Josie Dew’s guide to cycle touring with children
So you’ve got the bike, you’ve got the panniers, you’ve got the tent and you’ve got the open road stretching out to distant sunsets. And you’ve got the air of excitement and anticipation for all that lies ahead. But hold on a minute – you’ve got a niggling feeling you’ve forgotten something. Ah yes – the children!
You may have one child or two children or a whole merry heap of them. So how do you go about taking them with you on tour?
First I’d just like to say that this is no official guide to cycling with children – more just a personal account of what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about doing it.
When it comes to cycle touring, I have spent decades cycling alone around the world, so I feel quite at home in that department. But when it comes to cycle touring with children, I am still feeling my way.
Children by their very nature are unpredictable little blighters. This makes cycling with them all the more fun, exciting, rewarding and nerve-wracking, as you never quite know from one day to the next how they are going to react to a certain situation when mounted on their, or your, trusty steed.
How big, how tall, how small?
The most important thing is the age of the child or the children. This determines the means by which they are to be conveyed on your tour. Are they tiny tots, tantrum-throwing toddlers, primary school prima donnas or terrible teenagers? Or are they all just perfect little cherubs in every shape and form?
I have three children. Molly (nine), Daisy (six) and Jack (two). Molly is helpful and responsible but already has moments when she verges into obstinate teenager territory. Daisy swings from being angelic one minute to completely bonkers and unfathomable the next. Jack is one big bouncing bashing-this-and-bashing-that busy boy with a sporadic drama queen edge to him.
In a nutshell they are quite a handful. Like most children.
Which bike is right?
I’ve carried all three children on my bike by various methods since they were babies. In their very early days of cycle touring they all started off in a Hamax child seat (with reclining facilities for comfy, laid-back, on-board snoozing) that fitted to my rear rack. They then progressed to a Burley D’Lite trailer that I towed behind me.
The child seat was nice in that they were up close to me and I could touch them and talk to them and point things out: “Look sheep!”, “Look cows!”, “Look tractor!”. Plus the elevated position meant they had a good view of all that passed around them. But a child bike seat is open to the elements – blasting wind, hot sun, wet rain.
They are also exposed to everything you find in the air: dust, insects, pinging stones from fast-passing vehicles – and swarms of bees. Cycling through swarms of bees isn’t a regular occurrence, but when Molly was a year old I was cycling down a quiet country lane when I suddenly saw a large dark cloud of bees charging down the road directly towards me.
There was no time to take evasive action so they hit me full on. Luckily my body acted like a faring and I protected Molly from the full force of the swarm. They got stuck in the vents of my helmet, ventured down my chest and clung to my shorts. Amazingly Molly came away scot-free and I only got one (very painful) sting lodged in my portside temple.
In a bike trailer the child is protected from all of these hazards. A trailer can act as a little pleasure dome of entertainment. They can eat and drink in it, they can be surrounded by their books and toys, and they can fall asleep through all weathers. Plus in most trailers you have space (my D’Lite has a boot) to carry camping equipment and so on.
Along with a trailer, I have also used (and still do) a Nihola cargo trike. These are very fun contraptions and effectively feel like cycling along with a bath tub attached to the front of your mount. These tubs are pretty cavernous and can contain quite a wide assortment of children Dutch-style, if you go for the larger model.
I have a two-seater onto which I connect a trailer bike (tag-along). This means I can go cycling with all three children attached to a mobile bathtub. These child-carrying cargo bikes are everywhere in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. But down here in our neck of the woods, north of Portsmouth, there is nothing like it so we attract a lot of looks and comments.
Why everyone doesn’t get one to cycle children to nursery or school heaven only knows – they make the school run exhilarating as well as highly entertaining. When Molly was five and Daisy just one, we cycled across Holland using my Nihola wagon. Molly rode the tag-along attached to my rear while Daisy sat in the mobile bath tub with the best view in the house.
When they expanded from toddlers into medium-sized children, I toured with both Molly and Daisy on a trailer bike as well as a FollowMe tandem. The FollowMe is an ingeniously useful gadget into which slots the front wheel of a child’s bike. This means that your bike or trike can convert into a sort of tandem.
One minute you’re pulling your small outrider along behind you and the next you can swiftly detach their bike and they are off into the wind cycling independently on their own small wheels.
If they get tired or the road gets busier you can simply reattach them to your rear and they are tucked in safely behind you. This way, you can still get some good miles under your belt.
From the FollowMe I progressed onto a small-wheeled Circe Helios tandem. When Daisy was two and Molly five, I rode my Circe 800 miles following the North Sea coast from Holland up through Germany to Denmark. My husband towed Daisy in the Burley trailer while Molly rode the tandem with me. This was a good combination as it meant we could cover some fairly hefty (for having children with us) distances every day.
Are you used to cycling?
One of the most crucial things when considering bike touring with a child is how used to cycling are they?
With all three of my children I was lucky to feel fine enough to ride my bike every day when pregnant up until the day they were born. So from the moment they started life they were used to the motion of cycling and slaloming around the multitudinous potholes.
Since entering this world they have been turfed from bike to trike to trailer on a daily basis. Every day the girls ride five miles to school and back. To them cycling is as normal an activity as brushing their teeth. This makes taking off with them on a tour that much easier. Their thighs are well primed.
Everything and the kitchen sink
The conundrum when cycle touring with children is what to take and what not to take, and where to put everything when you do take it? The next question is how on earth do you move with all this immense amount of clobber?
Last summer I toured around the Isle of Wight with Jack and the girls. My husband was working so couldn’t come, which meant I had to carry everything that he carried when we went on our Holland to Denmark jaunt. Plus I now had an added extra – the heifer lump weight of Jack.
I did it by perfecting the art of cramming: packing my panniers by utilising every little space available. And hanging everything that didn’t fit in the panniers to the rear rail of the trailer (buckets, spades, potty, water bottle, floatation aids, pushchair and kitchen sink - a small Ortlieb bowl with handles).
I also left behind a hundred things that I thought I wouldn’t need. If in doubt, leave it out. Don’t put something in ‘just in case’ you think it might be useful. You have to pack only the things you really need. Like children. Even then it’s an immense weight to haul about.
On our Isle of Wight mission, Molly rode her own bike with handlebar bag and two rear panniers. But I only gave her the light things to carry: camping mat, sleeping bag, waterproofs, rice cakes, loaf of bread.
I rode the Circe tandem with Daisy. We pulled Jack in the trailer behind us. This tandem-trailer combo makes us a very long vehicle – almost 12 foot from end to end. My turning circle is not impressive.
The boot of the trailer I loaded with tent, clothes, food. Jack was wedged in his seat surrounded by the remaining three sleeping bags, plus small travel towels and fleeces that made nice pillows and buffer zones for him.
As I write this, school has just finished and I am off tonight on the ferry to the Hook of Holland with Jack and the girls and the bikes. We plan to spend the whole of the school summer holidays (about six weeks) cycling around Holland.
I will be trying to rein in all offspring single-handedly while attempting to erect the tent in (no doubt) unseasonable gales (I’m good at attracting record-breaking awful weather) as Gary (the husband) is staying at home to get on with work, stay dry and have some peace and quiet from us rowdy bunch.
We will be using more or less the same combination of bike and tandem and trailer as we did last year on the Isle of Wight: me and Daisy on Circe tandem pulling Jack in the trailer. Molly will ride her own Islabike.
On the spur of the moment I bought a Bob Yak single-wheel trailer. I’ve been eyeing one of these up for years as I always think they look like fun and practical trailers.
This week Gary and I decided to take the plunge and buy one for Molly to pull (early birthday present!). Rather than have two bulbous panniers that can be a little unstable for a nine year old, we thought Molly might find it easier to pull a Bob. She’s taken it for a practice run this morning and so far so good – she can manoeuvre it with ease. So that’s a relief.
I have put Molly semi in charge of map reading. She loves maps; she spends hours drawing and colouring her own of made-up lands and islands.
Planning a cycling adventure
The plan is to cycle off the ferry at the Hook of Holland and head north up the coast and just see what happens. We have booked no accommodation apart from the first night in a campsite that we stayed in four years ago, as it’s got a good playground that Molly wants to revisit.
I find booking tends to put a spanner in the works of all the fun unpredictability and spontaneity of travelling. If you’re having to press on to reach your booked destination you might miss out camping on that tip-top beach you’ve just come across or have to turn down an invitation to stay with a complete stranger in their local abode.
Useful tips for cycling with children
Here are just a few select items that I find or hope to find useful when touring with children. I will write a more comprehensive list of equipment on my return from the flatlands.
Solar powered charger: I never used to take a mobile phone with me (I relied on carrier pigeon postcards to keep family and friends in the picture). But now I have children I take some cheap beeping thing with me so that I can text Gary and Gran with up-to-date info of our current position.
I highly recommend Waka Waka solar-powered chargers. They are Dutch designed and each one purchased helps refugees, school children and others in developing countries.
Toe-clip straps: These very useful for attaching potty, buckets, spades, Jack’s floating top and kitchen sink to the rear rail of trailer.
Buckets: When I first started touring with young children I bought two small buckets with lids – not much bigger than sandcastle size. On one I wrote ‘Bath’, on the second ‘Bottoms’.
When I am camping and looking after children by myself I don’t want to leave them alone in the tent, so when I need a toilet mission in the middle of the night I use our on-board toilet facilities! Also, should the younger tots need the potty I can just pour the aromatic contents into the ‘Bottoms’ bucket and put the lid on before disposing of it all properly in the morning.
Often I camp where there are no showers, or if there are, then sometimes getting three children into a cold, slimy shower that requires running in and out to drop coins that you can never find into a box, just in order for a half-hearted lukewarm dribble of water, is too much effort to contemplate.
So I half-fill my ‘Bath’ bucket and stand each little bare-bottomed child in it one at a time and hey-presto! – a quick, fun and fast way to have a wash.
Sorry, I’ve no time to list more – I have a boat to catch and children to pack! I’ll update you on my return in September.
Josie Dew is the vice president of Cycling UK and an author and cycling adventurer. For more information on her bikes, books and bits and bobs take a look at her website www.josiedew.com.