Barney has taken the – if not impossible – then wildly ill-advised step of actually taking his young kids bikepacking. Read on for some abject lessons in what not to do…
Words & Photography Barney Marsh
Ah, bikepacking! The lure of the open trail! Of long arduous climbs and long, sweeping singletrack descents just before you unravel your bivvy bag beside a babbling stream on a glorious summer evening. Then it’s a simple matter of cooking industrial quantities of quinoa and lentils to hoover up before cracking open the port and a fine selection of cheeses before settling down to a nicely tipsy snooze.
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A rough approximation of this is no doubt the image that many of you will harbour about the joys of this increasingly fashionable pursuit. Others, perhaps, will fixate on the training possibilities inherent in carting all your own gear with you. The rufty-tufty ‘alone with the wilderness’ image. And still others may pooh-pooh the idea as simply rebadged cycle touring for the unbearably hip and probably bearded.
But what of the average family type person? The adventurer who loves the idea of escaping into the wilds, but yearns to share the experience with their own little people? Or perhaps, who can’t sweet-talk the other half into shouldering the entire burden of bedtime?
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s perfectly possible – as long as you remember a few key rules. These essentially boil down to forgetting everything that made bikepacking fun in the first place, and ensuring that you have sufficient improvisational skills to make totally arbitrary decisions on the most pointless of ‘critical decisions’ on the spot. But then, that’s what parenting is all about, right? This aspect of it just has more bike wheels, and fewer home comforts.
So, in a series of foolish and ill-advised experiments, I have taken my children bikepacking. There will be some among you who will react with incredulity – there are certainly enough of those people in the real world. My eldest, Eliza, is barely old enough (they thought) for this sort of thing. She’s six. She can ride a bike pretty well (although she’s not big on hills. Or straight lines, for that matter) and she’s keen as mustard. The spirit of the adventurer courses through her veins – either that or pure liquefied jelly babies.
Equally keen (or at least voluble), but somewhat less skilled in the bike riding department, is my youngest, Alis, who is three. Alis rides with me, on my bike, thanks to a contraption called a Mac Ride. The combination of Mac Ride and Alis adds a not inconsiderable amount of weight to an unladen bike, which leads me nicely to my first point.
What to pack
Naturally, one of the more appealing aspects of bikepacking is the stripped down nature of the whole endeavour. You know the drill – just your bike, food, hilariously spartan kit, and you, squinting purposefully into the middle distance as if you’ve lost a contact lens. But with kiddiewinks, even if you decide that bivvying is the way to go (and let’s be honest, if you’re not bivvying, you’re not doing it properly), packing for three people is something of a monumental task. Especially when you’re trying to cram everything into normal bikepacking luggage. In fact I gave up on that fairly early on, and took a whopping great backpack as well. Because it’s not just the two extra sleeping bags, mats, bivvy bags and all the extra clothes. It’s the fact that my children seem to eat the same amount of food as a small European country, especially when that food is meat, cheese or sweets. And you’ll need the sweets…
In fact, these last are essential. As well as the overarching inducement/bribe of s’mores (my version is chocolate Hobnobs with a toasted marshmallow jammed between them*), it’s also necessary to have micro-bribes easily to hand. It’s amazing how useful a sweaty handful of jelly babies can be to induce a reluctant child to make it up that last couple of metres of hill. Or the first couple of metres, come to that.
Bring jelly babies. ALL OF THE JELLY BABIES.
*Yes, I know they do them differently in America. I don’t care.
You’ll also need a stove, of course. This may seem obvious, but do make sure it still works. And that you don’t find out it’s broken when – entirely hypothetically, you understand – you’re miles away from anywhere, depressingly close to the carcass of a dead sheep (which prompts many, many questions from curious three-year-olds) with no cover, and a rapidly dwindling water supply.
So, stove broken, all you can provide for your little darlings that doesn’t need cooking is Hobnobs. And ham. This is what is known in hardcore bikepacking circles as ‘suboptimal’.
The saltiness of your lacklustre providence doesn’t exactly help the water situation, so by the time you’ve called it a day about an hour later, you’ll be totally out of water, and being a good parent you’ve given the kids your ration too. So you’ll get back to the car for the Long Drive Of Shame wondering if it’s possible to drink wiper fluid. Or radiator coolant (answer, no).
It turns out that the diminished surface area/volume ratio of little people means that they lose heat more quickly. Warm clothing is, therefore, a must – so it becomes imperative that somewhere on your bike you find space for woolly socks, thermal underwear, warm fleeces and (in my case) reindeer onesies. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that you could persuade your children to take some or all of these things themselves, but let’s be honest, that’s not happening. Not least because three-year-olds have very specific ideas about what should be taken on bikepacking trips. These things will be stuffed into their backpack and not touched for the duration of the trip, but they will be a loudly proclaimed necessity nevertheless.
Vitally Important Things To Take Bikepacking When You’re Three
- A large comforter (unwashed) with a stuffed rabbit attached.
- Large Frozen hairbrush. Its use on hair is apparently forbidden.
- Small plush Elsa doll from Frozen. Because ‘it’s special’. As is its odour.
- Unicorn horn and pony ears hairband. Because, well, duh. Doesn’t everyone have one of these?
- A small plastic book/box from the cover of a Frozen magazine. Contents – half a strip of hologram stickers and two-thirds of a two-week old Babybel cheese. It’s locked. There is no key.
These essentials naturally take up large amounts of space in the backpack, so actual, useful kit portage is delegated to the grown-up. Also, it transpires, if the littlest member of the team sitting right in front of you insists on wearing the backpack, it bangs into your knees whenever you pedal. Try to ensure, therefore, that it’s filled with soft things. Having the pointiest bits of Elsa’s Plastic Diary poking you in the thigh with every pedal revolution isn’t as much fun as you’d think over the course of several miles.
Well, of course, this varies with your fitness, and the capabilities of your tykes. But err on the side of caution. And make sure you have frequent bailout zones. Trail-wise, in the opinion of my six-year-old, anything that’s wider than singletrack is ‘boring’, and in my opinion anything narrower than a nice wide doubletrack is essentially a corridor of child crashes and possible permanent maiming and limb removal. It’s a fine line – perhaps so fine that it’s impossible to see. But on the bright side it hones the hell out of your reaction times; it’s quite a skill to catch up to, grab hold of and, therefore, prevent the bruising of one child, while keeping the other one upright on a fully laden bike. It’s not really a transferrable skill though, unless you work in a nitroglycerine warehouse with uneven floors in the middle of an earthquake zone.
Decent bivvy spots
It’s a good idea to pepper your bailout options with optional bivvy places too, to prevent the ‘dead sheep’ camping option as mentioned above.
What to look for in a bivvy spot with little ’uns? I’ll avoid jokily mentioning comfy beds and an en-suite bathroom (even though I’m right). It’s pretty much the same sort of stuff that you’d look for yourself. Shady, away from the breeze and preferably unencumbered by fag ends, empty bottles and used syringes. The issue here though is that, assuming your range is somewhat compromised by the legs of the littlest pedaller, you might be closer to civilisation than you’d like. But good spots are there – you just need to keep your eyes peeled. Kids are much more adept at identifying and attracting midges, chiggers, spiders and (for all I know) snakes than regular-style grown-ups, though, and they’re MUCH more noisy when they do. So for everyone’s sake – and especially for the sake of stealth – try to find somewhere free from midges, chiggers, spiders and snakes. So probably not Scotland then. Or anywhere outdoors.
“Stealth?” I hear you cry regarding the previous paragraph. “Whither stealth?” Well, my fine Shakespearean friend, I shall tell you. Wild camping isn’t exactly (how can I put this diplomatically?) legal. You need the permission of the landowner to do it properly legitimately, but in practice, if you rock up at dusk, leave at dawn and (most important this) LEAVE NO TRACE OF YOUR PASSING, you’ll generally be tolerated in the majority of places.
If you are accosted though, kids can be very helpful – simply train them to do their best doe-eyed waif look in the general direction of the accoster while clinging pathetically to your leg and they’ll hopefully melt his or her heart enough for them to leave you alone.
What you choose to feed your kids and what they actually end up eating after a day in the saddle may well be two totally different things. You can pre-prepare all the quinoa salad you like, but if your kids are anything like mine, it’s a near certainty that the little darlings will hurtle, mouth agape, at the first burger you waft over a flame. This wild-eyed carnivorous phase can only be quelled by the rustling noise made by a ‘responsible’ adult opening a packet of marshmallows for roasting and sandwiching between biscuits.
Take enough, then double it, and double it again. Seriously, I was beginning to suspect my kids had kidney problems judging by the amount of water they consumed last time we went out. Yes, I know we’ve had a heatwave, and that as a consequence it was A Bit Warm, but blimey. I’m considering also filling my frame and tyres with water next time. And camping next to a lake. Or at least a tap.
Once you have your minions established, fed and watered, it’s time to seriously sit down and think about sleepytime. Hopefully you packed enough stuff to ensure that the little ones remain warm and cozy. So it’s off with the hi-tech cycle clothing (vaguely bike-related T-shirt and leggings) and on with bedclothes. As we all know, layering is important. First of all, there’s your thermal under-layer. Then the warm ‘reindeer onesie’ mid-layer, followed by the pink pullover fleece. Who knew rough camping could be so very, very stylish? This, when coupled with a halfway decent kids’ sleeping bag, mat and bivvy bag should ensure they’re warm enough and that you get slightly more than two hours of sleep.
Night-time rituals will go out of the window, really. If you’re exceptionally organised you might be able to manage a bedtime story, but make sure it’s not one with monsters in it. Face washing is a tenuous, oft-neglected possibility. Toothbrushing? Seriously? You’ve carted all this stuff, plus hyper-excitable children all this way to your King Of Bivvy Spots, you’ve made sure they’re happy and full and ready for bed, and you’re bothered about teeth? Personally I’m happy to let it slide for one night (it adds to the ‘special treat’ feeling of the whole experience), but if you feel the need to attack your screaming children like a minty sergeant major, then go for your life, you sadist. I mean, two nights and longer, then by all means get busy with the Colgate. Just make sure you use their own brushes, and not the one you clean your chain with.
Oh, lordy, lordy… The Trowel. The singular item – nay, icon – which promotes the conversion of a mere ‘larking about with bikes and sleeping bags’ into a Capstan Full Strength Wild Camping Experience.
Explaining the joys of The Trowel to children, in my experience, leads to two wildly polarised possible reactions. The first is one of revulsion, closely followed by a profound bout of voluntary constipation until a flushing loo is passed, preferable carpeted.
The other is perhaps more worrying, and revolves around extreme enthusiasm for the idea which seems to know no boundaries. Careful coaching (from a safe distance) is key.
And be wary of camping in disused quarries. Places in the ground that the trowel can actually penetrate will be rather sparse. This will not deter enthusiastic children, but it might deter anyone else from kipping in the same place. Still, it might at least keep the flies away from your sleeping space…
Also, be very wary of the improperly comprehending three-year-old. Nature will take its course, but perhaps in an inappropriate order. Loo-roll will have to be brought over from the camp to the – uh – place of ‘deposition’, and during this ten-second lull, things will be trodden on that you dearly wish weren’t trodden on. Tears will be shed. Not necessarily from the three-year-old. It’s hard to paper over the cracks in this paragraph, so to speak, but suffice it to say that The Trowel rightfully takes its place in the pantheon of Things Of Portent When Bikepacking.
The Next Morning
If you’re taking your kids bikepacking in the summer months (and I desperately hope you are, for the sake of your kids), you’ll likely be woken by some hyperactive children at around five in the morning. Make sure you have access to enough breakfast for them and coffee for you. In fact, make sure you’re close enough to civilisation for there to be a reasonable chance of a bacon and egg sandwich and a LOT more coffee shortly after breaking camp, as the youngest member of your party might well be the Queen Of All Grumps. It’s likely she’ll need a protracted snooze. As, I expect, will you.
And how long should your initial trips be? I can’t believe I’m even saying this, but believe me, if you value your sanity, then more than one night – at least for the first few times – is complete and utter madness. Don’t even consider it. Read what I wrote up there about ‘The Next Morning’. Go on. Are you back yet? Well then. You mentalist.
And so you return – tired, but unbowed. You’ve done it, congratulations! Now give yourself a large pat on the back, and a large glass of gin. You deserve it, you hero.
Now comes the task of dealing with the relentless pestering from your kids about when you can go again.
It’s worth bearing in mind that if you are stupid enough to go bikepacking with small kids who can’t ride bikes, you’ll need something to carry the kiddies in. The lo-fi methods (rear bike seat, large pannier, binbag) all have their advantages, and also their profound drawbacks – legal ones, in the case of the binbags. I use a Mac Ride, a device with saddle and stirrups that fits quickly on a special steerer spacer at one end and the seatpost at the other. And no, I’m not sponsored, and no, I didn’t get a cheeky price because I wrote this for the magazine; I paid full whack and it came in the post and it’s totally awesome. It’s very engaging for the child, and it lets her feel like she’s much more a part of the experience than other seats.
Eliza’s range was massively extended by giving her a tow. I used a Tow-Whee (all the way from America) and yes, I bought this thing outright too. It’s a bungee cord wrapped in a nylon sheath which is, therefore, elastic enough to minimise any sharp tugs and strong enough to give her a tow easily. I wrapped one end around her stem, and the other end I hooked over my saddle. And yes, towing her was bloody hard work; with Alis and Eliza and all the luggage, I think I was pulling over 150lbs, but honestly? My calves have never looked so chiselled. And it’s funny how much your legs can ache after a ten-minute hill with that lot. It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyhow) that it’s probably not advisable to tow your children on public roads. Bridleways only, folks!