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Mountain biking is a good way to increase your fitness level and enjoy the great outdoors. But learning any new sport can be overwhelming and mountain biking is no exception. The most important thing for new mountain bikers to understand is that becoming a skilled rider is a learning process that can take years to achieve.

The following is a compilation of beginner mountain biking tips to keep you safe, improve your techniques and build your confidence on the bike and trail. By learning these basic mountain biking skills and practices you will be confidently shredding the gnar in no time.

Rider with full-face helmet on rooty downhill trail

Take a Skills Clinic

The best way to safely get started in mountain biking is to take a beginner’s mountain biking clinic. Taking a class and learning proper techniques will save you from developing bad habits or help you break some undesirable habits that perhaps came with you from another cycling discipline.

These clinics typically cover bike maintenance and basic repairs like fixing a flat tire, checking your brakes, and putting your chain back on the ring. You will learn proper body positioning, how to safely dismount, braking and cornering technique, how and when to change gears, and how to pick your line and maneuver small obstacles. A good clinic will also go over safety including what you should carry in your bag, proper protective gear, hydration and nutrition while riding, trail etiquette, and more. 

Group of female mountain bikers in the woods laughing

Clinics can be coed, single-sex, group semi-private, or private and you can find them online. Also, many of the larger mountain biking events hold clinics during the event. Finally, check with your local REI store as they frequently offer clinics.

Tips for Buying Your First Mountain Bike

Purchasing your first bike doesn’t have to be complicated. It will probably come down to a few things: Price, the style of riding you intend to do, and maybe brand loyalty.

A mountain bike can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a used bike to $10K or more for a new top-of-the-line bike. Chances are that if you are a new mountain biker you don’t need the $10K bike. Buying used is perfectly acceptable and in many cases, you can find a lightly used one with more bells and whistles for the same money you’d pay for a new entry-level bike. But if you opt for a used bike, make sure that it is the right size frame for you. (More on this later).

Female at a bike store

Often beginner mountain bikers will borrow a bike to see if they enjoy the sport before committing to the expenditure of a mountain bike purchase. This is a great way to discover what features you want in a bike and get an idea of what riding style you might prefer.

When selecting a mountain bike, consider whether you are planning to ride cross-country (XC) trails or technical downhill runs. Do you see yourself getting into enduro riding which involves steep climbs, tight switchbacks, technical terrain, and massive jumps and drops?  

If you plan to only do XC riding, then you may want to consider a hardtail (front shocks only) but is you intend to ride downhill at ski resorts in the summer or participate in enduro racing then you’ll want a full-suspension bike (front and rear shocks) for the specific sport. 

Woman looking at mountain bikes in a locl bike store

Aside from the style of the bike, sizing is the most important thing to consider because you can purchase a quality well-fitted frame with lesser components and upgrade later.

The only thing I will say about brand loyalty is if you are stuck on a particular manufacturer, you may miss out on a bike with better components, at a lower price, from a lesser-known maker.

Make Sure Your Bike is Properly Fitted and Set Up for You

Once you’ve decided on the features you desire in your new bike consult with a professional local bike shop (LBS) to determine the correct frame size.

Bike fit is more important than the brand or the components on your new mountain bike! An improperly fitted bike will be inefficient, difficult to maneuver, and can cause muscle fatigue and tingling in your extremities. Over the life of your bike, components wear out and you will replace them, whereas a bike that fits you properly is essential for comfort and control.

Bycycle mechanic working on bike

Mountain bikes generally range in size from XS to XXL. What size bike you need depends predominantly on your height. But it is not the only factor in finding the right size bike for you. Another consideration is the geometry of the bike, especially the reach, which is the distance from the seat to the handlebars. If you have a long torso and short legs, you may need a different size bike than a person your same height whose proportions are different.

It is a good idea to ride the bike before making the purchase to see how it feels but keep in mind that the bike may feel wrong and still be the correct size bike. Tell the dealer so the mechanic can fine-tune the bike’s fit. Adjustments to saddle height and position, brake and shifter position, and handlebar length all play a part in a properly fitted bike.

The shocks on your new bike should be set up according to your body weight. Front and rear shocks typically require different amounts of air pressure. Your bike mechanic will adjust the pressure in your shocks before leaving with your new bike.  

Female bike mechanic working on a mountain bike

But as you become more experienced you will likely begin to adjust your own shock pressure. The ability to do this is a good skill to have.  It is easy to do but requires a special shock pump. When you begin making adjustments follow the manufacturer’s recommendations which can typically be found somewhere on the shock. From this point, you can begin to fine-tune the pressure to what feels right for your riding style and conditions.  

Wear the Proper Protective Gear

Protect Your Head

Mountain biking is inherently dangerous. Your safety is paramount! The need to wear a helmet can’t be overstated. At the minimum, you will want to invest in a high-quality helmet that fits snugly and provides adequate protection.

The amount of protection you need will be based on the style of riding you are doing. But as a beginner, you will be sticking to easier cross-country trails where a standard mountain biking helmet will suffice. But if you think you will soon transition to downhill or enduro riding you might want to go directly to a full-face helmet to avoid the need to purchase a new one in the future.

Protect Your Body

You will want to protect your hands. Full-fingered gloves are recommended even in hotter weather because they provide better coverage and more protection from tree limbs, a rock kicking up from the trail, or the occasional swipe of a tree trunk.

Additionally, consider knee and elbow pads to safeguard your limbs during falls, and you will fall. Some riders opt for greater coverage with shin guards in addition to knee pads. That’s up to you but these protective pieces should fit snugly without being restrictive.

If you plan to do more aggressive downhill or enduro riding, then investing in chest and spine protection is a good idea.

Female mountain biker on a rocky trail wearing a full-face helmet

Eye Protection

Protective eyewear is essential to prevent eye injuries. You will probably want to have a pair of clear lenses and tinted lenses for different lighting conditions. It is not uncommon to have a small tree branch graze your face which could easily result in an eye injury. Also, debris like sand, dirt, and even small rocks can fly up from the wheel. This can be a nuisance or can lead to something more severe like a scratched cornea.  

Wear Comfortable Clothing

Whether you go the fitted Lycra route or if baggy shorts and pants are more your style, you will want to be comfortable. You’ll want to opt for moisture-wicking clothing that allows freedom of movement. Additionally, you may want to select clothes that offer protection from the sun. Winter attire should keep you warm, but it should also be breathable because you will sweat even on the coldest days.  The general rule when it comes to dressing for cold weather conditions is to wear one less layer than you think you will need.

Wear the Proper Footwear

Like your clothing choice, your shoes are a matter of preference as well. But here your shoe style will be determined by your pedal choice.

There are two main types of pedals in mountain biking: Clipless (often called SPDs) and flat. While these may sound similar, it’s important to understand the difference. Clipless pedals must be worn with a cleated shoe that locks or clips into the pedal. But with flat pedals, the foot rests on a spiked pedal and requires no specialized shoe. But some options are better than others.

Basic mountain biking gear and footwear

Experienced riders and those from a road bike discipline often prefer clipless pedals and the accompanying shoes because they promote a consistent and efficient pedal stroke. However, there is a bit of a learning curve involved in developing the ability to quickly unclip from the bike.  

But many new, as well as seasoned mountain bikers prefer a flat pedal.  When riding with flat pedals, most riders will wear mountain-bike-specific shoes that have a sturdy “sticky” sole offering optimal pedal grip and protection. While a mountain biking shoe is not required with flat pedals, you will at least want a shoe with a stiff sole and closed toes. A drawback of the flat pedal design is that the rider’s foot can slip from the pedal resulting in painful shin strikes.

Choose the Right Trail for Your Skill Level

Before heading out for your rides research the trails and find one that fits your skill level. As a beginner, you will want to find trails labeled as “easy” or “beginner” also called “green” trails. These trails are typically smoother, flatter, and less technical than the more advanced blue or black trails.

By seeking out suitable trails for your emerging skills you will become accustomed to bike handling and basic techniques while gradually building your confidence. The last thing you want to do is take a bad spill that creates fear and doubt, or worse, an avoidable injury.   

Use Available Technology

Unless you plan to always ride with a group and let someone else lead the way you are going to want to have an app like AllTrails to help you find your way on unfamiliar trails.

Additionally, if you ride alone, it is a good idea to have a way to alert a friend, family member, or first responders in the event of an emergency. Many smartwatches for mountain biking have a fall detection feature that sends GPS coordinates to your contact in the event of a sudden stop or a hard fall. Your cell may also have this capability as well. Be sure it is set up properly.

Always Perform a Pre-ride Bike Safety Check

Before hitting the trails always take a moment to perform a bicycle safety check. This should include making sure your brakes are working properly, the tires are not over or underinflated and your gears and chain are in good working order.

Check Your Tire Pressure

Before hitting the trail always perform a safety check on your bike. You will want to use a pressure gauge to check your tire pressure. The proper amount of air will vary depending on the conditions where you are riding. But when riding a mountain bike, you will want less tire pressure than you might expect.

If you come from a road-riding background, you may be surprised how little air is needed. But riding with lower pressure reduces bounce, grips better, and ensures a smooth and controlled ride.

Tubeless tires will require less pressure than those with tubes.  However, if you are running tubes, take care not to underinflate your tires because this can result in a pinch flat.

There is a bit of trial and error in finding the sweet spot when it comes to tire pressure. But it is something that you will dial in as you gain experience.

Test Your Brakes

You will want to make certain that your brakes are responsive and functional. You can do this by standing beside the bike and while pushing the bike forward, press the front brake. If the rear wheel lifts, you know the brake is functioning well. To check the rear brake, do the same but squeeze the rear brake. It should feel like you are dragging the bike which indicates the rear brake is performing as it should.

Check Your Gears and Chain Condition

Before hitting the trails check that your chain is well-lubricated to prevent unexpected mechanical issues during your ride. Also, take a quick spin in the parking lot to make sure that your gears shift smoothly.

Periodically, it’s a good idea to also check for chain stretch and wear. This can be done with a simple chain wear indicator tool. Getting in the habit of checking your chain for wear can potentially save you a ton of money. This is something I learned after needing to replace two chains and cassettes on two different bikes.

Always Have Enough Hydration and Snacks for Energy

For rides shorter than 90 minutes you shouldn’t need snacks or energy supplements. But for longer mountain bike rides you should be refueling every 60 minutes. Gu Packs, nuts, fresh veggies, and energy gummies are all popular options because they can be eaten on the go. But as a beginner, you will likely be taking breaks and are less limited by what you can consume. whatever you choose for energy replenishment should be nutritious and full of good carbs. 

Hydration on the other hand is critical regardless of the length of your ride. Always make sure you have water on the trail. And you may need more water than you realize. Four to eight ounces every 10 to 20 minutes is recommended. So, for a one-hour ride, you should have at least a 16-ounce water bottle. This is one reason many riders opt for a hydration pack. Many will hold 2 liters of water and you can drink from them without stopping. You can fill your water bottle and have it as your reserve.

Look Where You Want to Go

Have you ever noticed when driving your car that if you look off to the side of the road the car begins to veer in that direction? Well, the same is true in mountain biking. Where you look is where the bike wants to go. If you look at the tree you want to avoid, you will hit it every time.

If you come from a road biking background, you may tend to look down at the front wheel and what is directly in your path. This is a habit you will want to break. In mountain biking your brain needs time to evaluate upcoming conditions so that your body can respond. You don’t want to be right on a feature before seeing it.

In addition to avoiding obstacles, looking where you want to go is a guiding principle for navigating tight turns and switchbacks. If you are coming up on a bend, you will want to look past it and ahead to where you need to be when you come out of the turn. Mastering this skill may seem impossible at times but with practice, you will achieve it.

Mountain biker in a turn looking where he wants to go

Momentum is Your Friend

For many new riders speed is scary. We incorrectly think that going faster increases the chance of getting hurt. But you will soon learn that more falls occur because of a lack of speed than do from moving at a faster pace.

It comes down to basic physics (not that I’m an expert in that area). If you are moving too slowly, inertia and gravity combine, and you fall over unless there is some other force in play. Take a tight turn too slowly and you are bound to topple over. You always want that forward motion, so keep pedaling. 

Maintain the Ready Position

To maintain control and move your bike effectively it is necessary to maintain proper body position. Most of the time when riding you will be in a neutral position with your body weight over the pedals and keeping your elbows slightly bent in what is known as the “ready position.” But don’t become ridged in this position.  

Mountain biker in the ready position

Stay Loose and Relaxed. Remember Light Hands and Heavy Feet

Keeping your shoulders and elbows loose with your chest close to the handlebars lowers your center of gravity and makes steering easier. To confidently maneuver around tight turns at high speeds, keep your feet planted on the pedals while allowing your hips and knees to move independently of the bike. This creates what is known as body-bike separation and it is the difference between an active and passive rider. To achieve that separation, you need to be standing rather than seated on the bike.

Example of body bike seperation on a mountain bike

Remember To Shift Your Weight

On uphill sections, you will want to shift your weight forward bringing your upper body close to the handlebar to maintain traction (for women, remember “Boobs to Bars”). You will want to engage your core and work from there. New riders and riders with poor core strength tend to pull up on the bars during steep climbs. Maintaining the correct position will prevent this.  

When descending, shift your weight slightly back over the rear tire. If you have your weight too far forward on a fast downhill, you become susceptible to an OTB (over the bars) accident. Descents are another time when you will want to drop your seat as it will allow you to shift your weight without the obstruction of your seat.

A NOTE ON DROPPER POSTS: Now feels like a good time to clarify that dropper posts are not essential, and many beginner bikes do not have them. If you have it use it. If you don’t, then don’t sweat it.

female on a mountain bike with weight shifted over back tire

Use Proper Braking Techniques

Always use a combination of front and rear brakes to slow down or stop. Relying too much on your front brake can result in an OTB accident because when the front tire stops suddenly the back end of the bike lifts. Conversely, too much reliance on the rear brake could result in the bike skidding on loose surfaces and losing control.

To avoid braking too hard it is recommended that riders only keep the You should get into the habit of only placing the index fingers on the brakes. This will keep you from braking too hard and potentially going over the bars. Additionally, you will want to learn the technique of “feathering.” This is done by alternating gentle pressure between the front and back brake levers to modulate your speed.

Shift Early and Frequently

Maintaining the proper gear is essential. Whether climbing, coming out of a fast descent, or even on flat terrain, you will want to aim for a consistent pedal cadence that feels comfortable. This will help you maintain momentum and prevent fatigue.

When approaching an ascent, shift to a lower gear before beginning the uphill climb. This will make pedaling easier and allow you to maintain a steady cadence to conserve energy. Additionally, shifting during the climb can cause you to grind the gears which could result in a dropped chain or a broken derailleur.

Mountain biker climbing and on a turn

What goes up, must come down. While making your climb you shifted into a lower gear, so as you are making your descent you are going to need to shift back to a higher gear. Otherwise, you will find yourself pedaling at a cadence that is too fast and getting nowhere when you reach the bottom of the hill.

Learn to Track Stand

Despite having not perfected this myself, I’m including it here because mastering the art of the track stand will elevate your confidence and ability on your mountain biking. The track stand, a fundamental skill, empowers you to maintain an upright stance while stationary on your bicycle.

Why is this skill indispensable? Two words: control and balance. The complex features peppered along the trail such as rock rolls, steep descents, tight switchbacks, and difficult technical ascents, all demand impeccable control and steady balance. If you are unable to maintain that stability at low speeds, you run the risk of falling over.

This doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming; mastering the track stands is attainable with dedicated practice. With just a few minutes a day or practicing before your rides, you can hone this valuable skill and add it to your toolbox of mad skills.   

There are many videos online with tips on mastering this skill, here is just one track standing tutorial I found on YouTube.

Learn to Pick a Line

Line choice is the companion to looking where you want to go.  But what exactly does it mean to pick a line? In simplest terms, it means choosing your path. To do this, you need to be looking ahead on the trail, so your brain has time to begin making calculations that signal your body to maneuver obstacles.

On technical sections like rock gardens, sometimes picking your line means dismounting and walking the trail to evaluate the obstacles and mentally breaking the trail into chunks. This allows you to consider what your body position should be, what you want to avoid, and where you need to brake, shift, or pedal, and then put it all together so you can execute the plan.

Female mountain biker demonstrating picking a line

A word of caution: Experienced riders will tell you to pick your line and stick to it, as sudden course changes can result in poor outcomes.

Ride on a Variety of Trails

It’s easy to get comfortable with your home trails and those trails are critical to building your confidence as a new rider. But once you’ve mastered those trails, it’s time to step outside your comfort zone and try new trails with more challenging terrain. This is how you build confidence and when riding becomes fun.

Always Ride Within Your Capabilities. Safety Comes First

While riding within your capabilities is always important it is even more critical when riding alone. You don’t want to be injured and alone out on a trail. But that said, also, don’t allow yourself to be pressured into riding something you are uncomfortable riding. This doesn’t mean you should never push your limit. But you know if something is beyond your capabilities. In these situations, don’t hesitate to Hike-a-Bike if you must.

Hike a bike across a tight skinny with a switchback

Ride with More Skilled Riders

This might mean people who are faster than you or who have mastered technical skills and terrain that you haven’t yet. But more than likely it means both. It’s important to find a riding buddy or group of riders who can help you fully develop mountain biking skills that will allow you to navigate a variety of trail conditions confidently and joyfully (most of the time).

But not only should the people you ride with be faster and more skilled they should also be supportive and interested in helping you develop new skills. Supportive riders will allow you to stop, walk a trail, and discuss the best way to approach technical features (pick a line). No one should feel pressured to ride anything they aren’t confident they can safely ride.

group of mountain bikes at the summit of a mountain

Riding with others as a newbie can be intimidating. But remember every other rider was once an unskilled new mountain biker. If they’ve invited you to ride, they want you there. Don’t worry that you will hold them up or that you might have to walk a technical section. We’ve all been there.

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