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What Are Mountain Biking Shoes and Which Ones Do You Need?

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With mountain biking, most people think of equipment like helmet, shin guards, and gloves, but don’t forget the mountain biking shoes.

The shoes you are wearing are the only thing that is helping your feet get power to the rear wheel.  If your shoes can’t keep traction on the pedals, you’ll not only lose your forward momentum, but you could get a nasty scrape from the pedals as your foot flies off to the ground.

Mountain bike shoes are the footwear that keeps your foot planted on the pedals, whether they are flat or clipless. Which one you need depends on your style, budget, and needs.

There are quite a few options for quality shoes, from clipless  to regular pedals shoes, from lightweight XC shoes to rugged shoes.  So if you already have all of your gear, then it’s time to talk about mountain biking shoes.

Flat Shoes

Regardless of whether you are cross-country biking or downhill biking, these flat shoes give you the same advantages on the trails.  Flat pedal shoes do not attach to the pedals.  Sometimes regular pedals do have many small spikes to help dig in a little.  All of the shoes in this category have a flat bottom.

The advantage to this type of shoe is that it is FAR easier to bail from the bike when you are not attached to the pedals, and when you step off of the bike you appear like a normal person.  There are indeed many advantages of wearing flats and they work very well for mountain biking. It’s the main reason why some riders choose to wear mountain biking flat pedal shoes in fact.

The disadvantage of flat shoes is that your weight is the main thing that keeps your shoes with enough traction to stay on the pedals and not slip off.  Some shoes like this pair on Amazon by Five Ten have the usual flat bottom but with a little body weight they keep amazing traction with the pedals so it’s the best of both worlds.

So when you choose mtb shoes, make sure to seriously consider riding flat pedals as they work really well.

Flat pedal shoes such as Vans shoes or even Adidas can work well for this and are useful for other activities. The rubber soles on these work great!

Clipless Shoe Types

Clipless shoes are very different.  With clipless mountain biking shoes, the cleats actually click into the specialized pedals to firmly attach them.  You can actually pull up on the pedal as it returns back to the top of the power stroke and put even more power to the ground that you simply can’t do with flat shoes.

Clipless shoes give you more power transfer so it’s easier on climbs.  The downside is that the shoes are attached and if you need to bail to avoid a crash it may be hard to clip out of the pedals and you just crash to the ground with your feet still stuck on the pedals.

When choosing the proper pair of cycling shoes, there are two different types of clipless shoes depending on how you want to use them.

Cross-country (XC) Shoes

Cross-country clipless shoes are made for maximum power transfer.  That means that these shoes are as light as possible and very stiff.  There is enough flexibility in the shoes to walk around but plenty stiff so that it ties your foot and the pedal together with the least energy waste as possible.

Most of the shoes in this category look fairly normal and the better ones are made of a carbon fiber sole.  The top part of the shoes are normally nylon or Microtex.  Again, less weight of the shoes means less waste.

Most of the clipless shoes have a standard 2-bolt cleat pattern which means most cleats can be bolted to the shoes and then those lock into the pedals.  When you go to put your foot into the pedal to clip it in, you slide the front in first and then press down with your heel to lock it in.

These are also generally referred to as on-road clipless pedals and they have a larger cleat than the clipless trail shoes.

Trail Shoes

Clipless trail shoes are a bit more rugged as they are designed to protect your foot at the expense of added weight.  With downhill trails this is not often an issue.  These are also used in enduro races.

The trail shoes are much thicker than the XC variety, and they have armoring in the toe and hell to help withstand rocks and branches on the trail.  If you’re taking your mountain bike downhill, this is a really nice advantage to have.

Mountain Bike Shoe Closures

Regardless of the type of shoes that you wear, you’ll still need to make them stay on your feet in some way.  The usual ways are either laces, dials, or velcro.  This is more of a personal preference


These are your standard laces that have been around for years.  They’re simple, inexpensive, and they are easy to use.  If a lace breaks on the trail, you can even just use a zip-tie to hold your shoes on.


Velcro, or hook-and-loop, are available on many shoes.  While they make small adjustments easier, they are also more susceptible to gunk like mud and debris getting stuck in the laces which affect their holding power.


Dial closures are usually only found on mid- and high-end shoes.  The most popular dial closure is Boa.

Dial closures offer superior closing force and they offer small adjustments to get the shoes just right.  They are generally trouble-free but if they get damaged they can stop working although repairs are easily done or they are easily replaced.

Conclusion of Mountain Biking Shoes

So there are many different choices you have for shoes and it can be a little overwhelming.  If you are a beginner, I would lean towards a good set of flat shoes and regular pedals.  The Five Ten line of shoes have amazing grip and I consider them among the best flat mtb shoes you can get. If budget is a factor, I put together a list of the best mtb shoes under $100 that has something for everyone.

Even going the clipless shoes route, I would still keep a set of flats around.  There are going to be times when you want to try a tough jump or an area where you may need to bail, and those are the times you want the flats on.

Mountain bike shoes can vary quite a bit in price, but to some extent you get what you pay for. Purpose-made shoes are often worth the price and can make all of the difference on the trail. What shoes work for you really depends on your needs and preferences.

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