Mountain biking is among the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the United States. Many factors have contributed to its rise. Better bike technology has brought dual-suspension, bump-absorbing bike frames into the mainstream that has literally saved the butts and guts of riders as they progress to increasingly challenging (and rocky) terrain. Increased access to backcountry trails and better maintenance of those trails has grown with the demand. And, above all else, a slew of specialized gear allows mountain bikers to take their passion with them when they hit the road. No matter your skill level or destination, the following items are essentials for a successful MTB trip.
Mountain bike trip essentials for beginners
Before you hit any backcountry trail, download a GPS-enabled trail map app. There are many available for mountain bikers but MTB Project, a trail app developed by REI, is the most comprehensive mountain bike trail guide you can have on your phone, and it’s free to download on iOS and Android. The app features mountain bike trails around the world, searchable by specific location. Riders can check into a trail, share conditions, post photos, and offer advice for important issues like where to grab a post-ride beer. The app is the ultimate trip-planning tool for riders, especially when paired with a trail map from the local bike shop.
Mountain bike shoes
While you could head out in a pair of athletic or skate shoes, your performance on tough terrain will be far better with mountain bike shoes that either clip to or stick to your pedals. Clip-in shoes aren’t a requirement, especially for beginners and casual riders who are more likely to hop off the bike frequently or who may need to push up parts of hills. Also, clip-in shoes make it far tougher to bail off the bike should you lose control near a cliff-edge — replacing the bike is far cheaper and easier than replacing yourself. Consider sticky mountain bike shoes when you’re first starting out.
- Scott makes a great pair of general-use sticky mountain bike shoes
- Adidas Five Ten Freerider Pro is ideal for freeriding or Enduro
A good helmet
Concussions are not the name of the game, no matter how rocky the trail is. You need a solid helmet, and fortunately in the MTB world, there’s no need to buy one of those dorky, striped, oblong road bike helmets. Mountain bike helmets are stylish, similar to the snowboard helmet. The Thousand Heritage is the perfect example and is everything you need to keep your head protected on the trail. As another highly popular option, Giro makes the Montaro helmet in both a men’s and women’s variety.
Shin guard and knee pads
Like everything in life, getting up to snuff in mountain biking involves making mistakes and learning from them. One mistake you’ll only make once is called the “snakebite.” This involves a sudden stop, fall, or anything else that results in your pedal conducting a sudden spin in reverse and slamming the spiked footrest into your shin. Not only is this going to be quite painful, but it’s also a near-guaranteed way to go home with an unwanted collection of small scars on your leg. You can avoid both the “snakebite” and other minor shin and knee scuffs by wearing the Elite Knee-Shin Guards from G-Form.
When looking at backpacks, consider two options: a day pack and a multi-day pack. When heading out for a day on the trail or embarking on a trip where you’ll be returning to the trailhead each day with a chance to replenish basic supplies like water, opt for a small pack with a water bladder. It doesn’t need to be one specifically for mountain biking; the Classic Cycling Hydration Pack from CamelBak is perfect.
For longer or overnight excursions, a larger option like the Dakine Seeker is ideal. You want at least 12-15 liters of storage space for gear, food, and other essentials, and water bladder storage and access, which this pack provides. Its real advantage over a traditional backpacking pack, though, is that it doesn’t sacrifice the huggy, compact design of a biking daypack. The Seeker won’t get in your way and won’t spill out should you take a tumble.
What to keep in your backpack:
- A stocked water bladder
- A rain jacket
- A first-aid kit
- Protein bars and snacks
- A pair of padded mountain bike gloves
- A pair of mountain bike (or otherwise athletic) socks
To get to the trailhead
Beyond your bike and the gear on your body, the most important thing you need is a way to get your bike to the trailhead. Unless you’re riding a Huffy, putting down your backseat to stuff an assembled mountain bike into the back of the vehicle is a solid way to ruin your investment, in both the bike and the car. If you drive a truck, you can load the bike into the back without inherently damaging the tires or your interior, but this doesn’t do much should you need to slam on the breaks or take a tight turn at some speed.
Put a few hundred bucks into a rack for your vehicle. The best mountain bike rack for those with a tow-hitch on their vehicle, whether for an out-of-town trip or hitting local trails, is the Küat Racks’ Transfer. It takes less than an hour to set up and mount on your vehicle, and you can easily unhitch and remove the rack for in-town travel when you’re not carrying a bike. The rack is made of steel and secures your bike at multiple points. It’s also easy to lock the bike onto the rack or vehicle, whether with the Küat’s specific lock or, in a pinch, with some general bike locks.
Plan to spend $249 for a one-bike rack and $329 for a two-bike rack. Add-on pieces to convert a one-bike rack into a double are also available, should you have the need to carry a second bike down the line. If you need a roof rack, Küat’s Mini Skinny is ideal for a one-bike setup and the Vagabond X can handle two.
What to keep in your vehicle:
To be prepared when something goes wrong
Gear to change or patch a tire tube
No one should enter the backcountry on a bike without knowing a few basic repair necessities, starting with how to patch and/or change the tube in your tire should you get a flat. For this, you need five essential pieces of gear:
- Steel tire levers — there are cheaper plastic ones, but spending a few extra dollars for steel prevents the risk of them snapping on you
- Spare tubes, at least two, specific to your tire diameter (26, 27.5, or 29 inches)
- A hand pump
- A patch kit
- Crankbrothers Multi-Tool with chain tool
YouTube is full of videos that will walk you through the process of changing a tube, and you should practice a couple of times before embarking on a serious ride that has the potential to leave you stuck miles from a trailhead or road. To stock yourself quickly and easily, grab the Topeak Deluxe Accessory Kit, which mounts right onto your bike and contains levers, a hand pump, multi-tool, and a pouch to keep it all in.
Gear to fix a broken chain
A snapped chain can quickly lead to panic, but it doesn’t need to if you’re prepared. After stocking the items listed above, you should already have the proper chain tool. Again, YouTube is your training reference here, and a quick practice round should get you up to speed. Here’s what else to add to your arsenal:
To fix a broken derailleur hanger
If you ride hard and frequently, a broken derailleur hanger is a consistent threat. Without being able to fix it, you might find yourself stuck, or in a best-case scenario, having to complete the rest of your ride in the gear you were in when it broke. While being stuck is worse, both situations are a major bummer. Keep a derailleur hanger specific to your bike on hand.