Mountain Bike Vacation or Camping Vacation? How About Both?

Last weekend I was out near dusk riding my mountain bike. The last glow of the sun produced a silhouette of Columbia Mountain etched against an orange background. Two whippoorwills began their back-and-forth singing across a valley creek. A barred owl burst out with its call, asking, "Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?"

I got a little nervous. You've heard the stories. Whippoorwills call when someone you know is going to die soon. Owls are omens of mystery and danger. And here I was alone, on my bike, light fading, and no sign of my car, which was back at the trailhead where I had parked it that morning, a good half-hour's hard ride away.

Squeezing the last drop of water out of my bottle, I continued climbing up the mountain, deeper into the woods and away from civilization.

I eventually reached a ridge and rolled into a small clearing where the light was a tad better. I smiled with relief. There, standing where it had been pitched earlier beside the small creek, was my tent looking snug as any home. I parked my bike against a small tree, walked to the tent, unzipped the fly to reach inside for my hearthside moccasins, and slipped them on. From my small cooler, I took out a cold one and carried it over to the hammock strung between two trees. Stretched out and swinging slowly, I listened to the night noises grow louder around me.

Bike camping. A few years ago I never would have considered it, but more and more I'm finding reasons to head out into the woods, panniers hung and trailer in tow, where I will stay a night or two, stretching the day's ride on both ends of twilight. It's a combination many mountain bikers are finding they enjoy. And it's hardly any more complicated than planning for a regular day on the trail.

Selecting a Trail

Spend some time thinking about where you want to take your bike on a bike-camping trip. Not all trails are suitable or legally allow for such an adventure. No hard and fast rules exist for finding the right trail, but look for certain qualities. The most important is location. Remember: This is not a point-to-point tour. The idea is to reach a base camp where the main rides will start.

Leaving a parked vehicle overnight at a trailhead can be an unnerving adventure in itself. No one wants to return after having had a great time all weekend in the woods only to find that the motorized means of transportation has been vandalized. This will likely remain a serious consideration for most of us who set out on an adventure of this sort. But it is an adventure, and with adventure comes risk.

Reducing Risk

A true adventurer limits risk. One way to do this is to always carry a compass and map (the 7.5-minute series USGS quads are my favorites, despite their bulk), especially if you aren't absolutely positive about the area into which you're headed. Also, you may use a GPS as a primary way-finding tool, but don't totally rely on it to keep from getting lost. Although they're nice and, for the most part, dependable, nothing beats using common sense when exploring unfamiliar territory.

Another way to reduce risk is by arranging to have a friend or professional shuttle service take you to the trailhead. The obvious drawback is that a long and difficult ride back to civilization would be necessary if the shuttle didn't reappear, or if an emergency occurred.

Yes, a cell phone might work, but my experience has been that reception is often spotty, especially in the deep woods. Still, I would take one. Of course, if the destination isn't too far from home, you can leave from your front door. Few, however, will see that as a good alternative. So, as is so often the case in life, a compromise is the best solution. And that means sacrificing some degree of security.

What I have done in the past is drive into an area, usually a national forest, and locate an ungated road that gets little use. I drive down the road and park as unobtrusively as possible. I never go so far as to pile branches over the vehicle, but I do pick a spot that won't easily be discovered by someone cruising the main road. It may sound difficult and risky, but with a little preplanning, it often presents the best course of action.

Once you've picked a parking spot, ride to the trailhead. Ideally, the trailhead should be the entry where a large network of trails both developed and not can be ridden and explored for a couple of days. Again, the national forests provide great opportunities for this kind of biking. Most areas in our forests have been logged. Therefore, plenty of abandoned logging roads and fire roads probably overgrown and blocked in places await the biker looking for a weekend of bike-camping adventure.

Choosing a Campsite

Picking out the right campsite is perhaps your most important decision once you leave the trailhead. If possible, make a scouting trip a few days or weeks prior in order to judge how much time it will take to reach camp.

The whole idea (at least my idea) behind bike camping is NOT to pull 50 pounds of gear for five hours along 20 miles of single-track. To drag that third wheel into an area late in the day when you're tired and hungry, and then still have to set up camp in a hurry can be a real, well a real drag. Look for a home base that will be easy to get to. Save the long trails for riding without the extra weight.

Try Logging Roads

Frequently, logging roads that have fallen into disuse lead somewhere suitable, even though they look like they beckon into oblivion. After some practice, you will develop a feel for where they are probably going to wind up.

Think like a logger and you'll be more successful at finding that perfect little wildlife opening formerly a staging area for logging equipment tucked neatly away at the base of an upland bowl.

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