Have you decided to explore the world on a bicycle, then camping is part of it. As the outside seems so much more spooky than a house, the first thing that comes to mind is: ‘Is it not dangerous?’ But in fact, it is not so much about danger, much more camping is about management of daily changing circumstances and how to deal with them. Rather exciting and never dull indeed!
As a first-time camper you might have some questions? I have answered 6 for you. From how to recognize a save spot, which tent to buy, something about trespassing and how to deal with bothersome men. I also added many tips and tricks such as how to care for your tent and how to be on the look out for a natural disaster.
1) What is it all about with wild camping?
Camping makes you feel a trooper, an adventurer, an independent soul because you are able to cover large distances without using a stone building with pipes and hoses where electricity and water flows through. The pleasure of camping is the simplicity of living, all else what is not strictly necessary falls away and this is very liberating. Camping makes you feel more one with where you are. The walls literally falls away which make you feel one with your surrounding.
One of the facets of cycle touring is camping. Not on a paid camping but in nature. It has the most magical enchantment and arouses all my adventurous senses. Yet, it takes practice to gather confidence and it needs experience to be bold and to feel secure. You might not always be able to find the right place to camp but my experience has taught me that there is always a spot to pitch a tent. I just lower my desired features for the night and might end up in someone’s back garden or at the edge of a helicopter platform in the middle of a city.
Finding places to camp is decided by a few factors but the most important is that neither I am seen nor that people are prone to walk past. I want my camp spots to be solitary and private. The deserts and high plateaus are usually so, but the woods are a different story. I focus on lonesome patches of woods, where I check the absence of paths crossing through or nearby or I enter the forest a bit deeper. Gates are often only seemingly locked and thus easy to open. I am on the lookout for cuts in barb-wired fences. A sign that a place is truly abandoned, is for instance the absence of laundry or non-appereance of clipping and cutting of a hedge. I pitch my tent way past rubbish spots and make sure the spot I am at is not a popular place for whatever activities among youngsters. I look for fresh tracks by foot or tires and for freshly cut wood or broken twigs, which indicates people are regularly passing or working at the spot. Cigarette buds or wrappers are also an indication people come where I am. I once made it a rule that I would pitch my tent away from villages or settlements, if possible, and otherwise I would simply hide well or ask to camp in someone’s garden. Though I changed my own management and chose to camp near towns if my dwindling supply needs a quick recovery.
2) Do I really need an expensive tent to enjoy camp life?
You don’t. A cheap tent will do and in some instances a cheap tent will perform as good as an expensive one, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes you don’t even need a tent at all, and be able to sleep right under the stars. I prefer a tent to protect me against insects and reptiles and all other living creatures. To be able to rely on a tent in all circumstances, I opted for an expensive one. The drawback of an expensive tent is that you expect it to be indestructible, and that is not the case. The positive news is that with an expensive tent, the assistance will be excellent. You will also notice that for each activity you might need another sort of tent, which is very annoying to find out, since you probably would like to keep expenses down. But bike-packing or backpacking needs a lighter tent than cycling with all panniers, simply because you can load more without feeling it really.
3) Can I pitch my tent where ever I want to?
Yes. Just be aware that Europeans are conditioned by their culture. Europeans are, comparatively, living with many numbers of people on a small piece of land, and therefore, in my opinion, don’t like campers happily trotting around where they pick up the droppings of their leashed dogs. In many their opinion sleep is to be done in a house, not in the woods. Some people might not agree when one leaves the trodden path and does something out of the ordinary. The law in many European countries surely does not agree either. Not to be woken up by surprised shrieks of passerby’s, pitch your tent when no one sees you going to a certain spot and make sure there are no paths nearby so you won’t be surprised in the morning. And don’t even think of making a fire here!
In countries with fences, where you can not do anything other than trespassing, you are doing wrong, and you might have to leave. If not, make sure not to leave anything behind, it speaks for itself that wrappers go with you when you leave, but don’t make the mistake to poop in the open without burying it. Close gates when they were closed upon entering. Abandoned places are fun to camp, and an abandoned house is easy to recognize when lawns have overgrown and when laundry is not out to dry. I always enter an abandoned place careful and examine it fully to make sure it is not used as a drug-den nor stinking toilet-pit. Some places attract homeless, and I naturally try not to come close to someone else’s spot.
Of course, when trespassing I am aware that I do something which is not allowed, I am basically stepping over a boundary not for me to do. So I know that I can get caught and sent off, therefore I try to keep my stay kosher: no camp fires if I am on someone’s small patch of property. I make sure my toilet is one they will not quickly discover, always covered by sand and/or stones. I also rely on the fact that I am a little, single woman and most men feel a sort of compassion. My overall behavior in trespassing, which you will find yourself doing in most of South America, is a submissive one.
When out there in the desert, lonesome beaches or high rocky pastures it might happen someone will rise out of seemingly nowhere, either so-called drop-outs who live in the wilderness, a shepherd with his herd of lamas or someone you are not certain about. Unlike myself, acting as an enthusiastic woman can be taken wrong. It doesn’t cost me much effort not to behave happy with sudden company. Enthusiastic behavior and lots of smiling often implies something very different to lone males. Especially in certain countries where cultural implications vary, there, being alone is enough reason to be seen as easy bait.
4) Will wildlife and cattle run over my synthetic abode at night?
Deer will rather jump over your synthetic abode and lamas will trip over a guy-line but not trample it. Stray dogs will wriggle themselves under the doors, attempting to break a zipper if needed. Cows go around you, foxes sit near and wait for you, and rodents touch the tent sheet, the smaller species run all over, tarantula’s hang on to it and scorpions seek shelter underneath your groundsheet. Skunks will spray the sheets if they ought it needful. Boars will snort and forge so near you worry they will get through your tent sheet. In short: you will be one of the species out there. You will be noticed by them, may be heavily disturbed, but usually not attacked. Yet the sounds they surround you with can be a magical experience, or… bothersome rest.
5) Am I safe?
Once you get the hang of it, accumulate enough experience and trust, you will find nothing beats camping out in nature.
Sleeping in nature will at first scare you, the sounds of nature and animals and insects is quite overwhelming. Not to speak of the sounds of an ocean. Your mind has the ability to transform those sounds to human footsteps, to whistles, to heavy sighs and hands rummaging around.
The breath of a donkey at your tent cloth sounds like a bear. The snuff of lamas sounds like a lustful man trying to get to you. Think logically and you’ll know that men do not wait at your tent-door to be invited, neither do bears do so.
Pitching your tent where ever you want needs a bit of common sense, which will come automatically when you start. You will learn that a human footstep is incredible heavy to the ear which are not used to harsh sounds anymore, and that a deer’s footstep is immaculate deliberate.
Remember that a rapist is usually not searching for a victim, especially not in the woods, a desert or somewhere unlikely to find women, which is exactly where you are. On the other hand, these places are the perfect spots to commit such acts unseen (as well as thievery), therefore be aware that no one knows you are there in countries where you feel unsafe. I was told in Oman that a man commiting a crime such as rape would be sentenced to death, which made me instantly feel safe. In Iran I learned very quickly by experience to explicity obvious note down car number plates of drivers bothering me. Making a photo of the man might help too. Dress appropriate, behave modest (as far as that is possible on a bicycle) and you’ll have respect and protection by and large.
Wild camping experience hangs together on common sense. I am not trying to be brave or make a statement. Most citizens of any given country will say it is dangerous to camp, so on this argument I can not rely. Usually, upon entering a country you will feel how the people are. When listening closely to this feel, it will tell you whether you can camp unseen or not. Countries such as Iran have different moral standards, and I believe it is not up to us, western single woman, to impose our perspectives on them. Of course, you can try to find out, but the consequences are yours to bear. It are the reactions of men who make me feel safe to camp out in nature. I found East Turkey, Iran and North Iraq not quite comfortable for wild camping. Neither did I camp in India (except the mountain areas). I decided not to camp in Nigeria for several different reasons, though none of them relating to the lack of decent behavior of (African) men in general.
Sleeping in places where any other person can stumble through, leaves me with the uncomfortable thought of not having my desired privacy. Someone seeing me in my camp spot leaves me with a notion of someone stepping into my territory, a very uncivilized raw feeling of discomfort. But there is more than that, others can also grab some of my gear, not the least of it being my precious bicycle. I make sure that such an attempt to steal from me, will not go unnoticed. So I tie the bicycle to my tent: with one of the guy lines and a carabiner, to where I clip a tin cup onto. By any clumsy behavior of a potential thief, a rough clunk will wake me up. Not to be seen where I am, I avoid standing near an artificial light or in the light beam of passing cars. I keep my fires small and I use a head-lamp with (red) night vision function. Although the size of my bicycle is tellingly small, I give no impression that I am a lone single woman. That means underwear is not hanging out to dry, no shoes standing at the tent door and no typical female signs are to be seen.
Having said all this, it happened a few times that I got very scared while sleeping in the open or abandoned places. Then I face the ‘reality’ and prepare for the worst, which is usually rape in my thoughts. I silently gather my most important belongings, such as cash, credit cards and SD cards, stuff them into my bra and am ready to run off as soon as I am going to be attacked. But the reality always was different. The mind loves to blow up things before they actually occur, making explosive scenes where worst case scenarios are going to happen… in the brain that is. This left me with a few sleepless nights deriving me from the much-needed energy to cycle on the next day. The best thing to do is to get out of the situation. Although the men who I thought to be rapists, where only so in my mind. I left a camp spot only once, in the middle of the night, when I felt truly in danger for my life. In wintry Patagonia the sudden snowfall burdened the tall trees around me which started to uproot and to smash down around me. One loud whack after the other made me suspicious about illegal wood cut. I took out the plugs from my ears and stuck my head out of the tent to examine the situation. In 20 minutes I was packed and gone…
6. Is camping really comfortable?
When you erect your tent on a level spot, remove sharp stones, prickly twigs and cacti needle (you might need a knife for this) and try to recline without a noticeable angle, you have then succeeded in step 1 to a good sleep. Step 2 is to keep warm in cold climate or cool in hot weather. To keep warm in a down sleeping bag becomes harder when there is condensation. Since a lot of cold comes from the ground, a good air mattress is essential but to keep the heat in the bag is important as well. I found this easier with a fleece inner-liner and a fleece blanket on top. It’s a lot to carry indeed, yet a good night sleep is very important, because without you feel grumpy and enjoy the ride a lot less. Sleeping in a closed sleeping bag (mummy style) is something I never got, nor ever will, get used to.
To stay cool in hot climates is best done by a tent with a lot of air flow. A free-standing tent with two mesh walls opposite each other will be nice but such a tent is not much good in cold climates. The down sleeping bag can be exchanged for a thin cotton liner but unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do in hot climates. Usually when the cool of the night comes you may feel some relief. Other than that, camping becomes only very comfortable when you get the hang of it, and that takes time…
Tips and tricks about camp spots and your tent:
Rivers and water
Placing your tent in a wadi, quebrada or dried up riverbed could mean a flood.
Rivers can swell instantly to unbelievable volumes. Keep distance to its shore.
Avoid dips in land, unless you are sure it will not rain overnight.
Trees and animals
Check if the tree you pitch your tent under is stable.
Snow can unearth a tree by the heaviness on it’s branches.
Do not block a path used by animals or carts.
When choosing a shady tree to set your tent under, make sure it does not drop sticky stuff.
Store your food safely against animals who like to share with you. I close the bags and containers in which I keep food and stored them in the vestibule (never dealt with bears though!).
I keep a pot and cutlery in the vestibule to make harsh sounds when in need to scare off wild animals (bores) coming too close.
Tent and weather
Close the zipper of your tent at all times (for bugs, mosquitoes, scorpions and spiders).
Vast open spaces with lightning and thunder needs something higher than you or your bicycle.
Align your tent with the wind (usually the wind stops with nightfall).
Do not tighten your tent to something rigid while hard wind blows (as it will break the poles).
Keep the zippers free of sand with a wet clean cloth and a soft brush (although often this isn’t done and seems not needed, I definitely do).
Earplugs might be your sleeping savior.
Tent and humans
Try not to place the tent in a beam of light (whether car lights or a later to be switched on lantern), unless you like artificial light.
Try to find a spot where no one will walk past.
When having found a spot, it’s nice when no one sees you going to it.
Keep a distance from towns (sound and safety).
Try to choose a camouflage colored tent, unless you like flashy colors to enhance your photo’s.
You will lose the tent pegs first, take a few spare. Spare sliders for the zippers is necessary too (ask the manufacturer).
Make your own groundsheet (way cheaper and stronger).
Secure the tent with pegs as soon as you roll it out, so the wind can not play with it.
Roll the tent back loosely in no particular shape or pattern so rubbing and wearing out is kept to a minimum.
Store the pegs and poles separate from the fabric.
Try not to store heavy items on the tent when transporting it.
Try not to have the tent exposed to harsh sunlight during your day(s) of rest.
When rolling the tent back make sure not to roll in snails as they start rotting very quick. And this stench, as well as cat/dog pee, will stay with you for long.
A few rules I go by:
Even a tiny campfire means a threat setting the forest or plains on fire. Although local passer-through’s make fires along the route, nomadic tribes rely on fires and shepherds might prepare their lunch on a fire; be careful. Leave your fire only when you are sure it can not spread. Extinguish the fire pit when you cycle away from the camp spot (by peeing on it to save water) and cover it with whatever non burnable stuff you can find. Leave no trace.
The earth has many parts which belong to someone. To trespass and act as if nothing belongs really to someone, is not correct. Whether land is sacred is not up to us to decide. Disliking fences is a person’s own condition, not a moral everyone goes by. It might help to always place yourself in the other, and act accordingly. This still leaves plenty of space to trespass or occupy buildings not yours but it will make you behave more modest and respectful, and hardly anyone will be upset.
I burn all my trash in a fire. Plastic and tins and peels alike. I know plastic may not fully melt away and I am aware of the so-called environmental issues, even of the toxin’s I might breath in but having been in India so many times, I know to place certain things in perspective. Upon arriving in places where I wanted to trow out my bag full with collected garbage, they’d ask me, seeing me searching for a trash-bin: ‘Can we help you?’ I would hand over my bag full of careful kept trash, and see them throwing it on the street. I often pile my trash on existing heaps.
Leave no trace. Leave no trace means also that I pick out the burnt tins from my fire pit and throw them in a general heap of trash. Everything goes with you, except the containing of your toilet-pit. Make sure to cover this real good and never to poop near a water stream. Truck drivers are prone to poop right on the tarmac where they halt their vehicle, while the paper dances away however the wind picks it. Don’t make that same dance happen! Animals are prone to dig your toilet pit, so cover it and/or dig deep enough (15 centimeters).
I always found my own intuition more reliable than anything or anyone else, and together with common sense, you will be amazed at where you can pitch your tent and have a good night sleep, for free.
The difficulty of cycling does not lay in fitness, stamina or strength, as this you will build up quickly. More difficult it might be to keep balancing the delicate issues of being on your own, socializing, change your tent for the occasional luxury of a hotel room and (family-) relationships.
When you are interested in buying a tent, you may want to read my review about Hilleberg.
Here is a detailed how-to repair the sliders of the tent.
A post for women with tips and tricks on how to behave and be aware of can be red in ‘Hints for Women‘.
There are a few downsides too, but I decide not to mention them as camping is heavenly fantastic most of the time. Keep in mind that you need sufficient water and food supply to enjoy an unexpected day of rest in your camp.
Having a hobo stove with you is enjoying the full camping experience. Here is how to make one.
While on a hobo stove one can not prepare fresh oven baked bread, you might want to learn the technique anyway. Here is how to prepare freshly baked bread on a camp fire.
And while you are at slow camping, why not have a look at slow living while cycling. Here is a post with 7 tips.
At the time of writing this, Heike asked me for an interview about the exact same topic. This you can read here, 4 other world cyclists give their opinion as well.
I am curious to your wild camping experiences as I am always in for learning more about it. You are more than welcome to share your tips and practicalities. I love to read them : )