A Beginner's Guide to Mountain Biking

Couple mountain biking through a lush forest

Getty Images / stockstudioX

Whether you just bought your first bike, have had a mountain bike collecting dust in the garage for years, or took a quick spin on your friend's ride and now want your own, there's one thing you can count on: there's a lot to learn about mountain biking. Even if you learned how to ride a bike at age three, you'll likely have to re-teach yourself a few things when you step over a mountain bike. And if you're a road biker, you'll have to unteach yourself a few things (pro tip: don't lean into the handlebars.)

Fortunately, while mountain biking may look extreme, it doesn't have to be. Most mountain bikers aren't doing XGames-style jumps on steep courses or flying down sharp rock faces—that's just what the pros like to show off. For plenty of mountain bikers, a leisurely ride along a dirt trail through the woods can be a great way to spend time in nature, get some fresh air, and help keep your heart and legs healthy and strong.

Here are the basics of what you need to know about mountain biking, but it only scratches the surface. Even pro mountain bikers are always learning new tricks and honing their skills to move faster and faster. But as long as you know a few basics before starting—and are always willing to keep learning—you'll be a capable mountain biker in no time.

Types of Mountain Bikes

Mountain bikes fall into a few different categories, which are generally accepted as being rather broad. Knowing what category a bike falls in will you give you an indication of what type of terrain and style of riding it's best suited to, but these aren't hard-and-fast rules, and brands will often market their bikes as being "crossovers" or "all-mountain."

Hardtail Bikes

Hardtail bikes do not have suspension in the back. That means they're not well suited to bumpy or rocky downhill terrain as there's nothing to absorb impact—you're more likely to get knocked around (and have a sore butt) afterward. The plus side to these bikes is they climb far more efficiently and are generally cheaper. Many beginner mountain bikers start with hardtails and progress to full-suspension bikes after getting a feel for the sport, though some experts prefer hardtails on smooth trails for their speed and light weight.

Trail Bikes

Trail bikes are the entry point to full-suspension mountain bikes. They can absorb impact and motion on both the front and back fork, which creates a smoother ride on bumpy trails—and allows you to ride over more without worrying about getting knocked around too much. The frame will generally sit the rider a bit more upright than a downhill or enduro bike, and your travel (the amount the fork can compress to absorb impact) is usually in the 120-150mm range. They have more "bounce" than a hardtail.

Enduro Bikes

Enduro bikes (sometimes called all-mountain bikes) are generally for slightly more advanced riders, though they're also a good bet for anyone who plans to ride boulder-laden or steeper trails. Travel is usually in the 150-180mm range, and the bikes tend to be burlier, stronger and built for bigger jumps and harder landings. A longer frame will put your body in a better position for downhill riding but, combined with more travel, can make climbing uphill more challenging.

Downhill Bikes

These bikes are made to excel at riding steep downhill sections at high speeds. This is the type of bike you'd bring to a bike park at a ski resort when you're riding a lift (or catching a ride) to the top. Expect travel in the 200mm+ range so you can absorb huge impacts and bumps and a frame designed to excel at quickly moving downhill. The flip side is they're difficult to climb on and can be heavy. Few people have a downhill as their only bike.

How to Size a Mountain Bike

Sizing a bike isn't a perfect science, especially since features like handlebar width and seat height are adjustable. Bikes usually come in standard S, M, L, XL sizes, though not every brand uses the same measurements. Check the size charts and feel free to go to your local shop and ask the pros for sizing help—that's their job.

"It's good to start with a general height sizing chart, then take time to test a couple of sizes if you're in-between. Simple guidelines are that you should be able to stand over the top bar with flat feet comfortably. When pedaling, you shouldn't feel too crouched or stretched out," said Karen Jarchow, a Colorado-based professional mountain bike racer and youth bike coach at Vail Valley RIDE.

Professional mountain biker displays the proper body position on a downhill turn

Karen Jarchow

Essential Mountain Bike Skills and Safety

When it comes to skills and safety, there are many things to know, but they fall under two main mantras: don't do anything unsafe, and be respectful on the trail.

The latter is pretty straightforward. Mountain bikers share trails with everyone from hikers to motorbikes to equestrians and, often, wildlife. In the U.S., the rule is that mountain bikers yield to everyone (though pedestrians will often step aside to let bikes pass.) When two bikes are on the same trail, the uphill rider has the right of way, and if you're coming up behind someone, a friendly "on your left" or "on your right" will usually be enough to alert the rider in front that you're there. If you're the rider with someone coming up behind you, it's courteous to pull over (whenever there's enough room to do it safely) and let them pass.

Mastering some essential skills isn't quite as easy, but it's necessary. Mountain biking can be a dangerous sport, but you're less likely to get injured if you start strong. You'll be able to progress more safely if you begin by learning a few key positions and tactics. "It all comes down to feeling comfortable, balanced, and confident on the bike," said Jarchow. "When I teach, I start with teaching how the athletic stance learned in other sports translates to the bike. The basics are getting comfortable standing on the pedals, bending elbows and knees, moving the hips, and keeping your chin up. Then, it's all about allowing the bike to move freely and being dynamic with your body."

Essentially, Jarchow recommends learning to stay lose and moving with, not against, the bike. Learning to treat your bike like an extension of your body to work with you in a team as you ride will help you feel more comfortable on trails. For some people, the biggest hurdle will be learning to let go of a little bit of control, but it'll pay when it comes to developing skills long-term. "Once I can get someone over that hurdle to a point where they trust their bike/body relationship," said Jarchow, "the other skills come more easily."

Mountain bikers wearing safety gear

Pearl Izumi

Mountain Bike Clothing and Gear

While mountain bike clothing and gear is a booming industry, there's no reason you can't wear your regular gym clothes when you're just getting started. Moisture-wicking fabrics are best, and you won't want any loose material around your legs that could get stuck in the bike, but other than that, you don't need to spend money on new clothing (unless you want to!)

However, you do probably want to invest in some protective gear. A helmet is a non-negotiable, but new mountain bikers will probably want additional protective equipment, too. According to John Pepper, who manages the mountain bike product line for Pearl Izumi, you should expect a few bruises at first. "Don't skip protection. You'll likely have a fall or two as you're starting out, and you'll want to make sure you have a good set of knee or elbow pads." Pepper—along with any mountain biker who's made the mistake of not wearing one—also recommends a padded short, called a chamois. "A good liner short with a chamois can make a big difference in comfort during a mountain bike ride," said Pepper. "You don't want an ill-fitting piece of equipment to take away from an otherwise great experience on your bike." And getting bruises and sores from unpadded shorts can take away from the experience.

As for gear, you'll want bike gloves, sunglasses, and probably tall socks if you're riding through areas with a lot of brush. Mountain bike-specific shoes can give you a little more traction on your pedals, but wear your favorite grippy outdoor shoe if you don't have them. You can also put a water bottle holder on your bike, so you don't need to carry a hydration pack for short rides, and strapping tire-changing supplies and a bike multi-tool to your frame can be convenient, too.

Tips for Planning a Mountain Bike Trip

Expect to find mountain biking challenging at first, even if you're in great shape otherwise. It's an intense cardio workout and feels impossibly hard at first, especially if you're still learning how to shift and adjust your bike on steep and rocky terrain. Because it can quickly tire your muscles, consider making your first mountain-biking trip more of a general mountain trip than a bike-specific trip. That way, you can spend the mornings biking and give your body time to recover while sightseeing or relaxing in the afternoons. Planning a trip where you mountain bike all day for days on end is an excellent way for beginners to pull a muscle, get hurt, or tire themselves out too quickly.

If you want to try downhill mountain biking, consider a summer trip to a ski resort with a mountain bike park. Good options include Northstar California Resort or Mammoth Mountain (both in California), Colorado's Keystone or Breckenridge Resorts, Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, or Killington Resort in Vermont. Those resorts all have plenty of nearby activities when you need a break from the bike.

Mammoth Mountain bike park

Mammoth Outdoor Office

If you want to do more cross-country and trail riding—and don't mind some climbing—then you don't need to limit yourself to ski resorts. There's mountain biking in every state, so the easiest way to find where to go is to search for "best mountain biking in your location or state." Make sure to use an app like Strava, AllTrails, or TrailForks to check the route, elevation gain, length, and difficulty rating before starting any new trail.

Remember that there's no standard system for rating trails. Unless you're at a resort, the difficulty level is just the average rating from fellow mountain bikers. Always start with an easy (or green) trail when you're riding in a new area. An exceptionally rocky path is difficult for some people, while others have no problems with rocks but find long uphill climbs very challenging. The more you ride, the more you'll be able to better evaluate trail ratings.