I think it started with the wooden clunk of Brendan stacking a few small fallen logs across the windward opening of the tarp. The sun had just dunked below the ridge across the meadow, and hoping the wind would die down with it, we were about to crawl into our sleeping bags for the night. Suddenly we weren’t young professionals—or even responsible adults—anymore. We were kids. Sneaking off alone in the woods on our bikes. Running away from home for a Tuesday night.
I’d felt it coming on for a couple of hours, pedaling my bike up the winding new trail, tramping around the woods looking for our campsite and then constructing the weather-proof equivalent of a blanket fort. The simple, little-kid joy of exploring and camping out seemed to sprinkle on us like Tinkerbell’s pixie dust.
I’ve done a fair amount of “sleeping out” over the past couple of years, dozens of nights on a mattress in the back of either an Astrovan or Subaru, and several more in tents or under the stars. And I’ve come to think of the #vanlife folks, and other dirtbags who regularly sleep in their cars at crags and ski areas, as Peter Pans of sorts. We shun more typical adult comforts like larger houses and time on the couch in favor of climbing on rocks, riding our bikes or whooshing downhill on skis. Sometimes I think we just don’t really want to grow up. And living out of a van or station wagon helps keep that dream alive a bit longer—but I see now, maybe not as much as a good backpacking or bikepacking trip.
Don’t get me wrong, cars are obviously one of a backpacker’s best friends. How else could we sneak off on a two-day weekend and find ourselves hiking along a ridgeline with nobody else in sight? But cars are also a marker of adulthood. They’re big-kid toys. They’re a symbol of freedom, but you still have to drive them through traffic to get where you’re going. As Brendan likes to say, “Sometimes there’s nothing less free than the freeway.”
Remember what gave you that heady rush of independence before you got your driver’s license? I’ll bet you it was a bike. Sometimes we forget about that. We pack up our fancy car-camping gadgets, our comfy mattresses, twinkle lights and cocktail shakers, and find a scenic spot to park our big four-wheeled toy for the night. It’s a fun escape from the city grind. But rolling into the campsite on my bike, swinging off and leaning it on a tree last week was something different.
Maybe it’s because we’re often so competitive and serious about our biking and hiking, too, that adding camping to it just took away the pressure. It felt childlike. There was no racing, no “Hold on, I’m going to session this rock garden.” It was just a slow discovery of what lay around each corner. Then we set up our home for the night, feeling a bit like playing house the way I did under a blanket tent in the backyard as a kid.
There are all sorts of claims one could make for the value of backpacking or bikepacking—a closer experience of nature, learning self-sufficiency, the beauty of simplicity—but none of that was on my mind as I strapped my sleeping bag onto my handlebars to head back down the mountain last week. What was? Simply: how fun is this ride going to be? That stripping down to the basics was just what I needed—a fresh little sprinkle of pixie dust.