Archive for July, 2015

Gear Talk: Biking with Kids

Note: a version of this article was reprinted in the Fall of 2015 Maine Cyclist, the news magazine of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. Additional updates have been made to this post over time.

Summer is in full swing and I see families out biking on all kinds of equipment – some traditional, some not. Our daughter, Cedar, is eight years old now but I remember well that first year or so of trying to navigate possibilities for getting around by bike with a very little person. And while bike set-ups are way cheaper than owning one or more household vehicles – the potential costs involved can be barriers, too.

On top of that, there are a number of suggestions for when it’s appropriate to start (like when a baby’s head is strong enough) which I found a bit paralyzing, too. The good news is that in 2012 the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition produced a fantastic Family Biking Guide for every stage from pregnancy on up. (I wish this had been out when we first started!)

Bottomline: what works for each family and each rider’s comfort level  – and budget – is completely personal.

Just in case it’s helpful, I’ve used the following:


  • Age 1-5 – A single-passenger Burley trailer that was passed on to us (I still use it as a trunk for lugging stuff around town – like 80 pounds of tomatoes from the farmer’s market. Okay, that might be a bit over the official weight limit for the trailer.)
  • Age 3-4 – An Adams Trail-a-Bike passed on to us.  This was great for short trips but more than about an hour around town and she would often get sleepy – of course this entirely depends on your kid.
  • Rob & Cedar in Newfoundland - cropped

    Used hard every day of our four month family bicycling sabbatical in 2012 – this photo from Newfoundland. Then a reprise for the last two months of our cross-country bike trip in 2016.

    Ages 4-5, then again at 9 – A WeeHoo i-Go – for about a year of around town commuting and then our 4 month family bicycling sabbatical through Atlantic Canada and Quebec. You can read more about our experience with the WeeHoo and my retrofits for traveling here. When our daughter became more interested in riding by herself, we then passed the WeeHoo on to our friends and god-daughter, Karah – it was perfect when she was too scared to start biking on a Trail-a-Bike. Note: in 2016, at age 9, Cedar needed a break from riding on our trip across the U.S., so our friends packed up and shipped us back the WeeHoo to help us get to the finish. She was so much more relaxed – and did a ton of pedaling, too!

  • Age 5-6 – A Trail-a-Gator to hook her up when needed for about a year until I bought a bike with a front tire that couldn’t clear off the ground. It doesn’t work with all bike models.
  • Rob & Cedar with stoker bar - closeup

    Still a great (and simple) around-town option for us – Cedar weighs 57 pounds at age 11. We just used it to get downtown for music on Friday night.

    Age 5 through the present: We put her on my poor-man’s cargo bike stoker set-up.  It’s a simple Stoker Bar that used to be carried by Xtra-Cycle – and is likely available in other forms through tandem bike suppliers – and I’d check used parts options like ebay, too. We paired it with our heavy-weight Surly Long Haul Trucker touring/commuter bike and a 50+ lbs. capacity rear rack, with a foam pad strapped on top of the rack. She’s still only 45 pounds, so it’s worked well since she was 5. Our apartment set-up makes it impossible, space-wise, to have a separate cargo bike (plus there’s the extra cost). In terms of having passengers on the back of your bike who have to hang on, go based on how you feel about your kid paying attention. In the beginning, I had her straddle the rack and put her feet in the panniers because I worried about her forgetting and letting her feet get caught in the spokes. Now she rides sidesaddle and does tricks back there. [Notes from 2021: (1) Cedar is 14 now and still short enough (4’11”) that she can ride sidesaddle on the rack if I’m meeting up with her and she doesn’t have her own bike with her. Although for any big hills, I make her jump off and jog along beside me; I’m so slow she can easily keep up. (2) If your bike doesn’t have eyelets for adding a rack, I recently came across this 310lb (wow!) capacity rack that can attach to any standard bike frame. Just make sure your frame is sturdy enough to carry the extra weight (i.e., steel vs. carbon fiber, etc.] 

  • Age 7 through 9 –  We hooked her up with a Follow Me when needed.  It was pricey but is super solid and fit her updated 20” bike when the Trail-A-Gator didn’t – plus it saved us multiple times a day when we did a 2 week bike camping trip in Quebec in 2014.
  • IMG_3526

    The tandem rack got us to the Mississipi on our trip across the U.S. Flimsy to look at initially, it stood up to a ton of wear and abuse!

    Age 9+ – in December 2015 we upgraded Cedar to a 24″ Islabikes Beinn (thankfully they run a little small). So we had outgrown all the standard attachments like the Trail-a-Gator and the Follow Me. Thus, we decided to try a little-advertised and seemingly quirky towbar set-up, called the X2Cycle Tandem Rack. We experimented with it briefly before the snow really settled in and it worked, although it’s a lot jerkier of a feel getting towed this way and Cedar can’t totally check out and rest (she still has to steer). It still provides important tow assist though and ending up being essential for getting us to the Mississippi on our 2016 cross-country bicycle trip, when Cedar wanted to ride on her own at first. Note: in March 2018 I tried the X2Cycle site and got an error message and a Google Search produced no other site. I’m afraid they have gone out of production…But if you’re interested in one, I’d check around for one used – via Google Search and also any online biking forums.

Biking on Their Own:

  • Age 3-5 – A cheap pedal-less Walmart balance bike – but plenty of kids get started on them younger.
  • Cedar on her 1st 2 wheelerAge 5 – She started riding her own pedal bike – again, passed on to us. We’d had multiple small bikes with training wheels and she’d been fairly uninterested – giving them a go every few months for a time or two. Then one Sunday night in the apartment she asked me to take them off and, after ten minutes of flying toward furniture, she was riding. There are kids who are comfortable way younger than that and others that hit their stride riding their own bike at age 8 or older – whatever works. I’m a big believer in not pushing.
  • Taking a quick break on our Christmas Day bike ride to visit friends this past winter.

    Taking a quick break on our Christmas Day bike ride to visit friends in 2014. We always say, “there’s no shame in walking!”

    Age 6-8: A 20” six-gear bike to get around.  Height is as important as the child’s age when determining the best size bike – I like this simple sizing chart for thinking it through. And of course, the final test is to make sure the frame fits comfortably between their legs, with at least an inch of space to spare at the top with their feet flat on the ground.

  • Age 9 to present – Speaking of frame size, if your little person is on the small side, consider what we went with when Cedar had just turned 9, as mentioned above – a 24″ Islabikes Beinn. We were hoping to help Cedar with speed for the cross-country trip, via a larger wheel size. However, most 24″ bike frames were too big. The Beinn was a perfect fit.

Fording a stream on a back road in Indiana.


All the standard safety stuff holds for family biking (maybe more so as a parent?) That is, being visible and predictable and confident with biking in traffic – behaving as a vehicle and following the rules of the road. I highly recommend all teen and adult riders take a Cycling Savvy course (even those of us who feel fully comfortable riding). It’s a great skill-building experience, taught by thoughtful and caring instructors, and a real game-changer as a rider. I’ll make sure Cedar takes it once she’s old enough.

While I don’t believe the onus should be on bicyclists to make themselves more visible on the road, other than the legal requirement for lights, I also don’t trust the average motor vehicle driver to be attentive. So, just in case we might catch a distracted driver’s attention, we are also a traveling freak show with our visibility. E.g., neon yellow reflective vests worn even during the day and blinky ones at night, bright flags (I like this Sunlite Safety Flag reflective version) and triangles, orange sidebars you can extend just a bit past your panniers, superflash blinking taillights, reflective material sewn into various pieces of gear, reflective spoke ornaments, reflective stickers on our helmets, etc. It’s total overkill but I notice that my eye picks this stuff up more as a motorist.

It’s a lot of mix & match. Experiment with what works for you and find a way to get out there with your family. It’s not easy every time out there and every moment, but mostly it’s a real liberation and joy! And if you’ve got a set-up that’s really worked for you – please leave a comment and/or reply to my Twitter post.

Hope this helps and feel free to let me know if you have questions or are trying to think through something specificallywe could talk more in person.

I’ve enjoyed this Totcycle blog over the years and gotten some good ideas – a lot of first-hand reviews, too. And if you Google “family biking” or “moms biking”, blogs and other fun references will always come up.

July 14, 2015 at 6:57 am Leave a comment

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