(My first bikepacking adventure took place in Northern MN.)
Should you bikepack to stealth camp or stealth camp to bikepack? Do you not understand the question? Let me explain…
If you want total freedom to go bikepacking anywhere your heart desires you will need the ability to stealth camp. But more importantly, if you want to go stealth camping in forbidden forests the number one best tool you can use is a bicycle. Why? Because of parking.
(My cyclocross machine packed superlight for a long distance 2 day gravel ride.)
I learned early in my backpacking days that concealing a car is kind of impossible. “No Overnight Parking” at a trail head automatically means no camping… unless you bike there! If you want to bushwack through an unnamed forest that has no designated parking you may get a ticket (or your car will get towed)… unless you use a bike! If you are worried about driving down a road and making a ruckus just solve this problem by RIDING YOUR DAMN BIKE! WOOT!
A bike is sneaky.
A car is not.
A bike is cheap to fuel.
A car is not.
A bike can be easily hidden.
A car can not.
A bike will get you sexy ladies.
A car can not.
See? Bikes are perfect for stealth camping. So now that I have convinced you of their superiority what kind of bike should you use? ANY KIND!
(Quick overnighter on an old $50 bike I bought on craigslist.)
Here are a few general options for types of bikes:
The bike you already own – I used to ride an 80’s steel mtb (pictured above) every single day to work; rain, sleet, or snow. It had a 5 speed freewheel, a single chainring, and a broken front derailleur for a chain-keeper. I did not have a fancy Revelate Designs frame pack or a Porcelain Rocket saddle bag (even though cycling magazines would lead us to believe these items are a “MUST HAVE!” for bikepacking). Instead of sitting inside wasting hours and hours researching the “perfect bike” and trying to find deals on the “best bikepacking gear” I just went for it. And I had a blast! Riding the bike you already own is way more fun than working extra hours trying to pay for a bike that you think you need.
Cyclocross bike – if you don’t own a bike I highly recommend a cx bike. IMO they are the most versatile bike you can buy! Last year I put skinny tires on my Specialized Crux and raced multiple USA Cycling sanctioned road races then after my last road race I threw on some 35mm knobbies and took 10th place out of 54 in my first MTB race (sorry for bragging, I am just really psyched about it). A cyclocross bike with race oriented geometry will work well for fast group rides on the road or flowy cross country mountain bike trails. I was absolutely obsessed with my Specialized Crux (which I purchased on craigslist for a measly $540!) but it lacked rack mounts which hindered my ability to comfortably commute on it.
Gravel bike – Originally I was pissed off when companies began advertising gravel bikes because a gravel bike is essentially a cyclocross bike with the geometry tweaked a little. In other words, they created a faux class of bicycles to make bike fanatics (like myself) think they need to add yet another bike to their stable in order to go ride on gravel roads (you don’t need a gravel bike to ride gravel roads). But then I tested a Salsa Warbird in South Dakota and my mind was BLOWN! The steering was controlled for long rides yet responsive while off road, the frame could fit 40mm tires, it had three bottle cage holders, and it felt light as a feather! I no longer make fun of gravel bikes 😉
Touring bike – lots of options for racks and fenders. These are super comfortable but best suited for pavement. I have never owned a touring bike because I hate the slow steering and relatively lack of versatility.
Road bike – If you plan to travel minimalist (and fast) a road bike is a great option. A few years ago I wanted to check out a creek that I found on Google Maps. The creek was 30 miles away, all pavement, and the sun was going down in two hours. I hopped on my Giant Defy with some snacks, a bivy bag, my sleeping pad, and a belay jacket (used as a sleeping bag). When I got to the creek it was surrounded by a thick forest so I shouldered my bike and hiked two miles down the creek to setup camp for the night. I enjoyed the simplicity but I would not recommend a road bike as a first choice since the aggressive geometry can become uncomfortable during multi day excursions and the lack of rack mounts means that you need to pack VERY light!
Mountain bike – awesome for long trails in the mountains (duh!). Mountain bikes also work very well for long gravel tours since they give you the ability to explore rough trails that you might stumble upon while searching for a spot to stealth camp. But I prefer drop bars for everything other than legit mountain biking.
Fat bike – the epitome of freedom! Ride anywhere you want. But believe me when I say that a fat bike will be VERY SLOW if you have a great distance to cover before reaching your trail head. This means it might be quickest to ride a more efficient bike to your chosen forest, lock the bike to a tree, then bushwack on foot. I have never personally owned a fat bike but my good friend AL (who I ironically met due to this article!) is obsessed with his. He explained that he enjoys having the freedom to ride anywhere he wants at anytime, even if the pace is slowed down at times. He doesn’t own a car so his trips through the city are filled with shortcuts through ditches and monster-trucking his own paths into existence.
My bike – Yes. The perfect stealth camping weapon! Black like the night with some purple highlights to show off my emotional side. The frame is a 2015 Surly Karate Monkey that I originally built as a flat bar urban assault machine. As I began to sell all of my bikes in an effort to live a more simple life style the Monkey kept making it onto the “keep list” until eventually it was the ONLY bike on the “keep list”. After I converted it to drop handlebars I realized that it performed well in all of my required categories. It is durable due to the steel frameset, hope hubs, and a cx inspired 1×10 setup. It is simple with a Gevenalle friction shift 1×10 speed groupset and mechanical discs. It rides fast on the road due to drop bars and a smooth center tread. It rides fast in single track due to the short wheelbase (for a 29er), short stem, and wide flaring Salsa Cowbell drops. It has room for 29+ tires and fenders for winter. And it has enough mounting options to ride fully loaded for long distance adventures.
I have considered building an All City Nature Boy Disc for extreme minimalism/durability and I have considered building a Salsa Warbird for extra speed on my daily commutes but each time that I start to day dream I realize I would have to give up too much. I believe that the Karate Monkey is the perfect do-it-all bike (unless Salsa decides to build the Warbird in steel and adds rack mounts!).
(My latest stealth camping weapon, built from the ground up.)
You can not go bike packing without tools. Seriously. At the very least BRING A SPARE TUBE AND PORTABLE PUMP. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE. I work as a bike mechanic and get tired of hearing the stories of people who went on a long ride (30+ miles) and were surprised when they got a flat and had to call for someone to pick them up. Learn to change a tube, it is easy, trust me.
So the usual list of items that I carry are:
-two spare tubes
-a set of tire levers
-a small hand pump
-a multitool (I recommend the Crank Bro Multi 19)
If you have an older bike you will also want:
-an adjustable wrench for your axel bolts if your wheels lack quick releases
And for longer rides I suggest:
-small bottle of chain lube
-spare chain link & pin (this requires a multitool with a chain breaker like the C.B. Multi 19)
-two spare spokes (I have never broke a spoke during a ride but I am a lightweight!)
-spoke wrench (just buy a multitool with one like the C.B. Multi 19!)
(My frost covered bike after a very cold night in a tree.)
So how do you locate good stealth camping locations while bikepacking? The best way is to just wing it! Be truly adventurous and ride out with no itinerary in search of a place to sleep under the stars!!! Haha, but if you are the type of person who prefers more planning I recommend using Google Satellite Maps. I have found so many great stealth camping locations simply by zooming in on a river and looking for heavily forested areas. This technique works great near big cities where stealth camping in public parks can be difficult due to the relatively high populations enjoying the park. And remember, if someone catches you, just panic. Run around screaming and crying (just kidding, you should be polite and sincerely apologize!).
I hope I have inspired you to get on your bike and go on an adventure!
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