A Great Family Activity: Rail Trails for Biking
Get Ready to Hit the Trail
About twenty years ago the city where I lived opened up a rail trail along the bed of an old railroad. In fact, the trail bordered my neighborhood and traveled about 5 miles north and 15 to 20 miles south of me. Additional trails leading east and west of it eventually linked up to the original trail.
It was then that I left heavily traveled streets and returned to bicycling on a regular basis. These trails have sprung up all over the country and offer residents a wonderful activity whether they are alone or with an entire family.
What is a Rail Trail?
A rail trail is simply an old railroad bed that is no longer used and has been converted into a path for people to use for recreational purposes. Actually, some rail trails can provide functional transportation from one point to another in some instances. A rail trail is not used for vehicular traffic. Instead, traffic on a rail trail consists of runners, walkers, inline skaters, and bicyclists and therefore make for a great family biking activity.
Many rail trails are paved, but some have a crushed limestone, dirt, or other surfaces. Clearly, a paved trail allows for the greatest variety of traffic as they can be used by inline skaters whereas other surfaces don't allow such activity.
Each rail trail may have different rules but in general, pets are allowed on trails although they should be on a leash. Some rail trails are urban/suburban and receive heavy traffic while others are more rural and are lightly traveled.
Why is Rail Trail a Great Way to Bike?
These trails offer a number of advantages for families seeking a safe outdoor activity as well as for those focusing on fitness goals.
- Some of the easiest bicycling possible. Many rail trails won't offer the challenge of steep uphill climbs or rugged terrain that mountain biking offers. Instead, you will generally find a more level path and one that may even be more protected from sun and wind in some areas due to wooded surroundings. There are few instances of potholes, unexpected gravel, and other "road hazards" thus they are one of the safest possible family biking options.
- No vehicular traffic. Face it; cars don't mix that well with bicycles and other pedestrian modes of transportation. Rail trails separate you from automotive traffic with the exception of occasional, well-marked crossings.
- Rail trails are nearly everywhere. When you plan trips around the country you can generally include biking a rail trail in your travel plans. Finding them is pretty simple and I'll tell you more about that in a bit. This ready availability makes it an activity that your family can build on and engage in routinely.
- Rail trails offer convenience. These trails generally have trailheads and free parking areas where you can leave your car/truck. In addition, these trails sometimes offer "facilities" periodically or pass through populated areas where families can stop and take a break, have lunch, or perhaps even stay the night.
A Few Reasons Why Biking Is an Ideal Family Activity
Biking is an excellent family activity because:
- It is a good fitness activity.
- It exposes kids to the outdoors and nature.
- It can create a sense of adventure when everyone is up to a longer ride and/or destinations along the trail have been identified to visit.
- Kids who are a bit older can assist in planning the trip (what trails to take, what destinations to see, where to stop for a rest, a meal, etc.).
Where Can I Find a Rail Trail?
Finding a rail trail is very easy. The Rails to Trails Conservancy has a website that allows you to simply input your destination and the type of trail you prefer in order to locate trails in the area. Finding the perfect family biking experience is simple with this tool.
Once you have the name of the trail it can also be useful to research the trail further online. This can often provide more detailed information such as other trails that link up to it, sites of interest near the trail, and detailed maps.
What Should I Take Along on Our Trip?
The items needed for biking a rail trail is similar to that for any type of distance biking excursion and will vary based on the time of year and how far you plan to travel. However, here are some basics to get you thinking.
- Your bicycles. Well, of course, but I would mention that my personal preference is to use a hybrid bicycle with tires that aren't too slick and yet not too "knobby". Knobby tires offer more resistance and require more effort to pedal. On the other hand, "slick" tires don't handle even crushed limestone very well and a fall needs to be avoided.
- A repair kit. Be sure to take along a tire repair kit, including a pump, and any other tools to be sure you don't get stranded. I've had the experience and it isn't fun.
- A cell phone. This isn't an absolute must, but just as in many other situations, having your cell phone available in case of emergency adds some security.
- Water. Don't leave home without it. Get a holder for each bike and let each person carry their own water bottle.
- Other sustenance. With a small bag on your bike, it's easy to take along some fruit, granola or power bars, whatever you want to take along to assure you have the energy needed. Take along some cash if you will be purchasing a meal.
- Protection from the elements. Bug repellent, sunblock, sweaters or jackets, a cap, sunglasses, and so forth should be considered. It never hurts to take along some bandages and so forth in case of scrapes.
- Consider special needs. For example, if anyone has allergies don't forget tissues, allergy medications, inhalers, or whatever else needs to be readily available.
Rail Trail Precautions
Although family biking on rail trails is a safe activity, you should wear any safety gear you typically wear. Helmets in particular. Although the risk of getting hit by a car is minimal, falls can still occur.
Here are a few things to keep in mind on rail trails:
- People are traveling a different speeds on rail trails. Walkers are obviously the slowest movers, then runners, and then inline skaters and bicyclists. To prevent unnecessary collisions and injury stay to the right, especially if you're walking.
- Pass with care and alert the person you are passing by stating something like "passing on your left". Some people use a bell to alert people as well.
- Watch your speed in areas with "traffic". Remember you are moving much faster than those on foot. In addition, many children are on rail trails and they have a tendency to look around and wander a bit in their "course"; suddenly turning out in front of you.
- When trail traffic is significant, ride single file. When riding with small children it is best to have one adult in front to assure crossings are observed and another adult in back to avoid having stragglers.
- Don't ride beyond your capabilities. Rail trails are not loops. If you ride 15 miles one way, remember you still have 15 miles to ride back to your car.
Riding Along a Spectacular Trail in Canada
© 2008 Ruth Coffee