Buying a new mountain bike is hard as the sheer number of available options can make it a daunting prospect – even for the seasoned mountain biker. Choosing the best beginner mountain bike is about finding quality component packages and predictable handling all at a decent price.
Should a beginner mountain biker buy one of the best hardtail mountain bikes or the best full-suspension mountain bikes? We usually recommend a hardtail to start off on, but luckily the best budget mountain bikes can encompass both genres.
There loads of different types of mountain biking and bikes dedicated to each of those disciplines, but for most new riders trail mountain biking is the best place to start.
If you are unsure of what you want or have some questions of your own, be sure to read our 'how to choose the best mountain bikes for beginners' section at the bottom of this article.
Best mountain bikes for beginners
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The Ragley Marley really shows how good affordable bikes have become, opening up tech and features to entry-level riders without having to fork out a serious investment. The progressive geometry along with the smooth Marzocchi fork will instill confidence on rough trails allowing new riders to experiment with line choice and learn new skills. The Shimano Deore drivetrain has already proven itself as the go-to budget groupset with dependable performance and a wide range 11-speed cassette.
The only disadvantage is that the Ragley uses 27.5-inch wheels rather than the more popular 29er size. While this sacrifices some capability to roll over large rocks and roots its does increase maneuverability to make the bike feel more playful on trails and jumps.
This hardtail from Orbea sports a 140mm fork and a dropper post for aggressive trail riding. The quality spec means those beginner riders who quickly progress their riding skills won't outmatch their bike's components.
Bolted onto the triple-butted aluminum frame are a Shimano Deore drivetrain and Shimano M201 hydraulic disc brakes. The wheelset is Orbea's tubeless-ready OC1 29er model, which comes wrapped in 2.6in Maxxis tires to keep you gripping the trail surface.
Vitus is known for producing bikes that ride great at impressively competitive prices yet Vitus has truly outdone itself with the Escarpe 29 CR. The 140mm trail bike is staggeringly good value with a solid spec list. Not only are you getting front and rear suspension from Marzocchi and RockShox, a Shimano Deore 11-speed drivetrain and a dropper post, but the front triangle is carbon - that's right - carbon on a full-suspension trail bike for sub $3,000.
All this spec is useless if the bike doesn't ride well, and Vitus has this department covered as well. The company's years of bike design knowledge have been applied to the geometry and suspension kinematics so the Escarpe climbs as well as it descends for all-round trail performance, so you know you have a bike that will keep up as you develop your skills.
Based out of Andorra, Commencal is a direct-to-consumer brand that has long sold bikes through its own website offering well-specced rowdy rides at prices other brands have struggled to match.
Commencal technically classes the Meta HT as an enduro bike, likely due in part to its 160mm fork and super slack 65-degree headtube angle. If you're planning to tackle an EWS (Enduro World Series) course, a rear shock is probably a must, but the Meta HT is a hardy hardtail that is a capable descender. The geometry encourages descending at lightspeed and provides enough front suspension to get you out of a lot of trouble.
For the money, the Meta HT AM Origin is great with a RockShox 35 Silver fork, and this year it's been upgraded to a SRAM 12-speed groupset. The only thing missing is a dropper post.
If you are more interested in lap times than airtime then Specialized has the budding XC racer covered with its Chisel range. With 100mm of travel and a lightweight alloy frame, the Chisel is ready to cover ground quickly and efficiently. In fact, Specialized claims the Chisel is one of the lightest alloy mountain bike frames available at 1,350g, making the Chisel Comp a worthy candidate for upgrades as you get more serious about riding.
Stock components are a mix of functional name-brand kit from the likes of RockShox and Shimano as well as Specialized's own-brand kit which is used around the touchpoints and finished off with quick Specialized Fast Trak tires.
You must be living under a rock to be a mountain biker and not have seen 50-01's videos of them hitting huge jumps and tearing down trails. Cannondale's Habit might be marketed as a trail bike but in the right hands, it's clearly far more capable. This is down to Cannondale's superb suspension platform which absorbs trail trauma and allows you to ride as hard as you can rather than punishing you when your talent runs out.
Cannondale has chosen RockShox dampers front and rear, a SRAM drivetrain and Shimano brakes. A 150mm dropper will get the saddle out the way on descents while the Maxxis tires keep you on the trail in a range of conditions. Cannondale uses what they call Ai Offset for its frames, this moves the drivetrain 6mm outboard which results in a stronger rear wheel and more mud clearance. The downside is the Habit requires proprietary cranks and special rear-wheel dishing which should be considered if you are planning on future upgrades.
Read our full review of the Cannondale Habit 5, which features a different component spec but the same great handling characteristics.
Another Vitus, this time the very popular Sentier which uses neutral trail-orientated geometry to offer a confidence-inspiring ride. Perfect for those hitting the trails for the first time but it's still plenty capable and can hang on when you start getting fast and loose.
This model comes with a dependable 1x11 Shimano Deore groupset and 140mm Marzocchi Bomber Z2 fork. We have chosen the 29er as the one to go for although Vitus does offer a 27.5 version which would suit smaller riders or those who ride very tight trails.
Trek recently updated its range of Roscoe hardtails to make them shred even harder across a variety of singletrack terrain. Namely, the geometry has been changed to include a 65-degree head tube angle, 73-degree seat tube angle, 430mm chainstay, and a longer reach than the previous model. The new Roscoe also gets a rear thru-axle which strengthens the rear end and increases wheel compatibility for future upgrades.
A 140mm RockShox 35 Gold RL fork propels this 29er down the trail, while SRAM drivetrain and Shimano brake components are found in the cockpit. The geometry and spec updates for 2022 mean that the Roscoe is now more trail riding ready compared to the old model that was more focused on XC riding. The Roscoe 8 is the mid-range model, which also comes with a dropper post. Budget riders can check out the Roscoe 7, while riders looking for nicer components can look at the Roscoe 9.
How to choose the best mountain bikes for beginners
What type of mountain bike should I buy?
There are different types of mountain bikes that are categorized based on their geometry, the amount of suspension travel, and the intended riding scenario.
On one end of the spectrum, we have the cross-country bike, which has steep angles, limited tire clearance, between zero and ~100mm of suspension travel, and comes in hardtail or dual suspension varieties. At the opposite end, you have downhill bikes, which feature super-slack angles with ~200mm of suspension designed to take a beating and rumble down the steepest, gnarliest terrain.
Unless you're planning on racing either of these disciplines or the trails in your area massively favor one end of this spectrum, we think you should spend your money on the best trail bike you can.
Trail bikes are available in dualies and hardtails and are designed to do everything well. With around 120-140mm of travel, this category of bike has stable handling and the geometry is such that you can happily ride it on an all-day epic, or even laps in the bike park. A bike in this category is a generalist and will grow with you as your skills improve.
What do I need to know about suspension?
Modern suspension is genuinely amazing and can smooth out bumps that would rattle your fillings loose only a few years ago, while also providing a stable pedaling platform so you don't lose watts bobbing up a climb.
Even at the beginner level, you should look for air suspension, as this allows you to tailor the sag to your weight. We'd also lean more on the side of hardtails over dual suspension for riders just starting out. With a more straightforward frame design, a hardtail will have nicer components than a full suspension bike for the same price. A hardtail will also help you to develop stronger fundamentals which you will build upon as you get better on your bike.
How much should I spend on your first mountain bike?
While we could throw out a number and include a whole bunch of bikes that hit that price range, we don't necessarily think that's how you should pick your first mountain bike — ultimately the decision will come down to how much you have to spend, and the value you may attach to riding your bike.
There aren't many genuinely bad bikes nowadays, however you get what you pay for in terms of quality. If you buy a $500 bike, it's going to be specced with inferior parts, and in the long run, it will likely end up costing you more, because they will inevitably break and need to be replaced. The reason seasoned mountain bikers can justify spending the price of a 2016 Honda Civic on a mountain bike is they will spend hundreds of hours riding it, and the comfort and ride characteristics that come with such a product over that period of time are worth it.
Having said that, if you're just getting into mountain biking, remember the bike itself isn't the only cost of entry; you're going to need a helmet, multi-tool, track pump, shock pump, pedals — you get the idea. When you do decide to pull the trigger, make sure to budget for these mountain bike essentials as well.