Biking with Kids in the Snow

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This is a guest post by Madeleine Carlson, who rides around Seattle, often with her two children, and chronicles their experiences at the Family Ride blog Check out her recent related post on navigating icy roads by bike.

Eagerly awaiting the Disaster issue of Taking the Lane and viewing friends’ pictures and anecdotes about Winter Storm Nemo in New England has naturally got me thinking about my own experiences with biking in snow. I was born and raised mostly in Southern California and am, as a result, very wimpy about less-than-ideal weather. Four years in Seattle has made me a bit tougher, but I think I’ll always like my snow an hour’s drive away.

Many Seattleites bike commute year-round and last year, I joined their ranks.

It appears we may have a lame winter this year (yay!), but last year we had two days of real snow on the ground and then some days of slush. I have zero snow driving experience so I didn’t dream of going out by car. I also couldn’t imagine walking two blocks with my two small children to wait an hour or more for a bus to show up. In years past we would have happily holed up indoors, but the kids had reached the age at which a change of scenery was imperative to our well-being (read: fighting, screaming, destruction). So what choice but to bike!

I didn’t feel comfortable yet on my then-new regular bike, a longtail Surly Big Dummy cargo bike which holds the kids up off the ground, so I dusted off my mountain bike and hooked it up to our double trailer. I had to walk a little when I lost momentum on an unplowed steep hill, but other than that, it worked perfectly. The trailer containing 75 pounds of kids was certainly a beast to tug uphill and in retrospect I would have had an easier go of it had I left the Neighborhood Greenways and taken the lane on our neighborhood’s plowed main drag.

Now, many cargo bike drivers take their rigs out in all weather and wondered why I didn’t do the same. Having no previous snow biking experience, I didn’t want any mistakes on my part to result in the kids getting faces full of snow, but they’re right. I felt very stable, even clipped in with my fancy mountain bike shoes. Exchanging that for the spryer cargo bike and free feet is something I’d like to try…though I’m happy to wait until next winter or even the next one, Mother Nature.

I did take the Big Dummy out on the slushy day following the snow days and was able to keep the rubber side down, though there were a couple slippery spots. A guy with a truck offered to give us a lift at a red light (“No, really, are you sure? Let me drive you back home!”), but it was worse than it looked. I moved more slowly than normal, but we were adequately bundled up so there were no complaints from the peanut gallery.

Once again, I resorted to bike plus trailer on an icy day last month, and learned the hard way that I would have been better off with the cargo bike. I rode onto a patch of ice–caused by a neighbor having hosed down their car to melt the window ice; DON’T DO THAT, PEOPLE!–but when the trailer hit the raised lip of the ice patch, my momentum stopped and down I went. I also would have been fine had I decided to avoid the ice slick and gone around the block. Chalk it up to my mild-weather upbringing.

Our snow day trips were just short ones, day one to an indoor neighborhood center to play on the train table and day two to the grocery store, but I am happy to have realized the potential to do more important biking in future similar conditions. With the mountain bike I could carry at least the equivalent weight (and much more in less hilly or less snowy circumstances) of supplies in my trailer in a disaster situation and/or could safely transport my children. I hesitate to make a similar claim about the cargo bike until I’ve tried it, but in mild weather, we haven’t come close to overweighing the thing.

This has been a guest post by Madi Carlson of the Family Ride blog. Thanks, Madi!