Whether you are new to cycling and looking for a way to get some exercise and spend time with the family, or a veteran cyclist who is new to parenthood, we are here to give you some tips and advice on how to get started cycling with kids. We’ll review the different methods of carrying a kiddo on your bike—child bike seat (front and rear), trailer, cargo bike, or trailer-cycle—as well as how to help them learn and love riding on their own.
First things first: riding bikes with kids is not the same as riding bikes on your own. There are going to be lots of stops, the pace will probably be slower, and you will have to find creative ways to keep them entertained. That said, cycling is a family can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things you’ll ever do. The first step is to pick the appropriate gear for your family.
What’s better—a bike seat or a trailer?
This is a trick question, there is no better—just what’s best for your family. In either case, your child will need to be 12 months old and have good neck strength to start riding with you. (For babies younger than 12 months, read this article on cycling with infants first).
In our family, we use a combination of both (we ride a lot)! Without a doubt, our favorite is a front-mounted bike seat. We’ve been riding with our son in an iBert seat since he turned a year old and we love being able to chat with him while we ride, and he loves being up front and feeling involved. As mountain bikers, we also like the front seat for the ability to ride it off-road on mild singletrack. (The Mac Ride also works well for mountain biking).
The drawback of a front-mounted seat is that it only fits children up to about 35 pounds. Older kids, however, can still fit in a rear-mounted seat. Rear-mounted seats can also be nice for those with longer legs or a small bike, where a front mounted seat might interfere with pedaling and steering. In fact, bike compatibility is always an issue with seats.
Please note, the safety of both front and rear mounted seats is often debated. Seats are widely used in Europe but are less accepted in the United States. Here is an article that outlines the safety concerns that many feel. Having extensive experience riding with a front mounted seat, I feel comfortable with it personally, but it is certainly up to the individual rider. For those primarily concerned with safety, we recommend using a trailer.
The thing I love about trailers is the ability to haul stuff. Any parent knows that if you leave the house for more than 10 minutes with a young child, you have to bring supplies along–spare clothes, diapers, snacks, toys, you name it. Most child bicycle trailers have ample storage to bring along everything plus the kitchen sink (of course the weight penalty that comes with this might be problematic).
The other nice thing about trailers is the ability to carry more than one child. There are several trailer models out there designed to carry two small children—something that is challenging to do with a bike seat (although we’ve seen bikes with both front and rear seats mounted). Many trailers on the market also convert to a jogger or stroller, which can be nice for active families who only want to make one large purchase.
The biggest drawback to a trailer is keeping a kiddo entertained in there. For my son at least, he gets bored easily. I have to turn around to see or talk to him, and he doesn’t feel part of the action. Giving him toys to play with, a snack to eat, and keeping the ride short (to the park or grocery store) definitely helps.
Other options for hauling kids
Although not as common as child seats or trailers, there are several other great options for hauling kids. These include cargo bikes and trailer-cycles.
Cargo bikes, rarely seen in the US outside of cycling-crazy cities like Seattle, are hugely popular in Europe. These bikes may be used to carry kids or gear. Most bikes used to transport kids have either a bucket up front or in the rear with buckles to keep them safe. This is a great option for families who live the cycling lifestyle, who commute by bike, and are willing to make the investment in a bike specifically for riding with their kids.
For slightly older children, a trailer-cycle is a great option. This is for kids who might be old enough to ride a bike on their own but wouldn’t be able to keep up or ride as far as mom and dad. Most trailer-cycles attach to the rear seat-post and provide a detachable tandem seat for the child. The child is able to pedal along and be part of the action. The innovative Weehoo iGo is another type of trailer-cycle that allows the child to pedal along in a recumbent-type seat. Kids as young as 2 can ride in the seat and have the option to sit back and relax (or sleep) rather than pedal.
Encouraging and teaching kids to ride a bike
Kids can start riding a balance bike around 18 months old. Balance bikes are pedal-less bicycles that encourage development of gross motor skills. Toddlers can walk, toddle, and scoot along until they gain the confidence to lift their feet and coast. Regardless of whether they start at 18 months, 3 years old, or 5 years old, we recommend all kids start on a balance bike rather than a pedal bike. It allows them to gain the feel for balancing a bike prior to adding pedals to the mix.
For kids who start on a balance bike at a young age, they generally are able to move to a pedal bike without training wheels at a much earlier age (some as early as 2.5 or 3) than those who started directly on a bike with training wheels. Of course, training wheels aren’t always bad (we’ve used them)! If your child is on a bike with training wheels, it is important to raise them periodically so the bike is slightly unstable and your child begins to learn to balance on their own.
Of course, teaching kids to ride a bike and getting them excited about riding a bike are two different things. The most important thing is making it fun! Kids are hugely influenced by what they see their parents doing. If you are going for bike rides and are enthusiastic about cycling yourself, kids will want to try biking too. You can also show them youtube videos of kids riding or invite friends or neighborhood kids over who enjoy riding their bikes. Fun is contagious!
Keep rides short, and let your child dictate how long they want to ride for. If they say they want to go home, go home. Find a fun destination (the playground, a BMX park, the ice cream parlor) and make it more about the fun of the outing than about cycling itself.
Keeping kids entertained
When riding with our son in the front mounted seat, it is pretty easy to keep him entertained. My husband has a speaker on his handlebar and they listen to music and sing together. Next to the speaker, he has a “fun” bell that our son can reach and ring every time he remembers he’s having fun (which is a lot). The benefit of the seat is the ability to talk to your kiddo easily, and they talk about things they see, adventures they are going to have, and the day at school.
The trailer is a little bit trickier (for our little one), but still doable with proper planning. We make sure he has a few toys, paper and crayons, a sippy cup, and a snack. If we are riding as a family, the parent that’s not pulling the trailer hangs back to chat with him. A blanket lets him take a nap if he feels like it.
Perhaps even more important than the journey is the destination. We usually pick a fun place to ride to—the playground, dinner, a hiking trail. We talk to our son ahead of time about where we are going so he’s more likely to be willing and excited to go along.
Now that he’s getting older, he often asks to ride on his own. If we’re not in a big hurry, we often let him start out on his bike. This is when I really love the trailer. He can ride a few miles until he’s tired, and then we strap his bike to the trailer, and he climbs in for a rest. Win-win. We even do this mountain biking, and I’ll strap his balance bike to my back when he’s done riding.
Helmets and Gear
Whether your little one is riding their own bike or with you, a good helmet is non-negotiable. Pretty much all helmets for sale in the US are CPSC/ASTM certified. That said, some are better than others. For older babies and toddlers, weight is key as they are still so small and neck strength is limited.
Young kids don’t need special clothing for cycling, although it is important that they are comfortable. Sweats and gym clothes are ideal. If they want to look cool, get them a cycling jersey to match mom and dad. If they are riding on their own, gloves and protective pads are recommended to help cushion falls.
One other thing to consider is the temperature outdoors. We often ride year-round with our toddler, so it is important to dress in layers. If your little one is riding in a front-mounted bike seat, realize they are getting the full brunt of any wind chill, and they aren’t pedaling to generate heat like you are.
Where to ride
The best places to ride with young kids are on bike paths or rail trails. Free from vehicular traffic, you can focus on fun not on dodging cars. If your town doesn’t have great cycling infrastructure, you can piece together a ride on residential roads. Avoid major thoroughfares if at all possible. Remember always to use the bike lane or the side of the far right lane; never ride on the sidewalk, which is illegal in most places.