In the US, mountain bikes are the most popular type of bikes. Even with such popularity, studies on mountain bike races have shown very low injury rates of <1%. This is partly due to riders wearing proper mountain biking attire.
But how do you determine what to wear when mountain biking?
Well, the right choice depends on various factors, including:
- Comfort: This also impacts safety, especially in long rides.
- Weather conditions: This may be seasonal or sporadic changes.
- Protection: Certain requirements may apply in race events or generally.
- Personal style: Follow your preferences as long as it is safe.
- Demands of your ride: Like enduro races, downhill rides and others.
Based on these considerations, here are the essentials you’ll likely need.
Helmets are crucial for head protection, due to the risk of slipping, crashing, and even bumping into trees or rocks.
Therefore, you must get the right helmet – not just any helmet.
If you’re participating in a mountain biking event under the USA Cycling permit, your helmet must meet either the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standard or the US DOT helmet standards.
So, what features does an MTB (mountain biking) helmet have?
Generally, it will have an integrated peak to keep sun and rain out of your eyes and deflect low-hanging branches. It also provides better coverage by sitting lower around the back and sides of your head.
For all-round protection in bike parks, downhill riding, and enduro racing, go for a full-face helmet.
Some varieties have certain safety features like a neck brace, and MIPS technology (an additional slip-plane to reduce rotational forces on your brain during impact).
2. Glasses or Goggles
Both glasses and goggles protect your eyes from sun glare or dirt thrown up by your bike’s front wheel.
But, when do you choose glasses instead of goggles?
When trail riding, glasses will serve you well. However, if the weather is grim and tracks muddy, goggles will provide sealed weather protection plus a wide range of vision.
Since there are many varieties of glasses, you’re probably wondering which to choose.
Well, preferably, pick out glasses with interchangeable lenses and multiple lens options. This way, you can use a clear lens when riding in dull or dark conditions, and tinted lenses to reduce glare or increase contrast in sunny days.
On the other hand, you can go ‘full enduro’ with goggles by pairing them with full-face helmets. This is excellent for downhillers because goggles are more secure and offer more protection.
3. Base Layer
The base layer is typically a long sleeve shirt that sits next to your skin, so you can build other layers on top.
So, which is the best MTB base layer?
A good choice depends on your personal needs and budget.
A variety of options exist, made of synthetic and natural fibers. Generally, thicker options keep you warmer during winter; whereas, thinner options are better at wicking sweat.
Since you can get warmth from other clothing layers, your main focus should be the base layer’s moisture wicking capability.
A good base layer sits close to your skin, while feeling comfortable between your skin and underneath the outer layers. It shouldn’t feel restrictive or bunch up uncomfortably.
In sunny weather, your base layer can be your only layer, but don’t expect much wind protection.
MTB jerseys usually have a loose cut.
When selecting jerseys, consider biking safety tips, such as recommendations to wear bright clothing so other mountain trail users and even drivers can see you.
But when should you choose a short-sleeve, three-quarter, or long-sleeve jersey?
It depends on the amount of insulation and protection you need.
In the heat of summer, a short-sleeve will keep you cooler. However, a long-sleeve offers more protection for your arms, against sunburns, branches, nettles, and thorns. A three-quarter offers the best of both worlds.
You might still stay cool with long-sleeves that have mesh panels for improved breathability.
For cross-country mountain bikers, Lycra jerseys are great, especially with rear pockets for stowing snacks, spare tubes, and tools.
The US Forest Service recommends that mountain bikers be prepared for sudden weather changes, and one way to achieve that is getting a jacket.
But it doesn’t have to be a heavy duty jacket.
You have the choice between three options:
- lightweight shell
- hybrid jacket
- fully waterproof jacket
Lightweight jackets are water resistant, offer some wind protection, and retain breathability through mesh panels or perforations. They are also packable, so you can stow them in a backpack.
Fully waterproof jackets have a proper hardshell fabric to keep the rain out for hours. Such waterproof jackets for mountain biking typically have a looser fit compared to those made for road cycling. The loose fit can accommodate layers or potentially body armor underneath and allows greater freedom of movement.
Hybrid jackets offer the best of both worlds. They are made from softshell or padded fabric, giving additional warmth and stretch.
A vest is much like a packable jacket.
This is something you can conveniently fit in your pockets when the weather is iffy. You can also pair it with a short sleeve jersey and arm warmers to get some of the benefits of a jacket.
A great vest will have a windproof front panel with a breathable rear.
Two-way zippers can make it easy to dump heat in a hurry, and access your jersey pockets. But some vests also have pockets.
7. Chamois, Liners & Underwear
A pair of chamois, liner shorts, or underwear is just as valuable as your base layer. Maybe, even more valuable.
The chamois are padded shorts which ensure your comfort in the saddle when you hit the trails.
Based on your preference, you can have either chamois bibs or shorts.
For even greater comfort, you can also prepare with Chamois Butter, an anti-chaffing cream, for long rides.
If you don’t prefer chamois for short rides, downhill rides, or shuttling, consider non-cotton underwear with good wicking properties. Materials like merino wool have the added advantage of natural odor-fighting properties.
8. Baggy Shorts
Most mountain bikers prefer baggies.
These shorts are usually knee length. They are made of either stretchy material; or robust, tear-resistant fabric that has stretch panels around the back which allow your shorts to move with you.
You can wear baggies over your bibs, short liners, and knee pads.
Most baggies receive a durable water repellant (DWR) treatment that causes water to bead and run off instead of soaking into the material.
9. Waterproof Trousers/ Pants
If you choose to wear riding trousers, always get the proper fit.
These pants should be close enough so the material doesn’t flap around or get in the way, but they should have enough room not to restrict pedaling.
Riding trousers keep you warm in cold weather, dry in the rain, and clean in mucky conditions. The water resistance comes from either softshell or hardshell fabric with a DWR coating.
For maximum abrasion resistance and full weather protection, go for hardshell fabric. To get greater breathability and stretching for maximum movement, go for softshell fabric.
This is simply a long version of the skintight cycling shorts.
Cycling tights provide extra warmth during colder months, some protection, and even padding from an included chamois.
This attire is particularly useful in the chilly mornings of spring and autumn, or winter months. Winter tights are typically thicker than cool-weather or autumn tights.
Tights offer an optimum fit to your body contours, reflecting specific ergonomics of your on-bike position (featuring a long, stretched back).
11. Knee Pads
In case you crash when cycling, quite often your knees will be the first part of your body to meet the ground.
Therefore, if you’re riding a challenging trail, it’s always wise to wear knee pads. Or, you can just wear them for peace of mind.
Various lightweight options are available which offer protection while giving you the freedom to pedal comfortably. You can also get chunkier pads for more technical riding.
Breathability is part of the design of high quality knee pads which are heavily perforated for maximum airflow.
12. Elbow Pads
In a crash, your elbows are just as likely to hit the ground as your knees.
Elbow pads will serve you well in such situations.
Unlike the bulky, hard-shell options of the past, modern elbow pads are lower-profile and more comfortable.
These pads feature elastic compression sleeves and silicone grippers without straps. Therefore, you must get the right size, because there’s no room for further adjustment.
Moreover, the amount of protection you’ll get will depend on the specific option you select. Beefier options give DH (downhill) levels of protection, while lighter versions are more like padded arm warmers.
13. Chest and Back Protectors
Chest and back protectors are essential in downhill mountain biking, or any time you want to neglect the brakes to shave some time off your descent. Enduro races also require such protection throughout the event.
Most torso protectors are worn beneath a jersey.
Some varieties have added features like lumbar pockets, and protection sleeves that double as hydration bladder pouches which hold vertically-oriented water bags. The pouches will likely also have a hydration hose loop to keep your mouthpiece handy while riding.
Often, you can unzip during climbs to increase air flow, but the protectors are usually highly breathable and will dry fast on a windy descent.
Gloves provide extra protection, thermal insulation, and grip.
Most mountain bikers prefer full-finger gloves since they provide more comprehensive protection than mitts. They protect your hands from crashes or undergrowth, and some have padding on the palms for additional cushioning.
Downhill or enduro riders will benefit from gloves with more protection on the back of the hand, due to the higher likelihood of crashing in such types of riding.
You’ll also get extra traction on the handlebars if you select gloves that have carefully-placed grippers to help you get full control over bike brakes and shifters.
Socks are a key statement of style.
But, they also play an important role in guarding your shins or calves against cuts and scratches from undergrowth or even bike pedals.
If you ride in wet conditions, waterproof socks are an ideal choice.
In cold weather, thick socks will keep you warm.
On the other hand, lightweight and breathable socks are great for summer weather. Also consider the sock height, since taller socks may offer more protection, but will also run hotter compared to mid-rise or low socks.
16. Shoe Covers/ Overshoes
You can wear road cycling overshoes over cycling cleat, slim-line, or clipless shoes.
Such shoe covers have a very thin sole and a hole for clipping on.
Since they have a tight fit, only use them with proper cycling footwear – not regular shoes. The covers are generally made of such fabric as nylon with a bit of insulation, and either a closure zipper or hook-and-loop strap.
Although the cover soles are abrasion resistant, you shouldn’t walk on them.
The covers can keep your feet warm and dry in winter while being pretty breathable.
For mountain bikers, regular shoes just won’t cut it.
You need mountain-bike-specific shoes which have a hardened toe box, since smashing toes on roots and rocks is a common injury.
Here, two options exist: flat and clipless shoes.
Flat shoes are made for flat pedals which have rough-textured surfaces and ‘pins’ projecting outward to grip your shoes. The shoes have a sole with tread patterns suited to flat pedal pins, and made from extra-grippy rubber.
Clipless shoes work well for trail and cross-country riders.
A clipless shoe has a recessed cleat mechanism in the sole that connects it to the clipless pedal. This gives you more control and better power transfer, with the ability to pull up on a pedal stroke for increased pedaling efficiency and bunnyhop-ability.
As you may have noticed, there’s a long list of items to wear, but you may not need all of them at once.
If you’re not participating in a serious event, you likely need just the bare essentials. These are items that directly impact your personal safety.
After all, you also have to get a bunch of mountain biking gear.