10 Tips for Bike Touring With Kids

For the past five years, Charles Scott has taken his kids bike touring from Japan to the backroads of Iceland. Katie Arnold caught up with him before his latest trip across the American West to learn from the master.

A family rides bikes down the California coast     Photo: carfreedays/Flickr

Charles Scott had never gone bike touring until 2008, when he took his eight-year-old son, Sho, on a 2,500-mile, 67-day, self-supported ride from one end of Japan to the other. "I was so completely intimidated," admits Scott, 45, who lives in Manhattan with his family and took an unpaid leave of absence from his job at Intel. The route he chose crossed ten mountain passes; on the steepest climbs, Scott—who was pulling his son and 80 pounds of gear on a trailercycle—had to pull over and stop every 20 minutes. "My heart was hammering so hard in my chest," he says. "But I learned that you can do it if you just keep going."

Which is exactly what he did. Two years later, Scott quit Intel to ride with his children and write about his adventures full time. Within a week, he'd left for Iceland with his son and 4-year-old daughter, Saya, to circle the island by bike for 46 days (Sho rode on the trailercycle, with a trailer for Saya hitched onto the back). Since then, the trio has toured across Europe.

On June 28, Scott and company plan to launch their latest family endurance cycling tour: a two-month trans-Rockies ride following the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. Their route will take them west to St. Louis by car, then north along the Missouri River to North Dakota. There they'll switch to bicycles and ride 1,700 miles over the northern Rockies to the coast in six weeks. (Scott's wife, Eiko, who works for the United Nations, will join them for the final push, just as she did in Europe and Iceland.)

 Over the course of thousands of hard-earned road miles, Scott has figured out what to do—and what not to do—to make long distance rides with little ones as smooth as possible. "That first trip was baptism by fire, but bicycling is such an amazing way to travel with your kids," he says. "When you're in car, you miss so much. On bicycles, every moment is part of the journey." Here are his suggestions.

10. Ride as a team
When kids are riding on a trailercycle, they get to choose: They can pedal when they're feeling strong, or just sit back and enjoy the ride. Either way, it's important to make them feel like part of the team. Their first week in Japan, Sho threw three major tantrums. "He was having trouble adjusting, and I thought maybe he was too young. But then we had a talk. I told him to think of himself as a team member." After that, he was fine. He adjusted, and I learned an important lesson: that as long as you're loving and reasonable with your expectations, kids will rise to the challenge." 

9. Invest in a bomber ride
You'll need a touring bicycle that's sturdy enough to carry panniers and tow a trailercycle or a trailer or both. Scott rides a Trek 520, a chromium alloy workhorse that's "pretty light" and can pull 100 pounds of gear and assorted trailers. Make sure you have low, low granny gears so that you can pedal up steep climbs without falling over. "Whatever you do, don't go a carbon fiber frame," he says. "It won't hold up to the abuse."

8. Take a break every hour
On his daughter's first tour in Iceland, Scott made sure to stock her trailer with crayons and paper, and he stopped every hour to let her get out and play and explore. "A lot of times we were stopping anyway to hike across a lava field or see a geothermal spring," Scott says. "If not, I would set my alarm to go off so that I remembered to stop, and give us both a break."

7. Give them a camera
Nothing beats boredom like a camera in kids' hot little hands, as Scott discovered in Iceland. "Their perspective is always cool, and different from ours," he says.

6. Skip the tandem
As tempting as it may be to give your child equal pedaling power, putting them on a tandem if they're under 12 is not a great idea. "Tandem bicycles force them to pedal at the exact speed you are, which for little legs, can be a big problem." Scott's kids ride the Burley Piccolo, which hitches to a rack, not the seat post, to minimize wobbling.

5. Listen to music
Scott likes to banish the long-haul blahs with Cyclesound, a portable speaker system that mounts to your seat post and holds an iPhone or iPod and plays the kids' favorite albums.

4. Go light
For a long-distance tour with two kids, Scott estimates he carries about 100 pounds of gear: tent, sleeping pads and bags, repair kit, and clothes. "Cycling teaches you to be very efficient. We can get by with one change of everything—pants, shirts, etc—and that's it," he says. "We get a little stinky, but every few days we stop at a coin laundry." Pack your panniers before you load them on the bike; otherwise, you'll put too much pressure on the clips and run the risk of breaking them.

3. Start small
If you're new to bike touring with kids, cut yourself some major slack and ease into it with easy trips. You don't have to fly to Japan and ride 2,500 miles right off the bat. ("I realize I represent the extreme end of the bell curve," admits Scott.) His suggestion: Pick a campsite about 15 miles from home, load up the kids, and ride there. If you don't feel like lugging gear at first, have your spouse or a friend meet you there with the tent. Or ride to a friend's house and stay overnight and then ride home the next day. "This gives you the sensation of it being an overnight trip, not simply a ride," explains Scott, who trained this way before Japan. Then you can branch out into long weekend or weeklong tours; for route suggestions, check out the Adventure Cycling Association's extensive collection of scenic, low-traffic routes.

2. Choose your roads wisely
Stick to quiet roads as often as possible. "Safety is our number one issue when cycling with kids," says Scott, who rides daily with his family in Manhattan. "It's important to know the dynamics of the roads you ride. Are the roads winding and busy? Are drivers used to seeing cars? You need to ask yourself these questions and use your best judgment about where to ride." Even when he's using the Adventure Cycling Association's routes, as he will on the Lewis and Clark route, he always vets his routes with locals. If they seem sketched out by his choices, he'll revise on the fly.

1. Don't be afraid to go it alone
If your spouse or partner can't get off work, go anyway. Taking kids on a bike trip by yourself is liberating. "You can decide where to go and what to do. It's all up to you," says Scott, who started planning the Lewis and Clark ride back in October. "If my goal is to raise resilient kids, cycling solo with them makes me a more resilient parent."

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