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Best mountain bike shorts 2019: offering class-leading protection, ventilation and storage

Fox Ranger Cargo mountain bike shorts
(Image credit: Fox Clothing)

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 run off, rather than soaking straight into the fabric.

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: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Inner vs outer

If you're looking to swap your Lycra for baggy MTB shorts, you'll often see terms like 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 short 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 shorts or bibs here too, but they don't breathe quite as well. Some shorts do come with a short liner, we have found often included inner shorts will be of lesser quality, especially in the chamois and fit. 

Adjustability

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. I prefer shorts with the adjustment on the outside because they are easier to access and won't irritate your skin or eat up inner shorts; the downside is that they can catch on things like the inside of your jersey. I'm 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.

I 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. 

Pockets

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 in side 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.

Fit

Depending on the style of riding you're doing, you may be looking for a short that doesn't restrict pedalling 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 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 armour. 

Fly

At the very least, 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. 

Style

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. 

THE BEST MOUNTAIN BIKE SHORTS

Stylish, comfortable and with plenty of storage: the Fox Ranger Cargo 

(Image credit: Fox Clothing)

1. Fox Ranger Cargo

A great do-it-all option from Fox Clothing

Pockets: Hip and cargo | Liner: Removable | Inseam: 12in

Durable fabric
Cargo pockets hold contents close to the leg
Size adjuster
No zipper fly

Made from medium weight two-way stretch fabric, the Fox Ranger Cargo has a middle-of-the-road fit, with room for pads, 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 zippered cargo pockets on either leg do well to keep their contents stable and out of the way.

While the Ranger Cargo shorts don't feature Velcro size adjusters, they do have a built-in belt system that offers plenty of adjustment, which most of all keeps your pants up. They do come with a detachable liner, which isn't terrible as far as included liners go, but we still prefer to use our own.

Bontrager Rhythm mountain bike shorts

Bontrager's Rhythm shorts are lightweight yet crash-resistant (the fabric, not you)

(Image credit: Bontrager)

2. Bontrager Rhythm

Well thought out shorts for taking on the trails

Pockets: Hip and cargo | Liner: BYO | Inseam: 14in

Integrated belt
Vent holes provide noticeable airflow
Fit works across riding styles
Not much stretch in the fabric

Made from featherweight material that's surprisingly crash resistant, the Bontrager Rhythm shorts feature a couple of laser-cut vents on the inside of the leg for extra cooling. There's room for knee pads, and the rear features a higher cut at the back to prevent the sun from shining where it shouldn't. 

There isn't much stretch in the fabric, but the looser fit prevents awkward pulling or bunching. Like the Fox Ranger Cargo, Bontrager's Rhythm shorts feature an integrated belt instead of velcro adjusters, which can be cinched with one hand and a double snap closure at the top. With two deep hip pockets, inside there is a 'drop-in' pocket that helps to prevent something like your phone from bouncing around while you ride, and there is also a well placed zippered thigh pocket. 

Specialized Mountain Liner SWAT mountain bike shorts

Heaps of storage from Specialized

(Image credit: Specialized)

3. Specialized Mountain Liner SWAT

Innovative features help banish the backpack

Pockets: Three rear, two leg | Liner: NA | Inseam: 9.5in

Pockets galore
Lightweight mesh fabric
Quality chamois
Mesh fabric leaves nothing to the imagination

If you're anything like me, you hate riding with a 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 me to indulge my 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, we'd say you could wear these standalone, however, the VaporRize mesh fabric that makes up the majority of the short is fairly translucent and shows off a bit more than anybody wants to see. 

POC Resistance MTB shorts

Lots of fit options for well-padded wallets: the POC Resistance

(Image credit: POC)

4. POC Resistance

Lots of fit options for every riding style

Pockets: Hip and rear | Liner: BYO | Inseam: 13in (enduro)

Multiple cuts and fits for different riding styles
Well placed anti-tear fabric
Expensive

Swedish outfit POC make their resistance shorts in three different cuts; XC, Enduro and DH (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. 

DHaRCO Gravity mountain bike shorts

DHaRCO combined technical looks with performance fabrics for its Gravity shorts

(Image credit: DHaRCO)

5. DHaRCO Gravity shorts

Bags of comfort and technical features, just lacking a few more pockets

Pockets: Hip and rear | Liner: BYO | Inseam: 14in

Proprietary four-way stretch fabric soft on the inside and surprisingly durable on the outside
Men's and Women's cuts available
Could do with one more hip pocket

Hailing from Sydney's Northern Beaches, DHaRCO design clothing with the motto, 'designed to act, not look like sportswear.' This casual look permeates through their entire range, however, when you pull on the brand's Gravity shorts, the comfort and technical performance shine through.

The shorts are made from a proprietary four-way stretch fabric that is soft and wicking on the interior, while the outside is abrasion-resistant and features a DWR coating. The cut is fitted through the thigh but still sees a leg opening large enough for heavy duty pads and Velcro size adjusters on the outside of the waistband lay flat, and don't catch on your jersey. The only area we've found the Gravity shorts lacking is storage, with only one zippered hip pocket and a small rear pocket.

Patagonia Dirt Roamer

Light and slim fitting shorts from outdoor brand Patagonia

(Image credit: Patagonia)

6. Patagonia Dirt Roamer

Slim but comfortable fit and lightweight fabric

Pockets: Left thigh | Liner: BYO | Inseam: 11.5in

Lightweight, breathable, extremely stretchy fabric
Welded seams
Available in Men's and Women's cuts
Lack of storage

Patagonia is far from the first big outdoor brand to start making MTB 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 MTB 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.

Yeti Women's Enduro mountain bike shorts

Great looking shorts from top MTB brand Yeti

(Image credit: Yeti)

7. Yeti Women's Enduro

Low profile tapered cut with lots of practical touches

Pockets: Hip and cargo | Liner: BYO | Inseam: 12in

Plays nice with knee pads
Venting allows for good airflow
Stretch panels
Fit is a little baggy

Yeti make more than just bikes, and their line of clothing continues to improve. The Women's Enduro shorts are made from lightweight stretch polyester fabric and built around a low profile tapered cut. Yeti have swapped the internal glide patches for laser cut vents on the inner thigh and added a zippered stash pocket to the hip plenty big enough for a modern smartphone. Also new is a pass-through zipper allowing access to liners that also have leg pockets like the Yeti Enduro liners or the Specialized Mountain Liner.

The rear of the short comes up quite high and features silicon details on the interior of the waistband, which in tandem with webbing adjusters on either side do well to prevent them from creeping down as you ride. 

7Mesh Glidepath Women's

Water-shedding shorts for shredding from 7Mesh

(Image credit: 7Mesh)

8. 7Mesh Glidepath Women's

Great water-resistant shorts from Canada's famous North Shore

Pockets: Hip and cargo | Liner: BYO | Inseam: 12in

Large pockets
Plenty of waistband adjustment
Effective waterproofing
Sizing seems to run large 
And so does the price tag

7Mesh comes from some of the same minds that made Arc'Teryx into the technical outdoor clothing behemoth it is now, so it's no surprise that the MTB gear from the fellow Squamish, BC-based brand is equally well designed.  

The Glidepath shorts are made with the brand's two-way stretch quick-drying Soma fabric, and feature dual webbing waist adjusters. Given that these shorts hail from BC's North Shore it's no surprise they efficiently shed water, despite not actually being tagged as waterproof. At the front, there are two jeans style pockets as well as angled zipper pockets on the back of the thigh, which also feature an inner flap to help keep your phone from stirring as you ride. 

Born and bred in Colorado, and now based in Australia, Colin comes from a ski racing background and started riding as a way to stay fit through the summer months. His father, a former European pro, convinced him to join the Colorado State University collegiate cycling team, and he hasn't stopped since. It's not often he pins on a number nowadays, and you'll likely find him in search of flowy singletrack, gravel roads and hairpin corners. Colin has worked at BikeRadar.com and is a regular contributor to Australian Mountain Bike and Cyclist magazines. Rides: BMC Team Machine SLR01 Trek Top Fuel 9 Ibis Ripley