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Bikepacking with Toddlers

07 December 2021

Words: Mark Megaughin
Photos: Mark, Steve, Neil, Sylvia and Julian
Smiles: Oliver, Joseph, Jasper and Finlay

Smiles per Hour, not Miles per Hour

A few like-minded friends and I had an inkling that the early years presented a unique window of opportunity for bike-based fun with our kids - a chance to get out and explore some cool places, teach our kids new skills, and take family bonding up a notch or two. Our suspicion was that we could build on our kids' growing eagerness for adventure and give them an opportunity to stretch what they thought they could achieve, safe in the knowledge that if it turned to custard the little humans and their bikes were still sufficiently compact to be scooped up and carried to their destination. And if all else failed, there is very little that jet plane lollies can’t fix.

So, focused on smiles per hour, not miles per hour, we put this idea to the test - having a whale of a time along the way. And with a new summer fast approaching what better way to up the stoke for more riding than by looking back at some past successes.

Into the Unknown – Rod Donald Hut

Our first ever overnight trip was a 12-inch balance bike adventure to the Banks Peninsula. Starting from Port Levy Saddle, we struck out east along the Te Ara Pātaka Walkway towards Rod Donald Hut, under a magnificent Norwest sky. The adults left their bikes at home for this first foray into toddler-touring, making it easier to carry the gear and allowing us to be close at hand to provide re-balancing for the little ones.

We choose the trip for its short and smooth 4WD track, cosy hut and super-easy bailout option (the hut is actually right next to the road). The kids did a great job of scooting along the flats and were happy to be carried or towed up the short climb. After refuelling at the high-point we descended to the hut, initially on 4WD track and then on steeper single track. The kids approach to the downhill was terrifying, err - exhilarating.

I was convinced the last downhill through the bush would prove too much, but the kids were keen to hit the steeps and so we rigged up a bungee with spare inner tubes and kept the ride rolling.

The afternoon was spent at the hut exploring, hunting treasure, playing games and smashing back marshmallows. The kids loved the hut experience. The next morning, we retraced our steps. The steep climb out from the hut meant we had to carry our bags, kids and bikes which was tough, but mercifully short. The descent back to the car was all-time!

An Urban Weekender - Spencer Park

Bike adventures with kids are great, but big drives to get to them can suck. What could be better then, than a bike adventure that starts right from the front door? This time the kids had progressed onto 14-inch pedal bikes and the adults were on their bikes - sharing the load between a commuter-pulled Chariot and a cargo bike. Our destination - Spencer Park Camp Ground on the north side of Christchurch.

We hooked into Christchurch’s ever improving cycle network, crossing town to the start of Te Ara Ōtākaro Avon River track. The track follows the river, winding its way through the earthquake-ravaged red zone to the coast at New Brighton. Nature is doing what it can to slowly reclaim the former residential streets, and with cars excluded it is a pleasant place for kids to focus on their riding. The track switches between the former streets and purpose-built track along the stop banks giving good variety of terrain and care-free riding for the kids.

From New Brighton we headed north to the start of the Pegasus Coastal Track with stops for playparks and ice creams enroute. The coastal track is beautiful and gives great glimpses of the beach and pounding surf as it heads up the coast to Spencer Park.

Spencer Park is a superb destination which will not leave you wanting. The campsite is spacious with all the facilities you could need: there’s a giant air pillow, playgrounds, mountain bike tracks, mini-golf, wildlife park, beach and more ice-cream. The air pillow was an easy winner!

On the return trip the next day the kids were keen to tick off a loop of the Bottle Lake Forest mountain bike tracks (novel with a Chariot in tow and a cargo bike!) and hit Waimairi Beach for a swim. We headed home with two very worn-out kids.

Riding Towards the Light - Kahurangi Lighthouse

We briefly considered bringing the boys’ bikes on this one but I’m glad we didn’t – the sand was a little too soft and the lack of variation in scenery would have been unlikely to keep them entertained. Instead, we adopted a Chariot for mini-adventurer No. 1 and a cross-bar seat for No. 2 allowing them to kick back and enjoy the ride. With the kids taken care of, the adults could settle in and enjoy one of the most unforgettable bike rides around.

Starting with a straightforward crossing of the Anatori River the track then climbs with intent over a couple of modest hills before dropping back to the coast and crossing the Turimawiwi River. From here we skirted around huge sand dunes to access the beach which we then followed south-west for the next 12 km.

Along the way there were a few more river crossings which, like the first two, need to be treated with respect and which require careful planning around low tide times. The river crossings required the ferrying of bikes, kids and gear in multiple crossings - just like that puzzle with the fox, the hen and the corn - except this time with kids, equipment and the lolly bag.

The kids had a great time, with regular stops to play on the dunes and the beach and to get involved in the river crossings. Being carried across the multitude of rivers provided plenty of entertainment.

Big River is the last, and largest, river crossing after which the beach is broken by a series of rock benches which aren’t really feasible to ride with kids onboard. The kids loved clambering up and down the rock features whilst the adults had fun trying to pick a bikeable route through the terrain. Before we knew it, we were all back on the bikes for the last short section of beach before the hut. It took us 4 hours to ride down the coast at a relaxed pace.

The DOC hut here is something special, having been the lighthouse keeper’s cottage before it was taken on by DOC. There is lots of space to spread out, although the hut can get busy in the holidays. There is a good deal of exploring to be done in and around the hut, and a trip to the nearby lighthouse is do-able with kids, albeit the track is not well marked.

The trip is an 'in and out', so we headed home the way we came in, adjusting for the shift in tide times.

Fun in the Hakatere - Stour River

Friends had scoped out the lower half of the Stour River in the Hakatere a year prior and gave it a big thumbs-up, so we returned with wagon wheels (16-inches) to give an extended loop a try. We started on the south shore of Lake Heron from which it’s a 140 m or so climb up 4WD tracks and smooth single track to a gravel fan next to Double Hut.

From the gravel fan we turned south, in search of a camping spot at Manuka Lake. The track traverses a couple of gravel fans which have just enough gradient to raise the moan-factor above acceptable limits and require adult-intervention. Throw in a couple of incised rivers over which we had to portage the gear and kids, and the emergency jet planes had to be dispensed to keep things rolling.

We arrived at Manuka Lake to find it completely dry, and there was a cold easterly wind threatening to blow away what smiles were left. We moved on and camped in a sheltered side-valley next to Manuka Hut, less than a kilometre away. Camp activities included some pro-level games of Uno and extended sessions in a toddler-sized swimming hole next to the hut.

We had a chilly night in the tents, but the morning quickly warmed the valley once the sun appeared from behind the hills. After a lazy start we followed a considerably easier (and almost entirely downhill) track towards Barrosa Station, stopping regularly for food, more swimming in the Stour River, and a trip to a waterfall in a tiny patch of remnant bush.

The Big One - The Timber Trail

Just before the start of school life we took off to the North Island to tackle the Timber Trail, a 2-day, 84 km ride through the Pureora Forest Park which contains stunning bush, blue mushrooms, some enormous suspension bridges and rocks that float. The ride profile has a steady climb in the morning of day one, with the rest of the day being downhill enroute to the evening accommodation. Day two is undulating, but again with a general downhill theme.

84 km is a big distance for a 5-year-old but given our previous successes we reckoned we could pull it off with smiles to spare. The real enabler on this ride was the shuttle which would take all our overnight gear to Timber Trail Lodge, our accommodation on the track.

Equipped with light day packs and a small amount of trepidation we hit the trail early in the morning. The first few kilometres wind gently through flat forest and this was a joy for us all to ride.

The track then pitches up more steeply to the high point of 971 m and the boy was happy to spend the rest of the morning sitting on my bike chatting merrily as we moved back and forth through the pack of riders on the trail that day.

After a well-earned sandwich at the high point, we jumped on our bikes and the boy led the way down to the lodge. It was a delight watching him take the track in his stride, tackling the corners and steep slick sections, and negotiating around the riders we caught up. As the hill flattened out he jumped back on my bike for the last few kilometres to the lodge. We were certainly the slowest on the track that day, but not by much, and I recon we knocked the smile count out of the park.

The lodge is great for kids. Immediately upon arrival pizzas were served which perfectly filled the tired-child danger zone between 4 pm and dinner. We enjoyed some mid-point celebratory drinks and got stuck into the games corner. Some hot showers were followed by a tasty dinner and then bed. Breakfast the next morning was expansive, and we didn’t even need the fussy-eater-back-up-food we had stashed in our overnight bags. Perfect!

We left the lodge the next morning in some un-forecast drizzle. The uphills during the second day were steeper than we anticipated but we hit a rhythm whereby I would carry the boy to the top of a hill and he would jump off, ride down to the base of the next hill, then clamber back on with me. The tow rope also got a bit of use along the flats. The huge suspension bridges were a highlight, as were the tunnels. The day’s best moment was watching a 5-year old’s world being turned on its head by the mysterious floating rocks of Pureora Forest Park. A couple were pocketed for a future show and tell at school.

The boy’s patience ran out in the last half hour, perhaps due to our lack of foresight into him needing padded shorts for such a long ride. Despite the smile-less ending, remaining chipper for 82 out of 84 km was a solid win. I know I’ve thrown my toys out the pram for less.

Another Summer of Fun

Our riding over the past few years has given the kids a great sense of achievement and some great stories to tell in the playground. They have a growing sense of confidence in the backcountry which has been great to see, and most importantly they want more. So, with a new summer approaching, and giant 20-inch wheels (#20aintdead) to play on, here’s to uncovering some more great adventures.

Things we’ve learnt:

  • Make it super fun, and all about the kids. Start short (and fun), before progressing towards longer (and fun). To start with look for rides with bail-out options, just in case.
  • Be prepared. You need to be confident in your own skills so that you are able to deal with any issues that might arise.
  • Have lots of food stops. Keeping the little engines topped up with fuel minimises the risk of catastrophic failure later in the ride. 
  • Have at least one option for carrying your little human and their bike - energy dips and melt downs are a fact of life on these rides, and it’s useful to be able to cover a bit more distance when required. Our secret weapon is a hookabike which is invaluable for shouldering kids bikes up to about 16 inches in size. They are also great for adult-only hike-a-bikes. We have also used bike seats, Chariots, tow ropes, bike trailers, panniers and cargo bikes.
  • Don’t wait until the kids are tired to pull out the tow rope or offer a carry. Mix it up throughout the day to keep the stoke levels high.
  • Sun = fun. Cold = “This is the worst day of my life”. As an adult it’s amazing how warm you’ll keep riding uphill with two days of food, camping gear, entertainment, a child and a small bike on your back. But spare a though for your small, stationary kid whose only energy expenditure is the endless questioning about sheep and rocks and giraffes and fire engines and jet planes and the moon and toast and lionfish and house insurance and pterodactyls and… they can get cold quickly, even in a gentle breeze.
  • Splashing through river crossings may appear fun at the time (because it is) but cold feet half an hour later can derail a ride. Keep the little ones dry and have spare clothes on hand.
  • Ride with friends and siblings of similar ability. The comradery will be a regular source of extra smiles.
  • Riding is just part of the adventure. Fun activities along the way, and at the campsite, keeps things varied which distracts them from any tiredness and keep motivation levels high.