(This is Part 2 in a series where I answer common questions about bike touring. See Part 1.)
When doing a loaded tour, by far the most fun part of the trip is finding a place to camp for the night. I rarely plan a place to camp - typically, I wait until about an hour before the sun goes down, and then start looking.
As you might imagine, this can be a stressful experience, and for several reasons. First, it’s kind of illegal. Setting up a tent in a public place without permission is technically vagrancy. Second, you have limited time to find a place, because setting up a tent in the dark is difficult and the sun is setting before your eyes. And third, you might not find a place at all, frantically biking until you’re run over by a drunk redneck.
But you always find a place. Always.
There are tons of places to camp once you’re out of the city, including:
- Baseball fields
- Non-RV campgrounds
- Fraternal organizations
- Church grounds
- Fire stations
- People’s yards
- The side of the road
These last two are there for a reason: they are last resorts. There is a trick with camping in people’s yards - you find a nice looking house, tell them your story, and ask them if they know of a campground nearby. They won’t, and if they take pity on you then they will offer their yard. I’ve never actually used this technique, and Eoin has only once to no avail. The point is, you rarely have to get that far down the list.
There are a number of strategies when public place camping. One is ambiguity: camp between two public properties so whoever is in charge of each may assume the other gave you permission. Another is seclusion: find the place that you won’t be seen, and therefore not questioned. And the last is to have a good excuse.
This is how the legend of Ed Rollins was invented. On our last tour around Pennsylvania, about five days in, Eoin and I were frantically searching for a place to camp. The day had been rainy and overcast, and due to the cloud cover, it started getting darker sooner than expected. We started unloading at one potential site, a lot behind a transportation department office. But about 15 minutes after we started unloading, a bright flood light came on from the office, one of those timed lights that come on at a designated time in the evening.
Nightfall was fully upon us, and we had to relocate. This is, for a cycling tourist, the worst case scenario. On top of this, my knees were shot and I didn’t want to bike any further. So Eoin went out and scouted a new potential spot.
A few minutes later, he had found one - a set of pavilions in what seemed like a public park (this late at night, it was hard to tell). I followed him there and we began to set up. The downside of this location is that it was across the street from a bunch of houses, full of potentially nosy citizens, a cyclist’s nightmare. As we set up our tents with flashlights and head lamps, we envisioned their frantic calls to the authorities: “Sheriff! We got a couplea boys down here, settin’ up tents in the dark!” I wasn’t going to move again. I don’t care what the sheriff says.
So I came up with an excuse. If we were questioned, we’d say that Ed Rollins, from the department of Public Works, has asked us to travel across the state and chart bike routes for his employer. We’d need to have our story straight, so we began adding details: Ed Rollins fought in Vietnam. He blew out his knee so he can’t travel himself. His wife is Susan. She makes a superb green bean casserole. You know why it’s so good? It’s a secret! (The secret is that she only uses the freshest ingredients - a secret we promised to only divulge under intense pressure from the Sheriff).
It was preposterous and would never work, but it helped us feel better about the situation. We could hear people coming and going from the nearby houses. Each time we did, we all dropped to the ground and turned off our lights. We were paranoid.
Of course, nothing ever happened. Nothing ever does. In all our travels, we’ve never had anyone give us more than a second thought. And why should they? We’re clean, we don’t build fires or cause damage, and we leave no trace. For anyone harboring objections to our flagrant disrespect for the law, keep in mind that we break the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
In an abstract sense, loitering and vagrancy laws are absurd. Think about it - it’s illegal, as a human being, to exist somewhere for too long. And this is on public land, land that ostensibly belongs to us as members of the public. Now, I get it - if the laws didn’t exist, there would be problems. I’m not saying the laws aren’t important. I am just selfishly and hypocritically carving out exceptions for me and Eoin. If you’re thinking about taking our advice and camp similarly, please leave no trace.
Of course, not all camping opportunities are illegal. Tonight, Eoin and I are enjoying the hospitality of the Surf City chapter of the Loyal Order of the Moose, a fraternal organization that allowed us to camp in their yard and consume Yuengling in their lodge bar for an outrageous $1.75 per pint.
Between Eoin and I, we have slept in the yard of author T.J. Jackson Lears, on church grounds, inside a community center, and from people on the internet we contacted. That’s another source of legal camping - there are a few web sites, such as couchsurfing.org and tastefully named warmshowers.org, that help travelers find camping and lodging with others. The drawback of this resource is that you need to know approximately when and where you will be in a particular place.
And when you badly need a shower, And there is always a motel. Or, since we lack motors, perhaps a bitel? No, that’s silly, but that’s what happens when your belly is full of cheap fraternal brew. Time to sign off - stay tuned for future updates!