A to Z of Cycling with Kids

Cycling with kids can be so much fun. A great way to spend quality time together as a family, enjoy the outdoors, explore new places and boost your health.   As a family we’ve been enjoying cycling adventures together, even when our kids were hitching a ride in their Mum’s tummy.  As they’ve grown our adventures have evolved and expanded, and we’ve learned a few things along the way.   To ensure everyone enjoys it, here are some tips to help you on your way, whether you are planning a single or multi-day adventure.

If you are used to being physically active, you will enjoy your cycling adventure so much more.  In preparation for an adventure, do some shorter rides with your kids.  Cycling to school, the library or swimming pool are good options.  Having a destination is great for kids, and then later you can use those distances as examples, e.g. “our lunch stop is as far away as a trip to school and back”.

It is important that you have bikes that are suitable for your size.  Although it is tempting to put kids on a too-large bike that they will grow into, the most important consideration is safety.  A child on a too-large bike may not be properly in control and more likely to come unstuck.  For both adults and kids, the right size and set up is essential to comfort.  Your local bike shop can help advise on size.  The second-hand marketplace is a great option for moving through the bike size range for your kids.  It is advisable to get any second hand bike safety checked by your bike shop.

Sharing your adventure with another family makes a huge difference to how much your kids enjoy the experience, and how far they can go!  Never under-estimate the power of distraction (and peer pressure)!  It also means they have someone to play with at the end of the day (whilst the grown ups are sorting out bikes and cooking dinner).  You’ll enjoy some adult conversation too!

My rule of thumb for choosing an appropriate distance for cycling with kids is to pick a reasonable distance for an adult and halve it.  Thus if a multi day ride suggests 50km days, change that to 25 km per day with kids.

Eat often and well.  Kids need very frequent snack breaks, probably two or three times as many as you might think.  Make sure the food available to them is nutritious and a good source of lasting energy.  Think like you a feeding an olympic athlete.  Sandwiches, bananas, muesli bars, apples, and crackers are great.  And later in the day, throw in some lovely treats like biscuits, lollies and ice cream as some extra motivation when energy levels drop.  Tip for the grown ups: don’t snack whenever the kids do, or you’ll end up heavier despite the riding!

Kids struggle with mind over matter, and sometimes need some help so they don’t get caught up in ‘this is too hard’ thinking.  We’ve found singing songs together works for my daughter, and for my son, storytelling works magic.  Now he is older he tells the stories, and our ears get more worn out that our legs!

There is a lot to consider when it comes to gear for you, your bike and your kids.  On longer or multi day rides, older kids will benefit from a waterpack (backpack which contains a water bladder and drinking tube).  Preschoolers can be towed in kiddy trailers where they are protected from the elements and can have a snooze.  We’ve even put our daughters balance bike in the trailer with her, so she could self-propel from time to time.  Once they hit school age they will be ready to ride with assistance.  A trail-gator (attachment that allows you to tow them on their own bike), a tag-a-long/half-bike (one wheeled bike trailer with pedals and seat), or a Wee-Hoo (recumbent half bike) are all options which allow them to help pedel.  When they are expending energy too they won’t be bouncing off the walls when you get to the end.  (Unless of course you plan for them to cook dinner). Panniers (or jaunty baskets) are great for adults to carry the picnic supplies, rain jackets, first aid kits, treasures found on the trail and of course lots and lots of snacks.  It’s less fun to carry it all on your back.  Helmets are non negotiable.

Bringing your family sense of humour along is essential.  Things don’t always go according to plan and it will help if you can relax and laugh about it.  What a great life lesson!

Interesting places
In New Zealand we are lucky to have biking trails in places of great historical interest, natural beauty and interesting attractions.  This is where you can remind yourself it is about the journey not the destination.  Stop and explore, see the world through a child’s eyes.  Read the signs, play ‘Pooh sticks’ off the bridge, ride through the tunnel a few extra times, explore side tracks.  Ride quietly for a time and listen to/spot the wildlife.  Plan to have all day to do your distance.  Talk about what you are seeing, the history.  Tell family stories.  Connect to the place you are in.  On a multi day ride, consider a rest day to allow for extra exploration of special points of interest.

In New Zealand, a country of extreme beauty, we can experience some extreme weather.  I’ve seen exposure/hypothermia set in in February, snow in January and more rain than anyone could imagine.  So despite your best planning, chances are the weather will throw something at you.  Carry great quality rain jackets at all times, and mostly it is prudent to also carry some fleece or thermals as well.  Light-weight layers, which can be added and easily stowed, are the way to go.  When buying a rain jacket, find one that is more than just shower-proof, and try and find one with some reflective strips or visibility features.  I like the ‘RoadWorks’ ones for that purpose and they are well priced compared to the outdoor adventure brands.

Remember they are kids.  Notice I did not say ‘just kids’ because there are times they will astound you with their capacity!  But as kids they have a lot going on in their bodies and minds (like growing!) and some days will be tougher than others.  Your primary goal is to have fun, so go with the flow and adjust your plans as needed.  And never underestimate the power of a hug and some empathy, because, yes! you know this is tough for them right now.

Many would call me a food Nazi.  My kids eat healthy and I’m really proud of that.  BUT, lollies and treats have their place and what better place than a day when you are expending heaps of energy and stretching your personal limits.  So pack the favourites and ration them out.  Motivation, bribery, whatever!  Sadly for me, chocolate is not a great option – unless you like it liquid.

Chances are, you will not be the only people out using your route.  Walkers, farmers, livestock and other cyclists are all likely to be out there too.  So here is a brilliant chance as parents to teach your kids about manners, courtesy, sharing, treating others with respect, returning and giving friendly greetings, engaging in conversations with others, dog-safety, leaving gates as you find them (open/closed), respecting fences and boundaries and of course, taking your rubbish with you.

Nix are bike shorts with padding (chamois) in the area of saddle-contact.  You can get shy-shorts, where the padded bit is hidden beneath normal baggy shorts, or you can go for all out lycra.  The advantages of having some padding between your bottom and your saddle will become obvious to you sooner rather than later!  Some discomfort is necessary as your body adjusts, and is another reason to embark on training rides.  Padded or Gel saddles or seat covers are other options.  Any cream that helps with nappy rash will assist with saddle sores, although of course prevention is best.  Hygiene is essential, meaning clean cycling shorts everyday.  Use non-fragranced natural laundry detergent and machine wash gently to ensure no soap residue is left behind.

A lot of cyclists are gear freaks.  And bike computers are nifty little devices.  You can pick one up relatively cheaply and they are a handy way of keeping track of how far you’ve been.  Kids love to keep track of their distances, and might like to write them in a trip diary or travel journal.  It is also useful for planning rest stops, figuring out where you are, setting snack goals and regrouping points.  You can get similar measurements via apps on your smartphone, but you’ll need a special phone holder and confidence in your battery life.

Setting off into uncharted territory, riding off into the great unknown, playing it by ear, and seeing how it goes are all good strategies for confident, well equipped and experienced adult cyclists.  BUT when cycling with kids you need to dig deep inside yourself and find your inner-planner.  Use information from the internet (most trails have their own website), guidebooks, brochures and maps and PLAN.  Work out your daily distances and route.  Know what is available along the way – shops, toilets, shelter, exit points, water.  Book your accommodation (check it has laundry facilities!).  Know if the shop/cafe you are counting on will be open, considering it is the countryside not the city, and some places are seasonal.  Have enough food and water so that you can cope if the plan comes unstuck.  Boiled eggs, cans of tuna and extra sandwiches are all good back-ups to have on hand.

Many of the established tracks/trails have luggage transportation services.  And they will have a quota or limit on the weight of each bag.  This will be enforced as they have health and safety rules to contend with.  So bear this in mind and don’t pack the kitchen sink.  Believe it or not, you can probably do the trip with one pair of shoes and no hair dryer.  And toys are not really necessary: let the kids explore and improvise instead.  Pens and paper don’t weigh much and provide good rainy day/down time options.

Rail Trails
Our favourite family rides are rail trails.  We’ve done the Central Otago Rail Trail, the Hauraki Plains trail and the Rimutaka Incline.  Rail trails usually mean a good quality surface (not too loose or rutted) and a nice steady gradient (no huge climbs or heart stopping descents).  Plus you are usually away from traffic.  The NZ Cycle Trails are all graded and the rail trails are the easier options.

Safety, Surface, Skills
Keep yourselves safe and teach your kids how to ride safely.  Mostly, riding safely means riding predictably, with awareness and control.  So no cutting across others, swerving or suddenly slamming on the brakes.  Know how to hold your line (not swerving around the place).  Call out when you are passing someone (a friendly hello will usually do, although you can try “passing”).  Ensure you are visable.  No headphones.  Be confident in handling your bike in tighter spots and varying surfaces.  Have a bell on your bike to warn other trail users.  Carry a mobile phone so you can call for help.  Arrange regrouping points if your group are splitting up, and ensure everyone rides within eyeshot and earshot of at least one other person.

Speaking from experience here, it is important to have some skills and experience for riding safely on the type of surface you will be on.  Loose surface riding requires different skills and awareness than riding on a sealed path.  You need to know how to brake and steer smoothly and to avoid the deeper areas of loose gravel where you will have less traction.

Cycle skills training is available for all ages around the country.  Google it.

Skip this one if you are a sensitive soul.  However for the rest of us, needing the toilet is a fact of life.  Food and water in…. something must come out.  So if you are lucky, your bodily functions will coincide with the provision of lovely public facilities.  But be prepared for the reality of the great outdoors and carry toilet paper, a plastic bag to put your used paper in (yes really, as who wants to stumble across someone else’s used loo paper!!!) and some of that waterless hand sanitizing stuff.  For adult and teen females, try a she-wee, they rock!

My son has a life goal of repairing the ozone layer (he hates sunscreen), but in the meantime, sunscreen is a reality and necessary.  If you are unfamiliar with the NZ (and Australian) climate, you need to get familiar, very familiar, with sunscreen.  If not, the sun will burn you badly and ruin your trip.  So Slip, Slop, Slap, and reapply.

I love my bike and far prefer it as a mode of travel to my car.  But I must admit, cars have their uses when planning your bike ride.  Here are some ideas.

A to A ride.  For a single day ride, the car is an option (sometimes the only one) for getting to the start.  If you are lucky you may have the option of riding to the start or catching the train or a shuttle service.

A to B ride.  There are lots of options here including:

Car Shuttle – Use two cars, one parked at each end.

Bike Shuttle – Someone rides back along the trail (or road route) to pick up the car and bring it to the end to pick up the rest.

Shuttle/Train – make use of commercial services or public transport to get back to your vehicle/home.

Multi-day rides.  We’ve tried two different options here, and are considering a third (untried as yet).

Leaving our car at the end and catching a shuttle to the start point, utilising a luggage transport service to move gear between each nights accommodation.  Some operators provide secure parking for a fee.  This option feels more adventurous.
Leave our car at previous nights accommodation, cycle together to next overnight stop, one person cycles back and gets the car.  The advantages of this one are that you don’t need a luggage transfer service, you can dry your laundry in the car, and you have a car for getting around at your destination.
Hub method.  Stay in one place and use it as a hub for exploring the sections of the trail, returning back to base each day, or using your car as a mobile base to return to.

Make sure you have lots of water.  And since this is not a race or training session you won’t need sports drinks.  Availability of water refill spots can be very unpredictable so install extra water bottle holders on adults bikes to carry spare water.  Always carry your own water (and snacks), that way if you are separated from the rest of your party you won’t go without.  We’ve ended up feeding other people’s kids when they’ve ended up separate to their parents who are carrying all the food! (another reason to carry plenty!).  Waterpacks with bladders are great, and have room for snacks and sticking plasters too.

We all hope that we won’t end up at the local accident and emergency, but life has a way of being unpredictable.  So hope for the best and plan for the worst.  Carry a basic first aid kit and know how to use it.  You can get really tiny ones for hikers or make up your own in a little toiletry bag.

Chances are your kids love you!  They want to be with you and look to you to be their example.  Here is a chance to tick all those boxes and create some amazing family memories and tales to tell.  Take photos.  Chill out.  Be there.

You are the coach, the mentor, the entertainer, and the cheer-squad.

Think little athletes again here!  Despite the excitement of new places and being on holiday, your little athletes need their sleep and lots of it.  If you adopt a holiday anything goes approach to bedtime then they will get very tired and the wheels may fall off (and I’m not talking about the bike here).  You will probably want to go to bed early too!

A recumbent half-bike or trailer allows the littlies to have a sleep along the way.  Lucky them!

It might be good to pack eye-shades and ear plugs.