An Introduction to Motorcycle Camping: For Those About to Camp
If you like motorcycling and camping individually, you'll probably find that putting them together is a hard combination to beat. When you’re on a motorcycle camping trip, the adventure doesn’t end when you stop for the night. 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. It's the great outdoors – natural, basic, pure. You feel like you’re somehow connected to the explorers, mountain men and cowboys of yore and 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 perfectly well 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, and that's just 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? Camping isn't the only way to go. Heck, I like motels and hotels as much as anyone, and on motorcycle trips I'll opt for the comforts and conveniences of motels whenever I feel like it without guilt or shame for 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 can understand people's reluctance to camp, especially if they had a bad experience with camping 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 a host of factors that might militate against motorcycle camping: additional gear; 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; etc. Those concerns and complications are deal-breakers for some people.
Oddly enough, some of the things that others dislike about camping are the very things that I like about it. Setting up camp, having nothing to do, no entertainment, hitting the hay early – all of that appeals to me. Setting up my tent, inflating my sleeping mat, preparing my sleeping bag, exploring the area, gathering firewood and building a campfire are all cherished rituals for me. Performing those rituals transports me back to my childhood and camping with my family or with the Boy Scouts in the '60s, as well as a dozen West Coast hitchhiking trips in the '70's.
General Advice to First-Season Motorcycle Campers
1. Practice with your equipment at home. Set that tent up in the backyard several times. 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 system, pair your bag and pad a several times. Stuff your sleeping bag in its stuff sack. 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 one or two nights rather than one or two weeks. It’s sort of like dating – the first few dates are for getting familiar with each other. Your first date with your camping equipment shouldn’t be a long commitment. Or you can liken it 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. It’s easier to find the range of dosages you can enjoy by starting small and working your way to progressively longer trips.
Staying close to home allows you to abandon camping if the weather turns bad, keeps travel time reasonable, and minimizes the variables inherent in long-mileage days. It also allows friends or family to drop by. Eventually you’ll want to put some serious distance between yourself and home, but when you are just starting motorcycle camping there are real advantages to maximizing the camping and minimizing the riding.
3. Plan. Don’t make it up as you go – not to start with, anyway. Know your route, know your destination, know where you’ll eat. The ability to plan and succeed is the key to being able, eventually, to head out without a plan.
4. Insist on dry weather. You can’t control the weather, but you can refuse to camp in rain at the start. If it means checking into a motel, so be it. 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. Your initial goal should be to string together a few excellent, enjoyable, hassle-free outings, not test your threshold of misery.
5. Start with amenity-rich campgrounds. No need to go primitive at the start (or ever). 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 take most of the guess-work out of camping, minimize the potential hazards and usually provide a comforting level of security. Most KOA campgrounds have a little store and food concession, hot showers, flush toilets and fire wood, and many have a swimming pool, other recreational opportunities and Internet access.
6. Get there early. When I’m moteling, I’ll often ride late into the night and get every last mile out of myself, but when I’m camping I prefer to stop early. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I think of a motel room as a place to endure, but I think of 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 always 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 into on-site and/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 nothing comes close to a BMW rally for seasoned, knowledgeable, motorcycle campers. That said, you’ll find a wide range of camping equipment in use at any given BMW rally, 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.
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 doing it alone. Even if you tend to be a total loner and would rather not have to put up with someone else, 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, supplies and know-how - a whole different outlook, really - 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.
10. Start with good gear. Great gear, if possible. Unlike men, not all gear was created equal. Quality counts with everything else – food, coffee, wine, ale, whisky, 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, and don’t blink at paying for the highest quality tires, motor oil and gasoline – and then skimp on camping gear? Why? Because comfort doesn't matter? You can luck out with lousy gear if the weather cooperates, but going that route will catch up with you eventually. Great gear will deliver a superior 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 gear you might not use more than once, go ahead and borrow, but if you borrow equipment, try to borrow good stuff. Good gear is far more likely to translate into a good camping experience.
Though the best equipment comes out of the backpacking/mountaineering worlds, with a motorcycle you can carry a lot more weight than a backpacker can. Packing small and light is nice, for sure, but weight isn’t really that big a factor. Some of the world circumnavigator types are anal retentive about minimizing weight, and I’ll hear from a couple of them for saying this, but counting grams and ounces is really overkill for most motorcycle campers. Are you worried that you’re overloading your bike? It’s not impossible but also not very likely. Have you ever spent time in Southeast Asia? You’ll see a family of five – father, mother, three kids and groceries – on a 125cc Honda. In rural Philippines, you’ll see public transportation “tricycles” – 125-175cc Japanese and Chinese motorcycles with sidecars made of sheet metal and rebar – loaded with as many as 15 people. They go through tires like crazy, sure, and suspensions take a beating, but the engines and trannies can take it. Believe me, your big displacement bike can handle the weight of your camping equipment; you just want to avoid raising the center of gravity and screwing up the physics of the whole thing.
Core Camping Gear
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 be caught in the rain, but you can control the weather-worthiness of your tent. I’ve got a few high-quality crawl-in tents that have never leaked. Not a drop in years of frequent camping. They stay bone-dry even through the most severe and prolonged downpours, and I’ve never sprayed the fabric, taped the seams or applied seam-sealer. I’ll have to do those things eventually, but those tents came from the factory about as waterproof as a tent can be. I've got a couple big stand-up tents, too, and one of them has been a little disappointing. 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. 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. For some, that means turning on the sprinkler for a few hours. Do it – you need to know if your tent can take the rain. Check for leaks every day, mark any problem areas, and treat with spray, tape or sealer as necessary after it dries out.
Seasons. Tents are 2-season, 3-season and 4-season. A 2-season tent is for light spring and summer duty only and might not be adequate in wind or rain. 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 and warm temperatures and is less adequate as the mercury falls. A 4-season tent is sturdy and relatively heavy and should perform well in inclement weather, including snow, but typically is not well-ventilated and can be stuffy in warm weather. For motorcycle camping, a 3-season tent is recommended.
Free standing. “Free standing” just means that the tent doesn’t depend on a center pole and guy chords to stand up. There is usually a main pole unit that the tent is hung from or draped over, and 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.
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 temporary repair in the field, and a permanent fix is easily done at home (you might have to hit up the manufacturer for a section of pole to replace the broken one).
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 phone 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 miniature cars took over from the phone booth kids. Their contribution to tent occupancy ratings is 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 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, one by one, to pretzel shapes. Consider investing in some unbendable stakes of stainless steel or titanium. The stainless ones are heavy and expensive; the titanium ones are light and even more expensive. But worth it.
People often describe to me a tent that “you throw into the air and it just pops open by itself.” Yes, I've seen them. They are relatively heavy and bulky, and if their mechanisms fail, you're up shit creek sans paddle. Self-assembling tents rely on lock-mechanisms, hinges and spring-loaded hoops - what could possibly go wrong? No serious mountaineer or backpacker uses them. If you're that lazy, maybe camping isn't for you.
Temperature rating. The temperature rating of a sleeping bag doesn’t 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 in. That is, the ratings are for survival, not comfort. Most veteran campers have learned to take sleeping bag temperature ratings a grain of salt.
Though sleeping bag temperature ratings may seem overstated, they are not just made up arbitrarily. The ratings are based on something called the r-value – a measurement of the heat transfer resistance of a given insulation material. That is, r-value 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, circulation, hydration, alcohol consumption, the r-value of your sleeping pad/mat or 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 10 degrees lower than the coldest temperature you expect ever to camp in. I think 15 degrees lower would be even better. It is always easier to remedy being too warm than being too cold. My 15 degree goose-down bag is comfortable between 30-45 degrees, which are the temperatures I most commonly camp in. I have a 30 degree bag for mild temperatures and a 50 degree bag for warm nights. If the mercury is going to drop below 25, I'll pull my 45 degree bag over my 15 degree bag and have a combination that keeps me warm to the mid-teens.
Insulation type: The two major choices for sleeping bag insulation are synthetic and goose (or duck) 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, unlike goose down, they can still do some insulating even if damp. Synthetic sleeping bags are invariably heavier and larger-packing than goose-down bags of the same temperature rating, but the gap between the two is narrowing. The better synthetics are very close to down in weight and bulk. A new development in 2014 was the introduction of waterproof goose down!
Shape. 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 most efficiently because there is less space to heat. A mummy will be lighter and pack smaller than a rectangular sleeping bag but might feel restrictive and will not afford much movement. A rectangular sleeping bag will allow more movement but your body will not heat it as efficiently. It’s my observation that motorcycle campers prefer rectangles over mummy bags because 1) they 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 extreme cold where a mummy’s minimal interior volume is a significant advantage.
I like Big Agnes sleeping bags because they are part of a system. They have a sleeve on the underside to accommodate the sleeping pad, so rather than laying the bag on the sleeping pad, you pull the bag over it, creating a unified sleep system. Anyone who has camped even a few times knows that one of the biggest hassles of camping is sliding off your sleeping pad/mat during the night. You wake up in the middle of the night half off or all the way off your sleeping pad and you have to roll or inch-worm yourself back onto the pad – and you do this several times every night. In the morning, you feel like crap because you were cold and on hard ground half the night. With a Big Agnes bag and pad combination, you never slide off the sleeping pad; everything stays in place. And because the sleeping pad will always be where it's supposed to be (directly under you) doing what it's supposed to do (insulate and cushion), Big Agnes was able to dispense with the wasted/useless underside insulation in their sleeping bags, resulting in less weight and smaller packed size. Big Agnes also sews a pillow pocket into each sleeping bag, so your pillow never slides off in the middle of the night. It's not just a sleeping bag; it's a sleeping system. Interestingly, a few other companies have recently introduced sleeved systems like Big Agnes, and Big Agnes has introduced a few bags with underside insulation! Go figure.
While selling rather good sleeping bags across the country for over a decade, I've had scores of people tell me about "a sleeping bag that packs down to nothing and is rated to 40 degrees below zero.” They tell me about this bag in response to the over-priced, under-performing sleeping bags I offer. Usually, they show me with their hands how small the alleged sleeping bag packs, and it is always about the size of a cantaloupe. Sometimes they tell me how expensive it was or what a great deal they got. Oddly, while remembering the bag's temperature rating, packed size and price, they are never able to identify the bag's manufacturer or the name of the particular model - the two pieces of information that would actually mean anything to me. I know for a fact that the sleeping bag they describe doesn't exist and never has. Of the four smallest-packing extreme cold bags in the world in 2014 – Marmot's CWM MemBrain -40; Feathered Friends' Snow Goose EX -40; North Face' Inferno -40; and Western Mountaineering's Bison GWS -40 – none pack to the size of a cantaloupe and all range in price from $700-$1,000. If you've got one of those, I salute you; if you don't, please don't try to impress me with a story about a sleeping bag we both know doesn't exist.
Sleeping can be hell without a decent pillow, but a lot of motorcycle campers, especially beginners, figure they can do without one. Just about everyone, it seems, starts with a rolled up riding jacket and then experiments with various combinations of t-shirts and towels in search of the right height and softness. Sooner or later they realize that a real pillow is necessary. Camping pillows come in fleece, down, foam and inflatable. Exped, Big Agnes and Therm-a-rest, among others, make great small-packing pillows.
If you don't know it already, I'm going to let you in on a well-known fact: your sleeping bag's underside insulation is essentially worthless because your body weight mashes it down and thus negates its r-value, so you've gotta have a well-insulated sleeping pad under you to prevent groundward heat loss. Without a well-insulated sleeping pad, your body heat is virtually pouring out through the underside of your sleeping bag and entering the ground - you are heating the ground rather than your sleep environment! And believe me, a cot or hammock is not the answer. They provide no insulation, so thermally, a cot or hammock is even worse than sleeping on the ground because your body heat will simply drift away on the continually-circulating air.
Around 1999, the Swiss company, Exped, and the American company, Big Agnes, introduced a stunning new technology: insulated, non-self-inflating sleeping mats/pads. Before then, you were stuck either with heavy, bulky semi-self-inflating mats like the original Therm-a-rests, or else light, small-packing air mattresses that had no insulation. Exped and Big Agnes made it possible for the first time to pack small and light with an insulated sleeping pad. It was one of the biggest leaps forward in the evolution of camping gear.
There are two basic choices in sleeping pads: semi-self inflating and non-self-inflating. Self-inflating pads have a foam core that draws in air when the valve is opened. Non-self-inflating pads have no foam and need to be inflated with a pump or by mouth. Self inflating pads tend to be well-insulated but aren't as lightweight, small-packing or as comfortable as air-chamber pads, and though they inflate themselves, they do not deflate themselves, and deflating and packing up a self-inflater 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 self inflaters and are way more comfortable. Inflation can be a minor hassle, but deflation tends to be easy. I recommend Exped SynMats and Big Agnes Insulated Air Core and Q-Core pads.
Even those who've been committed to sleeping on the ground for decades eventually get to the point, whether determined by age, fitness or physique, when a cot starts sounding mighty good. A cot delivers an extra measure of comfort, a more bed-like experience, distance between you and the ground and, if high enough, a place to sit. Also, a high cot opens up floor space you've ever had before - you can stow gear under it. For over 50 years, I was dedicated to sleeping on the ground and just didn't see the point in using a cot, but as a motorcycle camping gear dealer, I got so many requests for a small-packing, lightweight cot, I finally gave in and started checking them out. I tried the three most packable cots I knew of at the time - Cascade Design's Luxury Lite, Travel Chair's SleepRite, and Helinox' Cot One. Eventually (including over 100 nights on a SleepRite), I decided to go with Helinox because this is the A-List, not the B-List. Helinox employs only the highest quality materials, every stitch is in place, the frames are made of the extraordinary aluminum-titanium alloy TH72M, most models feature a mechanical tensioning system, all models set-up easy, most are rated for 320lbs, they've got a lifetime guarantee, and there are four models to choose from. I've used all four of the Helinox cots - Cot Lite, Cot One, Cot Max and High Cot - and am presently using the latter. I can store gear under it, clearing up lots of floor area in my tents, and I can sit on it in the morning when I'm putting on my boots or just getting the morning "read" on my lower back. Like most gear you find here at Gregg's A-List, Helinox cots are relatively expensive, but the best always is. You can buy cheaper but you can't buy better.
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 camping trip or season. Others pay dearly for substantial, durable, feature-rich camp chairs. At the high end, there is the Kermit Chair, the Alite chairs (Mantis, Mayfly and Monarch, in particular), and the fleet of Helinox chairs: Chair One (original, Elite and Tactical), Camp Chair, Sunset Chair and Beach Chair. You get what you pay for.
I recommend against cooking, at least to start with, but being able to heat a can of soup or stew, or to boil water for coffee, tea, hot chocolate or ramen is nice. Your starter stove needs to be easy to operate and maintain, compact and efficient. When it comes to stoves, there are a lot of options. I am a big fan of Jet Boil but am not presently carrying them. When I ride, I carry my Jet Boil, a bottle of water, and several packets of Starbucks Via (instant coffee). Wherever I stop - Rest Areas, gas stations, roadside turn-outs, Wal-Mart parking lots - I've got coffee in less than 5 minutes of dropping the kickstand.
Oh, By the Way
You might have seen this article in one form or another on other websites or in newsletters, but I wrote it. It has been revised dozens of times over the last decade. Everyone who has asked me for permission to reproduce it has been given permission, and lots of others have used it without permission (and usually without attribution). I'm happy to have people share it, but I'd like to be given credit and I'd like for readers to be pointed to my website: www.greggsalist.com