biking with kids: two systems, one review

B & T biking to the park
{Whatever you choose – you’ll have fun being a biking mama!}

When it comes to biking with children, the best system is the system that is going to make you want to get on your bike, go through the trouble of getting them to wear their little helmets, and head out the door without so much thought as to the how as to the where.

With that said, you’re probably still thinking, yeah, but what’s the best way to do it? I may not be able to answer that question today but I’ve enlisted my friend Bobbie, fellow cycling mother, to help answer some questions on how using a bike trailer compares to using a child seat to give you some idea of the pros and cons for each set-up. (And, of course, there are other options as well, such as bucket bikes and electric cargo bikes, which I just don’t have any experience with. But these moms do.)

Bobbie and I have been using our respective bike set-ups to ferry our babies around town, pedaling from grocery runs, to playdates and library meet-ups, to wherever else we might need to go on any given day. We ride through relatively flat terrain with only one giant hill thrown in; our shared nemesis despite living in different parts of town. Below are our impressions on how our bike systems fare:

THE BIKE SEAT:

Let me begin by saying that I love my iBert bike seat and, even more importantly, my daughter loves it. She has yet to object to being placed in it and is usually sporting a huge grin on her face when we’re riding together. This means that the “cons” are no deal-breakers for me and that I would recommend the seat inspite of some drawbacks that I will list below. But I will let you be the judge of whether it would be a good fit for you.

Pros:

  • My child loves it! (enough said, right?)
  • Small, compact, doesn’t change the bike’s “footprint” –> I don’t have to account for a trailer behind me, worry about where the “end” of me is.
  • Does not alter the balance of the bike, I can’t even tell I have a child on there (even when she’s moving all around)
  • Easy interaction. Another BIG pro! I love getting to see her expression, talk to her while riding, answer to her when she’s pointing at things by saying the name for the given object, and narrate where we’re going, what we’re seeing, what we’re taking in of our surroundings. One of the best things about having her so close to me on my bike.
  • Easy to get her in and out of the seat (she slides right in, I buckle, we’re done)
  • Seat itself is easily removed from bike (quick release system)
  • I don’t have to pedal with my knees bowed out, my legs fit comfortably underneath the seat and I don’t have to change my riding style (but I do have to lower my saddle, see below!)
  • C. can and does nap in it. Hooray!
  • It goes up to 40lbs so I should be able to use it for a while longer (C. weighs 20 lbs now)

Cons:

There are three noteworthy “cons,” based on my experience with the seat. These may or may not be enough of a deterrent for you to consider a trailer over a bike seat:

  • There is little room between my bike saddle and the seat, to compensate I have had to lower my saddle in order to be able to hover over it when stopping (due to lack of space in front of me). As a result, I work harder because I have a shorter stride while pedaling.
  • Although the iBert has a quick release, when removing the child seat, the mounting mechanism left is essentially a metal rod pointing at you from your handlebar…. um… slightly disconcerting.
  • We chose the iBert because it’s advertised as the most broadly compatible bike seat with all different kinds of bikes but we weren’t able to mount it to any of my older (1960/70′s) bikes.
I should also note that the pros/cons list offered here is based on my experience with the iBert seat and not child seats in general. I have not tried other types of child seats and do not know how those would compare to this particular one. Please bear in mind that I am no expert and also not someone who’s in the “industry” of testing child seats, this is just a reflection on my impressions after having incorporated the iBert child seat into my daily bike commute.

 

In terms of the cons listed above, I have gotten accustomed to riding with a lowered saddle and it doesn’t bother me too much. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the child seat on my bike, I actually raised the seat again, feeling less nervous about my ability to stop quickly and touch a foot to the ground in order to steady myself. I imgine that my technique will continue to improve with time.

As for the mounting mechanism, T. and I each got one to put one our bikes so that we could quickly and easily move the seat between the two of us. No need to find the right tools and unscrew the mount each time the other one wanted to bike with our daughter. While we love having this option, the bike with the mechanism attached to it but without a child seat in place ends up presenting a safety hazard. This doesn’t pose a huge problem for us because we have several bikes and if I am not biking with my daughter, I’m usually biking on a different bike than the one I use for carrying her.But if you were to only have one bike, you’d want to remove the mounting mechanism each time you removed the seat to avoid a potentially hazardous set-up.

Bicycling with baby

T

THE BIKE TRAILER:

I love biking with T in the trailer. We have a generic InStep (the Quick N EZ model, I believe) that we bought off Craigslist. T enjoys riding in the trailer and we haven’t experienced too many issues with it. Like S and the iBert, the “cons” I have listed here are no deal-breakers, but are simply things that I have noticed using this trailer. I definitely recommend the trailer system to anyone looking to take longer trips and for running errands with your child in tow.

Pros:

  • Our trailer is a double, so I can haul two kids at a time if we need to. I recently tested it out with two babies (both under 15 months-old) and a load of groceries and it worked out very well.
  • It converts to a jogging stroller. It might not be the nicest jogging stroller option, but it’s a great option for walking around with two kids.
  • It’s carting capacity is huge. I can save a lot of time doing multiple errands (ex: going to the pool and stopping for groceries) without making a trip home to adjust our load.
  • It works with any type of bike. I have a cruiser-style bike and I know that’s not the most efficient bike, but the trailer works just fine with it. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t use alternative routes in order to avoid hills :)
  • It’s a great place for napping. I thought napping in the trailer would be an issue because T’s head tends to flop forward when he naps sitting up. However, this doesn’t seem to bother him too much.
  • The trailer is entertaining. T can bring a toy or a book along to play with and I don’t have to worry about losing them. When he gets bored with his toys he often plays with the straps or my bike lock.

I have split my cons section into two parts. In general I haven’t really found too many cons with the trailer and as I was writing this up I realized that most of my dislikes are trailer and/or bike specific cons. General cons listed here are cons I have found in comparing the trailer system to a child seat. The specific cons I have also listed are only issues I have found that pertain to my bike or the Instep trailer. I believe that a different brand of trailer (Burley specifically) would solve a lot of these problems.

General cons:
  • It’s harder to communicate with T. There just isn’t that close feeling that you get when your child is right next to you as there would be with a bike seat.
  • It is a bit bulky. I know I mentioned the size of the trailer in the pros section, and I do think that for hauling purposes it is very nice to have a large trailer. But you lose that “breezy” feel of just being able to hop on and go. However, this is mostly just a mental thing and it’s easy to get used to.
Specific cons:
  • There are (maybe) too many straps. There are two shoulder straps per child that hook down between T’s legs and they are not the easiest to hook/unhook. There’s also a lap belt. When you’re in a hurry it is a bit frustrating to have so many straps and easy to forget the lap belt.
  • Converting to a stroller on the go is not a realistic option for me. My bike doesn’t have a quick release back wheel, so I have to unscrew the trailer to take it off the bike. For me it is just more effort than it is worth, so if I need to I carry T or walk the bike around.
  • T’s helmet pushes on the back of the trailer and that pushes his head forward too much. This is mostly just a problem whenever he gets tired and wants to nap. And we have remedied this problem by buying a smaller helmet for T.

Making T wear a helmet was a source of debate between my husband and I for a while. I’ve heard mixed things about making kids wear helmets in trailers, but I insist on it. My reasoning for making him wear it is this: I never wore a helmet as a kid and even now I hate wearing one (it messes up my hair and I get sweaty). I want T to associate biking with helmets. I would like wearing a helmet to be second nature to him. And a word of advice based on my experience: make sure you get a light-weight helmet if your child is under a year. We bought an infant helmet for him, but the front was very wide, making it too heavy for him. Tiny necks just can’t handle a lot of weight very well.


{This poor kid is so much happier in a lighter helmet!}

I love that I can cut my commute time in half by biking instead of walking. We’re able to go farther without having to leave the house an hour in advance. It also makes getting together with friends a lot easier as we can just hop on the bike and meet up for impromptu play dates. In general, T is so much happier when we can get out of the house as much as possible!

**

Thanks so much to Bobbie for chiming in with her feedback on using a bike trailer! You can also read another review on using a Chariot trailer contributed by Miss Sarah of Girls and Bicycles to Simply Bike last summer. And more on Biking with Kids here.

Are you a cycling parent? What have you found to be the pros and cons of your child carrying system? Do you use a trailer, a bike seat, or something else all together (Madsen bucket bike, Yuba Mundo, etc?) Do you have any questions we did not address? Chime in with your comments below!

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12 Responses to biking with kids: two systems, one review

  1. Claire says:

    Regarding the trailer and bike helmet issue –

    Good idea to buy a smaller helmet – we’ve found the Bell helmets fit the best on little toddler heads.

    To deal with the head pushing forward, we bought a polypropylene cushion insert from the fabric store (a more rigid foam that can be used for outdoor furniture and in boats; doesn’t hold moisture/mold), and put that behind our daughter’s back (cut so that it only reached up to the nape of her neck). It moved her forward 2 inches, enough for helmet clearance but not so much that her head wasn’t supported behind the helmet. It really improved her comfort.

    Some of the more expensive trailers (like the chariot) have dealt with the helmet clearance issue by designing a more roomy mesh area behind the helmet – it works great for kids that are tall enough, but kids 12-24 months could probably still use the support cushion above.

  2. Lena says:

    I LOVE the iBert and have used it with two kids. My singular complaint with it is that the shoulder straps tend to slip off. With both kids, I have been unable to figure out how to keep them on their shoulders consistently. What do you think?

    Also, as far as the weight limit goes, while I am sure that is true logistically, one also has to account for their child’s height in the iBert. My 3-year-old is barely 30 pounds, but there is no way she can fit her legs in the IBert, or I could see over her.

    Like Bobbie, I think the helmet is a nonegotiable regardless of the seat. It freaks me out to see adults or kids without helmets, as my mother is an avid cyclist and has had two accidents where her helmet broke. That could have been her head! And one of those she was just standing next to her bike and another cyclist road into her!

    Finally, I would add that biking with kids is so important to teach the fun of it and the alternative transportation method of it.

  3. tOrso says:

    When my parther and I were weighing the options of trailer versus seat for our first child, the folks at the LBS gave a strong recommendation for the chariot sidecarrier. It looks improbable, but a short test ride convinced me that it was what I wanted. We got two brackets so my partner could leave the sidecar at the daycare at drop-off and I could ride off with it at the end of the day.

    It is brilliant. Now our first is riding on a Trail-a-bike behind me, while my girlfriend has the easier job of hauling the sidecar with our second.

    Pros:
    Child is next to you, making conversation, eye contact, passing of snacks to parent from child easier.
    Child catches none of the rear tire spray that they would get in a trailer, and has a more unobstructed view.
    Child is low and virtually impossible to tip, so very safe.
    Decent sized cargo area.
    Well loved by my 2.
    Very easy to ride with.

    Cons:
    Holds just one child.
    Widens your footprint, though not much more than a trailer would.
    Not convertible to stroller use.
    Limits how full you can pack your right side pannier, or how fast you can take right turns if you have overloaded that side.

    Sidecarrier at REI

  4. I have an Instep Journey trailer which is nearly identical to that orange one. The differences I notice are: that lap belt isn’t a lap belt on mine, simply a strap to secure the bottom of the sling seat and tension the floor, the area above the straps is made of mesh for air through-flow and has overlapping layers which can expand for helmet room, and the shoulder area has mutliple slits to adjust the height of the shoulder straps as children grow.

    My trailer also hitchs to the bike with a very simple circular bracket and cotter pin with a safety strap- the only time I have to unscrew anything is to change a flat rear tire. Going from trailer to stroller is as simple as getting the stroller wheel out and taking a minute to unpin and repin.

    With a hitch system, there is still that breezy feeling of just hooking things up and taking off! (well, as breezy as you can get with strapping in a small child who may be cranky from refusing to nap!)

    I don’t yet have a child of my own, but it seemed like such a nice option for riding with one of my best friends and her 1.5-yr-old. My friend has now gotten a baby seat behind her which the baby likes more (she’s with mommy of course!) but makes handling the bicycle much more difficult for mom.

    I’ve used my trailer for LOTS of cargo hauling, including weekly laundry trips when I had to, recycling, and even a lawn mower which fit perfectly.

    I’m teaching my dogs to ride in it for my own family bike rides :)

  5. Bex says:

    Thanks for posting this. We think we’ll buy a trailer for our baby. I’m excited to be able to do errands by bike again! For me, the biggest challenge is thinking of routes to destinations that don’t involve busy streets.

  6. Hannie says:

    We’ve been using quite a few system to transport our son. We started with a trailer when he was just a few months old. We used it with a baby bucket to protect the little one. When he was about a half year we switched to a bobike front-mounted seat. In my opinion this seat is not suited for napping. So for longer bike rides we continued to use the trailer (we still use it). Our trailer easily converts into a jogger (within 1 or 2 minutes), which makes it ideal for trips to the market or grocery store. After two-and-a half-years transporting our son on the front was becoming a bit unstable, and since he is very tall (for his age) we also felt it was safer to switch to a rear-mounted seat. We still talk during our bike rides but it feels different. When he was in his front-mounted seat I knew what he was looking at and named and talked about those things. I think the biggest problem with switch to a rear-mounted seat was that I realized that my baby had become a big boy ;-). On the more practical level: When my son was in a front-mounted seat I could see that he was moving his weight left or right and could anticipate/react on this by making correcting moves with my bike. Now I am sometimes surprised by his movements.

    I have no real pro or cons considering the seats or the trailer. For shorter trips we prefer the seats and for longer trips or grocery shopping we prefer the trailer (we also use the trailer without a kid, but with grocery etc). We received hand-me-down seats from friends, so now we have double sets of both seats (front and back) so that both parents have a seat on their bike. We prefer using a stable, not so light weight bike with the seats, like the Gazelle bloom, that was designed for mothers.

    • simplybike says:

      Hannie,

      I’m always intrigued by what parents use in other countries, esp. in Europe, so thanks for the comment! A bike designed for mothers? Wow, I need to look into that some more! I agree that the idea of a more stable bike sounds better than a fast and light bike. I think having multiple systems sounds ideal, like you said, the seat isn’t great for napping and hauling groceries. I would love to have more than one system and maybe with time we will.

      S.

  7. Pingback: Simply Bike » enter to win an ibert child seat for your bike!

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