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How I Got My Family Biking on Vacation

I love bike riding. From the moment we began teaching Tiny Traveler to ride a two-wheeler I have been dreaming of family cycling trips through Tuscany or Alsace or even just the Hudson Valley, two hours from home.

I’ve had to downsize my family biking dreams a bit for the time beng.  Tween Traveler has grown from easy mile-long rides to more adventurous eight-mile jaunts. But we’re still a long way away from all-day rides…and road biking…and hills.

We’ve  brought bicycles with us on vacation for two summers now. We discovered that cycling can be a part of a vacation mixed with other activities. It doesn’t have to be the focus of your getaway.

We choose trails we wouldn’t do on foot and that seem worth exploring. Tween Traveler has finally discovered that bike riding is fun and her confidence is growing with each slightly longer ride. That’s a start!

From buying a bike rack, to finding kid-friendly trails, here’s what I’ve learned about traveling with bicycles to help get you started on your own bike riding day trips and cycling vacations with kids.

Scroll to the end of the story for a list of kid-friendly bike trails we’ve tried, from Virginia up to norther Maine. 

6 Tips For A Family Vacation With Bikes

Look at racks in person

There is a range of bike racks out there, with different modes of attaching the rack to the car and the bikes to the rack.

We quickly ruled out a roof rack for large, heavy adult bikes. If you have too many bikes to put on trunk rack, I might consider a roof rack for kids’ bikes.

Thule makes bike racks that attach to your trunk or hatchback and fit 2, 3, or 4 bikes

Shop around—in stores— to see how different brand’s sizes and systems compare. We chose a *Thule trunk rack because we trust the brand and it was one of the few I found for a reasonable price that could hold three bikes.

It was pretty easy to attach to the car and has a lot of redundancy built in, which helps us feel secure about heading onto the highway with bikes stuck to the back of the car.

Try Out Your Rack Before You Leave

Don’t wait until you are doing your final packing to try putting your rack on the car or the bikes on the rack.

The Thule was easy to mount on the car but with six straps to adjust it took a few minutes of fiddling to get it just right.

biking can be the basis for a great family vacation

Once we had it fitted, taking it on and off was pretty easy. We learned though, that we always had to readjust the straps after adding the bikes.

Adding the bikes took some doing. Putting three slim racing bikes on a rack is probably no sweat. But hybrids and mountain bikes can have wide handlebars and chunky bodies, and kids bikes can be quite chunky and irregular.

Getting a racing bike, a hybrid and a kids’ bike with a curved crossbar to fit into the rack’s fixed grooves took some trial and error.

I removed my front basket and rear child seat and it definitely made it easier to fit the bikes around each other. For your first few trips I recommend stripping your bikes down to their slimmest and lightest.

Note on Women’s Bikes

Women’s bikes don’t have a crossbar to hange them by. So I had to buy a *removable adaptor bar to use with the bike rack (They’re about $18-$45).

They don’t make adaptor bars specifically for kids bikes (though some brands do make shorter ones), so you might have to be creative getting those bikes to fit on the rack.

Pack A Few Tools

a pocket tool for bikes

I recommend carrying a pocket tool or portable tool kit with pliers, a few screwdrivers and an Allen wrench or hex keys in case you have to make some small tune-ups along the way.

No matter how well you do taking your bikes on and off the rack, handle bars are going to poke through spokes and get tangled in wires.

At one point my front breaks got pushed out of place. If we didn’t have pliers in the car it would have been hard for me to ride that day.

Patch Kit or No Patch Kit?

I got a free flat-fix kit at a bike event and carried it everywhere for a few months. Then it occurred to me that I don’t know how to remove and replace an an inner tube and don’t carry a hand pump. The kit now sitting in my hall closet.

As long as we’re riding on trails where we can walk a flat tire back to our car or lodging, I probably wouldn’t bother carrying a patch kit. If and when we start to ride for hours or between destinations, I would pack one.

I would also make sure everyone in my family knows how to patch or replace an inner tube and fill it with a hand pump (which isn’t easy!). I might even consider packing the smallest foot pump I could find since they’re a bit more effective than hand pumps.

Before you leave on vacation, check everyone’s tires to make no one needs air. Bikes lose air while sitting the garage and if your tires are even a little soft you’ll have to pedal a lot harder.  

If you find you need a top-up while traveling, look for outfitters. They’re usually willing to help you out with their air pump. 

Have a Plan for Overnight Storage

We packed a light chain and lock so we could secure our bikes to the trunk rack.

It wouldn’t have stopped a really determined or experienced thief. But our bikes are not expensive and our hotels were off the beaten track, so we thought it was enough this time around.

keep track of your bikes when you travel and have a way to lock them safely

If you’re traveling with expensive bikes and/or staying in the middle of town you need to think about what you’ll do with your bikes overnight.

The Berkshire Mountain Lodge outside of Lenox, MA has ample bike racks in their parking lot, but not every hotel does. Some people bring their bikes into their hotel or vacation rental.

It’s worth calling your hotel to ask how they can accommodate bikes securely: Do they have racks or storage or first-floor rooms you can roll your bikes into? And invest in a decent chain and lock for securing the bikes overnight or in public places.

Make the Ride Fun

With her 20” bike tires my daughter pedals two or three times for each one time I pedal, so she tires faster than we do even on easy trails. And with no gears, even short hills are challenging.

We’ve learned to look for rail trails, boardwalks and other paths that will be wide and relatively flat. They’re a good way explore further than we can on foot and get a different outdoor experience without wearing ourselves out. 

We bring plenty of water and a few snacks, even on short rides. Nothing makes a child crankier than being hot and thirsty halfway through your ride.

kids stop a lot on bike rides, be prepared for slower travel.

Most of our rides take an hour to two hours with stops — a lot of stops.

We pause for water, snacks, to throw pebbles in a river, scramble on rocks or explore short side paths on foot. This is fine.

We’re biking for the experience of being outside together and to get  Tween Traveler comfortable biking in a variety of places and conditions. How far we go isn’t the point. 

How to Find Good Trails

I’ve learned that there are long scenic bike trails that are worth driving to for a day’s ride. And then there are functional trails that are handy for local people who want to ride for exercise or to get around.

Websites that list greenways and rail trails don’t distinguish between the two.

So, the best way to find scenic bike trails that are good with kids is to ask people who live in the area. And if that fails, ask the local tourism office to recommend a scenic ride.

And I mean ask: Stop in or call and talk to a person so you can describe what you are looking for.

rail trails are ideal for biking with kids because they are wide and flat

Keep in mind that some trails can be 10, 40 or 50 miles long. They might start out in town or even in an industrial area but also have more bucolic stretches.

If you are only doing part of a longer trail you want to know where to park to access the prettiest and easiest segments.

i recently discovered All Trails, which can point you to trails for activities in addition to biking. The trail informationis clear and easy to understand and the maps are pretty good.

I’ve also tried to use TrailLink, but downloaded the app and quickly deleted it because its information is so-so. The Trail summaries and maps are both lacking in detail and we’ve been disappointed at least once or twice with trails we found on it.

On either site, read the written descriptions carefully and pay attention to any reviews, which will give additional feedback on the difficulty and the scenic factor from people who have actually ridden the trail.

If you get a trail idea off of a local tourism website, check TrailLink for reviews before you head out.

Have a great ride!

Biking is a great activity for a family vacation, if you have realistic expectations.

East Coast Bike Trails We Like

1. Roanoke Valley Greenway (Roanoke, VA): This thirt-mile path is paved and rolling, easy to enjoy with kids and any kind of bicycle.

Parts of it wind through parks with playgrounds and along the Roanoke River.

This stretch passes by the Blue Cow, where you must take a break for rich homemade ice cream in unique flavors like Banana Puddin’ and Balsamic Strawberry. 

Take a look at Visit Roanoke for a map, tips on popular sections and where to rent bikes and park near access points. 

a stop on the Roanoke Greenway

2. The Delaware River Towpaths (Bucks Co., PA; Hunterdon Co., NJ). 30 miles of towpaths run parrallel to the Delaware River. You can use bridges that come every few miles to do a loop ride or follow one side of the river or the other for an out-and-back ride.  

The New Jersey side is much wider and more kid-friendly  than the Bucks County side and most bikes can handle the packed-dirt trail.

The Pennsylvania side is narrower and close to the river in some parts. And it’s not a path you want to ride on road bikes or hybrids.

A wide tow path follows the Delaware RIver near Lambertville, NJ

3.The Capital Area Greenbelt (Harrisburg, PA): about one-third of this 20-mile greenway runs the length of the Delaware River with no more than one or two streets to cross.

It’s flat, paved, passes the capital buildings and bridges, and is super easy with kids. Just be prepared for a lot of sun in thje summer and bring plenty of water.

Pausing on our ride along the Capital Area Greenbelt

4. The Putnam Rail Trail (Putnam Co., NY): 12 rolling miles along the former York Central Rail line. We park in Carmel, roughly mid-trail and then ride south.

5.  The Riverfront Trail (Dutchess Co., NY): Start from Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon, NY and head south on packed dirt trails along the river.

It’s steps from the Metro North Train station and there is a playground at the north end of the park, too.

6. Still River Greenway (Brookfield, CT): It’s only two miles long, but if you’re nearby its’s a quiet and very kid-friendly ride. A dirt path connects the mid-trail parking lot to big, fairly new playground near city hall.

7. Ashuwillticook Rail Trail (Lanesborough, MA): It 11 flat. curving miles from North Adams southward past two reservoirs and ends in a shopping area. Park mid-trail along Route 8 to bike along the water. Parking areas are well marked.

8. The Kennebunk Bridal Path (Kennebunkport, ME): This flat 6-mile round-trip trail begins just before the parking lot for Sea Road School, about ten minutes outside of town.

The paths starts off woody (wear bug spray), then opens up to gorgeous river views and ends among scenic marshes, not quite in view of the seaside (with a little road biking you could get to the beach, but it’s a busy road). 

this bridle path offered scenic and easy biking outside of Kennebunkport

I managed the gravel with my hybrid but fatter tires would have been better. There’s a good chance you’d pop a tire on a road bike. Kids are required to wear helmets in Maine, even on off-road trails.

9. Beachside at Long Sands Beach (Kittery, ME): It’s not officially a bike path, but the beach stretches for nearly 1.5 miles along the Atlantic Coast and Tween Traveler really enjoyed biking the boardwalk-like sidewalk that runs along it.

In some parts she road on the sidewalk opposite the beach and we road in the street. But traffic is slow-moving and cautious because it’s a busy pedestrian area.

10. The carriage roads in Acadia National Park (Mount Desert Island, ME): John D Rockefeller built 45 miles of carriage roads in and around Acadia.

Today most of them are gravel paths protected by the park and closed to traffic for cyclists (some are still private roads and some are shared with horse-drawn carriages).  

biking the carriage roads in Acadia

Several of the paths intersect near Jordan Pond House, so that’s a handy place to park you car.

Then choose your path; loops range from four to 20 miles depending on how you combine them. There are some big hills that Tween Traveler preferred to walk up, but she she loved going down.

The visitors’ centers have maps, which I recommend keeping with you so you don’t wind up taking a much longer ride than you meant to.

These trails are tough on tires so don’t plan on using a road bike. But don’t worry if you pop a tire (I did); several outfitters in Bar Harbor can fix a flat or rent bikes to you.

If you rent, have a rack to bring the bikes into the park close to the carriage roads. Riding in isn’t practical.

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