By Marion Shoote
When I think about bikepacking trips, I think of travelling light, long days in the saddle, unknown destinations, random food stops and being at the mercy of the weather. So when we thought about trying to take our toddler son along with us, it would be fair to say I was a bit nervous about how it might all work out.
We really wanted to be able to carry on going on bike trips after Orrin was born and not lose that sense of adventure when it comes to holidays. And it's brilliant to be able to take him along, show him new bits of our planet, immerse him in different landscapes, give him new experiences to help shape his view of the world. We concluded there might just have to be a few changes to our approach to make it happen.
Take our packing, for example. Ed and I have been going on bike trips for the last 13 years and have gradually honed our kit down to the bare minimum that we can cram into a few aerodynamic bikepacking bags. Who cares if we’re grubby (and possibly a bit soggy) for a week, or run out of food once in a while, or don’t have any books to read in the evening? But travelling with Orrin this had to change, to ensure he was warm, dry, well fed and entertained – we figured that having a happy baby was key to having a good trip (as well as being a good general approach to parenting!). But this meant swallowing my pride and going back to panniers in order to fit in all his kit as well.
We decided to visit the Tatras mountains, on the border of Poland and Slovakia. The addition to our team also meant we had to do a bit more planning than normal, i.e. to know there actually might be campsites en route within achievable distances, rather than just heading down an appealing road and seeing what happened when it got dark. And it did work out - most of the time.
After a chilly first night's camping in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane, we headed off on a beautifully clear autumn morning to ride east and south into Slovakia. The roads emptied out as we headed across the border and as we rode over our first pass in the warm sunshine I started to relax and enjoy being on the bike again. We stopped in the ski resort of Ždiar for lunch – the local dish of pirogis (potato dumplings) turned out to be the perfect toddler food as Orrin demolished an entire adult portion and turned his attention to our plates. We also investigated our first Slovakian playpark next to the restaurant which was ideal to wear him out ready for an afternoon snooze back in the trailer.
We turned south and then west around the mountain massif and soon found an awesome cycle path to follow – traffic free, scenic and well signposted. Whilst stopping for a snack we were approached by a local rider who was very excited to see some foreigners using the local cycle routes for touring. He gave us his map and told us the best way to our day's destination. The campsite was scenic but pretty random: the grounds of a musty hotel where the only shower was in the open-plan gym. Still, there was plenty of space for Orrin to roam around, woodpeckers to spot and rutting stags to listen to (initially concerned they were quite bear-like noises, we managed to convince ourselves they were deer and it was ok to go to sleep).
The morning brought some rather Scottish weather and we packed up a very soggy tent and headed off through the mist towards the mountain resort of Štrbské Pleso. The route was a pleasant gentle climb skirting the flanks of the mountains, with mist hanging in the autumnal trees. Štrbské Pleso is a strange place: a honeypot of tourist activity with dramatic mountain views across a lake, but these views have been rather spoilt by the construction of hotels all around the shore. Today we caught only glimpses of mountains through the cloud but we had been here on a previous cycle trip and remembered the clash of mountain, forest and concrete.
After a cold picnic spot and hot coffee we set off for the long downhill to Podbanské where we had treated ourselves to a night indoors (toddler plus wet tent seemed like a bad combination). We were welcomed by our hosts with a glass of TatraTea – not tea, in fact, but a very strong local spirit! It seemed like a good way to celebrate covering over 100 kilometres in our first two days on the bike.
The next day saw us heading up into the mountains, hoping to do some hiking and get right into (and up) some of the mountains themselves. After some very questionable route choices (mountain bike trails may be more scenic but we could have guessed they would not be trailer compatible - cue shuttling bikes, trailer, luggage and baby up a steep rocky hill and through deep mud) we finally made our way to Žiarska Chata mountain refuge. At 1300m it was a great spot to spend the night - and shelter from the evening's rain whilst drinking hot chocolate that resembled custard in its consistency.
The next morning dawned beautifully clear and we couldn't resist a hike up onto the ridge. A beautiful airy route took us to the top of Tri Kopy at 2100m and some amazing views across the chain of peaks and the cloud inversion below.
It was worth it, but did make for a bit of an epic day: by the time we had made it back down, repacked the bikes and had lunch the afternoon was already ticking on. The afternoon's route was tractor-heavy (much to Orrin's delight) as we wound through farming villages but it seemed to take an age to cover the distance.
5pm found us reversing the last few kilometres after the bike route we were following turned into a steep path up exposed bedrock. It was time to be stopping and making dinner so Orrin could eat and run around before bedtime. Instead we had 18 kilometres to ride with 600 metres of climbing over a pass to get to the next town in order to find somewhere to stay. And it was going to start going dark in an hour. This was exactly the situation I promised myself we would avoid now we had a one year old on board.
The final sprint over the pass in the waning daylight was not exactly what I needed after 9 hours of already considerable physical effort. But sometimes you just have to cram your face full of chocolate and get on with it. So we did. Happily Orrin was mostly snoozily oblivious and awoke only as we made a very rapid descent into Zuberec. It turns out that spotting tractors in the dark is still a highly acceptable past-time for a toddler.
The next day we decided to take it a bit easier and after eating an enormous strudel we rode to the next town, Oravice, to spend the afternoon at the water park. Almost like we were on holiday. From there it was a relatively short distance as the crow flies back to Zakopane, although the main road took a significant detour. Despite good intentions on the planning front we were down to our last spare nappy and out of Euros so we opted for a short cut through the forest. And it's always good to end these trips with a ridiculous river crossing, right? It was pretty cold, and took a surprising number of trips to get us, the bikes, trailer and all our luggage across the river and up the slippery mud bank to the road where the bemused and significantly cleaner Polish tourists were riding in horse-drawn carriages up to a mountain restaurant. A suitably silly end to the trip.
In conclusion: taking your toddler on a bikepacking adventure is not quite as crazy an idea as it sounds! He enjoyed roaming around in the campsites and countryside and spotting the sights from the comfort of his trailer, in between snoozes. We managed to fit enough kit into our bags to keep us all happy. And we were able to cover a good distance (up to 60 kilometres a day) to feel like it was a proper trip, albeit a relatively short one. I wonder where he'd like to go next... it just has to have plenty of tractors really.
For more from Marion and Ed, head over to their website, or read another of Marion's blogs!