Mountain biking might sound hardcore—and of course, it certainly can be—but there are trails and environments for pretty much every skill level. Whether you have years of tackling rough roads under your belt or you’re a beginner blazing through less-intense trails, there’s a mountain bike – and an off-road experience – for you. That said, there are many different types of mountain bikes out there and finding the best mountain bike for your needs may require you to contend with a slew of unfamiliar technology and terminology. Trends shift seemingly overnight and changes in tire widths, wheel sizes, components and frame geometries can make the process a little bit confusing. For example, 26-inch wheels were all the rage several ago, but now they’re nowhere to be found.
So what kind of mountain bike do you need? Not only should you understand the basics of today’s mountain bike design, but it’s also important be honest about your own riding ability and style. What kinds of trails do you intend to ride? Are they soft and rolling or are they steep and rugged? Will there be tons of trees, rocks, debris, and obstacles, or are you mostly looking for a rugged bike for casual riding? Our tips section at the end will provide some additional guidance to help choose the right type of mountain bike before forking over your hard earned cash.
And while buying a new bike can be a big decision, don’t sweat it too much. Save the sweating for the trail this summer. We’re here to take some of the stress out of buying a new mountain bike with our thoroughly-researched favorites in each category.
Best Mountain Bike Overall
The Swiss Army Knife Of Mountain Bikes
Best Entry Level Mountain Bike
Don’t Break The Bank On Your First Set Of Wheels
Best Mountain Bike Under $500
A Great Value For Basic Off-Road Exploration
Best Mountain Bike Under $1000
A High-Spec Hardtail At An Affordable Price
Best Enduro Mountain Bike
For Tackling The Most Challenging Trails
Best Hardtail Mountain Bike
A Ride That Helps You Get In The Flow
Best Electric Mountain Bike
A Little Assistance On Climbs And Long Rides
Best Women’s Mountain Bike
Great Components, An Affordable Frame Made With Women in Mind
What Are The Types Of Mountain Bikes?
When you’re ready to buy a mountain bike, the first decision you need to make is what type of mountain bike you need. Cross country (XC), trail, enduro, downhill—what does it all mean? Generally, mountain bikes are classified by the amount of suspension as well as frame geometry. When choosing the type of mountain bike, you need to consider the terrain you plan to ride the most.
An XC bike is generally lightweight with 120mm or less of travel up front. Designed to go fast and crush climbs, many XC bikes are hardtails (they have front suspension only) or come with very minimal suspension in the rear. These bikes are perfect for those that race, ride long distances or normally ride fast, flowy, not-too-technical trails.
More popular: so-called trail bikes, which are known for their ability to climb and descend equally well and are capable on a wide variety of terrain. Trail bikes add more suspension than XC bikes—somewhere between 120mm to 150mm of travel in the front and back—and feature a more relaxed geometry. This is the type of bike you want to buy if you are looking for a do-it-all one-bike quiver.
Enduro bikes were originally built for races where riders have to pedal uphill under their own power but only the downhill sections of the course are timed. These bikes add a bit more suspension than a trail bike—generally from 140mm to 180mm in front and back. They’re designed for those willing to earn their ride but are really in it for the technical downhill and airtime on trail candy.
Downhill bikes are designed for those who want to skip the pedaling and ride only chairlift-accessed laps at the bike park or take on shuttle-accessed terrain. With anywhere from 170mm to 250mm of travel in the rear and 180mm to 200mm up front, these bikes are for highly skilled riders looking to bomb down steep, gnarly terrain.
What To Consider When Buying A Mountain Bike
Now that you’ve chosen the type of mountain bike you need, there are a few more things to consider such as budget, frame size, wheel size and components.
The single most important consideration is the size of the frame. Proper sizing and fit is critical not just for your comfort while riding, but also to maximize your body’s output, making you a more efficient rider who’s able to ride further distances. Your local bike shop (or the manufacturer’s website) can help you determine which size bike would fit you best. If you are right between two sizes, sizing up will give you more stability, while going with the smaller size will give you a more maneuverable bike. Not only is it important to support these local resources, but doing so up front means you’re less likely to have to visit your local bike shop again to tweak an ill-fitting frame.
When it comes to wheel size, consider whether you prefer the playful maneuverability of a 27.5-inch wheel mountain bike or the speed and rollover ability of a 29er. Taller riders tend to prefer a 29-inch wheel, while shorter riders may want to opt for a 27.5-inch wheel. Many manufacturers spec their wheels differently according to frame size to help with the decision, so be sure to do your research.
Once you have chosen a frame and set of wheels, it’s time to consider components, which often determine the overall end price of a mountain bike. This is where your budget comes into play and the sky’s the limit in terms of possibilities. Regardless of whatever upgrades you may choose for your bike, make sure it has good brakes and appropriate gearing for whatever terrain you plan to ride.