How our family beat the winter biking blues

Even my baby had the blues (he didn’t love this helmet). (Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

I emptied my bike’s cargo box, which had been accumulating nerf guns, discarded jackets, and a random assortment of baby stuff.

Oh winter. Rain, chill, biting wind, and early darkness. Has anyone else retreated to their cars or just stayed home under the covers? Maybe you weren’t ready for the rain when it started (guilty). Maybe you got discouraged by a nasty driver or near-collision (we did). Maybe you got sick and felt crummy (us too!). Maybe your garage door even broke and you literally couldn’t get your bike outside (okay, that one is probably just us). 

Whatever had you down and not biking, I feel you. We’ve hit a lot of bumps recently, so much so, that we almost stopped riding entirely. Among other things, we had trouble finding a baby seat that is compatible with our new e-bike, and liked by our baby. We had to troubleshoot and install a different option than planned. Meanwhile, we had some family setbacks and serious illnesses. Little by little, all our “stuff” migrated to the minivan. Then our garage door broke and we couldn’t get the box bike out at all. As obstacles to biking piled up, we lost the habit. Then we got discouraged about pedestrian and cyclist deaths (including one that was close to our home). For the first time since we began biking, I felt afraid.

Not riding made things worse. The blues were piling up. And our bike was gathering dust.

Our winter re-start

Despite the setbacks, I could see that it was time to restart our biking journey. We’d had a great first year of family biking. Looking back on it, I think it was the happiest year of my parenting life. I was finally able to get outside with my kids on a regular basis, doing something I genuinely enjoyed, and they loved too. It’s a lifestyle worth saving. It’s worth restarting. I put the image back in my head of the kind of parent I want to be, the kind of family life I want to lead. I want us to be outside together, biking together, living consciously, a community-based life. But getting back on the bike wouldn’t just happen on its own. We needed a fresh start. 

Fresh starts may be easier in the spring, but we need to restart biking now – rain and chill and dark included. The great thing is, restarts can happen any time! You don’t have to wait for New Year’s Resolutions or warmer weather. Make a decision to bike through this winter, or whatever blues have set you back. Then get yourself set-up to make it happen. With kids, preparation is key.

Step 1. Bike spiff up/tune-up

Cleaning can be cleansing. I emptied my bike’s cargo box, which had been accumulating nerf guns, discarded jackets, and a random assortment of baby stuff. I even vacuumed up the dirt and cheerio crumbs. I stocked the under-seat compartment with spare tires and ordered an extra tire pump to keep with us. I finally moved the panniers from my analog bike to the e-bike, cleaning out the junk that had accumulated in the bottoms, and got us generally set-up to haul library books, picnics and kid gear again. I also finally raised and tightened my bike seat for better comfort. We got a rear-view mirror installed, pumped all the tires, and checked all the lights. At last, the bike was ride-ready, and everything in order. 

Is anything getting junky on your bike? Maybe a pannier needs emptied out. Maybe something needs fixed or replaced. Maybe your whole bike needs a full tune up and some love. Take the time to make it happen. You’ll start feeling better as you go along, and look forward to riding again.

Step 2. Get set for success: prep winter kid gear

When you need to go somewhere with kids, every detail can derail you. “Mom, where’s my shoe? Mom, I can’t find my other glove. Mom, I lost my helmet!” 

To successfully begin biking again, especially in the winter, I needed to get our gear ready. The goal of gear preparation is to make our bike exits as efficient as possible, thus cutting out one of our biggest excuses for not biking. If the bike isn’t ready, and if our stuff isn’t ready, and if we don’t know where the pump is or the rain gear, or the diaper bag….those not-ready gear issues can set us back half an hour, plenty long enough for us to give up entirely.

You can think of winter prep like seasonal kid clothing changes. Every fall and spring, Mama has to go through each kid’s clothes to clear out the old (too small now) and wash and fold the new (hand-me-downs). We have to do the same for our outdoor gear and winter bike stuff.

Here’s what we got ready:

  • Winter hats and helmet re-sizing (to fit over hats). 
  • Matching gloves for each child (I’ll keep these in the cargo box).
  • Rain Cover ready (if you don’t have a fancy rain cover, consider a water-proof picnic blanket–it works great!)
  • Rain jackets hung up on garage rain gear rack (it can be nice to have a garage or front/back porch to hang up dripping rain gear, without having to take it all inside).
  • Seat blanket folded and placed in bike
  • Diaper bag packed and put in bike (including water-proof changing pad, in case we need to do an outdoor diaper change.)
  • Water bottles. My kids are always dying of thirst. I keep a few sippy cups and water bottles permanently in a pannier or bottom of the cargo box.
  • Baby bunting fitted to new baby seat (this was donated from a friend’s outgrown stroller accessories). I’m so excited at how cozy it looks. 

*If you aren’t loading up a big cargo box, think about packing your backpack, and even your kid’s backpack, with predetermined essentials. Whenever possible, get these ready the night before. 

Pro tip: Get the kids involved. Teach your children what they need, where to find it, and how to pack their own gear–even my three-year-old can do this, with a little help. The kids are proud of their responsibilities and it really helps us to get out the door when everyone packs their own gear and contributes to the trip (like filling up water bottles or packing snacks).

Step 3. Lay out Mama/Papa’s winter kit

I picked out my favorite rain jacket and found my hat and bike-friendly gloves, then chose a place to keep them stored and ready. I’m particularly excited about my new wool hat, which makes me feel cozy and adventurous at the same time. I also switched my “purse stuff” to a new waterproof biking backpack. I felt like a kid getting ready for the first day of school: I was so excited to wear my winter bike gear and new backpack, I couldn’t wait for the next day’s ride!

Step 4. Plan a fun and easy ride to a favorite destination

We needed a good first trip back on the bike. We needed an easy victory. Fortunately, there’s a toy store in town, just a few blocks away. I can’t think of a better winning errand than to go to the toy store with kids, can you? We needed to pick up a birthday present for a friend, and then the kids could look at toys and dream about items to put on their holiday wish lists. “Let’s go to the toy store!” was an easy way to get everyone dressed and happily aboard.

Of course, you don’t need a toy store. Kids are pretty peppy creatures. You can probably just pack a thermos of hot chocolate or apple juice, bike wherever, then sip your special drink together. Or just ride in the rain and laugh. That works too. Keep it simple and easy to start. There will be days for longer, colder, perseverance rides. But rack up a few fun rides first, to build your confidence. You’ll also realize what you forgot (the bag of gloves!), which is better to find out on a short ride than a long cold one.

Step 5: Set new goals and make riding a habit

We did it! We got back on the bike. Now we need to make it a habit again. Last year, we became bikers by setting the modest goal of doing one ride per week. I think we’ll return to that simple idea, but this time we’ll double it, and see what happens.

One ride down, and I’m already so much happier. I’m once again listing off destinations and re-planning our bikeable activities. The fresh air is good. The chill is invigorating. And riding bikes is fun again. I hope whatever might have got you down or off the bike, you find your way back. Don’t wait till spring. The Portland weather is lovely – so dust off that bike, gear up, and re-start enjoying it

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of  five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via

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1 year ago

Yay for getting back out there! My 6-year-old just got excited about riding her own bike in September, so she’s motivated to bike to school nearly every morning right now while it’s shiny and new–even when it’s raining and cold! It’s a good kick in the pants for me to get out there and to not complain, because I don’t want to discourage her. I got back on the bike for my work trips these cold and sunny days after sitting out the first big rain spell, and I am amazed how much happier I am after the ride. It’s worth remembering that I *CAN* bike in the winter. (All you bike commuters can laugh, but it’s a reframe for me.)