Create your own DIY family summer bike camp

(Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

I was inspired to create our own family bike camp after hearing about my mother-in-law’s stories of home-made summer camps.

Too often, summer fun seems to be prohibitively expensive, but with a little creativity and effort, it can also be free. Here’s an idea for creating a Do-It-Yourself Family Bike Camp. All you need is your bike, your home-packed picnic, and your sense of summer adventure…

I was inspired to create our own family bike camp after hearing about my mother-in-law’s stories of home-made summer camps. She and her friends couldn’t afford to send their kids to camp, so every summer they decided to plan a week of camp fun which they made up themselves. This summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to send my oldest son to the WashCo Bikes Saddle Up Summer Bike Camp (he loved it!), but I needed something fun–and cheap–to do with the rest of us. My other kids were too little to send to camp, but I made the vow to get all of us up and ready for a week of bike outings, as if we were going to bike camp too.

Every morning, we loaded up a full picnic, waters and sunscreen, then scrambled to get my son to his camp on time. We biked the 2.5 miles to his drop-off, then began our own “camp” adventures for the day. We rode to multiple parks and even found a new-to-us favorite with hiking trails and nature play. While my oldest son had a blast pedaling all over town, enjoying visits to parks, a splash pad, the library, and an ice cream shop, we basically did the same, and actually crossed paths with him multiple times. It was the most biking we have ever done, and the most time we’ve spent outside, as we rode over 10 miles a day, and stayed out at parks all the way until naptime. It was one of the most fun weeks of our summer. Indeed, I daresay it made bikers of us all!  

Here are a list of suggestions for planning your own DIY family bike camp:

  • Check the map for fun destinations. Pull up a map of your community and look for all the bikeable parks, libraries, shops and greenspaces. You may be surprised at all of the places you’ve overlooked, forgotten about, or never visited. Put together a list of new places to visit, along with your current favorites. 
  • Extend your range. Pick one challenge destination to get you biking a little farther. Often, the most fun camps are the ones that challenge kids to accomplish something hard. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourselves; it might be the most fun thing you do all week. 
  • Check your community calendar. Are there any events or festivals you can bike to? Storytime at the library? Outdoor market? Don’t forget to check the BikePortland Calendar for more ideas.
  • Make a bike plan. Pick out destinations and routes for the week. Be sure to pre-test any unfamiliar routes.
  • Get creative. Think about some camp-y activities you can do yourself that don’t involve much equipment. (Go ahead and Google ideas, or check out a book of summer activities from the library.) Here are a few suggestions to get you thinking: 
    • Create a scavenger hunt to do at your local park. 
    • Make nature boats from sticks and leaves to race in a creek.
    • Get wet at an outdoor sprinkler pad or splash in your local river/swimming hole.
    • Take sketch books and colored pencils and try nature drawing or journaling.
    • Pack your favorite chapter book or poetry book and do a read-aloud under a nice shade tree.
    • Bring a speaker and music to help you sing goofy songs or even have an outdoor dance party.
  • Be fully present. I admit that I didn’t actually make up special camp activities (but I am planning to do so next year.) Instead, I decided to let my kids lead our playtime at various parks, giving them the opportunity to enjoy lots of unstructured outdoor nature play. If you don’t have time or resources to plan games and activities, don’t let that deter you. Kids are the most excited to have your full attention. Little kids are thrilled if you will just play tag or hide-and-seek, or spin in circles until you all get dizzy. Simply pledge to keep your screen device turned off, and focus on your children. It can be a great week, even if you don’t plan anything except to bike to some parks and be fully present when you get there.  
  • Set an alarm. Pick a morning leave time and stick to it. If you have gotten in a habit of sleeping late this summer, challenge yourself to leave earlier than you normally would. You’ll beat the heat, enjoy the freshness of a morning ride, and be able to pack in a full schedule of activities by lunch time.
  • Stay outside. It might be tempting to head home early, but challenge yourselves to stay outside and away from screens. You’ll come home sweaty and tired, just like real summer campers. 
  • Pack well. Pack extra snacks, a picnic lunch, lots of water and sunscreen. Get as much prepared the night before as you can. (Pro tip: Try packing all of your ingredients in your bag and assembling lunch at the park. I like to throw a loaf of bread and my jars of PB and jelly in my pack, along with a block of cheese, fruits & veggies, a knife and small cutting board. I often find it easier to prep lunch while my kids are rolling down the slide, than when I am trying to get us out the door in the morning.)
  • Do a bike check. A flat tire could really mess up your plans. Fill up with air, and remember to pack a patch kit or spare. Check that helmets fit. Also, see if bike seats are at proper heights–we finally adjusted these mid-week and everyone was happier! 
  • Invite friends. The more the merrier! Group rides are especially fun and sociable. It’s also a lot easier to play tag with other kids along for the trip. Try some old-fashioned fun, like a game of capture the flag or kickball. 
  • End with a treat. Ice cream? Popsicles? Home-made frozen juice pops? Reward yourselves for a week of biking with something cool and sweet. 
  • Add a tent? I meant these suggestions as a biking day camp, but you could try overnight bike camping, perhaps by taking a small tent to a friend’s house and camping out in their backyard. 

There are still a few weeks of summer left. Enjoy them while you can! Usually, the hardest part is getting out the door. You can do it. Happy biking.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of  five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via

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1 year ago

Your story reminds me of my 2nd best 5th grade memory…
Our entire class rode our bicycles to a Girl Scout camp in the nearby woods.
We had a scavenger hunt of sorts. Everyone was supposed to find samples (pine needles, bark, leaves, etc) to glue into a notebook proving you had located the target plant. I only recall White Pine and Yellow Pine from the list, but I’m sure there are others.
With G**gle photo search you could visit the destination before hand and create a successful scavenger hunt list for your participants?

ps. 1st best memory was making and launching model rockets. 🙂