Skip to main content

How to start mountain biking

(Image credit: Cannondale)

Mountain biking is an activity that can offer something for everybody. Gearheads can marvel at the latest and greatest technology and bike parts, while people looking to up their fitness can smash the climbs all day long. There is also the meditative escapism of getting out into the peaceful countryside and away from daily life or maybe it's the social aspect of riding with friends that draws you in.

Bikes, and especially mountain bikes, can offer tons of entertainment and satisfaction. How does one start down the path to becoming a mountain biker? There are a few things to know that may make your journey down the trail a little bit easier. 

1. First ride

Before you start mountain biking, you first need to find out if it's something you enjoy doing. A gateway into the sport for many people is going on rides with friends, family, or other people in your social circles. 

If you know somebody who is an avid mountain biker, chances are that they have some extra gear that you can borrow and trail recommendations to give you. Having someone to ride with can also make things more fun and less intimidating. So if you know somebody who rides, ask if you can tag along for a ride sometime. 

Another way to try out the sport is by renting a bike through a bike shop or rental company. Bike shops offer demo rides on bikes so that customers can try out a bike before they buy one. The bike shop is also a great resource for advice and resources about riding in the area. 

A third option that may depend on location is booking a guided ride with a guiding company. Locations that are known for mountain biking will have companies that specialize in showing the local trails to visitors. Mountain bike guides are used to riding with people of all skill levels, and they likely have programs designed especially for beginner riders. 

2. Buying a bike 

After you have decided to commit to the sport, you obviously need to buy a bike. There are a few decisions to make, with the first one being whether to buy used or new. 

Used bikes can be bought at great deals, and you can get a nicer bike at a cheaper price. However, you need to be very careful about the condition the bike and parts are in. Making transactions with random people can also be risky, plus the bike and its parts won't be covered by manufacturer's warranties. 

The other option is buying a new bike. A bike shop will be able to guide you through the process and provide more personalized guidance. In addition to in-person bike shops, there are online shops and direct-to-consumer brands. There are pros and cons to each, but there's nothing like the knowledge and expert service that can be found at a bike shop. 

Many people recommend that beginner riders start on hardtail mountain bikes. For one, they are cheaper, so you can spend a couple of years honing your skills and passion for the sport before buying a nicer bike later. Hardtails are simpler, so they're easier to maintain as well as easier to learn some of the basic mountain biking skills. 

However, there's nothing wrong with full-suspension bikes either, and some of the budget models are a pretty good value these days. There are lots of different categories of mountain bikes, so for more details check out our guide to the different types of mountain bikes

Gore C5 Trail jersey and shorts review

A pair of padded shorts and a riding jersey will make your rides a lot more comfortable (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

3. Get some gear 

Once you have a bike, things are a lot easier and more comfortable with the proper equipment. A full closet of mountain bike gear takes years to build up, but there are some basics that you should buy immediately. 

The most important safety item is a helmet. Helmets are not that expensive, and the benefits immediately outweigh the financial cost. Lots of the best mountain bike helmets feature rotational safety technologies like MIPS, which are designed to protect your head against rotational forces rather than just impacts. 

The next important item to have is a pair of padded shorts. This will make your rides much more comfortable. Shorts can be bought with a 'chamois' pad already sewn into the baggy shell, or you can buy a shell and a bib short separately. Padded cycling shorts are designed to be worn without underwear; don't make a classic beginner's mistake. 

A jersey made out of technical fabric is also a must-have. Cotton T-shirts hold in moisture and heat and won't help you either if it gets cold and rainy. Mountain bike jerseys are made specifically to wick sweat away from the body and keep you cool. 

While regular trainers work, a lot of riders are surprised at just how much better mountain bike-specific shoes are. Grippy rubber, stiffer soles and increased foot protection all add up to a much more confidence-inspiring ride.

4. Improve your skills

Once you have some gear, you can get to hitting the trails. The easiest way to get better is by repetition. The more you ride the better you get. Here are some areas to focus on. 

Let's start with pedaling. It's more efficient to spin the pedals freely than straining to push a big gear at a low cadence. Focus on pedaling smoothly at a quick cadence. This may feel uncomfortable as you are using muscles that haven't been engaged in this way before, but you'll get used to it. 

Shifting should also be done when the pedals are spinning under low stress. Shifting when mashing the pedals risks breaking the chain or damaging the drivetrain. Practice finding spots on the trail where you can shift into an easier or harder gear in anticipation of changes in the terrain. 

When the trail points downhill, you'll want to be in an attack position. Your head should be up with your eyes facing as far forward down the trail as possible. Your body should be in a neutral position, not too far forward or backward. Your arms and legs should be loose to absorb any impacts. 

Cornering is one of the hardest skills to master, even for expert riders. It's important to brake before the corner rather than in the middle of a corner. This may seem scary, but slamming the brakes in the middle of a turn is a great way to lose grip and crash. 

A key skill to learn is how to maneuver your bike and body through a corner. You want the tires to dig into the dirt and find support. To do this, tilt your bike laterally in the direction you are turning. Use your body to weight your foot closest to the outside of the corner. Remember to tilt your bike, not your body. Throughout this, your head, eyes and hips should all be oriented toward the exit of the corner. 


One of the best parts of mountain biking is exploring new trails (Image credit: Dylan Stucki)

5. Exploring trails and the riding scene 

One of the best parts of mountain biking is exploring new trails. There are lots of apps and websites out there to find trail maps, but one of the best and most comprehensive is TrailForks. The app marks trails based on difficulty level and also uses GPS to show where you are in relation to the trail. It's an easy way to find out where you are and avoid getting lost. 

Another thing that may make the learning process easier in terms of knowing where to ride and also improving your skills is riding with other people. Bike shops and local mountain bike associations may host group rides or other events. These are great ways to meet other mountain bikers who can become your new riding buddies. 

These are just a few steps to becoming a mountain biker, but after all, the best way to join the sport is by doing it. Ride as much as possible and you will naturally get better. Never forget the feeling of the first time you get to the top of a climb without stopping or clear a tricky descent. 

Ryan Simonovich

Ryan Simonovich has been riding and racing for nearly a decade. He got his start as a cross-country mountain bike racer in California, where he cultivated his love for riding all types of bikes. Ryan eventually gravitated toward enduro and downhill racing but has also been found in the occasional road and cyclo-cross events. Today, he regularly rides the trails of Durango, Colorado, and is aiming to make a career out of chronicling the sport of cycling. 

Rides: Santa Cruz Hightower, Specialized Tarmac SL4