Beginner Mountain Biker: Your Intro Guide

So, you consider yourself a beginner mountain biker and want basic information on what you need and where to start.

All you hear is industry hype, buzz words that mean nothing to you, or bike shops trying to convince you to spend plenty of money on new gear. You get a different opinion depending on who you talk to. You want to make the right decisions but can’t find reliable, basic info.

If this sounds familiar, you’re in the right place!

In this article we’ll give a general overview of beginner mountain biking. Then we’ll talk about the bikes themselves and what you need for gear. From there, we’ll discuss the technical aspects of mountain biking and leave you with recommendations for your next steps.

This article is intentionally broad and basic, to act as a catch-all for everything a beginner mountain biker needs to know. This is based on years of riding, experience with different stores/ companies, and riding with people of all skill levels.

I still remember what it’s like being a beginner mountain biker myself, trying to make sense of everything.

Table of Contents

Mountain Biking: A Quick Overview

Mountain biking offers fresh air, exercise, great views, and a fun way to get out with friends.

Most people think Red Bull competitions when they hear mountain biking: flipping off 40 foot cliffs and weaving between trees at 100 km/hr. It’s easy to think the sport is intense and only for the “extreme.”

Reality is quite the different. Mountain biking can be whatever you want it to be: you can pedal on smooth, flat single track or send yourself off massive jumps.

Bike trails come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from absolute beginner to hardcore thrill seeker.

They are graded from Green (beginner), to Blue (intermediate), and finally to Black (advanced). Keep in mind that the ratings are for the overall difficulty of a trail. As a beginner mountain biker don’t be discouraged if you come across short sections (even on a Green) that are more difficult than the rest of the trail.

What should you expect from each of these different trail types?

Green trails are relatively flat and don’t have technical features–the perfect option to just cruise around. They are a great starting place to figure out if trail riding is something you’re into, and practice basic skills to get you more comfortable for Blues.

Blue trails require more physical effort than Greens. They have occasional shorter steep sections, both up and downhill, that require some skill to navigate. Pedalling and staying on line is more work than a Green, but there is still relatively little consequence. Blues are harder physical work than Greens because they involve more climbing and descending. It is important to remember that Blue trails are still friendly, and if you come across a section you are unsure about, it is easy to walk your bike through it.

Black trails are usually designed for downhill only and require steady bike control. For beginner mountain biking these trails will likely end up in a crash, or rolling off the trail with no control.

Once you build to an intermediate skill level, Blacks are perfectly attainable and a great challenge to test your ability. However, if you are happy with Blues there is no need to push yourself further! Only do what you are comfortable with. If you want to progress and try something new and difficult, there is a time and place for that. Rushing will lead to extra stress and possible injury. Neither of those are fun.

Beginner mountain biking usually starts on Greens and possibly Blues, depending on conditioning and strength. If you are already in good shape Blues are ok to start on, just be prepared for a little frustration as you learn to shift gears often and move your weight around. Most bikers will stick to Blues even as they mature into everyday, intermediate riders.

For information about the trails in your area, checkout Trailforks. They’re the standard for trail information. If you download their app, you can use it even if you’re out of service range (GPS works without data). Just have your trail area downloaded ahead of time!

For basic information about major trail areas, and the best places for local coffee and bike shops, checkout Trails N Java.

Choosing and Buying a Mountain Bike

The price of bikes and gear can be intimidating; making the right decisions will save you money and hassle.

As a beginner mountain biker you’re probably shocked by sticker prices in bike shops. To make matters worse, sporting good stores and popular used forums have bike options that a far cheaper. Add in the fact that bike companies do a poor job of explaining their bikes, often using generic catch words like “your perfect all around amazing bike that will do everything perfectly” or use buzzy words about the latest tech. Neither of these help you choose a bike. Trying to find real information about beginner mountain biking can be difficult.

So, what kind of bike do you need?

You have two main options: a full suspension or a hardtail. A full suspension has a plush front and rear end which is more forgiving, comfortable, and fun on descents, but cost more.

A hardtail, which has no rear suspension, will be cheaper but harsher on the descents and less forgiving. They are a great place to start if on a tight budget, or if you want something simple.

Bikes are categorized as Cross Country, Trail, All Mountain, and Downhill. For the scope of this article, you should aim for something in the “trail” category: these are balanced, all around bikes perfect for beginner mountain biking.

For a full suspension, any bike in the “trail” category for at least $2500 will be a good starting point. For a hardtail, anything above $1500 will be appropriate.

Why these numbers? For anything new, spending less will mean lower quality components requiring more maintenance and less durability. Another thing to keep in mind is re-sale value: if you decide to upgrade in the future, starting off with a quality bike will mean more money when you sell. For beginner mountain biking, not worrying about your bike will allow you to focus more on other things.

Buying a bike from a Local Bike Shop (LBS) includes a warranty and (usually) free minor tune-ups. Many include a one-time complete tune up, which are worth over $100. It’s nice knowing that if something is damaged on the trails you can easily bring it to a familiar shop where the mechanics will help you out and be on your side. Trying to navigate and learn about all the different moving parts on your bike, and fixing them, can be a stressful ordeal if you’re just starting out.

If you prefer to go your own way, Pinkbike has an excellent used gear forum. They are a rider focused site and the most trusted used bike platform. Keep in mind that you won’t know the true riding history and it’s likely some maintenance will be required. It probably won’t perform as smoothly as a new bike either, unless it was excellently maintained.

A quick note about those extremely pricey bikes (above $5000)–they are stocked with higher performance components and lighter materials, usually carbon. For beginner mountain biking, neither of these are a consideration. Even advanced mountain bikers often won’t spend that much money on a bike.

A big note for this section is that you can get away with a bike for less than the prices I quoted, even if they are older. The big unknowns are the maintenance quality, and how much work you are comfortable doing on your own. The price ranges I quoted strike a balance between quality, durability, and peace of mind knowing that something won’t break prematurely (and will be warrantied if it does).

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Beginner Mountain Biking Gear

The main gear considerations for a beginner mountain biker are helmet, shoes, gloves, pack, padded bike shorts, and sunglasses.

A high-quality trail helmet by Smith. Notice the excellent coverage around the temple and neck areas, and the large vents.

A helmet is the most important piece of gear and any new one will do the job. As helmets increase in price they get lighter, more comfortable, and have more air flow which keeps you cooler.

Try to find one that offers full coverage, like the example above. It is a trail helmet appropriate for most kinds of biking, and more than enough for beginner mountain biking.

Standard flat shoes on the left and clipless shoes on the right.

For shoes, any flats will do. I’ve had friends comfortably descend Blacks with running shoes on. As price goes up for bike shoes you are paying for stiffness, breathability, waterproofing, and durability. These qualities make riding and walking on trails more comfortable, but your everyday workout or light hiking shoes will work just fine.

A quick note about the two kinds of pedals: there are “flats” and “clipless.” Flat pedals are the standard type and likely included with your bike. Clipless pedals allow you to “clip in” and attach your shoes to the pedal. Clipless requires special shoes and is not recommended for the beginner mountain biker, as it involves a completely separate set of skills that will only complicate learning.

There is an age-old debate about flats v clipless which we’ll discuss in a future article. But for starting out, stick to flats. Even advanced mountain bikers will still use flats. 

Standard bike gloves from Fox: snug fit and good padding.

Gloves can be optional. But they do provide more grip if you have sweaty hands or it’s raining, and offer much needed padding and hand protection if you crash. They can be pricey but are durable.

A slim pack I use for summer on the left; a bulkier pack with more room for layers (great for winter riding) on the right.

A pack is recommended for carrying all your extras like food, tire tubes, air pump, and hydration. Although you can attach a water bottle holder to most bikes it is always a good idea to carry extra water and food with you, especially when you’re starting out. Also, the extra space can be used to store layers if you get too hot, or stash a light rain coat.

A normal backpack will do, but keep in mind that biking backpacks are designed to stay in place while you are biking, and often come with their own hydration system which saves you the hassle of carrying clunky water bottles.

Simple padded shorts on the left; nerdy but more comfortable “bib shorts” on the right.

Padded shorts, although not required, are highly recommended to increase comfort and reduce recovery time. Bike seats can be hard on sensitive areas and sit muscles. Padded shorts absorb some of the impact and reduce soreness. This is especially the case with a beginner mountain biker who’s body hasn’t adjusted to biking yet.

There are two important notes to make regarding short type and quality.

You can find padded shorts as either standard shorts or bibs. Bibs don’t have a waistline and use suspenders. Standard shorts are slightly cheaper, but bibs are much more comfortable and do a better job of staying in place.

Avoid cheap “flat” pads that aren’t broken into sections or don’t have built-in creases. The grooves and flex in the better quality padded shorts will bend and adjust to your body and reduce the chance of pinch points. Flat/ cheap padded shorts can reduce blood flow and may cause numbness.

mountain biking glasses

High quality biking sunglass have better fit, anti-fog, clearer view, and automatically darken in direct sunlight..

Lastly, sunglasses. They’re recommended for eye protection from smaller, overhanging branches that may catch you by surprise.

Sunglasses also reduce brightness and glare, protecting your vision. Biking glasses can be pricey– your normal everyday sunnies will work just fine.

With gear, the more you bike the more you’ll probably want to upgrade. But at the beginning it can be difficult justifying more cash, especially if you’ve just bought a new bike! Although, it is important to note that many stores offer discounts on gear bought at the same time as a bike. 

Have a conversation with bike store staff: they understand the unique needs of a beginner mountain biker and will typically extend the amount of time your “new bike gear deal” is good for, to give you a chance to figure out what you need.

Getting out with Friends and Riding Trails

Hanging out with friends, great views, and great workouts. 

If you find biking frustrating at first, especially if you’re riding with friends that are better than you, you are not alone. Bouncy off roots, bad/ wrong gear, skidding, nerves about steeper sections, these are all normal and it’s important to remember your skills will improve with time.

Beginner mountain biking frustrations come easily, until you realize everyone goes through the same experiences. Some issues, like bouncing off roots, will always plague you no matter your skill level! Just go at a pace you’re comfortable with–focus on having fun and not perfectly nailing every line or turn.

If you see something you’re unsure about, get off and have a look or walk it. The worst thing you can do is force yourself to ride an intimidating section, tense up, and lose control. And don’t worry about people around you–they’ll be able to tell you’re beginner mountain biking and should give you plenty of space.

Another aspect that may catch a beginner mountain biker by surprise is the conditioning: although riding a bike sounds easy, sustained or steep climbs will challenge your fitness just like running wind sprints do. This can be problematic if you’re trying to keep up with faster friends with better “bike conditioning.” But take your time and rest when you need to, and don’t forget to drink water.

If you’re wanting to train for biking, some of the best exercises you can do to prep yourself are interval training, core work, and chest work. And always stretch! Especially after your first rides when you’re body is recovering. The more flexibility you have the better your muscles work and the less chance of injury.

A bike camp is also an option to learn about and develop fundamental biking skills. There are plenty to choose from, so checkout your local recreation or gear rental stores.

The Dirt Series by Trek is renowned across North America and although it is pricey it receives excellent reviews. Most camps are typically designed around beginner mountain biking, and you will be learning with others at your same level, which can make the process much more enjoyable.

You can also join a local bike club, to get out with people at your skill level while being led by someone familiar with the trails.

Biking is extremely rewarding. Give it some time if you are feeling frustrated at the beginning, or try easier trails and build up from there. It is one of the best ways to have fun while getting a workout outdoors!

Hopefully this has been a helpful basic outline of what to expect from beginner mountain biking!

Hardtail Canada plans on writing more detailed articles on each of these article’s topics.

If you have any questions or concerns, comment below or post on the forum! 

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