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When Grant Petersen, owner of Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, Calif., presented the concept of the Sub-24 Hour Overnight (abbreviated S24O), he launched an improbable revolution in bicycle touring.

Petersen, a bicycle touring advocate, recognized that most people can’t take off weeks or months to do a cross-country bicycle tour. Many can’t even break free for a full weekend, so why not ride to a campground in the evening, pitch a tent and get back home in time to go to work? In short, get most of the benefits of a full-blown bike tour from a trip that takes less than a full day.

S24O has a dedicated following, but what do you do when you live in a metro area like the Twin Cities, where nearby campgrounds are plentiful but frequently booked months in advance? It takes a dedicated soul to book a weeknight camping trip in July while the snow is flying in February.

Three Rivers Parks District offers a novel solution. Last year, in a soft launch, Three Rivers introduced its bikes-only campsite at the Lake Auburn campground in Carver Park Reserve in Victoria. It solved the reservation problem by creating a site that is large enough for a half-dozen tents and a couple of hammocks. Bike campers don’t reserve the entire site — instead they pay a $10 per tent reservation fee, and set up camp.

On a quiet night, there may be one tent. On busy nights, campers share the site with others, all of them arriving by bike. Darren Dummer, a Three Rivers Parks operations supervisor, summed up the concept: “Bike campers … can look at the weather and say ‘Let’s jump on our bikes and go camping!’ 

“All the amenities of the campground are available to the bike campers: swimming beach, play area, fishing pier, canoe and kayak rentals.”

The site also has some bicycle-specific amenities. Tom McDowell, the recently retired associate superintendent, and others acted on feedback from bike tourists.

“We realized that first-rate campgrounds for RVs and car camping aren’t automatically ideal for campers arriving by bike,” McDowell said.

Knowing bike campers don’t carry the full array of camping equipment, including chairs and tables, park managers set up the new site with two picnic tables, a pair of comfortable benches with back supports, and, in lieu of a parking pad, a bike rack.

Dummer said the park also delivers a stash of firewood to the bike site for free.

Carver Park Reserve is on the Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Bike Trail, which means it’s possible to ride trails from the heart of Minneapolis to the campground. With that kind of access, a family bike camping trip is possible without riding in traffic.

I’ve used the campsite twice since it opened last June. Last year, three of us rode from Hopkins to the park. One member of our group strung up a hammock while I and another pitched tents. With our bikes unloaded, we toured the nine-plus miles of trails in the park then rode two miles to Victoria for a beer and dinner. Camping close to Victoria allowed us to leave the cooking gear and food at home. We were back in the campground before sunset and took a brief swim at the beach before turning in.

This year, I rode a shakedown ride in preparation for a longer bike tour. By chance, I sent an e-mail to my friend, Steve Yochum, a member of the longer tour. Steve, an experienced rider but a bike touring rookie, made the spontaneous decision to test his gear that evening. He finished his workday, fed the kids, packed his bike, and pulled into the campsite in semidarkness. We shared a beer and talked late into the evening. By 5:30 a.m., Steve was back on the trail. He showered at home and arrived at work on time, with only one side effect.

“See this?” He pointed to an oversized mug of coffee. “I’ll need a couple more to get through the day.”

Doug Shidell is an avid bicycle tourist. He publishes the Twin Cities Bike Map.

Five bike touring tips

Keep it light

The most useful tip I ever received was to separate my gear into three piles after a tour: Stuff Used Daily, Stuff Used Occasionally and Stuff Never Used. Next trip, take only the first pile.

Keep it organized

If using panniers, balance the gear front to back and side to side. That will make the ride more stable. But you also have to find the gear in your bags, sometimes when you are tired and hungry or wet. I think of each pannier as a “room.” Sleeping gear in the bedroom, cooking gear in the kitchen, food in the pantry, and clothing in the closet. You’ll have to make adjustments for weight, volume and miscellaneous stuff, but starting with a theme helps locate gear and supplies more quickly. A camping list that is adjusted over time helps.

Keep it flexible

Wind, rain, mechanical problems, detours and your own physical condition can get in the way of a tightly planned trip. Be prepared to make adjustments.

Start small

Overnight and weekend trips close to home will give you real-life experience and boost your confidence. If anything goes wrong, you can call a friend or family member.

Prepare

Check your bike for frayed cables and worn tires or brake pads. Pack everything on the bike and take it for a test ride. Test the cook stove if you’re carrying one. Set up your tent and test your sleeping pad. You don’t want to discover problems on the road or at the campsite.

Doug Shidell