So, I was reading the latest copy of Adventure Cyclist, and I came across an article by Brendan Leonard titled “Island Hopping in Arctic Norway: How far are you willing to go for the perfect campsite?” Apparently there’s this cultural tradition in Norway called allemannstretten. I have no idea how to pronounce it, but you could translate it as “right to access.” Basically, as long as you stay away from cultivated land and are at least 150 meters away from buildings, you can set up a tent and camp. Cool! This tradition inspired Leonard and a cycling companion to set out on a quest. They would bike-tour the Lofoton Islands in Norway in search of the perfect campsite.
Did you know that the U.S. has its own version of allemannstretten? It may not be as fun to say, but we call it “dispersed camping,” and you can do it pretty much anywhere in our national forests. This is quite the boon for bikepackers as it allows our sense of adventure to take us as far out or as high up as it wants rather than have it limited by the availability of defined camping areas. Anyway, bikepackers are decidedly not “glampers” (Check out Outside Magazine’s recent article: “The Young and the Tentless”). Outhouses and water spigots are for sissies.
When Matt, Philip, and I went out last weekend on our first bikepacking trip this fall, I knew exactly where our camping destination would be. It’s a site I had been eyeing for some time. Each ride by I would visualize my tent set up and bike propped against a tree, fire blazing in the fire ring, and me, contentedly eating a flame-charred brat. And thanks to the U.S. version of allemannstretten, it was a vision just waiting to be realized.
The site is located just over half way on the fifty-mile loop out at Lake Sylvia in the Ouachita National Forest. Philip and I set out from the Sylvia campground parking lot at about 5:30 p.m. figuring it would take us 2.5 - 3 hours to make it to the site. The sun set at 7:00 so we knew we’d be riding in the dark for awhile. All the more of an adventure, I say. Matt’s plan was to start at 6:30 and meet us at the site. I told him we’d have a fire going and maybe a beer for him if he didn’t take too long.
For whatever reason Philip trusted me. He had not yet braved the Lake Sylvia maze of dirt roads so he had no idea how dependent I would be on the old Garmin eTrex 30 to get us where we needed to go. All the intersections look the same out there. And there are a lot of them. I had ridden those roads quite a bit in the daytime but at night all bets are off.
Philip jumped on his Krampus, and I on my Fargo, and up we went. The elevation gain out at Sylvia is pretty significant. Over the twenty-seven or so miles we would do that evening we would gain around 2500 feet — a string of ups and downs all the way to the campsite, which is at around 1650 feet where the route tops out. Philip surprised me by hammering up the hills right out of the gate. He has a 1x on his Krampus with a gear ratio that forces him to keep a high cadence on the hills. If he slows down too much he would have to get out of the saddle and burn up the legs or do some hike-a-bike. I tend to crawl up hills on my Fargo but I had the “home field advantage” with those downhills, having navigated them in the past. So, between his prowess on the ascents and my brazen descents, we generally met in the middle. And then it got dark.
The freedom to ride at night, knowing you don’t have to be home by a certain time, is one of the things that sets bikepacking apart from mountain biking. The game changes when the sun goes down. I’m not sure if it’s primal brain function stuff that kicks in or what, but you begin to focus on different things. Instead of thinking about speed, gear, or how good you look in your kit, you become more aware of your surroundings. A rustle in the trees. Tires crunching over the gravel. An animal’s eyes reflecting your bike light. A slight chill in the air. And then you realize you’re a foreigner out here. The forest at night is an entirely different world.
We stopped for a drink at one of the intersections, my GPS prompting us to go right. “Look at the stars,” said Philip. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Milky Way so clearly before.” We cut our lights and the trail at our feet vanished and a brilliant, meandering trail of ancient light appeared high above our heads.
About twenty minutes later we arrived at our destination: N34° 49.273’ W93° 01.518’, it read on the GPS, a virtual flag on the side of the road. And as if to welcome us, there were a few embers still left in the fire ring from last night’s campers! I tossed on some leaves, blew on the coals to stoke them up, and the flames burst into life. As the fire grew, we set up camp. Philip found a couple of well spaced trees for his Hennessy hammock and I found a nice piece of level ground to set up my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1. Home away from home.
On cue, Matt materialized out of the darkness and our crew was complete. The only thing left to do was break out the beer and skewer a few brats!
I emerged from my tent the next morning to an amazing sunrise. We were perched right on a mountainside overlooking the rolling hills of the Ouachita National Forest. Philip, wrapped in a down quilt, was lingering in his hammock enjoying the view. It’s not often enough that you get to simply open your eyes and witness the world wake up. A precious few moments indeed.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those bikers in Norway, but I think I beat them to the perfect campsite.