Cold Weather Biking with Kids

Winter weather presents its challenges for family bicycling adventures.  Where one lives plays a huge part in how much of the year one can comfortably ride a bicycle, particularly when riding with children.  Living in New England presents some 2-wheel mobility limitations this time of the year, and it is not as easy biking once the snow has fallen and the temperatures get below freezing.  However, given the difficulties that may be presented, riding in the winter is a completely different experience that can be absolutely wonderful.  Touring communities filled with holiday lights, lights reflecting off of bodies of water (if not frozen), and having far fewer other bicyclists on the roads and trails makes it a unique and special experience all its own.  The other bicyclists that you do meet seem friendlier, since they are braving the same elements you are.  Fewer leaves on the trees allow you to see further.  Providing a different experience for your children, and knowing that you can do it may also make it worth the effort.  Arriving at an event on a bicycle in the winter is almost unheard of in most communities, but in most cases it is not all that much more difficult than riding in the fall.

At our Community Supported Agriculture, picking up the farm share at the end of October. Although their faces don't always show their enthusiasm, they loved being in the cargo bike on every occasion.  They even asked to be on the bike on some of the coldest days where it wasn't particularly feasible.

This fall and early winter we went bicycling with the cargo bike on several occasions.  This stopped around the New Year's holiday, since the temperatures and the snow limited our mobility. Our favorite bike path was covered in snow.  However, while it was dry and relatively warm (roughly above freezing), we were able to attend some events throughout the fall.  In November and December, snow suits were worn below blankets, and blankets and hoods were pulled over the tops of the kids' heads.  Kids were toted to and from school.  In all cases, the kids were snug and warm, although their faces did get a little cold.  We may end up using scarves or ski masks in these situations.

There are many factors involved in riding in the winter that need to be addressed in order to be prepared for what nature has to offer.  It is increasingly more important to be aware of all climate factors and automobile driver behavioral factors when riding with children.  Children need to build up their experience of riding in a variety of conditions over time. If children ride their own bike they may benefit from the self-created warmth of pedaling, but they also may be chilled by their own sweat.  If they are riding their own bike, sitting on a bicycle or bicycle accessory (such as on the seat of a cargo bike, on a tethered seat, or within a bicycle trailer), they must be observed closely throughout the ride and frequently asked about their well-being. Children often do not know how quickly they are becoming cold.  Some children just deal with the cold while others complain like a squeaky wheel.  It is helpful for each adult in the group to know each individual child's communication patterns so that knowledge of discomfort is obvious, and that comfort itself is maximized.  This just basically means that you want to interact with each of your children regularly when your are outside in cold temperatures.  Still, hands and faces need to be checked regularly to see how cold they are.  Cover them with a face mask or a scarf if the conditions warrant it.  If kids' bodies may be exposed to rain, splashes, sweat, or other potential wetness, these areas need to be checked to see if they are OK (yes, this includes diapers!).  Frostbite and hypothermia can sneak up on anyone unaware of the dangers.  Have a plan for whatever may come up.

Being picked up from school in mid to late-November, after drinking some hot chocolate.  This photo shows where I taped our rear tail light on the back of the bike.  I plan to create a better connector that is more re-usable.  The kids loved looking at all the holiday lights on the ride home and loved to point them out to each other.  This ride took about 45 minutes, but they were happy as can be and wanted to do it again the next day!

The following may affect one's ability or desire to ride a bike in cold weather (in no particular order).  
  • Experience - it might go without saying, but one's experience riding in cold weather probably has the greatest impact in overall success of handling the unpredictable situations that one might run into.  I am far from an expert in riding in winter conditions, although I have had my share of winter riding experience over the years on a variety of open-air vehicles.  Predicting how and where to stop is a critical skill, particularly when kids are involved.  At times, I take the kids out riding in our cargo bicycle in the winter.  Every time we ride together I learn something new.  The next time we go riding, I make a slight adjustment to something that didn't quite work perfectly the last time.
  • Equipment - This mainly refers to bicycles and bicycle accessories, but also may apply to how the equipment may handle the weather.  Different bicycles will handle completely differently depending on what is on the ground (snow, ice, water, sand, pavement, trail).  Tires, weight distribution of the bike, dynamics of using a bike trailer, and a variety of other specifics of the bicycle must be take into consideration for the terrain being encountered.  Generally, fat tires are better in the winter than skinny tires when encountering snow.  Studs on tires for ice might be a useful option but requires some experience.  Lights and reflectors are important in the winter since the sun sets earlier this time of year, and drivers do not expect to see bicyclists as frequently.  It is important to have bike lights on the front and back of the bicycle, and running them when on the street in the winter throughout the day.  Visibility is a key ingredient to safety throughout the year, particularly when applied to automobile traffic.  Wear something bright and (preferably) reflective.  This includes the kids, bike trailers, and if you have one, anything that may be a part of your caravan.  If you live in an area that salts and sands the roads in the winter, make sure to clean your bike thoroughly of road salt and sand after every ride.  Preferably, bring it indoors or into a garage and give it a good cleaning with a damp rag, then oil it appropriately.  Ideally, store the bike in a heated, dry space over the winter.  It may last longer.
  • Temperature - in our experience, temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 deg. Celsius) require additional insulation, particularly for kids on trips of more than 10 minutes.  This would be insulation in addition to coats, boots, mittens and other typical clothing for cool weather.  This may include extra blankets, hot pads, scarves, face masks, and hoods that go over helmets. Hypothermia can result if movement is limited, as is the case with children that sit quietly on a bike in cold weather.  Frostbite can result if skin is exposed to cold temperatures and/or wind for too long.  Make sure that everyone keeps moving, even just a little.  While riding, have children sing and clap hands to a favorite song, and if children are sitting without a lot of movement, stop en-route to have everyone get off the bike and walk around a little.  This will help keep the blood flowing and may prevent kids from getting cold too quickly.
  • Wind and Wind Chill - headwinds and side winds limit riding efficiency.  Wind from any direction can create extreme wind chill that makes it very unpleasant to ride or be a passenger.  Wind chill charts can tell you how cold it feels when air is blowing at exposed human flesh at a certain temperature.  Check out: for more info.  Wet exposed skin (from sweat, for example) is even worse!  Make sure to stay dry and covered up in the wind.  Make sure faces are covered.  If possible wear goggles or sunglasses.  Sand blowing around may get into eyes.  If possible, having kids face backwards helps keep the wind from hitting exposed faces and other body parts as well, and may minimize wind drag.
  • Precipitation - limits visibility, can reduce traction, can cause hypothermia.  Plan for precipitation appropriately.  A tarp and/or rain gear may help keep cargo bike passengers dry.  A rain suit and other waterproof gear is highly recommended for the driver.  Although we don't own one, a rain cover made especially for cargo bikes might be particularly useful to keep passengers dry and warm. It is probably worth the investment if you plan to ride occasionally when it rains or snows, or if you think you'll be caught out in the rain.
  • Snow and Freezing Rain - This may be obvious, but snow can be unpredictable.  It can be dry, wet, icy, or in-between and change while you are riding.  It can be similar to sand in how it is unpredictable.  Depth may be hard to judge.  Depths of less than an inch in some terrain can stop you in your tracks, particularly when combined with an incline and/or poor tires.  Snow coming down while you are riding can be a special experience for the first few minutes.  After that, if it is heavy it might be a drag that gets you and (potentially) your cargo wet if you aren't ready for it.  It might cover up hazardous areas (such as ice).  It also increases the possibility of an accident due to lower visibility and a general lack of traction.  If you are having extreme difficulty in the snow, it might be best to call for a ride home.  That would be better than an accident or health problem caused by overexertion.  Pushing a bike for too long isn't fun either, and you may have no other choice than to abandon the bike (locking it up somewhere) and walk, or calling for a ride home.  If you do leave the bike somewhere, try to get it out of the weather and/or cover it with a tarp.
  • Ice - in various forms, sometimes under snow, sometimes "black ice" that is not easily seen on dark asphalt, sometimes in the form of freezing rain or freezing fog.  Not ideal for bicycle transport.  Riding over frozen bodies of water is not recommended unless one plans for the adventure.  One may fall through the ice or slip in wet sections.  If the ice is plenty thick for travel, studded tires made especially for ice are required in most situations.  This is really only for the more extreme of winter bicycle adventurers.
  • Sand - sand left from plow trucks used to clear roads of snow may make roads more slippery than usual for two wheeled vehicles.  In areas of sand, take it slow and plan to stop before you think you need to.  It is easy to slip and slide on sand.  Sand is also well known to stick to greasy parts of your bike, so make sure to clean those areas up after your ride.  Sand can also blow around, so if it is a windy day make sure to wear sunglasses or goggles as appropriate for both the driver and the passengers to minimize sand blowing into the eyes.
  • Sun - sunlight can reflect off of wet roads and snow and make it very difficult to see.  Be sure to wear sunglasses appropriate for both the driver and passengers.  Although sunscreen may not be a thought this time of year, it is a good idea for exposed areas.  The dry air this time of year can reek havoc on the skin.  Use liberal amounts of oil and sunscreen on exposed areas.  You'll be glad you did.  Just be careful not to get it on your sunglasses!
  • Time/duration on the road or trail - extended riding periods in winter can be more difficult than shorter periods because over time one can get cold.  Getting tired over time goes without saying.  If you're riding, getting cold may not be as much of a problem as your passengers if you are dressed for the conditions. Although it may not be worth the hassle to get everyone together for a short trip, it may be fun if the conditions are right and/or if the event is worth the effort.  Usually, a great destination or just the novelty of riding the bicycles in the winter may make the trip worth the effort.  We sometimes enjoy going to pick up our nearby CSA farm share in late fall which may take us less than 10 minutes to get there.  It takes more time to get the bike out and get the kids geared up, but its worth it if the conditions allow.  We try to limit our winter trips (segments) to under a half-hour each, but have had longer trips.  NIGHT TIME TRAVEL - For longer trips in somewhat milder conditions we often provide pillows for the kids if they get sleepy.  Pillows also provide good insulation, although they are bulky.
  • Unknown roads, trails, obstacles - winter can present snow and ice where there is none expected, as well as less maintained trails where trees or branches may have come down.  In some cases, trails that are commonly used in the summer may be impassible in the winter due to snow and ice.  Snow banks, large snow piles, and cars parked in unusual areas may limit room on the road or inhibit paths that one may normally take at other times of the year. Declines of the road or trail may need to be handled with care, since they may be more slippery than expected.
  • Clothing and insulation levels - Having insulation above, below, and around a child is important when placing them in a cargo bike.  If they have their own bike, a snowsuit with a good windbreaker in the key (frontal) regions is essential.  A face mask might be essential depending on the trip.  A snowsuit is also essential for sitting in a cargo bike as well, since this closes up the little gaps that may let cold air in.  A blanket or sleeping bag over a child can help a lot, as long as the child knows to keep it over and around him/her.  Make sure the blanket does not fall off the child, off the bike, or get caught in the spokes of the wheel(s)!  Often, R-value is a way in which insulation from the cold is measured.  Everything from houses to camping mattresses use this to gauge how much heat is lost due to the insulation material and its thickness.  If they are riding in a cargo bike, think about the R-Value of the insulation around your kids.  Think about the space that your children occupy and how much heat may be lost or retained around them (above, below, and from the sides) due to the material that may be next to them.  Filling in the gaps with good quality insulation (like down) might make a big difference in the comfort of the child.  If the seat they are sitting on isn't padded, cutting a foam pad to fit under them may help to keep their bottom warm.
  • Warm Things - a term we use in our family, these are cloth sacks (heating pads) filled with rice, corn, or other grain that can be heated up in the microwave prior to a ride.  They can make all the difference in the world for comfort on short trips (about 15 minutes) to medium length (an hour or so) trips. They can be made at home in various shapes and sizes.  Plenty of designs are available on the Internet.  Search for "Homemade Heating Pad".
  • Health and "Reserves" of the Bike Driver and Children - this is often overlooked, but people generally exercise less in the winter.  Aerobically, one may be in worse shape during this time of the year when going outside is less desirable.  One must be careful not to over-estimate one's abilities.  Also, calories get burned quicker when outside in the winter, requiring more fuel (food) than at other times of year.  Although it may be counter-intuitive, drinking water and staying hydrated is even more important when the weather gets cold compared to when the weather is just "cool".  Make sure to have insulated drinking containers and plenty of fluids available for everyone.  Make sure that kids use the bathroom and have clean & dry diapers before setting off on any trip.  Have snacks ready, as needed.  Know where to stop temporarily if someone gets cold or needs to use a bathroom.  If a cargo bike trip is longer than a half-hour, stop in a safe place to let everyone get off the bike and run around for a few minutes.  It will get their blood flowing and warm them up a little - as long as they don't play in the snow too much and get wet as a result.  Find a good location that will minimize getting physically wet while still being able to run around safely.
  • Night-Time Lights - Many bike paths may not have lighting, and some roads may have "semi-invisible" potholes, so in addition to safety around automobiles, having a good light is important for you to see in dark areas.  You want a light to see and to be seen.  As with other times of the year, your bicycle headlight may blind those coming towards you.  Try to be understanding of other people's night vision by partially covering your headlight when encountering others, if your light is particularly bright.  Bright blinking lights can also be annoying to other bicyclists behind you, so make sure to select a light that has a few different blinking options for the type of road or trail that you might be on.  A steady or slightly dimmer light might be best on a bike path, while a bright blinking light might be better in automobile traffic.  Having an extra light might help just in case your main bike light runs out of batteries.  I often carry a headlamp mounted to my helmet that is used for seeing in dark areas when parked, and sometimes when I am in traffic.  This headlamp doubles as my bicycle headlight if my main battery dies on me.  I also carry an additional tail light, just in case.  On longer trips I will put two different tail lights on the cargo bike, one in each corner to tell cars how wide I am.  This might be a good idea for bike trailers too.  Make sure that your lights are all charged up or have fresh batteries, and carry extra batteries if possible.

Attending a local holiday celebration in December where hot chocolate and cookies were served.  This was a great event, allowing the kids to ride around town looking at the holiday lights.  They were able to get out of the bike to warm up, then return for the 15 minute ride back home.

DISCLAIMER: This post provides some of my own tips for cold weather bicycling with children.  Although it is my intention to assist other families that may want to pursue bicycle riding together, possibly in winter conditions, riding bicycles in the winter (and at other times of the year) with kids can be hazardous.  Children may get hurt in a variety of ways related to bicycle travel. Please take common-sense precautions whenever bicycling with your children.  These recommendations are provided for information purposes only.  I do not take any responsibility for an individual or a family using the information contained in this post or any other posts when applied to real world situations.

Please comment about what you do to adapt to cold weather bicycle riding, or if you have any comments about riding in cold weather with your kids!


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