Father / Son Bikepacking in Grand Teton National Park

“Dad, I wish we had just driven the van to camp”.

These words pierced my soul like a flaming pedal wrench as my 6 year old son stood crying on the bike path in Grand Teton National Park watching 4 other boys, and their dads, ride away from us.

For weeks, we had been planning our first bike packing adventure and the build up to this moment finally got to both of us. He was scared, and I was frustrated. Our perfect father / son adventure was falling apart. All our planning, and positive build up to the trip, meant nothing now - he was not going to pedal one more stroke.

Thankfully, he and I both turned our attitudes around and we had a trip lifelong father / son memories are made of. But I had to go through the fire as a parent first. I had to learn how to be a better Dad… again.

Here’s how it all went down. 

So what is bikepacking anyway?

It’s as simple as it sounds. Think backpacking, but with your bike. Everything you need for camping out is strapped to your bike… instead of your back. Even though bike touring is as old as the bicycle wheel, the concept of light weight, off road touring on a mountain bike is relatively new.

Over the last 5 or 6 years, thanks to new purpose built bikepacking gear, this form of adventure travel has exploded in popularity. And just like all Dads who are passionate about something, and want to share it with their kids, our friend Brian decided to create an annual Father / Son bikepacking trip into Grand Teton National Park.

To be honest, this trip is neither off-road, or lightweight. This is a 4 mile paved bike path trip with a focus on fun and comfort for the boys. I rode my Surly Big Dummy cargo bike loaded with as many camping creature comforts as possible. A few other Dads pulled trailers stuffed to the gills with tents, coolers, layers of clothing, and lots of good old camp fire food.

The mission was: ride from Taggart Lake parking area to the Jenny Lake campground.

The meltdown

Sure, seems simple enough, short ride to camp, hit the lake, cook some yummy food, roast some marshmallows, laugh with friends, sleep under the stars.

But then it happened… within 100 meters of the parking lot, one kid bumped into another kid and the trail of good times quickly turned into the trail of tears. No blood, no physical damage done, but the emotional impact was pretty big.

My son was not the one crying at this point, but it clearly had an effect on him. He really had no idea what he was getting himself into. The concept of bikepacking was relatively unknown to him, the distance to camp was unknown to him, and now his best friend was crying.

It didn’t take long for the tears to dry up and the ride to continue, but the other 3 boys had ridden off into the distance. And now our friend Rowan, the one with the tears, was riding off to catch the others. 

My son and I, however, had quickly fallen off the back of the group, and the path ahead seemed like it went on for days. Now all my son could focus on was how far to camp, whether or not he would ever see his buddies again,  and his inability to ride another inch forward.

After 5 minutes of this stalemate, I hit bottom. As soon as the stern words came out I wanted them back, 

“Look buddy, maybe you’re just not ready for this and maybe we should just ride back to the van and go home.” 

More tears. More frustration. My son was scared and here I was trying to guilt him into going forward. Bad Dad. 

Then I tried the second most ineffective technique for turning a kid’s attitude around… Logic.

“Buddy, it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey, the moment we’re in right now. Look at how beautiful the mountains are. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Can you smell the flowers? Incredible. We’ll get to camp when we get to camp - who cares?”

Yeah, guess how well that worked.

We got through it with a little more time, but I had trouble recreating the mood of excitement and care free Dad adventure. I was as sad as he was. 

Here I am trying to launch a company focused on helping parents introduce biking to their kids and I can’t even ride a mile with my son and keep it fun. Yeah, I let myself go there - I felt like a failure as a Dad, and a business owner… harsh.

The mental turnaround.

Before too long, we rejoined the group and our spirits got a much needed lift. My son was still a bit quiet and tentative, but the collective stoke from the rest of our crew quickly brought me back. Camp was close and the adventure rolled on.

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Of course once we arrived at camp my son was fully back into the good time mindset. As always, a little time, and a transition to the next thing, makes earlier meltdowns seem like a distant bad dream.

Jenny Lake bicycle campground.

I have an amazing secret to tell you. Head down the path behind the main Jenny Lake campground and you’ll find this treasure. Even though we were in Grand Teton National Park, in the height of the season, with the main Jenny Lake campground completely full, we arrived to an empty “bicycle only” campground! 

 

Even though the boys were ready to fall into Lord of the Flies mode and explore their new surroundings, the Dads put them to work helping set up camp. Again, in full disclosure, my 6 year old son is not exactly a model helper. 

But setting up camp is way different than cleaning your room. He loves pounding in the stakes, unfolding the tent poles, and pulling out the sleeping bags. Ah the magic of camping!

Once camp was set, we were off to the lake!

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What can I really say about these pictures that you don’t immediately understand? Boys, Dads, water, sand, bugs, drift wood, fishing pole. Priceless!

After enjoying the lake in all its glory, we headed back to camp for dinner and s’mores. Dads cooked while the boys made up new games with rules we didn’t understand. To me, these moments at camp seem like some of the most important parts of my son’s childhood. 

It’s moments like these where self confidence, collaboration, independence, and connection to their surroundings seep into them and take root.

In the morning we woke to the neighborhood watch strolling through camp. Peacefully sipping my morning coffee, while the boys sat quietly watching deer move past us, was a pretty nice way to start the day.

But we had miles to go and the adventure must roll on. A late morning pack and we were off on our bikes once again.

As we pedaled past the jammed parking lot and throngs of car shackled tourists, I smiled that our crew had everything we really needed in life strapped right to our bikes. Miles of unobstructed pathway lay ahead of us and I felt free.

We took a few detours on the ride back to the beginning and the boys loved every minute of it. Smiles were big and I had to think that the kids, just like the Dads, were somehow aware of the true awesomeness of the adventure we were having. 

Who knows, to them it might have just been another bike ride… 

The very best moment of the trip.

And then it happened…

My son and I fell off the back of the group once again and ended up pedaling the last mile by ourselves. I was happy, he seemed happy. We were quiet.

Out of the blue, my son turned to me and said ( I swear I am not making this up),

“Dad, it doesn’t matter if the other kids rode ahead of us, it’s a beautiful day right? We’re just having fun right?”

Are you serious? Was the trip sinking in? Did my words during the meltdown yesterday actually take hold?! Was I moving into ‘hero Dad’ status? To him I simply agreed, “yup, that’s right buddy”. Inside I was doing a touchdown dance! Then he kept going with his reflections, or should I say… his teachings to me,

“I was just scared yesterday. I hadn’t done this before and I didn’t know how far it was to camp. That’s all.”

Yup, that’s all. His words were delivered nonchalantly, but they hit me hard. To me, 4 miles to camp, on a flat path, was no big deal and well within his ability. But to him, it was a new and seemingly impossible effort. He really just didn’t know what to expect. 

Next time, instead of trying to force my way through the moment (as I did yesterday), I promise to have more awareness of what that moment is really like for him. I promise to have more patience. And maybe I’ll just say, “it’s ok to be scared buddy” and give him a hug.

High fives and ice cream.

After our little zen moment I sprinted ahead and yelled back, “show me a Can/Can” (his favorite bicycle trick)!  To which he gladly complied.

Back at the parking lot it was high fives all around. A huge sense of accomplishment hung in the air and plans for the next adventure were tossed around. We said our goodbyes and loaded up the van. Then, there was only one thing left to do… ICE CREAM!