Mountain biking

You don’t need mountains to go mountain biking. Just about any off-pavement riding will reward you with fresh air, great exercise and—if hills or mountains are present—the exhilaration of scenic views and long downhill stretches.

Mountain biking does require some different skills than road cycling. In this article, the instructors at the REI Outdoor School share the following basics to help you get started.

Safety Checks: A - B - C

Before you hop on your mountain bike, do these quick but important checks.

Bike floor pump

Air: Check your tire pressure by using a floor-style bike pump with a built-in gauge. Most mountain bike tires should be inflated to between 25 and 45 psi. Check the tire sidewall for the suggested range for your tires. For sandy or snowy conditions, go to the low end of this range. Lower pressure improves trail contact, grip and bump absorption. Be careful, though, since hitting a rock with underinflated tires can cause a pinch flat.

Brakes: Check that your front and rear brakes are functioning properly by squeezing each brake lever. Don’t ride with poor brakes. While performing this test, also check that the quick-release levers for both your wheels are in the closed position.

Chain: Mountain biking can get your chain dirty fast. First, make sure it’s clean (see the REI Expert Advice article, Maintaining Your Bike Chain). Use a “dry lube” (e.g., Teflon®, wax based or light oil) in dry conditions and a moisture-resistant “wet lube” if you ride in wet conditions with mud, creek crossings or rain. If using an oil-based lube, run the chain backwards through a shop cloth to remove any surplus lube that would otherwise attract dirt.

Another simple check to do regularly: Lift your front wheel a foot or so off the ground, loosely grip the handlebars and drop it. If anything sounds or feels odd, it may indicate a loose headset. Don't ride such a bike.

Last but not least, wear a bike helmet every time you ride. Bring adequate water via a water bottle or hydration pack and carry energy snacks for longer rides. Desirable, but optional, gear includes sunglasses, biking gloves, bike shorts and shirt. So-called “clipless” bike shoes, which let you attach yourself directly to the pedals for increased cycling efficiency, are nice but not recommended for beginning riders.

Getting Started

Stepping through the frame

OK, you’re now ready to mount your bike. Here’s a tip to minimize the awkwardness of getting your foot over the top tube: Lean your bike to a low angle and step through the frame.

If you're new to mountain biking or are riding a new or borrowed bicycle, check that your seat height is correct. To do so, see the quick tip in the photo below or consult the more-detailed REI Expert Advice article, Fitting Your Bike.  

To get a strong start when pedaling, depress your brake levers, have one pedal near the top of its rotation and stand up to start. Learn forward, release the brakes, start pedaling and sit back down on the seat.

Shift Early and Often

Since most mountain biking involves at least some up and downs, it’s good to know how to shift your gears properly. Proper shifting habits not only save wear and tear on your bike (especially your chain, front cassette and rear cogs), they enable you to power yourself more efficiently up and down hills.

Shift often: Beginning riders should practice frequent gear shifting. This builds muscle memory so you can intuitively shift up or down as needed without having to think about whether you’re shifting to an easier or more difficult gear.

Avoid cross-chaining

Shift early: Don’t wait to shift until you’ve already started up that big hill. Always shift to the gear you will need before you hit the steep terrain. This allows you to keep a steady cycling cadence for maximum power. It also prevents awkward shifting under a load that is hard on your gears and could cause your chain to pop off.

Another important rule is to prevent cross-chaining. This occurs when your chain is stretched awkwardly across from a) the small chainring in the front to the small cog in the rear, or the big chainring in the front to the big cog in the rear. Cross-chaining can also result in your chain popping off from the strain; it also stretches your chain over time, shortening its lifespan.

Finally, always remember to keep pedaling as you are shifting. Not pedaling as you shift can result can damage or break the chain.

Riding Position: Down and Back

Perhaps the biggest key to successful mountain biking is your body position.

The challenge: Trail surfaces will likely include some combination of rocks, roots, ruts, sand or mud. Routes may feature blind turns, hairpin turns and dicey stream crossings. Above you and to the sides of you there may be low-hanging tree branches and other vegetation that pokes at you.

This variable terrain and its potential obstacles are all part of the fun for experienced riders but can be unnerving to beginners. The telltale signs of fear include arms locked tightly, elbows extended outward, chest up high away from the handlebars and a stiff posture.

Our tip: Just relax and remember the “down and back” rule.

Uphill position

Down and back refers to your seated position while riding:

  • Chest down close to the handlebars.
  • Arms tucked in low and close to your body.
  • Thighs pressed lightly against the side curves of your saddle (no squeezing).

For downhill riding, stay “inside the bike” with your butt down low and at the back of the saddle. Your feet should be in the “9 and 3 o’clock position” on the pedals. For steep downhills, move your body back so your butt is behind the seat. Your arms should be stretched out and your chest low over the frame. This moves your center of gravity back and down, reducing the prospect of an acrobatic “endo” over the handlebars.

To negotiate bumps, stand on the pedals with them again in the 9 and 3 o’clock position. Raise your butt off the seat an inch of so. This way your arms and legs act as shock absorbers and can flex to maintain stability. Speed is your friend here, so maintain enough momentum to accelerate over the bumps.

2-fingered braking

Other positioning tips:

  • For uphill riding, experiment to find your optimum balance position. Too upright and your front wheel may start to wander due to insufficient weight keeping it on the trail. Too bent forward can cause the rear wheel to lose traction and spin out.
  • In tricky terrain, cover your brakes with 2 fingers extended out over the brake levers for faster braking responsiveness.

Using Your Bike's Suspension

Suspension fork

Your mountain bike has either front suspension or full suspension.

A front suspension fork should be locked for uphill trail sections to maximize your pedaling power (the photo shows a fork in the locked position). Unlock it for downhills and flat bumpy sections to help absorb the inevitable bumps and jolts along the way.

Locking and unlocking the fork is as simple as flicking the lever on top of the fork.

Falling Off

No one likes to fall off their bike, but if you are mountain biking it’ll probably happen at some point. If you like to push your limits, it may happen a lot. 

Most damage is limited to personal pride. Pick yourself up, dust off and check your own mechanical integrity. Then check your bike. The seat or handlebars may have twisted and the chain may have come off.

Check your brakes and gears, too, before charging on. A trailside repair or adjustment may be needed, so it is wise to carry a multitool and a small first-aid kit to patch any personal scrapes.

Choosing a Trail

To best enjoy mountain biking, start with easy trails and progress as your skills and experience increase. Warning: A trail that an experienced mountain biker considers easy is usually still difficult for a beginner. Your riding options:

Dirt roads: Start here. They are wide and open with moderate grades and few bumps. You can ride on a dirt surface without having to worry about rapid braking and gear changing. Find dirt roads in state forests, BLM land, on the urban fringe and in rural areas.

Doubletrack: These are ATV trails or old jeep trails now closed to motorized vehicles. They demand increased concentration and bike handling while still being wide enough to navigate comfortably. Get practice choosing the path of least resistance, or up the challenge by purposefully riding over obstacles such as small logs or rocky ledges.

Singletrack: Think hiking trails. Some are designed and built for mountain biking with easier grades and corners than hiking trails. Although riding singletrack is considered the main attraction for mountain bikers, it is usually not the best place for a beginner to build skills. Riding singletrack requires a Zen–like combination of concentration and relaxation, combined with quick reflexes and subconscious gear changing and braking—skills developed only through practice and experience. 

Urban bike parks: Indoors or out, urban bike parks are designed specifically for mountain bikers to hone their skills in a small space. Fun!

Hike the Bike

As you ride the trails, you’re bound to get into a tight spot eventually. If you get in a rut on the trail, don't "fight the bike." Just do your best to ride it out. Impossible? There’s no shame in stopping and walking it out. Walking is absolutely an accepted part of mountain biking. Many trails feature mandatory hike-a-bike sections which are too difficult to ride through, up or down.

Trail Etiquette

Trail sign

Mountain biking is often done on trails or roads shared with other users—hikers and horses. Always be a courteous and responsible rider.

  • Ride only on trails open to mountain bike use.
  • Slow down when approaching hikers or horses and give them a wide berth.
  • Let other trail users know of your presence by calling out “on your left” or ringing a bike bell before passing. Be aware, however, that saying “on your left” can be momentarily confusing to others. Expect that they may inadvertently block your path instead of yielding.

For more info, see the rules of the trail from the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA).