For the first time in years, we went camping this summer without any toys. No bike, no kayak, not even a noodle. We travelled lighter but spent hours debating what to borrow, hire or buy for next time. We’ve been looking at the options. Now we need some help!
A bike, for sure
If you’ve got a campervan or motorhome, then you’ll know how good it is to set up camp and then not have to move your van again for a few days or longer. Trouble is, that means you can only explore the local area, take long walks or use public transport (which is lacking in many places). Unless you have a pub, shop or restaurant nearby, you’ll also have to plan your meals well and buy en route.
In the south of France last month, we borrowed the world’s most uncomfortable bikes – and had the best two days of the holiday. We cycled into Arles, pedalled through streets crowded with photography festival-goers with a warm wind blowing. We freewheeled down ancient alleys and through elegant squares, stopped at a bar to hear a jazz band, pedalled on into the dusk and into an evening of African music and food. We cycled back along the Rhone and never wanted to stop.
So, we need bikes of our own. The question is: do we want to carry them on the back of the van or do we buy folding bikes? And, given that we live in the hilly Pennines, should we have some electrical assistance to make sure the bikes get used.
We’ve tested the Birdy and Montague folding bikes in the past. The Birdy is beautifully engineered (over-engineered, some would say) and looks stunning. It’s expensive and felt slightly too precious. A great ride, though, and lots of admiring stares. The Montague, also expensive, is unusual in that it’s a folding bike with full-sized wheels. Its problem was that the brakes needed lots of realigning (not always successfully) every time you reattached the front wheel.
We tested the Brompton
It’s (almost) universally accepted that the British-made Brompton is the best when it comes to neat folding. It has tiny wheels, however, and some would say it’s a clown bike or a bike just for city commuters. The fold is perfect, though. No other folder is as fast or well thought-out. They’re lovingly made, they hold their value and they’re light.
What’s it like to ride? Like a real bike actually, but with a nippy feel that gives you a sense of travelling with minimum fuss. Gears are a bit sticky at first, and the plastic levers seemed a bit flimsy. We needed to add better grips – the Ergon GP2 (S) – for real comfort. It’s very customisable – saddle, handlebar type and height, colour, luggage, lights, 1 to 6 speeds, even a titanium option. There’s usually a few weeks to wait to get your specific choice.
They cost from around £900, but you won’t stop at that…you’ll add on easy wheels for rolling it along when folded, luggage and more. Be prepared to spend £1400 or more. Second-hand ones are available, but few and far between.
An electric Brompton seems like the answer. Nano Electric Bikes do an electric conversion kit (which will void your Brompton warranty, however). The battery goes in one of the front Brompton bags and connects via the built-on luggage block. The front hub contains a motor (forks slightly widened for this, so not for the titanium option without a fork change) and controller on the stem. There’s a range of battery sizes for you to balance weight and range. Cost? Around £700+
We’ve got a special feature on electric Bromptons and the options available.
And we tested Kalkhoff electric bikes
Oh my goodness! They told us in the shop that we’d be chuckling as soon as we set off on these bikes. They were right. These German-made bikes make you laugh with joy and at the weirdness of suddenly becoming superhuman. Start pedalling and you’re transformed into a powerful cyclist who could go on forever. I even beat a bus up a VERY steep hill.
They’re strong, perfectly made, electronically and mechanically sophisticated (there’s even an on-board efficiency computer) and utterly comfortable. We tested the Sahel Compact Impulse 8 and the Agattu. They cost from £2000.
The deal-breaker for us (apart from the cost) was that the batteries aren’t likely to hold full charge after two years and cost £700 each. After that, suggested the bike shop, you put up with reduced range, buy a new battery or sell your bike. Most of these will be a bit offputting for anyone already balking at the cost. Like all electric bikes, they’re heavy. The design on some is a bit clumsy to look at (though the Sahel compact looks sweet, despite the black battery on white bike and vice versa foolishness).
The Compact isn’t a folder, but the handlebar twists flat (independently of the front wheel) and the pedals fold in.
At the moment, the Brompton (with a possibility of electric assistance later on) seems to be the top choice. What we did learn, though, was that it pays to buy from your local bike shop, or at least get your ordered bike delivered there for setting up and checking over. Thanks to Blazing Saddles in Hebden Bridge for letting us try their bikes, by the way.
Thanks to Dan Noble (see comments below) for suggesting a Haibike Fat Six – crikey, we definitely want to try one of those!
Something to play with on the water? Yes!
So here we are for a third year at the gloriously turquoise Lac Ste Croix and the Gorges du Verdon. And nothing to play with on the water. In previous years, we’ve had a tandem inflatable kayak. This time, while swimming, we tried to design the perfect boat-thing.
Stand up paddleboard
These boards are ideal for easy carrying (especially the inflatable ones), but there’s nothing relaxing about standing up with a long pole pushing yourself along. It’s more sport than recreation. We’ve been looking for a small paddleboard that can be paddled sitting down on a comfortable seat (probably not an armchair, of course).
A kayak or canoe
We loved our Sea Eagle inflatable tandem kayak, but the 10 minutes to get it ready for the water and the 15 minutes wiping it down and packing it up meant we didn’t use it as spontaneously as we’d hoped. It was super-sturdy (hit it with a claw hammer and see no damage, they said), had a strong rigid bottom, a removeable skeg, comfortable-ish seats, and stowing straps etc. Packed, though, it still took up a fair amount of boot space.
We also found the tandem a bit sluggish in wind or tides and it took some co-ordination to balance the seating position for paddlers with different strengths. That was also true of the red one we hired first…see the picture. Having two smaller kayaks/boards would also mean we could race (or escape each other for a bit).
The serious option and not the option for anyone with leg-claustrophobia would be a sit-inside kayak. You can paddle these in worse weather and tougher conditions because you’re inside a spraydeck. There’s all that rolling over to do, though.
A sit on top (SOT) kayak is a possibility. There are smaller types, they’re light and the better ones are useable on calm seas, lakes and reasonable rivers. Cheap too.
A canoe would be too big and cumbersome for most campers, and definitely so for us. All that kneeling is hard on your legs too.
A pack raft? We’d never heard of these until we saw Alistair Humphreys making a Shetland Isle journey using a pack raft and Brompton folding bike. Bike on the raft at some points, raft on the bike at others. They’re expensive kit because they’re designed for real expeditionists for whom the right kit is vital.
A noodle, a lilo
Perhaps it’s all we need – a bit of bendy plastic tubing or floating beds and lilos. Hmm. But don’t you think it’s much more interesting to explore the world of watersports and hunt for the perfect thing?
Out there, somewhere, is a tiny-but-sturdy, light-but-manoeuvrable, multi-sport-water-craft. It will be the size of a belly board, with a comfortable seat, and it’ll be fast and stable…oh and you can probably fit a tiny sail to it as well as paddle it. Steer us in the right direction, please!