The Guide to Dirt Cheap Mountain Bike Clothing

Photo: Hannah Morvay

We get it. Not everyone wants to fork out $150 for a pair of mountain bike shorts, nor do they need to. That could be a monthly payment on a new bike, a car payment, or a set of new tires.

Considering that it makes sense to have a few pairs of bike shorts and a few jerseys lying around, few people want to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a comprehensive mountain bike wardrobe. So here are a few options and alternatives to expensive mountain bike apparel that you’re likely already aware of, and some that might be new.

What’s the difference?

A wall of fabric at Pearl Izumi headquarters in Colorado.

If the prices of a mountain bike didn’t outright shock me when I first started riding, then the clothing prices did. Whenever you’re getting into a new hobby, the amount of gear you need and the price tags can be shocking, especially all at once.

After spending over a thousand dollars on my first full-suspension bike, I realized I also needed a helmet, a pair of shoes that would work well with flat pedals, glasses, and gloves. Somehow, I’d need to fund my trips to Moab and the bike park as well.

Having BMXed for years as a kid, wearing skate shoes from the mall, because flat pedal bike shoes weren’t really a thing then, I knew that a pair of $40 Vans would suffice. I could cover my torso and legs in Under Armour gym shirts and cargo shorts and still kind of look like a mountain biker, because Lycra certainly wasn’t an option at that point.

Over time, I realized the value (being less sweaty) that bike-specific gear presented over my budget-minded alternatives, I slowly bought more bike-specific jerseys, shorts, shoes, gloves, and glasses. Spreading out the cost over time, like buying a few new shirts every year before the first day of school, was more realistic than buying a bunch of nice gear at once.

The main difference I’ve discovered is comfort, fit, breathability, and durability. I know some of my credibility is torn here, since apparel brands regularly send us their nicest kits, but without a doubt, there is a notable difference between a $125 merino jersey and an old cotton tee. A nice piece of cycling kit will breathe better, fit better, and hold up better year over year, although we all have a limit on what we’re comfortable spending. That’s not to say you should or need to spend that much money; just that there is a noticeable difference.

Pearl Izumi’s tumble-testing machine for its fabrics.

In the podcast linked below, Singletracks editor-in-chief Jeff Barber interviewed Ryan White from Pactimo about mountain bike apparel and some of the associated costs. Yes, apparel is generally more expensive because it’s from a mountain bike brand. That’s not because these CEOs are scheming to rip us off, but because the clothes are made on a smaller scale. They are using more complicated fabrics and taking more time to make a better fit. Outdoor brands, by and large, have been committing to more recycled fibers and earth-friendly approaches which box store brands might not offer.

For those just getting started or anyone not interested in buying into mountain bike specific apparel, here are some low-cost alternatives.

Shoes

Photo: Hannah Morvay

Seemingly, hiking or running shoes are a good option for mountain biking. They are made to breathe well, withstand the rigors of the trail, and made with athletic movement in mind. The best bike shoes that I’ve found that aren’t made by a bike brand like 5.10 or Ride Concepts are a pair of Vans with the waffle pattern sole, and they have a pretty short lifespan.

There’s a lot to think about in a bike shoe, but I’d say the most important thing is grip, which is what Vans or another mass-market skate shoe will do relatively well. The gummy, flat sole is a much better option for a flat pedal than a hiking or running shoe, which is made to grip uneven terrain with large, spaced knobs.

Where Vans and other alternatives fall short of an actual mountain bike shoe is durability, toe protection, and sole stiffness. Shoes that aren’t made for extreme sports usually don’t have a (non-steel) reinforced toe, and stubbing your toe on a stump at 12MPH hurts a lot more than the bed frame in the middle of the night. Sole stiffness is usually not a first thought either. Mountain bike shoes are made to transfer power into the pedals and add stability.

Singletracks contributor Chris Schieffer says that her son has done well with these Chaco Torrent Pro Water Shoes. The sole is mostly flat with good grip and has toe protection.

While something like a pair of Vans or running shoes will do the trick for a while, consider looking at online retailers like JensonUSA or Backcountry to find discounts on shoes made the previous year that haven’t sold. Giro, 5.10, and Ride Concepts all make shoes that sell for around $100, and after some time you might be able to find a discount on them.

Shorts

What’s your go-to mountain bike short that isn’t a mountain bike short? In the beginning, mine was hot, baggy cargo shorts. Gym shorts are obviously a popular choice. All of these options have their pros and cons compared to a pair of well-made mountain bike shorts. A pair of mountain bike shorts still offers a lot compared to the convenient options mentioned, but obviously come with a higher price tag.

Yes, gym shorts are breathable and comfy, but they’ll likely shift out of place after a trip over the bars, and they might not do as good of a job repelling rain, stopping tears, or clearing the tip of your saddle. Loose open pockets probably aren’t the most secure stash point for keys or a phone either.

Singletracks tech editor Gerow says that a pair of Dickies shorts work well, since they are tough and cheap. He rides sans-chamois as well to save a few more bucks, though that might take some time to adjust.

Co-founder and EIC Jeff says that to get more mileage out of his dedicated bike shorts and spread out the cost, he’ll wear bike shorts off the bike as well, with so many casual options these days. I’ve done the same with my Club Ride or Flylow shorts, and they make the $100 price tag more bearable.

Then, there are always jorts. Singletracks contributor Chris says “go to Goodwill, find stretchy jeans, cut them off – TADA! $7.99, tops.”

Brands like Zoic, Fox, and Pearl Izumi are usually made on a massive scale and are easy brands to find discounts on near the end of the year. Online retailers like evo Backcountry have started to make their own mountain bike apparel too at a reasonable cost.

Jerseys

Image: Under Armour

Jerseys might be the best piece of kit to save money on. While a cotton pair of shorts is going to be less than ideal due to the amount of movement happening at the legs and hips, there is a lot more opportunity for airflow and breathability up top.

A cotton tee shirt may not be very breathable and will perform awfully expelling moisture, but it’ll work just fine for a short lunch ride. Singletracks co-founder and EIC Jeff says he often cuts the sleeves off an old cotton t-shirt for more airflow and to keep the sweat down.

Under Armour and Nike athletic shirts probably offer the most bang for the buck. For example, this Nike performance t-shirt made from polyester is $25 on Dick’s Sporting Goods, and for the wearer, there isn’t much different compared to a lot of MTB jerseys out there. They might not manage stink as well as a dedicated MTB jersey, but it’s probably not a big deal if it’s only getting worn once before a wash. Of course, there are similar and even more affordable options at Target and other department stores.

Glasses

A good pair of glasses can be hard to find as well. Often, people will run to the hardware store or gas station for a cheap pair of eyewear and as a shield from trail fodder, that will do just fine in most cases.

Where they might pale in comparison, is in reducing UV rays or enhancing contrast on forest floor features.

Bike-specific glasses also often have adjustable nose pieces and temples, or even sizes to get the right fit, not to mention venting. If you’ve ever ridden with a pair of glasses that doesn’t have a single vent on it, you’ll understand just how warm things can get under the lenses and how bad salty eyes can feel. Gerow interviewed a bike optics engineer, so for a lot more information on the topic, check out the article.

There are a few athletic brands out there that make great glasses that aren’t an arm and a leg. Optic Nerve is a good option, as is Tifosi and Ryders Eyewear.

Gloves

Dirt Gloves are made for MTB and only $25. Photo: Hannah Morvay

Gloves are also an easy place to avoid spending too much money. Who hasn’t worn a pair of Mechanix gloves or had a friend that wore them on a ride? Likely, no one needs to spend $50 on a pair of riding gloves, and it’s very easy not to do that these days.

Handup and Dirt Gloves make mountain bike specific gloves that sell for $25-30 and offer the perfect amount of fabric and grip, compared to something like a construction glove which could be a little too thick or loose.

Socks

Yes, there are sock companies that put your favorite design or state flag right there on the top of the sock for all to see. At $15-20 a pair, this is another place where you can easily save money.

Mountain bikers usually prefer a mid or high-top sock to fend off pebbles between the toes, and you can track down a pack of Nike athletic socks for less than $20. A pair of socks like these have no noticeable disadvantage compared to any other bike sock out there.

There you have it. What did we miss and where is your favorite place to save money on mountain bike apparel?

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