We "just" (ok - it's been a month) got back from 2 months cycle-touring around Europe. We toured through Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany (with a few flights, ferries, and trains in there). We took it easy in terms of distances covered, averaging about 40 km per day, so that the kids would have lots of time to play. But we still had some long days, and several days with elevation gains approaching 1000 m. Trip reports to come (spoiler - it was incredible)... but most questions are about the logistics and equipment, so let's start there!
Our youngest daughter, N, rode in the chariot bike trailer all the time. Our oldest daughter, F, had the option of riding her own bike, sitting on the back of my cargo bike, or sitting in the chariot. I would say that she rode her own bike about 25% of the time. Not surprisingly, she had a strong preference for sitting out all of the long uphills. She also never really went in the chariot unless she wanted to sleep or it was raining. Usually I would tow the chariot and we would just strap F's bike sideways across Line (mom)'s panniers. If we anticipated a lot of switching back-and-forth Line would tow the chariot and I would use the cargo bike to tow F's bike (riderless) as this was a faster transition. If I was already towing the chariot, but needed to take F's bike as well, I could also stick it vertically on the back along with all our stuff, or sideways on the front rack, but both of these took more time to set up than towing. So we had a lot of options.
All the listed weights were "typical underway" weights in the middle of the trip (specifically, when we weighed everything just as we left our friend's house in Zurich). We weren't carrying very much food/water at the time - only a day or two. Sometimes we carried for up to 4 days. We could definitely feel the difference. You can add up all the weights below, but I'll save you the trouble - all the stuff and kids together weighed in at 343 lbs being hauled around by 303 lbs worth of parents.
Dad's setup - Haul-A-Day (cargo bike), by Bike Friday
Rider Age: 35 years
Rider Weight: 158 lbs
Bike Age: 2 weeks
Bike (+ gear) Weight: 124 lbs (or 251 lbs if I also had F on the back and was towing N in the chariot - the most common configuration)
Drivetrain: 3 chainrings (30-50), 8 cogs (34-11) (with 20"x1.75" wheels and 170 mm cranks)
Lowest Gearing: 1.29 (ratio of pedal to pavement movement)
Highest Gearing: 6.64 (ratio of pedal to pavement movement)
Accessories: Beefier frame option, massive kickstand, dynamo-hub powered lights, "BigFoot" footrests with slot for towing, passenger railing / cushion, front rack (frame, not wheel, mounted).
We've wanted a cargo bike for some time, and at the last minute decided to get it prior to this trip. It made sense given that, at the time, my only bike was a single-speed road bike. After some deliberation we settled on the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day. It had the features we were looking for: not too heavy (but with a high weight limit), fit up to three kids sitting on the back, can tow another bike, and can be put on a normal bike rack or fly (it's collapsible, and actually shipped to us in a suitcase-sized box). As a bonus it has a nice front rack option, is super adjustable so will be good for either Line or I (or even F, soon), is handmade in North America (USA), and is made out of quality steel rather than aluminum (I tend to break things). With the passenger-area attachments we got it wasn't able to tow the chariot out-of-the-box, but an evening in the machine shop later and I had a little adapter made.
Overall it's been perfect for this trip, and we're really loving it as a part of our daily lives now that we're back. We got the under-seat bag made for the bike, which I filled with tools, and loaded it up with 2x 30 L drybags on the front, a 35 and 50 L on the side, a 100 L on the top (not full) at the back of the rack, which F uses as a backrest when she sits at the front. This leaves the other side open for towing F's bike, when she's not riding it. As we'd discover on the trip, we can even strap three or four bike boxes to the side in lieu of F's bike. It feels stable even with all the weight. The gearing has let me climb all the paved hills (up to more than 18% - the steepest which had a signed grade), and I've had traction issues causing me to dismount on only a handful of the loose gravel/rocky climbs. I'm the last to have to dismount and walk... but if I have to I need someone to come help me - with all the weight in/on the bike I can actually climb steeper riding then pushing. I'm just not heavy enough myself, and get better traction on the bike than with my feet.
For the record there was a single occasion where I took all the gear we had on the trip. Just across a street and parking lot while Line was looking for a washroom with F, but it happened. I tossed F's bike in the passenger area and strapped Line's bike (which was itself towing the chariot with N inside) into the bike-towing slot on the back of the cargo bike. I rode slowly and carefully, but it worked.
I didn't train specifically for this trip, but I do cycle-commute 40 kms every day. I also train for long-distance backcountry ski-touring. Although my attempt at something interesting this spring, days before flying out for this bike tour, resulted in turning around partway in the middle of the night we still ended up covering 90 km and 4300 m of elevation. And shortly before that I set a new (training) personal best at 4200 m of elevation gain (up and down) in 6.75 hours while consuming over 2000 calories (it's important to train both your legs and your gut). So my fitness is pretty good, despite the new baby, which helped a lot with all the weight we were lugging around.
Although the bike was great and I would buy it again I would get better brakes and a different derailleur.
I ordered the bike with Avid BB7 mechanical disk brakes, but there was a last-minute substitution to get the bike delivered on time and it came with mid-range Shimano mechanicals. Fortunately I found a single TRP Spyke locally for the front, but still had the Shimano on the back. The TRP is a fantastic brake, and better than the BB7 in my opinion... we've basically gone from being a BB7 household to a TRP household with Spyres or Spykes on 3 bikes now. The Shimano is an fine brake once you get it set up, but the problem is that is that it doesn't have very good pad adjustment options - you can adjust cable-pull and the (stationary) inside pad only. This means that, in order to compensate for pad wear, you eventually need to unmount the brake and move the entire calliper sideways a bit. I've found you need to do this 3 times over the life of the pads. It's a pain, especially when the bike is fully loaded and you've got kids waiting on you. The TRPs bolt on once-ever as you can adjust both sides easily.
A brake issue I didn't have on this trip was brake overheating. On my old bike (a single-speed road bike) I did once have my (disk) brakes overheat while going downhill, fully loaded, towing the chariot. We were touring on the Gulf Islands, and many of the hills are quite steep and windy. We needed to take a sharp corner at the bottom of a hill, so I would need to take it slow. I was braking hard and on-track to have slowed down enough for the corner when my brakes started gripping less and less. Eventually I was squeezing as hard as I could yet still accelerating and there was a horrible burning smell in the air. I yelled to Line, who was in front of me, to get out of the way because I wasn't going to make the corner. Fortunately, while taking the corner was desirable because that's the way we were going, it was also possible to go straight. So I just ran it out; once the angle had relaxed a bit I was able to stop, let the brakes cool, and continue (I later sanded the pads too). After that trip I put semi-metallic pads and a Shimano Freeza rotor on the front, and never had the problem again. It's a special rotor using stainless steel braking surfaces laminated to an aluminium core with cooling fins, and it seems to works quite well to cool more effectively. When we got the cargo bike I swapped the Freeza rotor over to it. Unfortunately the rear hub it came with wasn't centre-lock, and as it turns out Freeza rotors are not available in the 6-bolt style, so I could only have one on the front. Still, I think it made a big difference on many of the big decents - some were steep enough to turn the rotors blue, even with the special rotor.
The bike also came with an RD-M3000-SGS derailleur (a solid long-cage derailleur from Shimano). Shifting was great, the only problem being that there just wasn't much ground clearance due to the 20" tires - maybe only 2 cm or so when fully loaded, even with the tires at 70 psi (the max pressure). The bottom of the derailleur was actually lower than the rim. I understand that with the triple crank you've got to use a long-cage derailleur, by the book, but even with careful riding I often ended up scraping it on the ground if the tire sank in at all on unpaved surfaces. We did a lot of unpaved surfaces. Eventually I hit a rock and it was completely mangled. I bent it back and re-adjusted it to finish the trip but I've since replaced it with Shimano's RD-M310-Smart. It's a lot lower on the price-ladder, but it's got a very wide chain takeup range for it's size. It handles all gear combinations (43 tooth difference from big-big to small-small) and shifts just fine. I think the biggest difference is that it's pretty heavy since it's mostly steel rather than aluminium. But, given the purpose of the bike, it doesn't really matter how heavy the derailleur is. Now I've got a whopping 4 cm of clearance... which still isn't much, but I haven't bumped it into anything since and it doesn't even fill up with grass clippings whenever I ride across a recently-mowed lawn...
I guess I might also put a bike computer on it, so I know how fast and far I'm going.
Mom's setup - Soho (city commuter), by Trek
Rider Age: 35 years
Rider Weight: 145 lbs
Bike Age: 7 years
Bike (+ gear) Weight: 73 lbs (or 92 lbs with F's bike on there too - the most common configuration)
Drivetrain: Shimano Nexus 8-spd Internal Gear (SG-8R31; 0.527 to 1.615 gear ratios) with Gates belt drive (50T beltring, 26T cog, 700x38 wheels and 170 mm cranks)
Lowest Gearing: 2.06 (ratio of pedal to pavement movement)
Highest Gearing: 6.31 (ratio of pedal to pavement movement)
Accessories: Dynamo powered lights, sketchy kickstand, upgraded front brake
Sometimes you just go with what you've got, and that's what we did with Line's bike. It's just a city cruiser, but she made it work. It might have been nice to have more gears, but walking the occasional hill works too. We did swap out the original drivetrain to bring the overall gearing down a bit with a smaller "beltring" and a bigger cog. The belt drive is really nice, from a maintenance point of view. If you don't pedal too hard it will basically last forever and never rusts or needs lubrication.
We did spring for nice panniers (Ortlieb), which was totally worth it, but just had a regular rear rack on it. The little plate for attaching lights/reflectors (which also adds rigidity) on the rack snapped off at some point partway through the trip, making the rack noticeably wobbly, but it survived to the end. Since Line had way less overall volume we'd fill the panniers up with the high-density stuff (eating supplies and food). We could also just throw F's bike sideways across the top of both panniers and strap it down. It wasn't a fancy method engineered specifically for carrying a kid's bike, but it was fast and worked well. We could still toss another Ikea bag filled with whatever we wanted to access quickly over the top of that.
Line didn't really specifically train either, although she did try and generally do more bike commuting leading up to the trip. Also we started out in Denmark, which is flat, with rest days far more often than on the rest of the trip... this wasn't an accident. In some sense Denmark was training for the rest of the trip.
Aside from desiring a beefier kickstand the only real problem with Line's bike was the Roller Brake it had on the back (fortunately, we had upgraded to a BB7 disk brake up front). Roller Brakes are a cable-actuated drum brake, good for beach cruisers and easy rides around town. The bike couldn't accept a different style of brake - there were no bosses for disk or rim brakes. When set up correctly the stopping power is ok, but the problem with the Roller Brake is that it is easy to overheat it. Once it starts to overheat (which happens at a way lower temperature than with disk brakes) you loose braking quite quickly. Line would always just stop (using the front brake) and walk in this circumstance, but there are horror stories online involving the things actually catching fire (since there is grease inside). We also developed a problem partway through the trip whereby the brake assembly would actually jump off of the splines of the hub and not do anything other than make a clunking sound. You could stop (using the front brake) and fiddle it back into position, but a good bump on the road could make it loose again. There was no adjustment that could prevent this, I think some of the internals were just worn out. We replaced it after the trip.
F's setup - Beinn (20" kids bike), by Islabikes
Rider Age: 4.5 years
Rider Weight: 33 lbs
Bike Age: 1 year
Bike (+ accessories) Weight: 19 lbs
Drivetrain: 1 chainring (32T), 7 cogs (32-12) (with 20" wheels and 120 mm cranks)
Lowest Gearing: 1.96 (ratio of pedal to pavement movement)
Highest Gearing: 5.23 (ratio of pedal to pavement movement)
Accessories: Fenders, Dynamo powered lights
We bought this, F's first bike with gears, used, a few months before the trip. It was totally worth it. Having gears makes such a huge difference, even if we need to shift them for her (see below). I also put a dyno generator on it... some might not think it's worth it to bother for a kid's bike, but I think that having lights on makes a substantial difference in visibility - even in the day time - and the easiest way to accomplish that is to have a dyno. Also, kids like to have the same equipment as the adults have... so there was some political motivation too.
F didn't have enough grip strength to use the grip shift the bike came with. I tried lubing everything up and replacing the cable housing, hoping that it might "break in" and become usable on the trip, but it never did. By the end of the trip she could usually shift into higher gears by herself, but she still can't reliably manage to shift into lower gears. While we could always shift for her this necessitates stopping. It would have been worth it to install a paddle-style shifter... maybe it still would be now, as she still can't reliably shift down by herself riding around town...
N's setup - Cougar 2 (kid trailer), by Chariot
Rider Age: 1 year
Rider Weight: 22 lbs
Trailer Age: Who knows - we got it 3rd hand.
Trailer (+ gear but no kids) Weight: 72 lbs
Accessories: Dyno powered lights, upgraded canopy
We got this trailer used. It's been around the block a number of times, and it's starting to show. Still works great, though. I wired it up such that we have a light on the back that gets powered by the dyno hub on whichever bike is towing it. I basically put a connector on the bikes, and a cord on the chariot, all sewn/taped down until right where it plugs in. There is another connector on the attachment arm, so that can be easily disconnected. Seems to work well. I really like having bike lights that just come on when you ride, even in the day. I think it is a substantial increase in visibility and thus safety.
I also modified the canopy on the chariot so it's actually waterproof. From the factory it's kind-of waterproof, and totally adequate to drop the kids off at the pool in the rain. But if you tried to do more than half a day in the wet you'd quickly find a pool of water in the bottom. I sewed some flaps down the side covering the cockpit zipper and glues all the seams. Now it's good for touring.
It's also worth noting that this trailer has suspension. I think that was critical, especially for a child as young as N.
The only issue I had with the chariot was that it turned out that the "safety" leash was attached to the towing arm with a non-welded D-ring. We discovered this when manhalding the Chariot over a log bridge - the leash got snagged on the bike such that it actually had to hold the weight of the Chariot. It bent and pulled the D-ring out of it's holder like it was made of cheese. I shudder to think what would happen if the tow knuckle actually failed and that leash was needed to keep the Chariot attached to the bike. I can't believe Chariot didn't spend the $0.50 on a welded D-ring in that location. I replaced it, but I should have done this years ago if I'd only known. My guess is that the tow knuckle doesn't actually fail, though, otherwise there would have been a recall.
We have a lot of tents, but our favourite for family camping is our MEC Camper 4. We got it after watching F swing off the inside of our Hilleberg like it was a bouncy-castle. The idea was to get something a little cheaper, so we don't need to worry about it as much. This tent strikes a fantastic balance between quality, weight, durability, and price. We've even been caught in a few windstorms with it and it's held up surprisingly well. We put a tick mark on the tent bag every time we spend the night in it. We had 57 ticks before the trip, and are closing in on 100 now. It's a great tent. The only modifications I've made (both totally worth it) are to sew a mesh "attic" into the top of the tent so you can dry your socks etc. overnight and to extend the tie-outs around the outside of the fly to make the angles nicer and put just a little more space between the fly and inner tent.
We had both a solar panel (3-blade Solio) and a bike dynamo USB charger (Sinewave Revolution) on this trip. The solar panel turned out to be far more useful, for us at least. Since we weren't biking very far every day, and our speed tended to be either slowly grinding uphill or speed-limited by our daughter, the dynamo-powered option didn't really work for us - even with my 20" wheels (which make the hub spin faster at the same ground-speed). Line's phone and our USB-battery bank outright refused to be charged by it (or anything else for about half an hour after being exposed to it). My phone was worse - it jumps out of battery-saver mode automatically when you charge it. This meant that when I was briefly cycling fast enough for it to charge it would jump into regular-mode and start turning the screen on every time I'd go over a bump, draining the battery more than whatever charging the charger would manage to do. Additionally it wouldn't charge at all if I was running my lights, regardless of speed. In retrospect I discovered it requires at least 6V, and my lights (B+M Luxos B) cut the voltage available to less than that when operating. Still, it was useful sometimes - especially in Germany and Austria where things were flatter (more consistent speed) and we were on dedicated bike trails (less traffic control / stopping). F's music player seemed to cope well with the sort of charging it provided.