Mountain bikes are becoming ever more capable, and advancements in geometry and suspension have us gliding through rowdy terrain on short-travel bikes that would push the DH bikes of yesteryear to their limit.
Even with these rock-and-root gobbling sleds, crashing is still very much a part of the ride, and quite often the first part of your body that meets the ground is your knees. Just like our bikes and helmets, knee pads have come a long way — gone are the days of the sweaty hardshells that were better suited to a sword fight than riding a mountain bike.
Knee pads have become nearly as essential as helmets, with everyone from enduro and downhill riders to even some XC guys and gals sporting joint protection. Below we've put together a selection of our favourite light-duty and heavy-duty knee pads.
Scroll down for the best knee pads you can buy today.
THE BEST LIGHT-DUTY KNEE PADS
With a pre-curved design, Leatt's AirFlex Pro is made using 3D-moulded soft padding, which is heavily perforated for max airflow. Beyond the chief protector the side pads do well to fend off abrasions and, even though they are strapless, the AirFlex Pro stays put almost like a second skin.
While the pad does well to fend off light impacts, when you get walloped you're still going to feel it.
Some of the lightest of the bunch, you might even be able to coax gram-conscious XC riders into padding up with the Alpinestars Paragon. With no straps, the Paragon features plenty of elasticated mesh and silicone detailing to keep everything in the right place.
The padding itself isn't a high-tech non-newtonian material like some of the others listed here but the polyurethane cup offers CE-certified impact protection and features a few ventilation holes, too.
While the Launch has 'Enduro' in the name, they are a bit under-gunned for that particular style of riding. The Launch Enduros are lightweight, soft pads which allow for a full range of motion and the tube-style knee sleeve feels a bit like a heavy knee warmer at times. The chassis of the pad is made from a perforated neoprene with a lycra panel on the back of the knee to prevent pinching. The interior features plenty of silicon detailing to hold it in place.
The padding is asymmetrical; putting the padding where you need it on each leg and the light density soft foam is not only perforated but also articulated to cradle your kneecap extending a few centimetres down onto your shin.
With the protector on the exterior of the pad, G-Form's Elite offers a unique aesthetic. G-Form uses what it calls RPT mapping to put the padding in the right places. The flexible non-newtonian armour offers decent coverage around the bony protrusions of your knee and dramatically dulls the force for rocks doing their best to bruise your joints.
The lycra tube is strapless and features silicon bands designed to grip your skin, even when you get sweaty. We didn't have issues with them sliding down even on long rides because the are so tight and easy to position.
Compact and lightweight, Sweet Protection has packed a surprising amount of protection into its Light Knee Pads. The single strap at the top holds the pads securely in place as you pedal, and the removable SAS-TEC protector offers plenty of impact protection.
The SP knee pads offer noticeably more protection than many trail-specific offerings but are slim enough not to get in the way of pedalling. Where they do fall a bit short is in the ventilation department, as the protector is not perforated and makes them a touch warm at times but the level of protection and fit more than make up for it.
THE BEST HEAVY-DUTY KNEE PADS
The Ion K-Pact pads have been around for a while, and the SAS-Tech padding and ample secondary padding keep your knees safe and sound when you take an unplanned digger.
With top and bottom velcro straps, they stay in place even when pedalling and there is plenty of flexibility on offer, too. A bit warm out on the trail, the built-in zipper makes the Ion pads a jiffy to put on or take off on-the-fly — even better, once they're on you'd never know there is a zipper there. K-Pact pads offer excellent protection, arguably the best closure of the bunch and, to top it off, they aren't as expensive as some of the options listed here.
When it comes to soft knee pads, 661's EVO has quite a pedigree and, with the second iteration, the brand has worked hard to improve the fit. With a D30 protector inside, the updated version features more curve in the knee for better pedalling comfort. While the open back works well for some and allows for added ventilation, we did note a bit of pinching in the area — this allows you to slip them on without removing your shoes.
Kevlar panels on the exterior stave off abrasions and the brand's Padlock system allows you to connect the pads to the Evo shorts to prevent them from going anywhere in the event of a crash.
Troy Lee Design's Raid are pitched towards the rowdier end of the spectrum with plenty of D30 padding and foam encasing your knee. The individual protectors are anatomically placed to match the bony outcrops on each knee and extend well down the shin. Keeping everything in place is a single velcro strap along with silicone grippers, which articulate and flex quite well with your leg.
The rear of the pad features lightweight mesh for ventilation but they are still quite warm. For this level of protection expect to fork out as the Raid's are anything but cheap.
One of the burlier sets of knee pads on offer from Race Face the Ambush are likely to survive anything you throw at them and keep your knees abrasion and bruise-free. With a D30 pad looking after your kneecap, there is a decent amount of polyurethane padding on the outside of the knee; however, the Ambush leave the inside of your knee susceptible to knocks from the top tube.
With double velcro straps (one above the knee and one below) they are not going anywhere. The sleeve is made from perforated neoprene lined with terry cloth. Despite the protection on offer, the pads still retain quite a bit of flex, and pedal well, but they tend to get pretty sweaty on longer climbs and long pedalling sections of trail.
Designed by three-time Enduro World Champ Sam Hill, his pro model pad from 7iDP is an evolution of the Transition pad — he wanted more protection without sacrificing comfort. The result is a soft knee pad built around a breathable lycra sock complete with a mesh back. SAS-Tec makes the removable protector, a non-newtonian material that is soft and malleable but hardens upon impact.
There's a bit of added foam protection around the side, and the lycra sleeve and protector are noticeably longer than most. This not only plays a role in helping them stay in place while pedalling, it also prevents a gap between the bottom of your shorts and the top of your kneepads. Instead of a velcro strap at the top or bottom, the Sam Hill pads feature silicon grippers.
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Fit and comfort
Even if a knee pad uses new-fangled materials, has fantastic ventilation, weighs almost nothing and also has a built-in force field that prevents sharp rocks from stabbing your knees, if they are uncomfortable you probably won't wear them. The latest crop of knee pads are pre-bent with ergonomic cupped protectors to help them stay in the right spot. Most rely on a combination of silicone grippers and velcro straps to prevent the pad from sliding around, though there are a few strapless designs — these models require a particularly snug fit which may get progressively looser over time as the elastic loses some of its spring.
Beyond looking for a pad which matches the shape of your legs, the combination of length, circumference, fasteners, silicone grippers, cutouts, seams, and zips will all play a role in overall comfort. If any of these factors aren't quite right, they may pinch or chafe.
Knee pads are available in all different levels of protection from lightweight lycra sleeves with a bit of foam padding sewn in, to those that feature removable viscoelastic or non-newtonian protectors designed to blunt and disperse heavy slams. While these modern materials are more efficient and often lighter weight than standard polyurethane foam, they also come with a significant price tag.
Each pad will also offer different amounts of coverage but at the very least should extend well beyond just the knee cap itself. Burlier options will also feature secondary padding to protect other boney outcrops on the sides of the knee.
As a general rule, the more padding on offer, the warmer it will be. Most feature moisture-wicking fabrics and are perforated to allow some airflow, but there is only so much heat these features can disperse. In this regard, it's about finding a balance between how much protection you need and how sweaty you're going to get.
Given that the whole idea of a knee pad is to protect your limbs from dirt, rocks and roots when things go pear-shaped, the materials used throughout the pad need to be robust. Quite often, canvas, kevlar or similarly tough materials will be used over the cap to prevent rips and tears. Quite a few of the knee pads below also feature a removable protector that can be pulled out for washing or even replaced if damaged.