What pedals should you use for mountain biking?

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The debate about what type of pedals to use while mountain biking is an ongoing one. On one side, there are those that swear by flat pedals, and on the other side are those that believe that clipless is the way to go. So, which pedals should you actually use for mountain biking? Well, there’s no straight answer as it depends on your riding style and preference. In this article, we will discuss both pedal types and help you decide which kind you should use.

Mountain biking

Mountain biking | Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/xab-tAwkXYM

Types of Pedals for Mountain Biking

When it comes to mountain biking, there are two types of pedals that are almost equally popular among riders – flat pedals and clipless pedals. What you choose depends on your riding style and personal preferences. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages.

Flat Pedals

Flat pedals are the kind of bike pedals that everyone is already familiar with. They are also known as platform pedals. The pedals have a flat platform made of either aluminium or composite materials on which you place your foot. With flat pedals, you have the freedom to take your feet on and off the pedals easily. Also, you have the option to wear any shoes you want. However, it’s best to wear shoes with a grippy sole so that your feet don’t slip off.

Flat pedals

Flat pedals

Small spikes, known as pins, provide the grip required to keep your feet in place. On many pedals, these pins can be replaced when worn out and their height can be adjusted to vary the grip. Some pedals are not perfectly flat but have a concave shape instead. This allows your shoes to flex into the pedals and provide even better traction.


  • No need to buy special cycling shoes. Any pair of sturdy shoes with flat bottoms will do.
  • Easy to take your foot off when you need to escape a crash, maneuver through a corner, or just change position.
  • Helps you improve confidence since you aren’t locked in place.
  • No clogging up in muddy conditions.


  • Not as efficient as clipless pedals.
  • Requires good technique to get the best use out of them.
  • On rough and bumpy terrain your feet can bounce off the pedals.
  • Feet can also slip off the pedals which might cause injury.

Clipless Pedals

The term ‘clipless pedals’ can be contradictory since you actually have to clip in to these pedals. The name was initially created to distinguish them from an older style of pedals that had toe clips. Clipless pedals offer more efficient power transfer and better bike control. Additionally, you get engagement of all your leg muscles since you are not only pushing down with your feet but also pulling up.

Clipless pedals

Clipless pedals

You will need cycling shoes with stiff soles and built-in holes where cleats can be attached. Practically all mountain bikes with clipless pedals use a 2-bolt system as opposed to the 3-bolt system used in road bikes. The 2-bolt cleats, usually SPD cleats, are smaller and are recessed into the shoes, allowing you to walk. Most pedals have cleat attachments on both sides. Clipless pedals can seem intimidating and require a bit of practice to use, but that’s not a problem once you get used to it.


  • Improved efficiency and power transfer from feet to pedals
  • Less fatiguing since power is transferred throughout the entire pedal stroke.
  • Superior handling of the bike on technical rides.
  • Feet remain attached to the bike over bumpy terrain and makes some things like bunny-hopping easier.
  • Smaller size makes clearing rocks and roots easier. Most are also lighter for a pedal of similar quality.


  • No option of repositioning feet once you’re clipped in.
  • Requires careful setup of the cleats and pedals to get into a comfortable position.
  • Clipping in and out quickly can be tricky sometimes.
  • Cycling shoes can be expensive.

How to choose between flat pedals and clipless pedals

Clipless pedals are not objectively better than flat pedals, neither is it true the other way around, It all depends on what you prefer. The following table should help you decide whether you should use flat pedals or clipless pedals.

Use Flat Pedals ifUse Clipless Pedals if
You want the ability to take your foot off the pedals at any timeYou prefer pedaling efficiency and power transfer over convenience
You are an entry-level riderYou want to stay fixed on the pedals while riding on rough terrain
You do a loads of tricks or downhill ridingYou are fine with the learning curve
You often ride slippery, wet terrain with unreliable tractionYou want greater control of your bike
You are scared to be committed to the clipless pedalsYou do a lot of XC racing or uphill climbing
You don’t want to buy dedicated shoes for mountain biking

Hybrid Pedals

There is a third kind of pedal that you could use. Hybrid pedals or combo pedals are those that can be used as both flat and clipless pedals. There are two variations. One type has a cleat attachment on one side and a flat platform on the other side. The second type has a cleat attachment integrated into both sides of the platform. With hybrid pedals, you can choose to ride clipped-in one day and ride with flat bottom shoes the next day. This makes them a great choice for different riding styles.

Hybrid pedals

Hybrid pedals

However, there are some downsides. For example, clipping in may not be as seamless as with dedicated clipless pedals. They would also be heavier. Another issue you might face with certain pedals is that the clipless side weighs more which tends to make them automatically rotate to the flat side facing upward. But overall, they are an excellent option to try out.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is meant by ‘float’ of a pedal?

Ans.: Float refers to the number of degrees you can rotate your foot before your shoe disengages from the pedal. Different cleats provide different amounts of float. A 0° float means you cannot move your feet at all if you want to stay clipped in. There are some cleats that also allow up to 15° of float. Many cleats offer the option to customize the float. As a beginner you might want to use a small amount of float. For more experienced riders, it largely becomes a matter of personal preference.

Q2. How do you use clipless pedals?

Ans.: To properly clip into clipless pedals, place your cleat on the pedal and slide it forward a bit with some downward force. Start off with the foot you use to start the pedal stroke with. Start pedaling and gain some momentum. Once you get moving and are stable, you can clip in your other foot.

To release from your foot, you simply have to twist your heel away from the bike. You’ll notice that unclipping is a lot easier than you think. Admittedly, you might have a fall or two initially when you forget to unclip, but so has everyone. It’s part of the learning process. Fortunately, the act of falling will unclip you automatically from the pedals and keep you from getting tangled up with the bike.

Q3. Can you use road bike pedals for mountain biking?

Ans.: The pedals themselves may not be a problem, but the shoes will be. Road pedals have a 3-bolt cleat system instead of a 2-bolt one that requires road cycling shoes. Trail riders often have to get off the bike and hike through some sections of the trail. However, road shoes are very stiff and have a smooth sole with no treads. Moreover, the cleats protrude from the sole. This design makes them difficult to walk in on pavement, let alone muddy/rocky terrain.


If you are already a moderately experienced mountain biker, after reading this article you should be able to easily decide whether to use flat pedals or clipless pedals. If you are an entry-level rider, we recommend sticking to flat pedals and developing your basic skills first. Later on, you can try out clipless pedals and see if they are for you.

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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