Whether it’s a short bike ride along the Han River or a huge cycle touring trip around Jeju Island with your family, cycling can be a fun and fulfilling activity. Riding with our son for the day, and going only as far as his little legs will pedal, experiencing the landscape in every detail is a great experience and has done wonders for his patience and responsibility.
Taking your kids on a bike-touring holiday is not as hard as it sounds – it can be anything from a 2 night getaway to Chuncheon to a 4-year trip. It’s not like you’re doing anything new – bike touring has been around since bicycles were first invented.
Based on our own experience cycling with our son Seb, I’ve gathered a few tips for bike riding families in Korea, but would be applicable to anywhere. We’ve learned these things through trial and error, so have a read before you set out on your own great bike family adventure!
1. Road Safety
As soon as your kids is old enough to ride their own bicycle, start to teach road safety. Even if you intend to travel solely on a dedicated bike path, there will be racers going too fast or people jogging in the bike lane. Unfortunately in Korea you’ll also have the odd parked car and motorbike zooming up the bike paths as well.
With shorter attention spans, kids suddenly stop in random places and wobble around outside the bike lane. Remind kids calmly and repetitively (even if you’re stressed!) and they’ll get it.
When riding with our son Seb, the best bicycle formation we’ve found is to have one parent riding in the lead, Seb in the middle and the other parent behind. The parent in the lead can watch out for possible hazards and choose the safest route, while the parent at the back can coach the child and make sure the s/he is riding safely behind while providing a more visible presence on the road.
Always wear brightly colored tops and have lights and reflectors on your bike for greater visibility. You can also add reflective tape to bags and bikes. Front and rear bike lights are excellent for visibility even during the day and can be picked up from most bike shops or from online. It’s best to wear helmets while cycling in Korea even if they’re not required, but in the sweltering summer months the greater risk is from sunstroke, so we sometimes swap out the helmets for wide brimmed hats.
2. Go Easy
Cycling in heavy traffic with a child is just not fun. Dedicated bike paths like the Han River bike paths are often the most relaxing routes, often winding along beautiful rivers or the sea with no traffic to worry about. If you’re planning to ride on roads, it’s a good idea to survey the area on googlemaps/earth before you ride. This can allow you to check that the bike paths or lanes are the real deal – not just car parking beside a busy highway. You can also check what sort of scenery you can expect and make sure any roads without bike lanes have a decent shoulder to ride on. Put a good map app on everyone’s smartphones and keep a paper map can be handy as well.
Estimate how far you will ride each day and check for potential camp-sites or accommodation. It’s always best to underestimate the distance your child can ride so that there’s enough time to play and have fun, even if things go wrong. For our last trip around Jeju Island we put a 45km cap for each day’s ride.
The first time Jarrod and Seb (then 7 years old) rode around Jeju Island, Seb rode a Huffy kids BMX bike with no gears. But it didn’t stop them! They just went slowly and walked up a few hills – they still ended up covering 30-40km a day.
You will also need to allow for possible headwinds, unexpected hills, heat waves, rain, a bad night’s sleep, or much-needed “break days” to rest and do something fun. One day during our family ride around Jeju Island last year, we planned to ride 48km to the next village, only to encounter a thundering headwind. We were slowed to a crawl and instead of having the afternoon to relax at the beach, we spent the whole day riding. Lesson learned – it’s always best to underestimate the distance you will ride.
3. Pack Light & Wise
Whether you decide on a day trip or to stay overnight and camp or use hotel accommodation, you’ll have to carry everything you need on your bike. Every little thing you pack will weigh your bike down, so its best to be strict from the start.
Good quality, minimal and light gear is essential – you don’t have to spend heaps of money though. Basic bicycle panier bags are sufficient for the job and cheap and for day trips a back bike rack or basket is fine. (You can find our gear on our amazon store) You don’t need to spend several hundred dollars on top-name waterproof ultralight panniers, any bag can waterproofed by inserting a bin liner. Don’t be tempted to carry anything on your back, as it essentially just adds to the load on your butt, and that’s the part of you that’s most likely to suffer on a long bike ride.
Resist the urge to bring big picture books and toys when cycle touring. You won’t need them as much as you think because being out in nature will keep your kids busier than you expect. We usually bring one small book to read at night before bed and a couple of small toys or games.
Carry only a couple of sets of clothes and wash them as you go. Packing light helps you realize how little you really need to survive in the world – water, food, some clothes and shelter. In fact, we are often inspired to undertake much needed de-cluttering when we get home from a bike-trip.
Don’t under-estimate the power of the sun even on overcast or cool days. Sunscreen is essential; make sure to reapply often as you will sweat it off, particularly in summer. If you can find them in your child’s size, long-sleeved performance tops are great or a light shirt and bike gloves double as sun protection. Everyone should have a hat and sunglasses. In summer, you can try to schedule your riding time for the early morning and rest in the afternoon.
One thing you do need to bring is a spare set of warm clothes and a light raincoat – even if it’s warm. A heat pack or two is a good idea to keep handy if you’re ever caught out in bad weather. Try to avoid heavy pure cotton clothes as they take ages to dry after getting wet.
In autumn we made a mistake checking the weather forecast for a nearby lowland area when riding through the mountains (bike camping from Chuncheon to Seoul) – so we were under-equipped for the cold at night. Luckily, we had brought a few spare warm clothes and we were able to sleep with all our clothes on and keep just warm enough. An extra fleece jacket is also great for cool mornings or to use as a pillow!
4. Have Breaks, Snacks and Yummy Food
Bike touring with kids requires lots of breaks. With smaller bodies, children need a lot of refueling. Kids naturally like to use up their energy in short spurts, but you may need to ease up their speed so they can maintain a slow steady pace for longer periods of time. Above all try to avoid the crash and burn phenomena. If you’re camping, bring plenty of food and water.
One of the great advantages of cycling in South Korea is the large number of convenience stores & cafes that spring up along popular bike-routes. They are a great place to refuel on the 3 summer essentials: drink, food and ice cream.
To keep your children’s enthusiasm high, schedule in lots of fun activities like swimming and stops at playgrounds or rivers. Have “rest days” where you will do something completely different.
5. Make a Backup Plan
Whether it’s for accommodation, meals or transport, you should always have a backup plan. Things go wrong. If cycle touring by yourself, it’s usually no big deal to sleep rough or skip a meal when on your own. But with kids it’s a completely different story! Folding bikes are good as you can always call a taxi and fold you bikes in the trunk.
Check maps for nearby hotels and restaurants roughly where you are stopping in case your intended campsite falls through or somebody is over-tired or sick. In South Korea we use the naver maps app to find the nearest accommodation or restaurants. Beware, you’ll need to type in Korean, so memorize the word for restaurant (식당) and cheap hotel (민박)
Even the best plans can sometimes fail. After a full day of riding in Jeju Island, South Korea, we arrived at our destination- the official campsite near a forest. To our dismay, it turned out to be packed with (empty) tents and loudspeakers blasting pop music – not what we had in mind. Time for our backup plan! We knew there was no other accommodation nearby, so we double checked the map and rode our bikes to a nearby creek and found a small farmers road leading to a pristine area of forest. We were alone in the middle of the beautiful wilderness. Backup plan success.
Photography by Jarrod Hall