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Beginner’s Guide to Mountain Biking

A Beginner's Guide to Mountain Biking

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Mountain biking is an exciting way to explore the great outdoors and get good exercise. Riding a bike down dirt trails through beautiful nature can make you feel free and adventurous. If you’re new to mountain biking, it may look intense and extreme at first. Pictures of people racing down crazy steep and rocky trails could make it seem like you need to be a daredevil to start. But that’s not true at all! Complete beginners can start riding easier cross country trails right away and work up from there. You don’t need to be a pro athlete or adrenaline junkie to have fun mountain biking.

Choosing a Mountain Bike

When first starting out in mountain biking, any basic hardtail mountain bike from a well known mainstream brand will suit your needs perfectly fine. Hardtail mountain bikes have a suspension fork in the front to smooth out bumps, but do not have rear suspension. This makes hardtails simpler and more affordable than full suspension mountain bikes. As a beginner rider, you will mostly be riding easier cross country trails and don’t require sophisticated full suspension just yet. After you gain more experience and skill riding steeper and more difficult terrain later on, you may eventually wish to upgrade to a full suspension mountain bike. These bikes have suspension in both the front and rear, which works to smooth out bigger impacts and provide additional control over rugged conditions. But for now as you are just dipping your toes in the sport, a quality entry-level hardtail mountain bike will serve you very well and let you start exploring mountain biking safely.

When shopping for that first mountain bike, here are the key features and components to look out for:

Frame Material: Most budget-friendly hardtail mountain bikes have aluminum frames, which strike a good balance between affordability, weight and durability. Carbon fiber frames are lighter but much more expensive. Steel frames are very durable but heavier. For a beginner bike, aluminum gives the best combination of price, strength and weight.

Suspension Fork Travel: This refers to how many millimeters the front shock fork can compress. Suspension forks with approximately 100-120mm of travel will smooth out small to medium sized bumps very nicely and provide a comfortable ride, making them ideal for newer mountain bikers.

You can expect to spend around $500-800 for a quality entry-level hardtail mountain bike from an established brand like Trek, Specialized, Giant, and many more. Go to your local bicycle shop and ask for recommendations on great starter mountain bike options. They can help you find the perfect fit based on your height, budget and nearby trails.

Safety Gear

One reality about mountain biking is that you will likely fall at some point, especially when starting out. The nature of riding uneven and variable terrain means occasionally crashing is inevitable. So having proper protective safety gear is extremely important for preventing any significant injuries when you do take a tumble! Safety gear designed specifically for mountain biking protects all the vulnerable parts of your body and really should not be ignored.

Let’s take a closer look at recommended protective gear:

Helmet A helmet designed specifically for mountain biking is mandatory anytime you ride. Many mountain bike helmets now offer additional rear head coverage compared to road helmets for protecting delicate areas vulnerable in a crash. Ensure the helmet fits your head snugly but is still comfortable – shaking your head vigorously should not make it overly loose. Trusted brands like Giro, Specialized and POC offer great helmet options to protect yourself.

Knee Pads
Hard shell knee pads with some flex and stretch built in provide excellent impact protection for inevitable falls directly onto rough terrain. Look for mountain biking specific knee pads like G-Form Pro X3 or POC Joint VPD Air that allow full mobility and pedaling motion without restricting movement or chafing behind the knees.

Elbow Pads Just like knee pads, quality elbow pads add critical cushion and defense for sudden crashes on rugged ground. They allow riding with more confidence through technical rock gardens knowing your joints have padding if an abrupt spill occurs. Leading options include POC Joint VPD 2.0 and 7iDP Flex Pro elbow pads.

Glasses When riding fast down mountain bike trails, you’ll be amazed at how much debris, dirt, low hanging branches and more can whip by your face and eyes. Thus a pair of sturdy protective glasses is highly recommended for enhanced vision as well as keeping foreign objects from flinging directly into your eyes. Many styles also incorporate yellow tinted lenses which help increase contrast on the trail. Goodr running sunglasses and Ryders Eyewear are top rated.

Bike Clothing

In addition to protective gear, wearing cycling specific clothing can greatly benefit safety, comfort and ultimately your overall mountain biking experience. Certain apparel choices aid performance while minimizing unfortunate issues out on the trails. Here’s a closer look at recommended mountain bike clothing:

Mountain Bike Shorts Quality mountain biking shorts have an inner padded liner short against your skin to help cushion sitting impacts from bumpy, uneven terrain. Meanwhile, the outer short is made from flexible, durable material with useful cargo pockets to carry essentials. Look for trusted brands like Zoic, Pearl Izumi and Trek for versatile mountain bike shorts. The liner can even be worn alone for lightweight pedaling in hot weather.

Jerseys A jersey made from moisture wicking technical fabric keeps you cool, dry and comfortable in variable weather conditions while riding. The loose fit allows great freedom of movement for active riding positions. Many mountain biking jerseys also incorporate useful features tailor-made for the sport, like zippered pockets and mesh paneling for extra ventilation. Recommended brands include Club Ride, Pearl Izumi, and Fox Racing.

Gloves Protecting your hands is vital when mountain biking, so a quality pair of gloves can really enhance the ride. Additional padding helps shield against abrasions during sudden crashes while also improving your grip on handlebars. Look for versatile full finger mountain biking gloves from trusted brands like Giro and ODI to keep hands happy out on the trails!

Stiff soled mountain biking shoes connect far more securely to the pedals for achieving maximum power transfer when pedaling over variable terrain. Shoes designed specifically for mountain biking often have grippy rubber treads for occasionally walking technical sections as well. Popular options include iconic flat pedal performer Five Ten Freerider or composite pedal compatible Shimano SH-MT5 shoes.

Starting Off Easy

When you first begin mountain biking, it is wise to start slowly and build skills on easier trails before hitting more challenging terrain. Attempting overly difficult trails too early can quickly zap energy and confidence levels. Instead, stick to smooth and wide “green circle” trails to safely enhance ability. Most mountain bike trail areas classify routes by difficulty level with colors:

Green Circle Trails Green circle trails have wide, smooth dirt paths and gentler climbs which are perfect for beginners still getting comfortable balancing and controlling the bike off-road. Green routes are also commonly referred to as “beginner trails”.

Cross Country Trails
After getting accustomed to basic green circle trails, mid-level cross country trails add some variability by incorporating narrow dirt tracks that wind through rolling terrain. These trails generally have gradual elevation changes both up and down over hilly areas and may feature occasional roots or rocks to navigate around.

When getting started, adopt a mellower pace by gearing down lower than usual and braking a touch earlier before obstacles and tricky sections to keep speed in control. Don’t worry about trying to keep up with more advanced riders you may encounter – just focus on staying smooth and finding stable lines through the terrain at your own controlled pace. As your skills, stamina and familiarity continue improving over time from consistent practice days, you will then start naturally riding faster and handling more challenging trails. But there is no need to rush into progressing before you honestly feel completely comfortable. Mountain biking is all about a lifelong journey of growth!

Nailing the Basics

Now let’s talk about mastering some essential mountain bike handling techniques. Getting these basic skills dialed makes a tremendous difference allowing you to ride with significantly more confidence, smoothness and control out on trails. Before charging steep downhills or highly technical obstacles, fully cement these fundamentals which comprise the foundation of solid mountain biking:


Being able to ascend hills efficiently opens up access to those awesome high altitude vistas and epic backcountry terrain otherwise unreachable without putting forth effort climbing. Some tips for effective mountain bike climbing include:

  • Shift down into a lighter, easier gear early as the hill slope begins tilting upward more drastically. This prevents getting caught in too difficult of a gear as the climb steepens.
  • Try sitting and pedaling in the saddle as much as possible for maximum traction rather than standing up too frequently. The seated position allows concentrating all body weight over the rear wheel for optimal adhesion and drive.
  • Spin the pedals smoothly with a steady, consistent cadence without mashing an overly heavy gear. Too much strain risks burning out the legs prematurely.
  • Position yourself towards the front section of the saddle and lean over the handlebars on steeper pitches to keep centered over the bottom bracket.
  • While sitting is ideal for maximum traction, occasionally stand up pedaling for just a few crank rotations helps incorporate different muscles and allows a brief respite to tired seated muscles. Just don’t drastically shift position too frequently.
  • If a certain section becomes truly exhausting or you need a break, walking the bike uphill momentarily poses no shame and is better than forcing uncomfortable exertion which could lead to problems. Catch your breath and hop back on the saddle when ready.


Coasting downhill with the wind whipping across your face is often the most thrilling and rewarding part of mountain biking. But be sure to always approach descending with an equal dose of care and caution by:

  • Staying loose through the arms and legs with a neutral body position – this allows better shock absorption and range of motion reacting to variables.
  • Lightly dragging the rear brake can be used to fine-tune speed as needed. But avoid grasping the brake levers too tightly or harshly which could lead to an abrupt endo.
  • Remember to look ahead well down the trail instead of staring right in front of the front wheel. Spotting upcoming terrain clues aids choosing proper lines.
  • Hinging at the hips and dropping your body behind the saddle slightly helps weight the rear wheel resulting in better cornering traction and control.

As your descending comfort level grows, you can start to pick up more speed and flow by pumping the bike’s suspension to carry momentum through bumpy sections. But when just starting out, exercise patience with restrained speed focusing on finesse instead of pure adrenaline. Gain confidence on smaller rolling slopes first before stepping up to the steepest grades with sizable drop offs. A smooth, controlled ride always wins over racing downhill recklessly fast!


Carving tight corners efficiently allows riding trails faster by straightening out switchbacks quicker. Dialed cornering technique incorporates these key elements:

  • A controlled speed entering corners is paramount, so shed speed beforehand by braking early and fully before turning in. The quickest path follows precise arcs, not wide drifting turns scrubbing momentum.
  • Eye up your exit line by looking towards the outside of the bend. This allows correcting the actual cornering line if necessary.
  • Trust tire traction and gently lean the bike into the turn rather than fighting sideways slippage. Let the wheels smoothly arc around berms.
  • Pressure the outside pedal down to elevate knee drive while dropping the inside pedal lower to prevent pedal strikes against the dirt.
  • Position center of chest down and inside knee pointed in the direction of travel to keep weight balanced on the bike’s outer knobs. But avoid crossing over the bike too far.

As always, continue practicing proper technique on wider, flowy turns with room for error first before attacking ultra tight switchbacks lined with hazards which require flawless execution. Cornering confidences stems from mileage experience rather than pure risk taking.

Continuing Your Progression

As you rack up early mountain biking experiences and feel eager to keep advancing your skills, you might be amazed at terrain which once seemed crazy intense becoming quite enjoyable and manageable. Here are tips for continuing that lifelong progression:

Challenge Yourself Gradually

Pushing riding abilities too far too quickly by tackling trails far exceeding current skill levels leads to frustration and potential injury. But small, incremental steps outside your normal comfort zone tremendously expands skills over time. Every ride, strive to tackle one new technical trail feature or steep section that honestly intimidates you at first. The immense satisfaction of conquering a long feared obstacle drives rapid skill development. Before long, you will view old nemeses as simple speed bumps!

Take a Lesson

Booking a one-on-one skills coaching session with a trained mountain bike instructor teaches proper techniques undiscoverable alone through trial and error. Most mountain bike trail networks offer half day or full day beginner skills camps. You will be amazed how much control, stability, and smoothness is gained under professional tutelage identifying bad habits and optimizing form.

Join Group Rides

Local mountain bike clubs and shops often organize weekly group rides exploring different singletrack systems. Pedaling alongside more advanced riders with elevated fitness, capability and experience levels pulls up your riding substantially. Gain inspiration watching their finesse shredding technical lines. Chat them up for tips too, but don’t let pace pressure override personal limits.

Study YouTube Technique Channels

An amazing wealth of knowledge exists through dedicated mountain bike skills channels on YouTube breaking down proper climbing, descending and cornering step-by-step. Watch videos intently taking mental notes, then replicate techniques modeled by the pros on your local trails. Skills with Phil, Seth’s Bike Hacks and Global Mountain Bike Network offer tutorials for all ability levels.

If initially timid or intimidated, remember all ace mountain bikers once began as wobbly newbies themselves. Consistent practice builds remarkable muscle memory and comfort. Before you know it, your skills will grow allowing pursuit of thrilling backcountry singletrack most newcomers only dream of reaching! Now get out there and start creating your own mountain biking journey today.

About the Author

Tony K

Senior Technical Writer,

Tony K is a technical editor at He has a focus on downhill bike riding but still loves xc bikes too.

With more than ten years of mountain biking experience and more than 5 years testing mountain bikes, Tony has ridden and tested hundreds of different bikes and products, everything from XC to enduro bikes. Tony regularly competes in mountain bike races while seeing how long those compontents can hold up which gives me a lot of insight.

When he isn't shredding down a mountain or camping out, he is writing reviews for Mountain Bike Experience.

Rides: Surly Lowside, Canyon Exceed