8 Steps to Planning a Family Bike Trip

A family bike trip can be a terrific way to reconnect with the people you love most. It requires some flexibility and a willingness to embrace the vulnerability that comes with traveling by bike, but if you can all agree to give it a try, you’re in for a memorable family vacation. Each trip begins with a plan. Here’s how to get there.
Credit: Sarah Hunter

1. Begin with Collaboration

The key to a successful family bike trip is that everyone wants to be on it, so it’s important to get everyone invested from the start by talking about what they want out of the trip. If they just want to dip their toes in the bike touring world, it might make sense to start with an overnight trip close to home. If they crave more adventure and want to travel for days at a time exploring a new area, the options are limitless. Spend time talking about what you all want. Paved roads or dirt paths? Camp or stay indoors? Cook your own food or dine out? Gather ideas from everyone. It all starts with a family brainstorming session.

2. Do Your Preliminary Research

Once you have a basic idea of what your family is looking for, you can go down the rabbit hole of researching trip ideas. There’s no need to recreate the wheel; There are lots of established bike routes out there. You might find one that’s perfect for you, but it’s more likely that you find one that you can use as a starting point, then finesse it to meet your needs. A few places to start: Bikeovernights.com, Adventure Cycling AssociationBikepacking.com, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. State bike advocacy groups, like the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, often have a wealth of information on bike routes, too.

This part of the process can be a bit overwhelming, but fear not. Your trip is out there waiting for you. Narrow it down to a few favorites and talk about them as a group. This is a bonus to bike trip planning—it offers an endless source of dinner conversation.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

3. Delve into the Details

Take the feedback from your dinner conversations to flesh out the details of your family’s favorite options. If possible, delegate some of this research to older children.

  • Map it out and determine the distance between lodging options and whether or not there are stores for resupplying along the way. (The Google Maps bike option, while not perfect, can be a helpful tool.)
  • Contact lodging options to be sure there’s a safe place to store your bikes at night.
  • Learn about the type of terrain you’ll encounter. (How much climbing is there each day? Will there be any busy roads? Do they have shoulders? If riding off-road, what is the surface/condition of the trail?)
  • Determine where you can safely leave your vehicle. (Town offices or Visitor Centers can often help with this.)
  • If you’re doing a point to point trip, determine how you will get back to your vehicle. Are there shuttle options? Can you leave your car at the finish, rent a car, and drop it off at the start of your journey?
  • If you’re headed to the backcountry, research water sources and permit requirements and begin working on a meal plan.

Bring what you’ve learned to the dinner table and talk it over. This may have to happen more than once. Some trip options will be vetoed during this process. Some will be tempting but will have a few too many obstacles. Eventually, one will feel like the right fit.

4. Seek out Local Knowledge

Once you’ve landed on your trip and you have your route, it’s good to get some local intel. This can be particularly helpful if you’ve gone rogue and created a route all on your own, but it’s good to do even if you’ve stuck pretty close to an established route. Cyclists love to boast about how great the cycling is in their area. Take advantage of that, and share your itinerary with a local bike shop, club, or bike advocacy organization. They can give you tips you won’t find anywhere else.

5. Include Zero or Nero Days

Consider adding some zero days (rest days with zero miles) or nero days (nearly zero miles) to your final itinerary. These trips are not about crushing the miles. They’re about being together, having fun, and embracing the joy of traveling by bike.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

6. Assess Your Skills

You don’t need to be a bike mechanic to embark on a bike trip, but it’s helpful to have a few skills under your belt. If you don’t already know how to fix a flat, invest some time to learn. You can find great tutorials on YouTube, but for hands-on learners, consider taking a basic bike maintenance class offered by a local bike shop or advocacy group. This can be fun to do together, but if there’s one member of your family who wants to own the role of bike mechanic, that’s great too.

7. Brush up on Training and the Rules of the Road

If your family isn’t already in the habit of riding regularly, start getting some miles in the saddle in the weeks leading up to your trip. This can be challenging if you’re planning a spring trip and the weather is still chilly, but it’s worth it. Ride as a group as much as possible, and be sure that everyone understands the rules of the road and basic hand commands. Communication is critical while biking together.

8. Help Build Enthusiasm with Gear!

Use every gift-giving opportunity leading up to your trip to properly outfit the family—and build excitement. Packing lists will vary depending on the trip, but you’ll need:

It can be a bit daunting to plan a family bike trip, but the details fall into place when you’re on the ride. And some of the details will fall apart. Your trip won’t go exactly as planned, but that’s part of the adventure. The success of a bike trip isn’t measured by how closely it follows your itinerary. It’s measured in laughter, good food, and memorable moments with the ones you love.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

10 Tips for Transitioning from Hut Trips to Winter Camping

Trekking through a beautiful winter landscape with the promise of a warm hut at the end of a long, cold day is an experience that keeps hut goers coming back year after year. But this winter, when huddling up around a blazing wood stove with friends and friendly strangers doesn’t conjure the same cozy thoughts as it once did, some adventurers are making the transition to camping. With a few adjustments to gear, planning, and expectations, you can trade your bunk for a sleeping pad under the stars this winter.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

1. Rethink your stove and fuel

If you’ve become accustomed to using a full hut kitchen with shiny stainless steel appliances, or you’ve been putting in your breakfast and lunch order with the cook before you tuck yourself into your bunk, winter camping may feel like a long fall from grace. To make matters worse, your beloved backpacking canister stove, which has nourished you on many an outdoor adventure, may need to stay behind. Many of these stoves utilize a combination of isobutane and propane, and these often won’t work when the temperature hovers around freezing, and they stand no chance of working at 10 degrees or less. Instead, you’ll need a camp stove that runs on white gas. If you’ve never used one, you’re in for an altogether different experience—one that might involve a few spontaneous creative combinations of curse words. Read the directions and practice before you go. It gets easier and less terrifying each time.

2. Get organized

Winter camping requires more gear than a hut trip, and that means more gear to organize. You may have a fanny pack filled with items you need easily accessible (map, compass, hand warmers, snacks), a backpack filled with items you need while traveling (layers, more food, thermos, headlamp, and a first aid kit), and a pulk sled with group gear, skis or snowshoes, sleep system, more clothes, stove, food, shovel, and emergency supplies. Make a list (or a drawing) of your bags and the items they contain. Study it. You can’t spend time searching for something when you need it. You may need to know how to locate any one item of gear at any given moment. 

Credit: Willow Sherwood

3. Dial in your sleep system

Your sleeping pad, bag, and bivy system work together to keep you warm. A sleeping pad with an R-value rating of 6 or more (or multiple pads to reach that rating—they are cumulative, so 3 pads with a 2 R-value will get you to 6), combined with a 0-degree sleeping bag is a good choice for New England winter camping. But the ratings on the pads and bags are usually designed to keep you alive at the established temperatures, not to keep you comfortable. Bring a winter liner, quilt or a wool blanket to provide additional warmth, and test your sleep system out before you go. If possible, pick a clear, cold night and set yourself up in your yard or in a front country campsite where you can hop in your car and drive home if necessary. 

Tip: Sleeping bags lose their insulating properties over time (even when stored properly: uncompressed), so if your bag is older, don’t assume it’s as warm as it once was. (Also, you might be older, and might require more warmth than you once did.)  

4. Dress like a child

Think A Christmas Story here. Big, bulky snow pants and a parka. The sleek layers that keep you surprisingly comfortable when you’re in motion won’t work once you’re in camp. Bring enough clothes to keep you warm while staying put. These extra clothes can be brought into your sleeping bag for added warmth in the night, too.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

5. Bring an ax and a bow saw

In general, trails that lead to huts are maintained throughout the winter and it’s usually fairly easy to get intel on the status of the hut trails. Winter camping is (strangely) not embraced by as many folks and so it’s entirely possible (likely, even) that you could be the first group heading out to your campsite or lean-to. Give yourself plenty of time to maneuver blow downs, and bring tools to help clear the trail in case you encounter something you can’t navigate. The saw will come in handy for building a fire, too (use dead and down wood only).

6. Get ready for things to take longer

If you pride yourself on your ultra-fast break-camp time on your hut trips, winter camping will be different. Unless you chose your trip-mates extremely well, you’re not likely to wake up to coffee brewing. Instead, expect to start your day by slowly inching your way out of your warm bag into the frigid air, wrestling cold boots onto your feet (even though you keep them in your bag, they’ll be stiff), and melting a lot of snow for water. 

Credit: Sarah Hunter

7. Allow at least one luxury item

Winter camping is tough. Some things make it less tough. A comfortable camp chair is an ingeniously simple and beautiful thing and it might just be your favorite thing after a day of hauling your pulk sled through miles of thick blowdowns.  If it’s light and it will help make you comfortable, bring it.

8. Remember your ABCs: Always Be Consuming (Calories)

You need energy to stave off the cold. Bring a variety of your favorite foods so you don’t get bored. Eat regularly, and plan to eat more than you usually do on a cozy hut trip.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

9. Keep an eye on the weather

Weather is a factor in every backcountry trip, in all seasons, but its importance is elevated on winter camping trips. Without four walls and a wood stove, you’re vulnerable to dangerously cold temperatures. Make plans, but watch the weather in the days leading up to your trip, including the extended forecast, as fronts can move faster than expected, and be flexible with your dates. Since most intrepid adventurers tend to be detailed planners, flexibility can be one of the toughest components to winter camping, but it’s key to the safety and success of your trip.

10. Leave your itinerary with friends or family

This is a good practice anytime you head into the backcountry, but it’s especially critical in winter. Mistakes, accidents, and the unexpected can happen on any trip, but the margin for error on a winter camping trip is substantially reduced. Make sure people know where to find you and when to expect you back. Don’t deviate from the route you share with others. The goal is always to go out on the next trip.

Camping in the winter is a truly spectacular adventure.  If you can gather the proper equipment, enlist a group of like-minded adventurers, and maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity, you’re in for a real treat.  It’s tougher than a hut trip, but with great effort, comes great reward.

My 16-year-old and His Friend Hiked Vermont’s Long Trail...By Themselves

As I watched my 16-year-old son and his friend walk into the woods at the Massachusetts/Vermont border to begin their northbound thru-hike to Canada—alone—I fought the urge to run up the trail with them. Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

Happily heading into the woods. | Credit: Sarah Hunter

The boys first approached us about this adventure a year earlier, after returning home from camp. They had spent ten days that summer backpacking a section of Vermont’s Long Trail, a 272-mile footpath through the Green Mountains, with six other friends and two counselors. It had been hot, their packs were heavy, and the mountains were steep, but they loved it. They wanted to return the following summer to hike the entire trail, by themselves.

Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

We knew they had the experience and training to do it. They had hiked and paddled hundreds of miles with their families and with each other for the past five summers at camp. They practiced Leave No Trace and impeccable trail etiquette, and both were certified in Wilderness First Aid. This adventure was well within their skill-set and it had all the makings of a true coming-of-age experience. We couldn’t let our fears hold them back. We said yes.

In the spring, they planned their route, including evacuation options and resupply stops. They developed a meal plan based on the calories, fat, and weight of each item. They made a packing list, assessed their gear, and determined what they had and what they needed. Soon packages were arriving regularly at our doorstep: a JetBoil, gravity water filter, and the all-important two-way satellite communicator that would track their route and allow them to check in with us at the end of each day.

Sunset on Killington. | Credit: Silas Hunter

When summer arrived, my son and I tested his new gear during a weekend backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, during which he cooked our meals, filtered our water, and hung our bear bag each night. All I had to do was hike. My husband had the even easier task of following along from home, watching our path on the website. With one click, we sent him a message each evening: We’re checking in; everything is fine. It worked like a charm. We were ready.

The day before their start day, though, I broke down in a panicked what-did-we-agree-to moment. Even though they were prepared to go, I realized I’d never be fully prepared to let them go. But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

Over the next three weeks I followed the map as they made their way north through the Green Mountains. I checked the weather. I worried. But each time I met them for a resupply my spirits were buoyed. They were doing fine. Better than fine. They were swimming in clear, quiet ponds, climbing fire towers, hiking in the dark for mountain-top sunrises. They were doing great. My worrying didn’t help them, or me.

When we met them at the northern terminus of the trail on the Canadian border we were overjoyed, and so were they. They were visibly tired and sore and dirty and also thoroughly, deeply, happy. For 21 days they had taken care of themselves and each other while traversing rugged peaks and steep valleys again and again. They faced countless decisions every day. Important decisions. On their own. Their reward for their perseverance, fortitude, and bravery, and ours, was etched on their faces. They had completed an incredible journey, one that they will carry with them always. It came at the expense of sore muscles and blisters (for them) and several more gray hairs (for us), but it was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

Resupply day! | Credit: Sarah Hunter