Protective Gear Must Haves for Mountain Biking

Mountain biking is both a competitive sport with many dangers to be aware of, as well as an incredible pastime for many that can also be dangerous. It doesn’t matter how good of a rider you think you are, even the professionals crash, which is why it is important to have some good body protection for MTB. With this in mind, what are the mountain biking protective gear must haves ?

Protective gear for mountain biking should include a strong and sturdy helmet and a pair of knee pads and gloves as mainstay essentials. Additional protective gear to consider includes a backpack, an air vest, eye protection goggles or glasses, and quality shin guards to protect your shins. 

In this guide, we are going to take a deep dive into MTB protective gear.  Everybody is well aware of the essentials that come with the sport; helmets, knee pads, and gloves, but there are additional protective gear items that will make your ride much more safe. In addition to covering all the protective gear you need, we will also explore some frequently asked questions pertaining to protective gear for other sports and if it works for MTB. 

What Do You Need For Mountain Biking?

There are several things you need in order to ensure you are fully protected when mountain biking. 

A helmet is arguably the most important safety accessory you can acquire before you hit the trail. Mountain bike helmets offer greater coverage over the occipital and temporal regions than a traditional road bike helmet, and in the case of downhill mountain biking, a full face helmet provides extra protection for the face, chin and mouth.

Full face convertible helmets are a growing trend with trail and enduro riders that allows the removal of the chin guard for climbing or less challenging trails. Therefore, it is best to get a helmet fitted with MIPS technology for increased safety. Mountain bike helmets are often designed to provide better ventilation at lower average speeds, which mean fewer but larger vents.

Mountain bike shoes are designed to be rugged, hard wearing and stiff to improve power transfer. Mountain bike riding can be done with flat pedals or clip in pedals, the choice is up to the rider. Mountain bike pedals differ to road cycling pedals in that they can be clipped into on both sides, are designed to shed mud and offer a smaller cleat for easier walking.

Most cross-country riders will opt for lightweight clip-less (aka SPD) pedals. This allows the rider to more effectively use the pedal stroke to put down the power and use the pulling motion to tackle steep climbs and tricky trail features. Trail riders and downhillers will use a similar mechanism except with the addition of a cage around the pedal, providing a better platform and making the pedal easy to find again after getting a foot out.

MTB protective gears
Image credit: Deposit Photos

Mountain bike clothing adds more comfort to your riding. There is more to MTB clothing than the casual look reveals: it’s breathable, flexible so you can move around the bike, often reinforced, and made of a tougher material to prevent ripping should you come off.

When considering mountain bike shorts during the warm months, look for something with at least one zip pocket, a sturdy fastening system and of a decent length so as not to ride up when pedaling. Many shorts will come with a removable chamois inner short, allowing you to choose whether to have the extra padding. Alternatively, it is popular to wear normal road cycling knicks or bib shorts underneath the baggy mountain bike shorts.

For shirts, look for something that’s breathable, has space for additional padding (should you choose to wear it) and is suited to the climate that you intend on riding in. Many mountain bike jerseys look like T-shirts, but are longer in length, feature cleverly placed seams and are made from wicking fabric.

Additionally, it is wise to pad up with some protective body armor. A pair of flexible knee pads is always a good place to start, from there you can look at combined knee and shin protection, elbow pads and even back protection if you choose. Mountain bike knee and elbow pads will come in a variety of sizes, make sure they are snug but flexible so you can pedal and ride comfortably. 

Many brands will simply be elasticized, otherwise, velcro straps or even BOA wires will help you secure them comfortably. Elbow pads are designed in a similar fashion. Pads with hard plastic exteriors are designed to slide on impact and are great for adrenaline-based mountain biking. While softer pads are better for general trail riding, and allow easier pedaling and better ventilation.

These are the main types of protective gear to keep in mind for MTB.

What Is The Best Helmet For Mountain Biking?

When it comes to MTB, not all helmets are created equal. It is always a good decision to get the best of the best, and the Bell Super DH MIPS Adult Mountain Bike Helmet is certainly a top tier helmet to consider. 

This model of helmet features:

  • FUSION IN-MOLDING POLYCARBONATE SHELL AND PROGRESSIVE LAYERING – A process pioneered by Bell bonds the helmet’s outer shell to the EPS foam liner to create a sturdier helmet. The process of engineering a helmet liner with variable EPS foam densities to better manage the transfer of energies after some impacts.
  • FLEX SPHERICAL+MIPS AND WRAPAROUND CHIN BAR – Flex Spherical enhances our ability to address high-speed impacts, low-speed impacts, as well as rotational impacts. Think of it as comprehensive protection, with the added bonus of being able to design better helmet ventilation. A removable protective chin bar, designed for trail riding adaptability. No tools required. Warning: all chin bars have limits, and serious injury or death can occur. Read the owners manual carefully before using your helmet
  • X-STATIC AND XT2 PADDING, SWEAT GUIDE AND FLOAT FIT DH W/ FIDLOCK BUCKLE – Quick-drying materials, woven with real silver fibers. Sweat Guide pad design pulls moisture away from the brow pad and away from eyewear. A comfortable and secure fit system featuring an easy-to-turn rubber overmolded dial for adjustments.
  • OVERBROW VENTILATION, GOGGLEGUIDE ADJUSTABLE VISOR SYSTEM, AND INTEGRATED BREAKAWAY CAMERA MOUNT – Overbrow Ventilation features intake ports on the brow of the helmet to usher in cool air and push it through the air-channel matrix for full-head ventilation. Adaptable visor system accommodates both goggles and glasses and works with or without the visor attached. Seamless camera mount, requiring no zip ties or tape, is engineered to break away upon impact to reduce the risk of injury.
  • COMPREHENSIVE SPECIFICATIONS – Small (52-56 cm), Medium (55-59 cm), and Large (58-62 cm) Sizes. Important: always take a head measurement. Head sizes and shapes can vary, even within an age range. Using a helmet that does not fit can be dangerous; 19 Vents, 2 Brow ports, and 4 Chin Bar vents.

Can I Use A Road Helmet Mountain Biking?

There is a big difference in what a mountain biker and road biker look for in a helmet. This is mostly down to how they ride and more importantly how they crash. A road cyclist will spend significant money and time on ensuring their gear is as lightweight and aerodynamic as possible. This is done so the cyclist exerts as little energy as possible. As at high speeds, a tiny bit more resistance means a lot more effort required from the cyclist. 

Effectively, the helmet is made as minimalist as possible while still meeting safety requirements. A mountain biker prioritizes safety, and mountain bikers rely a lot less on the aerodynamics of the set-up, and more on the skill and lines that the rider chooses for speed. As the riding becomes faster and more difficult, mountain bike helmets have to increase in protection.

Speaking from experience in this matter, mountain biking involves a bit of crashing, particularly when you are starting out on the technical terrain and don’t quite have enough speed to make it over a few of those rock gardens. Companies design helmets to exceed safety requirements, and there have been improvements in anti-rotational systems, with greater protection around the head for the just-in-case scenario.

In short, get a mountain biking helmet. 

Full Face Helmet For Mountain Biking

There was a time when only the most serious downhill racers wore full-face mountain bike helmets. Those helmets were bulky, hot, and heavy. No mountain bike rider who had to pedal to the top of climbs would have even considered wearing one. 

However, mountain bike technology has improved, and today’s trail and enduro focused mountain bikes are just as capable as the pro downhill bikes from the not so distant past. As mountain bikes have improved, so have mountain bike trails. Now, features once reserved for bike parks can be found on many local trails. 

Now that many of us face these more challenging and higher risk features, on incredibly capable bikes, on a daily basis, it only makes sense that more protection is in order. 

Fortunately, helmet manufacturers have taken note, and mountain bike helmet technology has improved just as much as mountain bike technology. Helmets today are lighter and safer than ever. Better still, a number of manufacturers now make full face helmets aimed specifically at riders who frequently tackle dangerous descents, but have to earn those turns via long, grueling climbs. 

These helmets are much lighter than their solely downhill focused counterparts. They also tend to have much better ventilation, generally accessed via large vent cutouts in the chin bar. These trail and enduro focused full face mountain bike helmets strike a great balance between light weight, high ventilation, and great protection.

Face Mask For Mountain Biking

Wearing a face mask when mountain biking is normally a good idea during the winter months. This can help to shield some of the cold air off your face and keep your face from turning numb. 

Additionally, in the age of Covid-19, wearing a face mask when mountain biking can also be a good idea for those concerned about coronavirus, however, due to the fast speeds when riding your bike, you would only need a face covering if interacting with others when not biking. 

Equipment Needed For Mountain Biking

Let’s take a look at what equipment is needed for mountain biking. 

Body Armor For Mountain Biking

Fortunately, upper body armor has become lighter and less restrictive compared to the bulky suits of years gone by.

Many now employ protective materials such as D3O or Koroyd and have high stretch or breathable fabrics to create comfortable and secure fits. This makes it easier to wear more of the time, which consequently means you are better protected on more of your rides.

Also, it’s important to consider what type of riding you do when choosing upper body protection for mountain biking (or, in fact, any type of protection). The more extreme your type of riding, the more protection you will need.

If you’re taking to relatively easy trails and spend more time pedaling than heading downhill, lightweight protection might be suitable for you. If you’re racing in downhill events, riding black trails or sending some big jumps, you should invest in a jacket or suit that will protect more of your body.

Finally, you should always wear a helmet when mountain biking,

Do You Need Knee Pads For Mountain Biking?

Knees are a super vulnerable part of the body and are likely to take a bit of a hammering in a fall. They are one of the first points of contact for your lower part of the body more often than not. Hence keeping the knees covered is pretty necessary for mountain biking. You hear a lot of stories of people coming off and saying they were so lucky they had knee pads. They aren’t wrong. 

A smashed knee cap or knee surgery isn’t fun, and wearing knee pads is the far easier option. 

Additionally, some knee pads have extra padding that offers a bit of shin protection and protection on the sides of the knees. While often it isn’t full-on D30 protection in these areas (sometimes it is, though), it does stop the scrapes and bruises. This allows you to come away from many crashes pretty much scotch-free. 

The best knee and elbow pads for mountain biking should offer a breathable, lightweight, comfortable knee pad design. The main downside to having typical knee pads is that you generally lose a bit of protection as you find more pedal-friendly pads. 

I tend to wear my knee pads around my shins until I need them. This works as I have top and bottom straps which hold the knee pad in place while I pedal to the park and up hills. 

Otherwise, I store them on my mountain bike handlebars. I’ll only do this if there aren’t any downhill trails on the way, as having the bulky knee pads on the handlebars isn’t the most agile of riding.  

Best Elbow Pads For Mountain Biking

Mountain bike elbow pads are designed to protect your body and minimize injury in case you accidentally fall. Think about all the times you had to step off your bike to treat a wound. This must have been extremely inconvenient whether you are riding alone or with a group. Not only will you be able to ride safely, but you can also get on your bike faster in case you hit the ground thanks to the best elbow protection. 

Elbow pads are crucial regardless of your mountain biking experience. A lot of people think that just because they are experts, they can get away with not wearing the right protection. But this is not true. Even if you are a keen mountain biker, you will never be able to control the conditions on the trail. All you can do is to be properly equipped for your adventure. 

Shin Guards For Mountain Biking

Your knees and shins are essential body parts when it comes to riding a mountain bike. Tree strikes, flat-pedal hits, crashes, and endos happen all the time. And when they do, you want to have adequate forearm, knee, and shin protection.

Forearms and wrists are also pretty vulnerable, which is why you need forearm guards. Additionally, you need to helmet up properly before hitting the trails or bike parks.

Shin pads cover both your knees and shins, which makes them more protective than regular knee pads. However, most of them tend to be uncomfortable and don’t fit shins and calves very well. But general discomfort is better than injuries.

Neck Brace For Mountain Biking

There are many different designs of neck braces currently on the market, most of them all work under the same concept; limiting head movement in order to prevent neck injury. A neck brace is essentially just a collar that sits on the shoulders, surrounds the neck and acts as a ‘bump stop’ during extreme maneuvers or crashes that would cause the head and neck to travel past the point of their normal range of motion. 

Some manufacturers design break-away points that give way during the hardest of impacts, and are said to improve the overall safety of the brace. The human head is quite a heavy object to be held up by our relatively small neck, so neck injuries are all too common in many of today’s sports, including mountain biking. 

Many riders have sustained neck injuries from just landing too hard and never really crashing. Personal watercraft, such as jet skis and wave runners are notorious for whipping the head around while riding at high speed in choppy water. Most neck braces still allow enough range of motion in the head and neck in order to still feel unimpeded and able to ride effectively without being hampered. 

The two struts that lay flat against the chest and back not only keep the brace in place but have the added benefit of an extra layer of impact protection to the collar bones and spine. 

Do You Need Gloves For Mountain Biking?

The two main reasons mountain bikers wear gloves are to help protect the hands in the event of a crash, and to maintain a good connection to the handlebar grips regardless of weather conditions, or other moisture such as sweat. When we’re out on the trail, you should expect to have a few key contact points with the bike.

The grips which we’re holding onto are usually going to be made of some sort of rubber, with a grippy pattern, some much more effective than others. But beyond the grips themselves, there are always going to be other factors in mountain biking which determine how much actual grip we have. 

And sometimes of course, crashes are going to happen regardless – and pretty often we’re going to throw our hands out in front of us when we hit the dirt, so gloves can come in handy here too, helping prevent too much damage to our fingers and palms as we hit the ground. A less common feature of mountain biking gloves is the addition of armoring.

This can take many forms, but most often you’ll see some rubber strips or ridges along the tops of the fingers or knuckles. When deciding what are the best gloves for mountain biking, you have to realize that this can vary widely between almost stylistic design, and more rugged bumpers which look like they could actually provide some reasonable protection from whacking your hand into a rock.

These types of rubber ridges and bumpers are designed to help give you some amount of buffering between your fingers or knuckles, and a hard impact surface – for example the side of your hand hitting a tree as you ride past it too close.

Most riders however do still wear gloves with little or no armor on them, and generally I’ve found this has been perfectly fine in my own experience. As with all mountain biking protective gear it’s usually going to come back to an individual’s assessment of risk vs reward for them.

I’m okay with a few cuts and bruises over a season of awesome fun on the mountain bike, and my helmet, eyewear, knee pads and gloves do a decent job keeping me in one piece – and I think most riders have a similar outlook when considering protective gear must haves for MTB.