Common Tread

How not to go moto camping

Apr 17, 2018

Lemmy and I are currently preparing for an upcoming motorcycle camping trip for the latest installment of RevZilla’s new RedLine video series. Through all of the trips we’ve taken over the years, both together and apart, one fact holds true: There is no universal set of rules for motorcycle camping.

Moto camping is a fun and affordable way to take a motorcycle trip. Oftentimes it just serves as an excuse to take off for the weekend and spend some quality time with your bike. That being said, you can easily get yourself into a situation that can get mighty uncomfortable (or even dangerous) if you find yourself unprepared in a remote area. The following words of advice are accompanied by the stories of how I learned each particular lesson, usually the hard way.

How to Motorcycle Camp
Lemmy and I take different approaches to motorcycle camping, but that has never stopped us from having a good time together. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Selecting your tent

If you read Common Tread regularly, you’ve probably heard me talk about trips down Skyline Drive with my dad. The first trip took place during the summer of 2006. Having just graduated college, I was looking to get away for a long weekend and dad offered to take a few days away from the office (a big deal for him) and head down to Virginia to retrace the moto-camping trips of his youth.

In preparation for the trip I bought a brand-new, two-man tent from Cabela’s. Compared to the old military surplus tents I had used during my time in the Boy Scouts, it was a revolution in technology. The tent was light and compact, making it easy to fit on the back of my Bonneville, and I figured it would be plenty big enough to fit my dad and I. I was so blissfully ignorant that I never even bothered to try it out before embarking on our trip (Note: Try out your camping gear prior to using it on a trip.)

Rolling into our campsite well past dark, we immediately busied ourselves making camp for the night. Dad held the flashlight as I set up the tent, rattling off its features like a Cabela’s salesman. It came together in just a few minutes, and when it was all staked down it was a real thing of beauty. But it was a bit small for two grown men.  

How to Motorcycle Camp
Spurgeon Senior stretching out after a night crammed uncomfortably in the tiny Cabela's tent. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Apparently when manufacturers rate tents they do so by considering the size of folks prior to hitting puberty. As my father and I settled down for what would be a very cozy night's sleep, I made a mental note to size up my future tent purchases. If you need a tent for two, get a tent rated for three. And if you need room for gear, might as well get the one for four people. Bumping up a size or two doesn’t add a tremendous amount of bulk or weight to your luggage, but it does add a whole lot of comfort.

I learned another valuable camping lesson on that trip: Don’t be too proud to pull out your credit card and spring for a hotel.

Choosing your campsite

After college, I found myself teaching high school in California. With summers off, but little cash to spare, motorcycle camping was an affordable way to explore new places.

How To Motorcycle Camp
In an effort to keep costs down, I often opted to skip expensive campsites (and showers). Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Having never paid more that $12 for a campsite, I was shocked to learn that campgrounds out west expected me to shell out almost $40 for the privilege of pitching my tent in their grass for the night. In an effort to keep my trips affordable, I came up with different ways to get around paying full pop for campsites. One way was to bum joint spots from other campers. If someone was camping alone I would offer to throw them a few dollars to share their spot. Not only was this a great way to save a couple of bucks but it also worked to make new friends — friends who were usually willing to share a beer or two.

How To Motorcycle Camp
I ran into the owner of this barn (full of old motorcycle parts) while having lunch somewhere in Iowa, I believe. He offered up this spot as a safe place to camp for the night. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

You can also try setting up camp in less conventional spaces. If you don’t require the amenities of a campground (shower, bathroom, campfire…) you can pretty much pitch a tent anywhere. Well, almost anywhere.

While traveling through Nevada, I set up my tent in an abandoned RV park after gaining permission from the receptionist of the adjacent motel. She even pointed me towards the outdoor bathhouse where she said I could clean myself up. There is nothing like a shower after a few days on the road to make you feel like a million bucks. There is nothing that strips that feeling away faster than returning to find a large grizzled man snooping around your tent with a shotgun.

How to Motorcycle Camp
If you decide to make camp outside of an official campsite, make sure you get permission from the landowner first. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Turns out that the RV park wasn’t owned by the nice lady behind the counter who gave me permission to sleep there, but rather it belonged to the guy with the gun. While there are a lot of great people out there willing to offer sanctuary to a weary traveler, it’s important to make sure they have the authority to do so. It's important to get this one correct as there are simply too many places in the desert to bury a body.

Don’t be too tough for a sleeping pad

Traveling around the Great Lakes for a few days, I was toughing it out the way I had always done. Maximize riding time, roll into camp way too late, set up my tent, throw the sleeping bag on the ground, and spend the night tossing and turning on the cold, hard earth.

How to Motorcycle Camp
This particular camping spot at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was uncomfortable enough to convince me to buy a self-inflating sleeping pad. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

After about a week on the road, and one particularly rocky campground at the Indian Dunes National Lakeshore on the coast of Lake Michigan, I 'd had enough. First thing in the morning, I rode to the local Sports Authority and bought a self-inflating camping pad for about $25.

It weighed next to nothing and packed down easily on top of my existing gear. This simple addition was a revolution in comfort. Not only did it provide a cushioned barrier between the rocks and myself, it also insulated me from the cold, heat-sucking earth. How I had managed without it for so long was beyond me.

It took me 26 years to realize the value of a camping pad, and having recently turned 35 (I'm practically Lance's age) a high-tech camping cot is looking better still.

How to Motorcycle Camp
I stopped to grab a quick photo of this road sign bearing my name. Check out that brand new sleeping pad which was added to my rig earlier that day somewhere in Indiana. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Choosing a sleeping bag

I started motorcycle camping in the summer on the East Coast. Days were hot and humid and the nights offered little relief. I found that sleeping on a light fleece bedroll provided more than enough warmth to get me through the night.

Camping out west in the mountains and deserts was another story. In these areas temperatures can swing from sweltering near triple digits at midday to right around freezing at night. If you get caught unprepared, you can end up in a really uncomfortable spot.

How to Motorcycle Camp
The camping gear which served me well during the east coast summers didn't cut it in the deserts and mountains out west. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

A few years back I penned an article about my first — and unsuccessful — trip to the Grand Canyon. One of the details omitted from that story was that in lieu of a proper sleeping bag I had only packed my fleece bedroll. That night, in an effort to maintain warmth, I slept head to toe in my riding gear, including my helmet. Fleece was a bad choice.

Keep in mind that when choosing a sleeping bag you should add roughly 15 degrees to its rating to get its correct temperature range. For example, if a bag is rated to 35 degrees that means it is really appropriate to about 50 degrees. In my opinion, it’s always better to have a bag that is warmer than you need and not need it than to freeze your ass off in Kaibab National Forest on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Replace worn gear

Sometimes it’s hard to know when it’s time to replace your gear. Other times, it’s more obvious. An example of the latter came this past summer at the Touratech Rally East.

I had taken a few days off from work and the plan was to spend the long weekend riding off-road and camping outside Rothrock State Forest in Pennsylvania. Halfway through the first night, the weather turned sour and the heavens opened up. As I lay there, water leaking like a sieve through the rainfly, slowly filling up my old Cabela’s tent and drenching my sleeping bag and all my clothes, I began to suspect that perhaps the time had come to get a new tent.

The only saving grace to the rain was the fact that it was so ridiculously hot that weekend that it actually helped keep me cool. There wasn’t one point on that trip where I ever completely dried out and it took a lot of beer and good humor to keep the misery at bay.

How to Motorcycle Camp
Note the road-worn Cabela's tent hiding in the back of our campsite at this year's Touratech Rally. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

That being said, I still haven’t replaced that tent. Maybe it’s a sentimental thing or perhaps I’m just a glutton for punishment. Either way, my old Cabela’s tent is still sitting on a shelf in my garage, awaiting my next adventure. Perhaps next year.

Hopefully you’re a little less thick-headed than I am and you can learn from some of my mistakes. If not, and you’re exactly like me, I’d love to hear additional stories that could serve to educate us on tips or tricks you’ve learned over the years. Everyone keeps telling me I should be getting wiser in my old age. Maybe it’s time I try to take some of my own advice.