Bike camping with kids

Last July I posted on my other blog, Car Free with Kids, about bike camping with our children (now 7 and 12). This past long weekend we decided it was time to do it again.

The distances are not huge (we did about 60km roundtrip over the weekend) and the destinations are not mind blowing (the Ottawa Municipal Campground and Stittsville), but there is something hugely satisfying about getting four people and the stuff needed for camping to a campsite by bicycle. It’s that having-to-work-for-your-fun, for which I am a glutton. Well, it’s more than that, as we truly love cycling, but you get the idea.

This year our now 12-year old decided that he wanted to haul the trailer in both directions (last year he proudly brought it home, my husband having pulled it to the campsite), which he did handily. My husband pulled me out of the lead twice, reminding me that I was setting too fast a pace that our very motivated son would try to match. Oops.

A quick recap on our approach to packing for camping on bikes:

– we packed up an old biking trailer (intended to pull one or two small children) with most of the heavy gear, including tent, thermarests, sleeping bags, small water jug, cooking pots, and food items

– we packed our personal items (essentially a change of clothes, pjs, toothbrush, flashlights, a book or two and some small cars for our youngest to play with) in four panniers, with a few overflow items (sunscreen, water to drink on the way, etc.) going into a much smaller fifth pannier that my older son carries

The ride out to the Ottawa Municipal Campground from where we live is only around an hour, but it was hot and we were lugging things, so it tends to feel a bit longer. My panniers are on the front of my bike as the rear tandem attachment on which my younger son rides won’t accommodate panniers. The steering, when I’m packed that heavily, gets pretty wonky and it all just takes more effort. We crossed the first large intersection near our home only to meet up with a motorist who thought he’d cut across our right-of-way (we were going straight across on a green light, he was supposed to be waiting to turn left across traffic). When I gave him a funny look he shouted out “Hey, I’ve got a green light lady!” Um, you have a green light? A green light just for sweet, innocent old you? And never mind the rules of the road? Oh, pardon me.

Sheesh. Our children have become very used to witnessing the puerile transgressions of adults as we get about on bikes. It never fails. Anyway, we moved on, quickly.

May I say again, as I did last year, what a monster hill faces anyone cycling to the Ottawa Municipal Campground at the end of the ride? It’s gigantic. A breeze in a car or an RV (and frankly, these are the vehicles that tend to frequent this campground, as it’s essentially an affordable form of accommodation for people visiting Ottawa), but on a bike, especially a fully loaded one pulling gear, it’s a trial. Oh, and did I mention how hot and muggy it was? We walked most of it, but our 12-year old son insisted on riding the last bit so that he could truly say that he arrived on his wheels.

Once there, we made our way down to our campsite at the far end of the campground (ie furthest away from the noisy highway) and got busy setting up camp. Our 12-year old quickly ditched the gear in the trailer so that he could make the run up to the camp store for wood, which is probably his favourite part of the whole trip. Just as we finished putting up the tent the skies opened up and we scrambled to put up a makeshift tarp over our cooking/eating area (having jettisoned our large tarp at the last minute!). Suppertime was a bit of a soggy affair, but that rainshower was the only precipitation called for over the weekend and we knew we were in for “hot and sunny” for the rest of the time.

Last year we just stayed for one night, but this year with a long weekend we opted to stay for two. There isn’t really enough to do at this campground for two to three days unless you really do just want to hang out by the climbing structures, play in the splash pad and stretch out the campfire thing for as long as possible (there isn’t a lake or river, no incredible walking trails, etc.). If we were going to stay for two nights, we knew our middle day was going to be spent cycling further. We decided to finally explore some of the Ottawa Carleton Trailway (a relatively flat former railbed that runs between western Ottawa and Carleton Place) and made Stittsville our destination.

It was hot and the ride out felt longer than it really was (we all kept commenting on how short the ride back to the campsite felt), but it was a real eye opener. We loved the cooler ride in the woods between the campground and where the bike path joins up with the Trailway in Bells Corners and spent ages looking at a tree that was completely festooned with tent caterpillars and their webs. The Trailway itself was much hotter being out in the open under the glare of the sun (and we were riding at midday, very cleverly). We stopped for water breaks frequently and just shy of Stittsville we parked under some trees and read a chapter of our current family book together. It’s the little things like that which really make these kinds of outings fun.

Once in Stittsville we searched for somewhere to eat on a Sunday and pulled up outside a wonderful greasy spoon and quickly parked our bikes. Hot and hungry, we sank gratefully into a booth and proceeded to wolf down a late lunch in the form of an all-day breakfast. So good! And we ordered seconds!

While we sat there, we lamented the loss of the railway that used to run between Carleton Place and Ottawa that we’d used to get to Stittsville (which is now really just an extension of Kanata, which is weird). While it’s wonderful that we have this neat bike path that connects us with these more rural spots outside of Ottawa, it’s so crazy that the railway is gone. We need sustainable transport methods now more than ever, and we deep-sixed them long ago. It would be impossible to reclaim this pathway for rail track now; the owners of the hundreds of homes that back onto the Trailway would object loudly and it would never happen.

All of this got us talking about the fact that when you don’t have cars in the picture, when you are using your own steam (whether that’s walking, cycling or even catching public transport), you think much more carefully about what you can do and how far you will go.  Getting to Stittsville by car is laughably easy; on your bike on a hot day from Ottawa with kids in tow, it’s a real outing. It’s commonplace for families to drive out to all sorts of destinations on the weekends and we used to do the same, but it’s harder for us to do that when we think about the impact it has. And I’m not advocating that everyone suddenly stay home…just that we think a bit more about where we’re going and how we get there.

Shouting at our government to bring back trains would be a good  idea too. An entire era of going to the beach or other rural destinations by train or tram died many decades ago, and we lost a lot of our sense of community when that happened. We’re now cocooned in our cars, prone to entertaining our kids electronically and missing out on what’s just outside our windows.

Ranting aside, there is a lot to recommend the kind of weekend that we just enjoyed. It was cheap and simple to do, and everyone pitched in to make it happen. The weather was fine and we loved the time hanging out together, totally unplugged. We arrived home, much as we did last year, feeling good about what we’d accomplished and with some nice memories. Once again the camera didn’t come along due to space and weight restrictions, but we took a few shots of our gear just before setting off which I’ll try to post later.

And a postscript: our older son, who did an even longer bike camping trip with his Scout group the previous weekend (from Fitzroy Harbour Provincial Park west of Ottawa), and who lives for the outdoor life, decided not to go for three-in-a-row and camp with his Scout group this weekend. Even though they are driving this time, I think he’s feeling a bit pooped after two consecutive bike camping weekends!

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