Monday Q&A: Rough Camping on a Motorcycle Trip
One of the questions that often comes up when I’m talking about our Boston to Ushuaia trip was how we dealt with sleeping arrangements. We brought a tent, camp stove, dishes and cooking supplies, because we were intending to camp during much of the trip. Various things conspired to prevent us from camping as often as we had intended, and end the end, we had to conclude that rough camping just wasn’t a viable option most of the time for us traveling as we were on a schedule. People don’t always understand why I say that – unless you’ve tried rough camping, you don’t necessarily think of all of the considerations that go into it. So here’s what we discovered about rough camping on a motorcycle trip:
You Have to be Opportunistic
If you’re planning to rough camp on a motorcycle trip, you have to be opportunistic. If you pass a good side road, or drive by a place that seems to have good coverage, you need to be prepared to stop – even if it’s only 3 in the afternoon and there’s plenty of good light left for the day. We found that we often passed good spots in mid-afternoon, but when evening rolled around and we were pressed to find a spot before dark, we never did. We’d end up pushing on to the next town without seeing a good spot. So if you intend to rough camp, you have to be prepared to stop early if you pass a good stop – which means that you’re not going to cover as many miles in a day. It’s a trade-off.
It’s Tough in Densely Populated Areas
Because we were on a four-month timeframe, we spent a lot of time traveling through densely populated areas – particularly in Mexico and Central America. We were often looking for paved, direct routes between towns or destinations on our map, because we were pressed to cover miles in a day to make it to Ushuaia. And paved, direct routes were often densely populated. There were long stretches of Mexico and Central America where it literally wasn’t possible to get away from the people without riding miles out of your way down side roads to try to get away from the densely populated areas… which meant you had to stop making forward progress and start looking for a place to camp way early. Like the 3 in the afternoon posited in the “opportunistic” scenario.
This is fine if you’re not on a timetable and you can take your time exploring side roads and getting “off the beaten path” – but if you’re on a schedule, you may not have time to get away from the people and find good rough camping spots. Otherwise, you’ll be asking to camp in someone’s back yard. Which can be ok in some circumstances, but you should have a good feel for the region and the people.
Sometimes Rough Camping Involves Challenging Off-Road
Rough camping is a lot easier if you’re up for challenging off-road conditions. One of the first times we tried to rough camp in Mexico, we went down a steep dirt track and up the other side of a hill, and I had a bit of a melt down. I wasn’t that comfortable with off-road conditions yet and I found the stretch to be pretty challenging. In retrospect, it wasn’t so bad – but it was a lot for me at that point in time.
Further on in the trip, we encountered real challenges in terrain. In the deserts of Peru and Chile, rough camping often would have involved literally driving miles across the sandy deserts – a challenge I wasn’t thrilled to approach. (Plus, camping in sand is one of my pet peeves.) In Patagonia, the land is flat with clumps of scrub brush, and it seems like it would be easy – but finding a spot to set off cross-country with no fences is a challenge, and the scrub brush and seemingly flat terrain is more difficult than it looks.
Yeah, if you’re an experienced off-road rider, getting to a good rough camping spot isn’t too bad. But if you’ve only done mild off-road, you may find it challenging to find good spots to leave the road for rough camping.
Rough Camping and the Evening Meal
Finally, there’s one more challenge to rough camping that resulted in us doing it less frequently than we expected: the evening meal. On our Boston to Ushuaia trip, we mostly rode until it was getting dark, found a place to stay, secured the bikes and then went hunting an evening meal. It was often after dark when we ate. When you’re rough camping, you’re typically doing it between towns – which means no easily accessible evening meal. That means you either have to stop during the day to pick up food to cook for the evening meal, or stop for evening meal well in advance of dark, then get back on the road and find a place to rough camp for the evening.
We did both on our trip. But it takes a surprising amount of time to stop and get food to cook in the middle of the day. Every time you get off the bike, you lose more time in removing gear and gearing up again. If you stop two or three places to find food to cook for the evening meal, you’ve easily lost between 30 and 60 minutes of prime riding time. And that’s if you’re in a small town and places to stop are easy to find. If you’re in a city, you might ride around for a while looking for a grocery, butcher or other food purveyor. And if you’re in a tiny town, there might not even be a place to buy food.
You may have luck buying food off a local, or getting food “to go” in a restaurant – but don’t count on it. For us, we found that the time spent during the day sourcing food for an evening meal was time we’d rather spend riding. (And don’t take it for granted that you can find canned foods or dry goods throughout much of Latin America. We rode through plenty of places where the only food was fresh or restaurant-prepared,with no dry goods to speak of.)
If you opt to stop early and eat your evening meal in a restaurant, that’s certainly an option. If you’re going that route, you should stop at least two hours before sunset – give yourself an hour for a meal (which may take only a fraction of the time, but may take more) and an hour to find a spot for rough camping. But giving yourself such a short timeframe is sort of a crap-shoot. You may make it, or you may not. Best to be flexible if this is your preferred method of dealing with evening food. And if you do go this route, you’re effectively losing an hour or more of riding time – again, we mostly preferred being on the bikes to stopping early, which is part of why we often found ourselves in hotels.
You are Not Other People
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to motorcycle travel. You may find that what you’re comfortable doing is something entirely different than other people do. You may find yourself more comfortable with approaching strangers and asking if you can camp in their yard. Or you may find that you’re only comfortable rough camping in complete isolation, far from the nearest signs of civilization. You may find that stopping in the middle of the afternoon suits you, making rough camping less of a compromise… or you may find that you want to be riding every hour of daylight you have, so you need to compromise on things like sleeping arrangements and dining options.
Our experiences with rough camping were partially defined by how we travel, and partially a result of our personal preferences. But we do intend to do a lot more rough camping on the next trip, since we’ll be traveling with dogs, and are prepared for the compromises that will require. We probably would have done it more on our Boston to Ushuaia trip, if we’d had more time. But we also love riding, and the idea of stopping with hours of daylight left, and sitting around “in camp” is a bit boring to me.
Find your preferred method of travel and go with it. Be flexible. Be prepared to change your plans. But also be realistic about your schedule, your wants and your needs, and give yourself a financial cushion if things don’t turn out as planned.