Family Riding: The Ultimate Bakfiets

Cross-posted: Originally posted on This Mom Bikes. December 3, 2017.

Since we have n+1 cargo bikes, I often get asked this question: Which one is your favourite? And, well, it is a really hard question to answer. I think that there are three variables which influence my answer:

  1. Do you ride year round?
  2. Do you plan on using the cargo bike only for commuting and errands?
  3. What is your budget?

But, ultimately, my answer is a box bike (bakfiets) that has both an e-assist with an internal hub and a canopy. The answers to the above questions might make the box bike even more ideal for you, but there are some answers that would point to a longtail cargo bike being your best choice (if you can’t have n+1, that is!).

Bakfietsen

I love our CETMA Largo. It’s beautiful and so smooth. It’s truly a joy to ride. And, now that we have added an electric assist (a Stokemonkey from Grin Technologies), it’s even better. I prefer it for wee babies. I prefer it for cooler and cold weather. I prefer it for rain, snow, and anything else that falls from the sky. I think that a box bike’s only downsides are that they can be a bit beastly in the wind (amplified by a canopy), you absolutely must dial in the gearing for your terrain (and/or get an e-assist), and they are no good for most bikepacking trips (due to terrain and also just getting to the trailhead). Plus, in order to carry bikes much bigger than a run bike or first pedal bike, you will need to accessorize, especially if you are hauling more than one kid.

Comparing family bike styles

What does this style of bike have that other cargo bikes lack? Here is a table summarizing some of the aspects that you might be considering when matching the right bike to your family’s needs and situation:

Family Biking Set-ups

FeatureBakfietsLongtailTrailer
ConclusionCrème de la crème for city use, all ages, and all weather.Awesome for fair-weather riding and bikepacking as a young family. A little tricky with the under 6-9 month crowd.Not my first pick unless it is what is going to get you out riding as a family with young children, especially babies.
PrecipitationCan purchase a cover so your cargo is well protected from precipitation (rain, snow, etc.). Don't have to worry about drying outerwear at destination.Takes creativity to keep passengers dry. Otherwise, rely on children's clothing to stay dry.Built-in cover with solid protection, akin to bakfiets with cover.
Cool and cold weatherThe cover acts as a mini-greenhouse, adding extra warmth. It is easy to add blankets, etc. to the box.Almost exclusively rely on children's clothing to keep warm.Same as for a bakfiets with a cover.
Handling in snowHard to get through windrows but otherwise excellent when loaded.Little experience as I have always been afraid of riding with the kids up high in potentially slippery conditions, so I almost exclusively use our Bakfiets in winter.Some people despise the extra drag in winter, but I quite liked the feeling of stability. Hard to get through/over windrows though; can always detach from bike in worse case scenario.
ConvenienceRide and go.Ride and go.Have to connect each time you use it and possibly change modes, too, like we did. (For us, this was impossible in some cold conditions due to freezing.)
CostOften the most expensive option (new), especially with e-assist.Varies wildly. Most get spendy when you add e-assist.Expensive for a "stroller" but usually multi-functional and cheaper than buying a brand new cargo bike. Likely don't need an e-assist for the years that your kids actually fit in a trailer.
CommunicationThe best. A little trickier with the cover on, but you can at least tell when they want to chat.Okay, but they're behind you.The worst.
NappingThe best.Okay in a child seat (but usually need a modification to prevent serious head bob or a lot of admiration for said bob). Serious trust required for when they fall asleep in monkey bars or similar.Pretty darn great, like a Bakfiets, plus you can detach the trailer at your destination without disturbing your sleeper.
Eating on the goThe bottom of your box will look like any good minivan after awhile. Catches everything that falls. Kids can throw stuff out of the box.Expect to retrieve dropped water bottles, etc. at some point (or be super diligent and attach to the bike with a string).Same as for a bakfiets.
Sibling rivalrySimilar to a trailer but more room. For us, one kid often sits on the bench and one sits on the floor at the prow of the box.Great when they are both of the age that they're strapped into child seats, like a Yepp maxi. Precarious when they're older and more free in monkey bar or similar setups.They grow out of a double trailer fast; you'll be lucky to get a 5 year old and a younger sibling in there together. At younger ages, it's close quarters all the time. So, depends on your kids!
CargoThe box fills up surprisingly fast with two kids. Need to be creative if you want to take kids' bikes with you (and they don't ride the whole route).Can hold so much gear and most models have a way to easily drag 1-2 (children's) bikes (major perk for summer adventures).Not much room for gear. Enough for diapers and snacks, perhaps a change of clothes. Room for panniers on your bike's rack though.
Centre of gravityThe heavier my kids get, the more I appreciate the low centre of gravity this style has.High centre of gravity. A little less high with models that have smaller (rear) wheels.Nice and low for young ages. (After 5-6 years old, kids won't fit in trailers.)
Riding styleLinkage steering so you have to use your monkey brain to re-learn to ride a bike (but, don't worry, you adapt surprisingly quickly)."Rides like a bike" is what everyone says. This is because you have nothing in front of you, but if you have ridden a lot you will notice some differences in the long wheelbase, especially with respect to frame flex or turning radius.You have this wide thing behind you to consider and you need to adapt for cornering so that you don't flip the trailer. Trailers can also flip if you hit a bump at a good speed and they are at all unbalanced.
Bike touringI know people use them for short tours in the Netherlands...Awesome. Most models are tricky to transport by car and downright impossible by air though.A very popular option for touring with young children, especially babies and those who still need a space to nap.
BikepackingHard to transport to trailhead. Not suitable for mountain biking terrain. Doable on most rail trail grades, but that's about it.Awesome for easy bikepacking terrain for young families (just beware of the potential to overpack with all the space available). This is what we use.Okay to fantastic. Double wheeled models won't be able to go all places; single-wheeled models will be more flexible with respect to terrain.

Specs

Gearing and drivetrain

Whatever bike you decide on, make sure that you have a nice wide range of gears if you have any hills to conquer. Typical mountain bike gearing will be your cheapest option if you are riding snow-free and need range. But, internal hubs are a tip-top choice for cargo bikes, mostly because you can shift when stopped. So far as range for internal hubs, a Rohloff is your best choice but also the most expensive. I love our NuVinci 380 but found it impossible to find the right range to get to the top of the hill we live on while having the right gears for cruising the flat to undulating terrain where we mostly travel. That said, the NuVinci 380 paired with our throttle style mid-drive electric assist is a smooth dream since the hub is stepless (or infinitely variable, i.e. it does not have discrete gears).

We have a mid-drive e-assist now — a Stokemonkey — and it’s the cat’s meow. It was a pain to install but now that I’ve got a few hundred kilometres on it, I am more than happy to report that it has made my life even more amazing and has brought back all of the joy that had been slowly whittled away as my loads got increasingly heavy. Expensive as all hell, but when I did the math on kilometres to be travelled over the next 7 years just getting 1-2 of my kids to their elementary school, it was an extremely justifiable expense. In fact, we will pay for our e-assist in wear and tear saved on the car in just 2 years, meaning that we will pocket at least $3 500 by not using our car for school runs (alone) for the years that our kids are at this school. I have reduced this figure to account for a new battery during this time frame ($1 000), some bike maintenance ($1 500), and to cover about 20% of our insurance costs since we will still be insuring our car ($1 500). We base our calculations on the current Canadian Federal Automobile Allowance of $0.54/km (thus, over $10 000 for the 7 year period). The savings are increased by the fact that we now hardly ever using the car in town; we ride to almost all swimming lessons, dance, soccer, playdates, etc. As much as I justified this giant new expense with math, I honestly almost crapped my pants spending that much more money on bikes; as soon as it was operable, those feelings vanished and it felt supremely right.

If you are riding in winter at all and have the option to put a belt drive on your drivetrain: do it. Belt drive on a NuVinci hub with an e-assist is a dream for a bakfiets.

Brakes

We have been more than fine with mechanical discs, so far. We have BB7s. After a whole bunch of snowy riding after a few days they were feeling a bit sluggish, but I thawed out the bike and haven’t had the problem again (even with freezing temperatures).

We have replaced our 6″ rear rotor with a bigger 8″ model. And, in the spring, we will likely have to rebuild or replace the brakes due to corrosion from salt. If replacement is the route we go, we will use the same product, or hydraulics (we’ve been recommended Hope 4-piston brakes for their stopping power or Shimano XT for their durability).

Canopy

Creative types rejoice and sew your own or ply your crafty friend with beer. Time strapped parents of young children itching to just get rolling, get a Blaqpaks canopy made to fit your box.

Frame

I prefer a frame that has a generously sloping top-tube or even a step-through. I am 5’4″ and find it unwieldy when I can’t easily get my leg over the top tube, plus it puts a lot of strain on my upper body and back having to slightly tip the loaded bike to dis/mount. If you are much taller than me, I suppose that top tube height likely isn’t a concern for you; or, if your cargo isn’t squirmy young children it’s probably less of a concern, too.

I like the feel of our steel frame. That said, I don’t have anything to compare it to. Obviously, it’s heavier than an aluminum frame if weight is a concern.

Lighting

You do not want to be caught with no lights and live cargo. Just get a dynamo hub set up and then if you have Christmas lights, wheel lights, or a helmet light you’re laughing. And, if you’re a forgetful busy parent, like me, it’s one less thing to remember. Period. And, they’re not like annoying battery operated lights that die in the cold (a problem if you store your bike in an unheated place and use it year round).

Padding

Your box will need at least a bit of padding. We’ve used spare bits of foam (and have a piece I keep meaning to cover with fabric), but recently I cut two of those colourful foam floor tiles to size for our bench and its backrest, and also the floor its “backrest”. They seem to work great but maybe a double layer would be even better.

Just get out there

While our bakfiets now cost us more than my first two cars combined, it has been utterly and completely worth it on so many levels (and in all fairness, one of those cars cost me $50 and a loaf of homemade bread). The initial cost kept us from getting a box bike with our first born which was purely a reflection of our financial situation at the time; we could barely afford it when we took the plunge; in hindsight, I almost wish we’d borrowed to get one (except I abhor all debt except mortgage debt). In real life (dollars and cents/sense) the cost is actually worth every penny and then some, the hardest part is potential cash flow issues for most families with young children.

All of the costs and details might be making your head spin. I hope not, but if that’s the case, just do what you need to do to get out there and ride and be with your kids. There are more reasons to go for it than not! If you need further convincing about that, read this recent article or check out the encouraging stats in the benefits section of this page.

Be the change.

What have you gleaned from this? Questions? Comments? Please reply here: