Despite the family-friendly nature of mountain biking, many parents find the sport intimidating or overwhelming to get started in. Even moms and dads who have experience mountain biking may not be sure how to get their children involved. The good news is that with a bit of patience, the right gear, and a beginner-friendly trail system, families (even those with young children) can easily get started mountain biking together.
Hauling young kids
While riding with very young children may not be for everyone, with the right gear and planning, it can be a safe and enjoyable experience. As soon as kids are a year old, you can start riding with them on gentle trails. One word of caution on this topic: You should only ride with young kids once you are confident and capable on a mountain bike yourself.
Because young kids can’t ride far on their own, you will need some sort of child carrier. The most popular choices are a front-mounted bike seat, trailer, or trailer-cycle. The youngest riders will be happy in an iBert seat or the well-built Thule Chariot . By two or three, kids are able to utilize a trailer-cycle like the Weehoo . This recumbent-style attachment allows kids to be hauled by an adult while also pedaling along.
Smaller children should also be given the option to bike solo for a portion of the ride. Even toddlers can have fun riding half-a-mile or more on their balance bike, a pedal-less bike designed to teach balance. Riding dirt trails can be a great way for young kids to develop gross motor skills and learn bike handling skills. Once they are tired, throw bikes in the trailer or use a bungee to strap to your backpack.
Kids’ mountain bikes
For kids who have graduated from a trailer-cycle and are ready to bike on their own, the single most important thing you can do for them is to buy a decent bike. Although you might be looking to save money, heading to a big-box store isn’t your best option. According to Consumer Reports, mass-market bikes have cheaper construction and tend to be heavier.
Before shopping, know what size bike your child needs. Unlike adult bikes, kids bike sizes are categorized by wheel diameter (12″, 14″, 16″, etc). While each bike size has a general age range associated with it, the best way to ensure a proper fit is to measure your child’s inseam (in inches) and take that information when shopping.
The best kids mountain bikes will have components from well-known brands in the bike industry; for example, look for Kenda tires, Tektro brakes, and an Ahead headset. If you’re not well-versed in bicycle parts, don’t panic–a local bike shop should be able to point you in the right direction.
For parents on a budget, classified ads or local bike swaps can also be a good way to pick up an affordable, quality kids mountain bike. Brands like Islabikes, Spawn, Cleary, and Woom will hold up even secondhand.
Although mountain biking has a reputation for being dangerous, off-road riding may actually be safer for kids than biking near traffic. PeopleforBikes, a national bike advocacy organization, theorizes that the decrease in youth biking fatalities over the last three decades is a direct result of the increase in recreational and off-street riding.
Keep your child even safer with a few precautions. A helmet is the most-effective way to prevent serious injury and death; according to Safe Kids Worldwide, properly-fitted helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 45 percent. For maximum safety, look for one with Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) technology. Gloves and protective pads can provide extra protection (plus, most kids think they are cool).
To find beginner-level rides in your area, head to your computer. A few good resources for finding family-friendly trails are MTBProject and Singletracks.com. MTBR also has fantastic U.S. regional forums where you can post and ask for advice; you might even find another biking family to ride with.
If you are brand new to the sport, dirt roads, cinder-trails, and canal paths can also make for fun, non-threatening rides. They key is to look for a route that is relatively short and has minimal climbing. Kids are also highly motivated by destination rides; choose a trail that heads to a lake or a backcountry store and you’ll get the whole family excited for the adventure.
Look for a family-friendly trail with minimal elevation gain.
Because mountain bike rides often take you away from populated areas and immediate help, you should make sure to pack enough water, food, and emergency gear for the whole family. The following should be stowed in a backpack, hydration pack, or seat bag:
- Water (1-2 liters per person)
- A hand-pump
- Tire levers
- Patch kit and/or spare tube
- Small multi-tool
- Lightweight jacket for each family member
- Small first-aid kit
The whole family can benefit from a skills-building session. Head to a bike park or pump track to practice steering, balancing, and jumping. Even toddlers can get in on the action. Don’t have a bike park in your area? Try building a ramp in the backyard or setting up an obstacle course with cones. If you don’t mind killing some grass, you can even build a backyard pump track.
Visiting your local bike park is a fun way to practice new skills.
Get out there
Once you have the gear you need and you’ve identified a good beginner trail or bike park, get on out there! You should expect the outing to take several hours. Even a fairly short ride can require lots of snack breaks and off-the-bike exploration. If the first outing isn’t super successful, keep on trying. If your focus is on having fun and making great memories, mountain biking could very well become your family’s favorite outdoor sport.
Kristen Bonkoski lives, works, and plays in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she writes the blog Rascal Rides.