The rookie rider’s guide to RAGBRAI: camping, eating, sleeping, biking


Hi, I’m Philip Joens. At age 8 in 2001 I rode my first RAGBRAI. Now I cover public safety and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register.

So for the RAGBRAI Rookies out there, let me answer some basic questions about registration, camping, road etiquette, food, hygiene, entertainment and training. While putting this together I read questions online and thought of my own.

This guide is long, so scroll to subheads you want if you have concerns about a specific topic. Yet it barely scratches the surface. If you have questions that aren’t answered, give me a call or send them to me using the contact information at the end.

More:What to know about the towns on RAGBRAI 2022, from Sergeant Bluff to Lansing

In 2021 I covered my first RAGBRAI by bike for the Des Moines Register. Photographer Bryon Houlgrave snapped this candid shot in Ackley 15 miles into a ride on Wed. July 28, 2021.


Table of Contents show

What does RAGBRAI stand for? 

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. 

How did it get started? 

In 1973, Des Moines Register copy editor John Karras and Washington columnist Donald Kaul wanted to ride their bikes across Iowa. Ten-speed bikes were a relatively new thing then and fitness fads were all the rage. So they convinced their bosses to let them ride across Iowa and have the newspaper pay for it if they wrote stories along the way. A crowd of riders joined them for what was billed The Great Six-Day Bike Trip. It was such a hit that they did it every year after that, adding a day and renaming it RAGBRAI. Now it’s a professionally run event with a full-time, year-round staff. 

An Aug. 20, 1973, promotion in the Des Moines Register for staff writers John Karras and Donald Kaul's initial "Great Six-Day Bike Trip," which would eventually be branded the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

Is RAGBRAI a race? 

No. It’s for everyone.

How many days is it? 

Seven days on the road. But riders who go the whole week try to get to the starting town on the Saturday before the first riding day. The party starts there and a bike expo is held.

More:See the full RAGBRAI 2022 route, maps and day-by-day distance, towns and details

How is RAGBRAI different from other state tours? 

It’s bigger. No other bike tour has as many riders and entertainment options as RAGBRAI. 

More:Check out RAGBRAI’s pass-through and meeting towns with details, highlights


How do I register? 

In a break with the lottery system of past years, registration is first-come, first-served online. Weeklong riders can register, as can riders who want to ride just one or a few days. Non-rider passes also are available for support drivers and others. 

How much does it cost? 

  • Weeklong registration is $190. 
  • Weeklong non-rider registration is $35. 
  • Day passes for riders also are $35. 

When is the deadline to register?  

Register soon! Teams, individual weeklong riders and weeklong non-riders must register by April 1. Day pass riders must register by June 1. Day passes also will be sold on the route. 

Do I have to register my support vehicle? 

Yes. All drivers must register as weeklong nonriders, with the driver’s name, license plate number, make and model of the car. Only registered vehicles can enter campgrounds.

RAGBRAI registration fees help cover the cost of having Iowa State Patrol troopers like Keith Duenow, seen in 2018, maintain traffic safety along the RAGBRAI course.

Why should I register?

Generally, registration covers the costs of putting together the route and holding the event. Registration also guarantees riders will have access to four ambulances and paramedic teams on the route each day.

In addition, registration covers:

  • The cost of Iowa State Patrol Troopers to control traffic on roads. 
  • SAG (support and gear) van service in the event of mechanical breakdowns or medical issues. 
  • Discounts from food vendors and bike shops along the route. 
  • Access to reserved vehicle parking spots in towns along the route. 
  • A patch for registered riders. 
  • Access to concerts in overnight towns. 

More:The secret is out: RAGBRAI route for 2022 unveiled

Can I ride if I don’t register? 

Technically, yes. RAGBRAI is held on public roads with the help of public agencies. So organizers cannot kick a “bandit” out. But unregistered riders don’t get SAG service and will be stuck with a separate bill for any medical emergencies involving an ambulance ride.

How do I register if I did not get a wristband before registration closes? 

Check the RAGBRAI forums. Especially in the weeks before RAGBRAI, the forums are full of people selling wristbands because of injuries or schedule conflicts. 

The RAGBRAI Newbies Facebook Page and RAGBRAI XLIX Facebook Page also are great resources and may have postings for wristband sales before RAGBRAI. 

How do I sign up for parking in Sergeant Bluff or Lansing? 

The starting and ending towns coordinate with one another and information will be posted. Wristband numbers, which will be issued May 1, must be entered to sign up for parking for the week. The sign-up forms will be linked on the town pages on

When will the vehicle route be released?

RAGBRAI releases the vehicle route in July. Printed copies will be available at the Driver Safety Meeting before RAGBRAI’s start in Sergeant Bluff. Maps also will be available at merchandise trailers, which are always downtown in overnight towns, and in meeting towns each day on the route. 

In a RAGBRAI tradition, Team Whiners' Jeff "Crazy" Miller of Denver marks Team Exile's Emily Hoener of Des Moines as a "RAGBRAI virgin" during RAGBRAI 2014.

How do I go without a team? 

All registered riders get baggage service and access to the Des Moines Register’s campground.

Should I sign up with a charter or a team? 

Most people do, if they can arrange it and afford it. Teams offer the camaraderie of having people with shared interests to hang out with. Many recruit new members. Charter services like Pork Belly Ventures, Brancel’s and Bike World also provide meals, showers and tent rental and setup, in addition to hauling baggage. In addition, they may shuttle you back to a parked car at the ride starting point, or even from your hometown and back.

More:From the RAGBRAI 2022 route to its history, here’s everything you need to know


What is a RAGBRAI Virgin?

First-time RAGBRAI riders are called “RAGBRAI virgins.” In true silly bike ride tradition, RAGBRAI Virgins write “Virgin” on their calves at the start of the week. People like to tease the virgins because, you know — it’s their first time. 

More:Why do RAGBRAI cyclists ride across Iowa? For some it’s a memory while for others, an adventure

Can I ride RAGBRAI alone? 

Of course. You’ll be surrounded by 12,000 riders. Most people are approachable. By the end of the week you could make lifelong friends or even meet a potential spouse.

Did you say meet your spouse?

RAGBRAI marriages happen all the time. 

David Maxwell and Carrie Bukowski, both of Denver, met on RAGBRAI in 2015 and got engaged on the 2016 ride.

Why do people dip their tires in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers? 

Riders dip their back tires in the Missouri River, or one of its tributaries, to signify the start of the ride and then dip their front tires in the Mississippi River to signify the end of the ride. 

Ending towns in eastern Iowa always are right on the Mississippi River. Starting towns in western Iowa do not always have Missouri River shoreline. Riders often settle for dipping their tires in a Missouri tributary,  a provided tub of river water, or just skip that tradition. 

Sergeant Bluff sits about six miles from the Missouri River, so dipping will be fairly easy for anyone who wants to ride to the Weedland Access boat launch or a boat ramp in Sioux City. 

My stepmom Melissa, left, Dad, Al, center, and me in Dubuque at the end of RAGBRAI in 2010.


Where do you sleep during RAGBRAI? 

If you’re asking this question now you’ll likely need to camp. 

A few lucky people get hotel rooms along the route. Most of those are booked within minutes of the route’s announcement. Some people book hotels in all 99 Iowa counties before the route is announced, then cancel reservations for rooms they don’t need.  

Some people rent rooms in the homes of local residents in the overnight towns. 

What type of tent should I use? 

Generally, cheap tents are fine. For years I used a $25 tent from Walmart until it broke. Then I bought a nicer Coleman tent. 

People think of every way imaginable to stay comfortable while camping on RAGBRAI. Baggage drivers often sleep in their trucks. Some people throw blankets in the grass. I was on a team where the baggage driver rigged a hammock under the truck each night. 

Cheap tents are fine on RAGBRAI. I upgraded to a Coleman tent in 2018, as seen in Onawa, that year's starting town.

How should I know what pack?

Search YouTube for videos about how to pack for RAGBRAI. Or watch this 4-year-old video created by Register photographer Brian Powers and Kathy Murphy from the “Just Go Bike” and “Murphology” podcasts. 

Here’s my 2018 packing list: 

  • Tent.
  • Sleeping bag and two fleece blankets (to form a mattress).
  • Two pillows.
  • Sleeping blindfold.
  • Ear plugs.
  • Cell phone/charger.
  • Cell phone battery backup.
  • Standing tire pump.
  • Granola bars for the morning.  
  • Sunglasses.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Bike/bike gear.
  • Sandals.
  • Tennis shoes.
  • Toiletries.
  • Rain jacket.
  • Stocking cap.
  • Gloves. 
  • Long-sleeved shirt.
  • Tent fan.
  • Dome light.
  • Towel.
  • Swimsuit.

My parents bring an air mattress. They even have a toilet for their tent.

Some riders pack way more. Others pack way less. A few ride self-contained. The more I ride RAGBRAI, the more I think less is more. Cycling is about utilitarianism. For me more stuff is unnecessary and just makes getting from place to place harder. 

Riders set up their camps during RAGBRAI 2014 in Rock Valley.

Will it be uncomfortably hot at night when I’m trying to sleep? 

Yep. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees during the day and may not fall much below 80 some night. Bring a tent fan!

Will it get cold? 

It can by summer standards. On July 27, 2018, when RAGBRAI was in Iowa City, Des Moines had a low temperature of 57 degrees. Dew in the morning often makes it feel cooler. 

The long-sleeved shirt, stocking cap and gloves I threw into my baggage at the last minute saved me from a week of shiveringly cold nights. 

What’s the normal temperature?

The National Weather Service says an average July day in Mason City, the fourth overnight town this year, has a high of 82 degrees and a low of 62. 

More:What you need to know about weather predictions before riding across Iowa on RAGBRAI

Are the bugs bad in Iowa?

Mosquitos, chiggers and other critters can be abundant in July. Bring bug spray. I usually forget that. 

Storm clouds gather outside Fonda during RAGBRAI in 2015.

Where should I go if it storms? 

Every RAGBRAI town has emergency plans in place. Towns have designated storm shelters for every campground. The locations are published online. 

Be sure to know where to seek safety. RAGBRAI is held in the last week of July, typically one of the hottest, most humid and most active weather weeks of the year in Iowa. Thunderstorms, both on the route and in overnight towns, are common, and at least one rider has died when a tree fell on a tent. 

Should I bring earplugs? 

I do. Crowded campgrounds have all types of noises: port-a-potties clanking shut in the middle of the night, cars, trains, drunks yelling and generators running. 

How do I know when to get up? 

When it sounds like a NASCAR pit stop outside as people unzip their tents.

A RAGBRAI rider waits out the rain and makes a cell phone call in downtown Rockwell.

Why is the cell service so poor on RAGBRAI?

Phone companies provide cell booster towers during the week, but cell towers in rural areas, like the ones on the route this year, get overwhelmed.

So how do people communicate? 

By praying their texts get through — and setting times to meet people at specific places, like libraries or town halls. Or by carrying whistles or duck calls or making some other code sound so they can find members of their teams when they reach towns. 

On the way into overnight towns, teams place signs directing members to their campgrounds.


Where do I go to the bathroom? 

Most often in porta-potties. (Some old-school riders still refer to porta-potties as “Kybos”, which was a brand of port-a-potty on RAGBRAI in the 1980s.) Every official RAGBRAI campground has at least a couple Kybos. Some teams even rent their own Kybos and get surly when other people use them. Pass-through towns also have Kybos on the route. Some vendors on the route get their own Kybos. 

Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to find a bar, restaurant or library with an indoor toilet available, but those are luxuries. 

A RAGBRAI rider approaches a cornfield for a bathroom break near Primghar in 2017.

Are cornfields bathrooms?

Cornfields are good places to take nature breaks. Make sure to wander in far enough that people don’t see your thingamabobs. 

Where should I not go to the bathroom? 

In the yards of residents. You are guests in these communities. Be respectful! 

Riders wait for showers provided by the Pork Belly charter in Fort Dodge during RAGBRAI in 2015.

Where can I shower? 

Many teams haul their own showers on trailers and set them up in rows at campgrounds or on streets. Other teams use Coleman tent showers. Shower bags are common sights.

Shower vendors like Joe’s Wet Shack sometimes set up in overnight towns. Showers also are usually available for a fee at high schools, pools and local gyms.

Or find a hose and soap up. Just keep your underwear on. 

Do cyclists need to shave their legs? 

Professional and amateur racers shave their legs because it prevents hair follicles from sticking on pavement during crashes. Shaving also makes crash wounds easier to treat.

On recreational rides and RAGBRAI I find that shaving make it easier to clean grime off my legs, apply sunscreen and clean cuts and nicks. 


What time is the route open?

6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Some riders leave before this, especially on days with long rides, like this year’s Day 4 century. 

Can I leave before sunrise without a light? 

Nope. Iowa law requires bike operators to have headlights and tail lights visible from at least 300 feet away. Riders who try to leave when it’s pitch black will be stopped by state troopers unless they have lights.

Riders pass in front of the rising sun outside Grand Junction on RAGBRAI 2018.

How fast do people go? 

As fast as they want. Some serious riders lick the route so quickly they go out for more miles. Other riders like to drink beer and take their time. Some people just need to go slowly. Ride at the pace that fits your ability and agenda. 

More:Register database puts 49 years of facts about RAGBRAI towns at your fingertips

What is the proper route etiquette? 

  • The left lane is for passing and fast riders. Watch out for pace lines, which often move faster than 20 mph. 
  • Yell “stopping” and use the bike stopping signal (extended left arm bent at a 90-degee angle, palm facing to the rear) to signal to other riders you are stopping, and do not cut other riders off. 
  • Yell “turning” to signal to other riders you are about to make a turn. With hundreds of bikes approaching turns at the same time, even basic turns on RAGBRAI can be tricky. 
  • Yell “rumbles” when approaching rumble strips.
  • Do not cut riders off when getting back on the road. 

What happens if I crash? 

RAGBRAI pays for ambulances to follow the ride. You also will see EMS clinicians on motorcycles.

Whether a person is registered makes a big difference in the costs they may incur if injured. RAGBRAI covers ambulance services for registered riders and their bikes are taken to the next overnight town. Non-registered riders are billed for ambulance trips and their bikes are left where ambulances pick them up. 

Bike mechanic Craig Cooper of Bikes To You in Grinnell makes repairs to a bicycle in Indianola during RAGBRAI in 2019.

Are there bike repair shops on the route?

Yes. Even where there isn’t a permanent store, bike repair shops from elsewhere set up along the route. Most have basic bike necessities like tire tubes, parts and accessories for basic and sometimes complex fixes. 

What is a SAG wagon?

Support-and-gear, or SAG, wagons are vans that pick up riders who must end their rides early on a given day because of mechanical or medical problems, or just plain fatigue. 

A SAG wagon parts the sea of cyclists as they enter Anita during RAGBRAI in 2019.

How do I request to be picked up by a SAG wagon? 

Turn your bike upside down on the left side of the road. For the first time on this year’s ride, there will be designated SAG pickup spots in every meeting town. 

What is a meeting town? 

A meeting town is a pass-through town where teams can meet up with their riders to provide support on the route. Usually it is the biggest pass-through town and is near the center of the route for the day. 

More:RAGBRAI entertainment includes Sugar Ray, Don Felder as cyclists ride 451 miles across Iowa

Where can I cool off? 

Usually landowners don’t mind if cyclists take naps in shade on their property. The best nap spots are cemeteries and libraries. Waterloo opened its ice arena last year as a place for riders to cool off. Mason City has a year-round ice rink to go skating in!

Ponds, rivers and lakes also are popular. Take a few minutes to splash around. 

Waterloo opened its hockey arena to me and other RAGBRAI riders on a hot day's journey in 2021.

Are rumble strips dangerous? 

Not usually. If you hit them perpendicularly they’re usually fine to ride over. Some rumble strips are deeper than others, can feel uncomfortable and even may buck inattentive riders off their bikes. Narrow road bike tires can get stuck in deep-cut rumble strips if riders aren’t paying attention when they hit them.

Should I swerve in front of other riders to avoid hitting rumble strips? 

NO! Don’t risk cutting off other riders.

What kind of bike can I use?

Every type of bike imaginable is on RAGBRAI. That’s why I call RAGBRAI “Bikestock.” 

Most riders use road bikes, but heavier mountain bikes are far more popular than they once were.

Fat-tire bikes have a cult following, and there’s now a whole day with an alternate route for gravel riders, who have their own specialized cycles. And the hundreds of recumbent riders could form their own sizable bike ride. Tandems are everywhere, and a few side-by-side tandems are always on. Electric-assist bikes are becoming more popular. 

A few unicyclists always ride RAGBRAI. Usually at least a few people ride elliptical bikes. There’s usually roller bladers and longboarders. And recently there have been a some ultra-marathon joggers.

Kyle Campbell of Dubuque (@unikyle on Twitter) rides his unicycle as riders roll out of Sac City on RAGBRAI in 2021.

What does ‘car up’ mean? 

RAGBRAI riders take up both lanes of two-lane highways. “Car up” means move over to the right lane so traffic can pass.

What does ‘car back’ mean? 

The same thing as “car up” but with a car coming from behind. In many ways this can be trickier because riders do not see the car coming. 

How can I play my tunes on my bike? 

I play music on my bike using a shotgun shell-sized Buckshot 2.0 speaker. Many riders carry larger speakers or boom boxes. Communication with other riders is important, so do not wear headphones. 

Can I bring a dog on my bike? 

If Lassie loves riding in a bike trailer or can fit in a handlebar bag, bring her! 

Suzy the dog rides into Lawler on RAGBRAI in 2017.

But I’m a cat person 

Bring them! Target has a cat carrier backpack for $40. Petco has a higher-quality cat carrier for $80.

More:RAGBRAI’s luckiest kitten

How are the man-eating dogs on the route? 

“I don’t know, but we’ll all find out together,” RAGBRAI co-founder Karras wrote in response to this question in a May 19, 1974, column. 

A John Karras Column from May 19, 1974 answered basic questions about SAGBRAI, the Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

I keep hearing the term ‘Karras Loop.’ What is it and why is it not on the route this year? 

From 1985 to 2021 RAGBRAI had an optional century loop on one day each ride that riders could complete to log 100 miles or more. In 2001 the century loop was named the “Karras Loop” to honor co-founder Karras, who would station himself somewhere along the loop to hand out commemorative patches. 

Karras died in November. To honor him, the so-called 100-mile “century” day that was a part of the original ride will return as part of the regular ride, taking riders 100 miles from Emmetsburg to Mason City. 

When a nun sits in a dunk tank on RAGBRAI dunk 'em like I did in 2010.
My Dad Al, left, and I in Dana,  a town on the 2011 RAGBRAI century loop. This year, the century day is part of the regular course, with a 100-mile day from Emmetsburg to Mason City.

So what if I can’t ride 100 miles? 

Organizers know many riders will use the SAG Wagon or SAG on team buses. Typically only a few thousand people complete the optional loop. So this will pose a challenge some riders are not used to. 

“We know that we’re probably going to have a lot of sagging that day,” RAGBRAI Director Matt Phippen said in January. “But it’s a tribute to Karras. There’s people who want that brought back.”

Where do support drivers drive? 

On a support vehicle route. Usually the vehicle route is on major highways while the ride sticks to secondary roads and interstates. 


What do I eat? 

Local restaurants are the hidden gems of RAGBRAI, worth searching out. Great Mexican restaurants with cold lemonade are my favorite finds.

Most overnight towns have at least one burger, Mexican or Chinese restaurant. Pass-through towns often are big enough that they have local restaurants, too. 

Churches, veterans groups and other organizations in overnight towns also hold pasta feed fundraisers.  

And during the week, vendors follow the caravan, selling everything from stir fry to barbecue, gyros and pizza. 

Most overnight towns have grocery stores and many pass-through towns have convenience stores offering packaged and hot food at reasonable prices.

Hy-Vee in Iowa Falls.

Where do I get food and water in the middle of the countryside? 

Local and traveling vendors set up each day on roads along the route. Often kids sell water bottles for $1 or $2.

Nonprofits, local residents and groups promoting certain causes frequently give out free water bottles in pass-through towns or on the route These can be congestion points as people veer to the side of the road to grab bottles, so be careful when you spot them.

Some of the most popular vendors along the route are: 

  • Mr. Pork Chop, a RAGBRAI staple that sells pit-cooked pork chops on the roadside. 
  • Say Cheese, a grilled cheese vendor. Its grilled cheese, tomato and bacon sandwich is consistently one of the best things on RAGBRAI. That with an ice cold Coke (sugar and caffeine help performance) are a perfect combo. 
  • The Iowa Craft Beer Tent is a favorite among riders. 
  • Beakman’s Ice Cream, which dishes out fresh scoops from gas-powered ice cream makers. 
Say Cheese's grilled cheese, bacon and tomato sandwich is a perennial RAGBRAI treat.

Where can I find pie? 

Usually on roadside tables in pass-through towns, made by local church members or other groups as fundraisers.

Pecan pie on RAGBRAI in 2012.

Is there free water?

Overnight towns are required to have free water in each campground. Most pass-through towns also have water bottle filling stations. Look for them as you depart pass-through towns.

Before RAGBRAI I fill 30 plastic bags with 3 tablespoons apiece of Gatorade mix to last me for the week. Then I make bottles of Gatorade at water filling stations.


Should I bring cash or credit cards? 

Both. Far more vendors on RAGBRAI take credit cards now than they did 10 to 15 years ago, but cash is still essential. Bring smaller denominations like $20 bills to make it easier for vendors to give change. 

How much money should I expect to spend during the week? 

I bring $300 in cash and keep $40 to $60 on me as I ride each day. Usually I spend less than $200 during the week. 

Where should I store extra cash? 

Toiletry bags are good places to hide cash if they’re packed away in suitcases. Or store extra cash in a securely locked suitcase. 


Are there places to party? 

Alcohol will not be in short supply. 

Joe Van Zant and Leigh Rutherford of Minnesota shotgun beers after trying their hand at hitting the green at the Primghar Golf and Country Club on the first day of RAGBRAI 2017.

Is there family entertainment? 

Generally RAGBRAI’s entertainment is geared more toward adults than kids. Every town has beer gardens. In a few towns the stage is in a beer garden, which can make family access problematic. But mechanical bulls with inflatable landing pits, face-painters,  water slides and other family friendly entertainment are often seen on RAGBRAI. Most overnight towns have community pools that become popular spots for families and riders to cool off on hot days. 


How much should I train? 

A good rule of thumb is to ride the number of miles in RAGBRAI before RAGBRAI. So ride at least 462 miles this summer before going. That’s about 35 miles a week if you start in May, but you’ll want to work up to longer rides.

Where can I get training advice? has more training info and a training plan PDF document (click the text to view and download) that you can print and use as a handy reference. 

Cycling coach David Ertl has worked with RAGBRAI for years and coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team. He provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website, 

Remember, RAGBRAI is a vacation. So get lost in its world while riding for a week. Be respectful, be patient and be safe. Like anything, RAGBRAI carries its risks, but the vast majority of riders have a great time and come back for more. 

Where can I find more information for Newbies?

The JustGoBike Podcast will release RAGBRAI 101 episodes starting in June. Its creators will also post recaps of each day of of the route inspection ride during the first week of June at

This article will be updated and republished later in the summer. Got a question? Call me at 515-443-3347, email me at or follow me Twitter @Philip_Joens and send me a direct message. 

Philip Joens covers RAGBRAI and breaking news for the Register. He has ridden parts of 16 RAGBRAIs and completed the river-to-river trek five times.


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