Bike touring with children

“So you survived then! We thought you were completely mad but we didn’t want to discourage you.” My Dad’s cheerful words on our return from our first family cycling holiday – our eldest was 8 months old. I had myself been harbouring a suspicion that we might be completely mad…I knew plenty of friends who toured, but none with children! We had decided to go for it anyway. If we didn’t, it might be the end of active holidays for a very long time!

It was a great trip! There were certainly made some beginner mistakes, but we had a lot of fun, and have many fond memories of that holiday.

Bike touring washing line strung from bike to Thule chariot trailer with baby gros and baby vests.

Here are my top tips if you are considering your first bike tour with children:

Tip 1: The more you plan, the more spontaneous you can be.

After several bike tours with children, I cannot emphasise this enough. It is so much easier to be flexible if you have information and options at your fingertips. Remember that mobile phone signal may not be reliable, or data may be very expensive abroad. At the end of each day, your children will probably be tired. Carrying on for ten more miles to find a different campsite isn’t going to be popular.

The first stage of planning happens before the holiday. I sit down with the map and mark on all the different campsites I am aware of in the area. I use different symbols to show campsites with laundries or swimming pools. These are both very useful when travelling with children! I also make a list of campsite names for each area with notes about the rough cost and facilities.

We also try to make time each evening to plan for the following day:

  • Where will we be able to buy lunch? What about dinner?
  • Is there anything interesting to see on the route, and what are the opening hours?
  • Are there any busy roads or other hazards on our route tomorrow, and what can we do to avoid them?
  • What is the back-up plan? We usually try to have a ‘Plan A’ campsite, and also a stretch option if things are going well, or something slightly closer if the route looks challenging.

This kind of planning makes such a difference to how relaxing I find the holiday. Something usually goes wrong, it could be a flat tyre, a rainstorm, or an unexpectedly closed campsite. If you have a backup plan then it needn’t be stressful. Of course, there will always be things that crop up that you didn’t plan for. Bank holidays are taken very seriously in rural France. We once toured over Pentecost weekend and it was very difficult to get groceries on Sunday or Monday. We now know to check for bank holidays in advance!

Tip 2: Test your gear first

Before you embark on your tour, make sure that you have done a test run with all the key gear. This doesn’t have to be all at the same time. For example, you could have one evening where you cook supper on the camping stove in the garden. Another day, put up the tent in the garden and sleep there. Try to pick temperature and weather conditions roughly similar to those you expect on your tour. You could also take a long day cycle ride to test out your proposed cycling arrangements. Make sure you have checked that you can fit all of your luggage onto your bikes!

Hopefully these experiments will highlight any key weak spots in your gear. Then you can fix things or change things before the big trip.

Tip 3: Be realistic with your ambitions

If you have bike toured before having children you will probably find that you have to change your mileage and the shape of your day quite a bit in order for everyone to have a good time. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Before having children, we were pretty happy doing about 35-40 miles a day. With one baby that dropped to 30 miles a day. Now with three children it is 20-25 miles a day. We try to factor in at least one interesting stop with a beach, big playground or historic site to explore. Also, we time our days so that we do a long stretch of cycling during nap time. For us it works best to arrive at our campsite by about 3.30pm so that there is plenty of time for food shopping, setting up camp, and running around.

Bike touring bike with Thule Chariot bike trailer parked in front of map in Erquy, Brittany.

Tip 4: What will you do when it rains?

I say ‘when it rains’ rather than ‘if it rains’ because I have only ever had one cycling holiday completely unaffected by rain. Even then it rained at night!

My biggest regret about our first cycling tour with a baby was that we didn’t pack adequate raingear. The bike trailer itself turned out to have several holes in the bottom. Water was coming up into the trailer as spray from the road! We managed to keep baby fairly dry with a plastic bag lining the seat and plenty of fleece blankets, but it wasn’t ideal. Now we pack a full set of raingear for all the children (pack-away suit for infants, lightweight jacket and dungarees for children), so that we can keep them warm even in bad weather. We also upgraded the bike trailer to a Thule Cross 2 which I find much more waterproof!

If it is raining and you are touring with children, you will have far more clothing that needs drying, and far fewer options for drying it! I would recommend finding at least one campsite with a washer and dryer. Also, bring along some bungee cords or a travel washing line that you can string between bikes/trailers/tent when it does stop raining. As much as possible, try to bring some synthetic clothing options along for everyone as these dry very quickly. For example, fleece trousers make great camping sleepwear for kids.

I would also highly recommend some large drybags for storing key pieces of kit like sleeping bags and clean clothing. You can get these in a range of colours to help you find what you are looking for. As a bonus, we find they make packing up the tent much quicker in the morning. One person can be in the tent filling each drybag, while the other loads the full bags onto the bikes. We find the Exped XXL size works well for packing several sleeping bags to store in a trailer. If you are primarily using panniers then the L and XL sizes are probably more useful.

Tip 5: This is your children’s holiday too: make it a priority to have lots of fun!

Bike touring is a huge adventure, and it can be a brilliant family holiday, with lots of happy memories made. Many children will find it very exciting to sleep in a tent, cook over a camp stove, and explore new places each day. They will enjoy spending lots of time with you, and helping you with jobs around camp, route planning, and bike repairs. Whether you are making your first plans, or in the throes of last-minute packing, or actually out on your tour, always be thinking ‘how can we make this a fun trip for everyone?’ This is your children’s holiday too – try to make sure that you include time for things that they enjoy (beaches are always good!) and be sensitive to their wishes.

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