8 tips for finding the best bike for your child

How to size—and how much to spend—when buying a kids’ bike

A girl beams while taking her bike for a ride outside. She's wearing a sunny yellow shirt and has a cute purple basket. Credit: Getty Images / triloks

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Learning to ride a bike is a childhood rite of passage. A first bike is a kid’s ticket to independence. It’s their first taste of freedom when, suddenly, the world beyond the front yard is theirs for the exploring.

If the last bike you bought was one for yourself, toss everything you know out the window. Kids' bike shopping is completely different than buying one for an adult. There are size, build, and weight considerations—not to mention that, just because a brand is great for adults doesn’t mean it’s a good one for kids.

Here we break down the eight things you need to know before buying a kids’ bike. Freedom never felt so fun.

1. Size

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Kids bikes are sized differently than adult bikes.

First and foremost, know that you should never buy a bike based exclusively on a child’s age. While a 5- to 8-year-old may generally use a 20-inch bike, each bike manufacturer is different so a "20-inch bike" can actually vary a bit.

The reason for that is those 20 inches (or whatever size you’re looking at) don’t actually refer to the frame of a bike, like they would for an adult bike. On kids’ bikes, that measurement refers to wheel diameter. While measurement does correlate to the frame of the bike, it also allows for a tiny bit of variation in sizing, so it’s important to be specific when measuring your child (more on that below).

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This handy chart can help you find the right size bike.

The smallest pedal bikes start with 12-inch wheels, but kids’ bikes can go all the way up to 24-inch wheels. Some manufacturers make smaller “youth” sized bikes that are 26 inches, but you can generally start shopping for an adult bike when your child reaches that size.

2. Inseam

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A bike inseam is different from a pant inseam. Be sure to measure correctly.

Now that you understand kids’ bike sizes, you’re going to want to measure for the perfect fit. It may seem like a no-brainer to prop a kid against a wall and get out the tape measure, but there’s a science to this as well.

We recommend never measuring a kid’s height to find their size. Measuring by bike inseam (which is different from pant inseam) is infinitely more accurate for sizing a bike. To get the perfect measurement, follow these four steps:

  • Have your child put on a pair of shoes (ideally the kind they will be riding in) and stand against a wall with legs shoulder width apart.
  • Take a hardbound book and put it between their legs to the top of their crotch.
  • Make sure the book is level to the floor and make a small mark on the wall that denotes the top of the book.
  • Take a measuring tape and measure from the mark on the wall to the floor.

There you have it! A perfectly measured bike inseam.

Credit: Guardian Kids Bikes

Line a book up with your child's crotch to get the right top point to measure for a bike inseam.

3. Needs

Now that you have the correct measurement, it’s possible that you’ll see that your child hovers between two bike sizes.

If your child is an inexperienced rider, you may want to size smaller.

If you’re trying to decide between the two, a good place to start is considering your child’s individual needs. If they have never ridden a bike before or struggle with coordination and balance, the smaller size may be your best bet. If they are generally athletic the larger size may be fine.

If you’re grappling with going smaller because you want them to have the bike for a longer time, we recommend you look for a bike with a seat and handlebars that have a decent range of adjustment. Your child will feel more confident when first starting out and you’ll be able to tack on more ride time before the bike is outgrown.

4. Brakes

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Hand brakes are easier to learn than coaster breaks.

When shopping for bikes, you’ll begin to notice that kids’ bikes have two types of brakes: coaster or pedal brakes (these are brakes that engage when a child pedals backwards) or hand brakes. We strongly recommend hand brakes, for a number of reasons.

Hand brakes are good training for when a child graduates to a larger bike.

For some kids, coaster brakes can be confusing to master, particularly if they are just starting out. The coordination of biking is a lot for some kids, and that added component of pedaling forward or backward when starting or stopping can add to the confusion and frustration of learning to bike.

Another reason we like hand brakes is they are good training for when a child graduates to a larger bike. Ideally, they’ll be biking for the rest of their lives. Hand-braking is not only easier, getting them used to it now will give them a head start on mastering that method from the start.

5. Weight

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A bike that's too heavy will difficult for a child to maneuver and master.

This may come as a surprise to you, but your kid’s bike may be heavier than the one you’re currently riding. Since kids' bikes see a lot of rough handling, manufacturers tend to use steel frames to give a bike more longevity, making many children’s bikes come in at around 24 pounds or more.

Your kid’s bike may be heavier than the one you’re currently riding

While you do want a sturdy bike, a bike that’s too heavy can deter a child from really enjoying the sport. If you struggle to lift the bike, it’s probably going to be a challenge for your child to maneuver and master. That doesn’t mean that you need to invest in a titanium bike for your child, but you should take into account design components that can impact the overall weight of a bike.

If your child is only going to bike around the block with their friends, a heavier bike (within reason) is generally fine. If you’re hoping for them to join you on multi-mile rides, you may want to invest in something lighter.

6. Cost

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A bike is a kid's passport to exploration and independence.

We all want a deal. Keep in mind, however, that buying a bargain bike may not end up being the smart money-saver you thought it was. If a bike is too heavy and unwieldy, your child is never going to use it. You may think you’re saving $100, but if it spends more of its lifespan in the garage than actually being used, it may not be worth it.

Also, keep in mind that many higher end bikes are made to last through numerous children and can resale for close to what you originally paid for it. A pricier bike can be an up front investment, but it’s generally worth it and will save you money later on.

7. Why do you want the bike?

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If you want to have a biking buddy on your long rides, better invest in a lighter bike.

This may sound like a silly question, but different families bike for different reasons. For some, biking is just paved trails around a local park. For others, it's a five-mile beach boardwalk. And still, for others, families will bike together across town. In knowing what your needs are, you’ll be able to best determine the kind of bike you want to buy and how much to invest when purchasing one.

8. Warranty

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We recommend a bike shop or a shop that specializes in outdoor equipment over a big box store.

Finally, if buying new, look for a bicycle from a manufacturer that will provide a lifetime warranty to the original owner. Many reputable bike manufacturers offer this, and what that means is your bike will not only last through the child you bought it for, it will last through subsequent siblings.

It may seem like an unnecessary extra, but if your child really takes to biking, you’re going to want something that will protect against worn-down brakes, or a cracked frame.

Big box stores don’t tend to carry bikes that offer this kind of warranty, so we recommend shopping stores that specialize in bikes or outdoor equipment. REI has great options, as do brick-and-mortar and online bike shops.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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