Bikepacking with Tout Terrain and a Toddler
Every few minutes, I’d look over my shoulder between pedal rotations and see my two-year-old daughter in her bright green Singletrailer behind me. Some moments she was staring right back at me, likely wondering why the sky is blue or why she had to wear a helmet. Other times I would look back to find her rosy cheeks and lips covered in chocolate from the bar I handed her an hour earlier, and she had just finished. The latter gave me pause, since I wasn’t prepared to hang her Singletrailer with our food bag, I prayed we had enough wipes to clean the chocolate off her trailer seat as to not attract grizzly bears. And then there were the moments I looked back to observe her snoozing the day away. So I’d pedal the Outback just a little bit harder just so we could have extra time playing in the Montana creeks and the desert sand of the Great Basin in Wyoming. For 58 straight days, we rode our Tout Terrain's off the beaten path and parented at the same time over the course of 2,700 miles (almost 4400km) on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR). While every child is different, we compiled a short list of ten of the many, many things that we learned about parenting Ellie during our trip.
1. Let her help!
Incorporate toddlers into helping with day to day responsibilities. Ellie was fully capable of helping pump bike the tires on our Outbacks or the Singletrailer, blowing up a sleeping pad, and collecting water from a stream. Sure, those things took significantly longer when she was helping, but our hope is that a few years down the road, she’ll become more efficient and her willingness to be helpful will become a natural part of her life- both on route and at home.
2. Toys are overrated, but bubbles are not!
Our ultralight set up didn’t include toys, but a small bottle of bubbles? Heck yeah! Bubbles provided endless entertainment for our young 2 year old, and it allowed us to sit and relax on breaks and blow the bubbles while she was actively chasing them around and trying to pop them before a cactus could! We stuck a bottle of bubbles in the pocket of her Singletrailer and took them out nearly every break. They were easy to find in resupply towns as well.
3. Bikepacking is extremely entertaining for a toddler
While we enjozed descending the mountain passes on our Outbacks, the fast pace was an obvious thrill for Ellie in her Singletrailer. Her face was giddy with excitement as the wind blew her wispy hair across her face. And if it wasn’t fast enough, she’d yell “Faster, daddy, faster!” The grind of going uphill wasn’t nearly as exciting for our little adrenaline junkie, but it provided quiet moments for her to ask hundreds of questions and talk about where we were, what we were seeing, and answer all kinds of other miscellaneous questions that only a toddler could come up with.
4. Encourage her to be social
Social time for Ellie was just as important while travelling as it was at home. We began to allow her to build her own relationships with other riders. We met a dear friend, Mr. John, on route. Ellie had a different bond with Mr. John that we did. He would ride beside her and talk with her or make silly faces. She grew sad when we didn’t seen him for a couple of days, then smiled ear to ear when he was back. His goodwill towards her was shown in the ultimate way when he rode 3 consecutive 100 mile days just to catch up to us and give Ellie a gift he bought her in town. At 60+ years old, our jaws dropped at his unconditional kindness towards her. 10 months later, she still talks about Mr. John.
5. Meltdowns happen
They might happen less frequently, but they were definitely more dramatic. While Ellie was certainly a happier and healthier child spending her days 24/7 outdoors, the tantrums and meltdowns were still there. In fact, they were the worst meltdowns we have ever experienced. Maybe it would have been the same meltdown if we were at home. We will never know! But when the coyotes start howling as a response to a screaming toddler in the tent after dark, you know it’s momentous. Thankfully in this case, we were stealth camping solo (our preferred way to camp) so we did not wake up the neighbours.
6. Just because you are uncomfortable doesn't mean she is
We learned that the things that make us uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily make Ellie uncomfortable. Let’s take rain for example. We were fairly miserable riding in the rain. As soon as our clothes and shoes dried out from the dry hot sun and the mud which had been splattered all over our backs began to flake off, there would be another 30 minute storm only to fully soak us once again. For Ellie, this was spectacular! She caught at least a dozen rain drops with her tongue and screamed with joy every time. Our poor attempt to be enthusiastic with her about the rain must have been good enough, because she still delights in rainy days.
7. It’s okay to compromise for the sake of everyone’s well-being
Bribery came into play (maybe a little too much) on days we pushed ourselves pretty hard. We’d commit to things like getting Ellie donuts when we got to town if we could keep riding just 10 more miles. It worked almost every time! Then on more than a dozen occasions we were so tired while waiting for food at a restaurant, we would just hand over one of our phones to keep from chasing Ellie around the restaurant and get half an hour rest. Again, it worked! But it was certainly a compromise from how we typically like to parent Ellie on a normal day at home.
8. Overcoming adversity together is both challenging and rewarding
Our countless hours spent together as a family has created a very secure relationship between the three of us. Some of our most beautiful and most ugly moments in life came while bikepacking. At one point I literally threw my Outback to the ground in a hopeless attempt to feel better about the rocky terrain that had me pushing my bike for ten painful miles. Meanwhile, Derrick’s looking at his phone and I assume he’s looking for an alternate route. Instead, he informs me he found a plane ticket in the next town for me to go home. A few choice words and a lot of apologies later, we worked it all out and were snuggled under the star filled Colorado skies the very same night. Thankfully, Ellie hasn’t repeated any of those words!
9. There are no fixed schedules while bikepacking
A scheduled child isn’t necessarily the best for a family who values this kind of travel. In between our long distance trips (when we were at home) we had tried to put Ellie on a routine in order to create the “happiest toddler on the block”. Why did we even waste our time?! Scheduled children need specific conditions. We can’t possibly create perfect sleeping conditions while traveling. Naps were spent slumped over in the Singletrailer and every single night was spent in a new place with all kinds of different levels of lights and sounds. Bedtime was sometimes 7:30, and sometimes 10:30. Sure, it affected her mood occasionally, but the benefits of our lifestyle most certainly outweigh the drawbacks.
10. Time in nature teaches resilience and perseverance
This is something that can only be learned through experiences and examples. These two topics, resilience and perseverance, are some of the most important traits we want to instill in Ellie’s life. It’s what keeps us striving for goals, keeps us dreaming, confident, and keeps us true to ourselves and others. Pushing our bodies to their limit is one way to create that grit that’s so easily lost in our children. Ellie may never grow up to enjoy spending 2-6 months immersed outdoors, but no matter what path she chooses, she can always benefit from learning perseverance and resilience.
The GDMBR was one of the best choices we’ve made as an adventuring family with a toddler. It was the perfect combination of grit and endurance for Derrick and I with ample opportunities for education, play, and plenty of leisurely downhill riding for Ellie (and us, too)! Seeing Ellie’s joyful contentment in the Singletrailer each and every day confirmed our decision that an extended bike trip during the toddler years is a fantastic option for continuing exploration through every stage of childhood. Our little 2 year old adrenaline junkie thrived in the fast paced lifestyle of covering 50-100 miles of riding each day, with plenty of time to draw in the sand or have a dance party in a stream. Toddler life is still so new for us. Their little opinions matter greatly, but they’re still so dependent. Through continuing an adventurous lifestyle as a family, we are creating a beautiful bond with our daughter where memories are abundant and our parent/child relationship is nourished. Riding a bike is just the vehicle for it all!