A First-Time Family Bikepacking Adventure
Taking advantage of a sunny weekend in Bellingham, Washington, last winter, Ben Groenhout and his partner Kelsey pedaled out to nearby Larabee State Park for a night under the stars with their three- and six-year-old children. Find Ben’s story of introducing his young ones to bikepacking and a charming set of photos here…
Words and photos by Ben Groenhout (@ben_groenhout)
It’s predicted to be sunny on an early November weekend here in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). That often means the PNW will be cold as opposed to its normal chilly, damp drizzle. A break from the constant pitter-patter of rain is most welcome. In the dark months, it’s easy to stay cooped up and not do much of anything. With young kids, it gets especially tricky balancing their ever-growing interests, ability levels, and enthusiasm. Plus, with the pandemic, there’s so much uncertainty about everything. It permeates every little or large decision.
Heading off on a little outdoor adventure will do our family good, and knowing the rain will come back as persistent as ever, we decide to go for our first family bikepacking trip. I’m the only one who has actually bikepacked. Owen, 3, isn’t riding a pedal bike yet, and Mallory, 6, will be riding the furthest she’s ever ridden. My wife Kelsey and I met backpacking a decade and a half ago and have kept on backpacking, climbing, and enjoying the outdoors, so it’s just a matter of getting the gear on the bike with her.
I’ve got a decent amount of bikepacking bags for one, but to carry gear for a family of four, I need to borrow an old double Chariot from a buddy, and Kels ends up needing a backpack. Keeping it as easy as possible for Mallory and Owen is the priority. Owen gets the star treatment of riding in the trailer with a few stuffed animals. Mallory gets the classic oldest child treatment of seeing what she’s capable of with no older sibling to gauge her against.
Our destination is Larabee State Park, just a little south of Bellingham and right on Bellingham Bay. It’s relatively flat with just a few punchy sections that Mallory will need to walk. I’ll need to walk them, too, with the added trailer weight. Bellingham has pretty good cycling infrastructure, and we can hop on the gravel Railroad Trail at the end of our street.
We take that to some quiet residential roads and then hop onto a bike lane to ride through most of town. The bike lane ends, and we have to ride a few blocks downtown with no designated bike lane. Riding these few blocks through town makesme a bit nervous with the kids, but it’s a slow Saturday, we’ve got riding lights on, plus a bike flag, and we take it easy as a little family procession.
Conveniently at the halfway mark is the Fairhaven Village Green, our planned hot chocolate and pastry stop. Keeping the kids well-fueled is a must, and a little break from bike seats is great. The kids dance on the stage as they eat their pastries and chug their hot chocolate. All carbed up, we hop on the Interurban trail that will take us all the way to Larabee State Park. Owen is lulled to sleep in back and fails to notice how much work he and the trailer are to hike up a slippery gravel 30% incline.
Overall, the Interurban is mostly flat and is an ideal trail with kids as it’s separated from the busy Chuckanut Drive it parallels. It’s the tail end of the fall foliage, but yellow and orange bigleaf maple leaves still cling to trees and litter the trail. Douglas firs, salal, and sword ferns provide the green, and we’ve got sun and blue skies to round out the colorful afternoon.
Getting into camp late in the afternoon, we set up our four-season tent, a handy relic from my Midwest winter camping days. Dinner is ramen, salami, and a few pre-cut veggies, followed by fudge-covered Oreos. It’s easy to prepare and calorie dense for the near-freezing night that’s approaching.
As it’s getting dark, we walk down to the bay to watch the sunset and toss a few rocks in the ocean—a perennial kid favorite. The sunset is banks of clouds that are on fire for a few brief minutes before the sunlight goes down behind the San Juans. After a day spent out in the cold, our kids are tired, and they’re passed out in their sleeping bags by 6:30 p.m. Kels and I make some tea and stay up for a bit, but we’re rarely night owls and are in our sleeping bags by 8 p.m. Along with the cold come gusting winds, and sleeping under towering creaking Douglas firs as they’re whipped by the wind all night does nothing for our paranoid parent brains.
It’s a sleepless night for the parents, but the kids are unbothered by the wind and wake the next morning ready to go. Instant oatmeal, tea, coffee, and we’ll get going quickly. It’s in the 30s, so Mallory’s wearing three pairs of pants, Kels has her big down puffy on, Owen rocks a one-piece fleece onesie, and I’m in tights and a puffy. The winds are still present today and I worry about Mallory and her enjoyment in the 40-mile-per-hour gusts. She really doesn’t seem to mind, so we don’t make a big deal of it. Kids are pretty resilient little people, especially if you don’t have preconceived notions of what they can or can’t do.
At the end of the Interurban Trail and back in Fairhaven, we stop for a break from the wind and order a second breakfast. Devouring our food in the shelter of a restaurant has got to be one of the best parts of the ride (and in general a highlight of bike rides). As an avid cyclist, this is a short distance to ride, but it is getting long in terms of time. It’s taken a couple of hours to go just six miles. The important thing is that Mallory is enjoying herself, and she has no concept about bike speed or distance. She’s just riding her bike and enjoying it. I’m hoping the warm restaurant and the chocolate-covered waffle are positive reinforcements.
The fabulous thing about bikepacking through town is that there are plenty of places to stop and warm up/fuel up/take a break if needed. I was a little surprised that we only needed to stop once on the way out and once on the way back. Had we needed more, the options were there.
Having dispatched the two steep bits, already ridden through gusty winds, and refueled on waffles, eggs, crepes, hot chocolate, and coffee, we breezed through town. The winds kept up, but Mallory didn’t mind. Going into this, she knew it would be her longest ride and challenging at times. Kels and I are pretty upbeat people. As we’ve taken our kids hiking, riding, and on other adventures, a lot seems to be on us to find balance. We need to be realistic regarding our kids’ abilities, go at our kids’ pace, and then be pleasantly surprised when they can do more than we think.
Talking with Mallory as we rode our last few miles, she was just as excited as when we began 26 hours before. We were so close to an S24O (Sub-24-hour Overnight) ride. Maybe that will be our next goal. Her legs were tired, and she was happy to be done but not anxious to get to the end. Her main reason for wanting to get home was to play outside with the neighbor kid, a that’s the successful trip ending I was hoping for.
I’m the cyclist in the family, and while riding year-round, doing big rides, and adventures by bike, I’ve accumulated a decent selection of bags, lights, tools, etc. I was still scrounging to figure out how to get the gear for four people on two bikes, mount decent front and rear lights for our three bikes, and bring an appropriate repair kit. The borrowed double Chariot bike trailer was clutch as Owen and a plethora of gear could go in.
Only bringing two meals plus a few snacks and stopping for a snack and lunch kept food weight down. We basically wore all our clothes all the time due to the cold. I ran a Swift Industries Zeitgeist handlebar bag and had my Revelate sweet roll bag on Kelsey’s bike with a Revelate seat bag. Kels had to wear a 30L backpack, but it just had large bulky items. Ridgerests are not the smallest pads, but they’re light, durable, and easier to move kids who have rolled off in the middle of the night back onto. And hand qarmers may not be totally essential, but they’re a great pick-me-up with their visceral heat, and the kids love having them.
I brought the usual bike repair kit: multi-tool, patches, a few tubes for the various wheel and tire sizes, but nothing particularly wacky or extreme, and if something major went wrong, I’d have called a local friend or family member to help out or even ridden home to get the car and drive back to the family. After all, this was not a trip to see how resourceful the family could be.
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