Many brands aim to offer the best MTB body armor to meet the specific demands of mountain bikers riding on modern bikes, exploring trails that are so well designed they allow for higher speeds (and sometimes higher risks) than ever.
The most commonly used piece of protective kit in your locker is likely to be your best MTB helmet, and beyond that, riders usually wear knee pads and MTB gloves. Nowadays, we’re also seeing more riders add a lightweight, unobtrusive protection layer under their jerseys to shield the torso, back or shoulders.
The best MTB body armor can be as stripped back as a simple back plate held in place by a mesh vest, through to fully-featured front and rear panels and incorporated shoulder guards. It stands to reason that the more protection you add, the greater the weight you'll need to carry. Also, extra materials and coverage should (but don’t always) impact on comfort, breathability and cooling.
How much body armor is enough is a personal choice that depends on the type of riding you do, although some enduro events (particularly abroad) demand some protection to enter. Meanwhile, with more and more regular riders visiting bike parks alongside the hardcore downhill brigade, many add MTB armor on uplifted days where trials are more demanding. Also, there’s less requirement for cooling when pedaling up long climbs if you’re sat in an uplift bus.
The best MTB body armor
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This Fox vest has a shaped chest guard and longer back plate extending almost from neck to coccyx. It also features separate, smaller pads to protect vital organs on the flanks above the waist.
The main armor uses one of the original impact-hardening polymers called D3O. Warmed up, it’s soft and conforming enough to flow with body movements until it's impacted, when it instantaneously becomes rigid to resist penetration and defend against strikes. It’s arranged here in a webbing mesh for better airflow and sculpted into a form-fitting profile.
Once in place and zipped in Fox’s vest (you need to thread your arms inside) you feel really protected and – using different zones and types of material – the super-soft, stretchy fabric is extremely effective at wicking moisture away. On top of this, underneath each of the main panels, a ‘spacer mesh’ slightly lifts it off the skin to allow more cooling airflow than most of its rivals.
The Baseframe’s snug fit doesn’t move an inch when riding and doesn’t impact on freedom of movement either. The back protection covers a big area, hugs in closely to the spine’s curves without ever riding up and interfering with the back of your helmet, even when sat in uplift vans. The chest panel covers the heart, lungs and ribs yet still seems to leave more room around the side of the pecs and underarm area than other protection vests do, allowing you to really rotate the shoulders and upper body.
Chunky protection here adds weight, there are no pockets or stashes for hydration bladders and the price is top end, but we can live with all this considering how well Fox has nailed the fit and function. Breathability, comfort and cooling is superb and this thing fits so well it’s low-profile enough to not make you look like an American football player, either.
For more info, see our full Fox Racing Baseframe Pro D3O review.
This Trail Skins Air vest is designed to be Dainese’s body protection with the most emphasis on freedom of movement, weight saving and ventilation. As such, it's the lightest we've tested. Despite being so lightweight, there’s still both front and rear protection with a minimal chest plate, and a longer (albeit thin) spine-protecting panel. Dainese also offers a version with shoulder pads called the Rival Pro Tee for £170.
Both panels here are removable for washing, so you can take the chest panel out for an even lighter, more invisible feel if you want. The vest is also long enough to tuck into pant waistbands, which helps stop it riding up while riding.
Dainese’s pads are dense and solid to really protect you in any arguments with rocks, and also 55 percent open to enhance airflow. The panels comprise three independent layers that can slide over each other, but also twist and deform well so that it’s reasonably flexible once warmed up. Coverage here doesn’t extend to side ribs or organs at the back, so this vest is more about being so comfortable you can wear it on every single ride than offering maximum protection. I’d argue that makes it especially suited to aggro trail riders pushing hard or e-bikers who want a bit of protection for the longer distances and extra descents those bikes allow.
The Trail Skins vest sits in pretty close to the body, although the back panel is a bit more disconnected from the spine’s curvature than some (like the Bluegrass vest) that totally traces the back and shoulders, and fits a bit more snuggly. Breathability and moisture wicking is effective (although again, not quite at Bluegrass levels – see below), and there are five sizes available to ensure a good fit. The price is also very competitive for double-sided protection.
See our Dainese Trail Skins Air Vest review for more detail.
With an extremely light, near invisible feel when riding and a superb, body-tracing fit, this Bluegrass Seamless Lite D3O vest is a particular favorite. The main material body uses a soft microfiber fabric next to the skin, and the ‘Seamless’ part of the name refers to the fact the vest features a pullover design, instead of using any potentially bulky or heavier zips to secure it.
The extremely stretchy, Italian-made Dryarn fabric used in the construction is lighter than traditional materials, and delivers a gentle elasticated compression fit. It traces the body exceptionally well and there are also panels with a coarser mesh (more like a road cycling ‘string vest’) around the abs and under the collarbone, which dump heat and moisture faster than any rival products we’ve tested.
The wide back panel has broad coverage right across the middle and below the shoulder blades (not just over the spine) and also reaches right down the tail bone, with a shape that follows the back’s curvature. The impact-hardening D3O polymer used to construct this panel can be a bit stiff when first put on, but it soon heats up and conforms to body shape really well. The overall fit is low profile and extremely unobtrusive.
The fact this is vest is pulled on over your head means it’s not as easy to slip off or unzip on a boiling hot uplift, but with superb fit and cooling as good as this, that’s simply not an issue. Overall, Bluegrass’s vest feels less bulky than rivals in use and has class-leading moisture and heat management.
For more, check out our full Bluegrass Seamless Lite D3O Back Protector review.
EVOC’s protector vest is a lightweight mesh gilet with removable back panel. This flexible pad slides in and out of a fabric sheath that’s been successfully used in EVOC’s backpacks and MTB body armor for years. Two further sections of EVA foam padding protect the coccyx and the upper few vertebrae at the nape of the neck.
Called Liteshield Plus, the panel is an expanded polystyrene sandwich weighing 165g, boasting Level 2 (motorsports) protection and extra inbuilt flexibility courtesy of square ‘segments’ that can bend in four directions. The panel covers a wide area, is reassuringly chunky and easy to remove when you want to machine wash the jacket. EVOC also offers a free crash replacement programme if the back protector gets damaged in an accident.
EVOC’s sizing is generous with the large considerably baggier than most equivalents. Combine this with the comfy perforated fabric being quite floppy and freeform, and the Liteshield back panel also being pretty long, then going down a size will likely deliver a snugger fit. Some riders with shorter torsos may also find the integrated tensioning belt sits too low on the hips, and subsequently interferes with waistbands on your best MTB shorts or pants.
Even with EVOC’s wide waist belt cinched tight, it’s comfy and feels lightweight for the protection rating, but stability is less secure than some and, whether the waist belt is fastened or not, the flat back panel doesn’t trace the spine like some, making it flappy and prone to wriggling when riding. The Velcro hip belt is also a bit sharp and scratchy next to flesh.
EVOC’s vest is a cinch to put on and take off fast on a hot day, but when riding in warm conditions the soft anti-odor fabric also holds onto slightly more sweat, and dries slower than materials using a more open fabric weave.
SixSixOne’s Evo offers a proper tight mesh ‘compression fit’ jacket with front, rear and also extra shoulder protection. A full long-sleeve version is also available for £20 more.
The Evo jacket uses the most well-known D3O impact-hardening polymer in both the well-shaped shoulder cups and rear spine panel. This orange material is impressively supple once warmed up by body heat, with the D3O panels appearing reasonably sturdy and protective, even without the higher Level 2 motorbike protection rating. The fact the pads are a bit thinner and floppier than some of their rivals affords superb flexibility to follow your body's movements precisely, especially when locked firm by the extra close fit offered here.
Comfort is excellent with no rubbing or digging in, and the string vest ‘regulating’ effect keeps you warmer on cold days while controlling heat build-up when working hard. There’s excellent freedom of movement while riding, but when you're sitting still in uplift buses, you do notice you're wearing body protection, as the pads can get a bit wriggled around when you're not on the bike.
There are two useful back stash pockets, while some riders will definitely welcome the ability to layer a hydration pack next to the spine protector.
SixSixOne's jacket does get a bit sweaty next to back panel; possibly not helped by the multiple perforations designed to aid air flow staying ‘closed’ due an excess of fabric bleeding over vent holes in production. The front chest protection and coverage isn’t as broad as with other products on the market, such as the Fox. While the back panel extends wide higher up to protect shoulders and ribs, more padding further down the spine might better protect the lowest vertebrae.
This 3DF AirFit vest is seriously protective and arguably best-suited for enduro or DH riding/racing and above, rather than trail riding.
Its soft and flexible energy-absorbing padding packs full motor sports-level impact certification on both chest and back panels (the only jacket in this guide to the best MTB body armor for which this is true), and is made of foam layers that turn into a harder material on impact. Panels are removable so you can stick the AirFit vest in the washing machine, while ridges of softer, perforated foam isolate where the vest contacts skin, providing extra comfort and cushioning that really works.
Putting Leatt’s vest on requires a separate elastic wrap cinching, but this strap helps chest and spine panels to better conform to your body shape, improves stability and reduces how much the 3DF sticks out. Additional foam flank protection pads also help to protect your kidneys.
Strapped into Leatt’s vest, it’s clear there’s some serious protection and the impression that even if you stove yourself into anything that isn’t moving, you’re going to come out of any exchange way better than without it.
Leatt’s fit and fabrics are top quality, with good wicking and quick drying properties, while air flow is also surprisingly good for armor that offers so much protection. This is part because the softer foam ridges hold the main pads slightly off the skin, allowing hot air and sweat to easily vent and escape.
For riders looking for the maximum protection that’s still comfy enough to pedal about in, this definitely means business, though the main drawback is extra weight, which is more noticeable when riding dynamically than with a simple back plate vest.
This 100% Tarka vest offers flexible protection panels made from a dense, closed-cell, foam on both front and rear sides, sandwiched together in three layers.
The back plate is rated CE 1621-2, which means it passes motorbike certification and all the padding is seriously chunky and sturdy (17mm thick) with large holes to let air feed through onto the flesh. It’s also easy to remove if you need to stick the vest in the washing machine before it overwhelms the anti-bacterial fabric’s odor limits.
The back panel doesn’t extend all the way to the coccyx, but there’s an extra two-layer pad section stitched into the vest just on top of the tail bone to cover that bit.
The Tarka’s full length side zipper has a padded material flap where it joins the nape of the neck and an elastic waistband with silicone grippers that effectively stop the Tarka from riding up. Internally, there’s soft meshed fabric everywhere that’s billed as ‘compression fit’, but is actually more snug, comfortable and close fitting, rather than a true squeezed-in, tight compression fit.
With the padding sliding out easily, there’s the option to remove the chest plate and use the Tarka as a back protector on days when you don’t need full coverage, but, seeing as the front protection is worth having and brings minimal intrusion, it’s not really necessary.
Despite feeling like serious 360-degree cover, 100%’s vest is impressively unrestrictive when riding, giving no sensation of being too bulky. The gap in the back panel above the tail bone appears to help with articulation, and it also stays put when bouncing around and twisting. It hides its thickness well, but isn’t as low profile as some of the best MTB body armor here.
Overall, though, this is a sorted and comfortable vest at a great price for the finish quality and protection offered.
POC are known as a top-end manufacturer, so it’s no surprise to see a well-made vest with quality materials here. Less expected, however, is that the Swedish brand's Spine VPD Vest comes in at a price point that’s actually at the lower end of the market.
The Spine VPD offers a triple-layer backplate with varying thicknesses and densities to absorb impacts. This is shielded by a soft foam-backed mash fabric where the panel makes contact with the spine. This backplate has excellent coverage both length- and width-ways but, like EVOC’s panel, it's a bit flat, and less sculpted to the body’s curves. There are no supplementary pads for the coccyx or your sides.
POC offer three sizes (think torso length) in both slim and regular fits, and you need to pay attention to the generous sizes because the size large vest here is more like an XL for other brands, with a backplate that was too long for me at 176cm. The second tester (194cm) had no issues.
The Spine VPD’s main fabric is almost identical to Dainese’s, a micro-mesh material with very fine holes that also do a very good job of shifting moisture outwards. The material has excellent stretch to offer freedom of movement, and there’s also an optional (very broad) waist strap that fixes to the outside of the vest/backplate via a Velcro panel. This helps stabilise the (otherwise flappy) back panel, which – as mentioned – isn’t as curved to the arch of the back as some of its rivals.
Because the back panel covers a big area and also seems to be stiffer lengthways than against twisting, it has a tendency to get pushed upwards and out, and can ride up and peel off the back more than more shaped D3O or flexible, rubberized protectors on offer. This means it can also stick out a little through a jersey at the shoulder blades, which may not suit riders looking for a more invisible look.
The best MTB body armor: what you need to know
Is the best MTB body armor comfortable enough to wear on long pedal days?
The cut and type of fabric protection pads are fixed to is crucial to cooling, comfort, sweat absorption and even how smelly you get on the trail. Most vests use stretchy, perforated mesh synthetic fabrics with wicking properties, with some better than others at drying or dumping rider moisture. A closer fit ensures less wriggling and better insulation, too.
What protection is offered in the real world?
Many brands offer multiple levels of protection, from simple back panels and short-sleeve options with shoulder pads, through to long-sleeve jerseys that also incorporate elbow guards. Some products squeeze in extra pads to protect kidneys, coccyx and ribs (and even pockets to stash ride essentials), which are all useful additions provided they don’t add bulk.
Are vests or full jackets best?
This obviously depends on your needs, and we’d consider extra protection if you only ever use armor at a bike park. But it’s a serious commitment to pedal and climb a lot in a full jacket (in warm weather especially). Getting into the habit of wearing a relatively unobtrusive vest on every ride at least offers some back and rib protection that could be very useful.
What do the different protection certification levels mean?
EU protection certification is split onto two levels, 1 and 2, referring to the amount of impact force the padding absorbs.
To meet CE level 1 standards, padding must ensure that forces transmitted by a 5kg weight from a distance of 1m to the wearer are lower than 18kN, with no single value exceeding 24kN.
CE level 2 standards demand that the forces transmitted don't exceed 9kN, with no single value in excess of 12kN). The level 2 cert is usually for motorsport scenarios, where speeds and impact forces tend to be higher.
What is the padding made out of?
Many pads here use impact-hardening polymers that remain flexible until they experience high-velocity impacts. Names like D3O, Sas-Tec and X-Matter essentially describe similar technologies. The only potential drawback to these materials is that they can be a bit stiff in cold weather, until body heat ‘loosens’ the padding. Other constructions include EVA polystyrene similar to helmet liners built onto a flexible matrix.