Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Don't Pay Money to Catch Some Z's: Mountain Bike Bumming, Part 1

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My goal whenever I've gone mountain bike bumming has been to spend as little money as possibly. 
Specifically: I only want to spend money on gas and food.

During a normal trip / vacation, lodging is usually a very large percentage of the cost.  Hotel rooms, cabins, condos... all of those cost big bucks everyday of your trip, especially in the true destination towns that have learned that they can charge an exorbitant fee and get it. 

Even camping can be expensive.  I recently tent camped for a weekend in a National Forest campground, and the cost was $14 per night for a basic campsite with no amenities. Additionally, if you don't already own the requisite gear such as a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc., the initial cost of purchasing it can be very steep! (Especially if you buy quality outdoor gear.) 

Camping can only effectively correlate with a true MTB-bum lifestyle if two conditions are met:
  1. You already own all of the necessary camping equipment.  As noted above, its expensive, but if you already have it: use it.
  2. You can find a suitable location to pitch a tent that is 100% free.
Number one is self-explanatory, but I'd like to shed some light on a free location.  The ease of finding a free campsite can differ widely depending on what part of the country you're in. From what I've observed, camping is generally free on National Forest land.  So if your travels find you riding near a National Forest, you're in luck.  To find a good spot to pitch your tent, try driving back into the woods on a gravel USFS road.  Based on what I've observed over my years of riding and traveling, there are generally a good number of largely unmarked pull-offs randomly spaced along these backwoods roads.  These locations make for ideal camping spots.  While they may be difficult to find if you're not a local, keep your eyes open as you drive around to different trailheads, and try to notice any promising spots.  From my experience, locations near streams or rivers, or crossings of a major hiking trail such as the Appalachian Trail tend to contain well-used campsites.  Little free spots like that abound here in the Southeast, and I've seen many of them in the Rocky Mountains as well.

True Bumming
If you don't have the gear, are traveling from area to area a lot, are crossing great portions of the country, or aren't near any good National Forest land, camping could easily not be an option.  The true bum way of life shines through when hotels and camping are both out of the question.  The solution: sleep in your vehicle. 

Your vehicle doesn't even have to be a big van or SUV with comfortable seats.  I pickup truck or even a relatively small car can be made to work.  When I bike bummed across Colorado and Wyoming, I slept every night in the cramped back seat of a Pontiac Grand Prix.  While not ideal, it was totally free, and with a little ingenuity I was able to turn my back seat into a cozy bed.

Parking Your Car
The concept is simple: just go sleep in your car.  Right?  Wrong.

Finding a good place to park your car can be tricky, as I personally discovered the first night I tried to do it.  If I remember correctly, I drove around for over an hour and checked out about 5 different spots before I finally chose one. When choosing a spot, you need to consider the fact that you don't want to get busted by the popo (as a ticket would negate any savings earned from sleeping in your car) and don't want to get robbed by a gangsta. Check out the list below for some ideas that I've come up with after several adventurous nights spent in the back of my car:
  1. USFS road out in the boonies.  Check out the camping section above if you skipped it because you don't have the gear... those spots would work as great places to park your car, too.
  2. A parking lot with a lot of cars.  Any place with a lot of cars can be a good idea too, because you won't stick out like a sore thumb by being the only car in the parking lot.  Places like 24 hour Wal Marts and the like fit into this category.
  3. Waysides and overlook turn-offs.  Rest waysides off of interstates are classic locations to sleep in your car.  Also, while you might not think of it, a turn-off for an overlook or view can prove to be a convenient sleeping spot. I took the image at the top of the post when I woke up early in the morning in Jackson Hole, unknowingly parking in a gorgeous location the night before. 
  4. Ski resort parking lots. Sure it's 2010, but many ski resorts still contain traces of the ski bumming glory days in their general leniency with their parking lots.  Plus it's the summer, so the ski resorts have a multitude of vast lots sitting completely unused, just begging to be inhabited by broke mountain bikers.
  5. The trailhead, if it's not forbidden.  Obviously the most convenient place to park you car would be at the trailhead.  Just check to make sure that it isn't forbidden. Remember, getting in trouble with the law is not in a bum's best interest.
There you have it: an excellent source of information to get you started with a place to stay while on your own mountain bike bumming trip!  Next up: eating on the cheap.

Your Turn
What do you think would be the best sort of place to stay/park while living the mountain bike bum dream?  Or do you have any questions about possibly parking spots?  Leave your opinions and questions by using the comment box below!

Part 2: "What to Eat: Eating on the Cheap"


Marcus Valdes July 13, 2010 at 10:54 PM  

Awesome ideas, but I think I'll be buying a tent!

eastwood,  July 13, 2010 at 11:17 PM  

Quick question about sleeping in your car. What are you doing with your bike if you are sleeping in your car? Just leaving it in the bike rack and hoping no one grabs it?

Daniel July 14, 2010 at 12:57 AM  

I am pretty fortunate I do already have the gear, spent the last few years collecting all the necessary pieces one at a time, and really we could do a whole post on just road gear. I can say I have utilized just about all of the mentioned parking/camp spots. If I am still in travel mode and just need to somewhere to sleep for a night alongside the road or a rest area will work. If I am near trails I want to stay and ride I do look for a campground. But I try to camp somewhere near several trails so I can just set up camp once and then day trip to the different trails. Most state or county campgrounds run between $10 and 20, some states are a lot nicer than others. Most Oregon state sites close for a six month stretch during the winter, AZ has nice county run parks with all amenities and in California the bud & the botox have finally driven them over the edge- campsites are now $35 a night and that’s if you can find a campground open. I always look for large areas of National Forests on the map and visit the rangers office if I can. Sure they have detailed maps they will sell you but Ive also found they have plenty of free hand out info that will get you where you want to be, and if anyone knows the campsites and trails its these guys. If Im on extended trips I will hit a hotel for a night once in a while (usually during bad weather) to catch up on the laundry, shower, dry out my gear if need be and take advantage of a decent internet connection. Sleeping in a tent can get old especially in bad weather, I find myself now contemplating on buying a van so I can have something big enough to sleep in- torn though, I really love my jeep.

My bikes are always locked to the bike rack on the jeep or the picnic table next to my tent.

Greg Heil July 14, 2010 at 4:45 PM  

@eastwood, Like Dan said, I've got my rack equipped with locks, so I just lock them on during the night. Safe and sound!

@ Dan, $35 a night in California? That's outrageous!

I can definitely empathize on the misery of tenting in bad weather... got rained on a good bit last weekend in a tent. Good thoughts on checking in with the forest service guys too... They really do know all of the little nooks and crannies.

Denver,  February 20, 2011 at 3:29 PM  

Tents are a hassle sometimes, so I just lay a camping pad and sleeping bag in the back of my pickup. It has a camper shell with Yakima rack up top where the bike is locked. I slide my boxes of equipment, food, cooler to one side and lay down on the other. However, if it's been a hot day, there is a lot of heat still in the metal of the truck. So, I'm considering a camp hammock with a tarp system. Need a tree or two to tie off to though. Dispersed camping or Wal-mart parking lots are my locations of choice. I hate big noisy campgrounds.

Greg Heil February 20, 2011 at 6:22 PM  

@Denver, Way to be! Although Wal Mart parking lots can get annoying sometimes...

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Greg Heil is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com. He's been writing and publishing online since before blogging existed.

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