So You Want to Start Mountain Biking? Here Are 6 Tips to Know

Mountain biking is quickly becoming one of the most popular outdoor adventure sports. In fact, according to some studies nearly 40 million people in the US ride mountain bikes (that is just over 10% of the population).

While nowadays the two of us are pretty avid mountain bikers, it wasn’t always that way. I (Madalyne) had grown up a pretty die-hard road biker and I had never really had the desire to switch from riding pavement to riding technical singletrack trails (I liked how much distance I could cover on the road). It wasn’t until Luke came along that I began to see the opportunities that mountain biking presented (mostly the fact that you can explore the same stunning mountain landscapes as you would hiking, but just at a faster speed).

But in the beginning, I wasn’t entirely sold. It was a challenge getting comfortable on the bike and I had a very real fear of falling hard and hurting myself (knock on wood nothing bad has happened yet). And even now, so many years later, I still get a bit nervous on some of the more technical trails and especially on the really steep downhill sections (I am an unashamed walker sometimes).

At the end of the day though, I absolutely love mountain biking and am so thankful that I pushed through and really gave it an honest chance when I was first starting out. Mountain biking is challenging — it's harder in many ways than road biking, both physically and mentally. But the payoff is pretty darn amazing.

If you are someone who has always considered getting into mountain biking, then I cannot recommend it enough!

This article below is for those of you who are still on the fence about mountain biking or who are beginner mountain bikers that are still pretty nervous about riding. These 6 mountain biking tips, though somewhat straightforward, are still very important to keep in mind when you are first starting out — especially if you are like me and are a bit nervous about hitting the trails.

➳ If you are curious to learn more about the technical side of mountain biking, then definitely consider checking out this series that REI made about beginner mountain biking. Check out the series here.

MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAIL RATINGS | WHAT TO KNOW

Just like with many other sports — most notably skiing or snowboarding — there is a clear difficulty rating system for mountain bike trails; in this case, the ratings are based on 5 things:

| Trail width

| Tread surface

| Average trail grade

| Maximum trail grade

| Natural obstacles and technical features

Below is a brief outline of what you can expect from each trail rating — which is super helpful to know if you are new to the sport and are trying to figure out what kind of trails you should do (or not do… yet). The trail rating information is according to IMBA (or the International Mountain Biking Association).

GREEN CIRCLE | BEGINNER

Trails that are labeled as a green circle will have 36" trail width, firm and stable surfaces, a 5% or less climbing grade and a max of 15% climbing grade. Also, you can expect some small unavoidable obstacles on the trail (like rocks and logs).

BLUE SQUARE | INTERMEDIATE

On trails that are labeled as blue square you can expect 24" trail width, mostly stable surfaces with some variability, a climbing grade between 10% and max of 15%, unavoidable obstacles that are max 8" tall and some natural bridges that you cannot avoid.

BLACK DIAMOND | EXPERT

On trails that are labeled as black diamond you can expect 12" trail width, surfaces that are widely variable, a climbing grade at around 15%, some unavoidable obstacles that are max 15" tall and many loose rocks. Also, there is a likelihood of coming across multiple technical features that can be up to 48" high.

DOUBLE BLACK DIAMOND | SUPER EXPERT

On these expert-level trails you can expect routes with 6" trail width, highly variable and unpredictable surfaces, an average trail grade of 20% or more, unavoidable obstacles that are max 15" tall, many sections of loose rocks and unavoidable bridges that may be less than 24" wide. Finally, many trail sections can exceed this criteria and be even more technical (be prepared to test yourself).

Besides these four clear trail ratings, you may also find trails that fit in between — like a trail that is rated Green/Blue, or more commonly, a trail that is rated Blue/Black.

➳ Find the full guide on trail difficulty ratings here.

1 | Understand That it Will Be Hard and That You Will Likely Fall (At Least Once)

Just like with any other high adrenaline, slightly dangerous sport, you have to be okay with failing — at least in the beginning. Mountain biking is not like road biking. It is usually a lot more technical — both physically and mentally. Know that and be okay with it (embrace the challenge!).

Also, be prepared to struggle… and to fall. But luckily, you very likely will not be riding at such a high speed that your fall will be too painful. Obviously, if you are really afraid of falling and getting hurt make sure to wear proper gear (long shirts and tights, knee and elbow pads) so that if you do fall off you don’t get too banged up.

We definitely suggest finding a trail that isn’t too technical to start with and to take your time riding over the more technical sections (like steeply banked turns, over rocks and logs, and on the downhill parts). And if you do fall, just get back up, dust yourself off, take a couple of deep breaths and keep riding.

2 | Ride with People of a Similar Skill… and Then Test Yourself

Likewise, when you are a beginner mountain biker you should first try to find people that have a similar skill level as you or who are at least okay with riding easier trails (green trails are what you are looking for) in the beginning.

When you are first starting out on a mountain bike, it is more about getting comfortable on your bike and being a confident rider than anything else. Once you get there, then start pushing yourself and riding with people that are a bit more skilled than you. One of the best ways to gain more mountain biking skills and to grow your confidence is to slowly start trying harder and harder trails (like a green-blue or just a blue).

3 | Don’t Be Embarrassed to Walk or Go Slow

When you are first getting into mountain biking you might be so excited and have so much gumption that you end up going too fast too soon and something bad happens (i.e. a crash). Obviously, we don’t want to be the ones to tell you to take it slow, but we do want to let you know that it is perfectly fine to start out riding more cautiously if you are afraid or worried about falling (or just uncomfortable on your bike).

Never be embarrassed to walk those steep sections or dismount (get off your bike) when you get to really technical parts.

4 | Learn How to Use Your Gears

Learning the ends and outs of your bike will definitely help you ride better and have even more fun. One of the key things to figure out is what gear works best for you for each situation. For example, you will want to know how and when to lower your gears when you start climbing uphill sections.

But also know that as you get stronger and more confident on your bike and on the trail, your gear choice will likely change (you might not need to go into the lowest gear — “granny gear” — when you start a climb). Playing around with your gears, figuring out what works best for you, and just getting comfortable switching between them is a key step in becoming more confident on your mountain bike.

💬 INSIDER TIP: the same goes with your brakes. One of the most important things to learn and get used to while riding a mountain bike is how to handle your brakes. For example, as obvious as it might seem to just hold both your brakes (tightly) while riding downhill, instead, use your body to slow down and just gradually pull on the brakes. By doing this instead, you are less likely to fly over your handlebars (which is definitely not fun).

5 | Come Prepared with the Tools to Succeed

There are a few things you need to always carry with you when out mountain biking — especially if you are doing it by yourself. Below are some of the basic things to have in either your backpack (we like this style) or in a bike bag.

| A spare tire

| A small bike repair kit (like this one)

| Water and maybe a snack (depending on your expected distance)

| A first aid kit

| A phone with a downloaded map (we like using Mountain Bike Project or FATMAP)

► See our full list of mountain biking gear below.

Even if you know the area or aren’t planning on being out on the trails for very long, things can happen and you need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario (you get lost, you seriously hurt yourself, etc.).

6 | Know Proper Mountain Biking Trail Etiquette

While figuring out how to handle your bike and being comfortable riding on more technical trails is a key part of beginner mountain biking, it is also important to understand key mountain biking trail etiquette (aka how to be a good rider).

Some of the most important points to remember and follow are:

| Uphill riders get the right of way on trails. This means if you are going downhill and you see a rider coming uphill you need to pull over and let them pass before you keep going.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: sometimes riders going uphill will pull over first in order to take a break or if there is a better spot for them to move aside and let you pass. Obviously, if this happens you can go by them, but for the most part, always pull over and slow down if you are going downhill.

| If you are riding on a multi-use trail, then you will need to be extra aware of people not on bikes (hikers and horseback riders mainly). Both hikers/walkers and horseback riders have the right of way so you will need to move over and/or audibly let them know that you are coming up behind them so they don’t get spooked. We suggest having a bell on your bike for this exact reason (see our recommended bike bell below). If you don’t have a bell, at the very least call out “on your left/right” before you pass them.

| If you stop along the trail for a break, make sure to pull over so there is enough space to allow others to ride by you. Don’t hog the trail.

| Follow all signs and regulations. If a trail says no bikes, don’t ride there. If it says one-way travel only, follow it. If it says no e-bikes, sorry take your electric bike somewhere else. These rules are put in place for a reason, so don’t be that a**hole that doesn’t follow them and cause problems (or worse, gets the trail closed permanently).

| Like other outdoor activities, always follow the key Leave No Trace Principles. In mountain biking, there are a few more LNT Principles to be aware of; including, not riding on muddy trails (this causes long-lasting damage), only staying on existing trails, and not cutting switchbacks.

➳ Learn more about mountain biking trail etiquette here.

MOUNTAIN BIKING GEAR | WHAT TO BRING WITH YOU

Due to many mountain bike trails rougher terrain, you are going to want to come prepared with plenty of mountain bike gear — especially if you are planning to head out on some more backcountry and rugged routes. Below are a few important things to have with you while mountain biking.

LONG-SLEEVED SUN SHIRT

Nothing ruins a day out on the trails faster than getting too much sun exposure (or worse, a sunburn). Therefore it is definitely recommended that you wear a shirt that helps block the sun’s harmful rays. If you are planning to mountain bike in a more exposed area (less tree coverage and/or at higher elevations), make sure to wear a shirt that protects your full upper body — like the one below by Backcountry. Plus, it’s also a great idea if you are planning to ride some more technical sections for the long sleeves will give your skin that extra layer of protection in case you take a tumble.

See our recommended sun shirt here.

BIKE SHORTS

Just like too much sun exposure can turn a great day out on the trails into a less than optimal experience, so can riding all day without proper padding on your bum. Because let’s be real, bike seats are not very comfortable and after 10+ miles on the saddle your booty will start to feel a little bit tender. Luckily, bike shorts can help curb some of that pain. This pair by PEARL iZUMi is comfortable, breathable and stylish.

See our recommended bike shorts here.

WATER BLADDER AND BACKPACK

Many mountain bike trailheads do NOT have water available so you will definitely want to show up prepared — especially if you are planning to ride during the middle of the day when the sun is at its fullest or if you are looking to do a bigger ride. This water bladder and bag combo from CamelBak holds 9 liters of water and still has plenty of room to spare for stuff like snacks, extra layers of clothes and your phone.

See our recommended biking bag here.

BIKE TOOLS

This handy toolkit comes with everything you could need to fix all kinds of mishaps while out mountain biking. Plus, it is lightweight and can easily be stored in your biking bag or left in your car if you are only planning to do a shorter route.

See our recommended mountain biking toolkit here.

A BIKE BELL

Another helpful thing to have with you while out mountain biking — especially on the more curvy mountain bike trails — is a bike bell. This is just an easier (and slightly more courteous) way to let people know that you are coming down the trail. This one by Knog is simple and efficient.

See our recommended bike bell here.

BIKE HELMET

Rounding out the list of things you should definitely bring with you while mountain biking is a solid helmet that not only keeps your head safe but is also comfortable enough to wear all day long. This one by Giro comes in a couple of fun colors, is very comfortable and lightweight and has enhanced breathability for when you start to climb and the sweat begins to pour down.

See our recommended mountain biking helmet here.

Mountain biking is a super fun and exhilarating way to explore this amazing planet. Seeing the world via two wheels allows you to go farther and fast in a shorter amount of time (plus there is something seriously fun about riding those banked turns). If you have been considering getting into this adrenaline sport but don’t know where to begin, then let this be the first step in your journey to becoming one badass mountain biker.

If you have any questions about mountain biking, then please feel free to leave us a comment or question, or reach out to us directly (we love talking about mountain biking). Also, definitely take a look at some of our mountain biking (and bikepacking) guides below for even more inspiration.

See you on the trail!

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Backroad Packers

Backroad Packers

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Two adventurers creating in-depth travel guides to inspire you to slow down and get off the beaten path more.