This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and-true trail voices around the country, and how trails impact the lives of Americans. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.
Our family once had the good fortune of traveling to Paris for my husband’s work, followed by a trip to Rhode Island for my work to ride a handful of trails for a guidebook. Guess which trip my then 7-year-old preferred? Yup, she picked biking in L’il Rhody over the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and pastel-colored macarons. She loved the lush tree tunnels, the swans in the trailside creeks, the whimsical public art and seeing a brightly colored caboose.
Biking has always been a part of Layla’s life, and as a middle schooler now she typically rides about 20 miles a week commuting to and from school. She greatly enjoys gliding along on her bike and is bummed when the trails are too snowy or iced up to ride. So how did we get here? I’ll share some of the tips we used to help her become a successful and happy rider, and we welcome advice from other parents in the article comments.
Lead by Example
One of the best things you can do to encourage your child to bike is to model that behavior (of course, this is true in nearly every aspect of parenting!). If they see that biking is just a routine thing that their parents do—whether that’s biking to work or to pick up groceries—it normalizes the activity. If we need to run an errand, Layla doesn’t make a beeline toward the car; she asks, “How are we getting there?” By incorporating biking into our vacations and weekend outings, it has also become something we enjoy together as a family and forms the basis of many happy memories and shared experiences.
A Plan of Action
Have your child help with planning bike trips—it gives them a stake in the game. Let them pick a place that they want to get to, like a favorite park or playground, and go over the route options to get there. One of Layla’s favorite biking destinations is a mountain biking park where she can test out new skills and challenge herself. If your child has aged beyond the playground stage, this national database of bike parks is very helpful!
Sheltered from traffic, trails are safe and welcoming spaces to take the kids out for a ride. To find one near you, check out TrailLink.com, our nationwide database of trails. We also have Top 10 trail lists for every state if you're looking for scenic routes to plan a weekend trip or vacation around.
Getting a Bike
Children will love biking if they love their bike. If your child doesn’t already have one, make sure to involve them in trying out their ride—whether you’re buying a new bike or picking up a used one. Make sure it fits them well and they feel comfortable getting on and off. We even name our bikes, so they feel like part of the family. (Layla’s is Dragonfly.)
Equipment That Makes a Difference
Make sure they have a good-fitting helmet (most modern helmets have a ratcheting system that snugs the helmet onto the skull) and adjust the strap so that it’s not too tight or too loose. If their helmet is sliding around on their head, not only will they be unsafe, but your kiddo won’t want to ride. To motivate them to wear it, younger kids may want one that features kitten ears or dragon scales, and older kids may appreciate picking out one in a color they like.
Front and rear bike lights and a bike bell are other musts, but you can liven up these necessities by having your child pick out a bike bell with a cute design (maybe a superhero or cool cat?), and by adding colorful lights to their wheels that not only make them more visible to drivers, but also add pizazz! Another practical but customizable accessary is a water bottle cage in their favorite color.
Consider acquiring a bike odometer, as this simple device (you can find some for around $15–$20) game-ifies the experience. For kids that are goal-oriented, it provides great motivation (they can aim to hit a certain number of miles in a day or week), and for those that are competitive, they’ll have fun seeing just how far they can go. It also helps reduce the age-old “Are we there yet?” question, as you can let them know at the outset the distance to the destination, and they can track their progress in real time.
Saddlebags are also really helpful. In our home state of Colorado, where the weather changes on a dime, we’ve got a place to store jackets and layers of clothing as we get hot or cold while out biking. And it’s a handy place to hold a frisbee or a ball if they’re biking to a friend’s house or park.
And, lastly, when they start biking alone, you’ll want to provide your child with a bike lock that has a simple locking mechanism that they can easily operate themselves; you’ll know your child well enough to decide whether they’re more likely to lose a key or forget a combination.
Related: Useful Biking Gear for Trails—Plus A Few MacGyver Tips! / Equipamiento de ciclismo útil para senderos, ¡y algunos consejos de MacGyver!
Motivations for Movement
Biking somewhere takes more work and energy than just sitting in the back seat, so building in encouragement, especially for longer rides, can be helpful for motivating youngsters to complete the ride and to ward off crankiness and complaints about the extra effort required. If you can, plan your routes to include fun stops, like a playground or an ice cream shop, to build excitement for reaching those destinations. If there isn’t anything along the way, you can pack a special treat to be given at the end of your journey or after reaching certain milestones, like reaching the halfway point.
For Layla, playgrounds were her top motivation. She loved to show me just how well she could defy gravity and there wasn't a set of monkey bars or swings within about a 5-mile radius from home that we didn't bike to. If your kid is at the “Mom, look at me!” stage, check out the Playground Buddy app to find one near you.
By pre-teen age, most children are itching to spread their wings, and biking can give them that feeling of doing something grown-up. Every parent’s comfort level is different, but for us, we felt secure in Layla’s skill level and maturity to bike to and from school and nearby friends’ houses by herself beginning in 6th grade.
At first, it can be a little nerve-racking to see your child ride off without you, but there are some things that can ease the transition and help keep them safe. Layla has a cell phone with her at all times so she can call if she has bike trouble or gets in an accident. She also texts us when she arrives at her destination and when she leaves for home. Another option is to add a geo-locater to your child’s phone to follow their progress.
When I asked Layla how she feels about biking, her answer was that she “likes being independent and speedy” and “It keeps me healthy!”
Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.