Kidpacking in the Magical Forest
With the heat of summer behind him, Patrick Farnsworth heads to the Sam Houston National Forest with his four-year-old daughter for her first bikepacking trip. Patrick put together this short reflection and a set of photos from their overnighter, which you can check out here…
Words and photos by Patrick Farnsworth (@bikesordeath)
Earlier this year, I mapped out a route that would be my girls’ first bikepacking trip: a short 7.5-mile gravel ride shaded by the lumbering loblolly pines in the Sam Houston National Forest. I have two daughters (4 and 11 years old) who are not unfamiliar with biking or camping, but this would be the first time to combine them. We did one test ride this spring, but any further trips were soon halted due to the pandemic. Now, seven months later, with the temperatures finally starting to cool off in Texas, I took advantage of an unexpected change of plans that left my four-year-old and me alone for the weekend. It took about 12 minutes before I started to rummage through gear, assemble bikes, finalize plans, etc… and tomorrow we ride!
From the moment I told Sloane about the forthcoming trip, it was all she could talk about. She asked, “Is it time to go yet?” on repeat for the entirety of the day. Note to parents, don’t tell the kids about the trip until right before bed. Problem solved. Aside from that, the preparations went off without a hitch. Luckily, since I had seven months to plan, it was rather easy to put it all together last minute. I should mention that Sloane would be riding a Wee Copilot, which is a cheap pull-behind bike and probably the most likely thing to sabotage this whole trip. But it’s only seven miles, right?! I went with a pull-behind bike mostly for my own benefit. Do I think she could bike the entire route? Yes! Do I want to stop every five minutes for any number of reasons that only make sense in the mind of a four-year-old? No. Plus, it’s a better workout for dad, which I need more than she does.
I really didn’t have any trepidations about taking her on a primitive camping overnighter in the woods. Sloane is one tough kid, she loves the outdoors, has boundless energy, and doesn’t know the word quit. That’s an easy claim for many parents to make, but I gave Sloane the opportunity to prove me right or wrong.
When Sloane woke up the next morning, she sleepily walked up to me and asked, “Are we going to the Magical Forest today?” The stoke was high! We would start our trip at Big Woods Camp, an hour and a half from our home. On the way we listened to music, usually only broken by “Are we there yet?” and me answering “No!” like a million times. As we drove east, the scenery changed to tall green pine tree forest everywhere we looked. We arrived at our starting spot at about 3 p.m., and it was 80 degrees and cloudy. The sun goes down about 7 p.m. these days, and I gave us two hours to ride to camp, which would give us another two hours to set up camp and enjoy the area.
This would be our first ride on our fully loaded rigs, which added to the adventure. My only concern was about handling. Specifically, the weight combined with any gyrations from the backseat. I found the weight manageable but stayed mindful of it as we rode. A couple of miles in and I was thinking to myself, “Wow we’re making good time!” Moments later, Sloane suggested that we were getting a little far from the van and, “Maybe we should turn around.” I reassured her that everything was great and I had a nice camping spot picked out just for us. This seemed to quell any worry, if there was any there to begin with. Most of the ride was surprisingly quiet. Sloane is many things, but quiet usually isn’t one of them. Out of the silence, she said, “I love you, Dad,” as we pedaled along a dirt road all alone on our adventure. The rest of the ride went even better than I could have imagined. We happily pedaled on together in silence, enjoying the scenery, the sound of gravel, and the wind as it passed by.
We smashed our goal of getting to camp in two hours with a time of 58:34 and only five minutes of stoppage time. We averaged a blistering 8.9 mph! In my head, I was thinking, holy shit she’s a little badass, and was already scheming bigger ideas for the future. But once at camp, the real challenge of endurance started. I was an evening of entertaining a toddler, helping a toddler pee every 30 minutes, setting up camp while she “helped,” making a fire, cooking dinner (truth be told, I let her eat a s’more first, cause she damn well earned it!), and all the things until she finally crashed in her hammock around 8 p.m. Kids are hard work, as every parent knows. Taking young kids primitive bike camping is downright hard, but it’s absolutely worth it. Not once did I regret the work because I knew the payoff is big. The camping trips my father took my brother and me on in our youth and into our teen years have paid dividends for me. As a father, I now feel a sense of duty to give my daughters the same opportunities.
Another great thing about Sloane is that she’s a great sleeper! From day one she has been really easy to put to sleep, and once she’s asleep, nothing wakes her up. And when she wakes up the next day, she’s reignited with boundless energy. Thankfully, this night was no different. I tucked her into her hammock and lay next to her on my own as she drifted off to sleep. I slept soundly as the tree crickets and katydids sang their summertime chorus. I woke up in the morning to Sloane quietly telling me she needed to go potty. It was about 6:30 a.m., the sky was just starting to show a hint of day, and it was very quiet… until our potty break started to go poorly and Sloane bursts into tears and screams that can only come from a toddler trying to sleep-pee in the middle of the woods as her dad props her up.
Through a series of failed attempts, more cries/screams, nature finally took its course and the potty break was complete. I had hoped to tuck us both back into bed and let the sun rise without an audience, but Sloane thought differently. Instead, we watched bugs dance on top of the nearby pond. In that moment, Sloane saw the Magic Forest she had wished for. Being a voyeur to the world as it wakes up is a special thing. I’m glad we didn’t go back to sleep. We stayed there until the idea of coffee started to percolate in my mind.
After coffee and breakfast, we went on a short walk along the lakeshore, and then it was time to break camp. Guess who got that job? By 10 a.m. we were loaded up and back on the forest road 7.5 miles away from where we parked the van. Again it was a quiet and peaceful ride back, only interrupted by Sloane needing to pee three more times. But I can’t complain, she’s such a trooper. The whole ride there and all the way back she didn’t utter a single complaint, in fact, she just sat back and enjoyed the experience. And so did I.
Reflections from Dad
As parents, it’s our job to introduce our kids to the outdoors. No one is going to do it for you. Our way of life is rapidly moving away from the natural world in lieu of manicured outdoor spaces, riddled with guidelines for proper use. I believe we are doing our children a disservice by not giving them the opportunity for unstructured recreation in the outdoors. There’s no simulations that can satisfy the young human’s body and mind the way that can be done in an unstructured environment, and to not provide this opportunity handicaps their development. Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods, which I highly recommend for parents if you’re also concerned with such matters.
I can’t say with exactness the long-term benefits that Sloane will derive from this trip, but I can take some guesses. I believe Sloane’s silence on the ride was because she was fully stimulated. Her mind, body, and all of her senses were activated. If she’s anything like her dad, this has a calming effect. I believe she is seeing how capable she is, and as a parent, I want to facilitate her belief that she can accomplish anything. In order for her to learn this, I need to be willing to give her the space to see, do, experiment, and yes, even fail. Failure is a part of life, so is learning from our failures or shortcomings, and the only way to develop these skills is to be allowed to experience them and grow from them. I believe this process starts from a very young age. When Sloane is old enough to attend first grade, I believe she will have confidence and an understanding of herself that most kids her age were deprived of.
I should also mention that there is a selfish component to this, too. I can think of no greater joy than introducing my kids to the outdoors and having them join me with their own enthusiasm. I’m laying the groundwork for what I hope is a lifetime of adventuring with my girls. Check back with me in 10-20 years and I’ll let you know how it goes!
Patrick is the host of the Bikes or Death podcast, which is now on its 58th episode. Find all the episodes on BikesorDeath.com.