Sarah, RJ, and Oliver: Family Bikepacking Rigs
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During a recent family bikepacking trip on Vancouver Island, Sarah and RJ Sauer loaded up their fatbikes for some dirt road touring, complete with their two-year-old son Oliver in tow. We met up for a quick spin to learn more about their travels, gear, and their thoughts on bikepacking with a little one…
Although I’m quite familiar with RJ Sauer (@rjsauer) through his incredible written contributions on this website and The Bikepacking Journal, when I learned he’d be passing through town with his family I knew I had to meet them all in person. It came as no surprise that Sarah and their son Oliver are just as adventurous as RJ, and that touring some British Columbia backroads as a family is no foreign concept. I met up with the trio on what should have been their rest day for a gravel loop in Cumberland, BC, to take a closer look at their family fatbiking rigs and to learn more about them. Find photos and an interview with Sarah and RJ below.
Tell us about your lives outside of bikepacking. What does your regular routine look like these days?
Sarah: This is actually a hard question to answer! We made a move almost three years ago that really extended my work day, with a 45-minute commute each way to the school where I teach. That changed my routines: more time in the car, less time on hobbies. Two years ago, I was on parental leave for a year when Oliver was born. And this past year, Sept-March was 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM out of the house at work. Come March, that changed dramatically! I was one of the lucky ones who could keep working a full time (+) job from home, and so this spring we managed both working from home, trading off sessions with Oliver, which usually meant a walk/run/hike/ride with each of us, trying to kill two birds with one stone.
RJ: I have much less of a routine given my work is more contract and freelance based within the film industry. I try to train consistently to stay healthy and fit, but like bikepacking, we need to remain flexible and adaptive when my work schedule dictates. But my work also provides a level of freedom to enjoy pockets of time for bike events and adventures as a family and on my own.
Where does cycling fit in, and how did that evolve into bikepacking?
Sarah: I had biked as a kid, but never anything more than jaunts around the neighbourhood. When only running got boring (and hard on the knees) 10 years ago, I was inspired by the ability to ride all year in Vancouver, and the commuting/cycling culture. That morphed into triathlons, which along with friends made through RJ’s (and then my) training for the ITI-150, bikepacking became something we could do together, and with friends.
RJ: I started long-distance cycling more seriously eight years ago when I trained for and competed in the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000, my first bikepacking race. Previous to that, I had been mountain biking off and on for the last 20 years. From there, I caught the bikepacking bug and continued to learn and explore new events and endeavour on long-distance adventures, including a trip across Iceland with Sarah, our first long bike trip together. For me, I loved the ability to use the bike as a conduit to travel and explore and tell stories and take pictures.
What was your first bikepacking experience with Oliver like? Has that changed?
Sarah: On our first trip last spring, Ollie was just over nine months old. He was still very much a baby then. I definitely did some fretting. Did we bring the right things? How will he hold up? How will sleep work out? Will I lose my mind having only one book with us (Baby Beluga, on repeat)? Are we taking too much risk? The hardest thing on that trip was that he was crawling, which was tough with all the gravel (which also went direct to mouth). What I noticed after this trip is how much more of an active participant he is. We had a little “ready?!” fist-bump ritual that developed, he knew when it was go-time and asked for his “hat” (helmet), and when it gets bumpy and/or fast, the sound effects add a little pep to the pedal stroke. He’s also the ultimate re-set button. Managed 115 kilometres ending in the dark, with a few dead-ends on logging roads, on a 14 hour day? Good for us! Now, time to find the patience, calm, and energy to get bedtime happening, and ensure we’re set up for whatever needs to be in reach in the morning, in case it’s an early one.
RJ: Our first bikepacking trip was a five-day loop in and out of Oliver, BC, which seemed fitting (beyond just the placename). The Kettle Valley Rail trail was something I was familiar with, the route was forgiving on a pulled chariot and there was good, consistent resupply throughout the route so it felt like a responsible maiden voyage. I don’t feel the trips have changed dramatically, although we have made some gear tweaks that have helped (a bigger tent!) and now Oliver is more mobile, which comes with pros and cons.
What are some challenges that are specific to bikepacking with a toddler?
Sarah: There is a lot of divide and conquer. One of us sets up camp, while the other does diaper change, or diverts from an end of day sweaty meltdown. There’s also finding that sweet spot of supply management. No one wants to be caught with your Cheerios running low or cart 15 stuffies and a pound of pouches either. Our first trip, I wish I would have brought one more warm layer. Our second trip, sure didn’t need that third bathing suit for him. I think we’re really lucky to have an easygoing boy, who is happy to look out his window (so long as he can see through the dust piling up!) or play with sticks, and is willing to go with the flow for the most part.
RJ: Bikepacking with a toddler adds another layer of unpredictability, so it’s important to allow for some overall flex time in the schedule. It’s tricky as we can’t necessarily “reason” with Oliver yet and when confronted with setbacks, it’s not like we can relay that information to him. On the flip side, he doesn’t really know or care that much where we are, as long as we are moving. It’s hard to know how much of this is specific to Oliver or kids of his age in general, but I think all of the early exposure to being in a chariot and camping has made this familiar and comfortable for him. The canoe? Another story!
How is everything divided when packing up the bikes? Can we get a breakdown of what goes where?
- Bar Bag: sleeping bags
- Seat Bag: rain jackets (Sarah and Ollie), travel Scrabble, travel bocce, toilet “grab bag”
- Panniers: clothing (Sarah and Ollie), extra diapers (Ollie), food/snacks/milk/formula (Ollie), first aid kit, flip flops
- Frame Bag: spare tubes, headlamp, sunscreen, COVID-19 clean kit: masks/gloves/hand sanitizer
- Cockpit: bear spray, whistle, insulated mug (coffee all day!), phone/camera, bag of snacks, lip balm, and rocks (literally, I collect them and cart them around until I remember to take them out), whatever falls out of the Thule ahead of me, buff, sunglasses
- Bar Bag: tent, phone, snacks, back-up GPS devices, face mask
- Seat Bag: spare tubes, extra clothing and layers
- Panniers: pot, bowls, stove, extra fuel, water filter, iPad and electronics, spare camera gear, bodum, miscellaneous, and extra food
- Frame Bag: bear spray, camera for easy access, loose items depending where we are
- Cockpit: snacks, blow horn for bears, bandana, GPS/Navigation devices and inReach, whistle
- Feet: sleeping pads, quick-access day bag (diapers, change of clothes), “blankie” or towel
- Loose: water bottle, Cheerios
- Rear Bag: water, family food
Tell us about Oliver’s rig. Will you transition to something else as he grows?
We have used the Thule Chariot Cross for three trips now (and countless local miles) and it has been amazing. Despite so much rugged terrain and weight, we have had no issues and not one flat despite multiple flats with our fat bike tires. The only real limitation is the type of track we can follow given the two tires and width, so we tend to avoid routes with too much singletrack and opt for doubletrack and gravel roads. Once his balance and engagement gets better, we will likely look to something that is singletrack friendly, although the ability for him to nap in the chariot while we cover long miles is invaluable. That will certainly be a consideration!
Is there any child-specific camping gear you had to invest in for these types of trips?
We haven’t had to make too many Oliver-specific changes to our bikepacking gear, although I definitely try to play things safe and bring a little extra. So, making sure to have a robust water filter to make formula with plenty of water containers to ensure extra on board. We also got a larger Big Agnes tent as Oliver is a wiggler at night. Finally, I did get a Garmin inReach for emergencies. Beyond that, it’s just his everyday things like at home: clothes, diapers, wipes, creams, snacks. Not too much different from an adult, really. We also make an adjustment on these trips to use disposable diapers versus the cloth ones we usually use at home. There just wasn’t a good system we could envision to get them properly clean and dry. It’s definitely a trade off.
Are there any tips you can share for other aspiring bikepacking families?
First off, just get out there. The fun about bikepacking is learning from each experience. We are always tweaking, and brainstorming is half the fun. That being said, I think it’s smart to start small. We did a lot of local rides first, adding time and distance each ride and experimenting with different terrain to ensure the chariot and Oliver could handle it while still having fun. We don’t want to force him onto our trips; he is a teammate and needs to be a part of it. If he didn’t seem to be happy then we would tone it down or stop. That goes for our trips as well. We allow extra time to stop and regroup if needed. Some extra research on the route is a good idea as well. With the width of the chariot, certain terrain becomes problematic. We don’t mind a little hike-a-bike and we have had to dismantle and carry the chariot a few times and that’s okay here and there, but it may not be so rewarding bushwacking all day.
Any other family adventures in the works?
We are hoping to squeeze in one more family adventure this summer before Sarah returns to teaching. We are currently scouring the map to see what makes sense based on our usual equation of time, terrain, and area intrigue. British Columbia is an endless playground for bikepacking, so there is never a shortage of opportunities!
Find more family bikepacking related stories, tips, and articles by following the tag #family-bikepacking.