The best trail bikes are designed to be all-around mountain bikes that can take on any trail, all day long. As trail mountain biking fills the expansive middle ground between enduro and XC, it's, without a doubt, the most popular riding style and virtually every brand has at least one trail bike in its range.
You probably won't set any record times down an enduro descent, or steal any KOMs or QOMs from XC whippets on the best lightweight mountain bikes up a techy climb, but you will be able to take either one in your stride – unlike the other, more specialized, bike types.
Trail bikes are designed to combine uphill and downhill performance. For this reason, they often have a relatively efficient pedaling platform, yet the best trail bikes shine on the downhills too. Usually sitting somewhere between 130 and 150mm of front and rear travel, these machines can tackle everything from gnarly rock gardens to steep, root-strewn chutes.
There's a lot to choose from, so keep reading to see which bikes are our favorites when heading out on the trail.
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Guy's been testing and writing about mountain bikes since the 90s, he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. We are willing to bet that there aren't many trail bikes Guy hasn't ridden over the last couple of decades.
Rich has been riding mountain bikes since the early nineties and professionally testing bikes and kit for over a decade. While he has ridden mountain bikes of every kind, Rich is definitely a trail bike rider at heart and loves finding flow on more technical lines.
The best trail bikes
The Norco Optic C2 is well established as a great setup for good time riding so it’s no surprise that this bike feels sorted as soon as you grab hold of the grips. What stood out when we test-rode it is the way the Optic feels absolutely spot-on from geometry to shock tune.
As soon as we started riding, the Optic began offering rich communication between bike and rider. Norco has bumped up the high-speed compression and given the bike plenty of low-speed compression progression which gobbles up stutter bumps, roots rocks, and debris whilst race inspired shock tune will reward warp speed.
Beyond the excellent geometry and chassis dynamics, the component spec is superbly pitched to flatter the feel and capability. It’s practical, well priced and even the cheaper bike still packs all the play essentials into the package if your working with a tighter budget.
When Guy reviewed the Optic C2, the qualities of the bike were immediately apparent stating, "as soon as we had our hands on the grips the Optic just felt totally right and, over two months of riding from mellow-loam matinees to out-there mountain epics, it’s never put a wheel or shock stroke wrong. The geometry and chassis dynamic is excellent, the component spec is superbly pitched to flatter feel and capability and the suspension is pretty much a perfect balance of ingredients to cook up a flat-out banquet on every trail" Find out the full details of the Norco Optic C2 in our full review and what makes it an outrageously entertaining experience on every trail
Canyon's Spectral is a trail bike doing its best enduro impersonation and can continually step up to the job in hand the harder you push. This is down to the properly radical geometry which can teach any trail that normally terrified us a lesson in Canyon domination.
The offset of the bulky trail build means climbing isn't as easily earned as other trail bikes. That said if you're faced with a steep and technical crux section, the Spectral has superb traction and control that will leave sharper-feeling bikes struggling.
Once pointed down the Spectral can transition from a smooth, calm, and collected cruiser to a controlled and precise technical downhill weapon. With a characteristic that becomes more alive the harder you ride, it encourages you to seek out as much fun on the trail as possible.
Guy noted in his review that "the core of the bike is an impeccably balanced, firmly supportive, and accurate tracking technical trail and DH weapon. One that increasingly comes to life, popping, drifting, sending, and playing the harder you push it" and was so impressed he awarded the Canyon Spectral 29 CF8.0 a five-star review.
Mondraker’s Raze is a lightweight mid-travel trail steed with a 150mm travel fork, 130mm shock, and Mondraker’s sleek aesthetic. The RR version gets full Fox Factory suspension monitored by its unique MIND telemetry system.
With a lightweight frame, a slightly compliant, conforming – rather than rigidly harsh – feel and the Raze Carbon RR feels inspiringly alive and responsive on the trail, never rabid or rowdy.
The MIND system gathers suspension and ride data and sends it to a smartphone app. This allows you to study how your suspension performed over a ride and tune it accordingly. You also get detailed telemetry on your performance which you can properly geek out on – if that's your thing.
In his review, Guy remarked, "Despite so many bikes following much of Mondraker's pioneering geometry lead, it has managed to keep its signature ride character deliciously distinctive. The light, lithe, perfectly imbalanced suspension of the Raze RR makes it a proper ‘chef’s special’ in terms of accentuating that agility and inherent ‘skill gifting’ to the maximum." For more info on this tech-packed bike, check out our full Mondraker Raze Carbon RR review.
A hardtail in best trail bike? Surely some mistake, but no. The Santa Cruz Chameleon is here very much on merit, as this eighth edition of Santa Cruz's trail-friendly hardtail is the most versatile, confident and flat-out-fun incarnation yet. It's also the most engaging and easiest-on-the-wallet entry into owning one of this premium brand's bikes.
Despite the finishing kit being a tad below par to that found on comparably priced bikes, the forgiving yet massively capable ride is so much fun that it won't ever cross your mind.
It can run both MX (mullet) or full 29er configurations which we found gave it a delightful double personality. "In MX format it’s got proper pop, precision, and powerful responsiveness for attacking the most fun trails flat out or you can choose the 29er option for the smoothest ride and tap out the tempo as far into the hills as your curiosity takes you." For our full verdict, check out our Santa Cruz Chameleon review.(opens in new tab)
While high-pivot bikes using idlers are becoming increasingly popular on downhill bikes and enduro bikes, they haven't really filtered down to the best trail bike market yet. Idler-equipped bikes have the advantage that the suspension and drivetrain are more disconnected giving better suspension performance, however, this can come at the cost of pedaling efficiency. That said, other than a gentle purr we were very impressed with how little drag there was from the Druid. The shock is well-behaved when spinning the pedals, and when technical climbs are encountered, the obstacle rollover is very impressive giving rock crawler levels of scrambling.
Dropping into a descent and the Druid shows its keenness to attack the downhills. The ‘High Pivot Witchcraft’ means the wheelbase gets longer as the suspension compresses, increasing stability and reducing the rear wheel hanging up over square-edged impacts. That means the rear end feels glued to the trail leading to loads of traction when accelerating or dropping the anchors at the last minute.
"There are all sorts of next-level kinematic and design detail brilliance underlining the Druid but the best way to sum up what that means is that we can’t remember a bike that we’ve been more excited to throw into the rowdiest trails at every opportunity". To read more about what makes it arguably one of the fastest trail bikes available, check out our Forbidden Druid XT review.
Direct sales brand, YT Industries, is much better known for its gravity bikes, specifically the YT Capra which is a common sight at enduro trail spots. The Jeffsey is one step below the Capra in the lineup with 10mm less suspension.
With 150mm of travel, the Jeffsey still ripped on the downhills during our testing and is more than capable of dabbling with everything from flowing singletracks to enduro trails. The geometry isn't as radical as you would expect from a brand like YT but we found that further helped with the Jeffsey's versatility.
Unsurprisingly, bikes this good are hard to get a hold of and with YT's stock getting snapped up quickly, bikes are frequently changing spec and out of stock.
When Rich reviewed the Jeffsey he found "the ultra-responsive nature of the Uncaged 6 is hard to ignore. Everywhere I rode, the bike felt as if it was champing at the bit to go faster and hit the trails harder." For more info, check out our full review of the YT Jeffsey Uncaged 6 model.(opens in new tab)
Specialized offers the Stumpjumper in a huge range of spec, travel options, and in both wheel sizes, however, the Specialized Stumpjumper Evo Comp version finds a happy medium between cost and components.
The Evo Comp model is made from the brand's Fact 11 carbon and features 160mm upfront and 150mm at the back. The geometry is great, with a really well-centered feel descending and easy poise when climbing. Don't get us wrong, there are bikes out there that climb or descend better, but there aren't many that do both quite so well and it's finding the balance that makes the Stumpjumper such a great bike.
Not only does the Stumpjumper have impeccable ride manners, but Specialized has also packed the Stumpjumper Evo with practical features including a SWAT storage (with hydration reservoir included) and tuneable geometry.
"It’s light and agile enough to be a joy on less techy, pedaling trails or just big days out in the hills but controlled and calm enough to really push the potential of its radical geometry options. The fact you can play around with big changes to those settings in just a few minutes between runs is a unique and invaluable gift for riders who really like to dig into their dynamics too." Read our in-depth thoughts in our review for the Specialized Stumpjumper Expert.
If you are looking for the ultimate fun-loving trail bike, it's hard to look past the Santa Cruz 5010. It's the oddball in the list due to the fact it's still running 27.5-inch wheels, rather than 29er, which gives it a naturally more playful and agile ride quality. If Strava segments are the goal of a trail ride then this is probably not the bike for you, however, if slashing corners and throwing shapes over jumps for insta-bangers is your thing then no other bike is going to come close.
However, it would be a disservice to say that the 5010 is slow. The Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) is dialed to efficiently deal with chaotic trails and on twisty tight tracks, the 5010 carries excellent speed due to its explosive cornering speed. You might need to work it a little harder on the way up, however, it's all worth it when gravity is on your side.
Smaller wheels might not suit everyone but as Guy points out, "if you’re the kind of rider who hunts for every turn to hook, loamy corner to explode sideways out of or slight lip to hip then the 5010 is an absolute riot. The fact it’s more stable and sucks up way more trouble fires you along the trail with more flow than before. It hasn't lost its killer kick and precision agility meaning you’ve got even more speed to play with, too." Check out our full review of the Santa Cruz 5010 CC X01 RSV to find out more about the small-wheeled shredder.
Focus's Jam is another trail bike aimed at having fun rather than being the quickest up and down the hill. That doesn't mean it's slow though, but it doesn't have the pop and fizz of some of the other best trail bikes that have a lighter build.
It might take a few extra watts to get to the top but the burly frame and spec mean the Jam is a bike that's looking to get rowdy on the downhills. Long reach keeps the bike stable as well, allowing you to make the most of the accuracy offered by the robust build. The linear suspension hugs the ground too, allowing you to stay off the brakes on the straights. Aggressive riders looking to push hard through corners will find that the Jam can blow deep into its travel and start to become flustered through repetitive impacts.
While Guy liked the bike as it's a "naturally super smooth, high traction and a seriously strong stiff bike that lets you get away with a whole lot without flinching, there are a few things we think would be worth changing to get even more performance." Check out our review of the Focus Jam 6.9 for more details.(opens in new tab)
The Atherton's have evolved from a successful trio of siblings dominating World Cup downhill racing to a factory race team and innovative frame manufacturer. Atherton Bikes started with AM.200 downhill bike before extending the range with the AM.150 enduro bike and AM.130 trail bike.
All the bikes share the same carbon tubing and titanium lug manufacturing process and Dave Weagal designed DW6 suspension system that's used on the downhill bikes. Not only does that mean supple suspension performance but also a chassis strong enough to tackle Bike Park use and downhill riding, plus the AM.130 is sold with a lifetime warranty.
The unique construction method is sure to turn heads as well so if you're looking for a boutique trail bike that will stand out on the trails, then the Atherton Bikes AM.130 is an excellent choice.
For riders needing a little more capability, Atherton Bikes also offers an AM.130.X which gets a 150mm fork and a 0.5 degree slacker head angle.(opens in new tab)
Giant's Trance trail bike range hasn't followed the trend for progressive trail bikes, and now the standard 120mm Trance falls more in the emerging downcountry category. However, if you're looking for something more capable, Giant offers a Trance X version that has more front and rear wheel travel plus tougher components. The latest iteration of the Trance X Advanced Pro 29 is precisely what you'd hope for from a trail bike. From burly downhill runs to extended techy climbs designed to test you, the Trance X Advanced Pro 29 will glide through it all.
Packing 135mm of rear travel, Giant has employed its quality, not quantity suspension ethos. The Maestro suspension setup doesn't leave you missing the extra squish while making mincemeat of small bumps and big drops alike, with enough left over to help you stay out of trouble. On top of that the Advanced Pro is one of the few bikes that features Fox Live Valve, an electronic suspension system that automatically controls the suspension characteristics as you ride. Giant has combined this with a 150mm Fox 36 Float Rhythm fork to keep things slack and under control out front. The build kit is mostly in-house and the drivetrain and brakes are from Shimano.
The term "all-mountain" is a bit dated, but that's what Devinci calls its Troy trail bike. It's one bike to do it all and have a blast on. The suspension travel and geometry numbers confirm this, so riders will be flying down all their favorite trails.
Devinci has size-specific chainstays so that all riders have the same optimized handling and stability and there is a split pivot at the rear to help isolate brake forces from the suspension for better sensitivity and control. The bike features a good spec list as well, with a SRAM drivetrain and brakes, Fox suspension, and Maxxis tires. A size medium weighs in at 14.9kg, Devinci also offers an alloy version with exactly the same spec which saves $900 but adds on 500g.
How to choose the best trail bike for you
What's the best trail bike geometry?
Mountain bikes have been getting longer and lower as time has progressed. With wheel and suspension technology continually improving and brands embracing new fork offsets, trail bikes are becoming ever more capable.
Expect to see head angles between 65- and 68-degrees and seat angles between 74- and 75-degrees. With such a range of geometry figures, one trail bike could ride very differently from another, so if you are unsure what would suit you, many shops or retailers offer test rides or demo days so that you can try before you buy.
How much suspension travel should a trail bike have?
Only a few years ago, travel was a bike-defining characteristic, but that's no longer the case. We're seeing cross-country bikes with over 100mm of travel, trail bikes pushing up against 160mm of squish, and enduro bikes that bottom out at 150mm.
Trail bikes can range from 120mm of travel all the way up to about 160mm, and quite often we see forks that are about 10mm longer than rear shocks. Added travel at the front gives a bike a bit more composure on the downhill, while a shorter stroke at the rear makes it easier for designers to keep the chainstays compact leading to a lively feel on the trail.
While hardtail trail bikes are becoming less common, there are still a few holdouts. The simplicity of the frame keeps the price down, and expect to find a 130-150mm fork and 29-inch or 27.5+ wheels and tires. If you are interested in a rigid trail experience, check out our best hardtail mountain bike guide.
Should I got for 29 or 27.5-inch wheels?
Over the years, the wheel size debate has been hotly contested. Trail bikes take advantage of both wheel sizes, and historically if you wanted an agile and maneuverable ride, 27.5 was your ticket, while if you were looking for rollover and speed, you'd want a 29er. However, as things have progressed, brands seem to be embracing the larger wheel size.
Because a 27.5-inch wheel with a 2.8-inch tire is roughly the same diameter as a 29er with 2.3-inch rubber, quite a lot of frames designed for bigger wheels will be compatible with both.
And if you want the best of both worlds, lots of bikes are available as a mixed-wheel mullet option, with a 29in upfront and a 27.5in wheel on the rear.
Should a mountain bike have an alloy or carbon frame?
Alloy frames are cheaper to produce, so it's no surprise to find them at the lower end of the pricing spectrum, while carbon dominates the upper end. There are great bikes in both materials, and ultimately your budget will determine what your new bike is made from. Some brands offer an alloy version of a frame specced with top-end components for a fraction of the cost of the carbon frame with the same build. If you are planning on upgrading parts over time go for the carbon version, if you are looking for the best performance-to-cost ratio then an alloy frame is probably the way to go.
What components should I look for?
For the most part, if you are choosing an XC bike, you will choose lightweight XC parts, and if you are going enduro, you will go full enduro. Trail bikes are a little different and really blur the lines between disciplines. Much of the component choice will be dependent on your local trails and riding style.
If your main whip is a downhill bike or you are looking to try out the odd bit of enduro lite, there is no harm in beefing up components like wheels, tires, or brakes to handle the extra stresses. However, if your trails are tamer or if cruising and flow are more your style, choosing lighter-weight parts and faster rolling tires will make a bike livelier on the descents and more eager on the ups.