What is a Good Age to Start Mountain Biking?

Getting on a bike is a simple pleasure and a milestone for many small children. At the same time, biking can be a life long activity and one that you continue to develop skills on. For a lot of riders mountain biking takes things to a new level. Mountain biking allows you to explore a host of new trails, get in a great workout, and provide freedom to a day on a bike that is unlike that of road or city biking. So, it beyond taking the first pedals down the street, getting on a mountain bike is one of the major milestones for anyone developing new riding skills. 

rei co-p mountain bike for kids

How Do I Know When My Kid is Ready To Start Mountain Biking?

It is hard to answer this question because it comes down to a circular reasoning, they are ready when a they are ready. That is to say, you need some foundation of biking skills before safely transitioning to a surface that has more risks and is harder to navigate. We take this same approach to many activites, including introducing a 4 year old to rock-climbing, but generally speaking if a kid is able to listen to directions and is motivated to try then there is often little reason to stop them from at least being exposed to an activity. 

Many youngsters learn to ride a bike somewhere between ages 3-7, assuming they are trying to learn (don’t feel bad if you were much older before learning to ride). In general it is possible to get into mountain biking a year after learning to ride a bike, so beginning mountain biking at age 4 through age 7 is an entirely reasonable stage.

The trick of beginner mountain biking is to choose the right trails to learn on. For those on the younger end, with proper safety equipment, a dirt bike path, fire road, or the patted down side of a common paved trail can provide all the necessary challenges to learn in a safe environment. 

What To Look For In A Kids Mountain Bike

Another consideration for when to learn is to learn if you fit on a mountain bike. Mountain bikes generally are defined by larger tires as well as some additional suspension to absorb the impact of bumps. Unfortunately the addition of larger tires and the increased friction of the surface you are riding on make it harder to pedal a bike. Couple that with the fact that it is difficult to find a small enough bike frame for smaller kids and you may have to wait longer.

Making things easier is that if you do find a reliable mountain bike for a youngster it is easy to make that an everyday bike. If they can ride on a trail there is no reason the same bike won’t work on streets and sidewalks for other rides. That can not be said going the other way as many, especially kid bikes, that work fine on hard roads are not suited for taking over anything but the most mundane of obstacles.

The tire quality, quality of brakes, ground clearance, overall fit, and weight are the most important aspects of a kid mountain bikes. These are the features of many kid bikes can make them so difficult to ride off-road that it can ruin the entire experience. Of course all this is hard to find for a reasonable price.

At the most extreme the picture below captures what it is possible to get into with a mountain bike in wet weather. With this amount of debris and weight it is impossible to control the bike through anything and even tough to drag it home. Although this is an adults bike, it shows some of the extremes to be concerned with. At the same time, this bike style is also one that has a lot of good features for a kids bike and it’s even the same model.

A Kid’s First Mountain Bike 

When finalizing what to get for our youngster we quickly settled on the REI CO-Op Rev 20 6 speed bike. While this thing is more expensive than other options it has a ton of great features and REI’s ability to sell back used gear once grown out of things figured into the decision.

The Rev 20 bike itself, which is pictured at the top of this article, has oversized wheels that do make it hard to get into some bike racks but also serves as a bit of suspension since this is a hardtail style bike. For the most part full suspension bikes are unnecessary unless a kid is really improving so it’s not worth spending on this for a first bike which they may grow out of.

A secondary thing that really separates the REI Co-Op 20, which is their house brand of bikes, is the addition of disc brakes. For a kid who may get into some trouble and even for an adult having reliable braking is super important. Rim brakes are fine but are known to preform poorly when they get wet or muddy and that’s half the fun of learning to mountain bike. The disc brakes on the Co-Op are light years ahead of the other kid bikes we’ve encountered and the responsiveness to braking was the only thing the little one had to learn about when moving to the new set of wheels. 

Where To Learn To Mountain Bike

After getting a bike, and maybe before, you should consider where to ride it. For adults this is more meaningful as most of the components can be optimized for the areas and surfaces you ride, but for a kid it is more about what is going to be safe and run.

We found that local turf soccer fields and football fields were an astounding place to take the first pedals. It provides some of the friction required to pedal hard and learn but softens falls and avoids road rash. Similarly gravel trails were ones to avoid early on as the impact of a fall outweighed the fun of riding them. In many areas there are bike paths that are bordered by rutted out running paths or dog trails. This is typically only a few feet off the main trail but is on a more varied surface which allows for the development of bike skills. Other places to look include:

  • Soccer or sport fields
  • Local parks with regularly cut grass (too high and it’s too hard to ride)
  • State and County Parks with regular trail maintenance
  • Horse paths (so long as you keep an eye out for horses)

The goal is to look for places that are maintained. With unmaintained or dedicated bike trails often the draw is that there are obstacles for advanced riders to over come. For children learning, developing skills and building confidence is more important than having the best obstacles.