Protection doesn't always come to mind until you need it the most, but by then it's too late! Wearing the best mountain bike knee pads you can afford, though, can be the difference between riding whenever you fancy or having to sit out days, weeks or even months.
Kneepads can do a lot to protect against bloody scrapes, cracked bones, swollen bruises or damaged ligaments.
With more riders tackling fast trails and big, technical descents on the best enduro mountain bikes, knee pads have become as essential as wearing the best mountain bike helmets. And that's because these days, sweaty and uncomfortable need not apply.
While you can still get heavy-duty pads focused solely on downhill, there's a host of light, flexible and comfortable stuff out there developed as much for good pedaling as protection.
In this buyer's guide, we take you through all of the features that matter. From non-Newtonian fluids to advanced fits and clever breathability, knee pads are the most advanced they've ever been.
Scroll down for the best knee pads you can buy today, or skip to the bottom for our guide to what's what in the world of knee pad design.
Best mountain bike knee pads
At the heart of these lies a cup made of SAS-TEC SCL 2 viscoelastic foam – aka memory foam – that offers impressive levels of shock impact and absorption. This cup is removable so you can easily wash the fabric sleeve, and we found the lack of additional padding to the sides acceptable in light of the comfort it gains you. They're almost unrivaled for that, in fact.
The SAS-TEC pad warms up as you ride, too, which only makes it more malleable, and we've taken a number of falls in them and were pleased with the protection they gave. While these are our favorite pads for nearly any type of riding, the cheaper Knee Guard versions are worth looking at for comfortable pedaling too.
Find out why these Sweet Protection Knee Pads have become one of our go-to choice in our full review.
Endura looked to impact protection specialist D30 and its Ghost protection for protection in the Lite knee pads. According to D30, Ghost is the 'thinnest and most flexible' protection it offers, yet it still exceeds EN 1621-1:2012 (Level 1) impact standards.
The removable pad has an open grid structure with excellent ventilation, which stops these feeling sweaty even with them under riding pants. Also, the slimline construction means they're less prone to snagging and or dragging on those pants as you move.
Another neat feature is that they roll up easily for stashing in a pocket or pack during a long climb.
Like other softshell pads though, the MT500s offer no sharp-object penetration protection; really though, that's about the only flaw or trade-off with choosing a pad like this.
Check out our review of the Endura MT500 Lite knee pads for the full story on Endura's collaboration with D3O.
Designed by multi-time Enduro World Champ and downhill legend Sam Hill, his pro model pad from 7 Protection meets the protection and comfort sweet spot for enduro riding.
Like the Sweet Protection pads listed above, the Sam Hill knee pads feature the same impact absorbing SAS-TEC foam cup that stays flexible for pedaling comfort but hardens up upon impact. The removable pad provides plenty of protection over the knee and upper shin, and the length of this pad is definitely one of the longest we've tested.
Overall, the design is stretchy and lightweight, and a mesh backing is used to encourage airflow and ventilation. The sleeve uses silicone grippers on both the top and bottom openings, which have kept our pads in place 100 percent of the time.
7 Protection has created a pad that almost exceeds the gravity riding knee pad dream list. We have a full review of the 7 Protection Sam Hill knee pads where we break down why the protection and comfort are deserving of the Sam Hill name.
The IXS Carve Race knee pads feature a 3D-molded piece of ‘Xmatter’ flexible material at its core, wrapping around the knee and extending down the shin. Additional padding is located on outer-knee and above-kneecap locations. An abrasion-resistant sleeve holds everything together and features silicone grippers to keep the pad from slipping.
The Carve Race pads offer a large amount of protection and combine that with a relatively lightweight package that stays comfortable all day. They do get sweaty quickly on hotter days, but that is true with almost any knee pad with similar amounts of protection.
For more details read our IXS Carve Race to find out what we liked about these lightweight impact-absorbing mountain bike knee pads.
The IXS Flow EVO+ knee guards are a soft-shell pad designed for all-around use, whether you are on a downcountry bike or a long-travel rig. The soft-shell nature of it means that full protection is traded for lightweight comfort.
This set of knee pads from IXS use an X-Matter 3D-molded viscoelastic pad that's designed to get firm upon impact and direct crash forces away from the knee joint. The pad's sleeve features a perforated mesh back panel along with silicone grippers to keep it in place. There is also a rear-mounted velcro strap on the lower portion of the sleeve.
While hardcore riders may want to look elsewhere for the most protective knee pads, these ones offer a good blend of protection and pedal ability. However, the length can lead to a gap between the top of the sleeve and the bottom of some riders' shorts.
Be sure to check out our full review of the IXS Flow EVO+ knee guards for more details.(opens in new tab)
With a pre-curved design, Leatt's AirFlex Pro is made using 3D-molded soft padding, which is heavily perforated for max airflow. The primary protection comes from a highly flexible triangular segmented geodesic AirFlex Gel in that knee piece. Additionally, there is padding at the top of the knee and on either side.
The additional perforation leads to a breezy pad that can be ridden all day long. The CE impact certification gives good peace of mind for harder falls too. In our testing experience, the pads did well to protect against lower-speed crashes. There are no straps so the pads rely on silicone grippers to stay in place, therefore we'd recommend checking sizing before buying.
If the sizing suits you though they are a great option, read about our experience riding in the Leatt AirFlex Pro in our full review.(opens in new tab)
Fox's Launch D30 Knee Guard uses a D30 insert which gives it some top-in-class protection, similar to others on this list. The knee guards also successfully meet the EN1621-1 level 1 CE Certification. The Launch also features padding on the left and right of the D30 pad.
The Launch D30 has a few features that make them a good option for riders looking for a pad with a secure fit. Unlike many pads that only have one strap or fastener, the Launch D30 has two, placed at the top and bottom of the sleeve. It also has a pre-curved, ergonomic fit.
While the included hook and loop straps may mean increased stability, we do acknowledge that they may irritate some riders depending on the shape of their leg or knee.(opens in new tab)
G-Form uses what it calls SmartFlex pads to create its protective products. It's a very similar concept to other pads on this list. The protective bit stays soft and flexible until the point of impact when it hardens to protect your knees.
The lycra-like tube is strapless and features silicone 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 they are so tight and easy to position.
This is one of the most lightweight and pedal-friendly pads on this list. While they don't offer the full protection of a hard shell, they do offer comfort and protection against scrapes and bruises at a fair price.(opens in new tab)
The Ion K-Pact pads have been around for a while, and the main padding in the K-pact is manufactured by SAS-Tech Secondary padding is located on the sides as well to keep your knees safe and sound when you take an unplanned digger.
The sleeve is made from neoprene, which is an interesting addition not found on other knee pads. The brand says that it is Super Perforator neoprene and that while it doesn't breathe as well as some other materials, it is the most breathable neoprene that they've tried out.
The K-Pact also features a side zipper for easy gearing up and when it's time to take them off. The zipper and two straps may bother some riders looking for a sleek pad, but those looking for a locked-in fit will appreciate it.(opens in new tab)
661 has been protecting mountain bikers for years, and its DBO knee pad continues where the venerable and very popular EVO knee pad left off. The brand took the Evo design and remodeled it to offer equal levels of protection but at a lower price. At $75 / £70, however, it's basically in line with most other knee pads on this list.
The main protection is still handled by a D3O T5 Evo insert which remains flexible until met with an impact causing it to become firm. This has allowed the DBO pad to be rated to the EN 1621:1 level 1 protection standard. There are side pads as well that add a little extra coverage from knocks.
A single top strap keeps the pads in place while keeping the overall bulk down and limiting areas of possible discomfort. In addition, this set of pads is offered in a youth size.
What you need to know best mountain bike knee pads
How do you fit mountain bike knee pads?
All of the best mountain bike knee pads use a sleeve design with the protective padding stitched inside or on top. Many of the fabrics used to make the sleeves are designed to be breathable and stretchy in order to enhance comfort. Another measure to enhance comfort is pre-bent pads. In theory, this is done to help the pad better form to a rider's body, but everyone's knees and legs are different.
Other factors such as straps and zippers could impact comfort and fit. Some riders prefer knee pads with straps, while others may prefer minimalistic pads that rely on silicone grippers to stay over the knee area.
If possible it's best to try on a knee pad before buying to make sure the fit and comfort are okay. Mountain bike knee pads should be snug and secure, you should also have full freedom of movement without the pad bunching, digging into the back of your knee or slipping out of place when you move.
Another thing that impacts comfort is breathability and ventilation, which will be discussed later.
Should I wear knee pads mountain biking?
In short, if you are riding any sort of technical descents in which there is a risk that you could fall off it is worth investing in some knee pads. If you are going out on a light trail ride you obviously don't want to wear a heavy-duty pair of downhill mountain bike pads, luckily many brands offer a diverse range of products so you can pick the best mountain bike knee pads for your style of riding.
Protection comes down to two things: coverage and the protective padding itself. The rotective padding should encapsle the entire knee cap, as that's why you are wearing the pads in the first place. The sleeves of the pads should also cover both above and below the actual knee cap.
Protective paddings come in a few forms, most common of which are hard-shell and soft-shells. Hard shells offer the most protection from sharp objects and hard impacts, but they are often not as comfortable. Soft shells use technology that allows for a flexible pad that hardens on impact. This seems to be quickly taking over as the industry standard.
Some pads only have protective padding over the knee cap, and others will also feature padding on the sides and in other locations. It's up to you as to what you prefer.
Do you get hot wearing mountain bike knee pads?
The hard truth is that wearing a pair of knee pads is always going to be hotter than having bare knees. If have decided to buy mountain bike knee pads, however, you have probably decided that the safety benefits of pads outweigh the drawbacks of a hotter ride.
It all comes down to both the material of the sleeve and if it features any perforation or other ventilation. Those pads with more ventilation features will generally be more breathable, and therefore comfortable.
If you don't want to ride with mountain knee pads on but still want the protection, some pads offer neat features like the ability to roll up and stash in a pack or pocket. Some riders also simply slide the pads down to rest just above their shoes when climbing or doing a lot of pedaling.