Why do you need shoes specially made for mountain biking (MTB)? There are already a variety of shoes out there, such as running shoes or tennis shoes, so buying another pair seems redundant. But in truth, you would do well to invest in a good pair of MTB shoes simply because they’re the right tools for the task at hand. Just as you wouldn’t use a wrench on a nail, so you shouldn’t use running or tennis shoes when you go MTB.
To elaborate, this is so because when you bike, you only have three points of contact at most: your hands, your feet, and your butt. When you stand—which you no doubt will when MTB—the points of contact drop to two. Seeing how crucial maintaining these points of contact are, selecting the appropriate footwear is worth every penny.
MTB shoes have a few advantages over regular shoes. There are two kinds, those for clipless pedals and those for flat pedals. Whichever kind you get, though, they’ll both have sturdy soles and provide foot protection so that fatigue is reduced and power transfer is maximized.
There isn’t a single best MTB shoe for all bikers out there, so it can get confusing choosing what kind of shoes to wear mountain biking. Weather, fit, terrain, pedal preference, and riding styles all vary. That’s why we compiled this convenient guide—to assist you in choosing a pair of MTB shoes that’ll fit the most with your needs.
But before we move onto the shoes themselves, though, let’s take some time examining your two pedal choices.
Flat or clipless?
The terminology can be confusing. Shoes clip onto clipless pedals, which is pretty counterintuitive. To explain this, we have to go back in history a little.
In the infancy of MTB, cages and straps were on the fronts of pedals. Toes would slip into the cage, the strap would go over the foot, and lo and behold, toe clips. They were there to provide foot security. They kept feet from slipping away and helped with pedaling efficiency.
The downside though was that your foot would be stuck there. Whether you wanted to or not, yourself and the bike were one. If your bike crashed or flipped, then you were going with it.
Time passed and pedal makers got smarter. In the first half of the 90s, the Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) pedal by Shimano burst into the market. They featured the first clip-free MTB pedal. They were so named because, you guessed it, they had no toe clips.
Instead, this pedal needed shoe soles with cleats that could screw into it. The cleat locks in on the pedal, yet riders could easily get off by twisting their heels out. This was very useful for when riders needed to quickly disengage from their crashing bikes.
In summary, the two pedals available are:
- Flat. They’re usually made of aluminum. They have large platforms for foot support and rows of pins for better friction. You won’t need special shoes with these.
- Clipless. They have an indent for cleats. They require special shoes to lock into them.
Whichever one you pick, it will come with disadvantages and advantages. Neither one is inherently better. But we’ve observed that riders tend to be in a rush to switch from flat pedals to clipless ones. When you do this, you may end up masking some faults in your form and technique that’ll bite you back in the future. On top of this, beginner mountain bikers will have an easier time learning how to ride if they start with flat-designed pedals because with them, you can quickly dismount if necessary.
MTB shoes for flat pedals
Just because going clipless seems more advanced doesn’t mean that going flat is yellow. Flat pedals and shoes simply ease a completely understandable fear in any rider, whether experienced or not—the fear of falling with your bike when your shredding goes too far.
New riders will also have the freedom to concentrate on foundational techniques because they don’t have to think about clipping on or off. Experienced shredders, on the other hand, can sharpen their technique. Since they know that they have a quick way out, they can attempt more daring tricks on tricky terrain than had they been on clipless pedals.
Plus, for both beginners and veterans, going flat means that the ride feels more fluid. What you’ll sacrifice though is the capability of pulling your pedals up with you when you go up ascents.
Moving onto the shoes themselves, one of their best advantages is that you won’t actually need specialized shoes for flat pedals. Just hop onto your bike wearing what you’ve got! But of course, a pair of flat-pedal, MTB-purpose shoes are a better choice than your usual tennis or running shoes.
Physically speaking, flat-pedal MTB shoes have flat, sticky rubber soles. The flatness maximizes contact with the flat pedal, while the stickiness helps with keeping the shoe on the pedal. Though there’s a broad range of stiffness among brands, overall, flat-pedal MTB shoes are stiffer than typical running shoes.
A few other factors of these kinds of shoe are support and padding. If you aren’t going downhill riding, for example, then shoes specific for it can be too much (that is, too heavy). Additionally, many manufacturers of flat- or clipless-purpose shoes tend to skip the insoles. On the bright side, that’s easy to fix with store-bought inserts of your own.
Most flat-purpose shoes appear like oversized skate shoes. They typically have standard laces, but you can also see several with Boa laces or Velcro. If you purchase the ones with laces, make sure to put them away. You wouldn’t want them tangling up with your drivetrain or pedal!
MTB shoes for clipless pedals
Unlike flat pedal footwear, clipless pedal shoes are meant to fit into the pedal. Clipless pedal shoes have cleats on their soles that mount right into an indent in the pedal. When set up in the correct manner, the design of the shoe is such that it transfers maximal energy at the best pedal spot.
Using clipless pedal pedals and shoes have many benefits besides correct foot positioning. The stiff soles of the shoes transfer the maximum amount of power and energy right into the pedals. This is because your shoes and pedals are fixed together, so there’s no other place your effort could possibly go with every rotation of your feet.
The correct combination of pedals and shoes also enhances riders’ sense of control and stability. Again, this is because of the locked connection between the two. You can bunny hope, heave the backside of your bike over obstacles, or manipulate bike position with these pedals.
The main drawback of these shoes is, as we’ve mentioned before, where your bike goes, you go. If the bike crashes, so do you, unless your reaction is so swift you can unlock yourself in a single swivel. You can definitely achieve this, it’s just that it takes some time to learn. But don’t sweat it because after you’ve gotten used to them, clipping in and out will be second nature to you.
Kinds of clipless MTB shoes
You’ll encounter a lot of variety in clipless MTB shoes. Manufacturers have put a lot of effort into meeting the clamor of bikers who are bound to encounter different terrain and possess different riding styles. Now more than ever, riding shoes are constructed more capable and versatile. Below is a list and short description of the main kinds of clipless MTB shoes you’ll meet.
Cross-country MTB shoes
Current cross-country (XC) MTB shoes have stiff soles and lightweight, minimalist designs. They’re made to maximize power transfer. Since they prioritize lightness over foot protection, they aren’t too pleasant for walking. However, it’s a good thing that modern XC MTB shoes have begun to mix performance upon the bicycle and walkability away from the bicycle.
Our recommendations for top-notch XC shoes include the Sidi Cape, the Giro Privateer R, the Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro, Giro Empire VR90, and the Shimano S-Phyre XC9.
Downhill MTB shoes
MTB highly dependent on gravity has been drawing in larger and larger crowds. Shuttle runs, lift served trails, and mountain bike parks all exist thanks to the downhill (DH) crowd. DH-purpose shoes, like the Five Ten Hellcat Pro and the Giro Chamber II, provide a high degree of walkability and foot protection while maintaining a durable pedaling platform. For best results, use them with wide-platformed pedals. These shoes have a tendency to be heavy because of their elevated foot protection and chunkier construction.
Enduro MTB shoes
Enduro is a new kind of racing that has become more popular in the past few years, leading to innovation in bike technology and giving birth to a wholly new series of MTB footwear. Enduro riding’s centered on thrilling downhill rides. But you’ve got to earn these heart-racing descents by working hard pedaling uphill.
Given that enduro is more centered on going down than going up, riders are usually happy to buy a heavier shoe if it means their feet are better protected. In this case, XC shoes would not be a good choice.
Some are content to use gravity shoes. Others still choose special-made shoes. These shoes perform excellently, but seeing as they’re lighter than gravity shoes, they offer a little less protection for your feet than DH shoes.
Trail and all-mountain MTB shoes
Trail and all-mountain riding are pretty much one and the same. While prolonged bike excursions within the mountains require a lot of ascents and descents, most riders still prefer to focus on going down.
Because of that, shoes designed for trail/all-mountain riding work well whether off or on the bike. They’re usually lighter than their gravity-friendly counterparts. The best among them combine lightness, good foot protection, excellent traction and walkability, and incredible power transfer. If it sounds like riding enduro, that’s because it basically is. It’s just that riders tend to like light shoes because they lead to better efficiency on the saddle.
Unless you’ve already a preferred MTB shoe (though if that’s true, how did you get here?), we highly recommend that you get yours from a nearby store instead of online. Shoe sizes tend to change wildly from brand to brand, not only in length but also around the toe boxes or the midfoot.
First and foremost, you need to take a close look at your feet. Put a pair on inside the store and walk around before buying. Does anything chafe? Are there unwanted pressure points? Don’t let “good enough” be good enough. Any minute discomfort will amplify several times over during an extended bike ride.
Also assess how rubber stickiness and sole stiffness feel with every change of shoes. You would be wise to enter the store already wearing the socks that you intend to use while biking; socks can influence fit, too. Lastly, you may discover that you like a certain kind of closure mechanism more than the others.
Don’t forget to consider what the weather will be like when you choose a pair of shoes. In very chilly climates, a typical cross-country (XC) clipless-purpose shoe will allow all that cold air to freeze your toes. This is because XC shoes—most shoes for bike trails, really—are well ventilated. Works great during summer, but killer during winter.
In addition, the cleats of clipless shoes are pretty much heat sinks. The warmth of your foot gets drawn to the cleats and the pedal. In this case, flat-purpose shoes are the better option because they have less ventilation. Their rubber soles also help with keeping your feet warm.
All this being said, manufacturers do know that their market needs winter shoes. They make winter models of clipless- or flat-pedal shoes. Of course, they’re pricier, but they’re great investments if you know that you’ll often go through winter terrain. If your feet no longer get any bigger, these winter shoes will last you a long time.