Bike camping is one of the most rewarding parts of cycle touring and bikepacking.
But it can be intimidating, especially for beginners. Even as an experienced cyclist or an experienced camper, combining the two activities into one comes with its own unique set of challenges.
Whether you’re heading out for a single night close to home or planning your first multi-state bicycle tour, a solid understanding of the basics is essential before putting the tires to the pavement.
Today, we’re going to break down everything you need to know before you head out on your very first bicycle camping trip.
Here’s our ultimate guide to bike camping for beginners!
We like to use the term bike camping as a catchall for any time you go camping with a bicycle as your primary means of transportation to and from the campsite.
Both cycle touring and bikepacking fall under this umbrella term. Although the two activities are really quite similar, it’s important to point out their small differences.
Bike touring consists of riding your bicycle for days, weeks, or even months at a time – mostly on roads going from town to town.
All bicycle tours have this in common. But this is where things get complicated. There are a huge variety of ways to go about cycle touring.
First and foremost is deciding where you’ll sleep at night. Many cyclists carry camping equipment with them and camp along their route (this is bike camping!). Others choose to stay in hotels, with friends, or in homestays found through services such as Warmshowers.
Of course, you can stay in a combination of these accommodations as well, an especially popular method for long bicycle tours.
The next thing to consider is food, water, and supplies. The first option is to pack along your own food, cookware, backpacking stove, water (or water filter), and any other supplies you might need, such as a sleeping bag and lightweight tent if you’re bike camping.
Another popular option is to pack minimal gear and pay for necessities along the road. Often called “credit card bike touring,” this consists of paying for meals and supplies along the road and staying in hotels overnight.
Other bicycle touring options include setting up checkpoints along your route to pick up supplies, joining a vehicle-supported tour where the vehicle carries food and equipment from location to location, or even taking an organized tour where the tour organizer figures out all the nitty gritty for you.
Once again, you can also combine these types of cycle touring. This is often done on longer tours where being completely self-supporting with food from the beginning is impossible.
Unlike cycle touring which generally takes place on paved roads cycling from town to town, bikepacking mostly takes place on dirt trails and unpaved back roads.
In this way, bikepacking is like the bicycle version of backpacking (which is, of course, where it gets its name). You bicycle on the trail from backcountry campsite to backcountry campsite.
Another difference is the type of bicycle itself. Cycle touring most often uses road-style bikes while backpacking is often done on mountain bikes – or at least bikes with wider tires.
That said, however, the terms bike touring and bikepacking (as well as bike camping) are often used interchangeably. We focus on bike camping as an overarching concept that encompasses both bike touring and bikepacking for the rest of this guide.
For me, the number one benefit of bike camping is that it’s fun.
Whether you stick to dirt trails or rural roads, bicycle camping lets you enjoy the great outdoors while slowing down and seeing the scenery up close and personal.
Not only that, but a bicycle enables you to access many out-of-the-way campsites you might not be able to reach in your car. In fact, many campgrounds have bike-only campsites which are often more private than their normal car campsites.
Of course, bike camping is also a great workout. As part of a longer tour or bikepacking adventure, your trip will get you in great shape and leave you tired out at the end of each day.
Finally, bike camping is cheap (once you have all the gear). If you’re already planning a bike tour, packing a tent and sleeping bag to stay at campsites is much more affordable than paying for a hotel room each night. If you’re really savvy about it, free camping most nights of your trip is completely possible!
Bike camping doesn’t require anything fancy – but you do need a bike that fits you well and is in decent shape.
Not only does a quality bicycle make touring easier, safer, and more enjoyable, but it also limits the amount of maintenance and repairs you’ll need to do along the road.
For bike camping beginners, a used bike is where it’s at.
There are tons of quality used bikes out there if you know what to look for. It’s totally possible to pick up a trusty and reliable ride for under $500.
As a beginner, a used bike is an excellent choice as it lets you figure out if bike camping is truly up your alley before you pull the trigger on a more expensive brand-new bike perfectly suited to your needs and preferences.
Another benefit about buying a used touring cycle is that you can upgrade components one or two at a time if you decide to stick with the activity. In fact, we recommend upgrading at least the saddle and the handlebars as these components make a world of difference when it comes to comfort on long rides.
Remember that the type of bike camping you plan on doing directly dictates which bike is best for you. Touring generally requires a ride with thinner tires while backpacking requires a ride with beefier tires and possibly even front suspension.
Tom’s Bike Trip has an excellent step-by-step guide on how to select the best touring bike for you.
Just like on a normal camping trip, it’s imperative you pack the right gear and equipment for your bicycle camping trip.
Start with camping basics. We recommend using a camping gear checklist (and then doublecheck your list) to totally ensure you’ve packed everything you’ll need.
For bike touring, a tent (a lightweight backpacking tent is best), a sleeping bag rated for the weather you expect to encounter (winter sleeping bags are available for cold weather bike camping), and a sleeping pad round out the standard sleep system. A camping hammock is a good (often even lighter) alternative to a tent.
Beyond your sleep system, you’ll want to bring along a camping stove (a lightweight backpacking model like the MSR WindBurner is a good choice) and lightweight cookware/plateware/utensils to prepare and eat your bike camping meals.
I keep things as simple as possible with a single-burner stove, a single pot, a spork, and a mug for my morning cup of camp coffee.
An adequate supply of water is even more important. Not only for the actual bicycle ride, but also to drink at the campsite (both for the evening and the morning), to prepare meals, and for any preferred personal hygiene tasks.
The exact amount of water you should bring depends on a variety of factors, including the weather, how much riding you’ll do each day, and the weather.
Depending on the availability of potable water and natural water sources on your route, you might want to throw in a water filter (or at least water purification tablets) in addition to your water bottles.
In addition to basic camping gear, food, and water, you’ll need proper clothing (for biking and at camp – consider any weather, such as rain or cold, you might encounter), toiletries and other hygiene products, all of your bicycling gear (including a solid bike repair kit with extra tubes!), and at least a basic first-aid kit.
Another piece of bike camping equipment I really appreciate having along for long tours is my portable solar charger. This enables me to keep my smartphone charged without relying on electrical outlets along my route.
REI has a quality bike camping gear list specifically tailored for bikepacking overnight.
You might be able to get away with only a daypack for short single night trips close to home.
That said, it’s best to keep the weight off your body and low to the ground. A handlebar bag, frame bag, and seat bag are popular for lightweight touring as well as backpacking on narrow singletrack trails.
Bike panniers are fantastic for heavy items like food, extra water, and a camp stove. With four panniers you can fit an incredible amount of gear on your bicycle. They are common for long bike tours.
Many enthusiasts lash gear onto the bike itself with tiedowns. For instance, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag can be lashed to the rear bike rack and a tent can easily be lashed onto the underside of the handlebars.
Yet another option is a bike trailer. These are ideal for family bicycle camping, especially with small children. They’re also good if there’s very heavy gear you absolutely must bring along.
Consider mileage, terrain, expected weather, potential traffic, and road hazards when planning your bike camping route.
Of course, you must also factor in how much time you have free, how much effort you want to expend, and your budget into the equation.
For bicycle camping, it’s likewise important to plan your route around the campsites. Find campgrounds or camping areas an appropriate distance apart for a day’s ride and plan from there.
For bikepacking, it’s important to select trails well suited to your bicycle. As a beginner, you probably don’t want anything to rough, steep, or narrow.
Personally, I find forest service roads in National Forests the best bet for beginners. You can dispersed camp pretty much anywhere along these roads. They are generally somewhat flatter, smoother, and wider than most actual trails.
Just like with backpacking, lightweight meals with minimal cleanup are the name of the game for bikepacking and cycle touring.
The best bike camping meals are also nutrient dense and high in healthy calories. Remember, you’re burning a ton of calories on your ride, so think of your meals as fuel!
Most cyclists burn around 6,000 calories per day on tour. That’s a lot of food! And while it’s easy to load up on junk food (and you certainly should enjoy treats along the way), focusing on primarily healthy calories is essential.
For short trips, you can pack along all your food to cook yourself. On longer trips, you’ll likely need to stop and stock up on groceries and supplies every couple of days.
Bananas, trail mix, peanut butter, instant noodles, quinoa, lentils, energy bars, cheese, and fresh veggies are staples of my bike camping grocery list. Check out our best backpacking meals for more ideas.
Of course, you should also tailor your meals around your dietary needs and preferences. Here’s some delicious vegan camping meals to consider.
Although it’s totally possible to cook all your own meals when bike camping, it’s fun to stop for at least a couple meals along the road, especially if you’re on a bike tour in another country!
Camping while bike touring or bikepacking is a low-cost, convenient, and, most importantly, fun way to overnight.
And, although bike camping can be a little intimidating at first, it’s 100% doable for just about everyone – even complete beginners.
If you have any more questions about camping with your bicycle, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below!