The best mountain bike shorts or baggies came to be because mountain bikers didn't want to look like roadies. It started with downhillers and has since permeated through mountain biking all the way to cross-country riders, and even quite a few drop-bar gravel grinders, too.
But there is more to it than just style; the best mountain bike shorts offer a bit more protection from the trail itself and grabby fauna because the materials are more robust than Lycra. Most also receive a DWR or durable water repellent treatment that will cause water to bead and runoff, rather than soaking straight into the fabric.
We've also got a separate guide to the best women's mountain bike shorts with our top picks for female riders.
The best mountain bike shorts come in all shapes and sizes, but more riders are slipping on a pair over the top of their bibs or short liners for the casual style, and some could almost double as everyday shorts. However, they maintain technical features like zippered pockets, vents and a reinforced crotch.
Best mountain bike shorts
Swedish outfit POC makes its resistance shorts in three different cuts; XC, Enduro and DH (also available in women's specific versions of each cut). From the former to the latter, the inseam gets longer and the fit baggier to accommodate the increasing levels of padding for each riding style.
The shorts are all made from four-way stretch fabric, each is 'pre-shaped' with more material on the front of the knees and a taller back of the waist to offer a better fit in the riding position. What makes these shorts unique is the built-in Cordura and Vectran tear-resistant panels strategically placed to provide optimal protection in a crash.
If you're anything like us, you hate riding with a mountain bike backpack, which often means making hard choices when it comes to bringing tools or an extra energy bar. As a part of its SWAT system, Specialized has allowed us to indulge our packrat tendencies with the latest Mountain Liner bibs. With three road-style pockets on the braces and two elasticated pockets on the thighs, you can nearly bring the kitchen sink with you.
With a high-quality chamois, the VaporRize mesh fabric that makes up the majority of the short is designed for cooling and lightweight. However, you will want to pair these with your favorite baggies as the material is fairly translucent and shows off a bit more than anybody wants to see.
Patagonia is far from the first big outdoor brand to start making mountain bike gear, but I'd argue they've done it pretty well. The Dirt Roamer shorts are made from 87% recycled four-way stretch pedal-friendly polyester and see sonic-welded seams throughout the entire short. There is no ventilation to speak of, but the fabric is so light you don't need it. They are slim-fitting and feature a scalloped knee and tall back, yet don't suffer from an overly XC fit like the brand's first mountain bike shorts, the Dirt Craft.
Instead of Velcro waist adjusters, the Dirt Roamers feature what Patagonia calls the 'Opposite closure' which uses a piece of webbing connected to the button closure and zippered fly. The Dirt Roamers only feature a single pocket, which limits what you can carry, but it's well placed, meaning your phone or keys won't flop around as you pedal.
As the name suggests, Morvelo's Rise and Descend are a pair of trail shorts that are designed to take on all riding and get R.A.D. while doing so. Four-way stretch gives the freedom to through shapes while the ripstop fabric wards off tears when it goes wrong. The shorts also get a DWR treatment for when the weather is unpleasant and vents for when the weather is too nice.
Two front pockets give some storage and rear zippered pockets stop your keys and coins from flying out down the trail. Morvelo's Rise and Descend are available in both men's and women's versions. Simple styling means you won't look out of place in the pub after a ride as well.
Made from medium-weight two-way stretch ripstop fabric with a Durable Water Repellent finish to ward off puddle splashes and dirt. The Fox Ranger has a middle-of-the-road fit, with room for the best knee pads for mountain biking, but the legs are still trim enough not to get in the way while you pedal. The crotch sits high, so it's not going to snag on your saddle and the combo of two hip pockets and a small zippered cargo pocket do well to keep their contents stable and out of the way.
The Ranger shorts don't feature velcro size adjusters or a built-in belt system, instead, it uses a goggle strap-inspired system that offers plenty of adjustment, which most of all keeps your pants up. They do come with a detachable dual-density liner, which isn't terrible as far as included liners go, but we still prefer to use our own.
We are big fans of Troy Lee Design and have used the same pair of shorts for a number of years now and, despite the rough and tumbles of enduro racing and backcountry epics, they are holding up incredibly well.
The 2020 Flowline shorts strike a balance between pedaling efficiency and toughness so they are as suited to nipping out for a casual trail ride as they are turning to something more gravity orientated. The legs are baggy enough to comfortably accommodate knee pads and waistband grippers help stop them from sliding down mid-descent.
Best mountain bike shorts: what you need to know
Inner vs outer
If you're looking to swap your lycra for baggy mountain bike shorts, you'll often see terms such as inner shorts and outer shorts. It may seem nonsensical to wear two pairs of riding shorts, but it's not all that different from your undies and your regular pants. The inner shorts or liner will be tight-fitting, made from highly wicking breathable fabric and feature a chamois. They come in both shorts and bibs, and some have pockets on the braces similar to a road jersey.
Most outer shorts are BYO liner and this is because everybody has their own personal preference - you can also wear road bibs or shorts here, too, but they don't breathe quite as well. Some shorts do come with a short liner, we have often found that included inner shorts will be of lesser quality, especially in the chamois and fit.
Even if your shorts match your exact dimensions on the size chart, you're still going to want some adjustability in the waist which often comes in the form of Velcro pulls on the waistband. We prefer shorts with the adjustment on the outside because it's easier to access and won't irritate your skin or eat up inner shorts; the downside is that the adjusters can catch on things like the inside of your jersey. We are also seeing a lot of brands incorporate webbing and buckle-based adjustments, which work well, but can be damaged in a crash and leave you stuck with your pants down.
We also like shorts with belt loops, which in combination with elastic belts like those from Arcade keep your pants right where they should be and interface well with bum bags, too.
When you go for a mountain bike ride, you're going to have your phone, keys and maybe a bar or gel to take along, among other things. Cargo pockets can hold plenty of gear but are susceptible to swinging as you pedal and I've had more than a few gels pop inside pockets in a crash. Hip pockets tend to place gear on top of your thigh and are less susceptible to movement or crash damage. Provided they are deep enough they shouldn't need a zipper.
Depending on the style of riding you're doing, you may be looking for a short that doesn't restrict pedaling motion or possibly something a bit burlier with room for knee pads, offering a bit of abrasion resistance. Shorts targeted at XC riders will be more form-fitting, slightly shorter in length and made from lighter materials. Gravity-oriented shorts will be made from heavier materials and will be longer and baggier for more coverage and to make room for armor.
At the very least, the best mountain bike shorts should have a snap button closure or maybe even two. If the shorts you are looking at trade a zip fly for something else like Velcro, avoid like the plague.
While we often focus solely on the technical aspects of gear, style is equally important. No matter how technically sound a product is, if it makes you look like Vince Noir from the Mighty Boosh out on the trail, it's probably going to stay in your drawer.