Monday, May 7, 2012

Bike Camping by Brompton!

Over this past weekend (Cinco de Mayo, by the calendar) we put our Brompton folding bicycles to the test on a bike camping trip. Although this was not our first time camping by bike, we were using this excursion as a trial run for a future trip. Later in the summer, we'll be attending a wedding in sunny Southern California. We decided to double the function of our plane tickets by making a little family vacation out of the trip as well. And what better way to cruise around a cool beach town campground than on two wheels? When we bought our Bromptons, part of the selling factor of these over other, slightly more inexpensive folding bikes was that the fold on these bikes (and the tire diameter) was so compact that they can fit in an airplane's overhead bin.  So when we venture down the coast, we'll take our camping gear and bikes on the plane (some carried on, some checked luggage) and be ready to head off on our beach camping adventure after we wish our newly-married friends well. (I guess we'll have to Fedex our fancy wedding clothes instead of wadding them up in camping packs...).
So to ready ourselves and make sure that we knew how to configure our gear, what to get, and what to dump, we got organized for a little local weekend camping trip. The weather forecasts were promising scattered showers on Friday, our departure day, but lovely sun for the rest of the weekend. I'll jump ahead of myself a bit by telling you that our full day at camp, Saturday, was another day of mixed rain, downpours, chilly temps, and pretty much no sun.  In the end, it was lucky for us that it was raining when we were ready to leave the house on Friday afternoon, because we took bulkier, waterproof jackets, rain pants, and mittens that we really ended up needing on this mostly-chilly trip.
After assembling all our necessities on the floor of the living room and packing the night before, we balanced and tethered everything on the bikes for the first time. Unlike our "everything but the kitchen sink" bike camping experience from last year, where I felt a significant wobble on the Xtracycle once I'd gotten it packed, the Bromptons were easy and smooth on our first few pedal strokes up and down the block.  Our stowing configuration is modeled on that of the Path Less Pedaled, a bike-touring duo who evolved their traveling experience into well-oiled machinations on their Brommies. (If you are interested in traveling/camping by bike, I highly recommend perusing their site--they also include a really comprehensive list of the gear they carry.) As you can see in the picture below, my bike is equipped with a frame-mounted bag on the front of the bike, a Brompton Touring Bag (T-bag, as they affectionately call it) with 30L of cargo space and high-visibility yellow rain cover.  Resting on the rack over the rear wheel is a 45L backpacker's pack, hooked to a plastic tube mounted underneath my saddle and tethered in various places to the bike and seatpost to make it stable (also covered with big black raincover).  Andy's bike has the same setup, except that he also has the "Tyke Toter" seat + homemade support system in front of his saddle for Alton to sit on. Not too shabby for a family of three!
 
We forgot to take pictures at home before we left; we were so excited to depart. I was glad when our first stop was to get cash at a shopping center 1mi from the house, so that we could document our success out on the road.  Below, Andy and Alton show you their version of a drive-up ATM.
 
After weaving through some showers out in farm country, we arrived in the small town of Banks, Ore., for a quick grocery store stop for some fortifying chocolate milk...
  
 ...and to begin our journey on the lovely, protected Banks-Vernonia Trail.

We saw a few nice patches of sun as we stopped occasionally on the trail to take a break and stretch our legs.
Alton would immediately go find a stick to whack the nearby weeds and pavement.
The 10 miles of the B-V trail from the origination of the trail to Stub Stewart State Park are mostly uphill, which we didn't know about ahead of our bike trip last year. This year, we were armed with knowledge, less stuff, and lighter bikes, and I think we felt much better and took far less time to climb to our campground. Even so, we occasionally utilized the scattered picnic tables or wooden benches on the side of the trail to take a little breather.
Sometimes it felt like most of my journey was spent taking Alton's mittens on and off. We'd stop, he'd get warm or want to pick up sticks, and take them off. Then we'd start riding again (Alton insisting that he did not want those mittens back on) and after a little while he'd get cold and start shivering, his hands turning red and white with the chill.
At last, far later than we'd intended (of course), we arrived at our campsite. On this patchy, rainy day, the only other hardy spring campers we saw were in RVs; not only were we the only bike campers in our campground loop, we were the only ones in a tent! Below, we lean the bikes against the tables to take our triumphant picture: we made it.
We quickly unleashed an explosion of gear from our bikes and packs, Andy got the fire started and tent set up, and we started making beds ready and stowing stuff.
We scarfed down a dinner consisting of the same main menu items as last year: chicken apple sausages (the fully-cooked kind) and bread. For the first night at camp, we've found that it's better if our food requires very little prep and utensils, and no stove setup. After a long ride to get there, trying to grab a hot shower and getting our sleeping quarters ready, dinner really needs to be simple. With the fully-cooked sausages, we can toss them over our toasty campfire, or eat them cold out of the package if we have to. Fresh bread is a real carbo-loading treat that we demolish our first night at camp with no problem, so we don't have to worry about keeping it from going stale.
A few sausages, string cheese, and hot shower in a cold cubicle later, we had everything under cover again and were ready for bed.
The Bromptons all folded in the vestibule of the tent--I wondered whether any fellow campers who did not see us arrive would think that we had been dropped off here with our tent, since there was no vehicle at our site!
 
Below is the view from the inside of the tent, all zipped up. The foot of my sleeping bag is just visible at the bottom of the picture. It's a four-person backpacker's tent; a great fit for three people, gear, and sometimes our dog.
 
Cold!! The mountain temps, especially overnight, were much more chilly than we were expecting from the online weather reports. We were really glad that when we purchased our lightweight mummy bags, we opted for a lower temperature rating (20 degrees) than our other roomy summer sleeping bags. I would have thrown some long johns into the bag if I'd known how cold I would feel!
The next morning, we bundled up in jackets and wool socks (glad I brought three pairs of those--I never took them off) and got our breakfast ready: hard-boiled eggs we pre-cooked at home, and a nice hot pot of oatmeal, plus coffee for me.
After breakfast, we got dishes cleaned up and our stuff all ready for a little day hike. Stub Stewart state park has a great network of trails of all ability levels, so with our minds on an easy family trek, Andy and I conceived a little woodland scavenger hunt for Alton.
I drew each item in with colored pencils, then Andy laminated it and brought along a china marker for Alton to cross off each square once he found that thing. Alton was enthralled and could not WAIT to begin his search!

We set off down the muddy path.
I showed him how to cross things off as he found each one.
He poses with one found object: "A tree smaller than Alton."
 
Hunting....

We got some binoculars into the mix.
"A tree too big to hug"!


He got so tired out, he was trudging along with his fingers in his mouth.
Eventually, we made it back to the campsite for a small lunch and Alton's naptime. While I was in the tent studying and Alton was (supposed to be) napping, Andy went on a long hike of his own, and made it to the highest elevation point in the park.
Alton caught a second wind and couldn't get settled down to sleep in his bag, so we pulled out the play-doh for a rainy afternoon activity.
Later in the evening during dinner prep, the chalk came out and Alton decorated the curbs of our gravelly campsite. For some reason, he wrote his name as a mirror image on one of the surfaces. We were impressed with its accuracy!
Another cold night, and then it was Sunday and time to go back home. Breakfast redux of eggs and oatmeal, then pulling everything out of the tent to re-pack into the backpacks and bikes. And of course, now it's a beautiful, warm, sunny day.

Packed and ready to go.
Just like last year, we were rewarded for Friday's long, steady climb into the state park with a swift descent down the trail. About 7 miles of it is downhill cruising, which we broke only once when I hit a bump and my water bottle popped out of my bag! (It's dented like crazy now.) Then another few miles of pedaling to the trailhead, where we used the restrooms and reclined in the sun for a few minutes with snacks.

Our unusual configuration drew some questions and admiration from fellow cyclists out to enjoy a day of riding the sunny trail. We talked for awhile with a couple in their 60s who were setting out on recumbent bikes to ride a metric century! (100k, about 66mi!)
Heading home on the country roads, we wondered if the nice weather would mean more motor vehicle traffic, but it didn't. We really enjoyed the route between Hillsboro and Banks on the little-used byways both times we've done this trip.
This is what Andy and Alton look like when they are riding. Andy told me that Alton called out, "Hi!" to pretty much every person we passed, and he got plenty of smiles in return.
Here I am in motion on my aqua-colored Brommie. I'll take a sunny, quiet ride like this any day!
Andy cautiously commented on what great time we were making. I agreed, saying that I hadn't wanted to vocalize it because I was afraid it would jinx us. We were all set to make it home in only about two hours (as opposed to about 4 hours on the first trip, with stops), and then...flat!
We were only about 3mi from home when city gutter debris reared its ugly head and punctured Andy's tire when he rode through a lake of shattered glass in the bike lane. We hopped up onto the sidewalk so that he could perform his bike emergency room maneuvers. He replaced the whole tube rather than patch the hole to expedite the repair time, since we were so close to home and unlikely to need that spare tube anywhere else. Since Bromptons have a rear internal hub, there are no nice quick-release levers on the wheel axles, and making a patch on your tube either involves doing the work with the wheel still on the bike, or using wrenches to remove the whole rear wheel. Andy "pulled it off" without a hitch! (And he actually said he was a small bit glad that it happened, because he had carried his wrench set and spare tube around the whole weekend thus far without having a need to use them. I guess they weren't just deadweight after all.)

With the tube change delay behind us and our bellies rumbling, we decided to stop for a late lunch before going home. We hit our local easy family favorite: the Red Robin about 1mi from our house. The sunny day meant that we could eat out on the patio with our loaded-down bikes leaned up against the small fence nearby. We scarfed down hot food and too many fries, then headed back home to collapse in a heap of sweaty selves and campfire-scented gear. Can't wait to do it all again!
And special thanks to our friends, the Lee family, for watching our dog Minerva all weekend for us. A 50-lb dog on the folding bikes would have been a challenge, to say the least!

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