The Beginner’s Guide to Mountain Biking: Gear, Accessories & Essential Items to Pack
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It all started with a very old bike given to me by my grandfather when I was only a few years old. It was big, hard to get on, it had no gears, and I would always fall behind when riding with my parents. Of course, it all became much easier as I grew.
Then, in my teenage years, I suddenly decided that I wanted to try mountain biking. So, I “hijacked” my dad’s old bike, an avid cyclist himself. As time went by, my dreams and ambitions kept on growing. I still remember when I bought my first mountain bike and how I slept with it by the side of my bed for weeks. I soon discovered that there are some accessories and essential items that you just can’t have a safe trip without.
Have you been road cycling or commuting to work on your bike for quite some time? Are you ready to take things to the next level? If you wish to tackle mountain biking, being able to ride a bike is simply not enough; you must be prepared for long and demanding trails that can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days to complete, not to mention that you may ride in remote places with little or no reception.
If you’re a beginner about to start a new and exciting journey, then you’ve come to the right place! Read our guide to learn about the essential pieces of mountain biking equipment that will ensure the best experience out there on the trails.
But first, let’s start with your bike
Nowadays, there is an overwhelming choice of bikes on the market, and if you’re out there buying your first mountain bike, you might find yourself in a difficult position. In the end, it all comes down to your needs – what type of terrain you plan to paddle on and how often – and, of course, your budget.
To start with, you need to decide on the type of suspension: rigid, hardtail, or full suspension.
Photo credit: cyclotourist via Flickr
Rigid bikes are cheaper and imply easy maintenance. On the downside, they can become quite uncomfortable on rough terrain because they do not have any suspensions to absorb the shock. Fat bikes usually come without suspensions, but their oversized tires absorb most of the shock.
Riders prefer models with suspensions for more comfort, and the majority of mountain bikes you see on the market today are either hardtail or full suspension.
Hardtail bikes come with a suspension fork that absorbs the impact on the front wheel. There’s no suspension on the back, hence the name. This is the most popular type of mountain bike, as hardtail bikes are less expensive than full suspension and are easier to maintain.
Hardtail bikes are the go-to option for cross-country riding because the rigid back means a better transfer of power between the pedal stroke and the rear tire. They are a great option for all-mountain trails too. In fact, they can handle just about anything except hardcore, lift-serviced downhill trails. Plus, most have the option of locking the fork for a rigid bike.
Full suspension bikes
Photo credit: Simon Hunt via Flickr
Just as the name suggests, full suspension bikes come with both a fork and a rear shock to absorb the impact, soakings up trail bumps and offering a comfortable ride. On the downside, you “lose” a bit of transfer from the pedal stroke to the rear wheel when going uphill. Luckily, there is a solution for this, as most full-suspension bikes come with the option of locking the rear suspension for a more efficient power transfer and, therefore, an easier climb.
When it comes to wheel size, the 26-inch remains the most popular one. Until recently, all mountain bikes were equipped with this wheel size. Nowadays, you also have the 27.5in and the 29in options, which are bigger, have more momentum and can handle rough terrain more easily. They are also heavier. And let’s not forget kids’ mountain bikes with their 24in wheels if you’re planning to go on a family cycling trip.
Depending on the size of your wheel, you will need to bring fitting spare tubes.
Photo credit: Nevada Tourism Media Relations via Flickr
The helmet is not an option. In fact, some countries require wearing one by law. Wearing a helmet when cycling is just as important as wearing your seatbelt when driving.
As with anything on the market nowadays, you will find cheap versions and pricier ones. But you cannot put a price tag on your own safety, and the pricier models usually mean high impact resistance and high energy absorption values.
Depending on your intentions out there on the trail, you should grab a suitable helmet. Road bike helmets do not offer the same protection as a mountain bike helmet. The latter provides better ventilation even at low speed, a better protection of the lower back of your head, and a tight fit for rough terrain.
Different brands usually have different fits, which is why I recommend that you always try the helmet on before buying.
Photo credit: rei.com
I remember years ago when I used to say, “I don’t intend to ride after dark, so I don’t need lights!” But you never know what kind of surprises the day may have in store for you and what issues you may encounter on the trail. It might get pitch dark before you end your trip. The bottom line is that you should get a set of bike lights, even if you never get to use them.
To make sure you are visible to vehicles and pedestrians, you must equip your bike with front and rear lights. There are two types of lighting systems available: high-output lights and safety lights. For mountain biking, it’s recommended that you use a high-output lighting system for your front lights, as they are much brighter and allow you to see better.
Alternatively, you can pack a reliable headlamp with sufficient lumens (opt for at least 350 lumens), long battery life, and long-distance beam.
Mountain biking is rough on the hands – without protection, you are prone to getting blisters, calluses, scratches, and even some nasty wounds if you fall off the bike. Gloves offer grip and protection, reduce fatigue and increase comfort on the trail. Unlike other mountain biking accessories, you don’t need anything fancy or pricey.
You can choose between fingerless and full-fingered gloves, both of which offer protection in the event of a crash. Make sure the gloves have padding for the palms and that they are breathable.
Photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious via Flickr
Dehydration will ruin your performance and compromise your trip. Even a few hours of riding in the sun will deplete your body of electrolytes, so make sure you stay hydrated!
Most road bikers prefer the old and humble water bottle, as hydration packs are often too bulky and sweaty for such rides. But when it comes to mountain biking, hydration packs offer plenty of advantages; you can keep your hands free and focus on the task at hand. You can carry between 2 to 3 liters of water, and most come with sufficient storage space to fit a jacket, a toolkit, some snacks, and even an extra layer of clothes.
Photo credit: icebike.com
Flat tires and broken chains are never pleasant, but they do happen. The longer, steeper, and bumpier the trail is, the more chances that these will occur. Therefore, you need to be prepared to fix a punctured tire or a broken chain quickly and not keep the rest of the team waiting for too long. Carry a tool kit with you at all times, no matter how short your ride will be. Let’s hope you’ll never have to use it.
Here’s what your toolkit should include:
- Mini pump – lightweight and versatile, mini bike pumps can easily fit into your hydration pack.
- Spare inner tubes – pack at least two.
- Patch kits – if you’ve used your last tube, these are life-savers.
- Tire levers
- Chain tool
- Master link – in case you encounter problems with your chain on the trail, master links can be used to replace bent or broken links; you can remove the bad link with the chain tool or multi-tool and connect one end of the chain to the other in a matter of minutes.
- Dedicated multi-tool – opt for a compact multi-tool that contains a wide range of Allen keys, which you need to adjust or fix the components of your bike; some multi-tools also come with a built-in chain tool.
- A small pack of chain lube – if you embark on a long trail and you know that there will be plenty of stream crossings, then packing a small pocket-size chain lube is always a good idea.
What else to pack
The clothes you wear and pack on the trail can make or break your mountain biking trip. Wearing regular pants when cycling will hinder your movement and can lead to muscle fatigue and cramps. Instead, opt for padded shorts or tights. Wear insulation layers, also known as fleece jackets, which are typically made from merino wool, silk, and synthetic fabrics. These will keep your body temperature constant,while evacuating all the sweat.
When you’re out in the mountains, the weather can change without warning from one hour to the next. You can never trust the forecast. Therefore, you need to pack extra layers of clothes and always bring a rain jacket with you. Opt for a lightweight, packable shell that takes up minimal space. It can work as a wind jacket too.
Here are a few other essential items to pack:
- First aid kit – trail riding does come with its fair share of risks, so make sure you pack a small first aid kit that includes, but is not limited to: bandages, band-aids, analgesics, antiseptic cream, anti-inflammatory pills, tweezers.
- Lip balm
- Energy bars
The list of essential items to carry on the trail depends from one rider to the other. In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, there may be others that you will find useful, depending on your experience and the lessons learned on each trail.
Are you ready to take the road less traveled? Embark on a mountain biking trip in Europe and explore the old continent’s natural landmarks at a slow pace.