Bike Touring with Kids
As a young couple, my husband and I fell in love with bike travel. A 6400 mile trip across Canada had us hooked. After starting a family, we didn’t want to say goodbye to experiencing the world on two wheels, so with some courage and big dreams we decided to try it with our first baby.
We biked the west coast of the U.S. with a 9 month old for two months (2000 miles) and since then have done short bike overnights and tours. Most recently, we did a 10 day trip with our three boys, age 7, 5, and 1.5. This post is a compilation of what we’ve learned and our best tips and tricks.
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Why family bike touring?
I have loved touring with my kids for so many reasons. Seeing the world at a bicycle’s pace, long conversations about whatever is on their minds, and watching them learn so many things by experience are some of my favorite aspects.
But also, helping them get through challenging terrain or situations and learning to work together as a family to get things done are things I didn’t expect to be so rewarding. It really is so cool to watch your kids realize they can do hard things. And honestly, to realize you yourself can do hard things.
Don’t expect perfection.
The pictures of happy kids and loaded bikes, the images of lazily exploring new areas and quality family time- that happens, but it’s not all the time. There are still tantrums, everyone gets hangry, exhausted, stressed, and grumpy.
But, if you go into it expecting some great times and some ‘character building’ times, you’ll be more likely to roll with the punches. Remember- hazards, unexpected turns and unknown territory are all in the definition of adventure.
Bike touring with kids (or without them!) isn’t easy
I won’t sugarcoat it. The style of touring we’ve chosen is HARD. The bikes loaded with gear are heavy. The hills, the long boring stretches, the sketchy shoulders and traffic are stressful.
The first time I pedaled up a big hill with a full load and a kid hooked to my bike, I just about turned around. And screaming down a steep hill with that load and white knuckling the brakes? It’s enough to make a mom question her parenting.
But it’s not all stress. Once you get settled in to burning legs and a voracious appetite, it’s actually REALLY FUN. When we finished our last 10 day tour, which didn’t go at all how we’d planned, we were all chomping at the bit to turn around and do it all over again.
Something about struggling together and endless snacks does something to a family.
How to start bike touring with kids
So, down to the nitty gritty- what do you need and how to do you get started? Well, it’s helpful to have some bike experience, but you can learn if you’re motivated.
Decide how long you want to go, where you want to go, and what gear you’ll need. You can be creative to use what you’ve got (resourcefulness is a handy skill in bike touring), so don’t feel like you have to buy all new stuff. You can start out doing a simple bike overnight to a fun destination (like a local national or state park). You can hotel it. Just get some time out there together, and you’ll get the itch.
For our first tour, my husband and I emptied our bank accounts, sold our few belongings and bought a whole touring setup. We figured it out as we went, and counted the first two weeks as ‘training’.
We hurt like never before at times, but the experiences and people we met made memories that will last the rest of our lives.
As kids came along we researched and figured out what we needed to add. Most of it can double as backpacking or regular camping gear.
Family Bike Touring Routes
One of the most intimidating parts for us starting out was figuring out which routes to take- somewhere safe for bikes, not crazy hilly, the right distances, etc. It takes some trial and error honestly. With our first kid, we wanted a long tour, but one with lots of places to buy diapers and bailout if we needed to (we were nervous!).
We chose the west coast of the U.S. You can look on Adventure Cycling’s website for some tried and true bike routes (usually along less traveled and scenic roads) and they have great maps with elevation and mileage charts, town amenities, etc.- everything your Type-A cyclist personality will need.
You can also look at Rails to Trails routes. Those are great with kids. They generally have lots of towns along the way for supplies, gentle grades, and no traffic to worry about!
Our last tour was a mix of roads and rail trails, and I definitely loved the stress free bike paths! There are decent rail trail/bike path options in every state, so do some research and you should be able to find one that fits your needs.
Think about what kids like when planning a route. Are there fun spots to stop and play? Beaches, rivers, museums, ice cream, etc, are all important to kids.
Shocker: They’re not really there for the biking. The more you help them enjoy it, the more likely they’ll want to do it again.
Bikes and Gear for Bike Touring with Kids
Next- bikes and gear….which is the hardest part to figure out.
Bike touring gear for adults
We ride Surly Long Haul Truckers, which seem to be a popular choice for long distance cyclists, and they’ve held up beautifully.
If you plan on being self supported, a rear and possibly front rack are essential, as well as panniers (bags that clip to your rack) to pack your things. We love the waterproof and bright colored Ortleib bags.
Also, we found Kids Camelbaks easier for our kids to use and actually hydrate with than bottles.
Bike touring gear for kids
For the kids, there are several options. If they’re able to pedal their own bikes, you can choose distances/routes that are reasonable for them and save yourself some weight. We did a mix of both.
On bike paths, we let our kids pedal. On highways or busy roads, we used Follow-Me-Tandems, to attach the kids bikes to ours. They’re heavy and a bit complicated to use, but they do the job to keep the kids from swerving into traffic and not getting left behind when we need to make up some time.
Bike touring with babies and toddlers gear
For babies and toddlers there are several options. We pulled our thule chariot for the baby. That way he could nap easily and be protected from the sun/wind/rain or whatever elements we encountered. And we could shove extra gear in there as well.
Some people prefer a rear or front bike seat. It’s totally whatever works for your family.
When packing for a bike trip, remember you have to carry everything, so the lighter the better! It’s easy to over pack, so remember you won’t use as much as you think!
Tents for bikepacking
Depending on your family or group size, the tent is the heaviest piece of camping gear. There are lots of options, but look for light and compact. Something higher quality so you don’t get wet in a heavy storm or break from strong winds (or kids having a sleeping bag wrestling match with Dad!).
We have loved the Mountain Hardware Hammerhead 3 man and the M.H. Hoopster 6 man. If your kids are a bit older two lightweight tents might make more sense than one big one. Again, think like a backpacker.
Sleeping bags for bike touring
With sleeping bags, light and compact are also the name of the game. You can find kids backpacking sleeping bags or use a lightweight adult bag and keep the bottom in the stuff sack to better fit your kid. We’ve done both and it just comes down to preference and temperature needed.
Compression stuff sacks are great to pack them in. Down is lighter, but synthetic is a little more versatile/less stress.
Kitchen camping gear for bike touring
Other camping gear you’ll need is a good backpacking stove, fuel, mess kits and pots/pans.
The GSI bugaboo basecamper pot/mess kits are great quality and versatile enough to feed a family of picky eaters.
Bike Touring Clothing
Our biggest mistake was bringing too many clothes! We’ve ended up mailing boxes of unneeded things home multiple times.
We generally pack a set of base layers to sleep in if it’s colder at night, 1-2 sets of riding clothes depending on how long you’ll be out, and a set of camp clothes if you’re feeling extravagant. I like a set for the kids at least because you never know! You’ll also want some warmer layers depending on weather. Either a fleece or lightweight down jacket, and rain gear if needed. Even in summer, I like to throw in a light jacket just in case. Packable down jackets are great.
Clothing material should be lightweight, quick drying, and easy to care for. We love wool because its temperature regulating and doesn’t get stinky. Another favorite is the patagonia capilene. Our baby lived in those thermals for two months down the coast. Durable and easy to clean even through all the diaper blowouts.
We had our kids ride in a pair of tennis shoes and brought a spare pair of sandals (like crocs) to wear around camp. Also, we had them use Patagonia Baggies shorts that can double as riding shorts and swim shorts! Any time you can use one thing for two purposes is a win in my book!
A note- make sure the kids shirts are bright colored, for visibility!
Bike Touring with Kids Safety
And we’re parents here, so of course we need to feel like our kids are safe and we’re not taking unnecessary risks. We’ve had lots of situations where we could have prepared more, chosen better routes, taken a less risky route, etc. Part of the appeal of bike touring is the adventure, so nothing is going to be executed perfectly and you shouldn’t expect it to.
Research beforehand and have some alternate plans in case something doesn’t work out. Make your bikes and your kids very visible if you’re on the road. Bright colored clothing or vests, flags, tassels, etc. The bags on my bike are bright yellow.
We have a giant BABY ON BOARD sign on the back of our chariot. And on the coast, when shoulders were small and tourist drivers were distracted, we put a flag that stuck out horizontally from our trailer a couple feet to remind drivers to give us space! Do what you need to do to keep your kiddos as safe as you can.
Another aspect of safety is having bike knowledge. You may not be in a town or near a bike shop all the time. Learn how to change a tire, fix a chain, fiddle with brakes, etc. Carry spares of things that could break. Have a pump, spare tubes and patch kits. More importantly, have the knowledge to use those things.
Other things to think about- sunscreen, bug spray, first aid kit, and water purifier. We’ve biked into many towns without potable water and it’s handy to have a way to purify it.
Food for Bikepacking
There are so many options for food. You can go all out and dehydrate a bunch of food, plan meals, etc. You can hit grocery stores daily or weekly depending on your route. You can eat out.
We usually do a combination- grocery store planning for breakfast and dinner, and look for a cafe for lunch. It’s always fun to hit roadside food stands for fresh fruits and veggies. We have found pasta and rice dishes with lots of add-ins (meat, veggies, cheese, etc) work great for our family.
We have easy lunch snacks in case there are none available. Mostly, just make sure you eat a lot! We add peanut butter to everything! We run on chocolate milkshakes.
You’re burning mega calories pulling all that gear, so don’t skimp! And our kids like to snack a ton on bike trips, so just load yourself up with quality eats!
Keeping kids entertained when bike touring
As far as kid specific tips, we’ve found a few things that keep things fun for little ones. Mini lego sets don’t cost much, and keep the kids entertained while you set up camp or cook dinner.
We usually pack a little notebook for each kid and some colored pencils. We encourage them to journal or draw things from the trip. Our recent tour, the kids wanted to make a podcast, so we recorded our trip notes each night and they loved it.
It’s a fun way to remember the adventure and share it with family and friends. Our kids also like to bring a little fishing net or pole to play with during breaks.
Take lots of breaks with kids
We make sure to take lots of breaks. Playgrounds, beaches, creeks, etc. things that kids are interested in. It’s hard not to focus on mileage, but we’ve found with our kids, it’s more important to focus on memories and experiences so they’ll want to go again.
We only did 185 miles in 10 days this past fall, but our kids have been begging to go again ever since, so we feel like the trip was a success.
Try for a memorable trip, not an epic one.
That helps to avoid meltdowns and mutinies. Don’t be afraid to take a few days off, get a hotel and relax mid trip (if it’s a longer one). We’ve found that keeps morale higher. And don’t be afraid to think out of the box.
For example, this fall we had thick wildfire smoke during our north idaho trip, and a section of roads I didn’t feel comfortable taking my kids on. My husband had the idea to rent a U-Haul, load up the bikes and drive to a safer and more enjoyable section. It was just what we needed.
We figured as long as we were having a good time, kept our kids safe and didn’t have to end our trip before we were ready, then it was a success.
Bike touring isn’t easy, but it’s some of our favorite family memories
Bike touring with kids is challenging. Your loads are heavy, and there’s a lot of hard things to deal with.
Hills, struggling kids, the work of packing and unpacking bikes and camp every day, and unpredictable situations.
But it’s also one of the most rewarding things we’ve done as a family. Our kids learn to struggle through hard things, to help out with the work, to connect with communities and unknown areas, and appreciate how easy car travel is.
They love exploring and camping in a new place every night, and I love having quality family time without regular life getting in the way. It’s work, but I hope you’re able to get out with your family and experience bike travel.
There really is nothing else like it.
After all being a parent is already hard, why not add wheels?!
Bike Touring with Kids
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