Bikepacking as a Parent: Five Tips from Five Trips
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As an avid bikepacker and a parent of young children, Pete Collins has been working toward perfecting the art of maximizing his free time to ride and camp near home. In this guide, he presents five pieces of practical advice for fellow parents who are trying to find the right balance of riding and responsibility…
“So, let me get this straight… you’re going to finish work, jump on a train, ride 20-odd km until dark, set up camp, sleep, ride to the station, get a train back to the city, clean up, and be at your desk for 9:00 AM? You guys are f**ing crazy!”
Neil and I have gotten used to this type of reaction though these days. It’s surprising how quickly what you perceive as a normal hobby is considered crazy in the eyes of pretty much everyone else.
Over the last few years, we’ve developed an insatiable appetite for time on the bikes, searching out roads less travelled. In between, we spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking and tinkering with bikes. By now, it’s an entrenched part of our identities; we’re bikepackers. And we’re also both parents to young children with family obligations that make having this passion a challenge at times, hence the reactions to our hair-brained ideas.
We know we’re not the only ones who’ve gone from having a spontaneous lifestyle to one where time away needs a significant amount of up-front planning with others—from a mindset where time away is totally carefree to one where there’s always a part of you that misses your kids whilst you’re apart.
Fortunately, here in Victoria, Australia, we have some of the best gravel riding anywhere in the world right on our doorstep. We’re lucky like that. Less than an hour outside of most of the major cities in Australia is an endless amount of gravel in almost every direction. Coupled with the sights, sounds, and smells unique to the Australian bush, it makes for spectacular riding. So, we’ve slowly been making an art out of the microadventure and slotting our passion for bikepacking into our demanding schedules and family time. We decided to put our heads together and write the article we wish we’d been able to read when we first started this juggling act. We hope it’s something that will inspire you to get out and have an adventure, no matter how small the time window or distance travelled. Here are our top five tips for bikepacking parents to make the most of 6, 12, 24, or 48 hours away from the family.
1. Ride within your limits
The simple truth is that we’re just not as fit as we were before we became parents, as much as we love to think we are. Being dropped off the back of the few group rides we struggled to get to in the first place just wasn’t our idea of fun. We loved the social aspect, but the need to go 40km/h through beautiful bushland didn’t appeal to us. The combination of wanting to stop to admire the amazing scenery, as well as it feeling like a battle, meant we slowly (literally) transitioned out of these rides to something that aligned more to our interests. Namely: solitude, scenery, and a sustainable pace.
For us, mapping out adventures is almost as much fun as doing the ride. Maybe it’s just the kind of people we are, but we thoroughly enjoy planning to the nth degree. Probably because we know something somewhere will go to sh*t.
One thing that having kids teaches you (right from the birthing plan!) is to expect the unexpected. Spending a decent amount of time mapping out routes means we also have an opportunity to discuss bail out options. What if we need to get home quickly for a family emergency? What happens if one of us blows up 50km from the resupply point?
Knowing where we can shorten or alter routes on the go has made all the difference on more than one occasion. When we found ourselves taking a sketchy looking shortcut—a horribly overgrown 4×4 track—just before sunset, we didn’t panic… much. Advance planning meant we knew it would get us to where we needed to go.
2. Tailor your gear selection
Going lightweight is a big part of our trip ethos. Ever since we started riding together five years ago, we’ve been looking at options to refine our setups. It’s a never ending process based on the season we ride in, the length of the trip, and the remoteness of the area we visit. Whatever you carry has to go up every hill you ride. And when you’re not at peak fitness, you develop a really high level of scrutiny for what you actually need. We’ve learnt over our many trips that there’s a fine line that, when crossed, means you’re sacrificing huge degrees of comfort for the sake of just a few milligrams. Weight saving at the cost of all else can really change the nature of a trip.
We tried a new tactic in our crossing of the Victorian Alps last year: go as minimalist and lightweight as you can in some areas, so we could afford the luxury of weight in others. What this meant for us was saving weight across the board so we could prioritise a decent sleep setup. This is something we value massively, given what a premium good sleep is for parents of young children. We shed weight from our clothing, our cooking systems, our electronics, our toolkits, and beyond. We went light. Really light in some instances. Soon, we’d found enough weight reduction that we could take a decent down sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a tent and still have a super lightweight setup overall. And most importantly of all, it meant a decent rest each night.
So, before each trip, take the time to figure out where it makes sense to save weight and where it doesn’t. This will be different for everyone and there’s no right answer, but it could mean the difference between a really enjoyable trip with the right amount of adventure and a complete sufferfest.
3. Shift your mindset
We’ve lost track of the amount of time spent chatting about trips to far-flung places. Usually the tents are up, the fire is going, and then the conversation starts.
“I wonder what crossing the Japanese Alps end to end would be like. Or the Peruvian Andes. Or the Great Divide. Or how about circumnavigating Tasmania via the most remote roads we could find.”
Spending time thinking about those things is fun. It’s always good to dream. But the hard truth is that those trips are unrealistic for both of us at this stage in life. And whilst we’ve both done multi-week expeditions with our respective families and little ones in tow, those trips are a different type of experience.
The biggest thing we’ve done in the last few years is shift our expectations. We’re now huge believers in the idea of putting all that time spent dreaming of massive expeditions into a series of micro trips from our doorstep instead. It will mean just the same amount of time on our bikes, and we’ll actually be out riding, not just dreaming of riding!
It’s easy to think that trips of less than a day or two just aren’t worth the effort, that you could never get far enough from home to have a real adventure. An 11-hour midweek trip to the Macedon Ranges proved that nothing could be further from the truth. Adventure is a state of mind, and for time poor parents, changing your outlook can open up a world of possibilities.
4. Create a “rinse & repeat” leaving plan
Our bags are ready to go. Always. As are the bikes. With the exception of some season-specific clothing that we might add and keeping things like down sleeping bags uncompressed, we can ride at a moment’s notice. We’ve perfected our ability to leave quickly, but not because parents are spontaneous. Far from it. We just want to make the most of our time away and to know that when we do leave quickly, we haven’t forgotten any critical pieces of kit.
We’ve gotten to this state of efficiency through lots of trial and error. If you’re like us and want to get out quickly, figuring out your version of this routine is really worthwhile.
A few simple steps have really started to help us:
- Put the same kit in the same bags every single trip without exception, and leave space in one specific bag. That might sound obvious but it means only needing to worry about changing the contents of a single bag each time we go.
- Keep your GPS, lights, and other electronics charged and ready to go. At the end of every trip, putting these things back on charge is one of the first things we do.
- Have a stash of backcountry dinners and trail mix on hand so leaving doesn’t require a supply run first.
- Maintain a well-documented list of desired trips with GPX files on your device and a logistics plan for each.
Our recent overnighter to the YouYangs State Park, where we left after putting the kids to bed, simply wouldn’t have been possible without being prepared. Look after the minutes and the hours take care of themselves.
5. Make time for social connection
As much as getting out on the bike for a day on your own is therapeutic, nothing compares to good banter with a mate as you go. We always tend to have plenty of great conversation: places we’d love to visit, what’s been going on in our lives, and how much we hate the hill we’re on at that particular point. If neither of us feels like talking, that’s okay too. Time on your own when you’re a parent is precious, so we’re equally happy to ride and take some personal reflection time.
One of the main reasons we love bikepacking is the shared reward at the end of a hard day’s ride. Camping is a big part of these trips and has become almost ceremonial for us. We normally always plan to arrive when there’s some daylight left so we can make the most of the surroundings.
On a recent jaunt to Bunyip State Park, we finished up reasonably close to a town, so while one of us set up camp, the other did a 30km round-trip beer run. Soon we found ourselves warming next to a campfire, gazing at the stars, sipping cans of Danish lager. This time felt just as valuable as the time spent on the bike. It’s moments like this that remind us just how important the social aspect of a trip is.
In the hustle and bustle of family and work life, getting a chance to get away from it all on our bikes ticks so many boxes. We return a bit grubbier and more rugged than before we left, but we also return relaxed and more attentive to our kids and loved ones, ready to enjoy life while starting to plan the next trip.
About Pete Collins
Pete Collins has been bikepacking for close to 20 years, on trips in Europe, the US, Australia, and New Zealand. He’s done everything from multi-week expeditions across countries, to backcountry routes with his one-year-old daughter in a trailer. More recently, he’s started to get into microadventures, exploring the best that his home state of Victoria has to offer. Follow him on Instagram @collinsps1.