Dreaming of Brandenburg: Lessons from Group Campouts
In this insight-packed piece, Mia Altieri reflects on the experience of pedaling off on a grand solo adventure only to develop a deepened appreciation for the subtle beauty of her backyard and the richness of her community at home. She also offers advice for organizing group rides and lessons from a women-led campout. Read her story with photos from the idyllic German countryside here…
When I was a teenager, it was my dream to go on a long solo journey into the mountains. In 2023, I got my wish and spent three lonely months bikepacking through the Alps. But just two days before my voyage, I joined my local Berlin gravel (and pizza) enthusiast community, Pizza Gravel, for a different kind of bikepacking trip: a DIY, community-organized overnighter in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin.
The group is a ragtag bunch of cyclists who have bonded over our shared love of pizza, riding slow, and not taking ourselves too seriously. Pizza Gravel is known for organizing weekly rides throughout the city of Berlin in search of the best slices and hidden gravel roads. Regularly, Pizza Gravel riders will meet up for day trips on weekends, but when the stars collide, they organize weekend overnighters. This particular overnighter was to take place just before I left, and the group of riders was made up of some of my dearest friends.
The overnighter was drastically different from my alpine adventure. Rather than solitude and contemplation, the group was vibrant, talkative, and full of jokes. It was also unlike my Alps trip in that, instead of pedaling up rugged peaks or past glacial valleys, we rode through the tranquil forests and austere fields of Brandenburg.
While some think that the region leaves much to be desired, I find that the endless rows of trees and networks of gravel paths make for uncomplicated and serene riding. And although it lacks in large mountains (the tallest “peak” in the state is Kutschenberg at 200 meters high), I think Brandenburg has a lot to offer. Instead of one dominant feature, Brandenburg intermingles a variety of features like sprawling pastures, calming lakes, and forests teeming with moss. What’s more, the region is easy for a large group to access, camp, and ride.
The ride began, and we pedaled out of Berlin. I wove throughout the group, riding next to old friends and new friends alike. Conversation flowed easily while we made our way across flat Berlin. On the outskirts of the city, we stopped for a quick pizza, and the group sat in the shade trading slices. Back on the bikes, we were soon rolling along tree-lined gravel roads. Time passed quickly, and although we’d been riding for hours, the sky looked just the same as a few hours earlier—one of the cheeky effects of the sun in German summer.
Then, riding through Brandenburg’s green landscapes, we abruptly spilled out onto the pavement in front of a large gas station. It was our final stop before camping. Riders bought ice cream and radlers, and as we devoured our treats in the late May sun, we took turns riding each other’s bikes in the parking lot. Then, back on our own bikes, we were on our final stretch to camp.
When we arrived, the group sprung into action, and we began cooking two large pots of chili. As part of the prep for the campout, each person brought an ingredient to contribute, which would be brought together and made into an epic communal chili. Like ants working together, coordination was easy. Some people collected firewood and leaves, others began chopping ingredients, but one of the most important jobs was going to a nearby späti (a German convenience store) and bringing back beverages with a cargo bike. Nearly an hour later, the chili was ready, people had beers and other various drinks in hand, sausages were roasting on the fire, and I felt a sense of completeness.
Instead of spending the night at the riverside campsite with everyone else, my friend Pauline and I returned home that evening, taking a regional train back to Berlin. As much as I wanted to camp with everyone else, there was much to prepare before I left for my trip through the Alps. Still, I felt at peace knowing I could return to such a community after my long solo journey.
Two days later, I arrived in the Balkans for my odyssey. Starting in Montenegro, I would eventually make my way through a variety of mountain ranges, visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and France, finally finishing in Monaco. Being outside of the Schengen Area, I was without a cell plan and was reliant on WiFi—something that is hard to find on remote gravel trails in the Balkans—to get in contact with my friends. During the early days of my trip, loneliness came easy, lingering in my mind like a dull ache.
The unique scenery and challenging days helped the loneliness fade into the background, but I still longed for someone else to make jokes and take in the landscape with. As I kept pedaling through the Balkans, I shared experiences with strangers and made friends along the way. Eventually, I re-entered into the Schengen Area in Croatia and could once again use my phone.
Throughout the months of my trip, I kept in contact with my Pizza Gravel friends and heard about their fantastic overnighters. When they described their campouts during these calls, I found myself hanging on to every word they said. And despite the rugged peaks, glaciers, and inspiring landscapes I was pedaling through, I longed to be back home biking through Brandenburg with my friends.
Upon my return to Berlin, I was eager to relive my previous overnighter experience and the others I’d missed. I got the ball rolling, and as a community, Pizza Gravelers began organizing a campout. The idea was for it to be the last campout of the summer, taking place on the autumnal equinox. Several weeks before the campout, some other women Pizza Gravelers and I lazed by a nearby small pond as wasps tried to drink the last bits of our radlers.
The structure we sat under cast a cool shadow on us, and we discussed how we could get more women involved within the group. A few days later, the idea came to have women responsible for leading various components of the overnighter. This idea was brought with enthusiasm and energy, and new and old members of Pizza Gravel signed up for roles. Although it was women-led, the campout was still a group effort from all members, as it takes a village to organize and brainstorm a trip with so many people.
With all the excitement building, the trip was shaping up to be exactly what I’d longed for in the months of my solo adventure. Then, without warning, I woke up feeling sick on the day of the trip. At first, I thought it was a cold, and although my COVID test showed negative, that didn’t matter when I felt too sick to leave my bed. Disappointment crept back in as I prepared to miss another campout. This time, however, things felt different. Although I was missing out on yet another campout, I couldn’t help but feel proud to have helped organize it. What’s more, I felt that women were being empowered and represented in the group, something that isn’t always a guarantee in the bikepacking world.
Although I wasn’t physically present for the equinox overnighter, stories from the trip transported me there. After the campount, I took turns chatting with each of the women who helped lead the ride, hanging onto each word they said. I first talked with Pauline Münch, who contributed by finding a creative way to get from urban Berlin to the waterside campsite in eastern Brandenburg. She described her route as far from her worst route that she has made, but not quite her best, recounting, “I made it in a very hectic time and took the lazy way—threading together a pizza joint, some favorite trails, some random komoot-generated stuff, and a last-minute adjustment to ensure we could grab beers before camp.”
After Pauline built the route, anticipation was growing among the overnighter crew. To help spread out responsibilities, Melina Boening took charge guiding the 20 person group to and from the campsite. Melina is known as one of the fastest riders in Pizza Gravel, having won first for women in SteppenWolf Wildtrack this year. Naturally, I found it delightful that she led our sluggish group across Brandenburg.
A notable fact about Pizza Gravel is our dedication to the “no-drop ride” mindset. Usually, members stay together, patiently waiting on mechanicals, snack breaks, or riders lost on the other side of a red light. This means a 50-kilometer ride can end up taking more than six hours, and with five flat tires on the first day of the campout, there was a lot of waiting. Not only were there several flat tires, but the route came with its own surprises. Pauline explained the result of her route planning as, “A semi-closed pizza place, long stretches of road to find backup pizza, and then sand—lots and lots of sand.” Thankfully, she said this was made up for with a few forest roads and some lovely doubletracks beside the water.
Melina handled leading the ride well, relaying that, “If you are the one leading the ride, you need to adapt to all these interferences.” She explained that one of the benefits of being the leader is that typically the route remains secret to all other riders, and that this “leaves room for spontaneous detours through the Brandenburg desert or turns off onto enchanted forest paths.” On one of these enchanted forest paths, Melina fondly recalled discovering beautiful bits of sunlight hitting the moss-covered forest floor. Then as Melina and the riders left the forest, they “emerged from a narrow trail between the pine trees and were rolling on a straight piece of doubletrack along a canal.”
It was along the canal that the group had yet another flat tire. At this point, she realized that they would reach the camp spot with the last light of the day. Melina admitted that although the ride took “longer than expected, no one became impatient,” and she shared a key piece of Pizza Gravel wisdom: “The secret of Pizza Gravel is to take things as they come.” Sharing further, “Every ride has planned and unplanned surprises. People with different bikes, experiences, and expectations come together to form this diverse group.” All of these factors combined have made Pizza Gravel the dynamic, patient, and lively group that it is today.
After fixing the flat, they kept on riding along the gravel and sandy bits of Brandenburg. Pauline described that as the ride went on, “Some folks stopped to pick mushrooms and then proceeded to debate for hours on whether to eat them.” Ultimately, the group got caught in a seemingly endless sandy section of Brandenburg dubbed “Sandenburg” by riders. This prompted the rare separation of the Pizza Gravel group: those who wanted to brave the sandy sections of Sandenburg and those who wanted to beeline to camp.
It was during these sandy sections that Pauline learned about being “komooted,” sent down entirely unsuitable trails by an app. Eventually everyone made it to the campsite, and Melina described people quickly pitching their tents in the twilight. Although everyone was tired from a day of riding, energy was put toward the main event of the evening: two giant pots of communal chili.
Natasha Meissner played a key role in organizing the chili. Several days before the campout, she sent out a Google Doc to make sure there was a wide diversity of ingredients (helping prevent the dreaded scenario of everyone only bringing cans of beans.) After tents and bivvies were pitched, there was a communal effort made to bring things together at the campsite. She recalled, “Part of the group went into the forest to gather firewood, and a small cooking crew gathered around the ingredients everyone had unloaded in one big pile by the fire pit.”
She was amazed how swiftly it all came together, adding, “Bags of onions, garlic, and peppers were chopped in a matter of minutes, and the vegetables sizzled and softened over the heat of the campfire. Spices wafted through the air, and countless cans of beans and tomatoes were cracked open.” After nearly an hour, Natasha savored the moment when two big pots of chili were filled to the brim and flavors melded together. Toppings were prepped and bowls lined up. In this moment, she felt the gratification that comes with seeing so many happy folks savoring their steaming bowls of chili.
As chili was eaten, Nat Plonk recalled homemade cornbread, sour cream, and cheese being passed around. The night passed by, and as she described it, “The fire was continuously allowed to almost die down, only to have another log added to keep up with the conversation far into the night.” Nat was relatively new to Pizza Gravel and Berlin; she had only moved to the city a month before the campout. I was impressed that, despite being new to the group, she enthusiastically elected to be the “sweep” and ensured that no one got left behind in the pine forests of Brandenburg during the riding earlier that day.
As the sweep, she got to watch everyone take in the landscape, saw all the mechanicals, and got an unique perspective on Pizza Gravel as a whole. She framed it nicely: “No matter my position in line or disposition internally, or any number of external conditions, the group was unnervingly positive and chilled out. I have never seen a group of 20+ adults manage the redirection and uncertainty of the adventure of bike camping with so much grace and fun. Impatience was a silly and fleeting sensation; there was good conversation and beautiful canal views. I was floored by the demonstration of friendship and kindness displayed by everyone. The cooperation and teamwork felt collegial but with no barrier to entry. The forests around Berlin host innumerable great sights and tracks for biking, but what set this bike camping experience apart was absolutely the people—a bunch of the loveliest, most interesting, dynamic people I am excited to identify with and get to know better.”
Pauline shared Nat’s sentiment, because although she fretted that many riders would only remember the never-ending sand pits, she explained, “I wasn’t entirely sure anyone really cared all that much, and the focus of these rides is way more on spending time on bikes with buddies.” When she said this, it resonated deeply with the feelings I have surrounding the elusive Pizza Gravel campouts.
The focus on friendship reframes bikepacking in a way I’m not used to experiencing on my solo journeys. That focus, combined with the accessibility and easygoing nature of local overnighters, makes the Pizza Gravel campouts unique and something I deeply cherish. Although I wasn’t present for the latest campout, the stories from my friends leading the trip helped remind me that I don’t need to head off to the Alps next time I am seeking adventure. Instead, a local forest awaits me with a community of friends ready to join and make something special right from the front door.
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