The Joys of Camping Part 1

Text: Rick Schunk • Photography: Rick Schunk

Motorcycle camping isn't for everyone, but then again, neither is motorcycling itself. There are many reasons why my wife, Linda, and I like to camp during our motorcycle tours. But first and foremost is the natural beauty we find in the various national, state, and private campgrounds. Not all of them are winners of course, but when you pitch your tent beside a 150-foot-tall, 380-year-old redwood tree in Northern California, there are few experiences that compare.

If you've never tried camping on a motorcycle tour, perhaps this is the time to consider it. Think of the romance of it all. Now I'm not talking about cuddling up in a sleeping bag with your significant other - although that does have its merits. No, for me, strapping down a lightweight tent and sleeping bag on my bike is akin to a cowboy cinching down his bedroll in preparation for another day on the trail. Riding a motorcycle lends itself to similarities with the idealized life of the Zane Gray cowboy - consider the use of saddlebags and chaps, for example.

But don't get too carried away with the romantic cowboy image. Keep in mind that not every camping trip results in a warm, dry morning. Packing up, or for that matter setting up, in the rain can have you pining for the comforts of a hotel. If you've followed any of the RoadRUNNER tours, or completed any of your own, you know that motorcycle touring can be a mixed bag of joy and discomfort. Well, motorcycle camping is an extension of this, replete with both the good and the bad. Much like riding itself, having the right equipment, especially in inclement weather, can significantly increase the likelihood that you'll enjoy the accommodations - even in the rain.

Camping equipment has progressed light years from the days of my youth when a heavy Sears canvas tent was state-of-the-art. Today, tents, sleeping bags, pads, and cooking gear are available lightweight and durable and priced to fit almost any budget. Backpackers have blazed the trail for motorcyclists, convincing manufacturers to invest in the technology to improve camping equipment.

If you're just beginning to warm up to the idea of a motorcycle camping tour, you'd be wise to try it out first without investing a lot of money. Do any of your friends camp? Would they loan you their equipment? Another alternative is to rent the gear you need. Outlets such as REI rent just about anything you could possibly need, available in stores in 28 states. (Check out www.rei.com/rentals for details.) Additionally, some universities and colleges have recreation centers with equipment available for rental. When you rent, not only can you gauge whether motorcycle camping is for you, but you also get a good idea about what to purchase - or not - if you decide to take the plunge.

Silly as it might sound, consider renting just the basics and pitching your tent in the backyard for a weekend. Most likely there won't be any giant redwoods to greet you in the morning, but this experience can help you make up your mind. From there, if you and your back are still on speaking terms, try an overnight tour to a state park or private campground near your home. Start off small and keep it simple.

Linda and I pack only the basics for camping tours: tent, ground cloth, sleeping bags and pads, flashlight, and perhaps an inflatable pillow, although we've been known to use a rolled up sweater on occasion. Over the years, we've compiled a list of camping essentials, augmented by a few luxury items that address temperatures for cool or hot weather camping. With the exception of roasting the occasional hot dog and warming up a can of beans over the campfire, we seldom cook on our tours. This makes packing even easier - and dining a bit more enjoyable.

With your rented or borrowed equipment safely stowed on your machine, select a local campground with all the amenities for your first big adventure. No need to rough it at a minimalist Bureau of Land Management (BLM) site. And do keep an eye on the weather. Don't pick the one summer weekend when torrential rain is in the forecast. You want your first camping experience to be as pleasant as possible.

This article is the first of a six-part installment about motorcycle camping. Next, we'll explore both basic and optional equipment intended to make your time in the great outdoors more comfortable. We'll even share our secret motorcycle touring/camping list with you. Until then check out a Zane Gray novel from your local library. Or better yet, pick up Ken Burns' PBS special Lewis & Clark - The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and get inspired!