We understand: shopping for kids bikes can be confusing. Kids bikes are sized strangely, and the brands are different than those in the adult market. And then there are the more subtle questions: Are coaster brakes safe or dangerous? How much should one expect to spend to get a quality kids bike?
Take a deep breath and relax. We’re about to help cut through the confusion and provide the down-low on how to choose the best bicycle for your child. Here are 7 tips to help you get started.
Note: This article gets into the nitty-gritty of how to pick out a good kids bike. If you want to skip all that, scroll to the bottom. We’ve picked the best kids bikes for each age group.
Understand how kids bikes are sized.
Kids bike sizes reference their wheel (tire) size. This is different than adult bicycles that are generally measured by the size of the bicycle frame.
The typical wheel sizes for kids bikes are 12”, 14”, 16”, 18”, 20”, and 24.” The bigger the child, the bigger the wheels. The chart below gives you a rough indication of what age and height correlates with which bike size. That said, the best way to know which size bike is appropriate for your child is to measure their inseam. Which brings us to our next tip….
Measure your child’s inseam.
The best way to fit a bike to a child is by measuring their inseam. Don’t skip this step. A bike suggested for a 5 year old may fit one child at 4 and another at 6. Each kid is different, and each one deserves a bike that fits. Good bike manufacturers will disclose the appropriate inseam length for each of their bikes.
To measure your child’s inseam, grab a tape measure, a book, and a kiddo. Have them stand against a wall, either barefoot or with socks. Have them hold a book between their legs, as close to their crotch as possible, and mark the wall at the top of the book. Then use a tape measure from the floor to the mark. Easy!
When it’s time to go bike shopping, have that info on hand. Choose a bike that is within the low end of the recommended inseam range so that your kiddo has a bit of room to grow. Whatever you do, don’t buy a bike that’s a size up. Riding a bike that is too big is both frustrating and dangerous.
Know the best brands of kids bikes.
There are a handful of kids bikes that are heads-and-shoulders above the rest. If you want a great bike for your kid (especially young kids), consider one of these 9 brands:
- Early Rider
Each of these brands design and develop their bikes specifically for children. This means child appropriate geometry and weight. The components are quality and will last for a long-time before needing to be replaced. These are also all hot-sellers on Craigslist and other resale forums, so keep that in mind when buying one new. If you buy a decent bike, you’ll be able to sell it later for a good price.
Once kids get into 20″ and 24″ bikes, the number of brands really open up beyond the 9 listed above, particularly for more discipline-specific bikes (downhill, road, cyclocross, etc). Even then, you’ll find good options from one of the 9 brands listed above.
For more information on these bikes, read this article:
Buy from a Bike Shop (online or brick-and-mortar), not Walmart.
The bikes at Walmart (or any big box store) are junk. Sorry guys, they just are. Would you buy skis from Walmart? Scuba gear? Then you shouldn’t buy your bike there either. That’s not to say all kids bikes at a bike shop are quality bikes. I’ve been in more than one bike shop selling crap bikes. Do your research on what you want before you go shopping.
If you are worried about the expense of buying from a bike shop, consider that a quality bike is going to be more economical in the long run. A good bike will last for several siblings, and as mentioned earlier, can fetch a fair price on Craigslist.
Also, look for a bicycle from a manufacturer that will provide a lifetime warranty to the original owner. This is important in case the frame cracks or something similar happens (this has happened to me). There will not be any warranty on your Walmart bike.
For more reading on this topic:
Choose a lightweight bicycle.
Most kids bikes on the market are ridiculously heavy. It’s common for children’s bikes to weigh as much as 50% of their body weight, and weigh more than an adult bike. If you are going to pick a bike based on any one factor, pick it based on weight.
A bike that is too heavy is going to be hard for a child to maneuver and exhausting to ride very far. I had a Dad tell me the other day that his 8 year-old son hated riding his bike and refused to go more than 5 miles. Dad finally broke down and bought him a more-expensive, much-lighter bike and was shocked to find that his son did a complete 360. He suddenly was begging to go biking and riding long distances fast.
An aluminum or titanium frame is going to be lightest. Don’t completely write off steel though. If the wheels and other components are light enough, steel can still be a sturdy, quality option.
Check the Brakes.
Contrary to popular belief, coaster brakes are not the safest option for kids. On cheaply made bikes, inferior hand brakes can be difficult for children to pull, making a coaster brake necessary. On a well-made bike, however, the brake levers will be designed for small, weak hands. An adult should be able to squeeze the lever with their pinky finger.
The reason I don’t recommend coaster brakes is two-fold. First, you can’t back pedal with a coaster brake, which is incredibly difficult for a child just learning to ride. For kids going directly from a balance bike to a pedal bike without training wheels (which I highly recommend), when they backpedal, they stop suddenly and fall over. Watching my son do this repeatedly, I realized I would suggest any child—even very young ones—start on a bike without a coaster. The second problem with coaster brakes is that there is no modulation—they are either “on” or “off.” For families doing serious riding, down hills, etc, this is a real problem. In the “off” position it is easy to skid or lock-up.
One of the arguments for coaster brakes is that young kids are not coordinated enough for hand brakes. I don’t buy that. Particularly for children that learned to ride on a balance bike with a hand brake, a transition to a pedal bike with hand brakes as opposed to coaster brakes can actually be easier. My son learned to use his hand brake at 2.5 years old. 2.5 years folks! Even if he was some kind of prodigy (which he’s not), an average 4 year-old should totally be capable of mastering a hand brake.
If you do feel safer going with a coaster brake, pick a bike that has both a coaster and a hand brake. Almost all bikes with wheels larger than 20” have hand brakes, so it is important for kids to learn how to modulate and ride with a hand brake while they are still young.
To read more on this topic, check out this article outlining the pros and cons of hand brakes versus coaster brakes.
The Best Kids Bikes: Expert Picks
Now that you know what to look for when shopping for a kids bike, it’s time to start narrowing down your options. Here are our favorite bikes by size:
- The Best Bikes for Your 3 to 5 Year Old (12″ and 14″ bikes)
- The Best Bikes for Your 5 to 7 Year Old (16″ bikes)
- The Best 20″ Mountain Bikes for Kids
- The Best 24″ Road Bikes
- The Best Fat Bikes for Kids
It’s Time to Shop
Write down your child’s measurements, the list of brands we’ve listed above, and go shop. When in doubt, choose the lightest bike. If deciding between a bike with a coaster brake and one with hand brakes, go with the latter. If you follow these simple rules, you’ll end up with a fabulous bike for your little cyclist.
For more help buying a good kids bike, and for a printable cheat sheet to take with you shopping, download our FREE Bike Shopping Guide.