We frequently get questions from parents seeking basic guidance on choosing a bicycle seat (and possibly a bike) for riding with a small child. This seems like it should be an easy task, but it can be surprisingly difficult to parse the compatibility issues that come up, and bike shops usually have only a paltry selection and minimal experience with which to offer advice. Most around here seem to carry only one or two low-weight-limit rear seats, and seem a bit mystified that there might even be other options available. Others try to heavily steer customers towards trailers, and while trailers can be great, especially for cargo or multiple children, for city street riding, a bike seat is a great option (and in my opinion, superior, though I know that’s a topic for debate). So, here we offer some general guidance for arranging for a basic set-up for one adult and one child. We’re not talking vast cargo capacity here, or anything fancy, just some things to think about for a parent trying to get off the ground biking with their young child.
In general, the first decision to be made is choosing between a front or rear mounted seat. Both have strengths and drawbacks.
Front Seats: Front seats are great, particularly for very young children. The child can see where he/she is going, the ride is smoother, and you can more easily assess how the child is doing and talk to them to keep them happy. Front seats allow you to easily wear a backpack to carry some kid stuff while riding, and if you need more space, the back of the bike is free for a rear rack or basket. The primary drawbacks are low weight limits (usually about 30 pounds, approximately age 3) and compatibility that can be quite dependent on exact bike type and adult rider size/shape. Here is a fabulous review of front seat options at totcycle, including a link to some important compatibility issues with the bobike mini.
Rear Seats: Strengths of rear seats are higher weight limits than front seats (though most are not as high as you might hope — American seats are usually around 40 pounds, approximately age 4), often (but not always) less finicky compatibility. Downsides are that it is harder to work out a way to carry stuff, because for most set ups, there’s not room for a backpack between you and your child, and rear seats are incompatible with rear racks or rear baskets. An easy and affordable solution to this is to use a front basket (like a Wald wire basket, commonly available at bike shops). You can’t carry a ton, but you can carry enough for a daycare drop-off or short outing. Rear seats are also incompatible with trailer bikes, which can impact options down the line, though in researching this article, I did find this potentially fabulous contraption for hauling a child on his/her own bike and would still permit a rear child seat. I’d love to hear from anyone using it successfully, or anyone who knows of other ways to make a trailer-bike like set-up work with a rear child seat, as this is a really common need for parents with kids spaced a couple years apart.
If you are planning for the long haul, you can consider a European seat. These often have a higher weight limit (along with a higher price tag). We have the bobike maxi+ (50 lb limit, though not without compatibility issues, especially on a small bike frame) and have heard from another parent happy with the hamax. These will get you closer to an age where you might feel more comfortable with the child on a trailer bike. Finding these in the states can be a little tricky, but certainly not impossible. Also, Xtracycle recently came out with a 49 lb seat, the Peapod LT, specifically for long-tail bikes (Kona Ute or Xtracycle), but their instructions do allow for installation on a regular bike. The price tag isn’t cheap ($169), but it is less than the imported options, and since it’s a US company, there’s at least a chance it may be spared some of the compatibility issues common for US bikes. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s tried it on a “short” bike.
If, after considering your options, you decide to go even slightly off the beaten path (and I define the “beaten path” narrowly, pretty much just a copilot rear seat), and are starting from scratch (i.e. you don’t yet have an adult bike), I strongly recommend buying the child seat before the bike. This may seem counterintuitive, but bikes are easy to buy and try out locally, both used and new. Child seats are not, and they almost universally have major compatibility issues with some large subset of relatively normal bicycles, and such problems are virtually impossible to thoroughly research ahead of time. Particularly if you’re looking for a high weight limit seat or a front seat, you’ll likely end up ordering online anyway, and hassles with shipping a return and trying to research (again) what kind of seat will work for your bike, can really take the wind out of your sails. The only way to know for sure that a seat will fit your new bike is to take the seat to the bike shop or the used bike you’re checking out, and try to put it on.
Now, this isn’t an option if you already have a bike and are trying to find the right seat. In general, local bike shops do carry standard US rear mounted seats, so you should be able to try that option without too much trouble. If you want to try a seat that requires an online order, try to do your homework on compatibility (not necessarily an easy task), and make sure to order from someplace with great customer service and a good return policy. You may well need it. Another option is to try to get your LBS to order for you, which can support your local store and also provide you with good service, but your mileage may vary, since unfortunately many bike shops are just kind of clueless about riding with kids.
One last bit of gear advice for anyone riding with kids loaded on their bike: Get a Double Kickstand. The trickiest time biking with kids is getting them loaded and unloaded, and at least in our experience, those are the times we’ve come closest to falls. It’s worth it to fork over the cash to make your bike as stable as possible and just remember to keep that fancy kickstand if you ever sell the bike. We’re having decent luck with the Pletscher Double on a mountain bike, which we purchased on the advice of Totcycle and EcoVelo. It isn’t as rock steady as the kickback on our Xtra, but that’s asking a lot, and it is infinitely better than either no kickstand or a one-sided. We did need to get the “deluxe top plate” to get a really stable install.
Do you have a seat you love? A seat you hate? What worked for troubleshooting your rig? Have you found a particularly kid savvy bike shop (especially one in the Cambridge/Somerville area) or a fabulous affordable double kickstand? A compatibility problem you can warn others about? By all means speak up. We think about this stuff a lot, but have only ridden and/or installed a few of the options out there.