“I only know one way of finding out how far one can go and that is by setting out and getting
there.” (Henri Bergson)
It’s a shame to think of all the families that will doggedly set out on “vacations” this spring and summer in cars filled with bulging suitcases, comic books, spilled food, Dramamine pills, costly fuel, and headaches. After all , there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored — with greater freedom — from the seat of a bicycle … and you don’t need a lot of money or pedaling expertise to do it, either!
Last August, my husband Tom and I took our two sons, Ben (4 1/2) and Jon (2) — along with our miniature poodle, Rowdy — on a 12-day, 570-mile family biking vacation in southwestern Wisconsin. And the total cost of our family adventure was only $220!
We first decided to undertake the trip because … well, just because it seemed like a natural thing for our family to do (the cash savings influenced our choice, too, of course). After all, we love the outdoors (and had gone camping together several times), we already had two good ten-speeds (Tom’s custom Trek and my Raleigh Gran Prix), and my husband was familiar with the basic jobs involved in keeping a bike in shape (changing a tube, fixing a broken chain, and general tune-up techniques). However, despite such “natural resources,” we still had to tackle a lot of preparation before we actually hit the road.
Charting the Course
Our first step was to write to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to request county maps (the ones that indicate types of road surfaces) and to the Department of Tourism to get maps showing bicycle routes, points of interest, and possible campsites. Every state offers these, although the fees charged will vary.
To get topographical maps of some of the areas we planned to go through, we wrote to the Branch of Distribution, U.S. Geological Survey. [EDITOR’S NOTE. You’ll first need to ask for a free index of the state(s) you plan to visit so you can choose the appropriate quadrangles. Each map will cost $1.50 to $2.00. They cover only small areas, though, so the price could add up if you were to collect all you’d need for a long trip.]
Once we received our maps, we spent weeks poring over them to plan our route. Fortunately, Wisconsin encourages bike tripping; we were able to incorporate miles of bicycle trails into our course, including the Wisconsin Bikeway and the Sugar River and Elroy-Sparta Trails.
In order to make a complete loop from our front lawn in Rockford, Illinois to La Crosse, Wisconsin and back home again, we did have to use several regular (that is, automobile) roads as well. But we tried to stick to low-traffic, hard-surfaced secondary routes as much as possible. Dirt roads and interstates were out, even if it meant we’d have to pedal several extra miles to avoid them!
With our course plotted, we tried to figure out how far we thought we could travel in a day. We considered the roads and the terrain we’d be covering, how we’d feel, what the weather might be like, and what emergencies might come up. With all this in mind we calculated that we could average 48 miles a day — which, as it turned out, wasn’t far from what we actually were able to do. On the first day we got only 36, but as we became stronger we managed a daily average of 50, and on the last day we chalked up a whopping 86 miles!
Our bikes were our main pieces of equipment (of course), along with the boys’ “buggy,” which was actually a Cannondale Bugger II that we’d originally purchased (from the Cannondale Corporation) for hauling groceries. Then, to accommodate the gear we carried that wouldn’t fit in the “surrey,” we purchased a pair of lightweight panniers (or saddlebags) and a handlebar bag.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s very important to load panniers and a handlebar pack in such a way as to distribute the weight evenly. Before stowing your gear, pick up the bicycle by the top tube and determine where the center of gravity is. That spot should remain the same after the bags are packed. An unbalanced load can cause dangerous steering problems and unnecessary spills.]
We didn’t bother with any preparatory physical regimen because we both felt we were in pretty good shape: I’d been jogging 15 miles a week, and Tom had been cycling about 80. When we took a 25-mile practice run with loaded bikes, however, we were quite surprised! The added weight was hard on our leg muscles, and we finished the ride with sore fannies as well! At any rate, our real training took place after we’d begun the expedition. The first day was pretty rough, but by the third our derrieres had toughened and our legs felt strong again.
Even though no two days were alike, we did develop certain routines on the road. For example, we usually broke camp following a light breakfast, packed the gear, and then made sure we had plenty of fresh water before setting out. After we’d pedaled about two hours, a short snack break was in order.
Then, once we’d put another couple of hours of road behind us, it was lunch time. We always tried to stop in a park (or some other big open space) so the boys and Rowdy could get all their wiggles out, and Mom and Dad could stretch a bit. Our midday meals usually consisted of fresh fruit — if a local produce stand was available — rounded off with Wisconsin cheese and crackers.
After resting for about an hour and replenishing our water supply, we’d hit the road and try not to stop again till the time came to make camp in the late afternoon. (We did occasionally give in to temptation and pause for a cooling popsicle; after all, it was our vacation!)
Our usual practice was to pick up dinner and breakfast supplies immediately before arriving at our evening’s destination. This practice eliminated the need to pack expensive freeze-dried rations. The end-of-day meal typically consisted of a high-protein food: some sort of meat or chicken dish (usually bought in a can so we could warm it in its original container), followed, again, by plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. We usually heated our main dish over an open fire, but now and then we were able to borrow a cookstove from a neighborly camper.
Of course, we occasionally had a yen for a fancy restaurant meal (we allowed ourselves five!), and once we indulged in the comforts of an air conditioned hotel room with a bath. Generally, however, we were quite content to picnic and camp outdoors.
The Rough Spots
We were truly lucky that we didn’t encounter any more problems than we did. Other than a few queasy stomachs (easily handled with a little Pepto-Bismol, and a dose of Dramamine for poor Rowdy!) plus a few minor bike repairs (mostly consisting of fixing flat tires), the worst difficulties we faced were due to dogs and weather.
Of the two, charging canines were easier to deal with. Before we left home, Tom had installed an air horn on my handlebars and a can of deterrent spray on his. The noisemaker worked fine against doggy marauders until its “juice” (carbon dioxide) ran out. Then we had to depend upon the spray, which meant we were forced to let potential biters get pretty close before we could combat them. But as long as we stayed alert, dogs weren’t much of a problem. (Sometimes even a loud “No!” or “Go home!” was enough to dissuade them.)
Headwinds and storms were other matters altogether, though. When we encountered heavy gusts, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do except gear down and remind ourselves that we weren’t supposed to be in a hurry to get anywhere. Thunderstorms were more difficult to “tough it through,” and we always had to be prepared for sudden cloudbursts. One day we rode six hours in a steady rain, but even so, we managed to remain fairly comfortable. Tom wore a Gore-tex cycling jacket, and I had on a cape. We also secured bread bags over our shoes with rubber bands. (The one member of our family to get soaked was Rowdy, and that was only because he refused to stay under the children’s homemade two-headed poncho!)
All of our preparation proved to be pretty much useless in the face of one storm, however. It hit one night after we’d gone to bed rather early (exhausted from having “pumped” all day in 100°F weather). Suddenly, in the middle of the night, Tom and I were both awakened by some sixth sense. Tom instinctively moved to one end of the tent and I to the other. Within seconds we were struck by terrifying gusts of wind that threatened to tear our shelter to shreds. We saw one pole bend, and then another. Minutes seemed like hours … and all we could think to do was pray.
Finally the rains came, the gale subsided, and the tempest was over by morning. When we went outside to examine the damage, we saw how lucky we’d really been: A 20-foot limb had blown down and missed our tent by just inches! But — miraculously — all our belongings were intact. And how, you may wonder, did the boys handle the storm that kept their parents terrorized that night? Well, they slept through the whole thing!
“You Who Are on the Road Must Have a Code….”
We learned that a lot of potential emergencies can be avoided by following certain rules of the road, like making sure every rider is wearing a helmet; following regular traffic regulations (riding on the right side of the road, obeying stop signs, etc.); and never traveling at night unless absolutely necessary (and then only when wearing a good leg light and reflectors). Several “do before it’s too late” rules served us well, also. We learned, for example, to eat and drink before getting thirsty or hungry, to check the road map before getting lost, to fix the bicycles before they broke, and to find a campsite before sundown.
Above all, though, if our bikepacking excursion taught us anything, it taught us that — with enough preparation and the proper amount of adventurous spirit — our family can have an enjoyable and affordable vacation on wheels without ever getting into a car. And so can you … if you bike!
EDITOR’S NOTE: For further information about bicycle touring, contact Bikecentennial, a nonprofit, membership-oriented organization designed for trip bikers, or read Bicycle Touring Book by Tim and Glenda Wilhelm.
Here’s an itemized list of the “portable household” we took along on our trip. It might prove helpful to anyone else planning a similar jaunt.
1 pair of panniers
1 handlebar pack
headlight, belt beacon, leg light, helmets
plastic-bag liners (to keep luggage
2 tube repair kits and extra tubes
tire iron, boot, and gauge
chain-removing toot and extra chain links
spoke wrench and extra spokes
extra brake cable and gear cable
6″ crescent wrench
5″ wire cutters
cone wrenches and assorted allen wrenches
grease and oil
spare nuts and bolts
waterless hand cleaner
Swiss army knife
4 plastic bowls and spoons
big metal spoon collapsible frypan and water bag
salt and pepper
gorp, granola bars, and fruit leather
granola/milk mix soap
THE WARDROBE (per person)
2 pairs of shorts
2 short-sleeved shirts
1 pair of pants
1 long-sleeved shirt
3 sets of underwear
3 pairs of socks
1 pair of shoes
2 T-shirts (the boys’ sleepwear)
2 air mattresses
backpacker’s ground pad (halved for the boys)
4 toothbrushes, baking soda
soap and shampoo, comb
leash and 6′ rope
insect repellent and tanning lotion
playing cards and Frisbees
camera and film, maps and compass
Rand McNally’s Campground & Trailer Park Guide
cash and traveler’s checks