Bike Camping in Eastern Oregon

Bike Camping in Eastern Oregon

I recently took an overnight trip on my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom (DL650) to eastern Oregon. Although the premise of the trip was to meet some friends at a remote hot springs, I was also using it as a shake-out trip to sort out gear and methods for bike camping. The former didn’t happen, and the latter proved to be very informative.

To start, my route from Gresham to Tygh Valley was uneventful, taking familiar paths of highways 26 and 35, to NF48 through Wamic. Once in Tygh Valley, I took highway 216 past Sherars Bridge over the Deschutes River, and up the dramatic east side road to Grass Valley. The climb out of the river canyon on 216 is twisted and dangerous, with no guard rails and zero room for error. Survive it, however, and you’ll have great memories of the experience. Riding a motorcycle is like that.

From Grass Valley up highway 97 to Wasco, then southeast on 206 to Condon, I rode through some incredibly beautiful scenery. It is almost exclusively wheat fields and wind turbines, with views that include Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood in Oregon and Mt. Adams and Rainer in Washington. The road surface is in fantastic shape, and follows the rolling contours of the land as if Vivaldi composed it himself.

Lunch spot

I gassed up in Condon–which sells ethanol-free premium unleaded–and continued south on highway 19 to Bear Hollow county campground south of Fossil. There I parked the bike, busted out my MSR Pocket Rocket stove, and made lunch from freeze-dried Mountain House beef stew. There were a few house flies bothering me, but otherwise it was a pleasant stop.

Whenever the road dropped in elevation, the temperature rose. By the time I stopped at the Thomas Condon Interpretive Center near the junction of highways 19 and 26, it was downright hot. I filled up my water bottles, merged onto highway 26, and rode east to Mt. Vernon for gas at the Chevron station.

By this time, it was nearing 4 PM and I had somewhere to be. My goal was Ritter Hot Springs, which was north of Long Creek off of highway 395, just across the middle fork of the John Day River. The stretch of 395 north of Mt. Vernon has some incredible high prairie views that make you say, “Wow!” inside your helmet.

I found Ritter Road and took my time following its tight curves ten miles west from 395 to the hot springs. The road is in rough shape and matches the contours of the middle fork of the John Day. When I arrived at the hot springs the first sign I saw said, “No alcohol on the premises.” I had purchased a six pack in Mt. Vernon to share with my friends. Sorry, not allowed. I pulled into the hot springs parking lot and was disappointed at how run-down the place was.

The buildings were constructed in the 1800’s, and looked as if they haven’t been upgraded or repaired since then. I used the restroom and had to tell some very large spiders to get out of the way. Walking around the main building and the pool, I checked out the grass tent area. It was crowded asses-to-elbows with tents, and the only space remaining was on a steep slope. My tent would have been within arm’s length of another. I walked back to my bike and noticed a sign on the pool fence, “Pool closed until 8:45 PM Saturday.” I recalled reading that the hot springs were owned by devout Seventh Day Adventists. It made me wonder if the Creator of the Universe and Lord of Hosts would smite me if I dipped my toe in the water at 8:44 PM.

Shaking the proverbial dust off my sandals, I suited back up and rode away. My friends hadn’t arrived yet, I would not be allowed to enjoy a cold, well-deserved beer, and I couldn’t enjoy the pool until after dark. Plus, the crowded camping situation had me longing for solitude. I headed south on 395 back toward Mt. Vernon.

My campsite

Somewhere between Long Creek and Mt. Vernon, I found a gravel road and headed up the hill into the Malheur National Forest. After riding about two miles up to the 4,200 foot elevation mark, I found a flat spot in the grass, parked the bike, and made camp. I had the woods all to myself.

I was glad to be at higher elevation. The temperature was much cooler than it was at the hot springs, although it was still warm enough to be in short sleeves. There was no rain in the forecast so I didn’t worry about putting a tarp over my Eureka Backcountry tent.

After dinner and cleaning up, I gave myself a sponge bath with a couple of baby wipes. I felt somewhat foolish standing in the middle of the woods stark naked, running moist towelettes over my arm pits and nether regions, but after the sweaty ride getting there, it was the best I could do. There were no creeks or lakes nearby. Once that was done, I changed into fresh clothes and laid down in my tent to read on my iPad. Prior to departure I loaded up a few new books. The iPad is great because you don’t need a flashlight to read. That helps if night comes and you’re still not tired enough to sleep. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

Alas, that was not to be. Although I don’t know why, I didn’t fall asleep until sometime after 3 AM. My sleeping bag was comfortable and I was never cold. My air mattress was comfortable. My pillows were comfortable. I think my brain just didn’t want to shut up. Once I fell asleep, I slept well, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I was awake by 5:30 AM. At some point during the night, I got up to relieve myself and was amazed at how many stars were visible. The Milky Way was brilliant. I also heard a lone coyote yipping and yowling about 100 yards away during the night.

Despite my lack of sleep, I felt happy when I got up and made breakfast. I started with a cup of hot coffee (Starbucks singles). Then I followed it with Mountain House blueberry granola. You only add a half-cup of cold water and stir, no heating required. It was surprisingly good. Once that was done, I cleaned up camp and loaded everything on my bike. Other than my lack of sleep–which was the fault of my brain and not my gear–it was a fantastic camping experience. The solitude was especially nice.

I left a few minutes after 7 AM and rode down the gravel road, out of the forest, and onto highway 395. I got to Mt. Vernon and filled up my gas tank, then got a proper breakfast at the Silver Spur Cafe. After I ate, an older gentleman from the area chatted me up outside as I suited up. We talked for about 20 minutes and had a great conversation.

The wind between Fossil and Condon and Grass Valley was intense, but the scenery going in the opposite direction was more than worth it. Any good road should be ridden in both directions to get the full experience.

By the time I got home, the round trip had been 700 miles. My gear worked perfectly, the weather was great, and I saw some amazing scenery. Eastern Oregon has some wonderful motorcycling roads and a lot of beautiful country to explore.

Thinking about my trip, I had a realization about loneliness. Although I spent the night alone in the woods, without any sign of people or civilization, I never felt lonely. In fact, I quite enjoyed the experience. The only time I feel lonely is when I’m by myself around groups of people I don’t know. If I had stayed in a campground surrounded by strangers, I would have felt lonely indeed. It’s odd, but I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone, only when I’m around other people [that I don’t know].

Review: Hilleberg Nammatj 3 GT tent

My previous tent, a 3-person dome from Cabela’s, was getting long in the tooth and lacked some features I wanted in a motorcycling tent. After doing a lot of research, and realizing that I’d wasted a lot of money buying cheap tents in the past, I decided to get the best tent I could and stop this repeat purchasing madness.

I chose the Nammatj 3 GT tunnel tent by Hilleberg.

The Nammatj is somewhat expensive, costing me $795 for the tent and $96 for the matching footprint. I purchased both online from BackcountryGear.com, a retailer based in Eugene, Oregon, and received the gear the very next day after ordering — with free shipping! As my review will show, it’s not about the cost, it’s about getting more than you paid for. That’s how I define value, and the Hilleberg delivers value in spades.

Unlike a free-standing dome tent, the Nammatj is a tunnel design that requires staking down. The downside to this is you can’t pick up the tent and relocate it to fine-tune your spot. This is a minor issue, however, as you merely need to pick your spot a bit more carefully — which is something I do anyway.

As you can see in the picture, the tent has two chambers, the sleeping quarters behind the yellow door and the storage ‘mud room’ just inside the door. There are vents fore and aft that provide a surprising amount of ventilation. Because they are sloped down, you can open them even in bad weather.

The matching footprint has dongles that let you tie it down at key points around its perimeter. This prevents the footprint from moving around once it is in place under the tent. The footprint packs up to the size of a hardback novel when folded, or a can of Fosters when rolled.

The tent itself can be set up in the rain without worrying about getting the inside wet. My previous dome tent had a mesh no-see-um material for the roof, so setting it up in the rain got the inside wet. It didn’t become weatherproof until I attached the external rain fly. The Nammatj doesn’t have a separate fly; the tent material itself forms the weather barrier. The inner tent (in yellow) is actually attached to the outer tent using a series of dongles and can be removed, making the outer tent just a shell. This is great versatility.

When using this tent, it becomes clear the designers at Hilleberg thought of everything. The attention to detail is impressive and the craftsmanship is superb. I expect this tent to last many years.

It took me 15 minutes to set up the tent for the first time, aided by watching a video on Hilleberg’s web site ahead of time. Now that I have practiced, I could probably get the tent erected in under 10 minutes. Break-down takes even less time.

Everything goes into a stuff sack that easily fits on top of my waterproof duffel on the passenger seat of my Suzuki V-Strom. It’s too large to fit into a side case or top case, however. The tent is too heavy for backpacking, but that’s not why I bought it. If that was a requirement, I would have purchased the Nammatj 3, which is a single chamber tent minus the front ‘mud room’ chamber.

After spending a night in the Nammatj, I can say the purchase price is easily forgotten and the tent quickly becomes a joy to use. For motorcyclists looking to save money on motels, or those simply wishing to enjoy the outdoors, I heartily recommend Hilleberg tents in general, and the Nammatj 3 GT specifically.

Testing out gear

Gear update 12-15-2010:

I’ve replaced my 25 year-old CampinGaz stove with an MSR PocketRocket. It fires up easily, cooks nice and hot, is ultra-compact, and boils water very quickly (which is what I use it for 99% of the time). I got mine for less than $35 from Amazon.com

I’ve also purchased a new sleeping bag. My old one was a 30-40 degree bag made out of spider silk and smoke, and required the use of a Thermolite liner to keep me alive. I’ve slept in that system down to 20 degrees and although I made it through the night, it was unpleasant. I’ve since ordered a Marmot Never Summer 0-degree down bag from Campmor.com. I’ll report more when I’ve actually slept in it

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming (a.k.a. the original post):

I have a trip coming up that will involve several nights camping out rather than staying in motels. The location will be remote, far away from services such as gas, food, and lodging, and will be at high elevation. This past weekend I decided to ride to a spot in the woods on the eastern slope of Mt. Hood and spend the night, testing out my camping gear. The last thing I want to do is find out my gear doesn’t work or isn’t adequate for the job when I’m relying on it for real.

The whole purpose of the short trip was to spend the night in the woods to test gear, rather than the more usual goal of a bike trip. I planned to eat dinner in camp, stay the night in my tent, eat breakfast, then ride back home.

It had rained at Government Camp within a few hours before I went over the pass, judging by the wet pavement and cool fall-like air. By the time I got to camp, about an hour and a half away from home and on the dry side of the mountain, I could see spots in the dust where it had rained briefly within about a half hour before. There was still an inch thick layer of fine dust on the ground, however, and it got everywhere as I rode over it.

I set up my tent and unpacked my cooking gear, then set out to make dinner. I’ve been using the same small Campingaz butane camp stove for 25 years and it has always been rock solid. However, partway through cooking dinner the fuel ran out. Prior to leaving I had suspected my fuel canister was getting low and when looking for a supplier I discovered that brand is no longer sold in the United States. So I took my chances and ended up eating most of my dinner cold.

One trick my brother taught me was to take food that doesn’t have to be cooked in order to be edible. If you get into a situation (like I did) where you’re unable to heat your food, you won’t starve. Eating my dinner cold was no big deal. However, yellow jackets soon discovered my presence and began to pester me aggressively. They landed in my food, on me, and began to really threaten my quality of life at that moment. I had to continuously walk around camp while I ate because if I stopped I’d have a half-dozen yellow jackets in my food.

I finally managed to eat my cold dinner and get my mess kit cleaned up. With the summer fire season in full swing building a fire was out of the question. Considering the prospect of a cold breakfast and more hassles from the increasing numbers of aggressive yellow jackets, I decided spending the night at home would be more appealing. Plus I already knew my tent and sleeping bag set up worked fine down to 20 degrees so I had basically tested out everything that needed testing: cooking, food prep, and packing/loading it all on my bike.

I broke camp and rode home.

End note: I’ve already ordered a replacement for my venerable but now obsolete Campingaz stove: An MSR PocketRocket from Amazon.com, $35 with free shipping. It’s the same type of stove but uses a different kind of fuel canister.

Visiting family

I left work Friday just before 10am under cloudy skies with occasional rain drops on my face shield. The first part of my trip involved interstate freeways: I-84 westbound to I-205 northbound over the Columbia River. Then I merged onto Washington SR14 and headed east, following the river to my first pit stop, a Chevron food-and-gas at North Bonneville.

Once I had a frappucino inside me I continued on until I got to Lyle, Washington where I turned north onto highway 142 and followed the scenic Klickitat River. Hwy 142There were several vehicles parked on the side with small boat trailers behind them, and I saw several drift boats and pontoon boats on the river; fly fishing is popular on the Klickitat.

Once I got to Goldendale I grabbed a quick bite to eat at McDonalds and filled up my gas tank (so I wouldn’t have to worry about it two days later on the journey home). I got to my sister’s house at 1:15 pm.

An uncle and two aunts on my father’s side of the family were visiting from out of state as was my niece and her husband. It was a great visit. My sister’s house is fairly small, however, so I brought my small tent and sleeping bag and camped out on the back deck. It was an unusual arrangement but it worked well. I heard quite a few coyotes barking, yipping and howling both nights, some of which were fairly close to the house and barn.Back deck camping

I left at 10am Sunday morning and retraced my steps. I ate lunch at the Big River Grill in Stevenson, Washington — a grilled salmon salad with coffee — and crossed back over into Oregon via the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks. I had a few more sprinkles to deal with but they were minor and barely got the pavement wet. I was home by 1:30 that afternoon.

Bike camping trip: Bonney Crossing

In the style of adventure riders, I went on my first bike camping trip this Labor Day weekend. It was just a single overnight trip to a dry campground on the east side of Mt. Hood, but it was my first off the bike. I’ve gone backpacking countless times in my life, carrying everything I needed on my back. The only difference here is I carried it on my bike instead.

I chose the campground for three reasons. I know where it is and how to get to it, it has a year-round creek running through it, and it was unlikely to be crowded on the holiday weekend. On this particular trip, I intended to videotape the experience, using both my Canon GL2 camera and an Oregon Scientific chip-based ‘action cam’. It worked great and I captured several segments of the trip, but I left the fastening strap for the action cam wrapped around it and ended up covering its internal microphone. I had great footage but no sound on all but one of my segments.

So the video effort will have to wait until another time.

It would be just a single night and I was taking minimal food so no cooking equipment was necessary. I was able to get everything into my bike’s Givi V46 top case and E21 side cases plus a small waterproof duffel strapped to the seat. If I had taken my E41 side cases I wouldn’t have needed the duffel.

My gear included a Eureka Backcountry single person tent. It’s 3′ wide, 8′ long, and 3′ tall at the peak. It sets up easily, has reasonable coverage for straight-down precipitation with its rain fly, and I can sit up in it when inside. I also took an insulated air mattress from Big Agness. It’s 27″ wide and 72″ long and when inflated keeps me a cosey and comfortable insulated 3″ above the ground. I found it to be very comfortable, and it makes Thermarest pads feel like you’re sleeping on a Kleenex. My Mountain Gear polarguard 3D sleeping bag is so small and light it compresses into a package the size of a volleyball, but by the middle of the night the outside temp dropped low enough that I found the sleeping bag’s insulative powers were inadequate. I estimate the temp dropped to the mid 30’s.

I refer to the campground as Bonney Crossing, although there’s indication on the maps and area signs that the actual Bonney Crossing campground is farther down the road. Regardless, this spot has actual picnic tables and at one point had a pit toilet, so it probably has a name of some kind. It is located off of Threemile Road, due north of Rock Creek Reservoir, on the eastern foothills of Mt. Hood. The road there is paved except for the last mile, which is rough and rocky dirt road. My V-Strom handled it fine. I know of a guy that traveled the road on his cruiser, but I’m not sure how he did it. A passenger car would have a difficult time of it, especially if there was rain.

I made it to camp around 5:00 PM, just an hour and a half ride from my home in Sandy. There was one other campsite occupied about 100 yards away, a young couple with four young and rambunctious boys. Although we never introduced ourselves, they seemed like nice people. I was worried the campground would be full of rowdy rednecks wanting to party all night. If that had been the case I would have turned around and found another location.

It didn’t take me long to get my tent set up, my pad inflated (manually; I still need to find a nozzle that lets me use the 12v air compressor I store in my tank bag), and my sleeping bag rolled out. Soon I was dining on cold orange chinese chicken, rice, and wontons. Without having to cook, the dinner selection was pretty good. I washed it down with some 7-Up and The Macallan. My entertainment until sunset was a book written in the late 70’s by a wildlife biologist helping to find locations for parks in Alaska.

The trip over had been uneventful other than some strong winds. The wind continued to blow until well after sunset. The temperature began to drop with the sun, and by 8:30 PM I was in my sleeping bag waiting for sleep to arrive. I never sleep very good the first night in the woods, so my expectations for deep slumber were low.

At about 2:00 AM I got up to relieve myself. The wind was absent and the stars were out in massive numbers, visible upward between the pines and oak. It was noticeably colder, however, and despite wearing insulated underwear, wool socks, and a sweater, I never quite warmed up inside my inadequate sleeping bag.

The rising sun was just beginning to hit my tent broadside when I arose at 6:45 AM. I bundled up and emerged, doing some mild calisthenics to get my blood flowing and my body temperature up. I chugged an orange juice and began breaking camp. The family camped nearby was beginning to stir just as I started my bike and headed out.

I backtracked east to the tiny community of Wamic in search of breakfast. My initial idea was to grab a snack and a coffee at the small general store and ride straight home, but the store was closed. I settled for the somewhat skanky Pub and Grub restaurant. It was 8:00 AM on a Sunday morning and I was the only customer there. That should tell you something. My meal of eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and toast (plus coffee, oh yeah, coffee) wasn’t half bad, however, nor was the service. It was good to warm up both on the outside and on the inside. Other customers began to arrive by the time I was donning my helmet to head west toward home.

Heading back the way I came on FS48, I could see a bank of clouds hovering over the Cascades. It wasn’t long before the sun disappeared and I was under cloud cover. The air was chilly and the breeze was up, misty rain began to fall by the time I reached highway 35. When I crested the pass at Government Camp, it was 33 degrees and raining heavily. My hands were cold and I had a shiver despite being bundled up in my riding gear. I pressed on.

The clouds never went away but the rain let up as I descended the foothills and got back to Sandy. I passed numerous cops that were patrolling the stretch of highway 26 between Mt. Hood and Sandy quite heavily as they had been for the past several weeks. When I got home, I had been gone a mere 18 hours, but had learned a few things for the next time I intend to camp off of my bike. I’ll take more sleeping bag than I think I need. When I go on longer trips I can camp every other night and stay in motels in between to save money. I don’t need to take any cooking tools if I don’t want to, and I shouldn’t expect to get much sleep when in the woods.