Friday, December 17, 2010

Winter Cycling With Kids: How We Stay Warm and Comfortable on the Bike

In my garage sits a dusty and lonesome Burley trailer.  I thought that for sure my kids would be clamoring to get in the trailer by now, to escape the cold (as low as 25 F), the rain, and the wind.  Perhaps if I lived in a snowier or more northern climate (like Miss Sarah, of Girls and Bicycles), my kids would be interested in the trailer.  So far this winter, we've experienced some of the colder and rainier weather Eugene has to offer (including our favorite configuration: buckets of cold rain with strong winds), but I have only heard the words "Mama, I'm cold" once.  (And when he said those words, I reminded Bigger that he could put his coat on over his beloved wool sweater.  He was fine once he added another layer.) I don't know if I have unusually warm kids, or if we are going to be freezing and cranky in a couple of weeks, but right now, we're still excited to get on the bike, and enjoying the ride.

Here is what's working for us right now, in our Oregon climate:

1.  Winter clothing

I've written before about the fact that we spend a little more on winter clothing than other folks in our income range.  Really, though, I think most people I know would have most of this stuff for their kids, even if they weren't riding bikes through the winter.

Here's what the kids wear: long underwear (bottoms only, lightweight capilene or silk for Bigger, and lightweight silk or midweight fleece for Little, who is not warmed by pedaling), mittens (fleece almost every day, but we also have insulated gore-tex ones for extremely cold or wet days); warm, waterproof and windproof coats OR a thick wool sweater; soft wool hats that cover the ears OR a Bern helmet with a winter liner; good shoes or boots (the kids both have Bogs, which I'm told would keep your feet warm even if you poured a cup of water in them first); and soft wool socks.  The kids both have rain pants, but I've learned that they aren't necessary unless there is a true downpour or we are traveling a long distance in the rain.  Their long underwear keep them warm even if their pants get a little bit wet in the rain.

I typically wear a dress with wool tights, and if it's cold enough, a wool sweater.  Then I add my thrifted wool overcoat, which is really not necessary in our weather for the most part.  I choose my wool coat because it is long enough to cover my dress and keep it dry, and because it keeps me warm if we stop at the park and I want to sit down for awhile.  I usually wear it unzipped while riding, because I would get too hot otherwise.  I wear tall leather boots or rain boots (be sure to clean and weatherproof your leather boots periodically if you are riding in a rainy climate!), and if it is particularly cold, I add a pair of wool knee socks underneath the boots.  I have a pair of ancient wool gloves that have been serving me well, and also a pair of technical mittens for unusually cold days.  So far, I've only worn the mittens once.  I've got my eye out at the thrift shops for a wool sweater in an attractive color that I can felt in the washing machine and make some mittens from, because the technical mittens are too bulky to be practical on most days. I have a pair of soft wool arm warmers that I will occasionally use.  My coat buttons up around my neck, but I'm working on a soft alpaca cowl to keep my neck warm.  I could use a winter liner for my Bern helmet or a pair of earmuffs, but other upgrades are ahead of those ones in my budget.

2.  Engaging bike activities

 I don't think I could have predicted how important this is to staying comfortable on the bike.  People who are bored are more likely to be cranky.  Cranky people are more likely to whine and kvetch.  And cranky, whiny people can do a pretty good job convincing everyone else around them to be miserable.  I'm sure that enjoying ourselves doesn't actually raise our body temperatures, but in our family at least, in-transit games and other entertainment keep us so busy that we don't think about (or whine and make everyone else think about) rain or cold.

Bigger, pausing to watch construction on our way to the library
Here's a short list of things we do that keep the kids engaged (and too busy to notice the weather) on our winter rides:
  • talk about where we are going or what our favorite parts of the day have been so far
  • imagination games (putting out forest fires on your ride, pointing out dangerous lions, piloting ships through a big rainstorm)
  • songs (yes, that's me singing "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" on the bike path)
  • stopping to watch interesting sites, even just for a few seconds (their entertainment value increases if you continue to talk about them as you ride away -- and it's good for your kids' language and cognitive development, too)
  • checking out winter lights -- like we'll be doing tomorrow on our way to eat free pie with Kidical Mass
  • road trip bingo, pick one: hoot and whistle each time you see winter lights; ding the bell at every letter "S" you see; eat a small treat every time you see another cyclist, etc.
  • recite or retell a favorite story or poem (this may sound unusual, but when you think about it, most kids and parents have at least a chunk of Goodnight Moon, or If I Ran the Zoo, or something memorized)
  • mitten friendly book, snack, or toy (for Little only, in our family, since he is the only true passenger)
  • talk to friends we spot on the way, or who are joining us on our trip (hooray for Heather and her son S on Tuesday!)
  • shout something about your, um, incredible speed ("Let 'er tear, Mama!" or "You're going to break the sound barrier, Bigger!")
If all of the above fail, ridiculous howls of agony from Mama seem to lighten the mood so that we can get out of the occasional whiny rut.  (Even though we've only had one weather-related whining episode this winter, there are apparently many other reasons to whine.)

3.  Warm beverages or snacks

If you want to ride your bike through the winter with your kids, go out right now and find yourself a thermos for hot drinks.  I learned this trick from my friend Heather and will never forget it.  The morale-boosting and warming effects of hot chocolate, mint tea with a bit of honey, or any other warm drink are not to be underestimated.  If we are running more than one morning errand (or running a long one), I will make a pot of tea or stir some milk, cocoa, sugar, and nutmeg together on the stove when I am getting my breakfast going.  I seal it up in the thermos, and it's still hot when we get to our errand.  The kids can have a sip or two while I lock up the bike at the grocery store.  It keeps them busy close to the bike, it warms them up, and (in the case of homemade hot cocoa) it offers a little protein and nourishment on the go.

We are also frequently on the lookout for opportunities to stop for a little snack or lunch somewhere warm.  If the snack in question is itself warm, all the better.  Toasted bagels at the library?  Good.  A big bowl of noodle soup at Toshi's?  Even better.  Soup and bread in front of the fire at Hideaway?  So cozy.  I used to avoid eating out with my kids because of the impact it seems to have on the budget.  Now I take more opportunities to get a little something on the run because I'm saving money by riding my bike.

One final thought, and a question: Little's windscreen, comical though it may be, also keeps him out of the wind and rain for the most part.  I'm curious to see if he'll be quite so warm if we switch to a rear seat.  Anyone out there have experience with this one?  Does the adult's body keep kids on a rear seat out of the rain and wind?

Happy riding!  And if you're in Lane County meet us tomorrow at Mezza Luna for the Pie to Pie with Kidical Mass!

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