motel room, worrying about the safety of your bike in the parking lot while mindlessly flipping through tv channels, you sit by a crackling campfire, friendly shadows dancing around you, a breeze rustling the leaves overhead, your bike in plain view. The great outdoors! Natural. Basic. Pure. You feel like you’re somehow connected to the explorers, mountain men and cowboys of bygone eras, and you feel more in step with the true spirit of motorcycling. You feel more in step with the true spirit of motorcycling because you are more in step with it.
Now, I know for sure that motorcycle camping isn't for everyone. Lots of riders tell me that the closest they'll ever get to camping is the Holiday Inn. That's fine by me. I'm not a motorcycle camping snob who looks down on those who don't camp. Good grief, what's it to me how or where a person likes to bed down? I enjoy motels and hotels as much as anyone – maybe more than most – and on camping trips I'll opt for the comforts and conveniences of motels whenever I feel like it and without a bit of remorse about not camping. I know a few motorcycle camping fanatics who think motels are for wussies, but I'm not of that opinion. Frankly, I’d take a Four Seasons Hotel over a 4-season tent just about any day if I could afford it.
I truly understand people's reluctance to camp, especially if they've had a bad camping experience or two in the past. The memory of a cold, wet night outdoors doesn't inspire much eagerness for another. Even if a person’s past camping experiences were generally good, there are still some factors that could militate against motorcycle camping: the additional gear and different packing considerations; the likely lack of amenities and conveniences; the chance of getting caught in miserable weather; bugs and critters; and the whole what and how of meals. Those concerns are deal-breakers for some people.
I suppose some of the things I like about camping are the very things others dislike about it. Setting up my tent, preparing my sleeping bag, exploring the area, gathering firewood and building a campfire are all cherished rituals for me, but I've got it in my blood. My family camped a lot when I was growing up - way, way more than any other family I knew - and I was in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Explorer Scouts, too, so performing the rituals of camping transports me back to my childhood and a lot of great memories. Geez, even the crappy memories have turned into wonderful memories in the ensuing half-century. Just how integral was camping to my upbringing? Well, while my friends were getting cars and/or trips to Hawaii for high school graduation, my parents gave me a tent, sleeping bag and backpack. Like I said, it's in my blood.
I don't want to pass myself off as some big expert on camping generally or on motorcycle camping specifically, but this isn't my first trip around the block without training wheels, if you know what I mean. I've been camping for over 50 years and riding for about 25, so I've done this stuff for a long time. There's a very good chance that I'm a step or two ahead of you, and if I can make your motorcycle camping experience more positive, successful and enjoyable, I'll consider this little essay a worthwhile effort.
Set up that new tent in the backyard several times before your first
camping trip with it. Nothing to it? Do it faster. Try it blindfolded.
Set it up, tear it down, pack it up; set it up, tear it down, pack it
up. Inflate your sleeping pad a few times. Inflate, deflate, pack it
up; inflate, deflate, pack it up. Sleep in your sleeping bag at home,
in your tent, in the rain. If you have a Big Agnes sleeping system,
pair your bag and pad several times. Practice stuffing your sleeping
bag in its stuff sack until you can do it quickly and efficiently. Plan
on cooking? Practice with your stove before your first trip.
2. Ease yourself in. Start with small doses of camping, close to home. At first, try just one or two nights rather than one or two weeks. Using new camping gear is sort of like dating – the first few times together are for getting familiar with each other, not for going all the way, and you don't start with a long commitment. You could also liken initial camping-trip planning to figuring out the proper dosage of a medicine. You don’t start with a system-shocking mega-dose and then reduce it incrementally to find the proper dosage. Rather, you start small and incrementally increase. Camping is a little like that: start small and incrementally increase. It’s easier to find the length of trip you can enjoy by starting with short trips and progressively working your way up to longer ones.
Staying close to home allows you to abandon camping if the weather turns bad; it keeps travel time reasonable; and it minimizes the variables inherent in long-mileage days. It also allows friends or family to swing by for a visit, which can be kinda nice, especially if you forget something that can be delivered by someone who was going to drop by and check out your campsite anyway. Eventually you’ll want to put some serious distance between yourself and home - sometimes that's a substantial part of the point of both riding and camping, after all - but when you are just getting started with motorcycle camping there are real advantages in maximizing the camping and minimizing the riding .
3. Plan. Don’t make it up as you go – not to start with, anyway. Know your destination, route, distances, off-route sites to see, probable gas stops, where you’ll eat, etc. The ability to plan ahead and execute that plan successfully is the key to having the confidence and ability to head out, eventually, without a plan. Do it enough and you'll develop a subconscious trip-prep memory that you'll retain and apply even without careful planning. That is, you won't have to think through everything so carefully after the basics are etched in your mind through a season or two of careful planning.
4. Insist on dry weather. You can’t control the weather itself, of course, but at the start you can refuse to camp in the rain. If it means checking into a motel, so be it, and even if it means turning around and going home, go. Camping in the rain is for veteran campers who are well-prepared, know their equipment and know how to make the best of a bad situation, and even at that, believe me, if it’s raining, most veteran motorcycle campers will opt for a motel. I've yet to meet anyone who likes camping in the rain. Your initial goal should be to string together a few excellent, enjoyable, hassle-free outings, not to test your misery threshold.
5. Start with amenity-rich campgrounds. No need to go primitive at the start (or ever, for that matter). Kampgrounds of America (KOA) and other full-service campgrounds are a great way to get started. After all, you aren’t trying to push the envelope at first. Just the opposite, really. During your initial outings you are trying to ensure the most positive, trouble-free camping experience you possibly can. Amenity-rich campgrounds like KOA take most of the guess-work out of camping, minimize the potential hazards and usually provide a level of security you might not find at other campgrounds. Most KOA's have a little store and a food concession, hot showers, flush toilets and fire wood, and many have swimming pools, other recreational opportunities and Internet access.
6. Arrive early. When I’m moteling, I’ll often ride late into the night, but when I’m camping, I prefer to stop early. There are a couple reasons for this. First, a motel room is typically a place simply to endure, but a campsite as a place to enjoy. A motel room is an unfortunate break from the motorcycling adventure; a campsite is an enjoyable extension of it. Second, setting up in daylight is typically easier than setting up in the dark. A seasoned veteran of motorcycle camping can set up her tent in pitch darkness (pun intended!), but that’s not how you want to start. Arrive early, find a nice spot and be deliberate about set-up. Collect fire wood if you plan on having a campfire. Check out the area and figure out where you’ll pee in the middle of the night (jar in tent? nearby bushes? closest restroom?). Check the restrooms for toilet paper and paper towels. If there are showers, are they free or coin-op? Check out on-site or nearby food options. The more of this that can be done in daylight the better.
7. Attend camping-oriented motorcycle rallies where you can observe and talk to seasoned motorcycle campers. If you don’t ride a BMW, swallow your pride and attend a BMW rally (any rider is usually very welcome; just expect some good-natured ribbing for riding something else). BMW riders aren’t the only motorcyclists who camp, and you can find serious motorcycle campers on any kind of bike, but on a per capita basis, nothing comes close to a BMW rally for seasoned, knowledgeable, motorcycle campers. That said, as a group, BMW riders are, by their own admission, notoriously cheap, so at their rallies you’ll find a wide range of camping equipment in use, including the pitifully lousy, but there’ll be no shortage of people eager to talk your ear off about motorcycle camping, and you’ll get a wealth of opinions, insights, advice and warnings, all while having a great time. On the other hand, party rallies like Sturgis, Daytona, Laconia, Street Vibrations, Laughlin, Bean Blossom Boogie, the Redwood Run, Four Corners, the ROT rallies down in Texas and 1,001 other similar events are great for ogling bikes, people-watching, having a few too many drinks and expressing your inner outlaw (be very careful about that at the Redwood Run!) but not so good for learning about motorcycle camping. .
8. Camp with someone else. There’s strength in numbers, even if the number is just two. You’ll feel more confident doing something new if you aren’t alone. Even if you tend to be a total loner and would rather not have to put up with someone else (that describes me - I'd ditch my own shadow if I could), there can be advantages in having a second opinion when choosing a campsite, a second set of hands during set-up, a second set of eyeballs for security, a second set of equipment to evaluate, etc.
9. Eat but don't cook. You’ve gotta eat, so don’t neglect it, but cooking might be overly ambitious at the start. Instead, plan on picking up some food at your last gas stop of the day, or at a store or restaurant near the campground. That’s a nice aspect of motorcycle camping as opposed to backpacking – you usually have the luxury of popping over to a store or restaurant for food. Some motorcycle campers get pretty elaborate about cooking, but doing so requires additional equipment, additional supplies and additional know-how, and my observation is that the majority of motorcycle campers do little more than brew coffee, boil water for tea, hot chocolate or ramen, and/or heat a can of soup or stew. When you're just getting started in motorcycle camping, I think cooking is an unnecessary complication - something that can make a good experience bad.
On the other hand, my buddy Keith Rosendahl, motorcycle camper extraordinaire, is really
into camp cooking and thinks this little essay could do without the
advice against it. I suppose I've let my personal bias come
through too prominently without giving due emphasis to the joy of
cooking, but this is intended to be Motorcycle Camping 101, not 501. Keith is beyond graduate studies. The guy's a motorcycle camping maniac. Seriously, he built a fabulous cooking system
that attaches to the back end of his motorcycle but packs away nicely
in the lid of one pannier! Keith has a ton of other great pictures of his motorcycle camping adventures. Check them out.
10. Start with good gear. Great gear, if possible. Unlike men, not all gear was created equal. Think about it: quality counts with everything else – food, coffee, wine, ale, whiskey, cigars, furniture, mattresses, audio equipment, riding apparel, helmets, cars, motorcycles – so why would you think it doesn’t count with camping equipment? You shell out 10-25 grand for your motorcycle, another grand or two or three for the best apparel and safety gear, big bucks for the latest farkle or bling, and don’t blink at paying top dollar for the highest quality tires, motor oil and gasoline – and then you skimp on camping gear? As John Turturro's character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? emphatically stated, “That don’t make no sense.” If the weather cooperates, you can get lucky with lousy gear for awhile, but it'll bite you in the ass eventually. Great gear can't influence the weather or level out an incline for you, but it will deliver a superior camping experience every time.
Borrowing gear wouldn’t be my first recommendation, but the price is right. If you want to try camping but don’t want to invest much money in equipment you aren't sure you'll use more than a few times, go ahead and borrow, but if you borrow equipment, try to borrow good stuff. Good gear is far more likely than bad to translate into a good camping experience.
Though the best camping equipment comes out of the backpacking/mountaineering worlds, with a motorcycle you can carry a lot more weight than a backpacker can, so don't expect the local backpacking gurus to know what you need. Size matters to you because space is definitely at a premium on a motorcycle (compared to in a car), but weight, the bane of backpackers and mountaineers, isn’t really that big a factor for motorcyclists. Some of the world-circumnavigator types are anal retentive about minimizing weight, and I know a couple of them who'll be horrified about this advice, but take it from me: counting grams and ounces is silly overkill for most motorcycle campers. Are you really worried that you’re overloading your bike? Unless you're on a moped, don’t be. I lived in Southeast Asia for 16 years where I'd see whole families – father, mother, three kids – together with a piglet, bags of groceries and knapsacks full of school supplies on 125cc Hondas. In rural Philippines, you’ll see public transportation “tricycles” – 125-175cc two-strokes with sidecars made of sheet metal and rebar – loaded with as many as 10 people. I'm not kidding. They go through tires like crazy, sure, and suspension suffers, but the motors and transmissions can take it. Believe me, your big displacement engine, bad-ass suspension and bullet-proof tranny can handle the weight of your camping equipment. You just want to avoid raising the center of gravity too much and screwing up the physics of the whole thing.
Opinions are like farts – everyone has more of them than you’d care to hear and some of them stink to high heaven. You’ll find out soon enough, if you haven’t already, that every motorcycle camper has his or her opinions about camping equipment, and some of them are really intense about defending their particular ideas. There are brand loyalties and brand hatreds; preferred materials and hated materials; those who love high-end equipment and those who insist Walmart sells all you need; maximalists and minimalists. Unfortunately, there’s no infallible source of information about camping gear, and that goes for what I'm telling you, too. As far as I’m concerned, the only sure thing is this: great camping gear is whatever works for you. If my opinions help you find that gear, well, my farting around will have been successful. In any case, I know mine don't stink.
Waterproof. You must not have a leaky tent,
so either camp in dry weather or make sure your tent is water-tight. In
fact, make sure your tent is water-tight even if you expect to camp in
dry conditions exclusively. You can’t control the weather, and you
can’t guarantee you’ll never get caught in the rain, but you can control the weather-worthiness of your tent. I’ve got a decent crawl-in tent (Big Agnes Gore Pass 3) that has never
leaked.. My big stand-up tent (Big Agnes Big House 4) is another story.
Though it hasn’t leaked like the proverbial sieve, it also hasn’t been
bone dry, and anything short of bone dry is not acceptable to me. It
definitely doesn't leak through the rainfly, but my weight can press
moisture up through the floor when water has collected under the
tent. I’ve had to spray the fabric and apply seam-sealer in the
corners where the fabric and seams are most stressed. I advocate
setting up your tent in your backyard and letting it get rained on for
a few weeks (or giving it the sprinkler test). Check for leaks, mark
any problem areas, and treat with spray, tape or sealer as necessary
after it dries out.
Seasons. Tents come in 2-season, 3-season and 4-season varieties. A 2-season tent is for children in the backyard. A 3-season tent should be able to take the wind and rain, but it wasn’t designed to bear the weight of snow. It is well-ventilated so does best in mild/warm temperatures, but is less adequate as the mercury falls. A 4-season tent is quite sturdy and should perform well in inclement weather, including snow, but typically is not well-ventilated, can be stuffy in warm weather and tends to be heavy. For motorcycle camping, a 3-season tent is highly recommended.
Free standing. “Free standing” just means that the tent doesn’t depend on a center pole and guy chords to stand up. A free-standing tent will usually have a three- or four-end main-pole unit that the tent is hung from or draped over. After initial set-up, the whole thing can be moved and oriented as you want. Then it can be staked and guyed as conditions require. Typically, you'll want to stake your tent and maybe employ a couple guy-lines for the tent to retain it's proper shape and tautness.
Poles. Get a tent with aluminum poles. Fiberglass poles break easily and usually can't be repaired. Aluminum poles are stronger and many manufacturers include a sleeve/splint for field repair. Tents with air chambers instead of poles have some potential, but fluctuating temperature and barometric pressure can effect their rigidity.
Occupancy ratings. In the 50’s, the occupancy ratings of tents were determined by teenagers whose calling in life was to see how many of their peers could be crammed into a telephone booth together. They applied this unique passion to tent occupancy ratings. In the 60’s and through most of the 70’s, circus clowns who specialized in packing themselves into miniature cars took over from the phone booth kids. The clowns' contributions to tent occupancy ratings are legendary. These days, the clowns have been replaced by sardines who just love to be mashed up against one another. You get the idea. If you are not a teenager, a clown or a sardine, you’ll want to get a tent with an occupancy rating at least one person more than will ever be in the tent. A 3-person tent serves my solo camping needs just fine and easily accommodates the two of us when my wife is along.
Stakes. Stakes are a place where some manufacturers skimp to keep costs down. Your initially straight stakes will give way, before long, to arcs and angles and pretzel shapes. Consider investing in some unbendable stakes of stainless steel or titanium.
Temperature rating. The temperature rating of a sleeping bag does not tell you the lowest temperature the bag will keep you toasty warm in, but rather the lowest temperature the bag should allow you to survive without incurring life-threatening hypothermia. That might be a wee bit of an exaggeration, but just a wee bit, and it’s probably a concept that will serve you well as you try to choose a sleeping bag, especially if you’re new to camping. Most veteran campers have learned to take sleeping bag temperature ratings with several grains of salt.
Though sleeping bag temperature ratings may seem overstated, they are not just made up arbitrarily. At least, not among the better manufacturers. The ratings are based on something called the r-value – a measurement of the heat transfer resistance of a given insulation material. That is, it is a standardized measurement of how effectively a material resists the passage of heat through it. The insulation in a sleeping bag is supposed to trap body heat within the sleep environment, and how effectively it does that is defined by its r-value. Both the type and the amount of insulation material is taken into consideration to calculate r-value.
The r-value is an important factor, but standardized measurements and calculations can’t take into consideration things like your personal sleep metabolism, blood circulation, hydration, food intake, alcohol consumption, and a host of other factors that can affect your sleep comfort. In other words, the temperature rating/r-value is just one of several factors that will determine your comfort in a sleeping bag.In view of all the above, get yourself a sleeping bag with a temperature rating at least 15 degrees lower than the coldest temperature you expect ever to camp in. In fact, I think 20 degrees lower would be even better. After all, it's always easier to remedy being too warm than being too cold. My 15 degree goose-down bag is usually, though not always, perfectly comfortable between 30-50 degrees, which are the temperatures I most commonly camp in. Weirdly, I sometimes feel chilly when the temps are only in the mid-30's, and other times I'm comfortable all the way down to the mid-20's. I don't understand how the same sleeping bag can deliver comfort so erratically, but apparently a lot more factors come into play than just the r-value of the insulation. I bring along a second bag, a 40-degree bag, when I know the mercury is going to drop into the 20's. In temperatures like that, I insert my 15-degree bag into my 40-degree bag and stay toasty even in the teens!
Insulation type: The two major choices are synthetic and goose down. Goose down is light and compressible and is the traditional preference of backpackers, mountaineers and outdoor adventurers. Synthetic sleeping bags tend to be inexpensive relative to goose down bags and they insulate well even if damp, unlike down. Synthetic sleeping bags are invariably heavier and larger-packing than goose-down bags of the same temperature rating.
Shape. There are "mummy" bags and "rectangular" bags. Full Throttle Camping can get you a mummy bag if you really want one, but we favor rectangular bags for motorcycle campers. The distinctive feature of a mummy bag is that it tapers toward the foot box, keeping interior volume to a minimum. Your body will heat a mummy bag more efficiently than a full-footbox rectangular bag because there is less space to heat in the mummy. A mummy will be lighter and pack smaller than a rectangular sleeping bag but might feel restrictive and will not allow for easy turning/rolling over. A rectangular sleeping bag will allow more movement but your body will not heat it as efficiently, especially in severe weather. It’s my observation that motorcycle campers prefer rectangles over mummy bags because 1) motorcyclists aren’t concerned about an extra few ounces of weight; 2) they want and/or need more room than the average backpacker; and 3) they don’t typically camp in the extreme cold where a mummy’s minimal interior volume is a significant advantage.
Sleeping can be hell without a decent pillow, but for some reason, a lot of motorcycle campers start out figuring they don't need one. They probably think it doesn't fit the tough-guy/biker image they are trying to cultivate. Just about everyone, it seems, starts with a rolled-up riding jacket and experiments with various combinations of folded apparel in search of the right elevation and softness. Sooner or later they realize that a real pillow is necessary. Camping pillows come in fleece, down, foam and inflatable. We carry pillows by Exped and Big Agnes.
There are two basic choices: semi-self inflating and non-self inflating. Semi-self inflating pads have a foam core that draws in air when the valve is opened. Non-self inflating pads have an air chamber and need to be inflated with a pump or by mouth. Semi-self inflating pads tend to be well-insulated but aren't as lightweight, small-packing or as comfortable as air-chamber pads. Though they inflate themselves, they do not deflate themselves, and deflating and packing up a semi-self inflator can be a bit of a hassle. Non-self inflating pads can be insulated synthetically or with goose down. They are light and small-packing compared to semi-self inflators. Inflation can be a minor hassle, but deflation and packing tend to be easy. Some now come with built-in hand-pumps.
Your body weight will mash down the
underside insulation of your sleeping bag and thus negate its r-value,
so you’ve gotta have a well-insulated sleeping pad underneath you to
prevent groundward heat loss. Without a well-insulated sleeping pad,
you are basically trying to heat the ground rather than your sleep
environment. A non-insulated air mattress or cot will not do the trick unless you WANT heat to escape (in some climates you definitely do want heat loss). We carry sleeping pads by Big Agnes, Therm-a-Rest and Exped.
Camp once without a chair and you’ll realize that a chair is a basic, must-have piece of equipment, not an optional luxury. Some guys buy cheap chair after cheap chair, disposing of one and buying another after every two or three camping trips. Others pay top dollar for substantial, durable, feature-rich camp chairs. The PICO Chair has been a popular item, but some consider it too heavy and/or large-packing for motorcycle camping. For those who need to pack very small and very light, we now carry the Alite Monarch Chair - 18 oz. and packs to the size of a 1-liter bottle.
Though I recommend not cooking, at least to start with, I do recommend carrying a stove because it's nice to be able to boil water for coffee, tea, hot chocolate or ramen, or to heat a can of soup or stew. Your starter stove needs to be easy to operate and maintain, compact and efficient. For some motorcycle campers, the experience just wouldn't be complete without real cooking going on, and believe me, the non-cookers start milling around the cookers' campsite a bit before chow time. If you like to cook, by all means, cook! My cautions are mainly for the beginners who are just trying to get a feel for the basics. We carry the MSR Whisperlite Internationale as well as Jet Boil products.
An illumination device is essential gear when camping, and we recommend carrying both a hand-held and a headlamp. As with most of the selection of gear we offer, we've sacrificed variety for quality in the area of lighting equipment. That is, we don't give you choices between lots of different manufacturers, but what we carry is the best. SureFire: The world's finest illumination tools. For hand-held, I always carry an E2D LED Defender, and for headlamp, I love the Saint Minimus. By the way, people who buy Rolls-Royces don't grumble about the cost relative to a Kia. Do you want the best flashlight in the world? Don't grumble; get SureFire.