Growing Up On a Bike: Bikepacking With Kids
Olivier decided it was time to take his two boys (Marius 10 and Gabin 11) on their first bikepacking trip through the Auvergne Volcanoes natural park in central France. Ultimately, he learned that the hardest step was the first. Here’s the story + Olivier’s tips for bikepacking with kids…
Hey boys, do you want to go bikepacking during the spring holiday? This is how it all started. All though in my mind I knew my kids were strong enough to go on a bikepacking trip, I needed a proof of concept. I had to find a route not too far from home, not too difficult, and with beautiful landscape. The north part of the GTMC (Grande Traversée du Massif Central) seemed to me to be the appropriate route for a first bikepacking adventure with kids.
“But daddy, what is bikepacking?” That was a good starting question. We had ridden our touring bikes through many countries since they were born. For my wife Anne and I it was the best way to continue our passion for outdoor activities. They first started travelling in tow-behind trailers through the Alps, in Norway and Scotland. Then, after getting their cycling “licence” they had the big responsibility of riding their own two-wheeled horse on easy bike networks in France and Europe (Danau, Canal du midi, La Loire, Lubéron…). In 2014 we were crazy enough to travel deep in Lapland on the 1000+ km Nordkapp. Then came time for the big family adventure in 2016: a six month bike tour around New Zealand’s South Island and Tasmania. On their own mountain bike they travelled more than 4400 km and 50000 m ascent. That was an amazing trip. It was more about living another way of life than cycling fast. Taking our time was just luxury.
During this big trip we learned a lot about kids’ capacity to travel under their own power. We saw how strong kids are when they have fun and when cycling makes sense. Coming back home, I understood it was time to take a step up. I knew they had the will and the skill to go on more challenging off-road bikepacking routes. We started on an easy route in my homeland.
Grande Traversée du Massif Central (GTMC) route, the northern section
In the spring of 2017, we headed to Volvic, a well known french water source, where the GTMC route starts. We started riding in the afternoon and stopped at the puzzle sculpture made out of volcanic stone by local artist Thierry Courtadon. From here we had a great view on the Puy Dôme and other well known volcanoes of La Chaîne des Puys range. It was a nice place to settle for the night… after only 5 km riding uphill from Volvic. That’s the thing about bikepacking with kids. There’s no set performance, no pre-established stage, no predefined campground. It’s just a matter of being out there in the “bush”, taking our time and having fun on our bikes. Each morning, when we woke up, the boys always asked, “where are we going today, where will we sleep, how many kilometers will we ride?” Each morning, the answer was the same, “We’re heading south!”
After seven days riding in a southern trajectory, we ended our trip in La Godivelle, on the high plateaux of Cézallier (1300 – 1500m). The snow was falling and covering the fields around our beautiful Buron* de la Loubeyre, where we decided to stay for three days. The bad weather and the warmth inside the buron was a good opportunity to settle down and remember our first bikepacking family adventure through writing and painting in our respective story books. *Buron are rustic mountain huts farmers used to make cheese during summer months.
The boys agreed that it was a great adventure! They loved the wild campgrounds and sleeping in the tent with their folks. They loved making a fire every morning and every night. They loved to scrape the ice off the tent in the cold mornings. They loved leaving a cloud of dust on the trails with their rear wheels. They loved the landscape, changing every day, from the volcanic “Chaîne des Puys” range to the high plateaux of Cézallier. They loved going downhill… and waiting for mum and dad! They loved carrying their own gear on their handlebar. They loved playing with their bikes at the campground… and they are never tired enough to stop riding! And most of all, they loved being off road. For sure, they enjoyed their first bikepacking adventure!
Each time we return home and talk about our biking adventures, people always say “wow, how lucky your are to share such adventure with your kids, I could never do it with mine!”. I always answer, “Just be brave enough to think you can do it. The hardest step is to get the first day started… and remember, the weakest link is you, not your child!”
Volvic – Laschamps: 32 km D+ 600 m
Laschamps – Orcival: 23 km D+ 550 m
Orcival – Chambon sur Lac: 25 km D+ 650 m
Chambon sur Lac – Besse: 14 km D+ 400 m
Besse – Brion: 25 km D+ 700 m
Brion – Signal du Luguet: 17 km D+ 500 m
Signal du Luguet – La Godivelle: 12 km D+ 200 m
Total distance: 160 km
Total ascent: 4000 m
5 tips for bikepacking with kids
1. Choose an easy route as a starter
With kids, you won’t be riding all day long. Not because they’re aren’t tough enough, but because kids need to settle in and play around. Some love fishing or riding around the campground, others love digging in the sand, climbing trees or just playing cards with mum and dad. Consider stages with a maximum 30 to 40 kilometers total distance and 600 to 700 m ascent. When riding with kids, carrying food for two to three days is a maximum. Also consider that a through route makes more sense to kids than turning around in a circle. And kids love taking public transport (big busses, trains or boats).
2. Give yourself enough time
Bikepacking with your kids is more about living a great family adventure than going fast and riding a long distance. So take your time! A two or three day route may be too short. You might be frustrated when finished. It takes one or two days to get started and find the good family rhythm. Usually, it’s on the third day each member of the family finds their place for collective and personal responsibilities. Five to ten days seems to be a good duration for a full bikepacking experience. Otherwise, if you have plenty of time, go for a one month adventure with your kids, you’ll never forget it!
3. Trails for kids
Kids are tough, agile and fearless, but they need to have a good mountain biking background before tackling a bikepacking route. Kids, like all of us, love going downhill, whether it’s singletrack or gravel, as long as they can go fast and leave a trail of dust… and beat you to the bottom!
Going uphill is another story! You need to explain more than once, how long the ascent will be, how steep it will be, and why do we need to go up there!
Kids usually get bored cycling up long, straight gravel roads. They tend to fancy going uphill on ever-changing semi-technical or narrow tracks, as long as it’s not too steep.
4. Wild Camping and fire
For kids, settling down at the campground is the best moment of the day. The wilder it is, the better they like. If you can make a fire, they will deal with it and find enough wood for the entire night. Don’t forget the saw, they love sawing dry wood. And don’t forget the marshmallows!
You also have to realize that kids love sleeping in a tent… with mum and dad. You’ll need a fairly large and lightweight family tent for the task.
5. Bikepacking gear for kids
If you want your kids to go through the entire route, you will have to be tough, very tough! Depending how strong they are, kids usually carry only their clothes and their sleeping bag. Stronger kids will be able to carry more gear and part of the family food. That helps!
Considering kids have small bicycle frames, the cheapest and more efficient bikepacking bag (13 litres) will be set up on the handlebar using a roll or harness. For stronger kids you can add a small seat pack or a back rack with small front panniers.
About Olivier Latouille
Olivier loves cycling of all types including mountain biking technical hiking trails in the Alps, commuting to work on a fast e-bike, and carving the downhill singletracks of the Chartreuse where he lives. But his favorite types of adventures involve his wife and kids, on tough routes, looking for big spaces and remote landscapes… all the while taking pictures to show the adventure from the inside. Follow Olivier and his family at his blog tibouditinerances.jimdo.com.