Bike with Kids

Winter Biking with Kids (emphasis on the 5 and under set)

December Kidical Mass. Photo by Gin Kilgore

When is it safe to transport your wobbly headed baby by bicycle? The standard advice is to hold off until his or her neck is strong enough to withstand the potholes--about 12 months old. For bike-centric families, this wait can seem interminable. That first year is a good time to slow down, explore other modes. . . and research your options for the day you will finally be able to ride with your child. If the 1st birthday falls closer to Thanksgiving than Memorial Day, don't fret. Most Bike Winter parents agree: with a little extra gear and patient preparation, biking with young children year-round is easier (and warmer!) than it may look.

Jane and family on a St. Patrick's Day ride. Photo courtesy of Cigdem Tunar.

Jane Healy, board president of Active Transportation Alliance, is a role model to many Chicago-area biking families. She transported her three children by bicycle trailer through wind, rain and snow; all three are now confident young cyclists. "They never complained about being too cold; in fact, it was usually just the opposite" says Jane. "Even on the windiest, coldest days when I covered every extremity, they were comfortable in their little cocoon."

For me and Michael, parents to now 4 year old Miguel, the answer to the question "Bike seat or trailer?" is "Yes!" especially since we have enough room to store both. There are pros and cons to each, discussed below. If you have a partner who will be sharing in the kid-towing, buy extra hitches so you can switch off. The last few years have also seen a surge in Dutch style cargo bikes. It's a bigger investment (still much less than a car), but they provide a smooth, sturdy, stylish ride with plenty of room for kids and groceries. 

No matter what choice you make, allow you and your child time to build up your skills and confidence. Stop by your local bike shop to make sure your bike and accessories are in good working order. Start off with easy, low-stakes trips and do test runs with a partner who can provide feedback on lane positioning and visibility. Try to make those first biking experiences positive for your child, with a fun destination. Kids usually respond well, but it can take some trial and error to figure out what will make them feel comfortable, and you feel safe. Take comfort in knowing there are many other biking families who have worked through the learning curve and are on call to help you out!

Trailers--Cozy Cocoons

Miguel snacking and  saying "Happy Winter"  before we raced--slowly and carefully--the Blizzard of 2011 home.
Photo by Gin Kilgore


With the rain flaps down, bike trailers are a wind-chill and splatter free zone for kids. Dress your child as you would for a regular cold weather outing to a park. The greatest risk is that he or she will be too warm in the trailer. We tuck a fleece blanket around Miguel's legs on particularly cold days and because he usually prefers the flap up, regardless of the temperature.

Compared to a bike seat, trailers provide more options for carrying other items--they usually have a rear compartment and you can still use your rear rack for panniers. Trailers also make it easier for kids to read, play with toys, nap or snack. However, just like a car, you'll need to vacuum out the crumbs. One downside of trailers is that they can be a little harder to maneuver on slushy streets, and you have to get used to taking up more space on the road, especially when turning. On the flip side, if the riding adult should happen to go down, the trailer remains upright. Other tips:

  • Add lights, reflective tape and a jaunty flag: You might have to experiment to find a way to make the trailer visible from all sides, but it's well worth your piece of mind. Test it out by asking someone to bike or drive behind you to give feedback on your visibility. Photo courtesy of Jane Healy.
  • Use fenders, Otherwise the kids get a steady stream of goop on their windows, or worse, under the storm flaps. (Although if you're biking in the winter, you already have fenders, right?)
  • Plan for parking: When you park outside, make sure the flaps are down so rain and snow don't sneak in. Use an extra lock and cable to protect your investment. If you park inside, use cardboard or other floor coverings to collect slush and grime. Or, like us, just wait until spring to mop up the foyer.
  • Check for leaks: Trailers usually are weatherproofed, but if the seams appear to be taking in water, use seam sealant, available at camping supply stores, some sports stores and some discount chains.

Bike Seats--For the Co-pilots

Photo courtesy of Liz Durham

Compared to trailers, bike seats take up less space on the road and in storage. Sitting higher up and closer to you than in a trailer, your passenger has a better view and can easily communicate with you. Cons include less space for carrying other items. Also, you can feel unstable at first, especially when starting and stopping.

For colder weather, bundle them up, and cover as much skin as possible. While you are warming up with exercise, he or she is just sitting exposed to the elements. Options include an under-layer (long johns or tights) or snowpants, plus a child sized balaclava that fits under the helmet, or a hat plus gator or scarf to cover the ears, neck and cheeks. There are even specific ponchos that cover child, helmet and seat. Some parents only use their bike seats when streets are clear and the weather is not too harsh; a judgment call. Michael and I usually switch to the trailer Nov-March. More tips:

  • Use Vaseline or zinc based sunscreen on any exposed skin for wind and sun protection.
  • Put long adult socks over their hands and arms before they put on their coat, than add mittens. This is especially useful for when kids take their gloves off mid-ride. Mitten clips also help.
  • Lean the bike against a wall when putting your child in the seat.
  • Install a front rack to make up for loss of rear cargo capacity, or use a cargo trailer.
  • For visibility, add lights and reflective tape to the back and sides of the bike seat.

Cargo Bikes--Modern Day Carriages

December Kidical Mass Photo by Gin Kilgore

Much of the advice above applies to cargo bikes. One advantage of cargo bikes is that their size makes them inherently visible, and locks and lights are often built in. Indeed, everything is built in, so you don't have to fiddle with connecting your trailer, or worry about your bike tipping over when using a bike seat. Before you buy, check to see if it comes with a cover that can go over the box, or plan to make one yourself. Blankets work great in cargo bikes, conjuring up images of carriage rides and baked potatoes in pockets.


November Kidical Mass. Photo by Gin Kilgore

Kidical Mass rides are a great place to meet other cycling families, share tips and have fun! In Chicago, the Logan Square Critical Mass meets at the Palmer Square "bunny park" on the second Saturday of every month, 10:30am-- rain, snow or shine!  And new Kidical Mass rides are quickly spreading across the globe:

Other Resources

In no particular order, here are some blogs and other resources.

Please share your advice for biking with children of all ages in the comments section below and stay tuned for a page devoted to the winter biking needs of older children. --Gin Kilgore, February, 2011

Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Kids Bikes

It's really such a heartwarming thing to see kids go out and play. That clearly includes biking. I bought my eldest son his very own kid's bike which is a BMX at the age of 5 and he really loves it. He makes sure he uses it every day after school and during the weekends.

A heavy duty bike rack can work for kid transit, too

I frequently put my now 8 yr old up onto the back of my bike, where she sits on my heavy duty rack. She weighs 80 lbs. This works because the rack has a nice, flat surface. When I plan ahead, we put a small tube pillow on the rack to make it more comfy (and in the winter, to keep her butt from freezing on the cold metal!). Gen has been riding to/from school this way for over 3 years, although now she rides her own bike most of the time. I only toss her up back if we walked to school in the morning and I decide to pick her up by bike in the pm, or if there is a lot of snow or slush on the street (she doesn't have fenders on her small bike). Riding pillion is a very common sight in Europe, even for adults. I sometimes put my 7th grader on the back, but she is now full size (5'6" and 118 lbs). Carrying her on the back is hard work!

Rain pants for pre-K kids?

Hi Bike Winter friends,
Now that our daughter (and many friends) are biking on their own wheels more and more, the question of youth size rain pants has come up. Any good sources to recommend?
Lisa P

I found a pair at REI online.

I found a pair at REI online. I think they are more like snow pants but they work.

Don't forget long tail bikes!

First...I love this article! It gives great options for parents looking to ride with their young ones. I like that bike options are discussed as well as details on how to keep children warm.
I would add longtail bikes (like Xtracycle and Surly Big Dummy) to your list. They allow for seating plus some cargo space. For example, I regularly load 6-7 bags of groceries along with my 4 year old. I could do more but rarely have the need. Also, because of the longer wheel base, the balance issues of rear child seats are minimized. I am more selective about when to ride in the winter with my child. I still ride but I wait for the roads to have been cleared a bit before any longer rides with the little one.