When it comes to mountain bike tires, there are a ton of choices out there (there are nearly 300 different models listed on singletracks alone). But how to decide which tires are best? Luckily slapping new skins on your wheels is an easy upgrade – just follow these tips to find the right mountain bike tire to suit your riding style.
This is probably a no-brainer for most folks but be sure you’re looking at tires that will actually fit your wheels. Mountain bike tire sizes typically look like this: 26×2.10 or 29×2.25 where the first number before the ‘x’ is the wheel diameter in inches. Most mountain bikes have 26-inch wheels; 29ers have 29-inch wheels. If you see a tire that’s labeled in centimeters (700×23 for example) it’s probably for road bikes.
The second number in the tire size mentioned above is the width of the tire (in inches). Values can range from as little as 1.5 to 2.6 on the high end. Essentially skinnier tires roll faster (lower resistance) but they aren’t good in loose conditions (think of a road bike here). Fatter tires handle well in loose conditions and can absorb big hits but they’re slower rolling. Keep in mind that some bike frames may encounter clearance issues with fat tires; check with your bike manufacturer to find the maximum tire size you can use. In general, XC tires will feature narrower widths while more aggressive Trail and DH tires will be wider.
Carcass and TPI
All bike tires feature a “carcass” of woven fibers that basically acts like a skeleton embedded into the rubber itself. This cloth carcass is often rated in terms of threads per inch or “TPI” (sorta like thread count in bedsheets). A high TPI tire (120 and up) will be more supple and lighter weight but this can leave the tire more prone to punctures and pinch flats. Low TPI tires (60 and below) are heavier and more durable but without the same ability to “give” based on the terrain.
In addition, Trail and DH tires may be armored and/or double-ply to increase durability.
If there’s both an art and science to creating the best mountain bike tire, tread pattern is definitely the “art” side of the equation. Intuitively it makes sense that long, pointy knobs will grip better than short, smooth knobs so the way a tire looks is important in making your selection. Also be sure to take note of knob spacing which can affect grip and mud shedding properties. Beyond that, tires are typically grouped into a few groups based on the tread pattern:
- Low rolling resistance: This category can run the gamut from completely slick (for riding exclusively on the road) to semi-slick to XC-type tires. If you plan on riding off road, pay attention to the side knobs which will help with cornering.
- Maximum grip: These tires may be marketed as “wet” or “loose” condition tires and work well for climbing and more aggressive downhill riding.
- All ’rounders: You guessed it – these tires attempt to blend low rolling resistance with good gripping properties.
Center knobs are the workhorses on any MTB tire while the side knobs assist in cornering. Transition knobs affect handling as you move from cornering to straight-line riding.
Unless you’re a materials scientist, understanding the various rubber compounds used in mountain bike tires isn’t necessary. Instead, keep this in mind:
- Soft tire compounds are sticky and grippy but they wear our quickly.
- Firm tire compounds wear more slowly but don’t grip as well.
These days, many mountain bike tires are “dual compound” and feature a softer compound on the side knobs for improved grip with a firmer compound on the center knobs for longer tire life. Race tires may feature a single soft compound with superior grip but are often “used up” after just a couple rides.
The tire bead is basically the lipped edge of the tire that seats inside your rims. The man decision here is wire bead or kevlar (the same stuff that’s used in bullet-proof vests). Kevlar is lighter weight (Sheldon Brown says Kevlar saves about 50g per tire) but typically adds to the price of the tire. In addition, Kevlar tires are “foldable” and may be more difficult to mount than a wire bead tire.
Front vs. Rear and Forward vs. Backward
Some mountain bike tires are sold as front/rear specific while others are marketed as suitable for both front and rear. Some riders swear by riding matched pairs of tires while others choose two different tires for front and rear. For example, running a low rolling resistance tire up front with a grippy tire in back can improve climbing while reducing friction up front.
Most tires are uni-directional meaning you’ll need to pay attention to the way you mount them on your wheels to get maximum performance. Some tires, however, are bi-directional (reversible) and may even exhibit different characteristics depending on which direction they’re rolling.
Tubeless vs. Tubed
Some mountain bike tires are marketed as tubeless, tubeless-ready, or UST which means they can be used with a tubeless wheel set up. There are advantages and disadvantages to running tubeless so we recommend reading discussions like this one to decide which set-up is best for you. Many tires that are not explicitly marketed as tubeless-ready can be successfully used without tubes but may take a bit of trial and error.
Specialty Mountain Bike Tires
Mountain bike tires aren’t just for riding dirt – here are some specialty tires you might come across.
- Studded tires: These tires have metal studs embedded in the knobs to improve grip in snowy and icy conditions.
- Super fat tires: Bikes like the Surly Pugsley can take tires up to 3.7 inches wide which are great for riding on top of the snow.
- Slicks: These tires are usually very narrow and offer zero knobs, perfect for cruising asphalt at high speeds.
- DJ/Urban: 26-inch tires with characteristics that have been optimized for dirt jump, urban, and/or park riding.
As you can see there’s a lot to consider when choosing a mountain bike tire but don’t let this all info overwhelm you. Here’s a list of tires we recommend as good starting points no matter what kind of riding you’re into (the list is ordered randomly). Want more? Check out all the singletracks tire reviews or view the best mountain bike tires according to our members.
DH Tires: Not necessarily the best climbing tires. Instead, these skins are super durable and should corner well in extreme conditions.
- Maxxis High Roller UST: good for medium to wet conditions; excellent cornering.
- Schwalbe Wicked Will: great for hardpack, rocks, and rooted terrain.
- WTB Dissent 2.5, 2.3: intermediate/loose conditions (either dry or moist).
- ITS 909: soft to intermediate conditions.
Trail / AM Tires: Designed to be good “all around” tires for climbing, cornering, descending, and everything in between.
- Maxxis Ardent: great for a variety of terrain including rocky, rooted trails.
- Maxxis Ignitor: low rolling resistance, good multi-condition tire.
- WTB WeirWolf: classic design with square edges for great braking performance.
- Specialized Eskar: good all-in-one tire and a decent climber.
- Kenda Nevegal: excellent on hardpack with extra bite for the climbs.
XC / Race Tires: Lightweight and typically fast rolling.
- Schwalbe Rocket Ron: fast rolling, good for hardpack and intermediate to soft conditions.
- Kenda Small Block 8: good cornering and fast rolling.
- Michelin XCR Dry2: shines on hardpack with decent cornering.
- Maxxis Aspen: corners and climbs well in medium conditions.
XC / Training Tires: Budget friendly tires that will last mile after mile.