Cargo Bikes vs Bike Trailers
own Let's look at cargo bikes vs bike trailers for a couple different cases: first, for everyday, around-town user. Next, we'll consider what's best for a bike tour with children.
To qualify my answers, I've owned single wheel trailers like the BOB trailer, two wheeled kid carrying trailers. I've owned long flatbed trailers like the Bikes-at-Work trailer. I've also owned a variety of cargo bikes including a Surly Big Dummy longtail cargo bike, an electric Yuba Mundo and a bakfiets frontloader cargo bike.
With that context, let'ts get on to the comparison!
Is a cargo bike or bike trailer better around town?
With a decade of experience, the answer is clear: cargo bikes are better when they are option. You see people make the same choice when it comes to cars– you see a lot more pickup trucks and vans out there then then you do sedans hauling trailers. Here's why cargo bikes are better than trailers:
- Less overtime time to start and return. On a cargo bike, you just get on and go. With a trailer, you may need to spend some minutes hooking it up or unhooking it, even if it's a quick release. For frequent or short trips, that's quite annoying.
- Mechanically simpler. A longtail cargo bike has a longer frame, a longer chain and some longer cables, but none of these things really add to mechanical complexity. With a trailer, you've got two wheels that can get flat tires, a hitch and any number of additional bolts or things that may need maintenance.
- Less rolling resistance. Every additional tire on the road slows your roll a bit.
- No tipping hazard. Two wheeled trailers have the potential to tip when corning.
- A softer ride. The wheels of a cargo bike will be bigger, creating a more cushioned ride A light trailer might not only be a harsher ride, it has the potential bounce into the air when going over a bump.
- Lighter. Maybe. This depends on the cargo bike and the the trailer, but the overall simpler design of a cargo bike may lead to a lighter weight. Compare a particular cargo bike and trailer to check for yourself!
Given all the benefits of cargo bikes over trailers, I still own and use a Bikes-at-Work flatbed trailer. Because, well, you can't find fridges, 16' ladders and 8' couches on a cargo bike. And when I can't fit a load on the cargo bike, I'm happy to have the trailer. But in context, the cargo bikes get like 100x more use, because most loads are much smaller.
Enough talk! Let's demonstrate with photos.
Cargo bikes are better than trailers for a lot of different kinds of loads
For the biggest loads, trailers are best!
Is a cargo bike or bike trailer better for bike touring with kids?
When we were planning a family bike tour, one of our big decisions was whether to use a bike trailer to carry one or two children or to use a cargo bike.
After seriously considering a bike trailer, we ultimately chose to use a cargo bike instead.
Bike trailers provide some protection from the sun and rain for one or two children. A trailer also provides the flexibility of additional cargo space.
But in favor of a cargo bike, at eight years old, our largest child was soon to grow out of any trailer. The trailer adds significant weight on it’s own. We also already had a cargo bike.
We decided that if the weather was bad enough to take shelter from, then adults and children should all take shelter together. So we chose the cargo bike as the lighter, faster and more convenient option.
The decision to use a cargo bike instead of a trailer was one was one we never second guessed. “I wish we had a bike trailer” never came up during the trip.
But if happen to be looking a bike trailer for taller/older children, the best one I found was the Wike trailer, with 30 inches (76 cm) of headroom.
Weather canopies for cargo bikes
There are some weather canopies for cargo bikes offer that the convenience of the cargo bike with some of the weather protection of trailer.
For around town, We loved the weather canopy on our bakfiets:
But since our daughter was about six years old, she no longer fit underneath the bakfiets canopy. Also, there was no convenient way to store that model of canopy when not in use— it hung in the garage like a stiff sail. So when we took the box bike on tour when our daughter was a year and a half old, we left the canopy at home anyway.
Weather canopy for longtail cargo bikes like Xtracycle, Surly Big Dummy or Yuba Mundo
In 2022, there's a best-of-both-worlds solution for longtail cargo bikes, which is the $250 Pop Top Cover made by Yuba. They report it fits their longtail cargo bikes including the Mundo, Spicy Curry, Boda Boda and Kombi. Xtracycle reports that it fits on their "Hooptie" as well.
The downside of the Pop Top is that can't readily be removed and stored on the bike, so once it's on for a trip, you are committed to it. It might be perfect for persistent use in a cold or rainy season, but for a summer bike tour I would be tempted to opt for individual shade protection and rain jackets instead.
DIY cargo bike rain covers
Before the Yuba Pop Top was available, people had a number of creative ways to adds weather protection to their cargo bikes, like hacking moped rain covers.
For longtail bikes, I love the look of the DIY Covered Bike Wagon Canopy by Laurence Clarkberg:
You can read more about how Laurence made the covered bike wagon canopy.
Another thing I've seen for a DIY cargo bike rain covers is to re-purpose a hood from a stroller or a child carrier backpack. Here's one made from a stoller hood: