I started out on normal shoes and flat pedals when I rode my first mountain bike. The idea of being stuck to your pedals was a bit of a scary concept. Nowadays I ride my mountain bike with both normal shoes and mountain bike shoes depending on my workout.
Do you need mountain bike shoes or can you use normal shoes? You don’t need mountain bike shoes. When you’re just beginning it’s fine to use normal shoes like trainers or skate shoes when you ride flat pedals. Once you feel comfortable on trails start thinking about MTB specific shoes.
This doesn’t mean you can bring your bowling shoes, you need shoes that provide traction on your MTB’s pedals, like trail running shoes. If you don’t have those, sneakers will do for a while. At some point, you might want to consider shoes that offer more traction and protection. Here are a few tips for beginners and why, at some point, you should reconsider the type of shoes you wear.
The Differences Between Normal Shoes and MTB Shoes
MTB shoes have more grip but they’re also stiffer when comparing them to normal shoes. There are some differences you need to consider when you’re looking for MTB shoes. It mostly has to do with what and where you ride.
Normal shoes are ok for a while, but you’ll probably want something better once you notice you slip off your pedals or hurt your feet hitting a sharp branch.
Looking at the sole patterns you notice a big difference. The image here shows the patterns found on the Vans Pro (great shoes!) and the Five Ten Freerider MTB shoes. While the grip on the normal shoe is pretty above average, you’re better of wearing something designed specifically for mountain biking.
The normal shoe is designed for impacts and maintaining grip on a skateboard, this is completely different from a flat pedal. Sure they do a way better job than tennis shoes but aren’t designed for slippery pedals.
I recently got a pair of MTB shoes that I just LOVE, and are perfect for flat pedal riders. Dedicated MTB shoes really change the game compared to an old pair of sneakers. Check out why I think these shoes are great
Stiffness and Traction
Trail mountain bikers like their shoes flexible but not too much. You still want to be able to walk a bit comfortably when you step off your bike. This happens pretty often on tracks and trails so consider something medium stiff.
Flexible (vulcanized) skate shoes, for example, don’t provide as much grip even though they are designed to stick. This also depends on the brand Vans, for example, work well, but their canvas shoes are a bit too fragile. If you want to use skate shoes, make sure they are suede and cupsoles as they are stiffer and last longer. They won’t get punctured by tree branches which can be rather painful and damage your shoes.
If you don’t have these shoes, try to look for sales and see if you can get a good deal. Sometimes mountain bike shoes cost just as much as skate shoes, though you won’t be wearing the former to work probably.
Normal shoes don’t offer water resistance, while mountain bike shoes aren’t completely waterproof they offer more protection compared to normal shoes. I really hate wet and soggy feet especially when it’s cold. It’s a distraction and I want to stay focused when I ride a trail.
My trail running shoes are waterproof but they’re more expensive than non-clipless MTB shoes, kind of pointless buying unless you like to run and ride a trail. FYI, I don’t run on MTB trails period. I hate it when people do that and I got lucky not running into someone so far.
Flat Pedal Mountain Bike Shoe Advantages
Beginners shouldn’t worry about specialized mountain bike shoes. You probably spent a lot of money on your new bike and if money is tight, save up for some decent shoes in the meantime. Using normal shoes (like running trail shoes, or Vans skate shoes) are fine when you’re just starting out.
The most important thing is that you get used to your mountain bike and get familiar with beginner trails.
I often ride my use my New Balance trail shoes when I go for a ride and a short run. The soles are grippy and I don’t have to change shoes when I continue on foot.
Once you feel like you can move on, try to look for some mountain bike specific shoes suitable for flat pedals or clipless, the choice between these two triggers a completely different debate. I recently wrote a guide about clipless VS flat pedals and discovered a lot of interesting facts, myths, and half-truths.
Anyway, back to flat shoes. These shoes have a good grip and will prevent your shoes from slipping. This isn’t really an issue when it’s dry but as soon as you’re riding during the rain or wet conditions, you might slip off your pedals.
If you ride trails, make sure to get lugged outsoles, they help you not to slip on rocks or anything slippery. Road shoes tend to have more slick outsoles but still provide a bit of traction. One other advantage is that flat pedal shoes have less venting keeping your feet warmer.
- You have more grip because of the rubber used and the stiffer midsole improves your ability to pedal. Sliding off your pedals can be painful.
- They offer more protection, a sharp branch or rock can rip normal shoes apart.
- They’re water-resistant and dry up faster compared to normal shoes.
- They keep out mud and dirt and many shoes have a special lacing system that speeds up the process.
- They offer more stability because of a wider profile at the arch and offer ventilation
Clipless Pedal Mountain Bike Shoes
Clipless shoes are a game-changer for some. They’ll allow you to put more energy into your pedals and you won’t slip off, but it depends on your technique. Before you decide to buy these make sure you are familiar with your local trail. It takes some time to get used to and the feeling of being stuck to your pedals can be a bit scary at first.
Go for the easy parts of your trail and slowly work your way up. Make sure to have them as loose as possible so you can get out easily. Once you get used to them the sky is the limit, you’ll notice you can ride longer and faster and mud or sand is a lot easier to go role through.
The downside of clipless shoes is that you can get really cold toes in cold and rainy weather conditions. There are shoes that keep your feet warm, but we’re talking about $250 here for a pair of shoes (yikes).
Not everyone likes clipless shoes and it remains to be seen if they are more efficient.
Here are the benefits of clipless MTB shoes:
- No slipping and more speed because your feet are attached to your pedals, racers and long-distance rider will benefit and uphill gets easier.
- Once you’re used to them you’ll have more control and your bike feels more stable.
- The sole is stiffer and offers more pedaling power, increased efficiency saves you energy.
- Better protection from rocks and branches, no worries about your shoes getting punctured.
Mountain bike newbies shouldn’t worry too much about shoes. After a while, you can make a transition to specialized MTB shoes and you can judge for yourself when you need them. Flat pedal mountain bike shoes provide way more traction compared to normal shoes if you don’t like the idea of being stuck to your pedals you should give these a try.
Once you’re ready for clipless pedals, make sure to take it slow. It feels unnatural at first and takes a while before you get used to being ‘stuck’ to your pedals. Set the spring mechanism is on its loosest setting possible when you start out (if your pedals have that feature) so you can easily bail. Clipless pedals aren’t cheap, so take the time to become used to your bike before you make a transition. Clipless shoes aren’t for everyone and you don’t necessarily need them.
There’s way more to mountain bike shoes and this is just the gist of it. if you want to take a deep dive, check out Rei’s. I’m just giving a quick guide here but these guys can answer all of your questions.
Are running shoes good for mountain biking? Yes and no, running shoes offer more grip but they’re very fragile. Hitting a rock or tree branch can rip the fabric which is a waste of your shoe.
Can I use normal shoes for mountain biking? I wouldn’t recommend it, they slip on flat pedals especially when it rains. It can cause you to lose balance and fall off your bike. At least go for shoes that provide a bit of traction. It’s fine to use them when you are getting used to riding a mountain bike, but replace them with something better when you get the chance.
Why are clipless pedals called clipless? It has to do with toe-clips being popular way back. To avoid confusion, they needed a name to differentiate.