Autumn in Wisconsin: A Bikepacking First-Time Story

A first-timer’s experience on the rail trails of Wisconsin.

Bicycle Adventurers: Solo Trip 

When: October 9–10, 2016

Accommodations: Wisconsin’s Harrington Beach State Park campground

Distance: 120 miles, 2 days

Overall: A good ride up ... not so great back, but the learning experience was worth it.

Day One

Ever since I got back into cycling last year, I’ve wanted to go bike camping. But you know how it goes: Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. Being October in Wisconsin, I wasn’t going to get many more chances to get out there before the snow started to fall, so I decided to make the time, and go. 

For my first bike-camping trip, I chose a campground 60 miles out. I knew I could make that distance on back-to-back days and besides, Harrington Beach State Park campground is one of the few still open into October. So I loaded my bike with my homemade panniers (long story there), a trunk bag of MRE style food, 2 liters of water strapped to the top tube, and I went. 

I chose a route that kept me off major surface roads, sticking mostly to rail trails and bike paths. Most of the route was trails I’ve ridden before. The first half is part of my normal 50-mile routine ride from the summer; the second half I’ve ridden as part of a charity event. This isn’t to say that I could do it without a map, but it felt familiar which helped. 

There were difficulties, yes, and surprisingly none with my load, but mostly due to unexpected Oktoberfest street parties. Once I got free of the major towns, however, the trail was nearly empty. I did pass a couple of riders, but it was miles and miles of nothing but wind noise with the occasional crow yelling at me. With winter approaching, farmlands are plowed and barren as well. It’s roads like this where you hit that meditative state and you can pedal for hours. 

I did have to turn off to make my final destination, Harrington Beach State Park campground. I got there minutes before the office was about to close. Being a Sunday night, the campground was almost completely empty, so I set up camp and hunkered down for the night. Well, I would have. I learned there’s “camping” with a tent and no power, and “camping” with an RV, power, and football games. I think the Packers won, judging from the screams from across the campsite.

Day Two

The night was rough. I don’t have “proper” gear for camping. A big-box-store tent, sleeping bag, a borrowed 10+ year old sleeping pad, and dodgy panniers should tell you that. The temps dipped to 40 and I spent the night between cramping up in the tiny tent and waking up to the cold. I honestly have no idea how many hours I slept at all.

I struck camp at 7:30am, relied on my years of Tetris video-game skills to repack my bags, filled my water bottles at the campsite well, and was back on the road for home by 9:00am. 

The weather was beautiful. The morning chill wasn’t so bad in the sunlight of the trail and it warmed up to 70 by noon. I accounted for this, opting for my normal cycling clothing rather than the pants and sweat jacket I wore on the way out. I also didn’t realize until the return trip how much my journey home was uphill. Combined with the lack of sleep, my lack of proper food, and lack of caffeine (it’s important!) I was kind of miserable. It got even worse when I dropped some of my food onto the street while riding. 

I’ve read that endurance athletes find their “happy place” when they get going — that meditative state I talked about before — yeah, that didn’t happen this time, especially when cold, tired, hungry, and uncaffeinated.

I also spent a lot of my time trying to “fix” problems on the bike, like how to haul 1.5 liters of water off the front of the bike without a proper rack. Or trying to keep power going to my GPS, phone, and camera. It was a relief to get back to one landmark that meant only one more hour of pedaling to get home. 

In spite of all that, I enjoyed the trip. It was a “learning experience,” code for “I made mistakes and will try to learn from them.” My takeaway is that I need proper gear, at least real panniers, and possibly a two-person tent. I also learned I should hold off on doing more of these until spring. I know winter bike camping can be fun, I’ve camped in February before, but not without the right stuff ... I’ll get back out for another go. 

I found one campground that’s 100 miles away, and involved a ferry ride. That sounds fun.

Your favorite local bike shop? Vulture Space, Milwaukee, WI

Bike overnight tips and tricks? The best piece of gear I had for this trip was my Voltaic Systems solar panel. It kept EVERYTHING I needed to power working. But I made a lot of errors on this, some intentionally, but I’ll learn.


HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your own bike overnight adventure!

3 responses so far ↓

Dale - Nov 19, 2016 at 12:59 PM

Thanks for the story. Do you know if Wisconsin has a bike route map for the state? It seems Wisconsin has significant Rails to Trails routes but I am wondering about road routes.

Doug - Dec 29, 2016 at 6:51 AM

Wisconsin DOT has maps for many counties showing traffic loading. Many are relatively dated. Some counties have great maps, since funding has fallen to them.

Wisconsin DNR has good maps of the State (or State funded) trails, which are most of the trails that Rob took.

You are correct, Wisconsin is second only to Madison County Illinois in the quality of their trails. Of course, I haven't made it everywhere, yet.

Lisa - Mar 31, 2018 at 7:12 PM

Thanks for posting this overnight story. This will help inspire me to tackle my first overnight.

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