Comfort, protection and to some extent personal style determine what to wear for mountain biking.
In general, trail riders and downhillers tend to opt for baggy kit consisting of loose fitting shorts with a pair of padded Lycra shorts underneath and a loose-fitting jersey, whereas more race-focussed cross-country riders will often go full Lycra.
Ultimately, the choice is totally up to you, and you should wear whatever you feel comfortable in!
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If you’re heading off for an all-mountain adventure up an Alp or in the Rockies, you’ll need to bring more serious kit because you’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for mountain weather conditions.
A helmet is an essential piece of kit for mountain bikers. The chances of slipping, crashing or bumping into a tree are much higher than for commuters or most road cyclists because they ride on uneven ground, so wearing head protection is crucial.
Helmets designed specifically for mountain biking generally have an integrated peak, which helps keep sun and rain out of the rider's eyes and helps deflect low-hanging branches. It also sits lower around the back and sides of the head to provide better coverage.
For bike parks, downhill riding and downhill and enduro racing, mountain bikers usually wear a full-face helmet, which offers all-round protection. Occasionally, full-face helmets are paired with a neck brace, which prevents the head being dangerously thrown back in the event of a big crash — which is more of an issue for riders doing big jumps and drops.
MIPS technology is increasingly common in MTB helmets, and is an additional layer, or slip-plane, inside the helmet that is designed to reduce the rotational forces on the brain, which can be experienced in certain impacts.
2. Glasses or goggles
Glasses or goggles are essential for protecting your eyes from sun glare and from debris being thrown up from the front wheel. Both come with different lens options, such as clear lenses, which are good for riding in dull or dark conditions, and tinted lenses for reducing glare or increasing contrast.
Trail riders wear glasses most of the time, but if the weather is particularly grim and muddy, goggles are a great option because they provide sealed weather protection with a wide range of vision.
Goggles are usually paired with full-face helmets, though many will fit with regular helmets (also called trail and shell helmets) — colloquially known as going ‘full enduro’.
Most downhillers will wear goggles rather than glasses because they are more secure and offer more protection on long technical descents.
Most MTB jerseys will have a loose cut and will come in T-shirt, ¾ length sleeve or long-sleeved options. Prices are generally lower than road cycling jerseys, and there’s a huge range of colours and designs out there.
Cross-country mountain bikers tend to wear a Lycra jersey, along the lines of a road cycling jersey, with rear pockets which are ideal for stowing spare tubes, tools and snacks.
4. Shorts, liner shorts and baggy shorts
Padded shorts are a good idea because mountain biking by its very nature takes place on rough terrain, and riders spend time repeatedly getting in and out of the saddle.
Road-cycling-style Lycra shorts or bib shorts with a chamois pad are ideal either on their own or as a baselayer with a pair of baggy MTB shorts over the top. You can also find padded shorts made of lightweight material or mesh which are designed to be used just as liners under baggy shorts.
The baggy shorts will usually be knee-length and constructed from either a stretchy material or a robust, tear-resistant fabric with stretch panels around the back to allow the shorts to move with the rider. They should also have room for kneepads to fit underneath.
5. Knee pads and other protection
Speaking of knee protection, most riders wear knee pads at a minimum if they’re riding any trail where there’s an above average chance of taking a spill.
There are more lightweight options than ever before that offer a degree of protection while still being able to pedal. For more technical riding, there are chunkier pads available.
For racing and technical riding, some mountain bikers will also use other body armour, such as elbow pads and back protectors.
Full-finger gloves are favoured by the vast majority of mountain bikers and provide protection in a few different ways. The coverage they provide helps protect the hands from crashes and undergrowth, and some gloves will come with padding on the palms to provide cushioning for the hands.
Gloves aimed at downhill or enduro riders often have additional protection on the back of the hands because the likelihood of crashing is much higher for this type of riding.
Full-finger gloves also provide welcome insulation and windproofing in the autumn, winter and spring when riding in cold or wet conditions.
Gloves can also help with grip because the palm will be designed to provide extra traction on the handlebars. Some gloves come with extra silicone gripper dots to make them even more tacky.
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As well as being a way of expressing your style, long socks can help protect the shins and calves from scratches and cuts from undergrowth or from the pedals themselves.
Waterproof socks are very popular with mountain bikers who ride in wet conditions because they help keep feet warm and relatively dry when shoes get wet.
There's also the option of putting waterproof shoe covers over the top of riding shoes, which adds even more wet weather protection.
When it comes to contact points — where the rider makes contact with the bike — the shoe/pedal point is one of the most important. Riders need to feel secure when riding over rough ground that their feet won't come away from the pedal, and also feel like they can pedal efficiently up tough, technical climbs.
There are two choices on offer. Lots of trail and cross-country riders will choose to ride clipped in, like road cyclists, with a mechanism that connects a cleat on the sole of the shoe to the pedal. Other riders opt to ride with 'flat' shoes and pedals, where the pedals have a rough textured surface and 'pins' that project outward to grip the shoes.
Clipless shoes look like road cycling shoes but will have a recessed cleat and a chunky tread to allow the rider to walk a little more normally.
Flat pedal shoes tend to look more like skate shoes or trainers, and will usually have a lace-up fastening. They also have a sole that combines a tread pattern that works with the pedal pins and is made from extra-grippy rubber for the same reason.
9. Waterproof jacket
As with every other type of cycling, mountain biking can be a year-round activity if you have the right kit (and if the ground isn’t completely covered with snow).
A good waterproof jacket is part of this and a waterproof jacket designed for mountain biking will tend to have a looser fit to accommodate layers and body armour underneath, and to allow greater freedom of movement.
There will usually be a couple of pockets too for stowing essentials and snacks, as well as vents for keeping the internal temperature down when exerting hard efforts, such as on climbs.
10. Hydration packs
Strictly speaking hydration packs are not an item of clothing, but most mountain bikers ride with one.
A hydration pack is a rucksack that's specifically designed to carry a water reservoir which includes a drinking hose or tube that sits at the rider's chest. This means riders can carry a lot more water — typically two or three litres — and can drink as they ride via the hose.
The bag is also useful for carrying the other essentials that mountain bikers take out with them, including essential repair tools and spares, an extra layer like a waterproof jacket, a first aid kit, and of course the all-important trail snacks!