Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lessons from my First Solo Bike Camping Excursion

Since riding the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburg to Washington, D.C. self-contained last summer with a small group, I've been itching to do some solo bike camping. I've ridden thousands of miles internationally and in the states, but rarely camped while doing so. My first opportunity to solo bike camp came the first weekend of April, an excursion that led me into Wendell Berry's homeland in Henry County, Kentucky.

On Friday, I drove my VW from Indianapolis to Columbus, Indiana, parked it at my cousin's house and struck out on my panniers-loaded Surly Long Haul Trucker for Madison, Indiana via State Highway 7. My panniers and seat saddlebag included a one-person tent, air pad, sleeping bag, cooking supplies, some food, clothing, toiletries, and tools--about 30 lbs. in all. It was a balmy 45-mile ride, with a break halfway in North Vernon. I arrived in Madison in the middle of the afternoon and set up camp at Clifty Falls State Park. In the early evening, I explored this quaint Ohio River town and had great pizza at the Red Pepper cafe.

Saturday morning, after breakfast at Red Roaster coffeehouse, I pedaled across the Ohio River bridge and started exploring Henry County, Kentucky. This is the home of one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry. Berry describes and reflects on this simple country in his writings, from wooded hills to rolling meadows to creek banks and the Kentucky River. I rolled through Port Royal and tried to take in the essence of this place, which is at the same time remarkable and commonplace. From my experience of this day, I will read Berry with more clarity and understanding.

I cut my Henry County ride short because of a stiff and steady wind that kicked up. It must have been 30 mph with higher gusts. The ride north and west back to the Ohio River and Indiana was a struggle. I arrived at the state park campsite with my tent bending sideways in the gale. I re-secured the stakes and ropes. Temperatures dropped and the wind continued to howl until the early Sunday morning hours. My one-person tent would have blown away had I not been inside it.

By Sunday daybreak, the wind had died down but temperatures had dropped to freezing. I climbed out of my sleeping bag, dusted frost off my panniers, broke camp, and prepared to ride from Madison back to Columbus in the cold. Against a headwind, I arrived in Columbus around 3 pm, loaded the Surly on my VW, and drove back to Indy.

I covered about 140 miles over the weekend and had what I consider quite a nice little adventure. Here are a few lessons I learned and pass along from my first solo bike camping weekend:

1. Cold is not an enemy or a friend. It is a factor to plan for. Reduce cold’s impact with good gear.

2. Riding self-contained produces wide options and independence. But it’s a slower ride. I'm used to riding 18-22 mph, but with 30 lbs. of camping supplies, etc. in two panniers and a seat saddlebag, I managed about 15-17 mph. I can still pedal fast on flats, but climbing hills are much slower.

3. My bike shop (A1 Cyclery in Indianapolis) set me up with a perfect cross-country touring steed: a smooth Surly Long Haul Trucker, which I've ridden for four years. This is a no-worries, tough, dependable bicycle for riding long distances. I've had no breakdowns or problems in 10,000 miles.

4. Factor wind in your plans. 30-40 mph winds changed my distance and range of activity. No way around this; it's just ugly and hard.

5. A State Park base camp made a nice returning point. Keeping a base camp for a weekend of riding made day travel lighter. And, I met very helpful campers whom I talked to each day.

6. A 30-degree F rated sleeping bag works for 30 degrees F (and high wind). I stayed warm. Good buy. I purchased a sleeping bag that was also lightweight.

7. Enjoy local coffeehouses, food, and places. These are better than franchises in small towns. I like eating at local restaurants instead of cooking on my own, also. Except for making some coffee and soup, I ate at local places entirely.

8. Indiana’s Clifty Falls State Park gets a thumbs up for service, cleanliness, and scenic awe. Deep ravines. High cliffs. Beautiful falls. This place is worth a two-day visit. Plan on vigorous and rugged hiking.

9. Relax and you’ll enjoy the ride on the way to where you want to go. Be here now.

10. I need to find a lightweight, compact fuel cooking unit that defies windy conditions. Taking recommendations.


John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
www.indybikehiker.com
www.twitter.com/indybikehiker
www.instagram.com/johnfranklinhay
indybikehiker@gmail.com

2 comments:

  1. Nice ride report John!! After many different white gas stoves I have now used a Jetboil these last four years. They are great for my use which is usually just to heat water. I have practiced what you did, eat in local joints as much as I can and avoid all cooking!! There are times in my area that I am caught in a remote area that takes two days to get town to town but in those cases I usually fix a Mountain House freeze dried meal which only takes boiling water. Plus you can boil river and stream water quickly to purify. Great unit!! I like these one or two night trips, (a necessity for working stiffs like me!!)
    Cheers!! Jim

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