Gear: Mountain Biking
One thing that’s not on this mountain bike essentials list? The bike…because you probably already know you’ll need that, whether your preference is a hard-tail with front suspension, a full-suspension rig, or an old-school single-speed fixie that are making a (somewhat inexplicable) comeback. So…buy/borrow/rent a bike, and then tick the following off your must-have list.
Foolish urban riders be damned: not wearing a bike helmet when cycling just ain’t smart. And this applies all the more when you go mountain biking, where roots, rocks, trees, and all manner of ways to crack your head open await. Go for one with decent ventilation, that easily adjusts in the back so that you can wear a hat or hoodie underneath if it’s cold, and consider a visor, which can help block out the sun or shield you from rain.
Shades do more than just block out the sun when you’re riding. They also shield your eyes from splashing mud and help you to discern terrain in variable light conditions—like when you pedal from an open ridge into a grove of aspens. Consider sunglasses that allow you swap out lenses, so that you can pair the tint with the conditions (overcast sky or cycling in lots of shade: go for a light tint like yellow or orange; above-treeline rides on a bluebird day: go darker). Also be sure to try ‘em on with your helmet to confirm they don’t interfere with its strap.
Whether you go with clipless (where you shoes “clip” into the pedals) or traditional flat pedals, be sure that your shoes have a slightly aggressive tread so that you can have some traction for when you have to walk—and you will have to walk and push your bike for at least some of almost every ride. We also appreciate cycle-specific shoes with hard toe caps for added protection and sticky rubber to gain better purchase on the pedals.
The world of mountain biking isn’t defined by body-hugging latex, but underneath those baggy shorts you’ll typically find a padded chamois that can really help to soften the bumps in the trail. Consider shorts that come with removable inner linings so you can double up with other “regular” pairs of outside shorts. As for those external shorts, go with synthetic fabrics that offer some abrasion resistance, easy wash-n-wear, and quick-dry properties.
A synthetic or merino-wool upper layer should keep you cool and comfortable in the saddle. (Some of us still wear cotton, but don’t tell the apparel police). Both synthetic fibers and wool will wick away moisture (and wool has the added benefit of not retaining body odor, and keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold). Shirts with half-zips let you vent quickly, which is nice for cycling in the dog days of summer, and three-quarter-length sleeves provide a bit of protection against scratching thorns, bushes, and branches.
Likely the least expensive thing on this list, and the one that can make the most difference. Get a pair with decent padding in the palms, and the jarring impact of the off-road ride will be substantially minimized, especially the next day. Fingerless or full gloves? More of a personal preference although gloves with fingers are nice in cold conditions.
The Little Things
In addition to common-sense items like lip balm, sun screen, water, and some trail food, be sure you have a few bike-specific essentials. A basic multi-tool with a variety of different-sized hex wrenches (and a chain tool, ideally) should help you get out of most mechanical jams. And a spare tube, a hand pump, and plastic tire levers to help you get off the tire are a must. CO2 canisters, which will inflate the tube much faster than your arms, are also a nice add-on. But of course, most essentially, you should know how to change a tire.
Hydration backpacks are a godsend for cycling because they allow you to easily drink on-the-go with one hand on the handlebars (or both, if your drinking tube is well situated). As for the bag’s internal storage, be sure you have enough room for the little stuff (see below) as well as an extra layer of clothes. But unless you’re going for an epic ride, you don’t need a pack with massive volume—and you really want a pack with a slimmer profile so that it doesn’t slough around on your back when you’re pedaling. Lightly padded shoulder straps should be comfortable and look for a pack with an adjustable sternum strap (which clips across the chest) so you can move it up or down for a comfortable fit. A hipbelt isn’t essential given your overall posture in the saddle, but it will help to stabilize the load. If you are carrying enough weight that the hipbelt will help with load redistribution, you’ll need a hipbelt with light padding (versus simple webbing), but for one that’s narrow in width, so the don’t interfere when you enter the more aggressive posture required by mountain biking.
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