What to Wear Mountain Biking

Every sport has its own style. Some are simple: playing pickup basketball doesn’t require a lot of thought  with what to put on, other than the shoes. Some are more specific: equestrian and skiing require a special section in one’s closet.

While mountain biking can be enjoyed with minimal fuss, beginners still want to know what to wear mountain biking. And in my many years as a mountain biker, I know that this is an extensive list.

In this article I’ll share with you some of the things you need to wear while mountain biking, including some of my personal favorite.

Mountain Bike Style

As a sport with a specific style, mountain biking visually exposes the inexperienced. At the trailhead you know who are the shredders, the racers, the weekend warriors, the dabblers, and finally, the neophytes. But also, outside of their cliques, no one really cares.

Mountain biking is a sport with a laid back attitude. Whether it’s at a race, a group ride, a festival, or just riding, mountain biking has a less uptight feel than road biking.

Unlike a road ride where you might see 25 dapper roadies all in a line, decked out similarly, take the first 25 riders at the trailhead and you’ll get a mélange of styles and choices.

Included in that random sample will be people in a regular pair of shorts and a regular T-shirt—no gloves, nothing sport-specific, other than a helmet. No shame in that; better to get on the trails first and worry about gear and clothing later. (Again, not true of road riding where if you show up to a group ride in cargo shorts and a Supreme T-shirt, you may hear a collective humming of “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.”)

Build Up Your Mountain Biking Gear Gradually

I took a friend new to mountain biking to a trail once, and as we got ready in the parking lot—well, as I got ready in the parking lot; he got his bike off the car, added a helmet and was good to go—he said to me, with some impatience, “It sure takes some time to get out on the trails.” Just gearin’ up, bro!

Although the list of things one might use is not short, it’s important to remember that you build up your holdings little by little. You don’t want to wait to try a fun activity until you own all the equipment and proper clothes.

Riding in different weather conditions will demand further additions to your wardrobe, of course, but here we will stick with typical, warmer, drier conditions.

The Mandatory item: Protect the Noggin!

Very few items are essential. But there is, besides a bike, one.

Try this experiment:  take a pumpkin the size of your head to a sidewalk. Raise it above you, then drop it on the concrete.

Did it explode? (Hopefully for the sake of this experiment it did).

That’s your head.

Now grab a second pumpkin and do the same thing with a helmet. Never mind; you get the idea!

Let’s go over what we learned, shall we? Wear a helmet.

Mountain biking isn’t like riding around the neighborhood (where, sure, a person should still wear a helmet but many don’t). At some point you will crash. When you crash, you may not be able to control how you fall, and there are plenty of rock-hard items to explode your pumpkin on. Like rocks.

Ok, so now I can step off my soap box and we can consider what to put around your precious gray matter.

Almost any helmet is better than none. Road helmets are fine—it’s what I wear—but there are mountain bike specific helmets that will be a little or a lot better than whatever you happen to already own, depending on the style of riding.

Helmets for Mountain Biking

Regular mountain bike helmets have visors. The visor helps block the sun from the eyes as the eyes likely have clear or low-light lenses protecting them.

These helmets also have more coverage in the back of the head as road riders don’t often fall backwards and have a back of the head impact; mountain bikers can.

One such model—with its very typical mountain bike helmet look—is the Smith Engage MIPS helmet.  MIPS, which is a feature that can be found on any brand, is an added safety feature that causes the helmet, in the event of an impact, to rotate slightly on the head, reducing the force of the impact.

The Giro Fixture MIPS Adult helmet is a similar model at a lower price.

For someone riding more challenging trails—whether that means jumping or technical trails—a full-face helmet is the way to go. Full face helmets offer more protection for higher risk riding. The reason that everyone doesn’t wear one is that they are hotter and heavier.

The Bell Sanction is a good example of a full-face helmet. It features an adjustable visor and also works for BMX.

The Bell Full-9 Fusion is a MIPS equipped model for even more serious riding.

Eyeglasses for Mountain Biking

The next item to buy, as they also serve a protective function, are glasses.

The wind generated by riding can make the eyes water, which affects vision. Bugs love crashing into eyeballs. A sharp branch in the eye is a good way to reduce the fun.

Clear or low light lenses are the way to go for mountain biking because you’re often in the shade. Some trails in the west are out in the open because it’s a desert, in which case dark lenses will be best. Because they want you to have all of these choices, cycling eyewear companies have your back with three-in-one glasses.

The Tifosi Optics Sledge has three different lenses that you switch depending on light conditions. On the other hand, the Tifosi Veloce Regular glasses have one lens that changes with the light.

Downhill riders usually pair a full-face helmet with goggles. Snowboarding goggles might work the same way, but, in contrast, the Giro Tempo goggles have a clear lens. Goggles offer better protection, coverage, and vision for the greater demands of downhill and enduro riding.

Who wears short shorts? Not mountain bikers!

You know a mountain biker when you see her because of the shorts. Long, baggy shorts.

They’re light and comfortable when moving. Racers still dress like road riders to get aerodynamic advantage and to look more serious. Road cyclists who don’t want to buy extra clothing can simply mountain bike in their road gear! I’m guessing it won’t block one iota of fun!

Mountain bike shorts reflect the relaxed nature of the sport and provide the advantage of pockets. Look for models with a zippered pocket to protect keys or other valuables from bouncing out. Road riders can easily put a phone into a rear jersey pocket. What’s a mountain biker to do? Buy shorts that have a pocket that gets the phone out of the way and keeps it from falling out.

The other feature to look for is a padded liner for comfort. Longer or bumpier rides will make you happy to have the added padding where it counts. The liner usually is a light, separate piece with a chamois. Some models have the liner attached to the shorts, which keeps things simple, though the pad is likely to be the first thing to wear out and in this case it isn’t replaceable. Road riders can also simply slip on road shorts underneath the baggy shorts for comfort.

There are plenty of cheaper options, but the Fox Racing Ranger shorts have reliable quality and streamlined style without frills. Plus: pockets, adjustable waist, and a separate liner.

The Troy Lee Designs Lilium for women adds some color and a floral print choice for style. It has three pockets and an adjustable waist but does not come with the liner.

Gloves for Mountain Biking

Gloves are a relatively high priority item for mountain biking because they add extra comfort with padding.

Mountain bike trails have bumps. Suspension dampens a lot of the violence of the trails but gloves help too. They also provide better grip when the sweating starts. An overlooked benefit of gloves is protection when your hand bangs a tree or for when you crash.

Mountain bikers often use full-fingered gloves unlike their road counterparts. Think more protection and better grip.

A couple examples:

The full finger Bontrager Evoke does not have padding, for those that don’t want it, giving it a more direct, tactile feel. It does have touchscreen compatible finger tips and is breathable.

Pearl Izumi is known for quality gloves, and the Select model, without the full finger, has padding where you need it.

What to wear on top?

Yes, that is the question. At the trails you’re going to see a lot of different answers. Everything from a base layer to a T-shirt to a road cycling jersey. Nonetheless, there is a jersey type designed for mountain biking.

Mountain biking specific jerseys are loose fitting, with short, medium, or long sleeves, and without jersey pockets. The longer sleeves provide some arm protection. They look good; they’re comfortable, light, breathable, and moisture-wicking, unlike a regular cotton T-shirt.

MTB jerseys are designed to keep a rider cool, and if you think a tank top out of the drawer will do better, consider for starters the lack of projection, in the event of a crash or even a minor collision with tree bark, a tank top provides.

The Troy Lee Designs Skyline Air is a long sleeve jersey that has a rear, zippered pocket, a nice touch.

The affordable short sleeve Dakine Women’s Cadence jersey features a V-neck, not an infrequent choice for MTB jerseys, and will help your outfit not scream “cyclist” at the restaurant down the road from the trails. Believe me, your smell will scream cyclist instead.

But wait!

According to Dakine this jersey even has odor control, so step over to the bar and get right into the scrum of the beer line with confidence.

Doghouses for the feet

Mountain bike shoes are more comfortable than road shoes as mountain bikers will find themselves walking more than road riders. They’re less stiff than road shoes. Treads are essential for when you’re pushing your bike and need to stick to the trail. Some clipless pedal shoes will have a place to add two toe spikes for better traction on steeps and mud.

Riders with flat pedals just need to make sure they have something on their dogs that provide support and that are grippy. If you complain that your feet are coming off the pedals, it could be the shoe or more likely it’s that your pedals are terrible. Either explore flat pedals with pins for grip or consider clipless pedals. For clipless, don’t forget to make sure the shoes are compatible with your pedals.

For flat pedals, 5.10 makes various models, including the Freerider. The Freerider is light, grippy, comfortable, and stylish.

For clipless pedals, the Giro Cylinder offers a boa for fine-tuned adjustments at a relatively affordable price by a name brand.

More affordable still are CyclingDeal’s women’s shoes with three Velcro straps for good fit.

Socks

Sock choice is not high on the list of importance…. You thought.

Then you took your dad mountain biking and he wore thick-striped, white tube socks that went up to his knees. You asked him if he bought the socks at Larry Bird’s garage sale back in ’82. He said he couldn’t recall ever going to one of Larry Bird’s garage sales. So you, to be subtler, bought him a pair of stylish socks for biking.

Biking socks are light, breathable, and sweat-wicking. Today’s most popular socks for biking go well above the ankle, even as high as the calf—that is, higher than they used to. Note that longer socks also protect the shins from minor hits. They often have designs and colors that add some flair and personal style.

Swiftwick’s colorful Vision Six Impression national park series are an excellent example from a top brand.

Pursuit Four is a plain sock made of merino wool. Merino wool is a great choice for both cold and warm weather. It’s also good for fighting stink and doesn’t itch. For the quality, the Pursuit Four is surprisingly inexpensive. Swiftwick names the sock in their Pursuit series by their height, from low to high, to suit your needs.

The choices for socks are mind-boggling, so shoppers will have fun.

Knee Pads

For additional protection, the next item to add to your accumulating gear are knee pads.

The minority of riders at an average trail wear knee pads. The more serious the riding and the more serious the riders, the more knee pads you’ll see. Go to a mountain bike park and the majority will probably have knee pads.

What do these people know that you don’t?

Well for one, that knees are covered in skin. For two, take a hammer and hit your knee cap. Hurts, right? (If it didn’t hurt, swing harder. And for God’s sakes, if you have no common sense, please, understand this is a joke; put the hammer back!) More so than other body parts it seems. Also, knees are vulnerable because they are located in a spot that takes more hits.

If the hammer test didn’t convince, I could show you the spot on my left knee where I got 21 stiches. Needless to say, during my convalescence, a pair of knee pads arrived in the mail.

The G-Form Pro XT are an affordable pair to get started. They feature soft cushions that harden on impact.

The POC Joint VPD are a good compromise between safety and comfort and come in different colors. It also has an adjustable strap for sizing.

The Dakine Slayer is similar to the POC. It’s low profile, adding minimal bulk. Knee pads are a very personal choice, so keep this in mind when reading the polarizing reviews!

 

Elbow Pads

Let’s agree to skip the hammer experiment on the elbows. We’ll take it on faith that a fall on an elbow will create an owie.

Less common than knee covering, elbow pads are still a protective feature to consider. As with knee pads, these will make you warmer, so consider thin and light choices if you usually ride in the heat or if you ride less aggressively.

Race Face’s Charge elbow pads are light and breathable but do not provide high impact protection. The Charge will help prevent abrasions.

Once again, the POC Joint VPD are a good choice from this top protection brand. Contrast these with the POC VPD Air Sleeve, which are superior in comfort but provide less protection.

Hydration Pack

Some riders prefer to only use the bottle cage on their frame for water. Others prefer a hydration pack.

One advantage of the pack is that it fits more water than you can in the one or two bottles that go on the frame. (Many dual suspension bikes only have one bottle cage.) If you’re riding for a couple hours on a hot day, you might even need a bottle plus a hydration pack.

Another advantage of the pack is that you can carry gear on it. They usually have a pocket and may have elastic bands to add other gear. Getting a pack with more storage is a way to not miss jersey pockets as you can offload all the gear that would go there to your back.

Disadvantages of the hydration pack are that it makes you a little more top-heavy, might affect your comfort, and feels awkward jostling around when jumping. As for comfort, you get used to having it on your back quickly, though it will add a small amount of heat to your back.

Synonymous with the hydration pack is Camelback. Their minimalist HydroBak is a good choice for short trips where you don’t have a mound of gear and where 50 ounces of water, still more than two bottle cages will support, is sufficient.

Osprey’s Katari has room for 2.5 liters of liquid. It has a slim profile, yet a zippered pocket and two side pockets provide ample storage for most rides.

Conclusion

With this not so short list of goods, we now see why gearing up for a ride takes a little time. Those new to mountain biking can travel light and wear whatever they want. But once you’ve been to the trails a number of times you learn what to wear for mountain biking and you start getting jealous of the cool looking clothing.

Not only is it about style—from experience you learn better methods to keep you safe, hydrated, and planted on the pedals. A good formula for more fun and better peace of mind!