Bike Camping With Kids, Part I: The Journey

It was late at night in September 2014, probably past midnight, and my wife Sarah and I were in the garage, busy bolting square 5-gallon buckets onto the sides of our kids’ bikes. Together with a bike trailer, these “poor man’s panniers” would carry all of our food, clothing, camping gear and tools for a five day bike camping trip we were leaving on the next day. Piles of outdoor gear lay nearby, ready to get packed into our buckets. On the kitchen counter in the house lay five days worth of meals, divided into breakfast, lunch, and dinner piles. The kids slept soundly in their beds, getting good rest so that they could pedal 30 miles with loaded bikes.

We had been asking ourselves if this trip was a good idea. It certainly sounded like an adventure, but would the kids like it? Would the uphills on loaded bikes be hell? Would complaining from an 11 and 13 year old drown out the joy of the downhills? Would it be safe? We'd all done plenty of biking, but heading out on a 120-mile bike ride with young kids is a whole new ballpark. 

But the only way to find out is to give it a try. At around 1 a.m., we loaded the bikes onto our utility trailer, strapped them down, and headed in to get some sleep. The night was still. Adventure awaited.

Day 1, Getting going, slowing down
The sun rises as we cruise east in our van, utility trailer and bikes in tow. We sip hot coffee and munch on bagels as we drive toward Deer Isle on the Maine coast. The kids sleep in back. We arrive in Blue Hill, Maine, and find a spot to park the van for a few days. We unload the bikes, drink some water, and we are on the road in five minutes. Or what seems like five minutes. Reading our family trip journal a year later, I realize that the happy memories of the start of this trip are not quite accurate. My 13-year-old son Jackson’s entry from that day:

“It took Papa and Tasha a while to find a parking spot where they could leave the van for five days but they asked around and we parked behind a carwash, one of the only places we were allowed to park. It took us a while to get going due to some crying and grumpy attitudes. Once we got going though, everyone had smiles on their faces.”

Yes, there were some tears and frustration, but what great adventure starts without a little heartache? On the road, finally, Jackson leads the way with Sarah right behind. Tasha, 11, and I take up the sweep position at the rear. Jackson and Tasha are on old mountain bikes, Sarah is on a cruiser she just got at our local bike shop, and I am riding my trusty 20-year-old all-steel Specialized RockHopper mountain bike, outfitted with slick tires, fenders, and a yard-sale bike trailer full of camping gear. Since we didn’t have touring bikes with front and rear panniers, we just grabbed the basic bikes we had in the garage, made some minor DIY modifications, and headed out.

Ahead I hear hoots of joy as Jackson and Sarah head down the first big hill of the trip. One mile down, 29 more to go today. We are cruising on smooth roads, the sun is shining and the wind is in our hair. Kids are smiling. Wife is smiling. Life is good.

Twenty miles later, we eat lunch in Brookline, Maine, at a general store on the side of the road. The beauty of a bike trip is that it turns what may have been a ho-hum stop in a car into something more exciting. Something about getting there under your own power makes you appreciate the small details more: A lunch of crusty bread from the local bakery, along with cheese and apples; Homemade ice cream from the general store; And meeting strangers who offer to let us camp on their property. We realize we have tapped into something special. A form of travel that slows you down and introduces you to new people. Out of the social confines of our car, we are in the open air, exploring, living.

Local treasures along the way. 
Onwards to our first destination, Reach Knolls Campground. The place is new, as in they just cut down the trees to make a clearing last year. It’s a little raw and the grass hasn’t fully grown in, but the owners are delightful and so excited about accomplishing their dream of opening a campground on the coast. They have rustic pit toilets, great secluded sites, and a short path through the woods that leads to one of the most beautiful and sunny pebble beaches we’ve ever seen. We spend hours playing in the water, burrowing our bodies into the sun-heated pebbles on the beach, soaking in the late September sun.

Warming up after a swim. 
A beach made of shells. 

We relish the down time in camp. The aches and pains of a bike trip are real--sore legs and sore rear-ends are the prime culprits. This is normal. You just have to grin and bear it and it will get better eventually. The thighs will be rubbing all day as well. So if you are prone to chafing, bring lots of baby powder or my personal favorite, Gold Bond Medicated Powder. Sweet relief.

We prepare a dinner of pesto pasta, a campfire, and evening coffees and cocoas, then climb into our tents early so we can wake for a hilly 30 mile ride tomorrow. We sleep soundly.

Good times in camp. 
Days 2 and 3, Bicycle Hobos
Early rise, breakfast of pan-fried bagels, cream cheese, fruit and coffee. Today will be a challenge. Thirty miles of rolling hills and a couple narrow bridges to traverse first thing. A narrow bridge is a stressful situation on a bike because there is no shoulder and cars have difficulty passing bikes with a wide berth. I planned the route to avoid busy highways, but to get to our destination, these bridges had to be crossed. We ride two at a time to make it easier for cars to pass us in a small group. No problem.

Some big hills confront us, and with a loaded bike, they are tough. Whining ensues, and I whip out my best words of wisdom to keep everyone rolling. My good friend John Leddy calls these wisdom nuggets “dadisms”. A couple of his favorites are, "Whining won't make it any easier,” and "Doing hard things is hard." A perpetual favorite of mine is, “Every time that wheel spins we are getting closer to our destination.” (A note to the wise: these usually don’t work. Just keep quiet, keep pedaling, and have some chocolate handy.)

A couple narrow crossings. 
The rest of the day is delightful—we stay off of the main roads as much as possible and follow a meandering path on rustic back roads that wind along the coast. Slate blue water, gray rocks, dark green trees, and a deep blue sky make a beautiful backdrop for us as we pedal onward. We breathe deeply and the salt air and earthy fragrance of the forest mulch fills our lungs. Lunch at another general store, where an acoustic music jam is getting underway in the park across the street. Local old-timers and young folks gather in the park with banjos, guitars, mandolins, and fiddles—we eat and drink and lay on the grass and listen. We are not in a rush. Just seeking out what is around the next bend and taking it all in.

A word on our equipment: We all have basic bikes with sturdy rear racks bolted on to them. We have bolted square 5- gallon buckets onto the rear racks, which are a perfect and cheap pannier system. Round buckets won’t work—they have to be square to fit snugly against the rack. The square buckets can be found at any restaurant—pickles, soy sauce, and olive oil all come in them. Ask around and you will find them for free.

Poor man's panniers. 

After you bolt on the buckets using u-bolts and a few washers (under $5 for the hardware), you will have a sturdy, 100 percent waterproof pannier. If you put one on each side, you have a nice flat platform to which you can strap larger items like tents and sleeping bags. Jackson bolted some sections of vertical PVC pipe onto the back of one of his buckets, making nice fishing rod holders. Sarah and Tasha had wicker baskets attached to the front of their handlebars for easy access to maps, cameras, and snacks. Again, nothing fancy. No need to spend hundreds on custom touring gear. Just grab what you have or make something. It’s easier than you think. 

Because we wanted the trip to be fun for the kids, we tried to limit the weight they were carrying and I carried a bit more of the group gear like tents, pots and pans, and stoves. So I ended up using a combination of a square bucket on one side and a bike trailer that I got for $40 at a yard sale. I ripped out the seats in the trailer to make a giant cargo bay and I had so much room I could pack a LOT of gear—two tents, days worth of food, clothes, games—even a mandolin and some books! This set-up is heavy on the uphills, but on flat ground the momentum behind me keeps me rolling.

Fully loaded trailer. 
The sight of our bikes with buckets, baskets, and fishing rods attached made us look like a band of gypsies on bikes, so we dubbed ourselves the “Bicycle Hobos.” Somehow it got into our heads that “Bicycle Hobos” sounds a lot like “Buffalo Soldier,” the famous Bob Marley reggae tune. So as we pulled our heavy loads along the road, we spent hours deliriously making up lyrics, belting them out at the top of our lungs on the quiet stretches of Maine coastline.

Onward to Old Quarry Adventures at the southern tip of Deer Isle. With lobster boats coming and going and a nearby granite quarry, this place is a working part of the coast. But nestled among the back coves is this amazing little kayak outfitter that has a small campground with plenty of secluded spots perfect for bike campers. We hang out in this place for a couple days, taking day bike trips and eating good food, playing cards, reading, and catching sun on the granite slabs leading down to the water.

Days 4 and 5, Heading Home
From Old Quarry, we are just a few miles from historic Stonington, which is distinctive in two related ways: more pounds of lobster are brought into this port than any other port in Maine, and more cans of Red Bull are sold at the tiny general store than any other store in Maine. The lobstermen have some very early mornings (usually heading to their boats around 2 a.m.) and many prefer the Red Bull to coffee.

Rest day breakfast.

Fresh Maine blackberries
We spend a great afternoon here exploring the history of the place, fishing off the town pier, and eating ice cream. Stonington is a working port with some great restaurants, ice cream shops, small museums, and even a one-screen movie theater—perfect for a rest day.

Eventually, we head north again, back to the van patiently waiting at the car wash. We have a big last day—close to 35 miles with loaded bikes, over hilly ground. It’s a tall order for an 11-year-old, but Tasha is a rockstar and we don’t even hear a complaint. Jackson is a true gentleman and takes some of her weight. These are the moments that make you a proud parent. We think maybe the sense of adventure of the whole trip outweighs the physical difficulty of it. Either way, Tasha just keeps pedaling with a smile on her face.

Heading home on quiet back roads. 
Rolling past farms, blueberry fields, and granite outcroppings, our last day is a treat. The sun shines on us as we coast the last mile to the van. The Bicycle Hobos are heading home, and Bob Marley’s famous melody echoes through these Maine hills.

Bicycle Hobos, cruising down the ro-o-oad
We’ve got fishin poles and mandolins, a very heavy lo-o-oad.
Bicycle Hobos, riding through Ma-a-aine...
When we wake in the the morning, our rears are in pa-a-ain...

I said whoa oh oh, whoa oh oh oh
Whoa oh oh, oh oh oh oh oh

Bicycle Hobos, sometimes we take a wrong tu-ur-urn
It’s a very long detour, a hard lesson to lear-er-earn
Bicycle Hobos, on our bikes we carry bu-uh-ckets
When we get to the campground, we make quite a ru-uh-ckus

Bicycle Hobos, at night we eat pa-a-sta
When we wake up in the morning, we are singing like a ra-a-sta

I said whoa oh oh, whoa oh oh oh
Whoa oh oh, oh oh oh oh oh

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Ethan Hipple.

In our next post on May 19, 2015, we’ll go over the specifics of how to plan and execute a bike trip with kids. We'll cover gear, tools, food planning, tips to make it fun, where to go and more. Click here to read the next installment! 

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