“How could I get my family on a self-contained bike trip with a one-year-old?” I wondered. I had fallen in love with bike travel before having a kid. But now, trying to bike travel with a small child felt overwhelming. I had so many questions. What gear should we take? How could we carry our gear and a squirmy kid at the same time? Would our one-year-old even be able to handle the ride? Even with the unknowns, I was motivated to give it a try. I love how freeing it feels to travel under my own power to another place, and I want to instill that same love in my daughter.
Starting small, I asked several friends with kids if they wanted to join us for a bike overnight to celebrate my daughter’s first birthday. A bike camping birthday party? Intriguing. Two families were in. Another woman who was single parenting wasn’t ready to camp overnight but said she would bike in for the day, trying her hand at hauling a kiddo and a day’s worth of stuff before figuring out overnight logistics for mama and baby.
My family had done one SAG-supported trip with our daughter. My mom and sister had driven a car with our gear, while my husband, daughter, nephew, and I rode 20 miles along a paved bike trail to a hotel, then another 24 miles to the end of the bike trail. But now we wanted to see if we could do a self-contained trip with camping. Most of our friends had not done a bike trip at all, let alone a bike trip with kids. So we wanted to do this in a way that felt accessible to first-time bike travelers with kids. Here’s what we did and what I learned along the way.
I am very fortunate to have a national recreation area nearby where we can both bike and camp. The closest camp spot was only three miles from the trailhead, which sounded doable to everyone. Going that short distance, even if kids melted down or mechanical issues arose, we would have time to stop, take a break, and figure it out.
If you don’t have a national recreation area nearby, look for other kid-friendly opportunities such as a bike path, low-traffic country road, or smooth dirt trail or road leading to a state park, a campground, a hotel, or a friend’s house. Start as small as you like, depending on your experience and route conditions. One to 20 miles is good for a first bike overnight.
There are lots of different ways to carry gear. For the most part, we decided to try it with whatever gear we had on hand. On this short of a trip, we could test what worked and see what could be improved, one piece at a time.
All of the adults had basic camping gear, and we could rent any extra general camping pieces from the local university. Not all of us, however, had camping gear for our youngests. Since we live in a cold weather area, the littlest ones could use their snowsuits and other winter layers to keep warm for the cool night in place of a sleeping bag. One mom opted to share a sleeping bag and blanket with her son.
We all had a different assortment of bikes and ways to carry gear and kids. Local bike shops also rented bikes and kid trailers if needed.
I had a 30-year-old mountain bike with a rack on the back. I outfitted that with a mixture of panniers and bikepacking bags we had from our pre-kid bike touring days. We all had bike trailers that could carry the young kids and some gear. One friend took a cargo bike loaded with camping gear and a four-year-old. Many of us had backpacks to pack the few extra things we couldn’t fit in our current setups.
One overnighting mom was bringing her son by herself. She was a bit nervous that she wouldn’t be able to carry her son and all their gear by herself. We reassured her that we could help bring gear in if needed.
At the trailhead packing up gear, there was a moment or two where it felt like this endeavor may be too much. Between trying to get gear to fit on bikes, in bags, and on trailers, and kids getting restless and melting down, we wondered if it was worth it. But we helped each other the best we could. After a few kid (and parent) meltdowns, we were off!
The ride in went pretty smoothly. Sun streaked through the forest leaves as we gradually climbed up a dirt road, and the kids babbled away from their seats. With a short distance to ride, we were able to keep expectations realistic. On a somewhat bumpy forest trail, we knew the kids would want to get out and take a break from their trailers. Since the goal was spending time with family and friends on this adventure — not trying to go a relatively far distance or get to our destination quickly — we enjoyed taking a bathroom and snack break and letting kids run around for a bit. Then before we knew it, we were at camp!
The kids could hardly get enough of being outside and exploring — feeling pine cones and moss, digging sticks in the dirt, tossing rocks into a nearby creek. They also tried to put questionable things in their mouths. But we directed them toward things that wouldn’t be harmful, like using camp spoons to dig dirt and a bowl to put rocks in, and helped keep an eye out for each others’ kids as we set up tents and cooked our own dinners (or ate sandwiches and snacks). We sang happy birthday to my daughter and celebrated with birthday cookies.
The mom and son who were not staying overnight reluctantly headed back to the trailhead in the late afternoon so they could make it back before dark. We missed them but were happy they could join the adventure for the day.
Later in the evening, as the sun went down, we had a glowing party area surrounded by colorful battery-powered Christmas lights and solar lanterns that people had brought. With littles who did not yet understand the dangers of fire and could only toddle unsteadily, we skipped the campfire. But we knew when they got older, they would love hanging around a campfire, roasting marshmallows too.
Sleep was one big factor families considered before coming on the trip. And indeed, sleep was variable for different families. But the quality of sleep ended up being pretty similar to sleeping at home. Kids who slept well at home slept well while camping. And kids that did not sleep well at home did not sleep well camping. Our camping space was the size of an average-to-large group campsite, and we had enough space to spread out our tents so that one family’s sleep did not really affect another’s.
The next day was sunny and beautiful. As I watched three families lounging in the sun, kids happily exploring the rocks, sticks, and pine cones around them, I took in a deep breath of gratitude for this mini respite, where we could take a small break from the demands of everyday life, enjoy the sunshine and each other’s company. I wished we could stay another day.
But demands of life were calling. So we enjoyed our coffee and breakfasts, then slowly packed up camp.
On the fun downhill ride back to the trailhead, we laughed about silly things kids did, like try to catch an ant, smear dirt all over each other, splash their feet in the creek. We took in how nice it had been to spend focused time with our families and each other without the distractions of screens or projects around the house. We talked about our upcoming obligations. And as the pressure of those obligations started to settle back on me, I started dreaming about how we could get away for another bike adventure again.
Though we had all felt intimidated while preparing for the trip — wondering what gear to take, wondering how we could carry our gear, wondering if we would be able to carry in squirmy kids and the gear — we had such a good time in a quiet, beautiful place enjoying each other’s company. I could hardly wait to do it again, and maybe for a little longer next time. My cup felt full.
Besides a bike and a way to carry kids and gear, you mostly only need the very basics you would need for your daily life and a camping trip. One great thing about a bike trip is that it is so much easier to carry gear on bikes or in trailers than in a single backpack for a backpacking trip.
For younger kids:
For older kids who are not yet riding their bikes enough to make the whole trip:
Tip: It’s totally fine to take baby steps when learning to bike tour with children.