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Mountain biker on a wooded trail

What to wear mountain biking

Are you going mountain biking for the first time? Or maybe you’re ready to commit to your own bike and the gear that goes along with it? Here are some tips on how to dress and what to wear when you hit the trails.

Mountain bike helmet

A must. Your commuter helmet will be okay for gentle cross-country style trails, but the minute you pick up speed or tackle slightly rougher terrain, you’ll want a proper mountain bike helmet. They’re designed to cover more of the back of your head in case of wild spills, and have visors and lots of vents for summer rides.

Some mountain bike helmets come in full-face models for protection in bike parks or steep downhill trails. There are also helmets with removeable full-face options so you can ride with or without the part that goes over your chin. Others have mounts for a light or a GoPro to capture your flawless skinny ride (or the not-so-flawless version that landed you in a bog).

Biking jersey and shorts

In warm weather, go for a breathable, moisture-wicking short-sleeved t-shirt or biking jersey up top, and stretchy, durable bottoms. Many riders like padding in their shorts, and some mountain biking shorts come with low-profile chamois. You can also layer unpadded shorts over a pair of padded liner shorts. Leave your underwear behind if you’re in padded shorts – it can cause chafing. It’s also never a bad idea to toss a lightweight jacket in your backpack.

“Look for flat-locked seams – they keep important areas from getting the dreaded rub and chafe.” – Matthew L., MEC MTB Specialist

If it’s shoulder season or cooler weather, then you’ll need more layers than a simple jersey and shorts. Wear longer sleeves and a waterproof-breathable jacket that’s tough enough to handle branches and mud. Layering full-length bike tights under your bike shorts is also an option.

Mountain biking gloves

Compared to gloves for road or commuter biking, gloves designed for mountain biking are often beefed up with more durable fabric and full finger coverage. Full-fingered gloves keep you covered for whipping past branches and offer some protection for wipeouts. Some experienced riders prefer minimalist gloves without padding, since that can give better hand-to-bar contact. Most gloves also have silicone finger tips for braking and shifting.

“For winter riding, I like to bring an extra pair of gloves, shoe covers, a toque and extra layers just in case.” – Andres P., MEC MTB Specialist

Bike shoes

Unless you plan to ride clipless, you don’t necessarily need to invest in mountain bike shoes for your first rides. (Beginners: clipless pedals mean you “clip in” to your pedals with little cleats, so your shoes are attached to the pedals until you “clip out.” Yep, a little confusing.)

If you’re just starting out and are riding on flat pedals, you can wear shoes like sneakers or skateboard-style shoes. Most mountain bike flat pedals have small pins that create a grippy surface, so you want to make sure your soles don’t have huge lugs (otherwise the pins can’t bite into the soles). Shoes with some traction are also good in case you need to walk around a drop or hike your bike around a tricky section. Mountain bike-specific shoes for flat pedals have sticky rubber outsoles, and some are waterproof for wet days.

Many mountain bikers are big fans of riding clipless. Clipless-compatible shoes with stiffer soles can help max out the energy you get from pedalling. Make sure the shoes you choose are compatible with the type of pedals you have. (New to clipless? Practice clipping and unclipping in a quiet grassy area before you hit the trails.)

Pads and armour

Generally, the faster or steeper you’re riding, the more coverage you’ll want to have. Sharp rocks, stray branches and gravel don’t mix well with bare skin, so body armour can help keep you protected. Knee and elbow pads are a good idea for beginner riders. If hitting the bike park is part of your progression, then you can also gear up with a neck brace, and back and chest protection (often available for rent at bike parks).

Tip: For long, slow uphill climbs, you don’t need to wear pads on the sweaty way up. Stash them in your pack for the uphill, then pause to put them on before you descend.

Pack and essentials

A hydration pack is a good investment. It gives you hands-free access to water and the space to carry the essentials for your ride (see our mountain biking gear checklist for details).

“Be over-prepared on the trails – don’t forget your multi-tool, pump, spare tube, phone with the Trailforks app, snacks and plenty of water.” – Andres P., MEC MTB Specialist

When you’re buying a hydration pack, think about the length of rides you plan on doing and make sure the hydration reservoir/bladder is big enough to carry the water you’ll need.

Backpacks for biking are designed to fit closely so they won’t shift around as you descend or corner, and they usually have specific slots to hold tools. Hip packs for biking, which ride around your waist and don’t have shoulder straps, are another option. They can carry a surprising amount of stuff and leave your back open for maximum breathability.

On short rides not far from the trailhead, some mountain bikers are minimalist types. They’ll strap essential tools to their bike frame, bring a water bottle in a bottle cage, and carry an energy bar and keys in their pockets.