Endless forests, pristine lakes, fresh air and hundreds of kilometers of gravel roads. When Andy Cox published his European Divide Trail earlier this year, we got restless. Adventure was calling and we must answer. The fact that we have two toddlers running around the house doesn’t change that. Quite the opposite, we are eager to pass on our love for travelling, nature, mountains, forests, being outdoors, camping and off course… cycling.
The European Divide Trail is a non-technical long distance mountain bike route, crossing the European continent from the far northeast of Norway to the far southwest of Portugal. In its full length it is more than 7.500 km’s long. Since we only had two months off from work, we decided to cycle a part of the Swedish track. We have always been drawn to remote areas, looking for simplicity, being one with nature and the intense feeling of freedom that comes with it. It is the most Northern part of the European Divide Trail that is also one of the least populated stretches, with a maximum of 250 km between villages.
The journey is the destination
Manu and I are both experienced bike packers, so we mostly knew what was ahead of us. What was new was looking after four people, instead of only ourselves, and not being able to push far and hard, but rather following the kids’ pace. This time, it would not be about mileage or reaching a certain destination. Other than starting the trip in the middle of Sweden and cycling northbound, we had no plan or expectations at all. We would see how it went and just go with the flow. We believe this is the most important ingredient for a successful trip.
We combined our regular bike packing set-up (front roll, saddle bag, frame bag and snack packs) with a suspension B.O.B.-trailer and a Thule kids trailer. The bike bags were filled with clothes, electronics and food, the B.O.B. trailer contained our tent, sleeping bags and pads, cooking gear and some basic toiletries. The kids trailer, well,… that obviously contained the kids, but also our rain gear, sandals and more food. We also carried a bike each; there was no way our boys were taking off on a two-month cycling trip without having their own bike to shred some dirt tracks.
We must admit that the first ten days were a struggle. Keeping the boys entertained for a complete day on the bike was a bit of a challenge. We had their bikes with us, so they could cycle parts on their own, but often the terrain was too hilly or rugged and after 5 to 10 km of very slow cycling they (and we) had enough of it. We had also mounted a shotgun seat on Manu’s bike, so the boys could experience the trip from the front row. They would take turns sitting on the top tube, holding their own, small; handlebars, and instructing Manu to go faster downhill. They were constantly looking for moose, reindeer, foxes and squirrels.
When they needed some rest, they sat in the trailer, listening to podcasts, and sometimes even taking a nap. That was the time for us to try to put in as many kilometers as possible.
Cycling through the land of the midnight sun has many advantages, but it sure doesn’t make sleeping easier, and every parent knows that enough sleep is the key to happy kids and therefore relaxed parents. We started practicing to sleep with the blinds open at home, a couple of weeks before our departure. The first few nights in the tent, Aske and Wietse lay awake for an hour and a half before they fell asleep. They crawled out of their sleeping bags, not having enough space to move and rolled off their sleeping pads. What seemed like a disaster in the making turned out to be just fine. We postponed bedtime for at least an hour, downloaded a bunch of bedtime stories for the tablet and had some good faith and patience. Being on the road and sleeping in a tent needs some getting used to after all, even for adults.
Bike travel routines
After a week or two, the boys had turned into brave little adventurers. A regular day on the European Divide Trail would look like this: we got up at 7.30 a.m. and after some snoozing and cuddling we got out of the tent. We prepared breakfast, which consisted mostly of oats, raisins and, if we were lucky, some freshly picked blueberries or raspberries.
Cleaning up camp and packing the bikes usually took us about 1.5 hours. After that we would try to ride the first 20 km of the day, before having a nice long picnic on a riverbed or lakeside. When the sun was out, we would take a swim in the clear, but often ice cold, water and let ourselves dry before trying to tackle some extra kilometers. I say trying, because stops were frequent, as we constantly needed to switch from bike, to shotgun seat, to kids trailer, not to mention the numerous sanitary stops along the way. On an average day we managed to ride about 50 km, on a good day we could reach up to 70.
When the time had come (usually between 5 and 6 p.m.), the kid sitting on the shotgun seat, would look for the best place to spend the night. They quickly knew what boxes needed to be ticked off to qualify as an award winning camp spot: a nice and flat spot between trees, close to an easily accessible river or lake with a wind shelter and a fireplace. This became one of our favourite games, and another hour of bike riding easily passed by. While the kids were looking for camp spots, we tried to push just a little bit further.
As soon as we stopped to set up camp, the kids started exploring the forest; building camps, looking for trolls who had turned into stones or trees, or throwing rocks in the water. They were always keen on helping us to do camp chores: collect firewood, do laundry, filter water, cook, do dishes and set up the tent. Because they usually took a nap during the daytime they even had some energy left to ride some extra laps on their bikes looking for tree roots and rocks to jump over.
We tried to alternate four days riding with one or two rest days. We happily used the ‘allemansrätten’, the right to roam the countryside in perfect peace and quiet. Wild camping is accepted everywhere and is part of the outdoor culture that is clearly present in Swedish lives. We found wind shelters, fire pits with firewood and an ax to chop it, and even complete cabins that were free to use, respecting the ‘leave no trace’ principles. On a rest day we usually stayed at a campground in our tent or in a cabin, depending on the weather. The latter not being necessary for the kids, they preferred camping in the woods, near a river or lake, with the forest as their playground and the freedom to make as much noise as they wanted.
We were amazed about how flexible kids are, not caring about rain, pushing the bikes through swamps or worrying about what will come next. They are gifted with the ability of being in the moment, and enjoying that as it is. And it is wonderful to observe and witness this, something we don’t always find the time for in our busy, daily lives.
When we asked Aske what he liked most about the whole trip, he told us it was all of us, being together, ALL the time. And that is something we can only confirm. We can’t deny it is very intense, living together like this, and it is not all sunshine and roses, but it sure is a unique and priceless experience. At the end of the day, we often were very tired (you can see this in some photos) but our smiles were big. It is, by far, the best feeling in the world to see your kids enjoy time together, become true brothers in arms and develop a love for the things that make you the happiest: being outdoors, camping and cycling. And although this trip was not a walk in the park, we are sure we built memories as a family that will last a lifetime.
Are you dreaming about your own bike packing adventure with (or without) kids or do you have questions about the gear we used or our bike set-up, feel free to shoot us a message on Instagram @manucattrysse or @katrien_kds.
Story and photography by Katrien De Smet.