The first time I went moto camping, I pulled into Camden Hills Campground in NH and started gathering firewood. A lady from a neighbouring campsite wandered over and, in the process of telling me that I’m supposed to buy the firewood, not gather it, she said something that struck me at the time: “My husband is so jealous!” Okay, normally you don’t want anyone’s wife saying that to you, but in this case I was safe; the jealousy was all for my freedom.
Moto camping is the most liberating experience I can think of. You have all your essential needs in one place—on your motorcycle—and your ADV motorcycle can go pretty much anywhere you point it. The possibilities are infinite; the journey, endless. There is economic freedom, too. I extend my budget by doing all (or most) of my cooking; my bike gets about 25 km/L, so the gas is cheap; and by camping, I avoid paying hundreds of dollars a night for accommodations. And while I haven’t yet tried wild camping (camping on crown land for free), that’s my next step.
But all this freedom comes at a cost. You can be caught in bad weather. You sometimes have to sacrifice comfort. There are animals and other risks to consider. And let’s face it, camping is sometimes a lot of work!
Before I did moto camping, I did quite a lot of canoe camping. These camping tips come from over a decade of canoe camping and four seasons of moto camping. Some are pretty obvious to the experienced camper, but I include them here too for those just starting out.
Dedicate one pannier for food
I like to dedicate generally one pannier for food, one for cooking equipment, and my top wet/dry bag for clothing and other dry items. Dedicating one pannier for food means I can string it from a tree and know that no animals are going to get at it. With moto camping, you don’t have a car to store your food for the night, so you really should string it. Tie a heavy stick onto the end of your rope and throw it over a sturdy horizontal branch, then re-tie to your pannier, hoist, and wrap the rope around the tree. (See photo below.) I’d hate to be in my tent in the middle of the night and have to listen to a bear trying to get inside a pannier that’s still mounted on my bike! I put one of those insulated grocery bags inside my hard pannier. It’s not as efficient as a cooler but will preserve fresh foods a little longer than otherwise.
Nothing smelly in the tent
This one may not be obvious to the newbie, but you shouldn’t have anything in the tent that is smelly and might attract animals. No gum, or toothpaste, or candy, or food of any kind (doh!), or perfume, or suntan lotion, or mint flavoured dental floss. Bears have very good noses. I put all that stuff in the food pannier and string it from a branch. It helps me sleep better knowing it’s all stored safely away.
Set up your tent ASAP
You never know when it’s going to rain, so I suggest setting up your tent ASAP upon arriving at site. That’s your shelter, so you should set it up, just in case. It’s also a lot easier in the daylight than waiting until after dinner when the light is fading. I like to do this even before gathering firewood (or purchasing) and getting food on.
A shot of inspiration
There is one thing I like to do even before setting up my tent. As soon as I arrive at site, I have a shot of something to warm the belly. Sometimes it’s scotch; sometimes it’s bourbon; sometimes it’s port. It doesn’t really matter, but after a cold ride, some liquid heat will lubricate the work ahead and add a little glow to the mundane.
Packing minimalist? Try merino wool. I spend the entire day in merino wool. I sleep in it. I ride in it. I work in it. It breathes in the heat and insulates in the cold. It has anti-bacterial properties, and is super comfortable. I would not suggest 100% merino because it’s not durable enough. Most companies today weave about 5-10% nylon in to the wool to strengthen it. A thin merino wool base layer is sometimes all I need beneath my jacket and compression suit.
Woolen hat and socks
Here in Canada, it can get quite cold at night even in spring and fall, so I always pack smart wool socks and a wool toque. Wool keeps you warm wet or dry, and smart wool has some added properties that help it dry quicker when it does get wet. If it’s cold at night, wearing a toque and socks to bed can make all the difference. As a last resort, pull the sleeping bag over your head and let your breath heat the bag. No, you will not suffocate; there’s plenty of ventilation through the bag to give you sufficient fresh air.
Park your bike facing out from the campground
The first time I moto camped, I pulled in to the site, parked, then the next morning went to do that U-turn to get me out and dropped the bike. The site was on a slight slope which I didn’t notice and my head just wasn’t into it yet. You don’t want that first turn of the day to be a U-turn with the bike fully loaded, so instead, pull the U-turn at the end of the previous day and then the next morning all you have to do is load and ride. Save the U-turns for after the second coffee.
Use your sweater as a pillow
You don’t need to pack a small camping pillow for the tent. Just use your sweater. I travel with a Sherpa polar fleece sweater that is perfect for around camp in the evening. (It has the cinder burns to show for it.) Then when it’s time to turn in, I just fold it to make a perfect pillow. As a bonus, if it’s unexpectedly cold that night, my sweater is at hand pull on. I’ll do without a pillow if I have to, but I hate being cold.
Get a good headlamp
How did I ever do without? A headlamp is an essential. It may appear nerdy, but then when you’re camping in the middle of nowhere (or have a 3-day camper’s helmet head on), who cares? A headlamp leaves your hands free to cook, gather and chop wood, or pour another wee dram. I recently discovered the benefit of getting a good one. My current one has a red light, which does not attract bugs, and the ability to adjust the brightness of the white light in both intensity and breadth. When you are away from all artificial sources of light and the sun goes down, you’ll be thankful for the best headlamp money can buy. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries.
Use non-perfumed soap
Get a good biodegradable non-perfumed soap for the dishes, your body, and your hair. Aside from going easy on the environment, a non-perfumed soap will not attract mosquitos and other bugs, not to mention animals. I like Dr. Bronner’s pure-castile soap. I don’t know what castile is and neither does WordPress, apparently, which flags it as a spelling mistake, but this soap kicks butt! A few drops in your scorched pot and it cleans right up (the pot, that is). The label is pretty entertaining too. Also, do not use any product in your hair as this too will attract bugs. You can’t be vain when camping! And going without hair product means your helmet liner will not get greasy and grimy.
Buy fresh food when you can
Maybe because I did so much canoe camping before moto camping, I discovered this one only well into my first long tour. When canoe camping, you plan each meal for every day and take exactly what you need. It never occurred to me that I could simply pick up something fresh at the local grocer while passing through. Yeah, I pack a lot of porridge, pasta, peanut butter, packaged curries, and rice for most of my meals, but one of my best camping meals ever was some fresh fish I bought in Moncton, New Brunswick, bagged salad, and a veggie. I even bought some garlic butter for the fish, something I knew wouldn’t last more than a day but made the meal, since I cooked the fish in it. So don’t forget; even though you’re roughing it, you are riding through civilization often during the day and can pick up fresh food at the supermarket for that night’s dinner.
Moto camping requires some planning, courage, and a little extra work, but the rewards well outweigh the costs. There’s nothing like kicking back beside a campfire at the end of a long day of riding, being in a tent during a thunderstorm at night, or crawling out of a tent in the early morning, with mist still hanging on the lake and hearing loons calling through the fog. If you love nature and riding, then moto camping is for you.
Share your favourite camping tips by leaving a comment. I’d love to hear from you.