Want to get your child (or your niece, nephew or family friend) riding bikes ASAP? A balance bike is the best way to help little ones learn how to scoot around so that when they’re ready for a pedal bike, they can hop on and get moving, no training wheels required.
Balance bikes don’t just teach balance, they teach body awareness and the ability to lean with the bike into corners and maneuver it around obstacles. (Don’t believe us? Check out these cyclocross-racing toddlers on balance bikes!)
But choosing the right balance bike can be tricky. Should you go for the super-cheap department store one? Or spent upwards of $1,000 to guarantee that your toddler has the ultimate advantage in weight savings? The answer, like most things in life, falls somewhere in the middle. Here, we’re looking at the balance bikes that offer the best value, the speediest trip around a race course, and the gnarliest fun on local singletrack.
Not sure what you need, or how to get your kiddo riding? Scroll down for our handy Buyer’s Guide and Frequently Asked Questions sections.
BEST OVERALL: Strider 12 Sport
Strider is easily the best-known name in the balance bike game, and for good reason. We love the 12″ Sport model in particular because, for only $20 more than the base model, it has more adjustability to grow with your child, comes in seven colors instead of one, and has better footpegs and grips. And as parents who really dislike changing our own flat tires, we deeply appreciate the solid foam rubber tires that can’t go flat—but are still grippy and avoid slideouts.
We also appreciate that Strider uses an extra-long seatpost to allow your kiddo to ride this bike with an inseam ranging from 12 to 20 inches. And the seatpost doesn’t require tools to adjust, so this bike truly is no muss, no fuss. While it’s not the cheapest bike on the market, it’s pretty darn close, and at $130, you’re getting a lot of bike for your buck. The resale / pass-down-ability of this bike is second to none, so compared to buying an ultra-cheap model off of Amazon, this one will likely end up more cost-effective in the long run.
- Material: Steel
- Weight: 6.7 lbs
- Wheel size: 12”
- MSRP: $130
PROS: 7 colorways, great height range
CONS: None, really
BEST LIGHTWEIGHT: Specialized Hotwalk Carbon
Do you need a sub-5 pound balance bike for your mini-shredder? Heck, no. But is the Specialized Hotwalk Carbon pretty darn cool looking? Heck, yes. If you often find yourself carrying your tot’s bike during walks as they decide to ride, then stop riding, then start riding, then you understand that a lightweight bike is exceedingly helpful. And we can’t deny that the Hotwalk easily has the coolest paint scheme on the playground.
Offered in a single size with 12″ wheels, the Hotwalk Carbon is recommended for children from 18 months to four years old—a bit younger than the max-age for a Strider rider—and up to around 35 inches tall. Ideally, it’s best for children who are able to balance while toddling around with an inseam of 15-18″…and for parents who don’t care what it costs. Read more about it here.
- Material: Carbon
- Weight: 4.63 lbs
- Wheel size: 12”
- MSRP: $1,000
PROS: Sub-5 pounds makes this great for parents who carry the bike often on walks
CONS: That price!
BEST MTB: Airborne Gnome
If you’re more of a mountain biker and want your toddler to be developing better awareness on the trails, the three-inch wide tires on the Airborne Gnome make this balance bike the most mountain bike-y of the bunch. That’s right: This is a plus-size balance bike, with knobby rubber tires (that inflate with a Schraeder valve) to dig into tacky mud as your three-year-old shreds around your garden.
It’s a bit heavier than some of the other models on this list, but that’s to be expected with such wide tires. It may not win the Strider World Championships thanks to the added weight and rolling resistance of the wide tires, but personally, we think it may offer the most fun ride of the bunch when it’s time to hit the trails. Read more about it here.
- Material: Aluminum
- Weight: 10.1 lbs
- Wheel size: 12”
- MSRP: $200
PROS: Great way to start playing on singletrack
BEST AESTHETIC: Kinderfeets
Made from birchwood and designed with minimal logos and a varnish rather than a bright paint scheme, the Kinderfeets wooden balance bike looks great even as home decor. This is not the most outdoor friendly or super bike nerdy of the bunch, obviously, and it won’t be winning any races against the Specialized Hotwalk, but it is a great bike for rolling around on easy, flat pavement or in a basement or garage.
It has to be said that this bike is clearly not in quite the same category as the others on this list. The saddle is obviously not nearly as bike-specific as some of the other options, and it’s more of a toy than sporting equipment. Personally, we’d use this one as an ‘indoor bike’ for garage or basement playtime (or to leave at a grandparent’s house for playtime when visiting) and use another balance bike for riding outside in the real world.
- Material: Birchwood
- Weight: 7.9 lbs
- Wheel size: 12″
- MSRP: $89
PROS: Looks great in any living room, inexpensive
CONS: Not as durable as metal and carbon bike options
BEST LATE BLOOMER: Strider 14X Sport & Strider 16X Sport
Not many brands offer balance bikes for taller/older kids, but for those coming a bit late to cycling, having a balance bike that works for a longer inseam can be a huge benefit. We love the Strider 14X Sport in particular for its ability to jump from the best parts of having a balance bike to a kid’s first pedal bike. It has all the benefits of the 12-inch Sport model that we listed as our favorite overall option, but you can also add a pedal conversion kit to the 14X in order to go from balance bike to pedal bike for a child who’s ready to make the leap but still fits on the 14” wheels. Read our full review of the Strider 14x Sport here.
For riders 6+ years old, the Strider 16x Sport is a great way to learn how to balance on a bike for riders with up to a 27” inseam. However, the 16X option is not compatible with the pedal kit, so it may not be ideal for someone who will quickly graduate to a pedal bike (see our FAQ section below for tips for converting a regular pedal bike to a balance bike).
- Material: Aluminum
- Weight: 12.5 lbs / 17.7 lbs
- Wheel size: 14” / 16”
- MSRP: $170 / $200
PROS: We love the 14X’s ability to go from balance to pedal bike with an easy conversion
CONS: 16X option is not compatible with pedal kit
BEST MULTIUSE: Monkey Cycle
We love that the Monkey Cycle is an adaptable bike for kids that morphs as your child grows, meaning you can avoid new bike purchases for much longer, while also adapting quickly to their changes in growth and cycling abilities (and just for fun). With several different modes starting with a balance bike with a frame that can be flipped as the rider gets taller. It can also be converted into a tricycle and end up with a belt-drive pedal bike or even as a wild-looking quad bike. It will have your child rolling from around 9 months through to 6 years old.
The primary downside to the Monkey Cycle is that this bike is made by a small manufacturer and is produced in small batches, so you’ll likely have to get on a wait list to get one. But, if you have a kid with special needs, it’s ability to be setup as a trike or quad could be a game changer! Read more about it here.
- Material: Aluminum
- Weight: 7.9 lbs
- Wheel size: 12”
- MSRP: $399-$499 (depending on the kit that you want)
PROS: Super versatile, has disc brakes.
CONS: Currently back ordered, expensive
Buyer’s Guide for Balance Bikes
Check your kiddo’s inseam: On average, a 12” balance bike will usually fit kids ranging from 18 months to five years old, or inseam lengths around 12 to 20 inches. If their inseam is shorter than that, they’re likely still too young for a balance bike. Taller than that? You may need to look for a 14” or even 16” balance bike. And most 12” bikes have a weight limit of around 60 pounds. Especially if your child is on the larger/older side when you start shopping for a balance bike, look for a bike that can grow a bit with your child—if he or she is on the cusp of needing a 14” bike, go for the 14” rather than the 12”.
Consider weight: No, you don’t need a sub-five pound balance bike. But if you are lugging it around for your child often (to and from the playground, all over the house) or if your child is using it in a way that has him or her picking it up often (kiddie ‘cross, anyone?), then weight is a factor. Strider offers a Pro 12″ model with an aluminum frame that’s just 5.6lb for $160, so only a bit more expensive than their Sport model, but more than a pound lighter…and it comes with a number plate!
Spin the wheels: All of the bikes on this list have wheels that spin smoothly, but if you’re buying from a department store or buying used, do a quick wheel spin and make sure there are no weird hitches or wobbles. They should spin freely and smoothly, and keep spinning for a while. If they come to a stop after just a few revolutions, the bearings are probably worn out. (The same is true when buying one at a bike shop—it’s unlikely you’ll have a problem, but it’s worth a quick test.)
Types of tires and wheels: While there aren’t many components to a balance bike, the tires and wheels make a big difference to ease of ride. Don’t get plastic tires: pneumatic is more comfortable and better performing than solid rubber, but slightly higher maintenance. Strider uses a ‘foam rubber’ to make maintenance even easier while still offering smooth ride quality. And check the bearings in the wheels as well: Strider (and most other bike-specific companies) uses sealed cartridge bearings in their wheels, not loose balls like what’s found on some cheap department store bikes. Not only will they run smoother for much, much longer, they’re likely never going to need to be replaced in your kid’s lifetime of use.
Frequently Asked Questions about Balance Bikes
Why do I need a balance bike rather than just getting my kid a bike with training wheels or a tricycle?
Think about riding your bike: pedaling is the easy part, right? The balance and the ability to lean into corners is where the real challenge happens. Picture a tricycle compared to a balance bike: On a tricycle or a bike with training wheels, you’re stuck in a perfectly upright position, unable to lean the bike into a corner as you turn the handlebar. It’s completely unnatural at best, and unsafe at worst as it’s easy to tip over the wrong way if you take a corner too fast.
A balance bike teaches kids how to stay balanced (duh) and how to use their body weight to move the bike around obstacles. Want proof? Check out Strider World Championships to see these tiny shredders taking corners at ridiculous speeds. Lastly, think back to your own childhood: Riding a bike with training wheels just plain sucks. It wobbles and it’s slow, and it actually slows down a kid’s ability to learn how to ride a bike!
When can my kid start riding a balance bike?
There’s no exact age, but many can start playing with a balance bike on soft surfaces once they’re walking relatively confidently. It may take a while before they get good at riding, but having the bike around to play with and to allow them to get curious is a good way to ease them into a love of biking. So yes, order now if you have a newborn you’re hoping grows into a tiny shredder! (PS: You can also get a Strider rocking base to turn it into a rocking horse (available at REI), if you want to get your six-month-old comfortable on the bike. (Heck, they even make Snow Ski attachments!)
Can I just buy the cheap balance bike at my local big box department store?
If you are on a budget, we suggest looking for used options versus going big-box level cheap. These bikes have a long shelf life, and can easily be passed on to nieces, nephews, and friends…probably even grandkids! We’ve passed the same bike around to five different families and it’s still making the rounds.
How long will my child be able to use the balance bike?
Usually until around six years old, though if you start them early, they’ll likely graduate to a pedal bike long before then. Ultimately, a child won’t use a balance bike for too long before they’re ready to shred on their first two-wheeler! Note: You’ll have a much longer use time if you buy one like the Strider 14” or Monkey Cycle that’s convertible to a pedal bike.
My kid is too small for a balance bike—is there anything I can do before that to prepare them?
Simply having the bike around so that they can try and test it and play with it even before being able to ride will help. Any toy that allows them to scoot around on something with wheels or that promotes balance will help, too.
Can’t I just pull the pedals off my kid’s bike?
Yes, if you have the right tools and are willing to sacrifice the chain, and it can be a great option if you already have a bike for them, but they’re struggling to get going on it. The downside is that pedal bikes are typically taller, so you may not be able to get the seat low enough for younger kids to easily put their feet flat on the ground and scoot along…and that’s important. They should be able to easily sit on the bike’s saddle with their feet flat on the ground.
Should I use a balance bike instead of training wheels?
Definitely. As we mentioned above, using a balance bike teaches your child more body awareness and helps them learn to shift weight, lean into corners, and smoothly coast in a way that training wheels simply cannot.
The actual pedaling part of riding a bike isn’t what’s hard to learn…it’s trying to learn pedaling and balancing at the same time that trips kids up and gets them frustrated. Teaching them the balancing and handling part first makes it super easy for them to add the pedaling part later. And by “later” we don’t mean long…we’ve seen some 2-year-olds master it in a week and hop on a regular pedal bike and go!