We live in Southern Indiana, so while winter here is much colder than in Austin, it is still mild compared to many other parts of the world. We have gotten two snows, each only an inch or two deep. The worst stretch so far has been a couple of weeks where the highs were in the teens and the windchill was consistently in the single digits or negatives. It was cold enough then to freeze the cable to my derailleur on three separate occasions. While those more extreme temperatures do happen, it mostly hovers in the twenties and thirties with some days that warm up into the forties and fifties. I am writing this in the middle of January and our ride this morning the kids were in light jackets with the top down on the bucket bike. I try to keep that in mind when I think about biking in the winter: it is cold some days, but not every day.
The most common question is whether I worry about the kids being too cold. Honestly, I don't (#buildscharacter). When the temperature plummets they are bundled just as they would be to play in the snow: boots, snowsuits, mittens, scarves, etc. There are always blankets in the bike to wrap around them for an extra layer of protection. Since they are enclosed under the canopy of the bucket bike, they are protected from the worst of the wind. I have no doubt that it is still cold in there; there is only so much you can do to combat "feels like -2" temperatures. With all of the layers, even little ones can go for a short ride. We rarely ride more than two miles one way, which translates to fifteen to twenty minutes door to door. If we were riding for hours, I might feel differently.
As for me, the proper attire makes biking possible even on the coldest days. When the wind chill is in the single digits or below I wear polar fleece pants, extra socks, my coat, a scarf, two pairs of gloves (a liner and a windproof outer-cover), a balaclava, and an ear warmer in addition to my regular attire. The hardest thing to keep warm are my hands. The bigger challenge is not how to stay warm, but how to keep from getting too warm. When you start out you need a lot of layers, but once you start riding you warm up quickly. It is not unusual for me to show up at my destination slightly sweaty and feeling like I overdressed. As with any outdoor activity, as long as you have the right clothes, you're fine.
The worst part of biking in the winter is without a doubt putting on all of gear. When I am bundling everyone up I dream about the ease of summer days when we could put helmets on and go. It feels like it adds an extra ten minutes on either end to put on all the extra layers. But if I am being objective, I know that even that is an exaggeration. All told, it realistically adds four or five minutes and much of that time would be necessary even if we were in a car--kids still need more layers no matter the mode of transportation.
There are circumstances in which I won't ride, but it is usually ice, not the cold that keeps me inside. In those instances we either stay in for the day or walk to our destination. One advantage of living in a smaller town is that everything is relatively close, which makes walking an easy and viable alternative to cycling.
On the cold days where it feels like too much effort to get everyone geared up and on the bike I think of this Mr. Money Mustache article. Just like we biked through the heat of Austin summers, we bike through the winter here. I have shifted my mindset to think that it is normal--even enjoyable--to ride all year round. It may be cold, but it's not that cold. Some days biking HP to preschool or taking the kids to the library is the only exercise I get. I don't want to lose the opportunity to move my body and get outside because I am unwilling to take the time to put on the proper gear.
In sum, here my tips for biking as a family through the winter:
- Keep the kids protected from the wind, either a cargo bike with a canopy or a bicycle trailer.
- Invest in the gear you need. Good gloves and a face mask are a must.
- Change your mindset. Biking does not have to be a fair weather activity. Cycling in the winter lets you enjoy the outdoors when most people retreat inside. Bonus: you feel like a badass.