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Bikepacking with Kids: Interview with Bikepacking Guru Gunnar Fehlau

What could be better than sharing your love of bikepacking with your own children? And what is the best way to do that? A talk with Gunnar Fehlau.

Bikepacking as an adventurous cycling holiday with your kids? Absolutely! Don’t let doubts or concerns prevent you from going. We spoke with Gunnar Fehlau about what a bikepacking tour with kids would look like, and how every family member can find a way to have fun on this unique type of holiday. Gunnar caught the bikepacking fever way back in 2008, and since then has instituted the Grenzstein Trophy as well as the Candy B. Graveller, and hosted the inaugural Bikepacking Barcamp in 2019.  He has compiled his wealth of knowledge and experience in some books about cycling as a familiy and about Bikepacking. 

Gunnar, when was the first time you took your kids on a bikepacking tour?

Gunnar: With all the perspective I’ve gained, I can say that in retrospect I should have started earlier. I think this has to do with the fact that I had only personally discovered bikepacking 2008, and have only been going on overnighters since spring 2009. Around that time, my family was already spending nights camping in a tent or the treehouse in our garden. At festivals like Schlaflos im Sattel (Sleepless in the Saddle), sleeping outside and cycling already went hand-in-hand. Moritz (born 2003), Oskar (2001) and I (1973) undertook our first “three-man” overnighter in 2012, and in 2014 we brought along a friend of the boys for the first time. In 2018, Oskar and I went on our first major tour together: one week through the Sierra Nevadas in Spain.

Passing on the joy of cycling to your own kids is not always easy, but it is always paired with unforgettable experiences.

Passing on the joy of cycling to your own kids is not always easy, but it is always paired with unforgettable experiences. © Gunnar Fehlau

The objective when bikepacking with kids is different from when you are travelling alone or with friends: especially on your first tours together, short distances, deceleration and variety are the top priorities for little ones.

The objective when bikepacking with kids is different from when you are travelling alone or with friends: especially on your first tours together, short distances, deceleration and variety are the top priorities for little ones. © Gunnar Fehlau

Sleeping under the open sky: for advanced bikepacking adventurers, the next step up from sleeping in a tent.

Sleeping under the open sky: for advanced bikepacking adventurers, the next step up from sleeping in a tent. © Gunnar Fehlau

Kids also want to be on the road like their parents: light luggage such as a sleeping bag can be easily transported on their bikes.

Kids also want to be on the road like their parents: light luggage such as a sleeping bag can be easily transported on their bikes. © Gunnar Fehlau

Good preparation is everything: a delicious meal after the tour always revitalises.

Good preparation is everything: a delicious meal after the tour always revitalises. © Gunnar Fehlau

Waking up with the morning dew and listening to the sounds of the forest before peeling yourself out of your sleeping bag: priceless!

Waking up with the morning dew and listening to the sounds of the forest before peeling yourself out of your sleeping bag: priceless! © Gunnar Fehlau

At what age can kids start going on bikepacking tours?

Gunnar: In the past, humans were pretty nomadic before settling in certain places. As their descendants, we have inherited part of this nomadic spirit. To that end, kids and travel go together pretty well. In my view, it’s not really the kids but rather the parents - their beliefs, fears and inability to remain calm - that cause problems. You can start bikepacking with a off-road kids trailer as soon as your child has developed enough muscles to support themselves while sitting, when they can fit into the appropriate lounge seat. With some added provisions, I think you could bring a 9- or -10 month old on their first overnighter. It just won’t go as smoothly as marketing or Instagram posts would have you believe.

In what way?

Gunnar: An overnight trip or a micro-adventure shouldn’t stray too far out of your comfort zone. You can be sure of that as far as family overnighters are concerned, especially with the first child, when parents are inexperienced and haven’t built up a lot of confidence. These uneasy feelings can disrupt daily activities, and can have and adverse affect on kids during bikepacking trips. Power lies in peace, as one would say. In this respect, relaxing and slowing down are the order of the day. This is most important for parents. Trips should be fun and enjoyable, not a horror. Therefore, I would recommend riding to a nearby, reliable destination. Parents should pick a spot that’s as quiet and calm as possible, with a guarantee that they won’t have to deal with any unwanted surprises such as partying young people, active hunters or even a rotting wild boar carcass disturbing a good night’s sleep. You should help your youngest child keep their circadian rhythm intact as long as possible during the tour. Since unfamiliar surroundings and circumstances can disrupt a child’s sleeping patterns, it’s worth considering letting the child fall asleep next to their parents. However, evenings are short for parents, too. I remember our first bikepacking tour all together: how close the boys moved their sleeping mats to me, and how they snuggled right next to me when they were in their sleeping bags, even though I had wanted to sit by the fire for a while.

What tips do you have for bikepacking families?

Gunnar: In my experience, things get trickier when kids can bike on their own. While adults often value cycling for relaxation and recreational purposes, children use it often as a means of getting from one exciting place to the next. This is why riding for long stretches isn’t a good idea for overnight family trips. Stopping at a playground, a stream, an ice cream parlour, a soccer field, a barn, a meadow, for a picnic, at a tree stump, for a drink of water, for shelter... that sounds like a full day, but it can also amount to just ten kilometres. The expectations of experienced riders (aka the parents) when it comes to actual cycling should always remain in the back of their heads. Important tip: With the exception of the midsummer season, avoid water on the way to your destination, or else a small misstep can weigh down the entire tour with soggy clothes.

Once the enthusiasm is over, there are no limits to the adventures that can be had together.

Once the enthusiasm is over, there are no limits to the adventures that can be had together. © Gunnar Fehlau

With the right equipment and a wealth of experience behind you, nothing stands in the way of a joint bikepacking tour in winter.

With the right equipment and a wealth of experience behind you, nothing stands in the way of a joint bikepacking tour in winter. © Gunnar Fehlau

On the subject of equipment: what basic essentials does a family need for a bikepacking tour?

Gunnar: There is hardly any difference between big and small adventurers. You don’t need any special equipment for your first trip in good weather, although certain things makes touring easier, more comfortable and safer. Your kids’ bikes will naturally determine the pace and progress of the tour. Just because Dad is riding a full suspension bike doesn’t mean the tour has to go over hills and dales. As far as transporting equipment: be sensible, and let the little ones help share the load. For example, lightweight-yet-bulky items such as sleeping mats and sleeping bags are ideal for strapping onto a children’s bike. It looks like a lot, but it doesn’t really affect the kid’s ride. I still have my old saddle bags and mini frame bags from the era before huge bikepacking bags were a thing, which I have no problem hooking onto a kids MTB. The kids love riding with a setup that looks like Dad’s bike. The most important item for kids both big and small is a beloved stuffed animal or toy. Pull-up nappies also help make nights easier for parents and kids alike. In my opinion, a fully-equipped first aid kit along with an extra change of clothes for each child are absolute essentials.

What should you watch out for as far as bikes are concerned?

Gunnar: Bike-crazy parents should keep their kids’ bikes in good working condition as well as their own. A few days before beginning your tour, it makes sense to make sure the child’s size is compatible with their bike’s settings. People often forget to add tools and parts for kids bikes to their own sets of tools and spares. Such parts would include, for example, the appropriate tube sizes and brake cables, if the parents’ bikes already have hydraulic brakes.

What was your most embarrassing moment on a family bikepacking tour?

Gunnar: I don’t think I can (or want to) remember any of them! Ok, once I forgot to pack batteries for the headlamps. That was a rather short night for everyone. Another time I had miscalculated how cold it would be in the morning, so we were freezing on our way back to Göttingen.

What was the best hack you discovered for overnight family trips?

Gunnar: One evening the temperature dropped quite early on, and the boys were worried they would be cold when they went to bed. Luckily I had a bottle of beer that evening, which I usually don’t pack due to risk of breakage. I put two bottles close to the fire, wrapped them in a tube scarf when they were hot and dry, and put this makeshift “dry” hot water bottle into each boy’s sleeping bag. When the kids had accumulated enough warmth, they took the bottles out of their sleeping bags and slept soundly. I then treated myself to the last unopened and still cold bottle of beer by the fire.

What do you want to say to parents who don’t really want to risk going on an overnight excursion with their kids?

Gunnar: Bikepacking is a great way to overcome these kinds of fears, and a great opportunity for self-examination. Generally speaking, children are like this incredible mirror that reflect our own personalities. An overnighter is a great way to break out of your everyday routine together and experience new things as a family. Your kids will love it and gain valuable life experiences. You might learn something too, as you can use the time to discover new sides to your kids as well as yourself. So, pack everything up, hop on your bikes and go!