The trick is to fit all the essentials into your waterproof bike bags: Tent, rain jacket, puncture kit, spirit stove, bicycle pump, floaty black dress, high-heeled shoes.
I prepared for my first solo cycling trip through the Swiss Alps with a mixture of excitement and ignorance. I’ve gone on bike tours before, but never with a tent, and never in this part of the world. All my travels involve attending and reviewing opera, so there needed to be room in my luggage for something to wear and something on which to write and send articles.
Half an hour into my journey, a five-day spin along the Rhine river from its source near Andermatt down to Basel, I was pouring with sweat, covered in grime and exhausted. And I hadn’t even left Zurich’s main station yet. I’ve learned the hard way that one of the biggest challenges is getting myself, my bike, and all my gear on and off trains.
I haven’t camped since I was a teen, but I’ve never lost my taste for outdoor shops, and I can spend hours browsing through solar-heated showers, collapsible canoes, tools to remove stones from horses’ hooves, and other gear that I will never need. Just choosing and buying a lightweight tent gave me days of joy.
Even when I began this escapade, I knew that pretending I would camp to save money was self-delusion. It is easy to spend vast sums of money on ultralight camping gear. By the time I found myself on the euphoric downhill through the dazzling Engadin landscape around Sils Maria and St. Moritz, I knew that for the price of what was in my panniers, I could have spent at least a night or two at one of the grand hotels of the region.
Not that it has to be like that. In the course of selecting my equipment for the summer, I was oddly fascinated by two You Tube videos in which woolly American fanatics cheerfully explain their secrets for outdoor thrills with almost no gear.
Why buy an expensive titanium spork when you can pilfer a plastic one from Taco Bill? It’s free and you save several milligrams of unnecessary weight. Who needs bowls when you can recycle yoghurt containers?
Why spend money on a camping stove when you can improvise one with a used beer can and a tea light? Oh, and tents are for sissies. Real hikers just pitch a rain poncho with some lengths of twine and their walking poles.
It was daunting. I had no intention of stealing sporks or trying to survive a European downpour under a poncho. But there are two inescapable truths. One is that there is always a trade-off between comfort and weight. The other is that ultralight camping is about what you don’t take, not what you do.
After my first trip, I went through my gear grimly. Anything I hadn’t used or had only used once was out. But I still had an excuse to shop. I swapped my bulky Therm-a-rest for the lightest mat on the market. I also bought a Kindle, so that I always have something to read without the weight of books.
I come from a distinguished line of Antipodean adventurers. For most of them, a European campsite, with its running warm water and washing-machines, would be pitiably soft.
To me this feels like wilderness. I am savagely proud of being able to pitch my little tent, cook on my spirit stove, get to the top of the uphill bits, and find my way from one end of the guidebook to the other.
I can live with the fact that there are supermarkets and cafes in between the snow-capped mountain peaks and rolling fields. How else could you drink a cappuccino and charge your laptop? It pains me a little when groups of retirees overtake me, but they’ve got nothing better to do with their time than train. It’s an unfair advantage.
And besides, they aren’t lugging essential survival gear, like opera clothes, along with them.
I thought I was the world’s only solo-cycle-camping-opera-goer until I met a man who had brought his evening suit rolled up in a sleeping-mat on the back of his bike to the exclusive Hampshire country opera house of Grange Park. He had ridden from London and planned to sleep rough in the woods after a superb “Tristan und Isolde.” He had also hiked to Glyndebourne.
Perhaps there are thousands of us out there.
Arriving at the Zurich opera for “Parsifal” after following the course of the Rhine from its burbling beginning near Andermatt to its broad efficiency in Basel, I felt a Wagnerian sense of achievement.
A month later, I dressed for the Salzburg Festival after braving wintry temperatures and tropical deluges along the Inn river. From there, I rode through Bavaria, past the Lake of Constance, and through the middle of Switzerland, timing my arrival in Lucerne to coincide with concerts conducted by Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado.
The landscape is breathtaking, the culture provides a timetable and goals, and I finally have a good reason to hang out in camping shops. What more could you want?
(Shirley Apthorp is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)