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Tour de Family: A First-Timer's Guide to Planning a Family Bike Trip

How to take your kids biking, kids in helmets on bikes in front of beautiful background

It was the perfect time and place to get a flat tire.

I saw a grassy opening in the forest off the side of the road up ahead, with a stream and a pebble beach. I was about to suggest we stop for lunch, but my wife beat me to it. “I’ve got a flat,” Lucy announced from a few bike lengths back.

We were in the middle of an eight-day bike camping trip on the Oregon coast. Lucy was on her city bike, and I was biking with the two kids, ages 5 and 6, on a tandem with a trail-a-bike attached. By this time, the kids had perfected their self-eject technique: They didn’t wait for me to stop before they jumped off their seats to explore. Lucy and I rolled to a stop.

We couldn’t have planned a better place for a midday break. The flat tire could wait. It was lunch in paradise.

My family and I had been on several short bike camping trips over the last few years, short jaunts close to our home in Portland, Ore. This past summer, we stepped it up a notch to spend a week on a family bike tour. It was the vacation of a lifetime.

As with any family vacation, a trip by bike will inevitably involve tears and disagreements. Flats happen. Headwinds blow. Climbs outnumber descents, and no matter what the mode of travel, kids intuitively know the least opportune moment to ask, “Are we there yet?”

But in the end, none of that matters, because something magical happens on a bike trip. It’s condensed quality time. Every day seems to contain a week’s worth of perfect moments. A grassy patch by the side of the road becomes an ideal place to stop and eat an orange and a handful of almonds while the kids run. Bliss is found. That’s the type of memory that lingers.

With some smart planning, a little gear and a “take it as it comes” attitude, a bike trip could be your next — and perhaps most memorable — summer vacation.

Getting the wheel rolling

Family biking trip

The obvious first step is that you need bikes for everyone. We used a standard bike trailer for our first couple of trips, when the kids were small. We moved up to a longtail cargo bike (a bike with a longer frame designed to be loaded) after we decided that we liked family biking, both in the city and on trips.

When we started looking into a longer tour, a friend let us borrow a tandem outfitted with a special set of pedals on the back position for short legs. We added a trail-a-bike for the second child. It functioned as a triple bike — dad plus kid plus kid — which worked well for our eight-day trip, riding about 40 miles a day.

To help figure out your family’s bike needs, one strategy is to attend a family cycling event (such as Kidical Mass) where you can meet other families that bike and see their setups. Family bike shops, such as G&O Family Cyclery in Seattle and Clever Cycles in Portland, are valuable resources.

If you want to go the bike camping route, you’ll also need camping gear and racks or bags to carry it. Gear does not need to be new, high tech or ultralight, but weight does matter. Backpacking gear, even if outdated, is more practical to carry than car-camping gear. We were able to fit gear for four people into eight panniers (four per bike) on our big coastal trip.

Kids’ gear is important, such as their own headlamp or handlebar-mounted water bottle holder. One of the best gear investments we made was a small handlebar bag for each kid. The kids can put whatever they want in it: toys, rocks, leaves.

Test rides

Now that you’re outfitted, take some time to play around with loading the bikes and taking short rides. When we borrowed the tandem, we did a few loaded trips to the park to get used to the bike. Test rides can also give you a feel for what mileage you are comfortable pedaling daily.

To find a first short bike trip, research nearby destinations. How are the roads to get there? Is there a low-traffic alternative route? Are there any services along the way? Can a regional trail be incorporated into the route? Where will you stay? Hotel? Campground?

For our first bike overnighter — when the kids were 2 and 3 — we drove with another family to a forest road near Portland that was closed to motors but open to bikes, horses and hikers. Lacking proper panniers or racks, we piled all of our gear into our trailer with the 2-year-old. The 3-year-old had to ride her balance bike.

We had more enthusiasm than knowledge or equipment, but after cycling three miles in, we found a nice spot and stayed for two nights. We played in the river, hiked, caught frogs, climbed rocks and watched stars. Before the trip was over, we were talking about the next one.

Oh, the places you’ll go

The Pacific Northwest has a staggering number of bike-friendly accommodations and destinations. Here are several ideas for starter trips. Most are rail-to-trails, ideal for families because they’re generally flat and traffic free.

boy biking in the woods with his dadBanks-Vernonia State Trail. This rail-to-trail, northwest of Portland, is paved the entire 21-mile length, and there are services in both Banks and Vernonia (both ends of the trail), and a state park with camping and facilities at about the halfway point. You could combine it with a couple of days of sightseeing and biking in Portland.

Covered Bridges Scenic Bikeway. One of about a dozen scenic bikeways in Oregon, Covered Bridges is a 37.7-mile route south of Eugene (part rail-trail, part backroads) that travels by six covered bridges. Camp at Schwarz Park Campground near the Cottage Grove end of the rail trail.

Iron Horse State Trail. You could do a number of different trips on the more primitive Iron Horse State Trail (a gravel rail trail in Washington state). A reasonable family trip is the 17-mile stretch from Hyak on Snoqualmie Pass to North Bend, which includes a 2.5-mile tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass. There are primitive campsites along the route.

Old West Scenic Bikeway. This 174-mile route in central Oregon on paved, mostly low-traffic roads, could be your first long trip. It travels by ponderosa pine forests, rivers, hot springs and fossil sites — including the John Day Fossil Beds National Monu­ment.

Galloping Goose Trail, Vancouver Island. Take the Victoria Clipper over to the island, spend a day or two staying in Victoria and exploring the rail-trail network around Victoria, including the 55-kilometer Galloping Goose Trail. Then ride north to Sidney and hop on a ferry to the Gulf Islands, for more bike adventures.

Keep in mind that the obvious destinations are not always the best choices. While we loved our trip on the Oregon Coast Bike Route, much of the route is narrow and hilly, with high-speed traffic. Conversely, few people talk about Washington state’s Forest Road 23, a mostly paved road near Mount Adams that’s the gateway to hundreds of miles of quiet roads in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

One last trip idea: Drive (or take a train) to a bike-friendly city or town with your bikes, stay in a hotel and explore the surrounding area on two wheels. We first saw Portland this way.

A family bike trip can be whatever you want it to be: long, short, remote, cultural, rugged, luxurious. Aim for something realistic. It may take some effort and expense to get there, but it will be a journey that brings your family closer together and forms memories that last a lifetime.

Wheely helpful resources

Here are a few organizations and sites to get you farther down the road.

Kidical Mass: Family-oriented rides and events in cities throughout the Northwest.
Treo Tours: Guided bike tours in eastern Oregon, including lodging and meals.
G&O Family Cyclery: A friendly bike shop in North Seattle focused on family biking.
Cycling Sojourner: Oregon and Washington bike touring guidebooks.
Cycle Siskiyou Routes: resources and inspiration about biking in northern California’s beautiful Siskiyou County.
Cascade Bicycle Club: This large Seattle club has online resources, events and classes geared toward family biking.
Portland Sag Wagon: Offers pick-up and drop-off service for bikes throughout the Northwest.
Mud, Sweat and Gears by Joe Kurmaskie: Riveting adventure narrative about a family on a cross-Canada bike tour.
Panniers & Peanut Butter: An entertaining and informative primer on bike camping. 

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