This individual sport requires endurance, core strength and balance, bike handling skills, and self-reliance. Advanced riders pursue steep technical descents and, in the case of freeriding, down hilling, and dirt jumping, aerial manoeuvres off both natural features and specially constructed jumps and ramps.
Mountain biking can be performed almost anywhere from a back yard to a gravel road, but the majority of mountain bikers ride off-road trails, whether country back roads, fire roads, or single-track (narrow trails that wind through forests, mountains, deserts, or fields). There are aspects of mountain biking that are more similar to trail running than regular bicycling. Because riders are often far from civilization, there is a strong ethic of self-reliance in the sport. Riders learn to repair their broken bikes or flat tires to avoid being stranded miles from help. Many riders will carry a backpack, including a water bladder, containing all the essential tools and equipment for trailside repairs, and many riders also carry emergency supplies in the case of injury miles from outside help. Club rides and other forms of group rides are common, especially on longer treks. A combination sport named mountain bike orienteering adds the skill of map navigation to mountain biking.
Mountain bikes differ from other bikes primarily in that they incorporate features aimed at increasing durability and improving performance in rough terrain. Most modern mountain bikes have some kind of suspension, 26, 27.5 or 29 inch diameter tires, usually between 1.7 to 2.5 inches in width, and a wider, flat or upwardly-rising handlebar that allows a more upright riding position, giving the rider more control. They have a smaller, reinforced frame, usually made of wide tubing. Tires usually have a pronounced tread, and are mounted on rims which are stronger than those used on most non-mountain bicycles. Compared to other bikes, mountain bikes also tend to more frequently use hydraulic disc brakes. They also tend to have lower ratio gears to facilitate climbing steep hills and traversing obstacles. Pedals vary from simple platform pedals, where the rider simply places the shoes on top of the pedals, to clipless, where the rider uses a specially equipped shoe with a sole that engages mechanically into the pedal.
Gloves differ from road touring gloves, are made of heavier construction, and often have covered thumbs or all fingers covered for hand protection. They are sometimes made with padding for the knuckles.
Glasses with little or no difference from those used in other cycling sports, help protect against debris while on the trail. Filtered lenses, whether yellow for cloudy days or shaded for sunny days, protect the eyes from strain. Downhill and free ride mountain bikers often use goggles similar to motocross or snowboard goggles in unison with their full-face helmets.
Shoes generally have gripping soles similar to those of hiking boots for scrambling over un-ridable obstacles, unlike the smooth-bottomed shoes used in road cycling. The shank of mountain bike shoes is generally more flexible than road cycling shoes. Shoes compatible with clip less pedal systems are also frequently used.
Clothing is chosen for comfort during physical exertion in the backcountry, and its ability to withstand falls. Road touring clothes are often inappropriate due to their delicate fabrics and construction.
Hydration systems are important for mountain bikers in the backcountry, ranging from simple water bottles to water bags with drinking tubes in lightweight backpacks (e.g. Camelbacks).
GPS navigation device is sometimes added to the handlebars and is used to display and monitor progress on trails downloaded from the internet or pre-made mapping systems, record trails on the fly, and keep track of trip times and other data. The GPS system is often a handheld GPS device with colour screen and rugged, waterproof (IPX7) design.
Pump to inflate flat tires.
Bike tools and extra bike tubes are important, as mountain bikers frequently find themselves miles from help, with flat tires or other mechanical problems that must be handled by the rider.
High-power lights based on LED technology, especially for mountain biking at night.
The style and level of protection worn by individual riders varies greatly and is affected by many factors including terrain, environment, weather, potential obstacles on the trail, experience, technical skill, fitness, perceived risk, desired style and others too numerous to mention. A cross-country helmet and simple long fingered gloves are a good minimum for the majority of riding.
Limb protection becomes important when speeds rise, surfaces become loose and sketchy, terrain technical and crashes more common and more severe. Full-face helmets and armored suits or jackets are more suited to “gravity” and “air”-orientated disciplines which use jumps and drops, where their extra bulk and weight is outweighed by the bigger and more frequent crashes with worse consequences. Still, within XC community, the typical road-racing attire is what most riders use. Whatever protection is used it should fit well, be comfortable (or it won’t be worn) on the bike as well as in the shop and suited for the particular type of riding. Gloves can offer increased comfort while riding, by alleviating compression and friction, and protection in the event of strikes to the back or palm of the hand or when putting the hand out in a fall. Gloves also protect the hand, fingers, and knuckles from abrasion on rough surfaces such as concrete. Many different styles of gloves exist, with various fits, sizes, finger lengths, palm padding and armour options available. Armouring knuckles and the backs of hands with plastic panels is common in more extreme types of mountain biking.
Helmets provide important head protection. The use of helmets, in one form or another, is almost universal amongst all mountain bikers. The main three types are cross-country, rounded skateboarder style (nicknamed “half shells” or “skate style”) and full face. Cross-country helmets tend to be light and well ventilated, and more comfortable to wear for long periods, especially while perspiring in hot weather. In XC competitions, most bikers use the usual road racing style helmets, for their lightweight and aerodynamic qualities. Skateboard helmets are simpler and cheaper than other helmet types; provide greater coverage of the head and resist minor scrapes and knocks. Unlike road biking helmets, skateboard helmets typically have a thicker, hard plastic shell which can take multiple impact before it needs to be replaced. The trade-off for this is that they tend to be much heavier and less ventilated (sweatier), therefore not suitable for endurance-based riding.Full-face helmets (BMX-style) provide the highest level of protection, being stronger again than skateboard style and including a jaw guard to protect the face. The weight is the main issue with this type but nowadays they are often relatively well ventilated and made of high-tech materials, such as carbon fiber. As all helmets should meet minimum standards, SNELL B.95 (American Standard) BS EN 1078:1997 (European Standard), DOT or “motorized ratings” are making their way into the market. The choice of helmet often comes down to rider preference, likelihood of crashing and on what features or properties of a helmet they place emphasis. Helmets are mandatory at competitive events and almost without exception at bike parks, most organisations also stipulate when and where full-face helmets must be used.
Body armour and pads, often referred to simply as “armour”, protect limbs and trunk in the event of a crash. While initially made for and marketed at downhillers, free riders and jump/street riders, body armour has trickled into other areas of mountain biking as trails have become faster and more technical. Armour ranges from simple neoprene sleeves for knees and elbows to complex, articulated combinations of hard plastic shells and padding that cover a whole limb or the entire body. Some companies market body armour jackets and even full body suits designed to provide greater protection through greater coverage of the body and more secure pad retention. Most upper body protectors also include a spine protector that comprises plastic or metal reinforced plastic plates, over foam padding, which are joined together so that they articulate and move with the back. Some mountain bikers also use BMX-style body armour, such as chest plates, abdomen protectors, and spine plates. New technology has seen an influx of integrated neck protectors that fit securely with full face helmets. There is a general correlation between increased protection and increased weight/decreased mobility, although different styles balance these factors differently. Different levels of protection are deemed necessary/desirable by different riders in different circumstances. Backpack hydration systems such as Camelbacks where a water filled bladder is held close to the spine used by some riders for their perceived protective value. However, there is only anecdotal evidence of protection and with the exception of one specific product by the company Deuter, they are never sold as spine protection.
First aid kits are often carried by mountain bikers, so that they are able to clean and dress cuts and abrasions and splint broken limbs. Experienced mountain bike guides may be trained in dealing with suspected spinal injuries (e.g., immobilizing the victim and keeping the neck straight). Seriously injured people may have to be removed by stretcher, by a motor vehicle suitable for the terrain, or by helicopter.