When seated on a mountain bike you have three contact points: your butt, your hands, and your feet. Standing up, which you do often on a mountain bike, drops that number to just two contact points. Considering the crucial relationship between your bike and feet, it’s worth spending some time to select the proper footwear.
First off, there is no single best mountain bike shoe for every rider as riding style, pedal preference, terrain, and even the weather can impact your decision. We put together this handy guide to help you select the mountain bike shoes that will work best for your needs. Before we get to the shoes, let’s talk for a moment about pedal choice.
Flats vs. Clipless
Common questions from new riders include, “What pedals should I use?” and “Why are they called clipless pedals if I have to clip into them?” With all the options and confusing terminology, it can be overwhelming.
Back in the day, riders could add a toe clip to their flat pedals to provide a secure interface between their foot and pedal. Since your foot was literally strapped onto the pedal, you and your mountain bike were in it together–for better or worse. If you toppled over or crashed, the bike was coming with you.
In the late 1980s, a new pedal came on the scene. This new pedal required screwing a cleat into the bottom of a shoe. The cleat would lock into the pedal, but a rider could easily disengage by rotating their heel outward. These pedals provided a secure connection, but now without the toe clip. And so, the toe clip less (now, just clipless) pedal was born.
To define them:
- Flat pedals are generally made from aluminum and have a large platform to support your foot, along with a series of pins to increase grip. No special shoes are required.
- Clipless pedals require cycling-specific shoes with a recessed area that can accept a cleat.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages–neither is necessarily better than the other. However, many riders make the jump from flats to clipless too soon. Clipless pedals will mask deficiencies in basic technique that can create other issues down the road. Also, beginner mountain bike riders may be more confident learning fundamental skills with flat pedals, since it’s easy to quickly ditch the bike if needed.
For specific recommendations on pedals, be sure to check out our mountain bike pedals buyer’s guide on the topic. As with most mountain bike gear, the sky’s the limit in terms of price, but there are very affordable choices no matter which type of pedals you choose.
Flat Pedal Mountain Bike Shoes
One of the biggest advantages to flat pedals is the fact that you don’t need any special shoes to ride. Just jump on your bike with whatever shoes you’ve got on your feet! Of course, though, MTB-specific flat pedal shoes will work much better than a typical tennis shoe.
Generally, a flat pedal mountain bike shoe will have a flat sole to maximize the contact area with the pedal. Also, the rubber itself tends to be stickier than what you’d find on a tennis shoe. Stiffness varies from brand to brand, but a flat pedal shoe will be slightly stiffer than your Nikes. Padding and support is also something to consider. Depending on the kind of riding you want to do, some of the DH-specific shoes can be overkill (read: too heavy) outside a bike park. Unfortunately, many companies–flats or clipless–skimp on the insoles, but that’s easily remedied with aftermarket inserts.
Most flat pedal shoes look like overbuilt skate shoes and use standard laces. However, it’s not uncommon to see velcro straps and even Boa laces on some models. If your shoes have laces, be sure to tuck the ends out of the way–you don’t want them getting caught in your pedal or drivetrain!
Clipless Pedal Mountain Bike Shoes
Clipless pedal mountain bike shoes are used for everything from XC racing to DH, so they come in a variety of designs to suit the intended purpose. On the whole, though, they have much stiffer soles than a flat pedal shoe. And, of course, they have a place to mount the required cleat. Entry-level shoes tend to use a nylon shank to provide stiffness, while high-end models use carbon fiber. Stiffness is a good thing, as long as you stay on your bike. Hike-a-biking or even just walking is difficult in a stiff XC shoe. That’s something to consider if your local trails require lots of off the bike time.
Depending on the shoe, the type of tread on the sole will vary greatly. Clipless DH shoes look basically identical to their flat pedal counterparts, just with a spot for a cleat. The tread will be low and minimal. XC and trail shoes will have more aggressive lugs on the sole, but pay attention to the material. Those lugs may look like they’ll provide grip, but if the compound is firm and plasticky, chances are walking on rocks and roots is going to be sketchy. Thankfully, many manufacturers are finally improving the rubber compounds used on the soles of their clipless shoes. This is most often seen on shoes marketed for trail or enduro use.
Closure mechanisms on clipless shoes encompass everything from laces to straps to Boa dials. Entry-level mountain bike shoes tend to get two or three velcro straps, while higher-end models usually add a ratcheting strap and buckle or Boa dials.
As I mentioned in the intro, weather can also impact what shoes will work best for you. In very cold conditions, a typical XC clipless shoe is going to leave you with some very cold toes. XC shoes–and even most trail shoes–are heavily vented to keep your feet from getting too sweaty during the summer. But in the winter, all those vents do is let in cold air. Also, the cleat on a clipless shoe acts as heat sink, drawing warmth away from your foot and into your pedal. Flat pedal shoes tend to have less venting, and the solid rubber sole will help keep your feet warmer.
However, companies do make winter-specific cycling shoes for either flat or clipless pedals. They can be expensive, but they’re a solid investment if you plan to keep riding through the winter. Assuming that your feet are no longer growing, they should last you several years since you’ll wear them less than your “summer” shoes.
Unless you already have a preferred mountain biking shoe (and if you do, why are you reading this?), I would strongly recommend getting your shoes from a local shop or outdoor store. Shoe sizing varies greatly between brands, and not just in terms of length. Some brands are narrower in the midfoot or have really wide toe boxes, for instance.
Pay close attention to your feet. Are there any pressure points? Do seams rub your foot? Walk around the store with the shoes on. Is your heel lifting up with each step? You may be tempted to say a pair of shoes is “good enough,” but any small discomfort will be compounded during a long mountain bike ride.
You’ll also be able to feel differences in sole stiffness and the stickiness of the rubber. Be sure to wear the type of socks you plan to ride in, since that can affect the fit as well. Finally, you may find that you have a preference for one closure mechanism over another.
Click over to page 2 for specific shoe recommendations!