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How to keep little bike passengers cozy in the cold

Lots of layers is a good start; but there’s much more to keeping them comfortable.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

You’ve decided to start biking more with your little ones. You’ve found routes that work for you. You’ve got your bike set-up figured out.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

And then you look outside and realize it’s 35 degrees.

Pedaling my heavy bike keeps me warm, but it’s a different story for my non-pedaling passengers. They need at least one extra layer when it’s cold outside. That’s one of the many things I’ve learned over the years.

As we get our first major snow storm of the year, this week’s post is all about how to stay warm and dry while biking with kids. First, I’ll go over the things you can put on your bike, then I’ll share the things you can (hopefully) put on your kids.

Trailers

Two blankets and a dog make the trailer toasty warm.

Most trailers are enclosed so they’re both warmer than exposed bike seats and great at containing layers–just toss in blankets, large stuffed animals, warm-blooded pets, you name it!

Even when the trailer was no longer part of our main family bike, I loved it — especially on cold days.

Canopies for box and bucket-style cargo bikes

A bakfiets with canopy keeps passengers comfy.

Many cargo bikes and cargo trikes have weather canopies. These are optional and if the manufacturer doesn’t make one, local company BlaqPaks has covers ready for many bike models and they’ll even make custom canopies (check out this 2013 BikePortland profile for more). Cargo bike specialty shops like Clever Cycles and Splendid Cycles can also help keep your precious cargo covered.

Windscreens

Bobike Mini front kid seat with wind screen.

Ordering the windscreen (also called a fairing) for my first kid seat was one of the best things I ever did. It kept each kid comfortable in cold, wind, and rain from ages one to three. Front seats that work with a windscreen include: Bobike Mini, Yepp Mini, and Thule RideAlong Mini.

There are also windscreens for the whole bike by Velotop. The classic versions will cover any front kid seat and the family version protects a kid in a rear seat.

Handlebar mittens

Handlebar mittens come as sets of two and work fine with shifters and brakes, though my kids like keeping their shifters visible.

Before I put an Xtracycle Hooptie on my cargo bike, my front kid held onto stoker bars to which I applied handlebar mittens. In my photo below, the kids are using black neoprene Bar Mitts and locally-made Portland Pogies (waterproof and fuzzy inside!). These are best paired with thin gloves underneath for any time spent outdoors off the bike. Bar Mitts Baby Jogger Stroller Mitts fit on longtail and midtail roll bars like my Xtracycle Hooptie.

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Insulate metal

Anything metal is going to be cold to the touch and transfer a chill through gloves and mittens. Stoker bars can be wrapped in handlebar tape or covered with grips. Roll bars (like my older model Xtracycle Hooptie) are good to cover with pipe insulation or handlebar tape. If a kid leg rests against part of the bike frame, consider covering that with pipe insulation, too.

DIY covers

Most toddlers like these DIY bike seat covers.

When I got my cargo bike my younger son really missed his front seat windscreen so I made him a new one. Following a couple tutorials, I zip tied half-inch PVC pipe in an arch above his Yepp Maxi seat (which conveniently already has holes in it, otherwise I’d have had to do some drilling). To this I zip tied the sun canopy from a handed down umbrella stroller and then draped my jogging stroller rain cover over it all. He hated it. I think he may have liked it better with a clear stroller cover. So we didn’t use it, but I gave it all to a friend whose daughter appreciated it.

One of the things I like best about cargo bikes is they provide so much surface area for attaching stuff. Roll bars work well for longtail DIY covers, and someday there will probably be a mass market option or two.

Hamper as canopy prototype on a longtail cargo bike.

Before MADSEN made a soft top, some owners made their own.

Outer layers

Newt Suit and rain boots all day, every day.

I love one-piece rain suits for toddlers. We had MEC Newt Suits from a visit to Vancouver. Available in the US are the Tuffo Muddy Buddy that goes up to size 5T and the Oaki One-Piece Rain Suit that goes up to size 8/9. Our rain suits ran a bit big so there was room to layer up underneath them for even the coldest days. I was initially sad when my kids outgrew their Newt Suits, but two piece coverage (rain paints and rain jackets) proved easier for visiting restrooms solo and getting uncovered and in the door on time for elementary school. (And why yes, there is an adult Muddy Buddy, the dirtlej commutesuit.)

I’ve never seen a used one-piece rain suit, but we’ve found all our snow suits, snow pants, snow bibs, and snow jackets in thrift stores.

For footwear I like rain boots and snow boots equally, and most of ours we’ve found at thrift stores.

Mittens are warmer than gloves, but we use either. Between growing kid hands and disappearing gloves we seem to need a new set each year. This year we found two pairs of gloves and one pair of mittens (I only have two kids, but I like having a spare pair) at the local grocery store after our closest thrift store didn’t pan out.

Layer with spare adult jackets and blankets

Adult snow jacket makes for a cozy cocoon.

The best part about kids being passengers is being able to make them as bulky as necessary with no worry of pedaling and steering being impaired. I liked using an old snowboard jacket backwards on my rear deck passenger. It was big enough to zip around the back of the seat and pulling the arms through the big hole at the back of the Yepp seat kept the top of it in place.

Adult coats also make good extra layers worn forward for kids sitting on benches, decks, and trailer bikes. I’ve often had to give up my coat when we were unprepared for the weather. I also like using an old thin rain jacket as a kid leg apron for extra warmth or in rain, and some even drape down low enough to cover ankles and feet.

Gave my wool coat to a cold passenger.

Get creative! In a pinch, a reusable shopping bag will keep cold feet a bit warmer if you’re stuck far from home with a miserable passenger.

At one point we had a kid-sized Slanket (The Original Blanket with Sleeves) and while I adored the thing the kid didn’t, so I chopped it up to make a couple Halloween costumes and a dog sweater. I still approve of them as good bike layers, though.

Blankets are great, but Slankets are great with sleeves!

Any layer is warm, but a waterproof layer is particularly good since it’ll block wind and rain, too. I’ve used beach towels in a pinch, but prefer a picnic blanket as a cape–secured with a hair tie or Gear Tie reusable rubber twist tie.

Picnic blanket cape to the rescue in an unexpected downpour. (And spare socks as mittens.)

Blankets and buntings designed to work with strollers are also great on bikes.

For cold noggins

Ski helmets and goggles keep heads warm.

We already have snowboarding helmets and goggles so I break those out if it gets really cold. My kids don’t like wearing their balaclavas (even when I call them “ninja masks,” though for many kids that does the trick) so they usually wear knit caps under their bike helmets. Sweatshirt hoods under helmets and/or jacket hoods over helmets can also keep heads and ears warm. I have a set of hand-knit helmet earmuffs I attach to my own helmet straps when it’s coldest, and have considered getting Nutcase Insulation Ear Pads (which will fit any helmet) for the kids if they start complaining of cold ears.

Base layers

Merino wool! We don’t have fancy kid baselayers (just the usual uniform of sweatpants and t-shirts), but I’m a fan of merino wool. Many friends find their merino wool baselayers on Sierra Trading Post and while I don’t see merino wool in the Sierra Trading Post: kids baselayer search results now, there are non-wool options for cheap.

I’ve invested in wool socks for the kids over the years and encourage them to wear them on long days, but they’re usually fine in regular cotton socks.

Heat packs

Reusable heat packs when your layers aren’t enough.

Not nearly as small as the throw-away chemical heat packs, reusable hand warmers, like my HotSnapZ, are good for thawing frozen fingers. They’re a bit big to stuff into mittens or socks (unlike the non-reusable ones) so we usually use them when stopped for a snack break.

A word of warning

Actually two words, the first of which is wind. Anything big on your bike will catch the wind on a breezy day. Weather shields can make all the difference for biking year-round, but might dictate which routes you take on windy days. Weather shields are fairly easy to remove and install, but once kids get used to sitting under them, it’s not reasonable to remove them until fall/winter/spring is over.

Warning part two: as with anything carried on your bike, be cautious about things that might droop or fall and get tangled up with the moving parts of your bike. Tuck in blankets and securely knot scarfs.

Help!

You’ve got the kid, you’ve got the layers, but you’re having trouble getting the layers on the kid?

Thanks for reading! Please add your own tips and favorite solutions in the comments below.

We’d love to see what works for you! Please send a photo and brief description to me at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com so we can share on social media and feature them in future columns.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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