As the distances of their travels grow, so too does the bond formed by a young family on the go.
Words and photos: Cass Gilbert
Originally published in Bicycle Times Issue #38
My son Sage is something of a seasoned traveller. At the ripe old age of two and three quarters, he’s already chalked up an impressive tally of countries visited, including the U.K., France, Chile and Ecuador—all of which have been enjoyed from the comfort of his bicycle trailer. But first, allow me to rewind a couple of years.
Like any father with a passion for bicycle touring, I was formulating adventures within the first few days of his birth. All the necessary accessories had already been gathered. The intricacies of a whole new world of gear had been duly studied. From what I could see all I needed was to bundle him into the trailer and go!
Of course the reality wasn’t quite as simple as that. It took eight long months before I was given the all clear to devise our first family trip: a simple overnighter close to our hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I fretted over our route. I pondered the terrain. I poured over our packlist, wishing only that our first trip as a family be as positive an experience as possible. Which, despite its many undoubted challenges, it turned out to be. The fact that we only rode a handful of miles before setting up camp in a swathe of forest I’d scoped out on Google Earth was inconsequential. Those precious miles were, without doubt, amongst the most rewarding miles of all my bicycle tours to date.
Since that day, the reach and breadth of our adventures has grown as the three of us have become more versed with how best to tour as a family. After numerous local jaunts close to home, Sage was ready to take on Chile at the tender age of 18 months. It was there that he earned the nickname El Huevito—the Little Egg— from all the women who scooped him up into their arms, tussled his blond hair and fed him untold amounts of sugary treats. The family bond is especially strong in South America, and the manner in which everyone we met interacted with us, warming immediately to Sage, introduced a whole new richness to traveling on a bicycle. This interaction was just as important as the riding itself, which was as varied as we could have hoped for.
Over a three week period we camped in the lunar landscape of Conguillio National Park, explored the seaside city of Valparaíso by foot and rode from beach to beach along the windswept Pacific Coast. After our adventures in Chile we progressed the following year to Ecuador, joining forces with three brothers I’d met on previous two wheeled travels through South America. Since then we had kept in touch and we’d all had children.
In any shape or form, our first outing together would have been enjoyable enough. It came complete with dirt roads, singletrack, a hike-a-bike and even a stint bouncing along the sleepers of a disused railroad, set to a backdrop of high altitude Andean páramo and silhouetted volcanos. Factor in no less than eight bicycles and five accompanying trailers, with a payload of 6-month-old to 3-year-old children, and such a journey takes on an even more memorable character.
Together we blazed a trail of family mayhem through the countryside. We built roaring campfires and drank water that bubbled up from highland springs. We collected watercress and roasted it with garlic. Every moment was a chance to learn and share, from cooking outdoors, to pitching tents, to gathering firewood and purifying water. We explored, we laughed, and we shared a love of bikes, good company and simple living and, of course, we enjoyed some fabulous riding.
Basing ourselves at our friends’ family-run organic farm, Sage, Nancy and I set out on several week-long excursions around the countryside, exploring local markets, feasting on exotic fruit and rubbing shoulders with poncho-clad horsemen. By the time we were done in Ecuador, we were hooked on two-wheeled family travel.
More recently, visiting my own family in the U.K. afforded us another opportunity for a mini adventure. This time it was to Exmoor National Park, a small but enchanting parcel of land located in the rolling hills of the South West. It came complete with quiet back roads and verdant combes harboring secret mossy glades—perfect wilderness camping material. Elsewhere, open and windswept moorland was punctuated by traditional tea houses, serving up fresh scones, jam and dollops of clotted cream.
Of course, we still enjoy local jaunts as much as those that lie further afield, camping with friends on short overnighters outside of Santa Fe or heading into Colorado when the aspens are ablaze with color. With each trip, and each month that goes by, Sage seems to enjoy himself more and more. He’s now at the point where he actively relishes the whole experience rather than simply tagging along with what his parents are doing. He knows how to scout for a good camp spot, he’s eager to help put up the tent and he delights in studying the map with me. He loves being part of the team.
Indeed, as someone who lives for being outside, it’s been one of my great delights to experience the world through his eyes. We’ll watch him wander off and forage for sticks, or investigate interesting rock piles, or collect pine cones. He sleeps as well in the tent as he does at home, and loves the undivided attention he gets from us when we’re unplugged from our various electronic devices, spending undiluted time as a family.
Whether he grows into a passionate bicycle tourer is another matter. I hope at least that these experiences are broadening his mind, introducing him to the concept of car-free travel and allowing him to feel comfortable and confident in the great outdoors.
There is, however, a disclaimer. Despite their diminutive distances, I can’t promise that family bike tours are always easy. Without doubt, they have their own set of physical, mental and logistical challenges to contend with. The first few trips will undoubtedly involve a massive learning curve. But I couldn’t more highly recommend trying one out, wherever it may be in the world, for however many days you may have.
So gather the troops and brew up a plan. Choose a route that everyone will enjoy. Enjoy being off the bike as much as you are on it. Above all, make time for family adventures. I can guarantee they will warm the heart and feed the soul. For everyone involved.
16 tips for touring with a toddler
1. Devise a route that’s as traffic-free as possible. It will be a lot more relaxing.
2. Forget the miles. Focus on having a good time. Take regular breaks and lengthy lunches.
3. Factor in terrain to your expected distances—if it’s mountainous, we rarely cover more than 15 or 20 miles a day.
4. Ride while your child is napping whenever you can.
5. Don’t forget hydration. Initially Nancy found it a challenge to stay hydrated while riding and breastfeeding.
6. Figure on four hours of trailer time a day, split into smaller portions. On longer trips factor in plenty of off-the-bike days too.
7. Pack light. Hauling a trailer, plus extra food, water and baby gear can be a challenge.
8. Leave bulky toys at home. Allow your child to fully be immersed in nature. They’ll find plenty of things to do.
9. Keep it varied, particularly as your child becomes a toddler. After lunch, we often push our bikes and let Sage walk or run alongside us. Sometimes we bring a football to kick around in forest glades. Never pass up a good playground!
10. To help pass the time, listen to music or audiobooks on the move. We use the excellent Outdoor Tech Buckshot speaker.
11. Stop early enough that you have time to settle into your campsite and enjoy some downtime together.
12. Pack delicious, nutritious food, even if it weighs a little more.
13. A familiar bedtime storybook is great for helping your child get to sleep.
14. Engage your children to help out whenever possible, like cooking, setting up a tent, gathering firewood or purifying water. Sage loves helping out.
15. Be prepared for the occasional meltdown! It doesn’t mean your child isn’t having fun. Similarly, always keep your child’s needs to the forefront. After all, if they’re not enjoying themselves, what’s the point?
16. If you can, team up with another family—your toddler will love the company.
Continue Reading: Gilbert also wrote a piece on the “best bike touring gear for family travel,” which is based on his extensive experience. It includes thoughts on kid trailers, bike setup and Sage’s packing list for overnight adventures.