by David Pulsipher
“Don’t worry honey; we’ll be back tomorrow afternoon!”
I was attempting to assure my wife that the bike camping adventure my two sons and I were about to undertake was no different than a typical trip to the park. In some ways I was also trying to reassure my own nerves that I hadn’t bitten off more than I could chew. My wife was eight months pregnant with our third child, and I was hoping for a last “hurrah” with my two sons before life became a busier due to the arrival of their younger brother. I figured a bike camping trip would be just what the doctor ordered.
Bike Camping? WHY?
There are many forms of combining bicycling and overnighting with children. For the uninitiated, the term “bike touring” refers to a multi-day, or even multi-week trip, and can cover significant distances. Shorter trips are referred to as “bike camping”, “bike overnights”, or “S240’s” (short for sub-24 hour overnights). While longer trips can be wonderful experiences for kids comfortable with both bikes and sleeping outdoors, the brilliance of shorter excursions means easy access nearly any weekend when weather (and your will) permits.
Our family rides bikes a lot, but typical destination might be the park, grocery store, or ball games, meaning these casual rides are substantially different than a journey of several hours carrying all of our camping gear (and a child in the thick of potty-training). We live in Chicago, but we love the outdoors and want our children to spend as much time as possible in nature, and bike camping seemed a perfect solution for our family’s desire for healthy recreation, time together, and a way to “escape” the city in a practical and affordable way.
Getting Started with Bike Camping
So how does a family whose typical route includes a decidedly more local loop begin this process of packing, biking and overnighting? Overzealous parents may be tempted to plan adventures with favorite car-camping destinations in mind, but that great spot is useless if getting there can’t be accomplished in an enjoyable, safe manner. There are a few critical things to consider when picking a route: the distance you and your children are comfortable riding, the types of terrain you’ll encounter (hilly, or flat), and perhaps most important, which roads, paths and trails you utilize to reach the destination.
The best routes for family biking are residential streets, off-street paved paths, and packed dirt trails. While kids can be taught to ride along roadways safely, trails and designated paths are often quieter, with nature a mere pedal stroke away. On a path it is easier to explore, rest when you want, and talk to each other without a cacophony of cars in the background. To find routes, check with your local bicycle advocacy group, or city, state, or federal transportation agencies that produce a bike map. Another great resource is Google Maps (maps.google.com), where bike trails are designated by long, green stretches on a map. Additionally, Rails to Trails, a non-profit, nationwide organization dedicated to the preservation of old railroad beds for the express use of hiking, biking and other forms of recreation can be a wonderful way to explore the backroads of many communities across America.
Choosing a Bike Camping Destinations
For bike camping spots in your area, consider a city, county, or state park. Or, perhaps you have a friend who lives across town with a big backyard? For short bike camping trips, the destination doesn’t have to be anywhere formal, just a place to pitch a tent after a day on the bike. If choosing a campground, research amenities ahead of your arrival for fire pits, picnic tables, running water and bathrooms. State and national parks offer excellent campgrounds with evening ranger programs to further the outdoor experience, and often, kids arriving on bikes are the talk of the campground amphitheater.
Depending upon the location, private campgrounds can feature amenities like swimming pools and playgrounds, and offer parents a welcome few minutes of playtime in between roasting s’mores. Be prepared to pay more, however, as opposed to lower-cost public areas.
Bike Camping Gear
As most camping parents know, the right gear matched to a particular activity is critical to outdoor recreation success, but even more so while bike camping. If your children are fairly proficient cyclists (i.e. riding in a straight line, obeying traffic laws, braking and shifting), they can ride their own bicycle. If, however, kids are new cyclists or very young, then all pedal-power belongs to the adults. It’s a good idea to practice around the neighborhood well ahead of your scheduled date of departure to ensure everyone’s comfort level.
Aside from the children, you’ll also need to transport gear. One especially helpful method for new bike campers involves one adult driving all of the equipment to the campsite and meeting cyclists. A second option is to carry gear (and/or children) in a trailer. Easy to use and pull by most adult bicyclists, trailers come in many sizes and price ranges, so it behooves the savvy shopper to do some research. Two examples of bike trailer companies are Chariot and Burley; both are solid choices for families looking to invest in a trailer that will work both on and off-road, and should last for years with proper care.
Cargo bikes are style gaining steam among cyclists who often travel by bike. Popular with outdoor families because they enable adventure, exploration and fun, cargo bikes are a bit funky at first, but wear their value well, especially for parents. Try Madsen Bikes, Xtracycle, or Cetma. One thing I like about our cargo bike is that it provides for easier interactions with my children, observing when they might be nodding off and need some head support, or simply to carry on a whimsical conversation or sing-a-long. During one recent bike camping trip, we looked slightly like the comedy television family “Beverly Hillbillies” on a bike, but were rewarded tenfold with a lot of laughs and quality time together.
Actual bike camping gear is much the same as for car camping or a backpacking journey, the major caveat being that camp gear tends to be bulky, so safe transport can be a challenge. If you choose to forego the trailer or cargo bike idea, try panniers (saddle bags) or on-bike packs that attach to a rack on the rear or front of bicycles. Even kids can manage panniers, but consult with your local bike store for the appropriate size and style.Camp food can be as basic or elaborate as you feel competent. In great display of culinary innovation, our dad-camp menu consisted of hotdogs roasted over the fire for dinner and s’mores for dessert, with fruit and pop tarts for breakfast. Many families choose dried or easy-prep meals like oatmeal, pre-made wraps, and energy bars. Remember to bring more food than you’ll think the kids will eat; biking makes for great appetites!
To keep morale high, bring lots of portable snacks and water, and anticipate plenty of rest stops. We plan an ice cream break during our trips to give us the fuel (emotional and physical) to reach the campsite.
My boys’ verdict? Bike camping is “awesome.” The combination of two outdoorsy things, modest planning, and a quick getaway for our family connected us with the community and nature. After a few trips under your belt, you, too can get more ambitious in your routes and destinations, and perhaps work your way up to longer trips (to be discussed another day).
David Pulsipher and his family live in the Chicago area where he works for the Chicago Department of Transportation and is a year-round bike commuter. Connect with him on twitter/instagram: @davidpulsipher or via his blog, KidsBikesDads.