This is a post written by one of our Cycle Camping try-out participants, Sarah Moola.
In the last few years as our young family began to grow, my husband and I have found ourselves cycling more and more. My husband, Zubair, had been a strong cyclist as a teenager but given up when he started driving. I knew how to cycle but hadn’t done much more than race up and down the road as a child. But with rising petrol prices, broadening waistlines, busy schedules that left no time for the gym, and Leicester’s impressive cycle infrastructure, we found ourselves leaving the car at home more and more.
The Ride Leicester group rides have been a real turning point for us. We have met other cyclists and learned routes, tricks and tips that meant our go to transport is now cycling. Yes, we have become those people.
Then in August of this year we heard of something new… cycle camping! With Ride Leicester, Peter Simmonds had organised a cycle camping taster session where we could borrow equipment and camp in a group with plenty of experts on hand to help us out, right here in Leicester.
Neither me or Zubair had ever been camping, but a few months earlier we had given glamping ago. We had enjoyed it but weren’t sure about taking the plunge and buying a tent, wondering which one would suit us and whether we would even use it! This taster session seemed the perfect thing to help us make up our minds.
Peter assured us he could sort a tent, so we set about gathering sleeping bags and mats. We borrowed what we could, uncovered a few cobwebby items from the attic, and found a handful of things on Facebook market place for a bargain price. I wasn’t sure what my 1 year old would need sleepingwise so found a largish gro-bag and some foam floor tiles which I hoped would do the job.
Aside from sleeping gear I had learned from our glamping experience how quickly the temperature drops at night and how cold it gets even on warm summer days. So I gathered a collection of coats, jumpers, thermals and wooly socks to cover all four members of the household. I even brought a wooly hat for myself! Add in some snacks, the baby carrier, nappies, a pared back toiletry bag and Zubair and I stared at what seemed a huge pile of luggage that we were somehow to fit onto our two bicycles, as well as two children.
Most cyclists that do cycle camping tend to carry their luggage in frame bags and panniers, and try to mimise the weight as much as possible. With kids to haul, going lightweight was a lost cause, but we did have a bit more space for luggage. Our five year old went in her usual seat on the back of my bike, leaving my gigantic front basket which is normally filled with her school bag, coat, snacks, pine cones, teddies etc. We piled all the sleeping bags and mats in there and secured it with some bungee cords.
The clothes and coats we squeezed into the back of the child trailer, while a few odd bits and pieces including a box of Cheerios for breakfast, actually went in with the 1yo. We reasoned that they doubled as toys. Last minute addtions like locks, chargers and the baby carrier (we nearly forgot it) we put in Zubair’s panniers and I’m proud to say we actually had a little room to spare!
The event started on Friday night but we had agreed that it might be too much to try for two nights with the baby, so decided to join on Saturday morning instead. With all the luggage to plan we were relieved to see that Kevin (another of our cycling friends and an elite ride leader) was doing a feeder ride from Victoria Park to the campsite, meaning we didn’t need to worry about planning a route. Somehow or other we got to Vicky park in time and met Kevin at the top of Peace Walk. Our adventure had begun!
In lovely sunshine, Kevin guided us on a relaxed route through Abbey Park, past the Space Station and on to the outdoor pursuits centre. Taking it slow, on calm cycleways and away from the road, we hardly noticed our extra luggage. The baby somehow got the plastic bag of Cheerios out of the cardboard box and was waving it at us through the window, while our five-year-old marvelled at the ducks on the canal.
It was around eleven when we met the happy campers at the Leicester Outdoor Pursuits centre. It was reassuring to be with some familiar faces and we knew that if anything went wrong we were just a few miles away from home. Peter showed us our tent, a smart blue one with two sleeping compartments and a middle sort of covered porch. I had been picturing a sort of triangular military style tent in which we would all sleep like sausages so this was a pleasant surprise. We ditched our excess baggage (clothes and equipment, not children) and joined the rest of the group for a ride around the nearby Watermead Park. We headed up to the mammoth to take a photo and then out a bit further before stopping for a chat and snack by the statue of King Lear. We thought Peter and Kevin were going to treat us to a rendition but they politely declined. Back at camp we lounged in the sun and chatted to the rest of the group, having a nice rest as I for one had cycled about 12 miles since the morning with my five year old in tow. The group was a real mix with some ladies from the Ride on Sistas cycling group, others from the Let’s Ride group, Jo and Debs of Brakes and Cakes, real veteran cycle campers, and a whole host of others in between.
At 3pm Peter had kindly organised a bell boating activity for those of us that were interested. I had never done bell boating before but wanted to join in with the five-year-old so poor Zubair had to stay with the baby, but he was a good sport about it. Bell boating turned out to be great fun, going up and down the River Soar, paddling, chanting, laughing and now and then getting stuck in the weeds.
Back on dry land it was five o’clock and our thoughts were turning towards dinner. We had contemplated pot noodle or trying to sort a camping stove but with space at a premium and no idea how much havoc our children might cause, we went for a soft option and ordered pizza.
Camping in the city does have clear benefits.
While the food was on its way, we got our mats inflated and our sleeping bags laid out. We also took advantage of the showers to wash up and get into our warm clothes as the heat of the day started to fall away. Debs and Jo showed us how they use their stove to make simple but filling meals like pasta, and use herbs and spices so they don’t get bored of their own cooking. We listened attentively while inhaling the pizza – it had been a tiring day!
As dusk fell we gathered in the campfire area and Debs and Jo gave a fun talk on the basics of cycle camping, covering what to pack, how to decide where to go, what to eat, and got us thinking about what kind of tour we might like to take one day. We had opportunities for questions and finished the day buzzing with possibilities.
Then it was time for the biggest test! Were we well prepared enough to weather the night? Our five year old had barely got into her sleeping bag before she was asleep. I settled the baby and then, feeling a little nervous, got into my own bag. My layering had worked — I was nice and warm — and the mat which had seemed a bit deflated, did a good job of supporting me.
Despite being warm, comfortable and with a full tummy, it did take me a little while to doze off,perhaps the novelty of being in a different setting. Soon enough I could hear Zubair snoring away, and I happily drifted off, still with my bobble hat on my head.
Though I can’t say I slept very well, that had little to do with camping and lots to do with my 1 year old’s preference for waking up every two hours. I didn’t feel any worse in the morning than I usually do, in fact I felt elated at having made it through the night. While the kids were full of beans, Zubair had found his air mat had let the cold from the air up, so we agreed that a decent mat for him would be an essential buy for us.
Cheerios for breakfast — we hadn’t remembered to bring a bowl or spoon but luckily Debs offered us one of hers. It took quite a bit of time to pack up the sleeping gear (definitely more time than it had taken to unpack it!) and after taking a few photos we started the journey back home.
Part of what we love about cycling is the ability to stop where you want and detour as the mood takes you. On the way home we meant to pass through the city centre but realised the end of summer city festival was on, so passed a good few hours watching all the different events and enjoying the sunshine.
Back in Victoria park we had one last stop off in the playground and then back home for a nice hot shower and an early night. So ended our first cycle camping adventure.
Favourite parts from all the family:
Sarah: chatting to all the different campers
Zubair: the company
Five-year-old: bell boating and pretending to be a pirate
One year old: wandering around the campsite and stealing peoples’ water bottles
Top Camping Lessons From All the Family
Sarah: wooly socks make for happy campers
Zubair: sleep is very important so make sure you have a decent mattress
Five-year-old: take marshmallows, you can just eat them even if there’s no fire
One year old: watch out for guy lines