How To Choose the Best Mountain Bike Shoe

How To Choose the Best Mountain Bike Shoe

Once you’ve got a mountain bike that fits, the next key to comfort while exploring singletrack is addressing your main points of connection. That is: a good set of gloves, of course, but also the right pair of shoes to keep you on your bike, or ready to hop off and over any obstacles too big to roll over. These shoes differ from road- or commuting-specific options as you face different challenges on a mountain bike, from splashing through muddy puddles, rolling over rocks, or kicking a log out of the way. They need to be more rugged to protect your feet, prepared to deal with the elements and to provide greater traction. Finding the right pair will enhance your riding experience—not to mention those moments where you might have to walk your bike uphill or around problematic sections. Here’s how to find your perfect pair of mountain bike shoes.

First, Ask These Questions

Before you buy the shoes, try to better understand your mountain biking needs.

How comfortable am I on a bike?

Do you have a lot of experience? Are you used to clipping into a pedal? If not, consider a flat pedal shoe.

What kind of riding do I want to do?

If you plan to ride cross-country, all-mountain, or strictly downhill, your riding style will help guide the right choice. 

What kind of weather am I willing to ride in?

If you are only riding in dry conditions, your demands for both traction and breathability differ greatly from consistent riding in damp and wet weather.

To Clip in or Stay Flat

The first decision you’ll need to make when buying mountain bike shoes is what style of pedal you want (or what style you might already have). Mountain bike pedals and shoes work together as a system.

The simplest system is a flat pedal. These are similar to what you likely used as a kid: a flat platform that your shoe rests on. Sometimes these will have studs or extra texture for better grip. While not as efficient, since you only can put power into them by pushing down, they offer your foot a quick release from the pedal should you need it. They’re also easier pedals to shift weight on for a descent or a jump—often an added advantage for technical trails, downhill rides, and jump and pump tracks.

The second option is to “clip-in” with the confusingly named, clipless pedal. Clipping in means pushing a metal cleat on the bottom of your shoe into the pedal itself to connect to the bike. Twisting your heel outwards, away from the bike, disconnects the shoe cleat from the pedal. These pedals use the two-hole cleat, rather than the three-hole cleat that is more popular in road biking, as it is easier to set it within the sole of a shoe for easier walking and hiking.

This style is far more efficient, as the connection allows you to put power into the bike by pushing down and by pulling up on the pedal. However, it requires more effort to get your foot on and off the pedal. This makes them great for long off-road rides, but less comfortable for more technical riding, or steep and aggressive downhill descents.

Shoe Style

One of the benefits of flat pedals is that you can likely use a pair of shoes you already own. As you progress, you’ll want a pair of dedicated mountain bike shoes. These often look similar to skateboarding shoes given the flat sole that maximizes surface area for traction. The sole stiffness can vary, but most will also have padding built into the upper and sole to protect your feet from your pedal, and the rocks and dirt beneath it. More aggressive downhill shoes can even feel heavy with their amounts of padding.

If you are clipping in, you have a few shoe options. Some are similar to flat-pedal mountain bike shoes, with the exception of a metal cleat set into the sole of the shoe. Others cater to trail speed and efficient pedaling, especially for longer cross-country or gravel rides. These mountain bike shoes have a more road shoe-like profile with the addition of a treaded sole and protection throughout the upper. As a nice compromise between comfort, speed, and traction, some road cyclists will even opt for lean and capable clipless mountain bike shoes.

Tread 

Mountain bike shoes have a varying degree of tread on the sole depending on your riding discipline. Downhill mountain bike shoes are made for descents—as such, they won’t have as rugged a sole texture since there is less need to hop off your bike and run up any steep hill. 

If you are an all-mountain or cross-country rider, though, you will want a more aggressive lugged outsole with a tacky rubber compound to give you traction on mud, over rocks or wet logs. Much like in hiking boots, the rougher or muddier your terrain, the more robust you want your tread. Be wary, though: More rubber means more weight, and you have to spin those heavy feet all day long. 

Weight

As with other cycling disciplines, more committed riders tend to prefer lighter versions of shoes. And there is almost always a nearly direct correlation between the lightness of a cycling product and its price. So if you’re willing to spend, a lighter shoe will keep your legs fresh on the inclines, and make it easier to hop off for trail obstacles. But you need appropriate tread as well. Finding the right balance is part preference and part knowing the terrain ahead, as more tread will only add more weight. 

Outer Materials

Consider the time of year you’ll be doing the most riding. Mountain biking shoes are made to vent; they’re not usually made waterproof. If you ride a lot in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, however, consider something that will better keep your foot warm with less venting. 

Also consider precipitation. Do you like riding in wet, damp climates or blasting through puddles? Find a shoe with a built-in waterproof membrane. But be warned, these will not vent as well and might have your feet sweating on hot summer rides. 

It’s also possible to find winter mountain biking shoes with even more insulation. But they are often more expensive and will be uncomfortable on warmer days. 

Closure System

One fun choice is picking how you want to tighten your mountain bike shoe on your feet. While mostly personal preference, there are benefits and drawbacks—with many shoes using a combination of these styles.

Laces

A classic choice for a highly customized fit. They can get dirty and hard to untie on sloppy days, and the loose ends need to be tucked, or they’re liable to get caught in your chainring.

Hook and loop

This closure, just as with Velcro, provides a quick and easy way to tighten your shoe—one that stays in place regardless of weather. More straps will give you more control over the fit. 

Ratchet

Higher-end cycling shoes utilize a small, plastic ratchet like you’d see on a ski or snow boot—ideal for a tight fit that will stay secure, but one that comes at a higher cost.

Dial Cable Laces

These systems, like Boa’s, use a dial to tighten a cable that wraps through the shoe. They are incredibly convenient and fast to secure. However, if anything breaks on the ride, it can be hard to fix.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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