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Beginner’s Guide to MTB Elbow Pads

Beginners Guide to MTB Elbow Pads - Photo of a mountain biker riding on a rugged trail with the majestic sunrise in the background

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Mountain biking can be an exciting sport, but it also comes with risks of injury. One common injury for mountain bikers is scraped or broken elbows if you take a spill. Wearing elbow pads can protect your elbows and arms when mountain biking. Learning which type of pad may work best and how to wear them correctly takes some research.

Hard Shell Elbow Pads

Hard shell elbow pads are made of hard plastic on the outside. The inside has softer cushioning padding for comfort. These pads offer very good protection for your elbows. They also protect your forearms if you fall and slide on rough ground.

The hard shell can handle scrapes with rocks and branches better than other pads. But some riders find these elbow pads to be bulky and heavy. Also, they may lack ventilation to allow air flow. Sweaty arms can be uncomfortable after a long ride. Hard shells may also limit motion.

A rider wanting the most padding and defense against trail hazards may prefer hard shells. New riders unsure of their skill level may also opt for this bulky yet sturdy style. They offer peace of mind against minor falls on rugged terrain.

Soft Shell Elbow Pads

Many mountain bike elbow pads now use a flexible soft shell outer layer. Inside is foam or molded padding over the elbows and forearms. These offer good cushioning that is also lightweight and breathable.

The outer shell flexes to allow a better range of motion while biking. Softer shells contour better to your arms’ shape as well. Ventilated mesh helps air flow to cut down on sweat. Less bulk makes soft shells feel less restrictive for most riders.

The trade off is slightly less protection against falls and scrapes. Heavy crashes onto sharp rocks could still cause some arm cuts with soft shells. But they work well for minor spills on basic trails.

Intermediate and advanced mountain bikers often prefer the feel and flexibility of soft shell elbow pads. Beginners may want a bit more padding to boost confidence as they learn to handle rougher terrain.

Finding the Right Fit

Fit and comfort should come first when choosing elbow pads for mountain biking. Ill-fitting pads will slide, pinch, or chafe. They may expose your elbows instead of protecting them.

Measure your arm to find its circumference above and below your elbow. Compare to size charts to determine the best fit. Try on pads in the store with your typical mountain biking shirt on if you can. Raise and bend your arms to test the elbow pads’ range of motion.

Pads should be snug but not restrictive or uncomfortable. Straps usually secure them in place. Adjust arm straps so pads will not shift out of position while riding aggressively over uneven ground.

It may take trying several types to determine which elbow pads fit you and your riding style best. Sizing can vary between brands. Take time to ensure the pads move naturally with your body.

Finding the Right Protection Level

The mountain bike trails you tackle most will help determine how much padding you need. Gentler beginner cross country trails allow for more flexible pads. Downhill paths with big jumps and drops may demand hard shells.

As a general rule, more experienced riders wear less bulky protection once skilled enough to avoid most falls. Novices lack that bike handling practice to avoid minor spills. So added cushioning boosts their confidence on rougher rides.

Consider the usual obstacles on your favorite trails. Do they have a lot of exposed rocks, logs to navigate, thorny brush? Or mostly smooth dirt paths?

Frequent crashes also suggest the need for maximum padding thickness. Occasional riders may want moderate soft shell pads for comfort during hours long weekend rides. Racers seek minimal pads that provide some insurance without limiting quick moves.

As your ability progresses, you may need less padding and can switch to less restrictive protection. Let your skill level and ride intensity determine how much cushioning suits your current needs.

Caring for Your Elbow Pads

Investing a little care will prolong the life of good elbow pads. Follow any product specific cleaning guidelines. Use mild soap and water to wipe away dirt and sweat after regular rides. Rinse padding but avoid soaking. Allow pads to fully air dry before storing.

Inspect strapping for damage after each use. Fraying or loose straps mean less stability and protection. Replace any faulty closures so pads stay fixed in position.

Check inner lining and padding thickness as well over time. Flattened foam or ripped mesh reduces cushioning ability. Reduced shock absorbing capacity makes it time to shop for upgraded elbow pads.

Storing pads properly also prevents damage or funky odors. Let all components dry fully first. Then keep pads in a cool, dry spot out of direct sunlight when not riding. Never lock knees or elbows when stacking pads to prevent breaking down padding.

With proper fit, care and replacement when worn, quality elbow pads can provide confidence boosting protection season after season. Invest wisely in the level of cushioning that suits your ride style today with room grow into daring new challenges!

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