Just you and me: A first backyard campout
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It doesn’t take much to have an everyday family adventure. And yet, it’s easy to sideline the importance of making one happen in the general hustle and bustle of day to day life. Cass remembers the handful of miles he cycled into the desert with Sage, on a short but memorable border city campout; his first overnighter as just father and son. Read about the value of creating such petite but enriching memories, and find tips on what to bring on a similar, pint-sized family campout.
“Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.” The 14th Dalai Lama
My son’s family hail from El Paso, Texas, the US border city that lies just a stone’s lob from Mexico. A high and imposing wall divides it from its neighbour, Ciudad Juarez, but you can still peek in from various vantage points. Countless people cross daily to work in the US, or see their families, in a reminder that borders are often porous, and that ultimately, they aren’t more than what we make them.
Lost Dog trailhead, a local mountain biker’s hangout, is a five-mile ride from his grandmother’s house. And just a few miles beyond lies the boundary for the Franklin Mountains State Park. It’s one of the country’s largest state park in an urban setting, so space is bountiful. And what a park it is: a huge swathe of volcanic and sedimentary rock rising out of the arid and mostly barren earth – the Chihuahua Desert – that marks the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a range that runs the length of the country, all the way from Canada to right here on the border with Mexico. Given El Paso’s concrete sprawl, the Franklins are an especially welcome sanctuary from the busy arterial roads that course through the city in every which direction, and a much-needed escape for me when we visit over the winter holidays.
Even if the most we can manage – day rides aside – is a single night under the stars. Because everyday adventures don’t have to be especially grand in scope, especially when kids are involved. For the most part, it’s more a matter of making sure they actually happen, pint-sized outings often get swept under the proverbial carpet. Perhaps it’s in the hope of something bigger somewhere around the corner, or just the initial effort of getting out for a relatively short period of time. And then, what do you know… life gets in the way and the opportunity is lost.
Of course, we don’t all have a desert sprawl in our backyards and where you live will play its part in how exactly you go about this. In my case, it might be a train ride into neighbouring Wales when I’m at home in Bristol, UK, for what’s more likely to be bike paths leading to a boggy yomp – which is about as far removed from this brittle dry terrain as you can imagine.
But in El Paso, it’s as simple as heading out to the trailhead in the late afternoon in winter’s day, bidding goodnight to Sage’s mum (who joined us for the first few miles), and riding up into the hills, just father and son. Sage, Nancy, and I have embarked on a number of bike tours together as a family – before this campout and since – but I look back on this particular trip especially fondly because it was the first time that it was just the two of us.
We pedalled for an hour or so, leaving time to make the most of the sunset. Behind us, we could see the snow-capped peaks of the Organ Mountains, which we pass by on the drive south from New Mexico, where he lives. Sage then picked the spot that we’d call home for the night – an excellent one it is too, flat and panoramic in views. After that, it was as simple as cooking up a meal and watching the sparkly lights of El Paso and a not-so-distant Mexico flicker on before us, and wonder about life across the border.
Yes, a few ‘enticements’ were involved in helping this overnighter happen and as a parent, I don’t beat myself up about it! We all love our little treats and I know I’m often guilty of the same on my own trips. So Sage also chose the dinner menu – chickpea pasta with Mac and Cheese sauce – and the entertainment for the long winter night – an episode of Planet Earth – which we enjoyed whilst cosying up in our sleeping bags, after repairing punctures in one of the sleeping mats by torchlight.
Similarly, for this trip he rode on the tag-along bike behind me – the impressive, no holds barred Tout Terrain Streamliner – so we could better tackle the Franklin Mountains’ infamously unforgiving and rocky trails, that scratch their way through the avenues of baby barrel cacti, gangly ocotillos, and general abundance of spiky things that mine the Chihuahuan Desert. Because as confident as he was growing on his own bike, this was a ride in which I wanted him to relax and simply enjoy the experience of being outside. As a family, we have various means of two-wheeled transportation at our disposal – from trailers to longtails to solo bikes – but at this age, tag-along really come into their own on a ride like this. We can chit chat as we move, Sage can pedal hard and help me out over rocky steps and awkward climbs (pedal pedal pedal!!!), and he can coast when he wants to, watching the scenery go by or keeping his eyes peeled for curious bugs, road finds, or the like.
After all, as much as us adults may like to fill our bikepacking overnighters with as much toil and challenge as we can, it’s a golden rule for happy youngsters that family outings should never be rushed. By the tender age of six, Sage was already becoming quite the botanist, so we lingered along the way, poking around amongst the desert’s prickly inhabitants and marvelling at their shapes.
We were expecting a cold night, but not the wind that buffeted our tent or the morning storm that rolled in, unexpectedly pelting us with hail and even snow. Still, it was also a great excuse to hunker down for breakfast-in-sleeping-bags – which as we all know, is even more fun even than breakfast-in-bed – before we rallied ourselves for the dash home. We stopped only to inspect Freddy the Fridge, an old kitchen appliance that’s riddled with bullet holes, a useful marker for where we were and how far we had to go.
The ride back home through the city was just a little bit miserable, I have to admit. Although we followed a bike route much of the way, traffic is heavy in El Paso and at times, we felt like a little minnow in an unfriendly ocean of big sharks. It didn’t help that we’d also omitted to bring our waterproofs, having been promised clear weather by the forecast. So we hopped onto sidewalks to dodge pond-sized puddles, holding our own at traffic lights beside burbling, dark-tinted pickup trucks. We may have arrived back at his grandmother’s drenched and cold-fingered… but we were smiling, with stories to tell, as we basked in the accomplishment of having got out for the night.
After all, even the shortest of campouts in the backcountry never fail to afford a disproportionate amount of high vibes upon completion. As Sage gets older, I’m appreciating how these high vibes can resonate down the road too, each and every time we remember them. Just the other day, we found ourselves reminiscing about the trip, and I hope he occasionally recalls it later in his life too, when he finds himself in the exact same spot, and shares his memories with whomever he happens to be with.
Because I like to think that even the briefest of enriching journeys play their part in influencing the people we become, as children and even as adults. If we take the trouble to have these experiences together, who knows where they make take us and how they may shape us.
And as the Dalai Lama says, we even get to enjoy them a second time too, when we later smile as we look back upon them.
Ideas on how to make a bikepacking trip your child’s experience
Pick a route that’s traffic-free and interesting so you can interact as you ride, or stop and discuss what you see; even if it’s a bullet-riddled fridge that’s on the way. Time off the bike is often more important than time on it, so never pass up the excuse to put down your steeds and explore on foot. Think about an activity or challenge you can enjoy at your campsite that will help connect your child to his or her environment. Ours was finding as many different kinds of plants as we could. Perhaps a story about the history of the area, or a book on bird spotting could be fun too. A magnifying glass is another great tool to have.
As much as we camp to escape home comforts, treating your child to one or two within the context of a campout can be fun too, especially when they’re enjoyed once cosied up in a sleeping bag. Sage loves his nature documentaries, which I figured would be a nice indulgence on a long winter night, but podcasts are great too, and better if you want to cut out screen time. Either way, they give us lots to chat about the next day. Most importantly I think, get your child involved in as many aspects of the ride as possible. Discussing the route, looking at maps and figuring out where you are, reading info panels if you come across them, asking your child to help pick the camp spot, and choosing the menu are all fun ways of making it their experience as much as yours.
Check out more family bikepacking content on site for inspiration and ideas!
Gear we took on our edge of the city overnighter
- 2 down sleeping bags; ours are rated to 0°c, appropriate to our outing
- 2 air mattresses; quick and easy to inflate, so Sage can do it himself – the kind with the air bag are extra fun!
- Tarptent Double Rainbow; so straighforward to pitch that Sage can do it himself for an extra sense of accomplishment and involvement
- Foam sit pad; to protect bottoms from thorns when sunset watching
- Sage’s thermals + fleece onesie; a warm sleep is a good sleep
- Waterproofs; I forgot Sage jacket… don’t make the same mistake in case the weather turns unexpectedly, as a wet child can quickly become a miserable child!
- Toiletries; tooth brush, toothpaste, basic first aid
- Toilet paper + hand sanitiser; stored in a ziplock bag
- Trowel; for digging catholes and teaching #leavenotrace to the next generation
- Tablet with a couple of nature documentaries for the winter night; BBC’s Planet Earth is a favourite and gives us lots of discuss the next day, but of course a podcast works great too if you want zero screen time!
- Bedtime reading book; The Hobbit, in this case
- Petzl headlamps; for book reading and because headlamps are fun!
- Primus stove + gas bottle + lighweight MSR pot; quick and convenient for simple dinners
- Sea to Summit eating bowl + 2 sporks; collapsible with a screw top lid for leftovers (or pillaging food from the fridge)
- Food for dinner, breakfast, and some snacks; as chosen by Sage (tip: don’t skimp on the snacks)
- A bonus object; for added entertainment, maybe a kite, a frisbee, or a magnifying glass to get up close and personal with what you find
- 4 litres of water; enough for a dry winter campout, so no one goes thirsty
- Daytime lights and reflective vest; for the ride home, because it’s the city I worry most about, not what lies beyond it