Here's my ultimate MTB apparel guide setting out everything you should wear when mountain biking from head to toe.
While I’ve been into mountain biking for a while, I’m still short on proper mountain biking apparel.
In my defense, I’m not an extreme mountain biker, but still, I should probably get better outfitted.
My buddies have some amazing mountain biking apparel and gear so I know what to get when I decide to buy.
Like many outdoor pursuits, there’s no shortage of apparel and gear you can blow your dough on to enjoy the trails.
Please note this article is written by a recreational mountain biker. I’m not a pro. I’m not extreme. I’m just a guy who hits the trails one to three times weekly for fun and exercise.
Here’s my ideal list of what to wear when mountain biking.
This is a no-brainer. You’re crazy about mountain biking without a good helmet.
Some people get the full face helmet which isn’t a bad idea. My son has such a helmet and I suspect it’s protected his face many times to date. I’m glad he likes it and wears it. Here’s an example of a full-face helmet:
I merely have the Ambush Comp with ANGi helmet by Specialized. It’s a top-of-the-line helmet but doesn’t offer face protection. This helmet is very comfortable, lightweight and I hope highly protective.
I know after spending bucks on a good mountain bike you’ve already spent a lot of money but the helmet is not something you want to cheap out on. I recommend spending at least $100.
While I’m not 100% properly outfitted for mountain biking, I did invest in a decent pair of mountain biking shoes early on.
On my first ride using a buddy’s bike, I crunched my foot between pedal and stump. It hurt. I was lucky I didn’t break my foot or a toe. I learned firsthand how important a good pair of mountain biking shoes are.
Not only do mountain biking shoes protect your foot, a good pair should be waterproof so your feet also stay dry. Mine are almost entirely waterproof, which is great.
I have the Shimano GR9 shoe:
Like any gear, you can spend $500 or more on mountain biking shoes. Unless you’re pro, I doubt that’s necessary unless you just can’t resist getting the best of everything.
That said, shoes are important because you can easily damage your feet. Wear something with protective features. When your foot gets jammed between pedal and root or rock, it’s your foot that loses out, not the rock or pedal.
I’m not much a glove guy in most sports but I like them for mountain biking, especially if wet or cold. When riding fast, my fingers get really cold quickly making for an unpleasant ride.
I also like the protection a good pair of mountain biking globes provide from branches and lacerations generally.
I strongly recommend investing in a good pair of globes.
There are full-finger and fingerless glove options. In colder weather, you definitely want full-fingered gloves. In warmer weather, fingerless will do (or no gloves).
Shirt / Jersey
Okay, I bike in regular t-shirts and if cold outside, I add a snug Patagonia hoodie. None of this specifically for mountain biking.
I admit I’m not properly attired.
My cotton t-shirts soak up sweat like a loofah. It’s not ideal. I really should buy some wicking t-shirts designed for mountain biking (or any sweat-inducing sport).
However, my Patagonia hoodie is fantastic for mountain biking. It’s snug and warm.
Spine protection shirts
If you’re concerned about a spinal injury, you can buy MTB shirts with spine protection such as
I much prefer shorts over pants but I give up the protection pants provide.
Yes, there are shorts designed specifically for mountain biking. They are not tight like road bike shorts but also not baggy. Baggy isn’t good because it can get caught on branches which could be lethal.
Good shorts for mountain biking repel water, are durable (well made), dry quickly, breathe, outfitted with zipper pockets, and are comfortable.
Here’s an example of what mountain biking shorts look like (I don’t own these but it’s something I would get if they fit well):
You can get the bib style or regular shorts. Bib-style secures the shorts with over-the-shoulder straps.
If you need warmth but don’t want full-on pants, you can wear tights underneath the shorts. This provides for fluid movement and warmth.
The nice thing about mountain biking pants is you can get some with built-in armor. My buddy and his kids have this and it’s a great way to protect your legs. Because it’s built into the pant legs, it’s very comfortable… more so than exterior armor.
Another big plus with pants is it keeps you dry. While I wouldn’t wear water-resistant pants in the summer, if you ride in the rain, it’s a must-have piece of apparel. It needs to breathe, protect, and resist water. I have a cheap pair that’s waterproof only. I really need to upgrade.
My problem is I don’t like cycling in pants whatsoever. I find it hot and restrictive.
Here’s an example of pants that work well for MTB:
Sweatshirt / Jacket
You don’t have to buy a “mountain biking sweatshirt or jacket” but I recommend something that’s snug. You don’t want loose clothing when riding trails that could snag onto branches and end up yanking you off your bike.
I like my outerwear snug, but not restrictive. This is assuming it’s cool enough to warrant outerwear.
While I’m good with my Patagonia hoodie, it’s not water-resistant like the following:
I’m old school. I have a snug, small backpack in which I put a water bottle or two. It does not contain a bladder like the following example.
Whether you get a regular backpack or one with a bladder, the key is that the pack is narrow so nothing protrudes beyond the width of your back. It must also attach snug to your body. The last thing you want is anything snagging onto something pulling you off the bike.
Bringing water along in some fashion is a good idea. Biking up and down mountains is exhausting, thirsty work. I chug water when I go, especially in summer.
I also have a water bottle attached to my bike for extra.
Like your shirt, socks should wick moisture away. Getting wet is not uncommon when mountain biking, especially when ripping through creeks, mud, or heading out in rain.
Anything that helps keep feet dry is good when outdoors.
Your two main areas for armor are elbows and knees. The spine is definitely another consideration. Given that falling onto rocks, trees and the rough ground is not uncommon, protecting your limbs is a good idea.
Early in 2020, I was in the store to buy elbow and knee armor but they didn’t have what I wanted. Then COVID hit. Stores closed. Everyone and their dog bought bikes and gear. So I haven’t found decent armor yet.
I’m a slow and careful rider so it’s not imperative for me but I have fallen a few times so I’m looking forward to getting proper armor.
That said, I’ve worn and rode with good armor and know what I want.
It must be comfortable. I much prefer the neoprene material over velcro straps. Straps dig into the skin and are horrendously uncomfortable.
It should be snug so it doesn’t shift around but you don’t want it cutting off circulation.
Is it okay to mountain bike with a wristwatch? Is it possible it’ll get crushed?
Yes, it’s possible your wristwatch will get crushed unless you have one of the shock-proof watches, in which case your wrist will crack before the watch (I’m not sure that’s so great though).
I don’t have a shockproof watch. I wear my Apple smartwatch and yes, if I slam against a tree or rock, it’s toast. I’m willing to take that risk because I’m not an extreme, crazy rider and I like having the watch on me. At the end of the day, it’s a $600 risk. It’s not like I’m wearing a $500K Patek Philippe.
What are good watches for mountain biking?
If you’re into tech and want shock-proof, your best bet is the Garmin Fenix 6.
This is the ultimate outdoor adventure smartwatch. I have one, although I prefer my Apple Series 5. Nevertheless, if you’re more of an outdoor adventure nut than me and you want a watch to match, the Garmen Fenix 6 is the best (I own the Cassio, several Samsung, Nixon Mission, and many other smartwatches so I know what I’m talking about).
What’s the bare minimum in MTB apparel?
That’s easy. Helmet and protective shoes.
If you’re extreme, knee and elbow armor is a good idea. Broken arms and legs are serious business.
Beyond that, it’s merely a matter of comfort.