LEARN: Bikepacking with Kids

 

The goal: Provide kids with an opportunity to step up to a real challenge, while still ensuring their success.

When thinking of the relationship I want to have with my children and the childhood they will undoubtedly look back upon, there are a few quotes that come to mind which really resonate with me.

“Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.”

  — Lady Bird Johnson, Former First Lady of the United States

 

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
  — James Baldwin, novelist and social critic

 

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T.S. Eliot

LAYING A FOUNDATION

Children need to feel that they can be successful, but also feel challenged enough to grow. The goal: Provide kids with an opportunity to step up to a real challenge, while still ensuring their success. If I could push them to the point where they thought that the challenge was tough, but still fun and rewarding, I would consider our first bikepacking trip together as a successful foundation for future trips that we might embark upon. If I pushed them too hard, or made the trip too easy, it would either seem impossible or, conversely, like any other ride we might have went on which would not set the stage, nor position us well for the next trip.

TRAINING

Before we started planning our first bikepacking trip, I wanted to make sure I knew where they have recently had successes and where they haven’t. This is not as easy as it might sound. I needed to actively learn about  my sons, and who they are in this very stage of life. To be more specific, I needed to learn exactly what their current strengths and weaknesses were. My sons are 7 and 9 years old and while that may sound like a good age to be rational and follow instructions, they still occasionally revert back to tantrum-like behavior, most often when they are tired, hungry, or feel like they are in over their heads. We have seen this on mountain bike rides over the years, but it is becoming a less common occurrence as they mature. To reduce the risk of an on-trail-meltdown, I wanted to sprinkle some extra challenging rides into our normal family ride rotation to see what they could actually handle. I found that they could handle at least 6 miles with a few hundred feet of elevation gain with no problem (at least, when they were not especially hungry or tired).

PLANNING

There are not many places to camp in close proximity to where we live on the coast in San Diego County that are also near trails. Other campsites in the county are located in very mountainous regions which would not be conducive to the abilities of my sons.  One region with campgrounds is in up in the mountains, but has miles of looping trails around big meadows bordered with pine trees. I found that a 5 mile route with about 200 feet of elevation would lead us along these trails and place us at the campsite, not far from supplies and resources like a small town would likely have, but far enough away from the car where it would feel like we really ventured into the forest with all of our gear we needed and wouldn’t be going back if we forgot anything.

GEAR

You don’t need as much gear as you might think for your first S24O bikepacking trip.

While I have been bikepacking a number of times with friends and have stocked up on backpacking gear and bikepacking bags to do so, I haven’t intentionally stocked up on too much gear for my sons to join me. This being the case, I haphazardly threw together the best kit I could for each of them and intentionally carried much more than I normally would have for various reasons that I will explain more in detail at the end of this article.

Here is most of the gear that I used for them.

The following symbols indicate who carried what:

(D) – Dad

(9yo) – 9-year-old son

(7yo) – 7-year-old son

 

Sleep system:

(D) Tent: REI Half Dome 2 person tent with rainfly, stakes, and guy lines. (4 lbs. 9 oz.)

*This was strapped to handlebars with Defiant Pack “McClure” Handlebar Harness, except for the tent               poles which were stuffed into my frame bag, running along the down tube of my frame.

I wanted to make sure they felt safe and secure in this new experience. Tents can help with this. We went         camping in March with this exact tent so they were familiar and comfortable sleeping in it already. This is a two man tent which had worked well for us previously, but it will soon be too small.

(9yo) Sleeping Bag: REI Kindercone 30F Kids Sleeping Bag  (3 lbs. 4 oz)

*This was strapped to handlebars with Revelate Designs large handlebar pocket.

(7yo) Sleeping Bag: REI Kindercone 30F Kids Sleeping Bag  (3 lbs. 4 oz)

*This was strapped to the handlebars with webbing straps.

(D) Sleeping Pad: Thermarest 3/4 length (1lb. 10oz)

*This was stuffed inside my frame bag.

(D) Sleeping Pad: Thermarest Full length (2lb. 2oz)

*This was stuffed into the tent bag and strapped to the handlebars with the rest of the tent.

Clothes:

They wore shorts, shirts, underwear, and socks on the bike, but carried:

(7yo) Shirts for both boys, socks for both boys, underwear for both boys.

  •           They slept in these clean clothes, then wore them the next day on our ride back along with the shorts               from the day before.
  •           *This was wrapped in a grocery bag and strapped to seatpost with Wildcat Tiger Seat Harness.

(D) Jackets for each boy and one for dad. We didn’t use any of them as the temperature remained above 60F.

*These were stuffed inside my frame bag or backpack and made for pillows for each of us.

 

Hydration:

(D) Two 24oz cycling water bottles in cage mounts on fork legs, one 32oz Hydroflask in a backpack.

(9yo) Camelbak Skeeter 50oz water reservoir

(7yo) Camelbak Skeeter 50oz water reservoir

(9yo) 14oz Kid-sized Nalgene and 16oz disposable water bottle in Stashers TubeTop bag.

Food:

(D) 3 Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. That was dinner. Yep. Easy. 6 Nature Valley granola bars. 2 bars each.

(7yo) 4 Nature Valley granola bars. Snacks/extra food. Better to have too much than not enough.

(9yo) Chocolate-heavy gorp. Fun desert/snack/instant-mood-lifter if needed.

Other:

(9yo) Cable locks. My 9 year-old was concerned about someone taking off with our bikes in the middle of the night. He was willing to carry the cable locks, so we locked them up at night. Not a bad idea, just a little heavy.

(D) A whole bunch of other gear. Camera, first aid kit, hand-held ham radio, bushcrafting camp knife, rope, multitool, fire kit, emergency blanket, whistle, maps, compass, etc. Since we weren’t planning to go far, I brought lots of extras, some things for emergencies, some for fun, some to teach the boys some outdoor skills if and when we would have time.

 

HEADING OUT

As we began to ride out away from the car, I wasn’t sure what the boys would say about not being near the car, but we had an hour drive to get to where we parked and we thoroughly discussed the fact that we were not car camping. They really asked some good questions to get an idea for what to expect. How close the car would be to where we were camping, where our tent would be set up, if we would have a campfire, if we would use a stove, and if we would be able to get to the car quickly in the event of an emergency.

Looking back, it would have been good to be proactive ahead of time about notifying them about what they could expect on this trip. I think it was good to have the talk in the car on the way up the mountain however. Had I mentioned it earlier in the week, they would have undoubtedly been nervous and anxious about what they had not previously experienced.

They really had no questions as we started riding along, but it did take some time for them to get used to the slightly sluggish, weighed-down handling of their otherwise very familiar bikes. There were a couple of slow speed falls without injury that were just the side effects of learning how the bikes now handled, but they kept soldiering on without complaint.

I took some time to setup some shots along the way. It was too beautiful and though we only had a little over an hour to pedal 5 miles before sunset, I had to take advantage of the great lighting upon the boys riding alongside these great sights. I had to capture the time before it was gone.

 

Getting up there with such a short window for riding was not the most ideal situation, but we will discuss more on that later in this article when I list out the Lessons Learned.

We followed the singletrack into meadows, then descended into a fun, undulating, winding, gentle rollercoaster portion that was the most memorable section of trail for both boys. They named it “The Mountain Jungle Gym” on the spot without any prompting.

After that fun section, we had a couple of minor technical sections that required hike-a-bike with a short section of riding between them. No complaints. We then came around a turn into a big, long meadow that went on for a couple miles. For the most part, the singletrack along the edge of this meadow was flat and smooth, winding left and right just enough to keep it really fun and interesting.

We came up to the herd of cows that were guarding their meadow. They were literally 5 or 6 feet off the singletrack and did not want to move. I stopped and thought they would, but nope. I figured that they would take off as we rode by, but they just stared and let us ride through. Go figure. The boys got a real kick out of it. I am just glad it wasn’t a literal kick.

As we turned the corner around the end of the meadow to descend to where we would camp, a stink bug was on the trail. The 9 year-old and I just rode by it, but the 7 year-old stopped and broke down. “The stink bug is heading right toward me!” He really seemed deathly afraid. He is the one that will stay off his brakes on technical downhills until he gets bucked off the bike, pick up critters without hesitation, and is very brave every day of the week. To see him timid about a stink bug made me chuckle at first until I saw how afraid he really was. Allowing myself to A) see it from his perspective and B) reassure him while keeping the group going was very much necessary. I needed to have compassion while still sticking to the plan (it was almost sunset). More will be discussed on that below in Lessons Learned as well.

As we descended to the camping location, I had to encourage and let them know how far we had gone and how much farther it would be until we arrived. It was huge to have my Garmin eTrex 30 on the handlebars. I actually took a wrong turn right after the stink bug incident and thankfully caught it only 50 yards down the trail. It would have surely left us navigating or backtracking to camp in the dark if I hadn’t been watching the map on the eTrex.

 

SETTING UP CAMP

We made it to camp and the boys were stoked. The camp site was in a great spot on USFS land where someone had obviously pitched a tent in the same grassy area beneath the pines very recently. With their help, we got the tent up, bags and pads in the tent, and changed clothes in a matter of minutes.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were had by all of us, followed by a good amount of water. The boys started settling in while I tried my hand at some star shots. One last bathroom break out under the stars, then back in the tent and we were sleeping.

TEARING DOWN CAMP

With only two sleeping pads inside a two man tent, there was a small gap in the middle and the 7 year-old kept ending up laying in it. He never mentioned it that night, but continued to toss and turn all night.

We all didn’t sleep as much as we would have liked, but when at first light, I awoke to find both of them sawing serious logs.

 

 

 

 

I let them sleep as long as I could while I got up and took some photos.

After a half hour, I heard them awake in the tent and told them to get their shorts on and get up. We started packing up and while it took a bit, it was fun to teach them how I tear down camp while having them help.

 

They learned the lesson of staying in the early morning sun to keep warm right before you get on the trail and start breaking a sweat. They kept going in the shade and saying how cold they were. I told them where to stand and then they would move to that sunny place and again become happy as clams.

 

HEADING BACK

As we headed back, I knew that the amount of elevation we lost yesterday would need to be gained again. It was only 250 feet, but much of that would need to be hiked instead of ridden.

The younger of the boys was riding a 20 inch, 6-speed that he can climb many hills with, but with a loaded bike, it would be challenging on many of the steeper sections. I needed to protect him from blowing up by pushing too hard, so calling an audible “Hike-A-Bike! Get off and hike now please.” was imperative. Often, the elder boy would proclaim his ability to continue riding without hiking his bike up the climb, due to the 3×7 gearing he was wanting to make full use of. On a few rare occasions, I let him give his best shot at some of the climbs, but more often, I requested that he join us and we all hike together to “save energy”. It seemed to be a successful strategy.

We came across many cyclists who gave us lots of great encouragement, as well as some trail runners, hikers, and backpackers. Everyone was very friendly. It probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but given the context of riding with kids, Saturday mornings are much busier than Fridays or any other weekday for that matter. This fact has pros and cons associated with it. The cons might be easier to imagine, the trail has more traffic. You will need to stop more for others and they will need to stop more for you. I felt the pressure of the latter was much greater than that of the former, but as I said, all trail users we came across were very friendly. The pros of more trail traffic is that you have other people there to help if something goes really wrong. All types of emergencies could happen. Be reasonably prepared, but also know where you can get help if the situation is beyond what you are prepared for. It is worth mentioning the trail traffic because it is something to keep in mind when you are planning out your trip and setting forth expectations of what to bring and what the trip might be like.

As we reached the long meadow, we found the herd of cattle not far from the singletrack they had guarded the evening before. This time, they were not right on the trail, but rather down in the wettest part of the meadow. It was fun to stop and discuss our memory from yesterday when we passed by them.

We continued on until we reached “The Bicycle Jungle Gym” section of trail that had been aptly named the day before when we had fun riding down. Now it was time to ride up, with the inevitable off and on interruptions of the hike-a-bike that we were now so familiar with. I decided we would rest on a large rock, eat some Nature Valley granola bars, and get some extra hydration on board before the climb. We had a good time saying hello to fellow trail users as they passed and seeing others off in the distance on the trails we had recently ridden. As we ascended the Jungle Gym, the boys did amazing. They soldiered on again, climbing as much of it as they could, then quickly hiking the sections they couldn’t so they could get back to riding.

We were soon at the end of the ride and saw many other mountain biking groups head out for their rides while we were ending ours. I could see in their eyes they were wanting to trade places with those riders. They knew what lied ahead of them, how beautiful the morning was, and how the Jungle Gym would be so fun to blast down at that moment. My 9 year-old asked me if we could ride just a little more and as I looked at the 7 year-old, he joined in with a big smile and pleading. I sincerely considered it, looked at the map, and realized that we would only be going down to come back up. We had finished on a high note and I wasn’t ready to sacrifice that. Success had been achieved and I wanted to ensure that it remained that way.

 

DEBRIEFING

As soon as we got all the gear and bikes packed up, we started talking about the trip, what stuck out in our minds as the prominent memories, as well as each of our favorite things about the short time we spent camping and riding our bicycles. The first thing that was mentioned was the Bike Jungle Gym section of trail. We had also met a kind soul named Bob who lived nearby, rode a mountain bike, was interested in us and our trip, and encouraged us in our ride and in life. We definitely remembered Bob. We remembered “having fun”. We remembered that the cows were so close to the trail that we scared them a little and they kinda scared us a little too. We recalled 2 ravens croaking, then they flew across our path off to our right side into the valley with the meadow while we kept riding. We also remembered really liking our campsite.

We chatted a little more about things seeming hard at the time, but they didn’t seem like a big deal now that we look back trying to remember why they were so hard. We really enjoyed the trail and riding our mountain bikes along the edge of the meadow. We remembered the fresh air, the vast amount of stars we saw at night, and the time we were able to stop, talk, snack, and enjoy being together.

 

LESSONS LEARNED

Firstly, I learned that a S240 (sub 24-hour overnight) bikepacking trip can easily be done with my two boys at this stage. This is very encouraging to me. We often only have a time block of 18 to 24 hours available in the week for us to get out. That was enough. It wasn’t an epic adventure for me, but that isn’t what I was looking for. I am pretty sure that they saw it as an epic adventure for them and that thrills me. We left home at 4pm, got to the trailhead at 5:30pm, campsite at 8pm, and back home by 11am the next day. 19 hours total. Nice.

Second, I learned that leaving during rush hour on a Friday at 4pm in San Diego is not ideal. I attempted to get out the door earlier, but it took a couple hours to get bikes loaded, all the gear, food, water, etc. into the car. Next time, I want to get to the trailhead at least 4 hours before sunset so we can take more time for breaks, photos, chatting, and exploring.

Third, I learned that even a half mile of fun, swooping, ride-able singletrack is much more important to include on the bikepacking route for kids than I previously thought. Just like I might route myself to a fun section of singletrack when planning big bikepacking trips, the kids enjoy hitting something fun along the way too. I will make every effort to incorporate some fun singletrack section in every route we take from here on out, both to and from the campsite.

Next, I learned that the preparation portion was critical. I often forget about where we were and where we are now with our mountain biking abilities. These boys rode a 3.5 mile loop last year and thought it was a huge ride. Thinking back, I realize that we had incrementally prepared for this bikepacking trip for years, but really honed our skills in the last 6 months. I think they could have been better prepared too. How? We could have had a real shakedown ride with weighed down rigs. Strapping the gear to the bike that you intend to carry and riding a similar distance near home to what you plan to ride on the bikepacking trip is a great way to gain confidence, train, and adjust your system before actually riding out to camp for the night. We never did this. Looking back, I think we really should have. What if they couldn’t handle their bikes well, or the system used to carry the gear failed? What if it was obvious they could handle more weight on their bikes? Would it have been a better challenge for them that would train them better for the next stage? We are currently riding more miles than we previously would on rides near home and plan to continue to increase the mileage and amount of weight we carry on our bikes as a form of training for the next trip.

I also learned that you really don’t need much in the way of specific bikepacking gear to make a trip like this work. Yes, as I just stated above, it is important to ensure that your gear choice, load weight, and mounting methods will actually work prior to the actual trip. We were successful in really basic mounting methods for the sleeping bags which was great, but I also realized that if we had dedicated bags/harnesses, it would be a little better. I learned that I want to invest in more and better gear. Specifically, another seatbag/harness, other bikepacking specific bags, like top tube and stem bags, and other lighter/less bulky items. Some of those other lighter/less bulky items that are on my list are are listed below in the next lesson learned.

Having good sleep is huge. My 7 year-old is still part zombie after losing so much sleep from that night of tossing and turning trying to get comfortable. I plan to buy another sleeping pad, one that is less bulky and lighter weight. Then, I plan to use just the rainfly, poles, and tent footprint as our shelter. That should keep the weight down while also allowing us to spread out enough while the boys grow towards their teenage years. It would be great to have really light and compact sleeping pads and sleeping bags for the summer, but right now, its not in the budget. Those items are definitely the heaviest and most bulky items we are packing. I plan to upgrade them over time.

I really like using my lightweight stoves for a hot meal and hot chocolate, but I also learned on this trip that it is very nice to be able to eat dinner inside the tent and go light and fast without cooking at all. There will always be a need to balance the luxury of some comforts with the desire for increased mobility at some level when bikepacking. Trying new things like going without a stove, or just using the rainfly, poles, and footprint of your tent are easy things that are low risk and can liberate you to adjust your gear choices to match your ride, the weather, or who you might be riding with.

The last lesson I will share with you is the lesson of documentation. I have learned to do this more as I review different items, but it is huge for trips like this to document everything to the best of your ability while not sacrificing the ability to enjoy being in the moment. I brought my phone, which has a great camera, but its not as great as my “real” camera. I would have been extremely disappointed to have left my camera at home on this trip. It was well worth the effort and increased time that were required to bring it. I also brought my Field Notes pocket notebook and a pen to jot down bullet points I wanted to remember and things the boys said while on the trip. This was huge. I cannot overstate this. Write things down. Take pictures. Take video. Write up your experience like I have. Share it with others, or keep it private, but I highly recommend that you document it. By doing so, you can look back upon it to see what you would do differently next time, what you absolutely would do the same again, and maybe you will look back, realize just how much fun you had, and want to do it again.

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Immediately after getting back home, all the three of us could talk about was the trip, our bikes, and the next time we would be able to do it again. My 9 year-old son woke up the next day asking if we could go bikepacking on a S24O every week. I told him no. We have too many things each weekend to be able to ride our bikes every weekend, let alone go bikepacking, but the sentiment was nice to hear. He is very observant and perceptive, but initially I thought he may have just been saying that to earn points with me. His next question proved my assumption of his motives to be wrong however. “What about if we just go bikepacking once a month? Do you think we could go once a month?” I smiled and told him that we could look at the calendar for August and see if we have a weekend free. We do, and its now on our schedule.

2 Comments

  • dewey Posted July 25, 2016 8:38 pm

    Good to see you are able to get out with your sons.
    I used to take my eldest two cycle youth hostelling in their early teens which was 25 years ago. We still reminisce about the pleasures we shared :0) My youngest two never did get interested in cycling!

  • Doug D Posted August 2, 2016 7:49 am

    At 8 and 12, my kids are bikepacking veterans. They can now pack their own bikes and ride some of the things that used to be insurmountable. We started pretty similar to this, but my kids carried very little since the bikes already weighed about half what they did.

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