Mountain Biking With Toddlers
Gear & Tips For Family Rides
As an outdoor athlete, becoming a mother felt intimidating and worrisome. How will parenting fit into my current lifestyle? Can I be an outdoor athlete and a mom? Will there be enough time? How will I train?
The short answer is yes. With a bit of dedication and some workarounds, you can do both. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have often received discouraging feedback. I was told that my mountain biking days would be over, my desires would change, there would not be enough time for hobbies, and I should expect to plateau as an athlete. I was determined to prove to myself and to the naysayers that I could in fact do both.
My son was born two years ago and I have managed to hike 400+ miles with him, backpack, bikepack, ski, fat bike, and, of course, mountain bike with him all over—Park City, Moab, and all over Southern Utah, including Virgin Rim, St. George, Bears Ears, and the San Rafael Swell.
So let’s talk logistics and how you can mountain bike with your toddler or even baby. First, you are going to need some extra gear! I did hours of research and comparisons. I also worked closely with Two Wheeling Tots, an incredible kid and toddler bike review company with invaluable information. Now, here are my gear tips and insights on how you can hit the trails with your little ones.
Toddler Mountain Biking Gear
As a preface, keep in mind that not all gear is compatible with every bike. For example, with my multi-sport trailers, I had to buy separate thru-axle adapters from the Robert Axle Project. Call the brand before you buy or bring your bike into the shop to confirm that whatever gear you’re buying will work for your setup. I also recommend protecting your frame around whatever seat or trailer you’re using. All Mountain Style or other frame tape is an easy way to add some protection beneath a seat or around chainstays for a trailer.
Bike Helmets For Toddlers
The very first (and most important) piece of gear is a helmet. My son started wearing his first bike helmet at eight months. There aren’t many dedicated baby or toddler helmets out there, so order the smallest sizes if you’re getting a kids’ helmet. You should try several different helmets to ensure a proper fit. The Giro Scamp XS, which can come with MIPS, is a great option for infants and babies. Here are a few quick rules to reference to secure the best fitting helmet:
- Chin strap should be fairly snug beneath the child’s chin.
- There should be roughly two fingers spacing between the child’s eyebrows and the visor of the helmet. Commonly, kids’ helmets sit too far back on their heads, which won’t provide adequate protection.
- The V strap (for helmets with adjustable straps) should rest beneath the ears.
- Tighten and adjust the dial at the back of the helmet to ensure a snug fit.
- There should be no play or movement when the helmet is secure on your child’s head. Test by attempting to move the helmet around on your child’s head—side to side and front to back. A moving helmet is not protective in the case of a crash or fall.
Front-Mounted Child Bike Seats
Next, determine how you will bring your baby or toddler along on your rides. I quickly found that front-mounted bike seats for kids aged nine months to three years don’t work well with full-suspension mountain bikes. They are bulky and weren’t designed for mountain biking. The bike seat legs rubbed and hit the front fork or had other areas of unwanted contact. Many parents wait until their toddler is around 18 months or two years old to use a mountain bike-specific bike seat like the Shotgun or Mac Ride.
Kid Bike Trailers
Bike trailers are not typically designed with the singletrack in mind. They are wider and heavier. And it is generally not recommended to have a child ride in a bike trailer until they are at least one year old. Don’t get me wrong—I love my bike trailer and use it for many things, like morning jogs, winter skiing, fat biking in the snow, and, of course, biking on wider, flatter terrain or when bikepacking (which is another topic in and of itself—how to bikepack with toddlers).
There is one bike trailer that was designed specifically for mountain biking called the Tout Terrain that’s manufactured in Europe. This is an incredible product with a plush rear suspension system—truly an MTB parent’s dream. However, it does have a high price point and it may take a long time to ship to the U.S.
You might also consider the tag along Weehoo Trailer, which is more suitable for singletrack trails than traditional bike trailers. Your child will need to be a little older to ride on the Weehoo Trailer—usually around two years old—but it’s a great and fun option for mountain biking families.
Child Carriers & Packs
If I could ski with my baby on my back, why not bike with him on my back? I bought the Lillie Baby Airflow soft structured carrier for mountain biking because it’s designed with mesh, breathable fabric, maximizing airflow and ventilation. As many parents know, soft carriers generate a lot of body heat for both the parent and the little one.
I took many practice runs around the neighborhood to test out my solution of riding with my eight month old son on my back in a carrier. I tested for comfort, tested out his helmet, and ensured it would stay secure and properly fitted while riding.
As we got into a routine of riding, I found that I felt more secure with him on my back than I would with him on a seat on my bike. Why? He gets very little movement being on my back compared to sitting on a bike frame or sitting lower to the ground in a bike trailer. There is movement on the trail that he would be absorbing in a trailer or sitting on the frame. I rode in my neutral and ready positions, leaving my body (legs and arms) absorbing most of the movements on the trail and resulting in a nice, smooth ride for my son.
Mountain Bike Specific Seats
Sometime around the age of 2 or for some as early as 18 months, mountain bike-specific seats become a viable option for mountain biking parents. The Shotgun or the Mac Ride are both mountain bike-specific seats. Your child is not harnessed or strapped in (except for the feet straps). Take ample time practicing on short rides around the neighborhood.
I transitioned my son to his Mac Ride seat at 18 months. Once I could see that he could balance on his own, without me holding onto him, I knew he was ready for the trails. Keep in mind that until your child can learn to stand up and get out of their bike seat, then they absorb a lot of motion on the trail. Keep your movements slow and controlled, especially over obstacles on the trail.
Tips For Riding With Your Toddler
Ride Within Your Ability Level
Like with any outdoor sport, taking your baby or toddler along is an extremely personal decision and should be based on your abilities and comfort in the sport. Be sure you yourself have mastered the trails you ride before taking a baby or toddler. Know your abilities and your limits.
Ride slow, controlled, and well beneath your abilities. If you aren’t confident on dirt, then don’t leave the pavement. If you aren’t comfortable on a bike, then wait until your child is old enough to ride in a more stable bike trailer. Although, be warned that it is possible to flip a bike trailer, which is why the passenger of any bike trailer should ALWAYS be wearing a helmet.
Familiarize Your Kid With The Gear
This is an underutilized tip and trick for outdoor families! With any gear I have ever used with my son, I have spent time outside of the sport familiarizing him with those items.
For hiking, I left his hiking carrier out for him to explore around, play with, and familiarize himself with. The same goes for my bike trailer/jogger. It sat in my living room for months as he became acquainted. Before car camping or backpacking, I set up the tent for him to explore and play with. With helmets, snow boots, ski boots, and snow gear, I have had him wear the gear around the house (even if only for a couple minutes). I also leave it out for him to see, play and familiarize himself with.
With mountain biking, I have left my bike in our home in a controlled environment for my son to see often and understand what it is. My son understood what the word bike meant before he could talk. Because of this, he is extremely comfortable around large bikes and loves to pedal the cranks backward. This is nothing new and is not shocking to him. Familiarizing your child with the activity before your outings and excursions makes the process easier and less intimidating for the child.
Start Slow & Small
Start with small rides around the neighborhood—make it feel exciting and fun. Listen to your child’s cues and check comfort levels. Move to dirt when both you and your child are comfortable with your MTB setup. Have low expectations surrounding your rides, especially in the beginning.
Before taking on big miles, assess how long they can go before getting really fussy. Some fussiness is normal, but sustained fussiness usually indicates they need a break or have gone too long. I have identified that an 8-9 mile mountain bike ride is the perfect length for us. 4 miles of climbing and 4 miles of descending. I always want my son to leave rides fulfilled and happy instead of exhausted and annoyed.
Start Them Young
While every child is wired differently, I strongly believe that parents who start hiking with their babies from a young age and acclimate them to time outside in a carrier or pack will make outdoor excursions easier.
Your child will know and understand the drill. They will understand that going in the pack or a trailer is part of the routine. It will not a shock to their system to be strapped in for periods of time in the outdoors. This has largely contributed to my success in mountain biking with my son.
I have found that a long break midway through our rides works best. In addition to breaks, listen to cues throughout the ride. There are plenty of times when we turn around early. Until your kid is two or three years old, their only way to communicate is through crying. We may not always be able to determine what is causing tears, whether it’s discomfort, temperature, hunger, or exhaustion. Sometimes the easiest answer is to go home and try again later.
In addition to breaks, you can also help keep your passenger entertained by singing, playing trail games, or pointing out wildlife to make the journey even more exciting.
Praise, Reward & Bring Plenty Of Snacks
Praise and give rewards for doing well on rides. Sometimes the rewards might look like time at the park, pool, giving undivided attention post-ride (no adult work), or a yummy snack or treat. I also encourage the use of snacks and treats on the trail. This is a great distraction and motivation for littles to keep going.
Getting out the door with a baby or toddler is more work. To make it easier on yourself, pack up and get everything ready during nap time or the night before. Have everything ready to go by the door or pack it in your car if you can. Be sure to include a multi-tool or wrench set. With all the moving parts of a seat or trailer, it’s important to be able to fix anything that may occur while out on a ride. If using a trailer, make sure to pack a spare tube for the trailer tires as well as a spare for your own bike.
I also highly recommend briefly looking over your bike prior to each mountain bike ride with a child. Are the brakes in good shape? Is your shifting working okay? Are there any strange or unsettling noises? Are your bolts tight and secure? Are your tires in good shape and have the appropriate tire pressure? Then remember to care for and lube that chain.
Lauren Hronek is a member of Backcountry’s Honorary Gearhead Program, a contributor to Two Wheeling Tots, and mountain bike coach with Women in the Mountains. As part of her commitment to include her young son in all her outdoor pursuits, Lauren has found ways to keep the outdoors part of their lives with adventures from mountain biking to skiing.