Young girl riding a bike in a campground

Biking with kids

Cycling is a great way for families to get outside together. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, there aren’t any lift tickets or admission fees to pay, and everyone is getting some fresh air and exercise. Plus, watching your kids zip around on bikes (or hearing them shout “go faster!” from the bike trailer) can remind you of just how fun it is to ride around on two wheels.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you start biking with kids.

Safe riding

Dad putting a helmet on a young boy about to ride a bike

The first rule? Wear a helmet. When choosing helmets for you and your children, go to a bike shop with a good reputation and get an expert’s advice. Finding a helmet with the correct fit is critical: it should be snug but not tight, and it should it sit squarely centred on the head. It should also stay completely still. Make sure your child’s new helmet doesn’t tilt or wobble as they ride.

Some other things to keep in mind once you’re biking:

  • Ride single file when you’re on the road or bike path to keep everyone safe. Open trails offer more freedom – and fewer traffic hazards – so bike-friendly park paths are good places to go.
  • It seems intuitive for the parent to take the lead, but it’s actually safer to let your children ride in front of you. You’ll still be able to watch the road ahead and you can keep your eye on the kids at the same time. It also helps you sync your speed with theirs and makes sure nobody’s left behind.
  • If you need to pass pedestrians or slower cyclists, ding your bell and pass on the left with lots of room.
  • Be ready for simple bike repairs (it could be a long walk back to the car). Pack a pump, spare tube, tire levers and tools you need to take off your tires. Make sure you’ve got tubes and tools that will work for your bike and your kids’ smaller bike tires. Check out bike workshops at your local MEC store to learn repair skills, and watch our video on how to fix a flat tire to get a preview.

Kids’ ages and biking

Depending on how big or old your kids are, there are different ways to get them out on a bike ride: a bike trailer, a tow bike, or their own bicycle. While really little kids may not be ready to ride their own bikes yet, they can ride along in a bike trailer as long as they’re strong enough to hold up their heads unsupported, and big enough to fit into their helmets. If you’re unsure as to whether your child can ride in your trailer, talk to your pediatrician.

Depending on their strength, maturity and desire to learn, kids can start riding their own bikes around the age of five. Of course, they shouldn’t be cycling in congested areas until they learn basic safety rules. There are plenty of fun programs designed to teach bike safety to kids, such as after-school classes and summer camps.

Note: Infants don’t belong on bikes. It doesn’t matter how confident a cyclist you are, any accident could seriously hurt an infant. Never transport an infant by bicycle, bike trailer, rear-mounted seat, side car or otherwise.

Trailers and tow bikes

Trailers and tow bikes are excellent options for younger kids who can’t handle their own bikes yet. Some people prefer rear-mounted bike seats out of convenience, but generally, those bike seats are quite high off the ground, so children can be at a greater risk in a crash.

Bike trailers

Trailers are like mini carriages that keep kids completely covered, so they’ll be warm and dry no matter what the weather’s doing. Most are designed to be mounted on the seat post or rear stays of your bicycle. True, your kids will outgrow the trailer when they start riding their own bikes – but an old trailer is still handy for transporting gear and groceries, or you can sell it on the MEC Gear Swap.

Here a couple things to look for when choosing a bike trailer:

  • Some bike trailer have hook-ups that remain upright at all times – so even if the entire bike tips over, the trailer will stay standing.
  • Just like seat belts in a car, you want your trailer to have a robust harness system to keep your child secure.

Tow bikes

Tow bikes (a.k.a. “trailer bikes”) are awesome when your kids are too big to lug around in a trailer, but too small or inexperienced to ride alone in busy areas. Basically, a tow bike looks like half a bike. It has a seat, handlebars and a rear wheel connected to pedals and a chain. Instead of a front wheel, a tow bike’s crossbar connects to the seatpost of an adult-sized bike. These are a good way for beginners get comfortable on a bike, and because your child is pedalling, they’re an active participant in the ride.

Kids’ bikes

Every child is different, so use this table as a starting point:

Child’s age 1–3 years 2–5 years 3–6 years 4–7 years 6–9 years 8–11 years 12+ years
Recommended wheel size Less than 12in. 12in. 14in. 16in. 20in. 24–26in. 26in.

The best way to choose the right bike for your child is to bring them into the store to try some out. Kids grow fast, and you need to know what size frame and wheel fits them best. Wheel sizes generally start at 12in. for toddlers, and go to 24in. for older kids and young teens. At 26in. or more, you’re into adult bike sizes.

Some tips to find the right bike for your child:

  • For kids between the ages of three and five, you could go with a push bike or balance bike instead of training wheels. Training wheels teach kids how to pedal before they learn to balance, but balance bikes are the opposite: they help kids learn how to centre themselves on the seat and coast comfortably, which makes the transition to a pedal bike much smoother.
  • Kids’ bikes can have hand brakes or coaster brakes. Only buy a bike with coaster brakes if your child is already proficient at pedalling.
  • With kids’ bikes, lighter is better. Children may be enticed by fancy designs, but focus on finding a bike that’s easy to handle and fun to ride.

Long bike rides with kids

Kid wearing a bike helmet checking out a map

Taking kids on cycling-themed day trips or bringing bikes on vacation can turn them into riders for life, and a little bit of planning will help it all go smoothly.

  • Plan your route: Pick routes with kid-friendly stops along the way, like lookouts, playgrounds or places for a picnic. Kids can get tired or cranky if there’s no clear finish line, so keep them motivated with a fun destination.
  • Be flexible: You can also plan routes that have alternate finishing points, so that no is disappointed by not getting “there.”
  • Keep kids engaged: Track your progress on a map and help them visualize the distance they’ve travelled. Encourage them to take pictures – either by lending them your phone, or providing them with their own cheap or disposable camera. Then you can create a travel log or treasure box of your bike adventures.
  • Snacks and stops are key: Bring lots of food and take lots of breaks. Kids can be ravenous on an ordinary school day – so just wait till they’ve been riding their bikes for a couple of hours.
  • Keep trailer rides fun: Little ones in a trailer need their fair share of snacks too. If they start to get bored or frustrated, tasty treats or breaks are a welcome distraction. Be sure to stop and let kids stretch their legs every 90 minutes or so.
  • Know where the hills are: Don’t underestimate the additional weight and drag of a trailer or tow bike. Plan your route so you don’t lose energy halfway through the ride. If your motivation evaporates, theirs will too.
  • Watch the weather: Pay attention to the forecast and have a contingency plan for a rainy day.