How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike

How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike

Here are two truths: mountain biking is great fun, and buying a mountain bike can be an intimidating prospect. There are so many choices, and some considerations seem more like inside jokes than real words (fat tires, chain slap, dropper post?). We’re going to make the process easier for you. Use this guide to ask the right questions, find the right answers, and get on the bike that is meant for you. Then get ready to enjoy the ride. 

Key Questions

Before starting your search, you should determine the type of rider you are and what kind of riding you want to do. Ask yourself four questions.  

What kind of riding do I want to do?

Do you want long mellow rides on smooth singletrack? Climbs and descents? Descents only? Get the bike that matches the kind of riding you’ll be doing most of the time.

Where will I ride?

Now be honest about how the riding you want to do matches the terrain where you’ll do most of your riding. If you have mellow trails in your area, getting a full-suspension bike will probably mean boring rides and unnecessarily difficult climbs. Get the bike that fits the terrain around you. You can always rent a bike for special trips elsewhere. 

Is this bike comfortable?

While there are trends and suggestions to consider, your best bet is to get a bike you are comfortable on—not the one your friend or some forum recommends. While the trend is toward bigger wheels and tires, maybe you are more comfortable on a 27.5 than a 29er. Get what feels comfortable. 

Will I still be able to afford the rest of the stuff I need?

Don’t blow your entire budget on a bike. You'll still need a helmet, shoes, eye protection, repair gear, a hydration pack, and some biking clothing, including shorts or tights with a chamois. 


The first thing you should consider is what kind of suspension to get. While it can be tempting to get the most advanced technology on the market, more is not always more. If you get “too much” bike, you may find yourself bored on your local downhills as the suspension smooths every bump, and exhausted on the uphills as you pedal that complicated suspension up the hill with you. To find the right bike, you’ll pick from one of three main suspension styles.


On a rigid bike, the frame connects directly to the wheels and tires without any softening suspension. These are best for the mellowest trails and will likely make you a bit uncomfortable should you want to use your bike to go off even small jumps and bumps. These bikes are mechanically simple and usually relatively affordable. Still, a rigid suspension is probably not the best choice for most riders unless you get a “fat-tire” bike, which offers some cushion thanks to their big, thick, low-pressure tires. 


A hardtail bike has a rigid connection between the frame and the rear tire, but uses a suspension fork in the front to absorb some of the bumps of the trail, make your ride smoother, and help keep you in control over rough terrain. These are great for trail riding and can handle most downhills. They also climb well thanks to their rigid rear and lower weight, and are more affordable than their more complicated full-suspension counterparts.  


Full-suspension or “full-sus” bikes have a suspension fork in the front and a rear suspension system in the back. The combination gives your bike a much more cushioned ride capable of handling big downhills, big drops, and rough terrain. Downside? These bikes are often heavier and more expensive. They’re also worse at climbing than more rigid bikes, since some of the energy you put into pedaling is instead put into moving the suspension up and down. Because of this, many full-suspension bikes have the ability to “lock-out” the rear suspension, making it temporarily more rigid.

Styles of Mountain Bikes 

Mountain bikes come in a number of styles, each designed to excel in different ways. 


This is most likely what you picture when you think of a “Mountain Bike.” They’re most often hardtail or full-suspension bikes with the ability to climb and descend well. This is a good choice if you want a fun bike that’s capable of doing a little bit of everything at your local park or trail system.

Cross Country

These bikes are designed to be fast and well-suited to covering long distances. You may sacrifice some comfort and ability to handle the roughest sections of trail in exchange for the increased speed.


For adrenaline junkies (you know who you are), downhill mountain bikes offer high speed, thrills, and a whole lot of bump-absorbing suspension. The bike’s geometry, aggressive suspension, and gearing are all designed to help you get downhill in a hurry. They don’t climb well, but many downhill riders go to places like ski resorts, where lifts carry them, and their bikes, to the top. 

All-Mountain Bikes

These bikes are like trail bikes, but offer a little more of everything. They’re for bigger drops, steeper climbs, and longer rides. If you are just getting into the sport, an all-mountain bike will almost certainly be “too much” bike. 

Fat Tire Bikes

As the name implies, the tires on these bikes are often more than 3.5 inches wide, and sometimes even more than 5 inches wide. This gives them great traction and the ability to ride (slowly) over loose and slippery surfaces like snow, sand, and mud. You can get them with a variety of suspensions. Just keep in mind that fat tire bikes favor comfort over speed. 

Niche Bikes

Bikepacking, enduro racing, gravel riding. There are exceedingly specific categories within the mountain bike community, which you might start researching for your second (or third!) bike.  

Frame Material

Thanks to advances in material science, you have a lot of choices when it comes to bike frames. While the paint may make many bikes look similar, the materials underneath, and how much they weigh, can greatly influence your ride.

Aluminum Alloy

Aluminum alloy is the most popular frame material, especially for entry-level bikes. The metal is incredibly strong and relatively light. It also has great durability and will serve you well for years. 

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber is becoming increasingly popular thanks to its strength and low weight. While it may not be as durable as some of its metal counterparts, it’s still incredibly strong and incredibly light which makes it great for climbing and long rides. No surprise: It costs more. 


Steel is affordable and strong, but it’s heavy, which means you won’t want to be doing a lot of climbing. Steel is often reserved for the most budget-friendly bikes.


Titanium is a premium frame material. It is light, strong, and durable—with a price to match. 

Wheels and Tires

In the world of mountain bike wheels, the trend has been moving in one direction: bigger is better. Why? Bigger tires are more capable of riding over rough terrain and bigger obstacles. They’ll also help you cover more ground over the course of a long ride as they are better able to maintain speed despite bumps and rocks. Tradeoffs: Bigger tires can make accelerating slower and maneuvering harder, especially in tight spaces. Common sizes (in inches) are 26, 27.5, 27.5+, and 29. (A “+” in tire size indicates a wider tire, often nearly 3 inches or more.) 


Rim brakes, which were once the standard, are almost obsolete in the world of modern mountain bikes. Instead, most every mountain bike now uses disc brakes, with calipers that squeeze a brake rotor near the axle of the wheel, rather than the wheel’s rim. This vastly improves braking power, especially on wet, muddy, and dirty trails where rim brakes are likely to slip. 

The most common disc brake types are hydraulic and mechanical. Hydraulic brakes use hydraulic fluid to translate brake lever pulling into braking. They apply a lot of pressure with little effort, self-adjust to the wear of the brake pads, and provide strong braking power, even in demanding situations.

Mechanical brakes use a cable to translate the brake lever pull to effective braking. They’re often cheaper, and cheaper to service, but they don’t offer as much braking power and need to be adjusted as the pads wear. 


Mountain bikes are often geared to make them better for climbing. This can mean a small gear ring in the front and a massive gear ring in the back. This allows for slow, low-strain climbing. While some mountain bikes will still have two or even three gear rings in the front, it is increasingly common to find 1x (pronounced, “one-by”) mountain bikes with only a single gear ring in the front. This means less shifting, less maintenance, and less weight. 


For most beginner riders, and many styles of mountain biking, flat pedals will be your best option. These are pedals that are wide and flat, like you had on your bike as a kid. They may have metal studs to give you better grip. 

Many riders, especially those looking to pedal longer distances rather than chase steep descents and jumps, will choose “clipless” pedals that attach their shoes to the pedal. Clipless pedals improve efficiency for climbing and longer rides, because they enable you to power the bike forward on both the downstroke and the upstroke. 

Women’s Mountain Bikes

Some bikes are made specifically with women in mind. These models often have the same high-quality components as the men’s or unisex versions, but their fit and geometry are designed to better meet the needs of women.

On average, women are shorter and have a shorter “reach”—the distance from the seat to the handlebars—than men. So women’s bikes are often more compact from the bottom of the frame to the top of the frame, and from the saddle to the handlebars. This geometry can provide a better fit and more comfortable ride, but it’s only one factor. The most important thing is to get a bike that fits your particular size and shape, regardless of whether that comes from a women’s, men’s, or unisex model.