Mountain biking with your toddler is a great way to share the outdoors with your children in a fun and healthy way. My wife and I are active mountain bikers and we have been off road riding with our daughter since she was a year old (she's 3.5 now). We do real mountain biking with our little girl around Santa Cruz and the SF Bay Area but we have taken trips around Tahoe and other parts of California.
With a little preparation, the correct bike setup and a passion for the outdoors and adventure you can explore the trails with your child.
Many people have asked us how old a child should be to start riding. It's important that the childs neck is strong enough to support her the weight of her head with a helmet. We bought her a helmet when she was 6 months old. We recommend Giro helmets. Not only do these helmets fit well, are high quality and look cool but they have a helmet trade up program for kids called "Grow with Giro". Also, Giro is based in Santa Cruz so it's great to support a local company.
In the beginning, we would all wear our helmets around the house so she would get comfortable with it. I never used to wear a helmet around town but after our daughter, I wore one just to demonstrate to her that it's normal to wear a helmet while riding a bike. Now wearing a helmet on road or off is now a habit.
We started riding with a used Burley trailer when our daughter was 8 months old. We rode all over town, Westcliff Drive and out to Wilder Ranch but not off road. We didn't like the Burley since it wasn't manuverable and it situated her head too close to car exhaust. We also didn't like fact that we couldn't see or hear our child. Back there she seemed more like luggage than a passenger.
We got a center mounted child seat at 9 or 10 months old and started riding around town. She loved it! She was so small that her feet didn't reach the bottom of the foot wells. So we placed a couple of water bottles under her feet.
The child seat we use is called a Centric Safe Haven and retails for about $100. I think it was renamed to Wee Ride. The setup consists of a large steel crossbar which attaches between the headset and the seatpost. The saddle attaches to the crossbar with a single large bolt - this makes the bike easy to transport.
This seat came with a 3 point harness which attached at the back but we bought extra straps and buckles to create a 5 point harness which helped in keeping her on the bike when off-road riding. We also installed a CamelBak chest strap to keep the shoulder straps in place.
This center mounted child seat design is superior in so many ways to a rear mounted seat in comfort, convenience and safety:
- Having the child situated in front of you allows you to talk with your child during the ride. It also makes it easier to feed her. She can reach the hose of the CamelBak so she can drink when she needs to.
- Despite the fact that there is no "roll cage" like a rear mounted seat it is much safer because of the stability. Having the child in the center of the bike doesn't have as much of an impact of moving the center of gravity. In a rear mounted seat, all the weight is on the back wheel which makes the bike feel light up front.
- If you manage to get yourself in a situation, you can easily get off the back of the bike in a hurry - something you cannot do with a rear mount.
- If you crash on the bike, your arms become a protective roll cage for the child. If you go down then by instinct you will not let go of the bars and take the bruises on your arms to protect your child. My wife and I have had 3 slow speed spills out of the countless times we have been mountain biking. These spills were controlled and could have easily been avoided if we had walked instead of ridden. In each situation, we never let go of the bars and our daughter has been safe.
- There is a single threaded bolt which holds the child seat to the crossbar. This bolt has a large knurled head for finger tightening. This makes it easy to remove the seat when transporting the bike.
We bought two bars and installed one on a townie bike for cruising, errands and commuting (my Wife and child bike commute to pre-school) and the other on a dedicated mountain bike. Having two bike mounts makes it convenient to switch the seat between the two bikes.
Our main toddler mountain bike is a 2001 Intense Tracer. The Tracer is a cross country full suspension bike with 4" of rear travel and a 120 mm Rock Shox Psylo Race up front. This is quite a plush and comfortable bike. The bike has a set of hydraulic disc brakes - which are pretty standard on good mountain bikes these days. Having good brakes is important if you do fast downhill riding since the child and seat will add a non-trivial amount of additional weight.
I installed a short stem (80 mm x 15 deg rise) and the widest highest bars we can find (Azonic double wall 28" wide with 2.5" rise). Having a short high stem and high wide bars allows the maximum amount of clearance for the child's helmet and your chin and chest. Depending on the size of your child, you may not need this setup. We put the Azonic bar on last summer because our daughter was growing and we kept bumping our chin on her helmet.
I swapped out the clipless SPD pedals and used platform pedals and lowered my saddle a bit for more control. You may have to ride a little bowl legged and the platforms allow you to move your feet more. Having platforms allows you to "tripod" and give you additional confidence when navigating a rock garden.
The early rides were short. We started with 15-30 minutes of riding and then we would stop for a picnic. We would always bring snacks and perhaps a small toy. Talking and singing with your child makes it a lot of fun. The point of the short rides is to get the child used to riding and to show her how much fun biking can be.
We did our first mountain bike ride with our daughter at Waddell Creek in Big Basin just after her first birthday. Waddell Creek is a great place to take kids or beginners mountain biking. It's a gentle fire road climb through a forest where you can lock up your bikes. We parked our bikes, strapped on the Baby Bjorn and hiked up to Berry Creek Falls for a picnic.
My wife and I used to race cross country and downhill so we are definitely advanced riders. We ride with our daughter most days around town and off-road at least once a week (less in the winter months). We have ridden on terrain with 8" drops, rock gardens, fast downhill and some A-frames. I've stopped riding the A-frames now that our daughter is 32 lbs - too tippy. Believe it or not we have ridden with our daughter at the North Star mountain bike park. In fact, we may be the first family to ride part of "Sticks and Stones" - a double black diamond run - with a child seat.
Our daughter loves mountain biking. Like her mother and father, she has a preference for tight and twisty singletrack in lush redwood forests and sweet downhill trails. She doesn't care much for the long exposed fireroad climbs. Sometimes she gets cranky about them - like her father.
You don't have to be an advanced rider to go mountain biking with your toddler. Non-technical singletrack and fire roads would be adequate for novice, intermediate or cautious parents. Know the terrain and trails that you will be riding. Watch the weather, bring adequate food, water and tools. Ride within your limits. Most of all, enjoy the time you spend on the trails with your children.