What Gear Do I Need to Start Mountain Biking?

Sure, hiking and trail running are great exercise and they’re both great ways to get outside. But you want to go faster, feel more wind in your face, and perhaps find new and interesting ways to injure yourself. Well, lucky for you, there’s mountain biking — one of the purest, most exhilarating, and most badass ways to be outdoors. And in case you’re just getting started in MTB*, we’ve compiled a list of the essentials you need to get you from gutter bunny* to singletracker* .

Looking to get into other outdoor sports? Check out our other “What gear do I need to start…” posts.

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Let’s start with the bike since it’s the one piece of equipment you can’t mountain bike without (we’ve tried). Mountain bikes differ from your old 10-speed in a few important ways. First they are built with tougher tires, wheels, and frames to handle trails rather than pavement. Second, they usually incorporate some kind of suspension system (hardtail* or full-suspension*). And finally, mountain bikes usually have flatter handlebars which put you in a more upright position than on a road bike. A few things will largely determine the price of your bike. The suspension system we already mentioned. The material the frame is made of is also a big factor. In order of price, there’s the relatively inexpensive steel, aluminum, titanium, and the most expensive: carbon fiber. Generally you’re paying for less weight; the more you pay, the less it weighs. Then there are wheel sizes. 26” tires were the standard until 29” tires came around and provided a smoother ride with a bit more grip. Now the 27.5 (also called the 650B)seems to be a happy medium. 26’s are common on downhill bikes and 29’s are reputed to be the fastest, but 26’s seem to be the choice for those looking to have all-around trail fun.

There are also a few different breeds of mountain bikes. The “All Mountain/Trail” version is the most versatile and probably what you’re looking for is you’re just getting into the sport. There is also a cross country (XC) type built for climbing and pedal performance and a downhill type built for steep terrain, speed, and jumps. If you don’t know which one you need, the all mountain is likely the right answer.
Likely investment: Mountain bikes can get pretty pricey but you certainly don’t need to spend $3,000 on a new ride. For $500 or less you can find a decent, name-brand entry-level hardtail. We would recommend staying away from full suspension rides in this price range. If you’re looking to score a deal on a full suspension bike or perhaps on a 29er, used might be the way to go. Whether you buy new or used, you’re going to want to ride it (or at least stand over it in the shop before you buy. Most shops will let you take short test rides or you can often do a paid demo on the trail.
Skimp or Splurge?: This one is up to you. If you skimp and love the sport, it’s not going to kill you to upgrade. And if you hate it you’re not out a bunch of cash (hint: you’re not going to hate it). If you buy new though, be sure to get the terms of any warranty that comes with the bike and ask about any follow-up tune-ups that might come with your purchase. If you’re going used, look the bike over carefully for cracks, bent wheels, and frayed cables and make sure the suspension is smooth and doesn’t creak. If possible, see if you can have a bike shop look it over.

Now for the easy stuff. Helmets are super important and a good mountain bike helmet will be lightweight and highly-breathable. Often mountain bike helmets are more stylish and colorful (ooh, a visor!) than your road bike helmets, but there are plenty that are versatile enough to go mountain biking or road biking in.
Likely investment: $35 and up.
Skimp or Splurge?: Anything light and breathable will do but buy used at your own risk.

The shoes you wear while mountain biking will be determined by your pedals. Clipless pedals are the ones that your shoes clip into and then there are toe clips that will fit around any shoes and just the bare pedals that will work with any shoes as well. Sure, clipless pedals look cool and they make a nice click when you’re walking around but you’re going to want to practice getting in and (more importantly) out of them quickly. On especially technical terrain, you’re going to be stepping in and out of your pedals often so toe clips or flat pedals might be best for beginners. For clips or flat pedals, any closed-toed athletic shoe will work, preferrably one with a stiffer sole which rules out a lot of running shoes.
Likely investment: $50 and up if you decide to get MTB-specific shoes
Skimp or Splurge?: No need to get fancy shoes right out of the gate. If you decide to go clipless later, you can easily switch out the pedals.

Water bottles and hydration packs like a Camelback are both popular on the trail. Water bottles are cheap but they do have a knack for getting lost on the trail. Hydration packs can add some extra weight but also carry more water and more other gear.
Likely investment: Water bottles can cost $5; hydration packs $30 and up.
Skimp or Splurge?: Up to you but either way, riding without water is no fun.

Flats and repairs are probably more a part of mountain biking than road biking and you’re more likely to encounter problems when there isn’t help nearby. So a basic set of tools is a requirement and will include a pump, a spare tube, a patch kit, a tire lever, and a set of hex keys (or Allen wrenches). Any bike shop will have loads of multi-tools that incorporate all the hardware you’ll need.
Likely investment: $25 and up.
Skimp or Splurge?: No need to get fancy. Just make sure you have what you’ll need.

Padding is important. There are lots of biking shorts with the padding built into them or there are tights with padding that you can just wear shorts over.
Likely investment: $30 and up.
Skimp or Splurge?: Trust us–you’re going to want some padding for your butt.

Biking gloves are great for comfort and to prevent blisters. When you’re on the trail they also protect your hands when you fall.
Likely investment: $15 and up.
Skimp or Splurge?: It’s certainly not a requirement to have gloves but they’re not expensive.

What’s with those big fat tires?
You may have seen more “fat bikes” on the road in the past few years. The wide tires provide improved traction on dirt, snow, and sand while adding quite a bit of weight to the bike overall. Certainly not ideal for someone just starting out and whether they provide an overall better experience seems to depend on who you ask.

How many gears do I need?
People are really all over the board on this one. Mountain bikes are available with everything from a single speed to more than 30 gears and each setup has its own proponents. The main things to consider when deciding how many gears you’ll want are your fitness level and the terrain you’ll be riding. If you anticipate riding lots of hills, you may find extra gears helpful. If you’re sticking to flatter terrain, you can get by with fewer gears (and less resulting weight). If you don’t know what your terrain future holds, something in the 18 to 21 gear range will suffice. Either way, bike gearing is fairly easy to change after you buy a bike if you change your mind or your style.

Are tights mandatory?
Hell no.

What don’t I know already if I’m already a road biker?
Mountain bikers have adopted some rules of etiquette that beginners (and road bikers who are trying out MTB) will want to know. The rules are generally geared toward sharing the trail and letting outdoor enthusiasts of all types co-exist on the trails. For example, mountain bikers are expected to yield to hikers, runners, and horses and uphill traffic usually gets the right-of-way. Since mountain bikers are often moving faster than other traffic on the trail, it’s nice to anticipate users around blind corners and be exceedingly friendly and communicative to avoid surprising people.

MTB: an abbreviation for mountain biking.
Gutter bunny: a bicycling commuter.
Singletrack: a trail just wide enough for one bike, AKA the MTBer’s holy grail.
Hardtail: a mountain bike with suspension on the front wheel.
Full-suspension: a mountain bike that has suspension for both wheels.

Originally published at blog.gociety.com on April 19, 2016.

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