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10 essential pieces of mountain biking gear

By Bruce Lin

So you've bought a new mountain bike (or you’re about to). Good for you! Hopefully, you’ll be on the trails soon, enjoying miles and miles of off-road fun. But before you set off, there are a few essential pieces of equipment that you need.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, good riding gear is key to enjoying mountain biking. Mountain biking always carries some level of risk. Crashes will happen to the best of us. Proper mountain biking apparel is designed to make riding more pleasant by keeping you cool and comfortable, but it also helps protect you during crashes.

Mountain bike riding gear and apparel
Dressed in the right gear, these riders are ready for adventure.

This list aims to simplify the process of building up your gear collection by explaining the essentials. You'll not only look the part but have more fun and be ready for anything on the trail. This is the gear every mountain biker needs to keep in their closet.

If you’re curious about mountain biking and want to learn more about the different bikes, riding styles, and tech available, check out our detailed Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide.

1. Helmet

It goes without saying: Protect your head! Helmet use reduces the odds of head injury by 50 percent, and the odds of head, face, or neck injury by 33 percent [source]. Modern helmets are lighter, well-ventilated, safer, and better looking than ever. There’s no reason not to wear one.

What kind of helmet should you get?

Mountain biking helmets can be separated into three distinct styles — XC, trail, and full-face helmets. XC (cross country) helmets are the same helmets used by road and gravel riders. These helmets are sleek, lightweight, and don’t have a visor. Trail helmets have a visor and offer more overall protection and coverage at the expense of weight and ventilation. Can you use a trail helmet for XC riding or an XC helmet for trail riding? Sure. There are no rules governing style.

The majority of recreational mountain bikers use trail helmets. The additional coverage provides more protection. Visors can shield your eyes from sun and rain and deflect rogue objects like branches. Sleeker XC helmets are more common among riders focused on cross-country racing.

Full-face helmets have a chin bar and provide the most protection. Full-face helmets are typically used for shuttled downhill riding and lift-assisted bike parks. They don’t ventilate as well as half-shell XC and trail helmets, so they aren’t practical for long climbs. However, new highly ventilated and convertible full-face helmets are becoming popular among enduro racers and trail riders seeking more protection without the weight of a true full-face.

Shop Helmets

What is MIPS?

You might notice that newer helmets use “MIPS” technology. MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) is a low-friction “slip-plane” layer added to the inside of a helmet. It reduces the rotational impact by allowing the helmet to rotate 10-15mm on your head during a crash. This can reduce harmful forces transmitted to the brain.

Choosing helmets with or without MIPS is a personal decision. There are studies supporting the effectiveness of MIPS, and as a rider who has suffered for years from the effects of concussion, I always ride in MIPS helmets to reduce my risk of further injury. Some riders may feel that the MIPS layer detracts from the fit of helmets, or that it’s not worth the additional cost and weight.

MIPS is the most popular technology used by many reputable helmet brands, but there are a few alternatives like POC’s SPIN Technology, Bontrager WaveCel, and Leatt Turbine. The goal of all these technologies is to reduce rotational impact to protect your brain. 

2. MTB jersey

Mountain bike jerseys have a looser fit that looks more casual than tight-fitting cycling jerseys. Some riders like riding in cotton t-shirts, which is fine, but jerseys feature breathable, quick-drying synthetic materials like polyester. 

Jerseys come in different sleeve options — short-sleeve, 3/4 sleeve, and long-sleeve options. Though they might be hotter, some riders prefer 3/4 sleeve and long-sleeve jerseys because they protect your arms from the sun and will provide a small amount of additional protection during crashes.

Shop jerseys

3. MTB shorts

Like mountain bike jerseys, mountain bike shorts are made of synthetic materials so they are breathable, quick-drying, and protective. They should balance mobility and trim fit to avoid catching on your saddle while riding. Mountain bike shorts also rise up higher in the back than casual shorts so your butt and lower back aren’t exposed in the riding position.

Mountain bike shorts can be paired with a liner short, or cycling shorts that are worn underneath. Liners and cycling shorts have a padded chamois sewn into the bottom to relieve pressure and increase comfort on your bike saddle.

Shop shorts.

What about cycling kits?

Mountain bike cross country XC riding gear
Our Content Manager, Spencer, making a cycling kit look good during a cross country race. |  Photo: Dave McElwaine 

Dedicated cross-country riders often wear a standard lycra cycling kit. A cycling kit consists of a cycling jersey and cycling shorts or bib shorts. This is the same thing worn by many road and gravel riders. A kit fits tighter than casual clothing or mountain bike clothing so there is no excess material to get in the way while riding. They are extremely light, breathable, and designed for hard pedaling. 

The major downside of a standard cycling kit is that it provides little to no protection in the event of a crash. This is usually not a problem for cross-country racers trying to stay light and maximize performance. But for recreational trail riding, it might be preferable to wear “baggies,” or mountain bike-specific jerseys and shorts.

4. Gloves

Our instincts compel us to extend our hands when we fall. This makes your hands one of the most vulnerable parts of your body during a crash. Full-fingered gloves will keep you from skinning your palms if you hit the deck.

Any protective work glove is acceptable, but mountain bike-specific gloves have very thin leather or synthetic palms that gives you great dexterity and feel without sacrificing protection. They will provide more grip and control, especially for riders with sweaty hands. The backside of the mountain bike gloves are breathable and often have an absorbent wipe around the thumb useful for daubing off sweat.

Gloves made for downhill trail riding will have additional armor or padding on the back to protect your knuckles from branches, trees, and rocks. 

5. Protective gear

Mountain biking lightweight knee pads No one likes scraped knees. I generally recommend riders of all levels wear some form of knee protection. Other than your hands, your knees are the easiest part of your body to injure in a crash. Knee pad design is constantly improving and newer pads use soft and flexible armor that is light and breathable. This makes the pad more comfortable when pedaling. During an impact, the soft armor can harden to protect your knee.

Trail riding knee pads come in two basic forms. They will either hold themselves up with velcro straps or be sleeve-style pads that have armor sewn into a tube of fabric. Make sure your knee pads are comfortable and light enough that you are willing to wear them regularly. Some riders slide pads down their legs or store them in a backpack while climbing.

Elbow pads are another useful piece of protection, but fewer riders wear them. This may be a style thing. I personally don’t wear them, but looking at the scars on my arms, I probably should. 

If you are doing downhill riding on more technical terrain, you will want bigger, more heavily armored pads. Torso armor may also be prudent.

Armor is less common among cross-country racers riding in cycling kits because it adds weight, feels hotter, and can inhibit movement. 

Riding in armor is a personal choice. Some riders may feel skilled enough to not need it. Or their local terrain may not warrant protection. Others won’t venture out without the extra insurance of knee and elbow pads.

Shop protective gear

6. Sunglasses

Sunglasses not only protect your eyes from harmful UV rays, but also from stones, branches, and other debris that can injure your eyes. You don’t need cycling-specific glasses, but sunglasses designed for riding have convenient features like interchangeable lenses for different light conditions, and a tight, sporty fit so they stay put on rough trails. Some high-end glasses also have lenses designed to improve clarity and enhance your vision on the trail like Oakley’s Prizm series.

Shop sunglasses

7. Shoes and pedals

Mountain biking shoesOur CEO and founder, Nick Martin, has been riding in Shimano clipless shoes for decades.

Any comfortable shoe that you would use for running, hiking, or skateboarding will work for mountain biking. But if your riding addiction grows (and hopefully it does), mountain biking-specific shoes will be worth it. Most riders start out riding standard flat pedals. Mountain biking shoes have a flatter, stiffer sole, with sticky rubber to help you pedal and stay stuck to the pedals in rough terrain.

Five Ten is the most popular manufacturer of mountain biking shoes. It is often credited with having the stickiest rubber compound. There are plenty of competitors though who are closing the gap and offering super-sticky alternatives.

As you become a better rider, you might consider clipless pedals. Clipless pedals allow you to clip in (confusing, yes) to your pedals with a cleat on your shoe. This keeps your feet attached to the pedals which is beneficial for pedaling, climbing, and technical terrain that can bounce your feet off the pedals. Clipless pedals require clipless mountain bike shoes to function.

Flats vs. clipless pedals is an ongoing debate in mountain biking and would require its own article. There are good riders who use both. In general, ride what you find comfortable and confidence-inspiring. If you’re curious about learning to ride clipless, be prepared to tip over a few times!

8. Flat kit

Mountain bike flat kitA spare tube and CO2 inflator is a small but essential part of this rider's survival kit.

Trail riding is hard on bikes and equipment. If you ride enough, you’re guaranteed to encounter scenarios that require emergency repair. A good emergency kit has enough tools and supplies to keep you rolling so you don’t have to call for rescue when things go wrong. It doesn’t have to be big or elaborate. Most spares and tools can be discreetly strapped to your bike using tape or velcro straps, or kept in a small backpack.

Punctures are the most common mechanical that mountain bikers encounter. Sharp rocks, thorns, and hard impacts can lead to flats. Modern tubeless tires are much less prone to punctures, and they’re often able to repair small punctures with sealant.

A basic flat kit consists of at least one spare inner tube and an inflation device. If you struggle with removing and installing tires by hand, a tire lever can help. The Inflation device can be either a compact hand pump or a CO2 inflation device. For longer rides or harsh terrain, you might carry two tubes. But most riders will carry just one to avoid the added bulk.

My favorite tool is a tire plug kit. Tire plugs can repair tire punctures that tubeless sealant is unable to seal. A plug can easily repair a puncture without an inner tube, which requires removing the tire. There are many popular tire plug options on the market like Genuine Innovations’ “Side of Bacon,” Stan’s NoTubes DART, and Dynaplug tools. 

9. Multitool

Mountain bike trailside repairsA multitool saving a broken chain.

A basic multitool is the only tool most riders need to perform basic trailside repairs. At a bare minimum, a multitool should include:

3mm hex
4mm hex
5mm hex
T25 Torx

These four bits will be enough to fit most of the hardware found on a mountain bike. You will be able to perform basic repairs like straightening your handlebars, adjusting your levers, and adjusting your derailleur.

Many multitools have additional bits that increase versatility. A more complete multitool will include a small chain-breaker in case you need to remove broken links from a chain. A spare quick-link for your chain can save your ride if you break any links. 

10. Backpack or hip pack

Mountain biking backpack and hip packA hip pack is a small and discrete way to carry tools and supplies.

Backpacks and hip packs allow you to carry emergency supplies and tools, as well as your phone, wallet, and keys, and any food or hydration for your ride. Any basic Camelbak or hydration backpack will be good for beginner riders. Their hydration bladders make it very easy to carry more water and drink it while riding. Staying hydrated is key to a good riding experience!

More and more, hip packs (Americans may know them as "fanny packs"), are gaining popularity in mountain biking. Hip packs keep the weight off your shoulders, and closer to your center of gravity. Some can carry small hydration bladders, and others are designed to carry a water bottle. Hip packs are smaller and more discrete than backpacks.

Check out our MTB backpack article to see examples of packs our riders use. 

Bonus: First aid kit

Mountain biking first aidA first aid kit saved the day.

Very few riders carry a first aid kit when riding. I don’t, and only one of my regular riding partners carries any form of first aid. Unfortunately, that's the norm for most riders. But my riding partner who does carry a first aid kit has helped countless hurt riders with gauze, bandages, and antibiotic ointment.

A first aid kit isn’t necessary, but if you’re new to the sport, you'll get some bumps and bruises sooner rather than later. If you don’t want to carry first aid while riding, at least have something in your car in case the worst happens. If you carry a small first aid kit, prepare to be the hero, because you’re sure to find someone out on the trail who needs it.

 

What essential mountain biking gear did I miss? What can’t you ride without? Let us know in the comments!


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