Bike Touring With Kids. Which Bike for Which Age?

Earlier this summer we dragged out the bikes, threw some camping stuff together and took the kids on a spur-of-the-moment S240 trip. While we were out cycling, Andrew snapped this picture.

Just another family bike trip...

Just another family bike trip.

Looking at this photo — me with the two kids on a Circe Cycles Morpheus and towing a Radical Design trailer — I’m struck by how much and how often our touring set-up has changed in less than 5 years. Kids grow, and as they do we’re constantly readjusting and tweaking our setup to suit the needs of each particular stage.

Around the same time as this photo was taken, I read an article (in Dutch) about another family’s evolving collection of bikes and trailers. For those just starting out on bike touring adventures with their little ones, I thought it might be interesting to share how our setup has changed along with our growing family.

The Baby Years

The equipment: When our first child was born, we were very concerned about the effect that the vibrations of cycling might have on his developing spine. When could we take him cycling without risking his health? This is a huge topic for debate, and in my experience the answer is at least partly cultural. What is irresponsible in some countries, is normal in others. We largely followed the relaxed Dutch model and didn’t worry too much about it. That said, we thought it was worth investing in a good quality trailer with excellent suspension so we picked the Cougar Chariot 1 (now known as the Thule Cougar Chariot 1).

Our first bike trip with a baby - from Holland to France.

Our first bike trip with a baby – from Holland to France.

With its great suspension and very comfortable seat, we felt comfortable taking Luke out for short rides from about 7 weeks old. By six months we’d taken him by bike from the Netherlands to France, and at the end of his first year Luke rode happily all over Cuba in the trailer (with homemade shades to keep out the strong sun).

Mostly we towed the trailer behind our full size touring bikes, but in Cuba we mounted it behind Andrew’s Brompton (taking folding bikes meant no airline bike fees). This set-up worked extremely well and we still occasionally pair the trailer with a folding bike, where public transport is involved in a journey.

Have baby, will travel - across Cuba with a 10 month old.

Have baby, will travel – across Cuba with a 10 month old.

The touring experience: Babies are, in our experience, more or less happy in any situation (or at least as happy as they would be at home, normal tantrums aside). As long as they’re warm, dry and fed, life is pretty good. Our biggest challenges with this age were 1) finding enough room in our bags to carry diapers and other baby necessities 2) managing to do things around camp while looking after baby.

What changed compared to pre-kids touring: On average, we cycled about half as far as we would have done before having kids. We aimed for early starts, and to mange this we’d pack as much as we could the night before and have simple breakfasts. Our goal was to do a good chunk of cycling in the morning when everyone was feeling fresh, and finish up any remaining distance while Luke took an afternoon nap in the trailer. In this way we’d usually manage a mid-morning play break, a long-ish lunch break and still finish with lots of time to relax at the campsite.

To get the tent set up, or dinner cooked, we quickly learned to ‘divide and conquer’. One adult was responsible for baby, so that the other could get some work done. A sling was invaluable for freeing up hands and (occasionally) allowing two people to do camp tasks at the same time.

Cycle-Toddling

Around age two, our oldest son was still happy to nap and ride in the trailer for shorter distances (especially during bad weather). When awake, he preferred to be where the action was – on the bike itself. That summer we went to Switzerland with a kid’s seat mounted to Friedel’s bike and with Andrew towing the Chariot. Luke spent many a happy hour riding behind Mum, singing and talking with us while we pedalled.

Happily on the back of mum's bike in Switzerland!

Happily on the back of mum’s bike in Switzerland!

The touring experience: Luke loved seeing the world from the bicycle. Compared to the baby stage, where we had relatively little interaction while riding, now Luke was singing and talking to us constantly. He giggled with joy when we went down a big hill, and pointing out every playground with eagle-eyed precision. Our distances remained moderate and we planned carefully to avoid situations which an adult could handle but which would have been unpleasant for a toddler (eg. long hill climbs on a hot day).

This video gives a good impression of how we passed the time, while bike touring with a toddler.

What changed from the baby stage: By now Luke had a clear attachment to home and didn’t immediately see the appeal of a big adventure. He was somewhat swayed by our description of Switzerland as a land of ‘cheese and chocolate’. That’s not to say that Luke didn’t enjoy the trip. He was broadly happy on tour but we had to take familiar things to make him comfortable: his pillow, a favourite cuddle toy, books to read before bedtime. For the first few days, he often asked when we would be going home.

Luke wanted to help with many things: carrying dishes to the washing up area in the campsite, setting up the tent and even helping to push the bike up mountainous routes. As parents, we loved his enthusiasm but from a practical standpoint it meant that we progressed very slowly. When Luke napped, we pedalled like mad so that we could go more slowly for the rest of the day.

Working our way, slowly, up a hill with help from the littlest member of the family.

Working our way, slowly, up a hill with help from the littlest member of the family.

Pre-school Adventures

As Luke grew, so did his energy. Sitting on the back of the bike quickly became boring. We knew we’d never manage longer distances until we could give him a way to burn some energy while cycling, so we invested in a semi-recumbent tandem, the Circe Cycles Morpheus. This allowed Luke to pedal, and gave him the excitement of being up front and seeing everything.

The Touring Experience: In hindsight, at 3-1/2 years old, Luke was a touch young for the Morpheus. His legs couldn’t properly reach the pedals, even with the kiddy crank, and because the Morpheus kiddy crank doesn’t include a freewheel, it wasn’t easy for Luke to take a break from pedalling, or to take a nap. We could only go about 10km when we first got the Morpheus.

Having fun on the Circe Cycles Morpheus.

Having fun on the Circe Cycles Morpheus.

For all of these reasons, something like the WeeHoo or Hase Trets trailer might have been better in the beginning. But, Luke quickly grew into the Morpheus. Now, just one year later, we can easily cover distances of 50km together and the Morpheus allows us to talk to one another easily – something that wouldn’t be as easy if Luke were on a trailer pulled behind a bike.

What changed from the toddler stage: Luke has become much more imaginative and independent in his play, which means we don’t need to take as many toys along. A simple piece of wood quickly becomes a magic wand or a rocket flying to the moon. He loves aspects of camping, such as roasting marshmallows over a campfire, which earlier held little attraction for him. There’s also less homesickness because Luke better understands the concept of time and what it means when we say we’ll be home ‘in a few days’. Overall, it’s much easier to explain things to him, and he gets less grumpy when we face challenges like bad weather or strong winds, because we can talk about it and he can understand that it won’t last forever.

And Then There Were Two…

A second little cyclist has recently been added to the gang. Max is now currently following in his brother’s footsteps. The Chariot trailer has been dragged out for a second round of fun, and the Yepp bike seat is getting plenty of use as well. We’ve even done the occasional short tour with our Dutch cargo bike.

Andrew with Max and the rest of the gear, loaded into our Dutch cargo bike.

Andrew with Max and the rest of the gear, loaded into our Dutch cargo bike. And yes, there is a baby in there somewhere, under all the stuff!!

The Touring Experience: The touring experience with two kids is, in many ways, a reflection of the general shift to being parents of two. There’s less down time, more balls to juggle, and less space in the panniers for anything but the essentials because no one (except mom and dad) is carrying their own gear yet! That will change quickly, however, and after a few years of mostly camping and biking quite close to home, we’re looking forward to a longer family adventure next summer.

Comments

  1. Brenda Cupryna
    18th September 2016 at 6:25 pm #

    Hi Freidel and Andrew
    Good to see this post. We came to the Netherlands again this summer but we needed to return rather sooner than we planned so didn’t contact you. I have to say I got a Radical designs trailer after seeing yours and together with my Dahon Speed TR , its a great set up. I can use my OAP bus pass and take the whole lot on a bus to get to a touring area when I am doing a solo trip. love seeing how you are all progressing.

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