How do you choose the right bike for your child? That’s the question this kids bike buying guide seeks to cover and much more besides. Whether you’re looking to purchase to purchase a balance bike for a very young child or a mountain bike for your son, this resource got your back. When it comes to kids’ bicycles, there’s bazillions of choices out there. This guide clears up any confusion that might be throwing a wrench into the works of the shopping process for you.
Let’s start at the very beginning: sizing a bike for a kid. So, how do you choose the right size bike for a kid? This guide answers this question in detail in the next section.
How to Choose the Right Size Bike for Your Child
This is without question the most important question to answer when out in the market shopping for a kid’s bike: How do I choose the right bike size for my son or daughter? What’s the best way to know you’re not picking out a bicycle that’s too large or too small for your child?
Manufacturers’ Bike Size Charts
The vast majority of kids’ bike size charts I’ve seen are nothing more than an list of wheel sizes with the recommended height and age of target riders. But well all know that children don’t develop in the exact same way. Two kids could be the same age, but one of them could be way taller and bigger than the other. In fact, there are kids who ride adult size bikes because they’re too tall for their age.
Not surprisingly, many parents have traditionally relied on wheel size to determine the right bike size to buy for their kids. While determining the right bike size on the basis of wheel diameter is OK and works, it only works some of the time.
Below is a kid’s bike size chart that takes inseam length into consideration.
|Wheel Size (inches)||Kid’s Age (in years)||Kid’s Height (inches)||Inseam Measurement (in Inches)|
|12||2 to 3||36-39||15-18|
|14||2 to 4||37-44||15-20|
|16||4 to 6||41-48||16-22|
|20||5 to 8||45-54||19-25|
|24||8 to 11||49-59||23-28|
|26||10 and Older||56 and taller||25 +|
Wheel Size isn’t Always Accurate in Determining the Right Bike Size
Do you know why wheel size isn’t the best way to assess if a bike size is right for a kid? It’s because bike makers don’t follow some standardized bike sizing method. Bike size 20″ in one bike brand may be totally be a different size from a size 20″ in another brand.
It’s even possible to end up with completely different bike sizes after buying the exact same size of the exact same bike model. Yes, some companies may describe a bike as size 24″, but they could have size Small and size Large with the same wheel diameter.
Conclusion: wheel diameter is a good place to start, but it’s not the most accurate or reliable way to determine if a certain bike size will be OK for your child. Which brings us to a very important question: If wheel size isn’t always a reliable kids’ bike selection criteria, what is?
The most accurate way to decide which bike size is right for a child is to pair the child’s inseam with a corresponding bike seat height. Wheel size, frame size, and the age of the child matter, but not as much as the inseam’s measurement and bike seat height.
A Step-by-step Guide to Correctly Sizing a Kid’s Bike (Even When Buying Online)
Step 1: Grab a tape measure and get your child’s inseam length.
How do you measure the inseam of a child? It’s easy. Have the child stand straight on the floor. Next, take a book or a magazine and place it between their thighs. The top of the book or magazine needs to touch the crotch. You want to hold the book with one hand (from the back) while the other hand holds the tape measure. Now, take the distance from the floor/ground to the top of the magazine; this is the child’s inseam height. The video below demonstrates how to take the inseam measurement of a child. It takes a second.
Step 2: Use the bike size above to determine above to determine what bike sizes the inseam measurement falls under.
One thing you need to be aware of is that the inseam measurement rarely corresponds to just one wheel size. In fact, it’s possible for a kid’s inseam height to be accommodated by up to three wheel sizes. For example, let’s assume you measured your child’s inseam at 17.5 inches.
If you look at bike size chart for kids above, you’ll see that an inseam height of 17.5″ places your child in 3 wheel size categories. They’re in wheel size 12,14, and 16 at the same time! That might seem a little confusing, but there’s a good chance that any of those 3 bike sizes would fit them.
Here’s what to do: If you have 2 or 3 possible wheel sizes, go with the larger ones. In our example above, it’s best to go with either wheel size 14 or 16. Why? This is because your kid is still growing up. And a larger bike size would make sure you won’t need to buy them a new, larger bike every few months.
Step 3: Decide which between the two larger sizes would work better for your child considering their inseam height and how good they are at riding a bike.
When sizing a bike for a child, it’s critical to consider where they’re at as far as riding ability. The right saddle height for a child who’s just outgrown their balance bike may not work as well for an older, better rider. The same goes for a beginner who uses training wheels versus a beginner who rides a pedal bike.
Below is a simple guide to help you pair your kid’s inseam height with the right saddle height.
If buying a balance bike…
The saddle should be about 0.5″-1.5″ shorter than the inseam. The right fit for a balance bike allows your toddler to sit on the saddle with knees bent a bit and the feet sitting flat on the ground.
With knees bent slightly, the kid is able to balance the bike and stride or run while on their bike to build up momentum. They’re also able to quickly put their feet down whenever they need to stop.
If Purchasing a Beginner Bike with Training Wheels
For a confident kid who’s not terrified of falling over, you may set the saddle at the same height as the inseam. Setting the seat at 0″ below the inseam may have the kid tiptoeing rather with the feet flat on the ground, but they’ll have greater pedaling efficiency.
But for most kids who ride a beginner bike with training wheels, you want the saddle height/inseam difference to be between 0.5″-3.” For kids who want to be able to drop their feet down to slow down the bike or stop it, set the saddle at the lowest position possible below their inseam (at 3″).
If Buying the First Pedal Bike for a Beginner…
When choosing a bike for a complete beginner or for a child whose balance bike’s become too small or uncool for them, go with a pedal bike. With the first-ever pedal bike for a kid, you want to set the saddle at the same height as the inseam. In other words, the height from the ground to the top of the seat and the inseam height should be more or less the same.
In this position, the kid can drop their feet and put them flat on the ground while comfortably seated on the saddle. If we go back to the example above where the kid’s inseam measures at 17.5″, be sure to raise the seat all the way to 17.5″ above the ground. Because that’s the correct saddle/inseam height combination for a kid who’s ready for their first ever pedal bike without training wheels.
If Shopping for an Experienced Young Rider (from second pedal bike upward)
What if your kiddo’s been riding a bike for really long and can do speed rides and even basic tricks? I bet they’ve gotten so good that their current bike feels like crap. Their whip can no longer take all the abuse they’re throwing at it, and it’s all but fallen apart.
At this point, your son or daughter can comfortably and safely use handbrakes or use their feet as a brake. At this experience level, the tyke’s stance no longer requires to have the feet flat on the ground. As long as their toes can touch the ground, they’re good.
So, it’s time to buy this confident, experienced rider a better pedal bike. And when adjusting the saddle height, set the seat anywhere between 2″ and 4″ above the inseam. What this means is that the seat sits up to 4″ higher than the inseam. This riding position gives the young rider a whole lot of leverage as far as pedaling efficiency.
For example, if the inseam measurement is 17.5″, you want to have saddle set at between 19.5″ and 21.5″ above the ground. At this setting, the youngster should able to push their limits all they want while remaining safe. Oh and make sure they have a proper bike bike riding helmet before they hop on that mountain bike or BMX bike.
You don’t want to go over the limits stated above for the four riding abilities. If you do this, the bike won’t be a good fit, which means it won’t be comfortable enough. If you set the saddle too high above the inseam, the child’s ability to control the bike at speed will definitely diminish. And safety is crucial for everyone while out there riding a bike.
Choose A Bike That Fits Properly Today and Tomorrow
If you follow the sizing guidelines above carefully, you will for the most part be able to pick out a bike that fits your child today and grows with them. Bikes are expensive, at least the best ones, and no parent wants to be investing in a new kids’ rig every few months.
The guide above should work even if you’re not buying from a brick and mortar bike shop. But nothing prevents you from visiting your local shop and having a bike expert there help you choose the right bike size for your kiddo.
Now that we’ve got fit out of the way, it’s time to decide what kind of bike to choose. There different types of bikes to choose from, but this only serves to further complicate the shopping process.
Different Kinds of Bikes for Kids
There’s many different kinds of bicycles out there, and choosing the right one for a child can be extremely confusing. I want to make the shopping process easier for you, and I’ll give you a nice little list of kids-specific bike types to consider:
- Balance bikes
- Pedal bikes with training wheels
- Pedal bike: mountain bike, BMX, road bike, hybrid bike
- Fat bikes/Fat-tire bikes/fatbikes
Let’s now look at each bike type for kids so you can decide which kind is right for your little one.
Balance Bikes: What Are Balance Bikes and Who Are They for?
Balance bikes are a type of bicycle designed to help young kids learn to balance on a bike. They come without pedals, chain, crank, and gears. Some have no brakes as well. Some may have one brake, and that’s a good idea.
These bikes have a low-sitting saddle that allows the feet of the child to reach the ground. The entire foot of the young rider should comfortably touch the ground and stay flat. This feet-flat-on-the-ground aspect makes it easy for the child to push and ride their bike. It’s also a safety-boosting position because the kiddo can instantly plant their feet onto the ground and stop the bike.
It seems that many parents these days prefer buying a balance bike as a first bike for their kids. This is clearly a shift in the right direction.
A bike with stabilizers may be easier to ride and balance on initially. But many people have noticed that kids learn to ride a regular pedal bike sooner if their first bike was a balance bike versus a training wheel-fitted pedal bike.
One great thing about balance bikes is that it allows you to introduce your child to the exciting world of cycling when they’re quite young. Any child who can walk can ride a balance bike. Balance bikes are suitable for kids as young as 18 months and as old as 7 years. They’re every kid’s bike, and that they can be ridden pretty much anywhere makes them an even more attractive choice.
Pedal Bike With Training Wheels/Stabilizers
How did you learn to ride a bike as a kid? Let me guess: your dad, mom, or grandpa/grandma bought your some really cool pedal bike with stabilizer wheels. And you were not the only one. Pretty much every kid you knew in the neighborhood rode around with a bike having training wheels.
Then one day, Dad decided you didn’t need the training wheels anymore, and they removed them. Daddy knew best, of course, but did they actually know how difficult maintaining your balance on a pedal bike without stabilizers would be? No, which is they ran behind us holding the bike to stop us from crashing. But didn’t we endure numerous crashes before we finally learned how to bike properly?
Balance Bike vs. Training Wheels for Kids: What Works Better?
There are many differences between balance bikes and pedal bikes with wheels. I cover these differences below so you can clearly see which option would serve your kid’s interests better.
My comparison of these two bikes types for kids focuses on the following points:
- Saddle height
- Frame material
- Bike weight
- Surface where ridden
Let’s now look at each of these comparison points.
Wheels and Tires
A balance bike has two wheels and no stabilizers versus four wheels for a pedal bike (2 large wheels and 2 small plastic training wheels).
Wheel material-wise, a balance bike features either rubber tires or EVA foam ones versus rubber tires for a pedal bike with stabilizers. However, the training wheels aren’t made of rubber; they’re made of plastic. EVA foam tires are OK, but they suck at traction, and when it comes to turning around corners, they’re just not great.
Balance bikes usually come with one brake (usually in the rear) or without brakes while a stabilizer bike comes with a front and rear brake. If you’re in the U.S., you’ll find that many bikes with training wheels have a coaster brake in the rear and a side-pull or V brake in the front.
Don’t worry; having no brakes doesn’t make balance bikes dangerous. As long as you sized the balance bike right and your kiddo is agile (aren’t they all insanely agile?), they should be safe.
When it comes to saddle height, a balance bike’s seat sits lower compared to that of a pedal bike with stabilizing wheels. The saddle being low enough positions the kid in a way that gives them serious advantages when it comes to pushing and stopping their bike.
With most bicycles that have stabilizers, the saddle and the bike are high enough so that there’s adequate clearance under the pedals.
By the way, is it possible to convert a pedal bike into a balance bike? You definitely can change a pedal bike into a balance bike by removing the pedals and drive train and even one of the brakes (front one if you must). But the chances are younger children will have a hard time fitting on such a bike. And this is because the saddle typically sits higher, and the bike itself sits higher above the ground.
Frame Material and Bike Weight
Balance bikes tend to be much lighter than pedal bikes with training wheels. This is because the latter are usually made of steel compared to mostly aluminum for balance bikes. Steel is much heavier than aluminum, plus there’s no added weight from stabilizers. For these reasons, a balance bike is easier to learn on, and it’s also easier to carry for parents.
Kids don’t like riding heavy bikes, and this is a huge reason balance bikes have become quite a thing these days.
Surface Where Ridden
Every parents feels like their kid is making great process when they’re pedaling away on a bike with training wheels. But since this bike type has small, plastic stabilizers, it doesn’t ride too well when the surface or path gets too rough.
And did I mention that these plastic wheels like rattling? It gets worse: these small wheels make it hard to ride a bike down a slope. And since they’re set higher than the rear wheel, that makes the bike to tip from side-to-side when the child is riding due to weight transfer.
But that’s not all. If and when a child rides their pedal bike on a soft surface (like after it’s been raining), the small heels sink into the ground. This can make riding this bike feel like one big frustrating experience.
In comparison, it’s hard to think of any one place where a child can’t go with their balance bike. Sidewalks, rough dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt, curbs, backyard…there’s no place that’s too tough for a balance bike.
All these reasons make a balance bike a much better choice as a first bike for a child. I recommend buying a balance bike instead of a bike with those small, detachable wheels. And you know what? Your child won’t need to transition to a bike with stabilizers first. Many children can and do easily graduate to a regular pedal-equipped bike at age 4 without needing to ride anything with training wheels.
Tricycles/Trikes: A Kid’s Bike With 3 Wheels
You really don’t want to buy your child a trike. Why? Because aside from looking really cute and staying stable throughout the ride, your kid won’t learn how to balance on a bike. Well, they’ll learn how to pedal, but the pedals are on the front wheel which isn’t where they typically are on a pedal bike.
Pedal Bikes: Mountain Bikes, Road Bikes, BMX, Hybrid Bikes
When your kiddo is ready for a pedal bike (without training wheels), you can buy them the best kid’s mountain bike for the money. Or you can give them a decent BMX bike. Or even a kid’s road bike if they’ve evolved into a proficient rider who wants to race down the road.
Here’s my advice: keep things nice and simple when buying the first pedal for your child. If you can find a nice single-speed bike (without gears), suspension, and drop handlebars, buy that.
A bike without all these features tends to be lighter and easier to handle than one with all these components and then some.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with buying a mountain bike with gears and even a disc brake for your kiddo. In fact, if the terrain where you’re at is pretty hilly, buying a mountain bike with gears is a good idea.
For most kids who have not yet specialized in a riding discipline such as MTB, road cycling, or BMX, get the lightest sturdiest hybrid bike you can afford. Once your kid enters the 20″ wheel size territory and wants to have preferences, you can start looking at more serious (and pricier) bikes with all the bells and whistles.
The best bike type to buy as a first bike for a kid is almost always a hybrid with flat handlebars. Hybrid bikes let you fit fatter, knobby tires for riding on rougher surfaces and dirt trails and skinnier tires for biking on smoother surfaces. Most hybrid kids’ bikes have gears, and it’s best to choose an option that doesn’t have a complicated gearing system. If you can find a choice that won’t necessitate changing the front gears (one with a single chain ring), pick that. With such an option, your child only needs to change the rear gears. Follow this simple bike selection rule: the simpler the bike’s design, the better.
Mountain biking, road cycling, BMX, cyclocross, and other biking disciplines requires a certain level of experience. While you can buy a beginner mountain bike for your child, that would be be something they use to just ride around rather than a serious MTB for exploring forest trails dotted with all kinds of technical features. But if the kid declares their unwavering interest in any cycling discipline, you’ll want to stop worrying about money and buy a decent (typically pricey) bike. One with the capacity to take all the abuse the riding discipline throws at it.
Can Kids Mountain Bike?
Yes, kids can ride a mountain bike. And there’s no reason you can’t buy them this kind of bike as their first bicycle. It’s just that you’ll want to get a beginner kids’ MTB for them, one with a single front chainring, something that’s easy-to-use, something with effective brakes and a comfortable seat.
For starting kid MTBers, you shouldn’t worry too much about gears unless your terrain is extremely hilly. If the bicycle has gears that shift well, that’s all that matters early in the young rider’s cycling career. Down the road, they’ll learn stuff like gearing ratio, bike geometry, rake, and everything else on their own.
What about suspension? Refuse to give too much attention to suspension. In fact, it’s a good idea to buy a fixed suspension/no suspension mountain bike for your starting rider. Nothing sucks more than a cheap MTB with poor-quality suspension. It’s a mediocre riding experience when the mechanism is working properly and a broken suspension system the rest of the time.
If two MTBs come in at the same price point and one has suspension while the other has fixed suspension, it’s almost always better to choose the no-suspension option. With such a choice, you likely get a lightweight bike that’s well made using high-quality components.
But if your kiddo really wants suspension on their bicycle, you can definitely choose a hard-tail MTB for them. A hard tail typically offers front suspension and no suspension in the rear. If this bike isn’t too crappy (not cheap), it rides really well and is a great way to immerse your kid into the exciting world of riding trails and doing tricks.
Is a Fat Bike a Good Option as a Kid’s First Bike?
A fat bike is usually a basic mountain bike with extremely thick tires. Beginner mountain bikers, both adults and kids, really like this bicycle because. They like it because it gives really smooth rides, and it absorbs bumps and rocks in the trail like no one’s business.
And because this bicycle’s tires are super wide, they offer amazing traction and balance. This is because a large part of the tire stays in contact with the ground. Whether your rolling over wet rocks, snowy paths, mellow sand beach sides, or muddy terrain, a fatbike keeps going. There’s no nook or cranny around where you’re at that your son won’t explore.
Here’s another reason why choosing a fatbike for your kiddo could be a good idea: they don’t need much maintenance. These bikes come with a rigid frame (no suspension and other complex features such as gears). So, there’s fewer components to take of, and that’s a huge advantage.
Also, this off-road bike with fat tires looks distinctly different than other bikes. And what kid doesn’t like it when others think they’re cool? Small wonder fat-tire bikes have become pretty popular. It’s hard to walk along the beach and not see adults and kids floating on sand with their fat bike and smiling the whole time. There are even events where fat bike owners compete, events such as the Annual Fatathlon.
But being a single-speed bike with wide tires makes a fatbike kind of harder to ride. There’s more tire/ground friction which slows down the rider a tad. Your kid will need to use a decent amount of muscle power while riding this bike on troublesome terrain. And constantly used muscles grow and get stronger, right?
More rolling friction isn’t such a bad thing though. A fatbike won’t roll as fast a road bike or ordinary mountain bike. It’s easier to learn on due to its better balance, and because it doesn’t roll that fast, it’s somewhat safer.
Good thing is that there’s quite a few good fatbikes for kids sold online at Amazon and other places. And I imagine your local bike shop carries this bike type.
But fat bikes can be expensive, and some can be extremely heavy. And while they take on unforgiving terrain like a champ, they’re not your best bet when riding through super technical terrain.
Pros of fatbikes
- Have a unique, attention-grabbing appearance
- Easier to ride for kids and adults due to having fat tires
- Safer than regular MTBs and race bikes due to higher rolling resistance
- Less maintenance
- Really smooth, comfortable rides
- Can be ridden on all kinds of surfaces
Cons of fatbikes
- Can be quite pricey
- Heavier than other bikes
- Not ideal for extremely technical terrain
Kids Bike Accessories
There’s quite a few ways to accessorize a kid’s bike to give it that personal feel many kids crave. You definitely need to give them a decent bike-certified helmet (CPSC-certified).
Below is a list of nice additions that’ll make your kiddo want to get out and ride their bike every day:
- A kids’ bike helmet, knee pads, and elbow pads
- Bike gloves
- Hydration pack in an age-appropriate color and design
- Water bottle
- Bike bell
- A bike basket or bag
- wheel spoke covers
- Wheel spoke beads
- Turbospoke bike exhaust system for a playful car or motorcycle sound
- Proper kids bike pedals
- Bike wheel LED lights
- handlebar pinwheel
- A strap or carry bag for a balance bike
- Graphics, especially for balance bikes
- Bike lights
- A bike lock for kids who bike to school
- A horn with all kinds of fun sounds (train sounds, car sounds, and even UFO sounds)
- Kids bike riding jersey
Let’s face it: if you were to buy all these fancy additions for your kid’s bike, you’d end up with a really expensive bike. I don’t think your boy or girl needs all of them even if they think they do. So sit down with them and agree on what to prioritize and what’s not super important. You’ll come up with a nice list of nice extra features that’ll make them love their rig more and ride it more.
Choosing the Right Bike for Your Kid: Conclusion
Fit and comfort are the most important considerations when it comes to picking out a bike a young child will enjoy riding. Wheel size along isn’t a foolproof way of deciding what bike size is best for a child of any age. The smartest way to choose a bicycle your child will fit on perfectly is to measure their inseam seam and height and use a bike size chart to determine the correct size.
Decide what bicycle type your child needs. Do they need a balance bike, a stabilizer bike, or a beginner’s pedal bike? It’s almost always best to have them start out with a hybrid bike unless they’re an experienced rider who’s chosen a particular riding style such as cyclocross, BMX, road cycling, or MTB.
And don’t forget to pick out a few fun accessories for their kid. You don’t need to buy all of them, but a few decent accessories are always something any kid likes.