Sleep In The Dirt

Family Bikepacking Through the Baja

Essays From the Field

Dan Clark and family continue to prove why they were named the Most Adventurous Family in the US. They’ve spent more time on their bikes over the last years than some people will in a lifetime. Follow their journey and read their stories at simplypropelled.com

Lessons from the Track Less Travelled

The Baja Divide was filled with surprises, and riding this route as a family was an intense and memorable experience. In total we rode 1,200 miles of dirt tracks through wild, vacant desert. Over our two months in Mexico, we learned much about the Baja, riding in rough terrain, camping in the desert and even ourselves.

Baja California
The Baja is incredibly varied and includes a wide range of landscapes, including wild coastlines, bustling towns, cactus-filled valleys, rocky peaks, and palm-lined oases. The Baja Divide route traverses back and forth between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, sampling the best of the peninsula.

The Baja is also a safe place to travel. Despite warnings from family and friends at home, we found the people of the Baja to be friendly, helpful and generous. We felt safe in the towns we visited, and routinely experienced wide smiles and generous people. On the desert tracks, drivers often stopped to ensure we had enough water and food. More than once, a truck would pull to the roadside and the driver emerge with fresh fruit for us. These moments were some of the most memorable of the trip.

Riding in Rough Terrain
The Baja Divide is the hardest cycling adventure we have attempted as a family. Much of the riding is on rough tracks scattered with rock and sand. In these challenging conditions we learned how to set up our bikes for success and a few tricks to make it through safely. Minimizing the weight on the front forks and above our rear racks was crucial for good handling, so our heaviest items went in our frame bags and panniers. We also learned to manipulate the air pressure in our plus-sized tires to match the terrain. In soft sand we would drop the pressure to 10 PSI to improve our floatation. In hard-packed terrain we would air up our tires to 18 PSI for faster rolling and to protect our rims from rocks. On rough downhills, we learned to stay off the front brakes when things got gnarly to maintain steering control. And when the going got really tough, we learned to get off our bikes and push. Our willingness to get off the bikes slowed our progress, but minimized crashes and equipment damage.

Desert Camping
In the Baja, we camped in the wilderness between towns, enjoying intensely dark, star-filled skies. The stars are amazing, because the Baja has little light pollution and few airplanes flying overhead. We camped on the beach, high in the mountains beneath pine forests, and nestled between the most inhospitable of cactus. Each of these camps was without water, so we needed to carry four quarts of water for cooking dinner and breakfast. We discovered that refried beans were a great addition to Ichiban noodles and this quickly became our favorite meal. Without surface water to wash the dirt off each day, we opted for wet-wipes to clean up in the tent each night. Last but not least, we appreciated having a tent to cut the cold breezes and keep everything contained in one space. Our Copper Spur HV UL4 continues to be our home away from home.

Conservative Decision Making
In the Baja, we learned as much about ourselves as we did about our surroundings. Attempting to ride this difficult route as a family pushed our boundaries and gave us more than a few opportunities to question our motives. When conditions were particularly challenging – the tracks too rough or the temperature too hot – a few compromises were required. We left the published route on occasion to deal with rain, sand and heat. We also got to a point where the heat was too intense and that is when we decided to stop riding.

While we would have loved to have completed the entire route from San Francisco to San Jose del Cabo, it was important to recognize when the challenge was too great and stop before something serious happened. Riding the Baja Divide was our goal, but along the way we realized there was much to experience off the bikes as well. Therefore, to wrap up our time in Mexico, we did what most other families were doing on the Easter weekend. We drove to the beach, rented an umbrella and chairs, and went surfing. It was a great finale to a tough ride!

Five Family Bikepacking Strategies

Parents who are considering a family bikepacking adventure have a lot to consider – there is a lot at stake! We want our kids to be safe, happy, and inspired for further family trips. And we want to have fun along the way too. Here are five strategies to get your entire family out on their first bike camping adventures.

1. Flexible Towing Configurations
Young kids love biking! Make it fun by allowing them to pedal at times that are scenic and safe. Tow them when they have had enough on their own.

Ages 1-4: These kids benefit from riding in a child trailer much of the time, but you may be able to pull a run bike out of the back of the trailer for some independent riding or fun in camp.

Ages 4-6: These kids can help pedal on a trailer bike and experience the excitement of riding with mom or dad. Some trailer bikes even come with a backrest and seatbelt to make sure that a snoozing child doesn’t fall off.

Ages 6-9: These kids love their independence and will want to ride on their own. The ticket at this age is the FollowMe Tandem attachment. This device provides a solid way to attach a 16- to 20-inch tire kids bike to most adult bikes.

Ages 8+: Older kids are able to handle their bikes more confidently but may lack the endurance for significant distances. The secret for this age range is the Bicyclebungee. This bungee attachment requires kids to maintain control of their bikes by steering and braking, with the huge benefit of a pull from mom or dad. It is easy to clip and unclip the hook onto the child’s handlebar so they can ride independently whenever they want.

2. Get off the Main Roads
Traffic on busy roads makes family cycling unenjoyable at best and dangerous at worst.
Fortunately, there is a host of gravel backroads, repurposed rail trails, and easy mountain bike routes in many areas that are waiting for family exploration. With some imagination, it is relatively easy in many areas to put together a weekend loop that will be fun for the whole family. Consider shorter distances when you are riding away from main roads so that you have time to explore the surrounding landscape.

Cycling sans-pavement is easier with wider tires, so consider more of a mountain bike than a road bike. Bikes like the Salsa Fargo provide the best of both worlds – drop bars for all-day comfort with plus-sized tires that will take you anywhere with floatation and cushioning.

3. Pack Light
It is challenging to strike off into the unknown without a carload of supplies and gear. It has been famously said that we pack our insecurities. Fortunately, most high-quality modern outdoor equipment is light and packable. Some of the greatest savings in weight and bulk can be found in that pile of camping gear. Consider new tents, sleeping bags and pads to lighten your load.

Our Big Agnes Copper Spur 4 tent provides ample space for our family of four but packs into a tiny stuff sack. The fabric is paper-thin, but our tent survived eight months of camping in South America and is still going strong. Similarly, modern down sleeping bags and inflatable pads are small when packed yet provide big comfort. Sleeping on 4-inch Big Agnes Q-Core pads has spoiled us forever!

4. Throw it in a Trailer
Go anywhere with a family and you will know that there is a lot of stuff to pack! It isn’t reasonable to get it all on the bike. Therefore, consider a B.O.B. trailer to throw all your gear in, or a child trailer that can serve dual purposes as child carrier and gear storage.

Adding a trailer into the mix does make towing a kid’s bike a bit more challenging, but with a bit of creativity anything is possible. In the above illustration you will notice that we are planning to tow the trailer behind both adult bikes plus behind our youngest when she is connected using the FollowMe tandem attachment. This long train is a bit more challenging to control, but with practice (and careful loading) anything is possible.

5. Start Small But Dream Big
First trips can be laps around the block, or forays into nearby parks where your camp is within sight of your front door. Kids love most adventures you throw at them as they are adaptable by nature. Consider building up distance, duration and challenge slowly so that everyone in the family has an opportunity to get familiar with the riding and the camping. But don’t limit your aspirations to local trips only. Know that there are families that go on distant multi-day trips with great success. The hardest thing is to get out the door!

Comments (2)

2 responses to “Family Bikepacking Through the Baja

  1. Wow, amazing trip! I’ve spent several months in Baja, from north to south, and always see new areas/sites that are interesting. I never had kids, but absolutely think that exposure to various places is necessary to become a rounded person. I’ve seen European and a very few American parents taking their children to exotic locations from Indonesia to northern China, and Nepal/India to Vietnam, and every one of these groups had nothing terrible to report. As for Big Agnes, my wife and I always carry a small light tent (currently a Fly Creek) wherever we travel, and we’ve used it a number of times in out of the way places. It seems that most folks from the U.S., where I’m from, never even consider this type of adventure. My advice: do it.

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