Not only will a good pair of mountain bike shoes offer a better and more personal fit, they will also make you faster, and more efficient depending your choice of mtb pedals.
The mountain bike shoe spectrum is split into two distinct types — clipless shoes or flats, some even combine both pedal systems which allow you to switch between the two depending on the type of terrain or event.
While there’s no right or wrong decision when it comes to purchasing a pair of mountain bike shoes, riding style and preference are likely to influence the final decision.
Flat pedal shoes are reserved for trail, enduro and gravity riding and make for easy manoeuvrability on the bike not to mention superb feedback from the pedals. Clipless shoes, on the other hand, attach the shoe to the pedal by way of a cleat — this system can be used across the mountain bike spectrum. The key factors to consider before buying a pair of mountain bike shoes are listed below.
If you're unsure what you're looking for, you can skip to our advice on what to look for when buying your next mountain bike shoes.
Best beginner's MTB shoes
Despite the minimalist appearance, the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Flow is an excellent shoe for those looking to get into mountain biking for the first time. There’s nothing fancy here, the X-Alps offer an uncomplicated lace-up system wrapped in a casual package.
The dual-compound sole features a combination of what Pearl Izumi calls chevron lugs and strategically placed rubber siping (cut pattern) for optimal flat-pedal grip. And they work really well, supplying generous levels of purchase and manoeuvrability.
The X-Alps could offer better protection around the ankles and toes but for the price, you can’t be too fussy - this is an entry-level mountain bike shoe that does the business.
Best flat MTB shoes
It’s hard to beat the Five Ten Freerider Pro when it comes to comfort and performance. While it doesn’t possess the thickest of outsoles, it still delivers impressive pedal feel and grip — the latter coming compliments of the dotted Stealth S1 rubber compound.
The thick upper material offers good ventilation and reinforced protection around the toe and heel area and is relatively easy to keep clean.
The fit is truly superb with laces the primary means of retention. This particular model makes use of a clever lace keeper which holds everything in place to prevent them from eventually coming undone.
Possibly the best looking flat shoe on the market, the Specialized 2FO flat shoe has raised the bar as far as all-round performance and fit is concerned. It focuses heavily around foot protection with raised inside ankle padding, cushioned uppers and a foam-capped toe box to shield you from rock strikes and the like.
Out on the trails is where it truly shines, providing superlative grip thanks to the tacky SlipNot 2.0 rubber sole and lug pattern, which has been engineered to conform to the pedal for improved traction and control.
Despite the focus on protection and performance, the Body Geometry footbed and secure lace-up retention system add a dollop of comfort.
The Giro Riddance represents one of the company’s most popular flat-pedal trail shoes and comes in a selection of three colour options, blue, red and black.
The Vibram Megagrip ISR rubber compound is supportive on the pedal but lacks outright traction, leaving you constantly backing off or adapting your riding so as not to bounce and slip off the pedal. The rubber used on the sole is simply too hard and has pingy rather than damped characteristics.
An EVA vibration-damping footbed ensures high levels of comfort while the uppers are composed of a microfibre material for improved ventilation and moisture resistance. Rubberised toe and heel pads add an extra layer of protection to package.
Bontrager’s first foray into the world of flat shoes has culminated in the Flatline and it’s an impressive-looking shoe, to say the least. Featuring a standard lace-up system, the Flatline’s Vibram rubber sole complete with unique tread pattern is designed to offer a combination of grip and comfort.
Compared to its flat-shoe rivals it can feel loose initially, particularly around the instep of the foot — but that’s quickly solved by tugging on the laces for a tighter more conforming fit.
The Flatline’s most endearing quality, however, is the minimalist nature of the design and easy-to-clean synthetic leather uppers. They’re available in a choice of red or black.
Best clipless MTB shoes
There’s something oddly attractive about a beautifully crafted lace-up shoe and Giro has been at the forefront of this resurgence. Lace-ups are generally pretty light too and lack any fidgety parts such as ratchets that can get damaged in the event of a crash.
Sure, they’re not everybody’s cup of tea but the company’s new Code Techlace shoe might change perceptions. Unlike regular laces that require tight pulling and tying to secure the foot (something that can come loose at some point) the Techlace system allows you to alter the lace tension on the fly via Velcro straps, while a Boa dial ensures a snug and secure fit.
If that’s not enough, the Code comes with Easton EC70 carbon soles finished off with Vibram rubber tread for added protection and grip.
Scott’s MTB Team Boa represents the middle ground in the company’s cross-country shoe range. Stealth in appearance, it benefits from a Boa retention system which adds to the premium feel. In fact, the performance and comfort are of such an impressive level that these could easily be mistaken for the flagship MTB RC model.
A reinforced heel cup supplies a slip-free pedalling action that is backed up by an impressively stiff nylon/fibreglass sole with rubberised tread.
Performance aside, it’s the way these shoes feel that sets them apart. Not only is there a roomy toe box, but the ErgoLogic insole support system also allows you to tailor the footbed by way of swappable segments for an improved fit.
Ideal for gravel grinding, cyclo-cross and cross-country mountain biking the Specialized S-Works Recon is a state of the art shoe designed to prioritise performance over everything else. As a result, the shoe is as light as you’d expect, 270g to be precise.
Specialized says neither of these attributes has negatively impacted the S-Works Recon’s ergonomics and claims the Body Geometry sole and footbed has been optimised to nullify injury and promote the best possible foot alignment.
Off the bike, the Specialized Recons provide excellent grip and support thanks to rubberised inserts but the stiff soles become somewhat uncomfortable when it comes time to hike-a-bike.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these were road shoes such is the refinement and sophistication of the Shimano XC7 MTB shoes. Unlike the RC7 road shoe equivalent, the XC7 has a more forgiving carbon middle sole – you know, for when you’re required to dismount and push up a steep, unrideable climb.
They feature a full Michelin rubber outsole for better grip and added comfort – it all looks and feels very premium. Breathability is excellent, as is the retention which comprises two Boa dials for easy, on-the-fly adjustability.
Like the Bontrager Cambion, the shoes also benefit from a cat-like-tongue fabric on the heel cup to prevent ankle lift.
The Cambion sits just below the flagship XXX model in Bontrager’s MTB shoe hierarchy, the same shoe upon which it is based. Unlike many shoes on the market, the Cambion is bereft of any sort of ratchet system choosing to employ a Boa dial and Velcro straps instead.
The textured surfaces used in its construction not only add another dimension to its visual prowess, but they’re also functional, too. Take the heel cup, for instance – it’s lined with a cat-tongue-like material, so your foot doesn’t slip out during hard efforts.
The stiff carbon sole is layered in grippy abrasion-resistant Tachyon tread blocks which not only protect the shoes from getting butchered by rocks, stones and gravel they also provide an excellent walking platform should the need to dismount arise.
Best mountain bike shoes: What you need to know
Sole stiffness and durability
Outer soles are made from carbon fibre, nylon or rubber; each of which differ in terms of performance and application. For instance, carbon fibre is a stiff, performance-bent material that features more on cross-country-style shoes. Nylon isn't as stiff as carbon but is more durable and offers better comfort, while rubber is used exclusively on flat shoes as it provides better grip, feedback and comfort.
There are various retention systems that provide a secure and comfortable fit, namely: laces; Velcro; Techlace (lace and Velcro mix); ratchet and Boa dials, each of which has its benefits. In some cases, two of these systems can be combined for a more personal and tailored fit.
Lighter isn’t necessarily better when it comes to mountain bike shoes. You’ll often find the lighter end of the scale geared more towards cross-country riding as this discipline demands maximum power transfer and efficiency but unless you’re Nino Schurter, the performance benefits are not always worth the sacrifice in terms of comfort and price. Try and look for a durable shoe that offers good support and comfort before looking for marginal gains.