Tour Bikers Guide for Filthy Casuals: Backcountry Campsites and Making a home in the Woods

Greetings gentle readers!  Please excuse my hiatus, we went to Eugene to talk about a good thing.  More details when there are more details, don’t wanna jinx it.  For this, my last post in the TBGFC series, I plan to expound on the joys and trials of living in the woods for months at a time.  While tour biking is very much a front country activity, you hopefully will not need to maintain that proximity to the whirring of wheels and the wind tunnels of trucks for your sleeping hours.  In fact, I would caution against it.  The sound of a car passing you will be so deeply ingrained there is no need to hear it while you sleep, in fact better reduce the chances for further osmosis.  I will also address the elephant in the room.  Well actually he is more like a lion than an elephant.  But anyway stay tuned for details in the accommodations made for the one and only Rubeus.


Ru Boy on his 4 month “birthday” in Idaho City


Where to camp:

The way I see it you have two choices when it comes to campsites; you can pay or you can not.  Hopefully you have chosen a route that gives you both options, if not maybe consider looking at a map of county, state, and national parks as well as public lands in the area and see if you can hit more of them.

Paying for camping:

There are many upsides to paying for camping.  I love a good list so here are a few:

  • More likely to have services (food, fuel for your stove, etc) near your campsite
  • More likely to have services in your campsite (toilets, an outlet, maybe even a shower)
  • More likely to be able to make a fire
    • THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT ESPECIALLY IN THE WEST.  Making a fire without a fire ring in a rogue campsite is the most dangerous thing you can do during fire season.  Forest fires are real and many of the biggest ones every year are started by people camping or “messing around.”
  • You will not be kicked out upon discovery (aka you can sleep in)

You are paying for comfort and security, which are great!  You should definitely not let money make safety decisions for you out on the road, so if you are not feeling super secure in the place you are biking through that day or if people who give you bad vibes have approached you and asked a lot of questions about your stuff and your plans, or just generally leered it might be time to find a campsite with a self-righteous host who rides around in his golf cart looking to chase away hooligans.

There is HUGE spectrum on cost in these campgrounds.  Here is what we found:

  • Private RV Park type place: $18-$35 for TENT camping
    • If you ask me $35 to sleep in a tent is heinous, but these places tend to have more facilities (like laundry!!!!!).  Make sure to read the google or yelp reviews on a place like this before going because there is no standard experience.  It all depends on the people who manage it.  We dodged a few bullets by reading reviews and finding out that the owners are “on drugs” or “will threaten to call the cops if you aren’t out by 9 am.” We also found some of the greatest, most helpful places this way.
  • KOA or other Private Campground: $18-$30
    • Some of these places can be pretty steep too but if it is advertised as a campground, not an RV park, chances are you will be treated a little better and it will be a little quieter.  The roar of 100 RV generators while you sleep in one of the 2-3 tent sites at an RV park can really grind your gears.  These places often have similar services to RV parks (horseshoe pits, laundry rooms, free showers, camp store).
  • County Parks:~$20
    • These are few and far between but were some of the most well kept places we stayed.  One of our favorite county parks was right after we crossed into Oregon, on the banks of the Rogue River.  These are better than private campgrounds, not because they are that much less expensive (honestly comparable in most cases) but because they attract a less RV heavy crowd.  Honestly I hate RV culture and by extension the people who drive them.  They are loud, they take up too much space, and THEY ARE NOT CAMPING.
  • State Parks:$10-20
    • Here is where we first get into hiker biker territory.  While county and private campgrounds rarely have a hiker biker discount, state parks (especially in Oregon, Washington, and Montana) are great about it.  Also hiker/biker sites cannot be reserved in all the states we visited (CA, OR, ID, MT, WA) so you know it will not be turned away.  In fact many states have policies (OR and WA for sure, not certain about others) that make it illegal for a hiker or biker to be turned away. So while you may have to share, you won’t have to keep riding.

      Hiker Biker site at Tumelo State Park outside of Bend, OR
  • National Parks and Forest Service: $7.50-15
    • Forest Service campsites DO NOT have hiker biker sites.  This is important to note because (like we learned on Washington Pass) you can bike all day, thinking you’ll be able to camp in a certain place and then get there to be turned away because it is full.  National parks often have hiker biker sites and have no stay limit.  I would recommend Sprague Creek campground in Glacier National Park.  It has a triple hiker biker site so you can make friends, $6/person/night and the site doesn’t allow RVs or trailers so it is quiet.  You can read more of my rave review here.  We bought a National Parks Annual Interagency Pass (I think it was $75 up front) but it covers all your NPS entrance fees and cuts most Forest Service campsites from $15 to $7.50.

Paying for camping is great because it is easy.  You know where to put your tent, where to build your fire, and that you won’t be run off.

NOT Paying for Camping:

So there are more free camping options than people realize.  Free camping is not necessarily illegal camping either.  There is plenty of land in the US that is held for use by the public and that you can camp on with no reservation and no consequence.  Not sure if rogue camping is for you?  Here’s a list of reasons it is better than formal camp sites:

  • No obnoxious neighbors.  People in campsites are often looking to have a good time.  After a full day of riding your fully loaded bike through the sun, probably up hill, there is a chance you will not want to party to the wee hours of the morning.  So rogue camping lets you have more control over your surroundings.  You can’t necessarily go tell the person talking loudly in the campsite next to you at 3:00am to SHUT THE HELL UP but you can pick a place far, far away from them and their noise.
  • You can be obnoxious to your non-existent neighbors.  Maybe you ARE looking to party all night.  Rogue camping is a great way to do what you want noise wise and not worry about annoying anyone or the camp host coming over to wag his finger at you.  Generally no one up in your business.
  • Your dog can run free.  Pretty much all campgrounds have strict leash policies.  Your dog has to be tied to a stationary point or to your person at all times. This is huge for Ru, since Ru is huge.  Especially toward the end of the trip, the worst part of camping in established campgrounds would be the agony Ru experienced at the end of his tether.  He would lay down at the end of the rope, closest to the path and cry because people would walk by and not pet him.  Our dog stays around (aka within a half mile) because he has a deep seated fear of abandonment sparked from our constant moving during his formative months.  If your dog has more confidence and could wander off permanently I would recommend more caution.

It is nice to feel that you are alone in the wilderness.  These sites that we found can also vary greatly but here are some of the general places we looked:

  • National Forest
    • You are absolutely and no questions asked allowed to camp on National Forest land.  You will know you are in it because of convenient land boundary markers erected on property lines.  It is not just the big beautiful signs you see on state roads, there are smaller pockets throughout that are easier to find on a bike.  Here you can walk in behind the first row of trees and usually find a place to lay your head.
    • If you get the chance you can also go to the local ranger station and ask about “dispersed campsites.”  These are primitive campsites set up on some forest service land.  They are usually not marked except for a small sign telling you the fire danger and to pack it in/pack it out.  The rangers can suggest some sweet sites (we stayed in a great one outside Stanley, ID) and they will give you maps complete with mile markers to help you find them.
  • BLM Land
    • Bureau of Land Management land is public land.  There are a multitude of signs in rural areas of Idaho and Montana telling you to “Enjoy your Public Lands” and that is exactly what I advocate doing.  This is the same concept as forest service land, you are allowed on it, you are allowed to camp, pack it in/pack it out, etc but the land is less likely to be forested.  You will probably be more out in the open.  Like this campsite that isn’t a campsite on BLM land in Idaho:
      The worst head wind and one of the best views of the trip.

      We were actually 8 feet from the road and this was an act of pure desperation but man was it scenic.

    • ALSO much of BLM land is leased for grazing to ranchers.  This does not mean you can’t use it.  You need to be sure to close all gates that you open and stay away from the cows (if you get kicked neither the government nor the leaser ill have sympathy) but other than that you are good to go.  Or stay, as it were.

All these camping opportunities save you money, expand your improvisational wilderness skills, and help you connect with the wilderness in a way I find more conducive to bike touring.  It just keeps the feeling going.  To get off your bike and walk into an artificial environment, I find tiring.  But if you stay in the world you are riding in, the experience can become more whole.  It did for me.  BUT you need to respect these places and take more care than in established campgrounds.  Make sure to respect Leave No Trace ethics and leave it no “better” or worse than before.  Also buy a field guide to eliminate your use of toilet paper, but also make sure you aren’t wiping with poison oak.  Find friendly plants!

Good advice mixed with bad at a National Forest trailhead in Olympic Peninsula National Park


The last thing I want to talk about here is my darling boy, the light of my life, and the bane of my existence: Ru.  For all you folks out there looking to take your dog on tour with you, here are the answers to some of the million questions you might have.  I am organizing this by dog need:

  • SLEEP: All dogs need a place they feel comfortable sleeping.  As u was the smallest of puppers at the beginning of the trip, he took a LOT of trailer naps.  Getting your dog used to napping in his/her/their trailer will save you a lot of hassles.  The more Ru was awake (almost all day toward the end of the trip) the more frequently we had to stop.  If he takes naps, you can get in your groove and cover some ground.  Also he slept in the tent with us when we put it up (he felt safer) and in the trailer when we didn’t.  He threw some fits on trailer nights and we had to improvise.  He hates sleeping straight on the ground so we would have to put the tarp out for him.  Take your dog camping before hand and make sure you know what he likes, otherwise he will make sure you get no sleep which makes it hard to bike.
  • EAT: Dog food is a constant struggle.  We made a point of only buying the 4 lb bags (because we didn’t want to carry more) and so we had to find a place to buy more every 3-4 days.  We also had to change foods fairly often depending on what was available. We prefer to feed Ru grain free, not because we believe grains are the devil but because grain free dog food tends to have higher quality ingredients in general.  But we also bought True Pals (the Western Family brand dog food) many times because it was there and only costs $4.  Unless you plan your route super carefully and call grocery stores you won’t be able feed them the same thing the whole trip.  If your dog is picky I recommend trying to break that before the trip or be prepared to let the hunger motivate after a few days of no eating.  But that’s sad.  Also you need to make a choice about how much road kill and rogue bones you will let your dog munch.  We decided not to fight it unless the kill was fresh and that had its consequences.  But at some point you can’t stop ’em.
  • DRINK: Dogs need water.  The water does not need to be as heavily filtered or sourced as human water (they drink puddles for god’s sake) but it needs to be there.  I carried about 3 liters for Ru every day.  Dogs don’t often know they are dehydrated and you need to keep tabs on his drinking.  Also I found that a common cause of Ru wandering off during stops was thirst.  If your dog seems like he can’t sit still and is looking for something, or tries repeatedly to wander down gullies (where a stream might be) give them a bowl of water and hope they chill out.  It sounds basic but this one is easy to forget when you are riding all day.
  • PLAY: We brought a bunch of toys on the trip and Ru threw all of them out of the trailer one by one.  We acquired more over the course of the ride (some were found, some given, and a few bought) but none of them stood the test of time.  Our solution: act really excited about sticks until your dog is too.  There are always sticks.  Also even though you are tired make time for play with your dog especially if they are young.  I tried to do this in the morning.  Ru got up super early and it was a good opportunity for relationship building and tiring him out before getting in the trailer for the day.  Also letting him run next to you (Ru’s top speed is 10 mph) is a fun way to tire him out.  Be careful of which roads you choose though, and teach your dog on dedicated bike paths away from motorized traffic.

So now you know where to sleep and how to keep your dog happy.  In my opinion a bed and a dog does a home make.  So with these things in mind and a camp time routine/way you set your things up, you can make your home in the wilderness feel more comfortable even though the ground underneath changes every day.


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