Packing the kitchen sink

I love packing and no holiday preparation feels quite as exciting as getting our Go Box down from the loft and installing the contents in panniers. Our solo parent cycle touring equipment has been refined over the last few years, mainly by trial and excessive error, so we’ve learnt something about the fundamentals. High quality, well researched, expedition comparisons of all cycle touring, camping and adventure activity equipment are available on the brilliant Next Challenge website but our solo parent experiences have led us on the following journey.

An evolution in tents (Picture 1, right to left)

We started out with what we had, which was my Eurohike 2-man tent bought 15 years ago. Weighting in at 3.5kg it wasn’t the lightest tent on the market but when you are hauling a four year old with it in a trailer an excess kg or two really makes little difference. Two Ortleib dry bags have been a good investment for containing soaking tents and dry sleeping bags (separately, if you can manage it).

In 2015 the Vango Banshee series was highly rated by the crowds at the first and fabulous Cycle Touring Festival and was purchased in great excitement, but going for the 2.75kg 3-person ‘300’ without regularly taking a 3rd person to carry it turned out to be a serious flaw. It performed well on our Orkney tour last year, but I opted to post it home before our final ride to reduce bulk on my overloaded Dawes.

Our brand new Alpkit Ordos 2 weighs 1.3kg but at twice the price of the Banshee it was only purchased after a particularly difficult day, which is when most of my impulsive financial decisions are made. Hardly bigger than the 1.5l bottle of ginger beer my son insisted on cycling around Tiree this year, it survived 25mph winds in Coll and a serious downpour in Oban.

A revolution in mats (Picture 2) but let sleeping bags lie (Picture 3)

Self inflating mats – what are they good for? Bulky and not cheap, I’ve used both Vango (orange bag) and Mountain Warehouse (black bag) ones over the last few years, not knowing that a child-inflating selection of mats was available. Looking for small and light mats that didn’t cost a fortune, I found Decathalon stock a helpfully short version, chosen by my son after a good roll around on all of them in store. Refusing to splash the ÂŁ100 needed for a Thermarest that Twitter told my pal Claire was best, I went online for the Alpkit Cloudbase for my mat needs and had to fight my son off it every night during our recent adventure to Tiree and Coll.

Our cycle touring life in pictures, Aperol for size comparison

Our sleeping bags are now the bulkiest part of our kit: I’ve got a Vango Ultralight 600 and my son has a Mountain Warehouse 3 season bag that’s in need of a thorough wash and new compression sack. They do the job April through to October, but a large cash investment would be needed to take us winter camping in Scotland as far as I can see at the moment.

Sharing the load: the kitchen sink and cupboards (Picture 4)

My son’s bike was transformed into a work horse by our local bike shop so this year he was able to take his share of the load, with our Ortleib front rollers taking the strain of the kitchen equipment, cycling spares, tools and Mr Elephant on the back of his little bike.

I took the advice of Travelling Two a few years ago and invested in an Ortleib folding bowl and have found it invaluable for washing cooking equipment, clothes, a child, carrying water and dirty dishes. Equally helpful for the solo parent is the Platypus wine carrier, allowing you to ditch the glass bottle and still transport an entire bottle of wine.

The kitchen pannier also contains: a tiny Vango stove and gas cannister, Alpkit titaniumum pots (another difficult day purchase), headtorches, matches, Ikea plastic bowls, a few sporks, tea towel, small sharp knife, chopping board, a Tupperware pot or two, mugs, two plates and some pegs. (Note to self: the washing up sponge and washing up liquid bottle need replacing)

Clothes

Clean clothes have been the first casualty of solo parent cycling equipment refinement, along with washing. We managed one shower between us over 5 days on our last trip and, as far as I’m aware, no-one died because of it. Wearing wool is my first (only, to be honest) line of defence, and if you can see or smell anything untoward then you are too close to me and should move away. One spare set of clothes plus waterproofs and swimming gear is all I’m prepared to carry now unless I’m expecting to present myself to civilised company.

Don’t forget dragon capacity

Small children have the most incredible acquisitive powers – we cannot go for a walk without obtaining sticks, shells and random bits of grotty plastic. Feeling the weight of unspent pocket money, a substantial dragon was found and purchased to add to our load in Oban. Like the 1.5l of ginger beer, the smiles were worth the weight. You just don’t get that with spare pants.

My son and his new dragon

Solo parent cycling

I’m not a single parent, but in matters of cycling I’m a solo parent. Twitter and Instagram followers will recognise my spouse as the ‘Lesser Spotted Cycling Husband’ as he usually only leaves his garden en velo to perform his annual cycling duty at Pedal on Parliament or in spectacular weather conditions where not cycling would be a crime against sunshine.

It’s unsurprising then that I’ve only managed to entice my husband on two cycling holidays in the last decade – once as a carefree couple in Barra and some years later with our son on a short family tour of the Netherlands. Now our son is at school the restrictions of school holidays and annual leave prevent extensive holiday time together as a family – no matter how advanced our mathematics, two sets of 25 days annual leave don’t equal 12 weeks of school holidays. Holiday logistics are focused mainly on reducing our son’s time in childcare and piecing together annual leave, toil, the help of extended family and work related travel in a jigsaw so that everyone feels like there was a holiday at some stage during the summer.

If you’ve ever stumbled across this blog before you’ll know I love nothing more than packing my panniers and heading away on my bicycle and, using the allure of cake, ginger beer and the promise of Night Time Adventures (also known as staying up after 7.30pm), my son is currently a willing companion.

Earlier in the year I managed to swindle three child-free friends, as well as my son, into coming on a 24 hour family cycling adventure to Great Cumbrae, giving me the mental energy to reflect on the rigorous nature of family cycling as a solo cycling parent and what I’ve learnt along the way:

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can help avoid basic disasters

Our first solo adventure was tame by any standards, camping in our friends gardens in adjacent local authority areas was quite enough at Easter when you can never be sure if it will snow or not. It was a good opportunity to test out our kit (too big), trailer (too heavy) and cycle paths (too variable) in combination with a four year old in a safe environment where someone else was likely to offer help without triggering the fear that they may want to abduct my child. An open back door at night gave me the peace of mind that if disaster fell (it didn’t) that I wouldn’t have to cope with it alone.

The trailer, whilst cumbersome, provided storage as well as shelter on that first tour. Once that option ceased to be viable I’ve found spending money on smaller and lighter everything, plus dispensing with wearing clean clothes, has helped reduce our luggage over subsequent trips.

After the trailer, a Follow Me Tandem provided a useful tool and was used for an adventure in the New Forest, where road and path conditions were uncertain. Unusually I’d ensured it was working correctly before we left home, and provided a range of uses from towing a tired boy to tethering a speeding one.

Being an hour away from home on a train made our first solo adventure an easy option and helped refine our kit list and route assessment in the process. Being anywhere away from home is an adventure when you are four or five, and seeing the world through my sons eyes helped me see it that way too. You don’t need to go far to get away and having a train supported Plan B can give you the confidence to attempt Plan A.

I’ll take the high road, assuming I can find it

Being lost is state I find myself in all too easily, so I make particular efforts not to cycle where there are too many road choices. As the only adult in a solo parent situation there is no-one to blame but yourself if there are navigational errors made, which I don’t find add much to the enjoyment once you’ve been reminded about it 20 times by the junior cyclist.

Careful planning, using Google street view and advanced map reading, can usually ensure that people with a normal level directional sense can navigate safe routes. But I’ve found that the ‘can’t be arsed alternative’ is just go to places where they are significantly less people, and a resulting reduction in roads and cars – our last couple of summer adventures have been on Scottish islands, where we found wild open spaces, roads to ourselves and have the added bonus that it’s almost impossible to get lost.

Silence is golden, and highly unlikely

It’s undeniably a charming stage when children start to ask questions, making you think harder than ever before and testing your general knowledge to breaking point. I’m blessed with a talkative child and his curiosity about the world is a joy.

But it becomes an endurance sport when there’s three or four questions a minute and you have 14 hours alone and awake together. I’m afraid there is a point at which I cannot listen or talk any further and I have to concede defeat and let the ageing ipad do its work for 20 minutes, giving me the needed brain power not to burn the dinner, put the tent up incorrectly again or repack our belongings in an orderly fashion. Better parents engage their children in these touring tasks, but at the end of a long day I sometimes can’t find the energy to speak and cook a nutritional meal at the same time. Touring can be intense, and having some time alone but together takes the pressure off, particularly when you are both tired and at least one of you might be irritable.

It was a delight in Great Cumbrae to see my son cycling ahead with my friends, talking away, enjoying the company and attention as we pedalled along. Positive interactions with friends and strangers are one of the delights of cycle touring and it’s lovely to share those reflections at the end of the day together and help us create the story of our journey.


Our summer adventure this year provided the perfect conditions for us both in the campsite in Tiree – a small, enclosed site complete with a pack of children to play with until a remarkably general consensus decided it was bedtime. You can’t book ahead for agreeable campsite companions, but now I know it’s an option I’ll try to find some again.

Magic moments, in the miles, smiles and pouring rain

Cycle touring isn’t all easy, and part of the enjoyment is the difficult places it can take you. I’ve seen my son’s resilience and self esteem develop, just as I’ve watched him increase in confidence and stamina on his bike, pedalling up hills in the wind and rain. Like life, cycle touring is about the journey and not the destination. Exploring the world slowly with my son on our own is creating a journey together that I hope will last beyond the adventures away and into our lives at home now and into the future.