Sleeping During a Bikepacking Race
17 December, 2022
Sleeping on an ultra-distance race is often a mystery to the uninitiated. Images of sleeping in bus stops and behind bushes pass through the mind as you think of someone grabbing 40 winks at the Transcontinental.
However, this isn’t always the case and not exploring other options can make bikepacking races seem inaccessible. In this piece we’ll explore sleeping during a self-supported bikepacking race although, please keep in mind that different people have different comfort levels. Sleeping outside may not be for everyone and hotels back to back may not be an option either. Our best advice is to test your comfort levels on each option before race day, take some bikepacking trips and test out your sleeping arrangement!
Wild-camping is not permitted in many countries and places. We are discussing camping in a wild situation where it is legal, please consult your local authority before heading out on a camping trip.
No Booking Ahead
The first point we need to go through is most races do not allow booking ahead of time. This may seem an arbitrary rule but it comes from sensible origins. Say two riders are on a race, rider A has booked ahead and taken the last spot at the Sleepytimes hotel but instead camps out. Rider B comes up to the Sleepytimes, making better time than they’d thought. Rider B heads to the reception and unfortunately there are no rooms available. This seems uncommon, but can be a real issue with races that go through remote locations with one or two small B&Bs in a large area.
So, no booking ahead. But, this isn’t quite as cut and dry as you’d think! No booking ahead means when you plan or go through your route pre-race you cannot book a hotel room or campsite. However, on the day during your coffee stop, here is where you can call the accommodation and confirm whether or not you'll be able to stay.
This definitely complicates things, but there are a few ways to combat the issues you face with no booking ahead. When the route is released, or when you design your route, make sure you note down every single accommodation you can. This may seem overkill, but it can save you on a day you’ve ridden a lot faster or slower than expected or you could come to your desired accommodation and find it full to the brim. Note down their bike policy, their opening times and if they’re amenable to late check-in and early checkout. This system is available to everyone and you’re not taking a spot from anyone as you haven’t booked yet.
Then, whilst you’re on the road, stop to coffee up, recharge your devices and call the accommodation you wish to stay at that night.
The next thing you want to ascertain is the race checkpoints, whether they’re manned physical locations or just virtual tick offs.
Some races, a great example is the Pan Celtic Race, have manned checkpoints in locations where you might be able to grab a nap, some power for your devices and a snack. Whereas, races like the Arizona Trail Race have absolutely no physical presence on the trail. From the start line to the finish line you’re on your own and the checkpoints are only markers on the map. There may be areas where you can get a rest or food but these would only be commercially available locations.
The difference between the two is that you might be able to plan around checkpoints for rest, or, you’ll have to meticulously plan out your stops.
Where to Sleep?
This is based on two variables, one (the most important) is personal preference and the second is race type. On-road races tend to be more forgiving with the availability of sheltered accommodation, i.e. a hotel, hostel or B&B. This means that if it’s in your plans it won’t be as difficult to stop for the night, However, there is still plenty of opportunity for you to sleep at campsites or bivvying somewhere incognito.
Off-road races are a little less inviting if you are keen on a warm bed, power and a shower. There’s less towns and villages on most routes so you may be pushed towards camping. The upside is that the availability of hidden camp spots is great and the abundance of hide-a-ways means that you could be a little more relaxed about where and when to stop.
Personal preference is of course a driver but, it may be best to tailor your race choice around your preference. If you really don’t want to sleep under the stars, then take a look at the race route to see if there are plenty of places to stop and stay the night. Conversely, if sleeping in the great outdoors with the flora and fauna for company, then you may want to pick an off-road race where camping is a given.
Now all is left to explore the options of where to sleep…
Hotels, B&Bs and Hostels
If you’ve chosen to rest your head at a hotel there’s obvious, and some less obvious, pros and cons. All of which are also dependent on the place you choose to rest your head.
Pros: You have somewhere to charge your devices, a shower to stave off saddle sores and any discomfort, a sink to wash out your bibs with a place to hang them to dry. You may also be able to keep your bike in the room and enjoy a TV to gently push you to the sleepy abyss. Lastly, often these spots have food with them, so you can get a meal and a restock of your fuel and water.
Cons: Often the establishments may not be accommodating with your check-in and out times, this means you might be racing a clock. Some places may also not allow bikes in the room, this could be an issue in twofold, firstly you’ll have to take all the packs off and secondly, you could end up relying on a member of staff to let you out, further pushing your time limits.
Bearing all of this in mind, the hotel offers a safety net of human connection, a solid door and warmth that may just be what you need to finish your race. For the purists, it may not be the best way to go, for the newer riders it may be the perfect way to bridge the gap between long ride and ultra-distance race.
A bivvy bag, a simple sac-like sleeping system that allows you to sleep under the stars in a waterproof cocoon. Some will fit you, a sleeping bag and a mat, whilst others may force you to have the mat outside the bag (not great on spikey ground). Bivvy bags are perfect for ultra-racing as they are low profile enough to sleep just off the trail or road for a short while and also provide a quick system to sleep in, packing down in seconds.
Pros: The flexibility of a bivvy bags means if you’re seasoned and happy to sleep somewhere wild then you can stop wherever. If you’re slightly less experienced, or want a shower and somewhere to wash kit (maybe even a sneaky charge) then you can use them at campsites. With the flexibility of the system, you’re much less likely to need to leave the route to sleep, if you’re racing to win this could be the difference between the fastest time or second.
Cons: If you’re fully wild camping then you won’t have access to wash stations, fresh water or places to charge overnight. This can be really difficult on much longer races and may also be detrimental if you need to stop for a while to charge later. Bivvy bags can quickly form a layer of condensation which may over prolonged nights cause your sleeping bag to wet out. Finally, if you’re relying on your sleep kit for definite nights out rather than in an emergency, it is a little more bulky.
With sleeping outside, a really good bridging method to make yourself more comfortable sleeping outside is to start off camping at designated campsites and then transition to stealth bivvying. A great way to practise this is on weekender bikepacking trips throughout the year. Also, joining your local camping and caravan/RV club may make you eligible for a ‘backpacker’ spot where you’re always guaranteed a spot for the night.
To Tent or Not To Tent?
Tents? On a bikepacking race? I mention tents over bivvys as they are useful when nature is against you. If you’re on the Highland Trail 550 the midges may force your hand into a tent. If you’re somewhere with a lot of wildlife, the distance between you and the outdoors may be handy. Some companies make tents specifically for ultra-racing and bikepacking so make sure you hunt around. Remember, it is just for sleeping on these ultra-distance races, so you don’t need a huge amount of living space. Unless there’s a specific reason, tents are more cumbersome and require more setup and put down.
A great in between is a hooped bivvy (a bag with one pole or rigid part to hold the bag away from you). This will minimise the condensation and will also be more comfortable if you’re worried about a bag close to your face. They often have integrated bug nets which give superior ventilation when it’s not raining.
Kit is a little out of the bounds of this article. However, one thing we would emphasise is that you never know when you’ll need a sleep. Regardless of your sleeping arrangement, make sure you always have an emergency bivvy and a warm layer in case you get caught out, like our very own Nicky Shaw on Two Volcano Sprint 2021.