How do I choose mountain bike shoes?

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Shoes for mountain biking come with multiple specs and features. This makes it quite confusing for someone to look for new shoes. The main criteria for selecting the right shoes are the type of riding and your personal preference. In this article, we will discuss all the important factors when it comes to mountain bike shoes and how to choose a suitable pair.

Clipless vs Flats

Mountain bike shoes can be divided into two main types – clipless shoes and flat pedal shoes. Clipless shoes can accommodate a set of cleats for clipless pedals. Pretty much all mountain bike shoes have a 2-hole setup. They also have stiff soles. However, they are not as stiff as road cycling shoes and the cleats stay recessed into the sole. This makes them easier to walk in while still delivering a high pedaling efficiency and power transfer.

Clipless shoe

Clipless shoe

If you don’t like to stay clipped into the pedals, you could go for flat pedal shoes. As you can tell, the soles do not have recessed cleats. But they do have a tread pattern to be able to grip the pedal surface well. The tread also helps in walking through the off-road trails. They maintain the stiffness that you would expect in bike shoes. Flat mountain bike shoes are a great option for beginners who would need to get on and off the bike quickly.

Flat shoe

Flat shoe


The most important thing to get right with bike shoes is the fit. Without the proper fit, you won’t be able to give your best performance. You will also experience discomfort on longer rides such as overheating, pinching, and blisters. Take into account not only the length but also the width and overall shape. A pair of MTB shoes should have a snug fitting for maximum efficiency while still having some wiggle room for comfort during off-the-bike use. It is always recommended to try on shoes in person before buying them. Don’t just buy a pair because they feel okay. Make sure to get that perfect fit.

Retention System

The retention system helps you to finetune the fit of the shoes. There are different types to choose from. There are the classic laces which are fairly customizable. Be sure to tuck them in while riding so as to not get them caught in the drivetrain. Hook and loop straps with velcro are easy to use even while on the bike. They tend to be found on cheaper shoes.

For the most precise fit, you can get a BOA dial system. These use a ratchet dial to tighten or loosen a wire on the shoe. This system is the fastest and easiest to use but also the most expensive. Every rider has a preference when it comes to retention systems. Be sure to try them all out and see which one you like.

BOA dial system

BOA dial system


The kind of soles on your bike shoes will depend on the type of use. You should go with lighter and stiffer carbon soles if you want maximum power transfer and efficiency. Or you could go with a more flexible but heavier rubber sole. These provide more comfort for walking. There is also the tread pattern that can vary. Look for bigger and softer lugs to trek through mud, or smaller knobs for walking on dry hardpack trails.

Riding Style

Different forms of mountain biking will demand different features from a pair of shoes. Most manufacturers have specific collections for specific riding styles. So be sure to stick to your preferred category. Below we have discussed all the properties that you should look for for different forms of riding.

Casual riding

If you are a beginner or someone who goes off-road biking only occasionally, then this is the category for you. For casual mountain biking, you don’t want to go overboard. Flat shoes will be a good choice, especially for beginners. You also do not need much stiffness. Look for something that is comfortable and looks like casual sneakers. So, you can wear them anywhere you want.

Casual ridng shoes

Casual riding shoes

Cross-country (XC)

Cross-country riding is all about long distances and relatively high speeds. Therefore, you need shoes that are light and stiff. XC shoes will have a minimal sole and upper to reduce weight. Almost all XC riders like to clip in, so look for cleat recesses. If you are more of a pro, then there are full-on racing shoes available. These will usually have carbon soles and a stiffness similar to that of road cycling shoes.

Cross-country shoes

Cross-country shoes

All-mountain & Enduro

This is a category better suited for seasoned mountain bikers. All-mountain and enduro riders are not afraid to go down all kinds of trails. You will need something that is suitable for the type of trails that you encounter. On one end are the performance riders who will need lighter and stiffer soles with clipless compatibility. On the other end are those who use flat pedals and want a soft grippy sole to get a good feel of the bike.

In between there is a wide range of shoes with varying properties, such as shoes that are clipless but have softer soles. You would also typically want shoes with an aggressive tread pattern for good grip off the bike. Moreover, AM and enduro shoes should have a sturdy build and a good level of protection for the feet.

All mountain enduro shoes

All-mountain/Enduro shoes


For downhill or gravity riders, weight and stiffness are not that important. Instead, they prefer flat shoes with a relatively soft sole that can grip to the pedals and give a good feel of the bike. You would also want solid lugs for when you are pulling your bike up the hill. There are clipless options as well. If you go for this option, then it is better to have cleats that are rearward biased. This offers a similar feel to flat pedals and also makes you feel neutral on the bike. Also, like Am and enduro shoes, downhill shoes should provide ample protection for the feet.

Downhill shoes

Downhill shoes

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What kind of pedals should I use for mountain biking?

Ans.: For the two types of mountain bike shoes, there are two types of pedals – flat pedals and clipless. When using flat pedals, they should have a wide base and the surface should be able to provide enough grip. Clipless pedals are smaller. Since most clipless MTB shoes have 2-hole cleats, you will need SPD pedals. These were made by Shimano and are currently the most widely used clipless pedals for mountain biking.

Clipless and flat pedals

Clipless and flat pedals

Q2. How do I take care of my bike shoes?

Ans.: The most important aspect of taking care of your bike shoes is to clean them regularly. Normally, a wet towel or rag should be enough to get dirt off. For more stubborn grime, you could use some soap and warm water, combined with a brush. After cleaning, wipe with a dry towel as much as possible and then leave them out to dry. You could stuff some newspaper into the shoes to let it soak up the water overnight. A boot dryer can be very useful as they can dry up a pair of shoes in just a couple of hours.

Q3. Are there any weather-specific mountain bike shoes?

Ans.: Yes, there are shoes designed for summer, as well as those for winter. Summer shoes will be light and have ample ventilation. This keeps your feet cool. Most of them will also have moisture wicking material which keeps your shoes dry and free of smell. Winter shoes will be the exact opposite. There will be no ventilation and the material will typically be insulating to keep heat in. Many winter shoes will also have a neoprene cuff for extra protection.

Winter mountain bike shoes

Winter mountain bike shoes


If you have gone through the entire article thoroughly, you should have a clear idea about what sort of shoes to look for. Shoes are an important part of cycling and you will be surprised by how much they can improve your experience on the bike. So, take your time and try out a number of different pairs before making a final choice.

My name is Dion Lewis. I’ve been cycling since my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions. In my college life, I took a part-time job in a bicycle shop and I learned how to repair and maintain bicycles professionally. Though I love racing, mountain biking is another thing I do frequently. My friends, neighbors, and colleagues treat me as an avid rider and take my suggestions while they plan for a new bike or bike gear.

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