Sunday, October 3, 2010

Keeping kids comfortable riding in Fall

So today was chilly and blustery – a big change from the balmy skies we've had the last week. We went on our Alderman's ward ride – the first ever in our ward. It started at 10 but we needed to show up early, so we had to get our mice ready to roll in the windy, cloudy morning with rain possible and sun later on. Here are our suggestions for getting kids ready for the heady mix of early to late fall weather with a whisper of winter.

We dress our kids differently depending on if they are going to ride or not.

If they are going to be a passenger in the seat or box instead of pedaling they can't stay as warm, and the wind blows on them even if they are in a kid seat on the back rack behind us. (The people at Bike Winter have more good information about kids in trailers here.)

Kids on ride alongs or pedaling on the tandem have a pretty wide range of activity, when they are moving and not, because they don’t need to pedal to move. Check in with riders and almost riders to see how comfortable they are. If they are complaining, listen, because they are usually right about being cold or too warm, and help them adjust accordingly with what you’ve got stashed in the pannier or carry bag or whatever. Keeping kids comfortable and hearing out their complaints goes a long way towards growing a bicycle lover. We have learned a lot from each of our kids about what keeps each one comfortable by listening to their complaints and observing if they are a warmer kid in the cold or a kid that needs a little extra layering. They are all different!

Passengers (not pedaling) in the fall require:
a soft under layer- cotton or, even better, a wool t-shirt
a medium wool or fleece layer, long sleeved
a heavier sweater, again wool or fleece
a definitely wind proof shell
extras we take are gloves and a very thin fleece cap to fit under helmets. We often bring an extra layer for each kid in the panniers.
Later fall can require long underwear on legs too, maybe an early appearance of snow pants! (Winter is a different post but we tend to have our guys in layers under a hooded snowsuit that is one piece and windproof, goggles and a fleece face cover, boots and wool socks.)

Fall is a tricky time of year with hats under helmets as the weather changes, even during the day, and sometimes a helmet needs a little adjustment with a hat underneath. Some folks use balaclavas made of fleece. By and large we have used fleece hats with the rain jacket hood pulled up over the hat and under the helmet in early and later fall. If your kid switches out of having their head covered check that their helmet is well adjusted and try not to leave it loose.

When the kids ride – on the tandem, a ride along, or their own bikes – the mix changes a little. Kids need clothes that can be comfortable as they heat up and cool down through the ride.

Our riders (pedaling, not sitting) wear:
wool or polypropylene – cotton can get sticky and then make them cold
a heavier fleece layer
really wind proof jacket ideally with a hood
gloves that are not slippery on the handlebars if it is that cold
hat again and hood (or balaclava )
extra layers for each kid spend the fall and winter in our panniers
again, later fall can require long underwear on the legs as well as early snow pants

Just a few words on bottom layers and paying for riding clothes for kids! Thrift shops are a major boon for gearing kids up for fall and winter rides. Most have an overflowing supply of perfect heavy and medium wool and fleece layers, gloves in all sizes that won’t slip on the handlebars, and hats. Sometimes there are terrific wind proof jackets. Unique in Chicago has a half price Monday at their stores that is a great day to stock up. They put the new stuff out that day so the pickings are good.

We mention wool underclothes, which our kids wear.  Please remember that we use these layers as commuter wear and not just for fun so sometimes we have invested for the long run. We have three kids so whatever I buy for my oldest really passes down. Two years ago we bought Smartwool long johns for my oldest. It was a big splurge but we use them all cold season, biking, sledding, snowshoeing or taking walks around the Arboretum. Wool has made a big difference in his winter and late fall bike comfort but we still rode before we had it. It is just about to pass down to my middle kid and the heat is on for me to decide if I can afford to get a new pair for my oldest. Washing has been a big issue in keeping them in good shape and I can machine wash the smartwool on a cold delicate setting but keep them absolutely out of the dryer. After two years of every other day wear they are as good as new. Other, european brands of wool undies must not go in the wash as they will felt very nicely very fast.

Patagonia, REI, Sierra Traders and Erewhon in Chicago have some nice and cheaper-to-more-expensive wicking wool and nonwool bottom layers. The capilene and polypropylene layers also benefit from careful washing. Our have gone into a cold wash and hung dry and had really long lives. Good undies tend to be really cheap in late spring when they are trying to clear the decks so good planning can really help out in getting supplies for fast growing kids.

On Patagonia... they have a major more-than-half-price sale every spring on their winter stuff. We have saved up in the past during winter and bought some nice things for the kids for the following year at the Chicago store. The big Patagonia sale is usually in early-to-mid February online and in stores. A neat layer they make is a windproof pullover outside attached to a thick shag rug like fleece inside that is very useful in the mixed weather of fall. We have used it as an outer and deeper keep warm layer in the past. They have some jazzy jackets and snow stuff too – best saved up for and grabbed at the sale. If you lose your mind and buy something full price, if you have even a shadow of a problem with it they will trade you out the bad stuff for good with few questions asked.

Again this is about getting daily commuter wear for biking in extreme weather with small people, so if you have decided to go completely carless you'll need to do some good thrift shopping and savvy sale work to find the good stuff to keep rolling. Thrift stores are really useful so don't give up on them!!


  1. Great post. Thank you! Some feedback:

    - The link to kids-and-trailers at Bike Winter is broken. I'm interested to read it if a replacement is found.

    - It looks like you have a missing word here: "have a pretty wide range of when "

    - What kind of Goggles do you buy for the kids?

  2. Thanks for the note. Fixed the link- Bike Winter is slowly trying to build a new site and the good content is still on the old one - luckily it's still there and we changed our links at right to get there.
    We reworded the sentence you didn't follow. It sort of worked in spoken form but didn't make any sense written, did it?
    We got the kids Scott ski goggles for kids, about $15 each if I recall right, at a sports store end-of-season sale. Think about what to put them in for transport and storage - maybe a fleece bag would be ideal.
    We've been experimenting with 'onion goggles' too but they let your eyebrows freeze.

  3. This week another important consideration for fall/winter in Chicago became apparent again: have something rainproof and warm available for everyone who's riding. Boy, can you get wet and cold fast if you don't have waterproof clothes. A poncho is OK, but really waterproof boots, pants and jacket are better. We had good windproof jackets today but they soaked through. Live and learn.


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