This guide will help you get started with mountain biking.
I packed it with plenty of tips and know-how from my and other riders’ experience. It’s written in an easy-to-understand form, so it’s ideal for beginners.
We will dive into mountain biking styles, choosing and riding a mountain bike, apparel, accessories, and much more.
So, whether you just want a versatile bike, tackle your local trails, spend time in the fresh air, or have fun riding off-road, you are in the right place.
Let’s dive in!
What Is Mountain Biking?
Mountain biking involves riding a mountain bike in terrain, usually on trails, forests, dirt, or gravel roads.
Mountain bikes are known for their suspension fork (eventually also rear suspension), flat or high-rise handlebar, and wide and knobby tires.
Their geometry is more upright than on road bikes, allowing the rider to sit in a more upright position.
These features make mountain bikes one of the most versatile bike types. They allow you to ride through almost any terrain.
Mountain biking is popular because of its connection with nature, adrenaline, adventure, and the places it allows you to visit.
How to Get Started with Mountain Biking?
Here is a brief description of the basic steps to get started with mountain biking.
1. Get a Mountain Bike
You don’t have to buy a brand-new bike if you are just getting started with mountain biking.
I recommend borrowing it from a friend or renting it in a trail bike park before you pull the trigger and buy a new one.
This way, you avoid spending money on something you may not enjoy.
You can also save some money by buying a second-hand MTB, but you should ask a more experienced friend to help you double-check if the selected bike(s) is in good condition.
If you are serious about buying a mountain bike, read my fully dedicated article ‘How to choose a mountain bike?‘ to learn what to expect and look for.
In short, you should consider the following:
1. Bike & wheel size
2. Bike type (hardtail or full-suspension)
3. Type of mountain biking (cross-country, trail, enduro, downhill)
The article explains mountain bike types, bike frame materials, suspension types, wheel sizes, components, and more.
2. Buy Bike Accessories
Bike accessories are optional, but I highly recommend them. If I had to choose only one accessory, it would be a bicycle helmet.
Although its wear is not mandatory in every state or country, it can literally save your life.
According to this study, the number of head injuries is reduced by an average of 60% when wearing a bike helmet.
Remember, different MTB disciplines require different levels of protection. Check out my article on choosing a bike helmet for more info.
You should also consider buying other accessories depending on the terrain you will ride.
A great idea is a saddle bag with a spare tube, mini pump (or CO2 inflator), tire levers, and multitool. They will save you if you get a puncture.
You may also consider camelback (or bike bottles), protectors, a first aid kit, etc.
3. Clarify Your Goals and Expectations
By clarifying your goals and expectations, you will realize why you want to do mountain biking.
Knowing your motivation will help you in the long run. Sometimes, you may feel like you don’t want to cycle anymore.
But when you remind yourself why you started, you get the needed push to keep going.
You can bike to improve your fitness, push your limits, learn a proper handling technique, experience an adrenaline rush, make new friends… The list goes on.
Types of Mountain Biking
Mountain biking is diverse. There are multiple MTB disciplines based on the terrain and difficulty.
For each of these disciplines, there are specific mountain bikes.
The following table shows different suspension travel based on the mountain bike type.
|Type of Mountain Bike||Suspension Travel|
Cross-country (XC) is one of the most popular MTB disciplines. It usually takes place on singletracks and forest roads.
It involves technical sections (roots, rocks, mud, etc.) and climbing. This is also one of the reasons why XC mountain bikes are often lightweight and hardtail.
Unlike other MTB disciplines, cross-country is more focused on the speed at which you complete the course, and there are also many XC competitions.
Along with XC, trail mountain biking is popular among beginners, intermediate, and experienced riders.
This is because it includes riding trails of different difficulties (check the trail grading guide below) and is a lot of fun.
Trail bikes have longer suspension travel and a wider wheelbase. This puts your body closer to the ground, resulting in a lower center of gravity and better stability.
Classic trail bikes are full suspension, but nowadays, hardtail trail bikes are also popular thanks to their affordability and versatility.
Trail Grading Guide
Trail centers usually have multiple trails of different difficulties. The trail’s difficulty is usually marked by a color.
It ranges from green (the easiest) to blue, red, black, and double-black (the most difficult). Although this grading may differ slightly in different countries, it’s similar to the grading difficulty of ski resorts.
Bike parks also use orange, which requires a high level of bike handling.
Check out the following table for more info:
|Trail Grades||Difficulty||Suitable for|
Orange (bike parks)
All-Mountain/enduro combines most MTB disciplines, but it’s more challenging.
It involves larger jumps and steeper descents. So you can think of it as more demanding trail riding.
Enduro has no clear limits. It’s up to you how you leverage the possibilities of enduro mountain bikes, which allow you to ride (almost) anywhere.
Downhill mountain biking involves a downhill bike with long suspension travel (180-200mm) and a double-crown fork and shock, so it absorbs large bumps, jumps, etc.
It has geometry like trail bikes but is more extreme. It’s again because of the lower center of gravity and better overall stability.
Thanks to the downhill bike design, you can ride faster in descents than on enduro bikes.
Types of Mountain Bikes
I already wrote about the mountain bike types based on the terrain they are designed for. Let’s now quickly talk about other MTBs categorizations.
You will encounter hardtail and full-suspension bikes when shopping for a mountain bike.
From my experience, hardtails are more responsive thanks to the lower weight and lower energy loss (rigid rear triangle).
On the other hand, they are not as comfortable (and suitable) for rougher terrain. Also, they won’t allow you to ride as fast downhill in technical sections.
Take a look at the following table that summarizes the pros and cons of both suspension types.
|Hardtail||• Lower weight of the bike|
• Lack of rear suspension maintenance
• Lower price
• Lower energy loss when pedaling
• Better for climbing
|• Right riding technique for rough terrain needed
• Not as comfortable as full suspension bikes
• Doesn't handle rough terrain as well as full suspension bikes
|Full suspension||• Better comfort in rough terrain|
• More versatile (jumps, drops, rock gardens, roots...)
• Easier to ride in more difficult terrain
• Better for downhills
|• Higher price
• Higher overall weight of the bike
• More parts that can break
• Rear triangle maintenance
NOTE: There are also rigid mountain bikes, but they are rare and not widespread.
Mountain bikes also come with different wheel sizes. Nowadays, 27.5 and 29-inch MTBs are the most popular.
Mullet mountain bikes are also popular. They use a combination of a 29-inch front wheel and a 27.5-inch rear wheel. As a result, they provide the benefits of both wheel sizes (great stability, grip, agility, etc.).
There are also 26-inch mountain bikes. So, how do they differ? What are the differences in the riding experience?
The larger the wheels, the more comfortable and stable the bike, and the better it maintains speed, but the slower it accelerates and the less agile it is.
Larger wheels also provide better traction and are more suitable for tall riders.
When buying an MTB, you have to consider the riding you will do. It’s a good idea to try different wheel sizes side-by-side so you can compare the handling differences.
How to Ride a Mountain Bike?
This section includes general tips on braking, shifting, and handling. Every MTB discipline has its specifics, so I will recommend further resources where you can learn more.
How to Work with the Center of Gravity on a Mountain Bike?
Knowing how to work with your center of gravity (i.e., body and bike position) is one of the essential MTB skills. It allows you to ride safer and more confident but faster.
There are plenty of helpful videos that do better work than words illustrating how you should ride and what mistakes to avoid.
Check out the following one from Global Mountain Bike Network.
The following video is perfect if you want to improve your cornering technique.
How to Use Brakes on a Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes have rim or disc brakes. Rim brakes are more common on budget mountain bikes and are less and less common.
Disc brakes are more effective in the harsh conditions of mountain biking, so they are more popular.
The weight penalty doesn’t play such a big deal in MTB as in road cycling. When descending or riding technical terrain, you need effective brakes you can rely on.
There are mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes.
The hydraulic ones can better dose the braking power and are easier to use because you don’t have to apply as much force on the brake lever.
But due to their high effectiveness, you have to be careful when using them.
One of the most common mistakes of beginners is that they only use the rear brake. But you should use both brakes simultaneously.
Before you gain experience, either ride slowly or break well in advance to avoid skidding and losing control of your bike.
How to Shift Gears on a Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes use groupsets from different manufacturers. The most well-known are Shimano and SRAM.
|Mid range||SLX||GX Eagle||Mechanical|
|Pro||XTR Di2||X01 Eagle|
Modern mountain bikes usually have 1X drivetrains, so you only change the rear gears. However, there are still mountain bikes with 2X or even 3X drivetrains.
The 2X and 3X drivetrains are more complicated and heavier, and more things can go wrong, but you will have more gears to choose from.
But if you can go for a 1X drivetrain, it’s much simpler.
The easiest gear is when your chain is on the biggest sprocket on the cassette and the smallest chainring. The hardest gear is exactly the opposite (smallest sprocket and largest chainring).
Here are a few tips for shifting gears:
- Use your entire gear range depending on the terrain you ride. Many people use just a few gears, contributing to increased wear of given cassette sprockets.
- Avoid cross-chaining (applicable to 2X and 3X drivetrains) to improve drivetrain efficiency.
Ask More Experienced Riders to Ride with You
You can greatly benefit from riding with more experienced riders, especially in technical terrain like on trails.
You can watch how they ride and handle jumps, drops, cornering, etc.
This helps you if you are getting started on trails. My experience with mountain bikers is positive. They are always friendly and willing to help.
Look Where You Want to Go, not Where You Don’t Want to Go
Many people tend to look just a few feet in front of their wheel. Unfortunately, this is not the best strategy because you may not hit the best ride line.
When riding through the turns, berms, etc., look where you want to go. Otherwise, you may subconsciously end somewhere else.
This concept is also known as target fixation. Don’t fixate on a tree, or you (probably) hit it.
Additional Tips for Riding a Mountain Bike
Always consider your skill level and experience. Feel free to get off your bike and look around if you are unsure about the upcoming trail section.
Consult obstacles with more experienced riders. They will tell you how to ride them and provide you with guidance.
Don’t ride difficult sections alone. In case of a crash, you want to have somebody else who will help you and, eventually, calls for help.
Develop your skills. Whether you learn a bunny hop or how to corner better, having better technique is always useful (even for other cycling disciplines like road cycling).
And most importantly, have fun!
Mountain Bike Pedals and Shoes
Mountain bikers use clipless or flat pedals (platforms).
Clipless mountain bike shoes have recessed cleats that clip into the clipless mountain bike pedals.
They keep your feet in a fixed position, making your pedaling safer because your feet won’t slip off the pedals. They are common amount cross-country mountain bikers.
Flat pedals with flat-sole MTB shoes are better for technically more demanding terrain.
This is because they allow you to put your feet off the pedals quickly and regain balance. In some scenarios, you will need to reposition your feet on the pedals to tackle obstacles, corners, etc.
They will also force you to learn the correct riding technique (for example, bunny hopping).
So, again, consider the riding you will do and decide which option is better.
I recommend reading my guides on ‘How to choose bicycle pedals‘ and ‘How to choose cycling shoes‘ for more details.
Mountain Bike Apparel
Invest in cycling clothing to take your mountain biking to the next level. It is designed to be more breathable and take the sweat away from your body, contributing to better riding comfort.
For example, cycling shorts (bib shorts) have a chamois pad to make long rides more bearable. I recommend using them with a chamois cream to improve your riding comfort further.
Mountain bike gloves will ensure you always have a good grip and protect your palms in case of a fall.
What to Eat and Drink When Mountain Biking?
To avoid bonking (sudden loss of energy and exhaustion), you have to fuel your engine properly during your mountain biking adventures.
This topic is pretty complex, and there are nuances between people on what they should eat and drink to maximize their performance.
However, the basic principles are:
- The warmer it is, the more you should care about your hydration and drink more water. You can also pre-hydrate yourself (drink about 0.5l of water before your ride).
- The more intensive (or longer) your ride, the more calories you should consume.
I like to have a bottle of water, eventually with maltodextrin and glucose (in a 2:1 ratio) for some extra calories. During summer, I drink about one bottle every hour, so I try to refill when possible.
With food, it’s more complicated. My favorite ‘bike’ meal is these oatmeal balls. They are tasty and full of energy, and you can customize their ingredients as you want.
Many pros eat rice cakes because they also are full of carbohydrates. You can also eat bananas, dried fruit, toast with cheese, etc.
Then, there are cycling-specific products like gels, electrolyte and carbohydrate drinks, and many more.
You will find whatever suits you best once you ride more miles.
Mountain Biking FAQ
Mountain biking is one of the most diverse cycling disciplines. You can ride to gain fitness, technique, or an adrenaline rush. It’s entirely up to you and your motivation.
I am sure you will love the places it will take you to, the new experiences, and the people from the mountain biking community.
Hopefully, this article was helpful for you and provided you with actionable information to explore the mountain biking world.
Feel free to share in the comments below, what are your favorite tips, or whether you have any suggestions to improve this article.