Choosing the best mountain bike for your needs is vital if you want to get maximum enjoyment out on the trails – but finding the right machine in a crowded market can be a minefield.
Fear not, because our ultimate guide to buying a mountain bike will run you through everything you need to know, from choosing the best machine for your budget, to matching a bike to your riding style.
We’ll also highlight the most important spec features you should look out for on a mountain bike and then point you to our full buyer’s guides of the best buys at each price point.
How to choose the best mountain bike in 2022
Choosing a new mountain bike to buy can be daunting. The sheer variety of mountain bike types, not to mention the bewildering array of technology and terminology, can be overwhelming.
Technology evolves year on year, new mountain bike standards emerge and old ones swiftly become outdated. An ever-growing dictionary of jargon means the mountain bike market can be a confusing place, even for seasoned riders.
Highly specialised bikes sit side-by-side with machines that claim to excel at everything. And they’re all spread over such a vast price range that it can be hard to know where to start.
Our objective with this guide is to set out all the factors you should consider when looking for a new ride, from wheel size and the amount of suspension travel, to bike category and how to choose the right size.
You can use the links below to skip to the relevant section – or read on for every last detail to help you find the perfect mountain bike.
- Hardtail or full-suspension?
- How much suspension travel do I need?
- What wheel size should I choose?
- Which frame material is best?
- How to choose a mountain bike by price
- Different types of mountain bike explained
- What size mountain bike do I need?
- What else do I need to get started?
What to consider when buying a mountain bike
What type of riding do you do?
It’s important to establish early on what sort of trails you intend to ride and on what terrain you want your bike to excel.
This will help you decide what category of bike you need, from short-travel, lightweight cross-country rigs to robust, chunky downhill race bikes.
We’ll cover each of these in detail later – you can skip ahead to our section on the different types of mountain bike – otherwise, let’s start at the very beginning.
Hardtail or full-suspension?
Humble hardtail or full-suspension mountain bike – which is best for you?
A hardtail mountain bike has a suspension fork at the front, while a full-suspension bike pairs a suspension fork with rear suspension.
There are certainly pros and cons to both. For a fixed budget, you’ll certainly get a better-specced hardtail for your money, although an entry-level full-suspension bike might still be more capable on rougher trails.
Again, it comes back to what kind of riding you enjoy. In a game of hardtail vs full-suspension, a hardtail tends to win for climbing, with a direct connection from crank to axle giving a more efficient response to pedalling, as well as being a little lighter.
Hardtails are easier to maintain too, needing less intensive servicing, as well as tending to be more budget-friendly.
Some people recommend the best hardtail mountain bikes for beginner riders, as they’ll teach you about the importance of line choice.
Affordable beginner bikes will often have quite conservative geometry and basic kit, while more specialised ‘hardcore hardtail’ options will have longer and slacker geometry, along with burlier parts to help them handle better at speed and in the rough.
Full-suspension mountain bikes really excel when things get rougher, so if you think you’ll be wanting to tackle more technical trails and features, then you might want to consider one.
You can read up on mountain bike rear-suspension systems before you buy to check out the different options and how they work.
However, the good news is that, these days, the vast majority of rear suspension designs work pretty well. Shortlisting bikes based on their linkage doesn’t make sense unless you’re after a specific ride characteristic.
How much suspension travel do I need?
It’s a frequently asked question: how much suspension travel do I need?
Less suspension travel usually means a lighter, faster bike uphill. More travel equals better downhill capability. If you’re new to the sport and want to try a bit of everything, then a mid-travel trail bike is the best all-rounder.
Generally speaking, the amount of suspension travel is a good indicator of what category a bike falls into.
60-110mm: Cross-country race bike
- Trail types: Fast-flowing, smooth
- Excels: Climbing and acceleration
Roughly speaking, with 60-110mm of travel, you’ll get a cross-country race bike, which excels at climbing and rapid acceleration on fast-flowing and smooth trails.
110-130mm: Cross-country/trail bike
- Trail types: Manmade loops and less rocky natural routes
- Excels: Covering distance fast
Moving up to 110-130mm of travel, you can cover distance fast on a cross-country, downcountry or short-travel trail bike, taking in both man-made loops and less technical natural trails.
130-160mm: Trail bike
- Trail types: More technical tracks with some bigger features
- Excels: Equally capable up and downhill
A trail bike with between 130-160mm travel will be able to take on more technical tracks, including some larger features, and will be equally capable up and downhill.
160-180mm: Enduro bike
- Trail types: Steep, gnarly off-piste; rocky tech; bike park tracks
- Excels: Rapid on the descents, but can still be pedalled back to the top
When you move up to the 160-180mm bracket with enduro bikes, you sacrifice some of the pedalling efficiency to be able to excel on steep, gnarly off-piste trails, rocky tech and bike park tracks.
180-200mm: Downhill race bike
- Trail types: The fastest, roughest descents known to man!
- Excels: Descending; there’s no way you’re pedalling one uphill.
Forget pedalling back up to the trailhead when it comes to downhill race bikes. With around 180-200mm of travel, these are designed purely for going downhill, taking in the fastest and roughest descents.
What wheel size should I choose?
For a long time, 26in mountain bike wheels were the standard, but with the exception of dirt-jump and slopestyle bikes, they’ve been phased out in favour of larger, faster-rolling hoops.
Any new adult bike will likely come with either 27.5in (also known as 650b) or 29in-diameter wheels. If our local trails are anything to go by, the market is now split roughly 50/50.
29er wheels have the advantages of carrying momentum better, rolling over obstacles more easily and providing more traction (due to the longer contact patch of their tyres).
The disadvantages are that the bigger wheels accelerate slower, take more effort to slow down and are harder to initiate a turn with. This isn’t a problem in most scenarios, but if you have quite a dynamic riding style or like to ride trails that are tight, twisting and steep, then 650b can be preferable.
Early 29ers had some handling quirks, but modern geometry means they now ride as well as smaller-wheeled bikes.
The extra height of 29in wheels is a factor to consider though, especially if you’re not very tall. Summed up in one line, we’d say 650b is fun, 29in is fast – which, of course, can also be fun…
Finally, mullet bikes use different sized wheels at either end of the bike, most commonly a 29in front wheel for speed and rolling over obstacles, and a 27.5in back wheel for sharp handling at the rear.
Which frame material is best?
You have four main options when it comes to frame material for bikes: aluminium, steel, titanium and carbon fibre.
Aluminium is the most commonly-used frame material for mountain bikes because it offers a good balance of strength, weight and cost.
Steel is a popular choice with smaller boutique brands, not only because it’s widely available and easy to work with, but also because the same strength can be achieved with thinner-walled and smaller-diameter tubes, resulting in a desirable amount of bump-absorbing ‘compliance’ (flex). This is particularly applicable to hardtails.
Titanium does the same with less of a weight penalty but expect to pay upwards of £1,000 for a Ti frame.
Carbon has long been one of the buzz words used to ‘upsell’ to bike buyers. To some extent, this is justified, because carbon fibre gives designers near-limitless control over frame shapes and ride characteristics, as well as the potential to build an incredibly light and strong chassis – important if choosing a featherweight XC race bike.
Cheaper carbon frames aren’t necessarily laid up with the same care and attention to detail, though. Also, be aware that at lower price points, brands will often spec cheaper build kits to prevent the complete bike looking too expensive compared to the next (aluminium) model down.
A better-specced aluminium bike will almost always ride better than a carbon frame decked out with cheap kit.
A quick word about geometry
The geometry of a mountain bike is largely dictated by what discipline it’s made for, whether that’s a fast and responsive cross-country bike, a slack downhill race rig for gnarly trails or anything in between.
For the sake of simplicity, we won’t go into the specifics of geometry here – it’s another complex area of mountain bike tech.
However, you can check out our ultimate guide to mountain bike geometry if you want to learn more.
How to choose a mountain bike by price
Complete bikes can be roughly divided into seven price brackets, from under £500 to more than £5,000, although it’s possible to spend a lot more.
Your budget will dictate what bikes are available to you, whether that’s hardtail or full-suspension, different frame materials, drivetrain options and braking systems.
Here’s what you can expect to find in each of these price brackets.
Mountain bikes under £500
Consider the £500 mark the rough starting point for a ‘proper’ mountain bike. At this sort of money, you should steer well, well clear of any full-suspension bikes.
Spend much less and you’re likely to find that compromises have been made with key components (fork, gearing, tyres, brakes) in order to keep the cost down, making for a fairly unpleasant ride on anything more than a gentle gravel track.
Whatever you do, look for a frame that’s made from lightweight aluminium rather than heavy steel. You should also look for a bike that comes fitted with disc brakes rather than rim brakes, because they’ll keep working in the wet and provide more consistent power.
As you spend more, you’ll get a bike with a lighter frame and more refined equipment.
At this price, you’ll often encounter double and triple chainsets, although it’s not uncommon to find 1x drivetrains – which offer reduced maintenance, complexity and, in many circumstances, improved performance over multi-chainring setups.
The tyres fitted should have a pronounced tread profile that’s designed for proper off-road use and should be made from a softer rubber compound than basic tyres, giving better grip in the wet.
A suspension fork with a smooth and controlled action should also be fitted. To test this, give the fork a good bounce and it should compress easily and return smoothly. If it makes nasty noises or returns rapidly – like a pogo stick – give it a wide berth.
Check out our guide to the best mountain bikes under £500 to browse your options at this budget level.
Mountain bikes under £750
It’s at this price that bikes start to become more specialised to suit different kinds of riding. We’ll cover the different kinds of bike later, but you’re guaranteed a hardtail that’ll be able to put up with almost anything you can throw at it.
The frame is likely to still be aluminium, but it’ll use more advanced construction and forming techniques to make it both lighter and more comfortable for big days in the saddle.
A suspension fork and hydraulic disc brakes are both musts, and a wide mountain bike handlebar and short (35-50mm) stem will significantly improve the bike’s handling.
The best mountain bikes under £750 / €850 /$975 will have a decent-quality suspension fork. This should ideally be air-sprung, which is lighter than using a coil spring and allows you to more easily adjust the fork to suit your weight.
The very best-equipped models at this price will also have a thru-axle fork and wheel rather than a quick-release or QR system. This uses a large-diameter axle, which creates a stiffer connection between the wheel and fork, massively improving steering accuracy.
You should also look out for a fork and frame that use a tapered head tube with a larger-diameter lower bearing and matching fork crown. These offer improved stiffness and mean you can choose from a wider selection of forks when you upgrade in the future.
A single chainring up front, paired with a wide-range cassette at the rear (known as a ‘1x’ drivetrain) will give you the same gearing as a double crankset, but will be simpler to use, lighter and less noisy.
Look out for a rear derailleur that’s equipped with a clutch, such as Shimano’s ShadowPlus or SRAM’s Type 2 designs. These help prevent the chain from falling off on rough terrain.
Many manufacturers will now start fitting tyres and wheels that can be used without an inner tube. These tubeless systems can reduce punctures and save weight. Look out for the words ‘tubeless ready’ or ‘tubeless compatible’ on the tyre sidewall.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, full-suspension bikes at this price are still likely to be badly compromised and we wouldn’t recommend them.
Mountain bikes under £1,000
This is the magic amount of money where full-suspension bikes with reasonably lightweight frames and well-controlled, adjustable shocks start to become available.
You’re still likely to pay a slight weight or equipment penalty over a comparably priced hardtail for the privilege, but they do offer extra speed, capability and comfort on rough descents.
At this sort of money, all bikes should have well-controlled and adjustable air-sprung forks, preferably with a stiffer thru-axle design instead of quick-release skewers and a tapered steerer.
You’re likely to see adjustable rebound damping to fine-tune how fast the shock extends after a bump and some forks will have a lockout lever that prevents the suspension moving for greater efficiency on smooth climbs.
The best mountain bikes under £1,000 may even feature a thru-axle at the rear wheel for improved stiffness.
We’d definitely expect to see a modern 10-speed drivetrain with a clutch-equipped derailleur, with higher-specification equipment that’ll be lighter, last longer and work well.
At this price point, it’s a good idea to look for options that use the Boost mountain bike axle standard, which will give you many more upgrade options if you decide to choose new lighter, stronger wheels later on.
Mountain bikes under £2,000
At this price, there are still some compromises on full-suspension bikes, but they’re starting to disappear.
You’ll also start to see some hardtail bikes that use lightweight carbon fibre for their frames, while aluminium-framed hardtail models will come with excellent components fitted as standard.
Short-travel cross-country bikes designed for long-distance riding will be light enough to ride all day, while longer-travel trail bikes will be able to tackle seriously rugged descents and get you back up to the top without any issues.
Suspension units will be of a higher quality, with much more damping adjustment on offer. We would definitely expect to see 1x mountain bike groupsets at this price point.
The best mountain bikes under £2,000 come with dropper posts that allow the saddle to be lowered without having to stop. These are great for riding technical terrain and a definite plus for most riders.
For the basics on getting the most out of all the bells and whistles of your suspension, be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to suspension setup.
We’ve also got a guide to adjusting the rebound and compression settings on your mountain bike.
Mountain bikes under £3,000
At this sort of money, you’ll likely see a split between a quality carbon frame fitted with slightly lower-end components, or an aluminium frame fitted with high-end gear.
The choice will be yours of whether you want to opt for a carbon frame with components that you upgrade as they wear, or an aluminium option with top-flight components as standard.
The best mountain bikes for under £3,000 will be very specific to their intended use – XC race rigs, enduro and DH bikes, e-MTBs – with a wide range of travel options and frame geometry, but full-suspension designs now become commonplace.
As price increases, you can expect considerably better-damped suspension, as well as more adjustability.
Hardtails should be equipped with top-end components including the latest 11-speed or 12-speed drivetrains from Shimano and SRAM, and 1x drivetrains are standard.
Dropper posts will be fitted to everything but the most dedicated cross-country bikes. Tyres are likely to come in specialist rubber compounds to suit their use and tubeless compatibility is a given.
Wheels get lighter and tougher, and rims are wider (on trail/enduro bikes) to support these higher-volume tyres.
Mountain bikes from £3,000 to £5,000
It’s around this point that the law of diminishing returns starts to set in, because you’ll need to spend a lot of money to lose much more weight, while performance increases are more likely to be limited by the rider’s ability than the bicycle itself.
You’ve got plenty of choice here – not just between an aluminium or carbon fibre frame, but steel (including boutique handmade options) and titanium too.
Components are likely to be high quality, lightweight and tough items from respected manufacturers, and brands often move away from in-house parts towards aftermarket options.
Suspension units will use extremely high-performing and adjustable dampers, often with special low-friction coatings.
Tyres will be highly adapted to the task at hand, with plenty of traction and speed. Wheels may start to use different construction methods and more exotic materials such as carbon fibre to provide low weight and strength.
As you go up in price, you’ll see more and more carbon – handlebars, cranksets, wheels and so on. While these add bling and can save weight, the difference in ride quality is often negligible.
Many of the best trail bikes fall into this price bracket.
Mountain bikes over £5,000
You’re entering the realm of the ‘superbike’ here. If you’re spending this much, you should have a good idea of what you’re looking for – but don’t buy without checking out our testers’ verdicts first!
What about women’s mountain bikes?
Few brands still make true women’s-specific bikes, with bespoke geometry and suspension tunes – Liv being the notable exception.
Most argue that women’s requirements from a bike are much the same as similarly-proportioned men’s, so their ‘women’s bikes’ are simply unisex models with a different saddle and paintjob.
Opting for a unisex bike opens up more choice, and you can adapt them by fitting a women’s saddle, trimming the bar down and bolting on thinner grips, but head to our guide to the best women’s mountain bikes for more buying advice.
What kind of mountain bike should I buy?
Different types of mountain bike explained
There’s a huge array of mountain bike categories, all designed to perform a certain task to perfection.
As we’ve already covered, the amount of suspension travel will partly dictate what category a bike falls in, but geometry and specification are also important.
Here’s a quick run-through of the different types of mountain bike, what they are, and the features to look out for.
What is a cross-country (XC) mountain bike?
Cross-country bikes (abbreviated to XC) are all about covering ground quickly, whether it’s in a race or just on a big day out in the mountains.
For racing use, hardtails are still preferred by many, but lightweight full-suspension designs are becoming more popular. They tend to have around 80 to 100mm of travel at either end, usually equipped with a lockout switch that helps prevent the suspension sapping pedalling energy on smoother sections of trail and longer climbs.
Cross-country bikes tend to use larger-diameter 29in wheels, combined with lightly treaded, low-volume and fast-rolling tyres for maximum speed. Check out our guide to the best cross-country bikes for more.
What is a trail mountain bike?
This is the most popular style of bike because it can be used for pretty much anything.
The best trail mountain bikes have more relaxed angles to give greater confidence when descending and kit that’s designed to deal with more punishment. They use shorter stems and wider handlebars to help improve control at speed, while tyres will have more aggressive tread.
Trail hardtails use strong frames matched to a fork of around 130 to 150mm travel, while full-suspension trail bikes will use between 130 and 150mm of travel at either end.
1x drivetrains are almost universal, offering a wide gear range with simpler maintenance and better performance. Trail bikes either use 29in or 650b wheels.
What is a downcountry bike?
The new category on the block, downcountry, fits somewhere between XC and trail, blending the best of both worlds.
Fast, efficient climbing meets great descending capability, with bikes that are based on lightweight XC frames but with trail-friendly geometry and more aggressive tyres than you’d typically find on cross-country race rigs.
It’s not surprising to see why these are booming in popularity once you’ve thrown a leg over; check out all the latest models in our guide to the best downcountry mountain bikes.
What is an enduro mountain bike?
Enduro is a racing format in which the descents are timed, but you still have to pedal yourself around the course between them. That means that these bikes are designed to perform exceptionally well down steep and difficult trails, but are still light and efficient enough to pedal back to the top.
Enduro bikes tend to have more travel than ‘normal’ trail bikes, and are almost exclusively full-suspension. Most use around 160 to 180mm of travel at either end, paired with tough wheels and reinforced tyres.
The suspension units they use are usually still air-sprung, but tend to be heavier-duty with a wide range of damping adjustments to tune their downhill performance, although there’s a growing trend towards builds featuring coil shocks for their lower maintenance and riding consistency.
Check out our guide to the best enduro mountain bikes for more information and some recommendations.
What is a downhill mountain bike?
As the name suggests, these bikes are about doing one thing; going down steep and technical tracks very, very quickly.
Downhill mountain bikes have 180-200mm of travel at either end, often using coil-sprung suspension that’s optimised for pure traction and support.
To put up with the huge forces the bikes are put under, the forks have legs that extend above the head tube and are then braced together, known as a ‘double-crown’ or ‘triple-clamp’ fork.
What is an electric mountain bike?
Electric mountain bikes are becoming very popular indeed, with models corresponding to all disciplines from XC to downhill.
Ebikes incorporate a motor and battery, which provide a boost to your pedalling input. The level of assistance is usually adjusted via a control unit on the bike’s handlebar.
These bikes are significantly heavier than their non-motorised equivalents, but can make light work of climbing up the steepest of gradients.
Don’t go thinking that riding an ebike is a piece of cake though, these can deliver a workout that many pros use to train with. Electric mountain bikes do allow you to spend more time descending though, after powering up all those climbs.
What size mountain bike do I need?
Getting a bike that fits you properly is extremely important. Not only will it ensure you’re more comfortable on the bike, but you’ll also be able to ride the bike to your maximum potential.
Our guide to mountain bike sizing is a good starting point – but remember, geometry and sizing aren’t consistent between brands, so always make sure to check the measurements. Don’t be tempted to compromise on fit.
If it isn’t quite right for you – the top tube’s a little short or you can’t get the seat low enough, for example – it’ll affect your fun far more than a fancy paintjob and a posh suspension fork. Riding the correct-size bike will also help you position your body on technical terrain.
If this is your first new bike in a while, it might surprise you how much longer they’ve got in recent years. This isn’t because we’ve all suddenly got taller, but because designers have figured out that stretched-out bikes with slacker head angles handle better at speed.
Any initial awkwardness you may feel when trying to manoeuvre a bigger bike around will soon disappear (assuming it’s the right size for you) and you’ll wonder how you ever managed on that cramped little ‘kids’ bike’ you had before.
Traditionally, bikes were sized by seat-tube length. This is still an important factor, because you need to make sure you can get the saddle to an efficient height for pedalling, as well as drop it out of the way for descending.
However, the advent of long-travel dropper seatposts has permitted bike designers to reduce seat-tube lengths. As well as giving more freedom of movement, this allows riders to ‘upsize’ to a larger frame if they want more length, or vice versa.
Perhaps the most important metric when it comes to how big a bike will feel to ride is its ‘reach’ – the horizontal distance from the centre of the bottom bracket to the centre of the top of the head tube. This measurement gives a good indication of how stretched out you’ll feel when standing on the pedals.
From surveying our team of MBUK and BikeRadar testers, we found the interesting correlation that our ideal reach in millimetres was consistently between 2.6 and 2.7 times our height in centimetres. This calculation should give you a good starting point.
It’s often best to head down to your local bike shop to try the bike you’re looking at in person. If possible, try to arrange a test ride so you can see how the bike feels on the trail. Many brands have demo days, where they bring their entire range along for potential customers to try.
As a general rule, if you’re after a high-end bike, many shops will be happy to tweak certain components such as the saddle, tyres or grips to the ones you prefer if it means they can seal a deal.
With online or direct sales bike shops, you don’t get the option to try before you buy, but most have a robust returns policy if you decide you’re not happy with the fit of your new machine.
More and more brands are cutting out bike shops and distributors and selling directly to their customers, via the internet. As a buyer, there are both advantages and disadvantages to buying online vs buying from a bike shop.
- You’ll get more for your money. By cutting out the middlemen, brands such as YT Industries, Canyon, Commencal, Radon and Vitus can turn out top-performing bikes with impressive build kits at extremely competitive prices
- Buying a new bike is quick, easy and can be done from the comfort of your sofa, assuming it’s in stock
- There’s less chance to try before you buy. While some direct-sale brands hold occasional demo days, it’s not as convenient as dropping into your local shop and sitting on a range of different bikes. Don’t underestimate the value of this, especially if you’re unsure exactly what it is you want
- Lead times can be long. You’ll likely have to order your bike well ahead of time and it’s not uncommon for delivery dates to get pushed back
- After-sales support may not be as good. Bikes bought through your local shop will often come with the perk of a free service and, potentially, a loyalty discount on parts. Building up a good rapport with the mechanic can save a lot of stress if you need something fixing last-minute.
- Bike shops can be valuable community hubs and great places to seek advice and meet like-minded people. Use them or lose them!
What else do I need to get started?
So you’ve made your decision on your new bike, but if you’re new to mountain biking, what else do you need to be trail-ready?
The most important thing you’ll need is a good-quality mountain bike helmet. An open-face trail helmet will be ideal for most novice riders, while full-face helmets are reserved for gnarlier riding and airtime.
The best enduro helmets, meanwhile, are designed to be convertible, so you can switch between a full-face lid and a lightweight trail helmet.
You’ll also need to consider what will be the best mountain bike pedals for you.
Because ‘clipless versus flat pedals’ is such a personal thing, complete bikes usually come with cheap, throwaway plastic pedals.
Most beginners start off with flat pedals, which will allow you to dab a foot down more easily and learn key skills more effectively, but some riders find SPD-style pedals offer greater security and efficiency on the bike, particularly for XC riding.
Whichever pedal system you decide on, make sure you’re using the corresponding mountain bike shoes to go with them.
Quality tyres that match your riding intentions are one of the best upgrades you can make to your mountain bike.
Companies will often throw hard-compound, low-profile tyres on a bike, especially at the more affordable end of the spectrum.
These generally suck at gripping the dirt, especially in muddy conditions, so upgrading your tyres to something more suitable for your local trail conditions is well worth thinking about.
Our guide to the best mountain bike tyres includes our top-rated picks for all types of riding.
Converting to tubeless tyres can also mean more riding time, and less time spent dealing with punctures.
Not only will it reduce the risk of punctures, but it can reduce rotational weight (where it matters most) and let you run lower tyre pressures on your mountain bike for more grip.
You’ll need tubeless-compatible rims and tyres, but most new bikes now come with these. Then it’s just a case of adding rim strips (in most cases), screwing in a tubeless valve, pouring in some tubeless sealant and pumping the tyre up to a high enough pressure to ‘seat’ it on the rim, creating an airtight seal.