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What to Wear & How to Dress for Mountain Biking

Sure, you can wear anything you want when you’re riding your mountain bike - there are even riders who have made a name for themselves by wearing denim on the world cup downhill circuit - but being prepared with the proper kit will go a long way to keeping you safe, comfortable, and happy. Dressing for mountain biking will always depend on things like where you ride, weather, and temperature, however, there are a couple of guidelines below that will help you figure out what to wear mountain biking.

What to wear mountain biking?

Chamois, Liners & Underwear for Mountain Biking

Starting with a good base is the first way to ensure that you’re comfortable when you go to hit the trails. If there is one piece of mountain bike clothing that is essential to buy, it’s a good pair of chamois or liner shorts - everything else is a “nice to have,” but these guys are a necessity. Chamois are padded shorts that will immediately level-up your comfort in the saddle. Mountain bike chamois come in both shorts and bibs, whichever you choose is more based on preference. In addition, some riders like to prepare with the help of products like Chamois Butter. This anti-chaffing cream can help provide comfort on long rides.

Some riders prefer not to wear padded chamois, especially for shorter rides or when riding downhill or shuttling. If you fall into this category, we recommend non-cotton underwear with good wicking properties. Materials like merino wool are a go-to here for comfort, sweat-wicking abilities, and its natural odor-fighting properties.

What Shorts & Pants to Wear Mountain Biking?

Over the top of your chamois, you’re going to need some mountain bike shorts or pants to keep you protected from the elements, and from crashes. Mountain bike shorts offer a couple of distinct advantages over other athletic and casual shorts. They have strategic stretch and cuts, added durability to stand up to crashes, longer fits to work with knee pads, and added features like vented panels or waterproof fabrics.

When choosing mountain bike shorts, think about where and what type of rides you’ll be doing, then you can match that to the right fit and features. For example, you ride in a hot climate and don’t wear knee pads, you can look for a lighter weight short with a shorter inseam, and better venting. Meanwhile, if you ride with knee pads, looking for a longer inseam will help you minimize the gap between your pads.

Most mountain bikers ride in shorts the majority of the time, however, if you plan to ride a lot in colder weather, in the rain and mud, or you ride a lot of downhill, durable and sometimes padded mountain bike pants might be the right call. Mountain bike pants have a slimmer cut at the ankles so they don’t catch on your bike, but also enough room for knee pads underneath, and many offer burly protection for gnarly downhill riding. Some mountain bike pants for cold weather riding even offer some insulation, too.

Depending on where you live and ride, you might want to have a pair of waterproof bike shorts or pants on your radar. Featuring water resistant DWR coatings, these pants and shorts will shed mud and water, keeping you dry and warm when the weather gets bad. These bottoms are less breathable than other shorts and likely won’t perform as well in warmer temperatures.

Choosing Mountain Bike Jerseys, Jackets & Tops

When choosing the right mountain bike clothing, picking the right top is probably less important than your bottoms, but there are a couple of points to remember. First, mountain biking is a good workout, you’re going to get sweaty! Wicking merino wool and synthetic materials are the go-to for most mountain bike jerseys to help you regulate your temperature. Second, crashes happen, and clothing is protection. While a tanktop may keep you cool on the climb, it doesn’t offer a lot of protection from the ground if you do fall. Balance your type of riding with your clothing choices for the best results.

As for jackets, unless it’s really cold, riding will keep you warm, so resist the temptation to layer up too warm - be bold, start cold! However, there are rides where a jacket is definitely necessary. We recommend waterproof jackets that have nice breathability and pit-zips to help you stay protected while regulating your temperature. Mountain bike-specific jackets aren’t a necessity, but they have some nice touches like a longer tail to cover your backside while on the bike.

Should You Wear Mountain Bike Gloves?

Not all riders like to wear gloves, but we recommend them to all riders, especially beginners. Gloves not only give you a better grip on your handlebars and brake levers, but they will also help you reduce hand and arm fatigue, letting you ride for longer. Mountain bike gloves also help keep you protected in falls and keep your digits warm. Look for gloves that fit the shape of your hand well, with no bunching of extra material, so you can access your brake levers, shifter, and dropper post uninhibited, then match the warmth to your climate and where you ride.

What Shoes & Socks to Wear Mountain Biking?

Easy to overlook, mountain bike shoes are one of the most important parts of your riding kit. You have three points of contact with your bike - your handlebars, your saddle, and your pedals. The clothing associated with each are the most important piece of mountain bike clothing, shoes included! Proper mountain bike shoes give you a solid connection to your bike that you can trust.

If you ride with clipless pedals, the right pair of shoes is obviously essential, but shoes are also important for flat pedal riders. Mountain bike shoes for flat pedals have a stiff sole that helps you transfer power while pedaling and sticky rubber that works with the pins on your pedals to give you a secure connection. For socks, the recommendations from the rest of your kit remain - look for a good wicking material. We also recommend mountain bike socks that are a bit longer. Covering your ankle or even calf with socks can help protect yourself from pedal slips and the like.

Can you Wear Regular Shoes Mountain Biking?

Sure, you can wear any shoes mountain biking, but they won’t offer as good of grip or power transmission. If you’re not ready to drop in on a pair of dedicated flat pedal shoes, skate shoes are a better bet than shoes with lots of knobs and texture on the soles as the flat bottom will better mesh with your pedals.

Mountain Bike Helmets

This one goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway, the most important piece of protective gear to wear mountain biking is your helmet. Not all bike helmets are created equal - mountain bike helmets feature greater protection around the back of your head and ears, and often have safety features like MIPS for greater impact protection. We have a full guide on how to choose a mountain bike helmet where you can read more.

What Mountain Biking Pads & Protection to Wear?

Depending on what type of riding you’re doing and your risk tolerance, you might want to add some more protection than just a helmet to your mountain bike outfit. The most common type of pads for mountain bikers are knee pads. We recommend knee pads for beginner riders and for folks who are doing a lot of descending and enduro-style riding. Check out our guide to choosing mountain bike knee pads for more info. Additional types of pads you can look for are elbow pads, padded shorts, and chest/back protectors.

What Glasses or Goggles to Wear Mountain Biking?

Riders often think of protecting their head and other parts of their bodies, but it’s important to also think about your eyes when dressing for mountain biking, too. Glasses or goggles are an essential part of your mountain biking kit. Once again, the right solution will come based on your riding style and location. Riders who do a lot of downhill riding in the bike park often prefer bike goggles for their superior level of protection against wind, dust, and the elements. For regular trail riding, glasses will do the trick for most riders. Look for glasses that will stay in place when you get sweaty, that work with your helmet and that offer good coverage around the sides of the lenses to block wind that can cause your eyes to water. While there are mountain bike-specific glasses that can help pull out the contrast in shady woods, sometimes cheap alternatives like safety glasses can do the trick, though they scratch and fog far more easily.

Dressing for Different Seasons

What to Wear Mountain Biking in the Summer?

Mountain biking in the summer, or in warmer weather, means finding a good balance between staying cool and staying protected. For summer riding, look for cooler sweat-wicking jerseys and better ventilated shorts. You might also consider riding the climbs with you knee pads attached to your backpack or fanny pack instead of on your knees - this helps you stay cool on the climb, and still protected on the descents.

What to Wear Mountain Biking in the Winter & in Cold Weather?

Just because the temperature drops, doesn’t mean that you need to stop riding. Mountain biking in the winter can be just as fun as any other season when you’re properly prepared. Start with a moisture-wicking baselayer and a waterproof and windproof jacket. Since you’ll still be working up a sweat from riding, breathability is key, helping you stay dry and warm. Mountain bike pants are a great idea in the winter, too, keeping you warmer and more protected from water and mud. The trickiest part about staying warm for mountain biking in the cold is your hands, feet, and ears. Look for thicker gloves, warm wool socks, and maybe think about adding a buff under your helmet.

Dressing for Different Types of Riding

The type of mountain bike clothing and gear you need will also depend on the type of riding you are doing. To help you get an idea for what you might need, we’ve broken down gear for both ends of the mountain biking spectrum, XC riding, and downhill. Most riders find themselves somewhere in between. Choose your mountain bike outfit based on your personal preferences and needs.

What to Wear Crosscountry or XC Mountain Biking?

This type of riding is all about light and fast, a theme that carries over into clothing and gear. Most mountain bikers prefer form-fitting bike shorts, often in the form of bib shorts, like those worn by road bikers, and skin-tight jerseys. This means minimal wind resistance and maximum speed. Many cross country mountain bikers decide to not wear knee pads or any padding aside from their helmet, if they do, it’s often in the form of low profile sleeve-style pads.

What to Wear Downhill Mountain Biking?

When dressing for downhill mountain biking, protection is paramount. When downhill mountain biking, speeds are higher, and so are the consequences of falling. That's why downhill mountain bike gear is more burly and offers more coverage and protection. Downhill mountain bike pants are built to withstand abrasions from rocks and dirt, and are cut to allow you to wear knee and shin pads underneath. Up top, we recommend a long-sleeve jersey, sticking with the theme of covering up any exposed skin. As for your lid, we always recommend a full face downhill mountain bike helmet.

What to Wear Mountain Biking Checklist

  • Helmet
  • Chamois or padded liner shorts
  • Mountain bike shorts
  • Mountain bike jersey
  • Mountain bike gloves
  • Tall socks
  • Mountain bike shoes
  • Glasses or goggles
  • Mountain bike knee pads
  • Waterproof jacket (optional)
  • Backpack or fanny pack (optional)

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