How to Mountain Bike with a Young Child
Before we had a child, our lives revolved around mountain biking. Now that we have a kiddo, they still do to a large extent, although our rides have gotten a bit shorter and our weekends a bit less epic. We’ve been mountain biking with our son since he was a year old. He’s now 4. In that time, we’ve ridden with him in Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, California, and Utah. He’s ridden singletrack on a balance bike and a pedal bike; he’s been hauled with the iBert, the Chariot, the Weehoo, the TykeToter, and the BicycleBungee. As the years have gone by, our needs have changed and we’ve gotten smarter.
Let me be clear right off the bat: mountain biking with a young child is NOT easy. It is HARD. There are bribes, tears, arguments, mechanicals, and crashes. If mountain biking is not REALLY important to you, dealing with the logistics of doing it with a young child is probably not worth it. That said, if you LOVE mountain biking, and you LOVE spending time outdoors with your family, then it’s not only doable—it’s possibly the most worthwhile thing you will ever do.
There is nothing in my thirty-two years on this planet that has been more fulfilling than dragging my three-year-old to the top of mountain summit and then seeing his face as he soaks it all in. Mountain biking with a child is just as much about exploring, and rock collecting, and dirt digging, and snack eating, than it is about actual riding. And every moment is glorious.
Going for a real mountain bike ride (and by that I mean anything more than hanging out at the pump track) takes quite a bit of effort. One thing we’ve always tried to do is to encourage our son to do some of the biking on his own. Even when he was 2, we would have him start a ride on his balance bike until he got tired. Of course this means two things: (1) you have to somehow haul the bike when they are finished, and (2) you have to somehow haul the kid.
Hauling your kid’s bike
We have played around with lots of different variations on how to carry the bike (first the balance bike, and now a pedal bike). Our most common method of hauling the bike is strapping it onto a backpack. We’ve also strapped it onto our hydration packs, but a larger backpack seems to work best. This takes a bit of practice, isn’t always that comfortable, but it is totally doable, and worthwhile. Just make sure that if you are riding tight singletrack to remember that you have a wide load on your back—I’ve been reminded of this the hard way a couple of times.
The other option is to use some sort of trailer to haul the bike. If you are sticking to dirt roads and doubletrack, the Thule Chariot makes carrying a bike really easy. Just stick it in the rear basket and you’re off. We’ve also used the Weehoo. This is a little trickier and requires your child to be short because the seat needs to be quite far forward. Perhaps a better option, and one that we haven’t tried yet but have seen other parents use, is a Bob trailer designed for singletrack.
Hauling your kid
Depending on how old your child is, and on your personal preference, there are several options for hauling your child while mountain biking. These include a trailer, a trailer-cycle (also known as a trail-a-bike), a tandem with a stoker kit, a front-mounted child seat, and some sort of bungee option.
Trailers are pretty limited in their use for mountain biking, as they are too wide for singletrack. The Tout Terrain Singletrailer is one notable exception to this, but is really only an option if you have a trust fund. If you are ok with sticking to dirt roads, canal paths, or double-track, then a trailer can be a good option. We have the Thule Chariot Cougar and love it for this kind of use. It has suspension which does a great job of absorbing vibration from dirt roads, and can be zipped closed for use in cold weather or rain.
Front Mounted Bike Seats
We’ve found that a front-mounted bike seat is our preferred method of biking with a toddler or young child. When our little boy was 12 months old, we started mountain biking with him in the iBert. When he outgrew that, we switched to the TykeToter. The front-mounted seat works well for mountain biking because it doesn’t increase your turning radius and it doesn’t add much weight. We also like it because it’s easy to pack in the car, or even to fly with. The downside, of course, is that if you crash, your little one is going to crash as well. Seats to consider for mountain biking include:
Trailer-cycles are also a great option for mountain biking. They allow the child to pedal along which adds engagement and can help keep them entertained. If the kid actually pedals, it also helps with the weight of having to haul them. The downside is that trailer-cycles can be rough for the child (no suspension) and they increase your turning radius making it difficult to make tight switchbacks, etc. We’ve done quite a bit of biking with the Weehoo trailer-cycle which has a unique recumbent design, and is ideal for biking with toddlers (ages 2 and up) because you can actually buckle them in. Another trailer-cycls that work well for mountain biking is the Burley Piccolo.
Tandem with a Stoker Kit
This may likely be one of our next purchases. If you can afford yet another mountain bike, a tandem is an ideal setup for mountain biking with a child. By modifying it with a stoker kit, even a small child can fit on back with you.
While we’ve seen some super entertaining bungee cord set-ups over on the MTBR family forum, we prefer the BicycleBungee. This unique device attaches from the adult’s seatpost to the child’s handlebars or headset and allows you to pull them uphill. If your child is ready to do a fair amount of mountain biking solo, but still needs help getting up hills, this product is awesome.
Distance and Length
If you are just starting out, limit yourself to 5 miles or so. However long a ride would normally take on your own, double that for riding as a family. Our weekend rides are typically around 10 miles and often take around 3 hours.
Expect to take lots of stops. Stops for snacks. Stops for collecting leaves. Stops for using the potty. The more relaxed you can be about it all, the better the experience will be for everyone.
Even toddlers on balance bikes can mountain bike. That said, you want to look for a slightly higher quality balance bike than what you might for use in the driveway. For kids 2.5 or older, I strongly suggest a handbrake. Also, you want a bike with pneumatic (air) tires rather than foam as they get superior traction when riding off-road. These are my favorite balance bikes for riding off-road:
Fortunately, there are a few brands building really nice kids bikes that are adequate for riding on singletrack. Of these, our favorite is Woom. Their bikes for young kids feature dual handbrakes, a freehub, Kenda tires, and extremely lightweight builds. Our son rides the Woom 2 and has used it in extremely technical singletrack to great success. Other brands that are good for mountain biking include:
Here are some other random things we’ve learned that might be helpful.
- Start your ride at a bike park or pump track. If you don’t feel like hauling your child’s bike, but want to let them ride, start out by riding at the bike park and then hitting up singletrack afterward. We do this quite often where we might let our son ride the pump track for 45 minutes or so, get out a bunch of energy, and then we’ll throw him on the TykeToter for a couple hours for a trail ride.
- Bring LOTS of snacks. Seriously guys, you can never have too many snacks.
- Bring extra clothes. Remember that the way you are dressing may not be appropriate for your child. Particularly if you are hauling them, they may not be working that hard. If they are in a front mounted seat, they are quite exposed also. Bring an extra layer or two; there’s nothing worse than a cold kid.
- Put them in good shoes. If your child is going to be doing part of the ride on their own, make sure they have really good shoes. Kids riding balance bikes in particular rip up their shoes really easily dragging their feet over rocks. Invest in a good pair of hiking boots or similar.
- Buy a bell. If using a front-mounted seat, a bell on your handlebars can provide endless entertainment for a child. If they are riding their own bike or a trailer-cycle, a bell can be fun in those instances also.
- Have a reward. While we never explicitly promise any kind of reward, we usually try to do something at the end of the ride to create positive association for our son. For instance, one of our favorite trails ends at a playground so we let him have time there when we finish. Or, we might go get an ice cream after our ride.
- Teach them trail etiquette. Kids are really never too young to start learning trail etiquette. Even when our son was a toddler, he learned how to move over to the side of the trail for faster riders and for hikers.
Isn’t mountain biking with a young child dangerous?
I imagine it is. Then again, DRIVING with a young child is dangerous also but that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone. In 3 years of mountain biking with our son, he has NEVER gotten hurt. Well, that’s not quite true—he has fallen off his bike and gotten scratched up….but that happens in the backyard too.
When can you start mountain biking with your child?
We started right before my sons first birthday. I don’t think you would want to start any sooner than that. Even then, we rode VERY mild trails for the first year or so.
Once your child can ride a balance bike in their driveway, they should be able to ride a balance bike on singletrack. For our son, this happened around 18 months. He started riding a pedal bike on singletrack at 3.
My child isn’t interested in biking. What do I do?
Don’t push it. If they see you riding, chances are, sooner or later they are going to want to try it too. As silly as it seems, accessories like a new helmet, some gloves, or a bell can be huge motivators for young kids. For more suggestions on how to motivate kids to ride, read this post.
I’m not going to lie to you, mountain biking with young kids can be A LOT of work. That said, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. And if it’s not working for you, then switch things up and try again. We’ve gone thru MANY iterations of how we bike with our son, how we motivate him, etc. If you love mountain biking, and you love your family, then family mountain biking might just be the best thing you’ll ever do.