How To Choose a Mountain Bike: The Ultimate Guide

Here are 8 of the best tips on how to choose a mountain bike that is right for you.
how to choose your mountain bike

We have curated a simplified but thorough guide to help you choose a Mountain Bike.

The mountain bike market is ever-changing, with new standards being created and old ones becoming obsolete. Even for experienced riders, the growing lingo in the industry might be a bit perplexing. With such a wide variety of bikes available, choosing a mountain bike can be difficult. You can find bikes with highly specialized features alongside machines that claim to “do it all”.

This guide is intended to provide you with the information you’ll need to choose your new mountain bike. From wheel size, suspension travel, bike type and how to select the appropriate size or “fit”.

You may jump to the relevant topic by using one of the links below, or you may read on for all the information you’ll need to choose the right mountain bike.

#1 – Factors to consider when choosing a mountain bike?
#2 – Suspension travel, how much do I need?
#3 – Wheel size, which one should I choose?
#4 – Frame material, which is best?
#5 – How do you choose a mountain bike based on price?
#6 – What type of mountain bike should I buy?
#7 – What size mountain bike do I need?
#8 – Mountain bikes for women.

What else do I need to get started?

#1 – Factors to consider when choosing a mountain bike.

What type of riding do you enjoy?

James Mackie riding the Blue Diamond Trail. The type of terrain is also a factor how to choose a mountain bike.
Technical Trail Example – Pro Mountain Bike

It’s important to establish early on what sort of trails you intend to ride and on what terrain you want your bike to excel at.

This will help you decide what category of bike you need, from short-travel lightweight cross-country rigs to robust, chunky more downhill-focused bikes.

We’ll cover each of these in detail later – you can skip ahead to our section on the different types of mountain bikes – otherwise, let’s start at the very beginning.

Hardtail or Full Suspension?

Humble hardtail or full-suspension mountain bike – which is best for you?

A hardtail mountain bike has a suspension fork up front, while a full-suspension bike pairs a front suspension fork with rear suspension. There are certainly pros and cons to both. On a fixed budget, you’ll certainly get a better-specced hardtail for your money, although an entry-level full-suspension bike might still be more capable on rougher trails.

Again, it comes back to what kind of riding you enjoy. In a game of hardtail vs full-suspension, a hardtail tends to win for climbing, with a direct connection from crank to axle giving a more efficient response to pedaling, as well as being lighter.

  • Hardtails are also easier to maintain, needing less intensive servicing, and tend to be more budget-friendly.
  • Full-suspension mountain bikes are more capable on technical terrain.

Some people recommend the best hardtail mountain bikes for beginner riders, as they’ll teach you about the importance of line choice and technique.

Affordable beginner bikes will often have quite conservative geometry and basic components, while more specialized ‘hardcore hardtail’ options will have longer and slacker geometry, along with burlier parts to help them handle better at speed and in the rough.

Full-suspension mountain bikes really excel when things get rougher, so if you think you’ll be wanting to tackle more technical trails and features, then you might want to consider one. You can read up on mountain bike rear-suspension systems before you buy to check out the different options and how they work.

However, the good news is that these days, the vast majority of rear suspension designs work pretty well. Shortlisting bikes based on their linkage doesn’t make sense unless you’re after a specific ride characteristic.

#2 – Suspension travel, how much do I need?

Fox 36 Fork
FOX 36 – Pro Mountain Bike

The amount of suspension travel is generally a good predictor of what category a bike fits into.

60-110mm: Cross-country bike (XC)

Trail types: Smooth singletrack, Fast-flowing

Characteristics: Climbing and acceleration. With 60-110mm of travel, you’ll get a cross-country race bike that excels at climbing. With quick acceleration on smoother trails with flowing terrain.

110-130mm: Cross-country/trail bike

Trail types: Man Made loops and less rocky natural routes

Excels: Covering distance fast.

Moving up to 110-130mm of travel, you’ll cover distance fast on a cross-country, downcountry or short-travel trail bike. Taking on both man-made loops and less technical natural trails.

130-160mm: Trail bike

Trail types: More technical trails with some bigger features

Ibis Ripmo Mountain Bike
Ibis Ripmo 29er – Pro Mountain Bike

Excels: Equally capable up and downhill.

A trail bike with 130-160mm travel will be able to take on more technical tracks, including some larger features. It will be equally capable up and downhill.

160-180mm: Enduro bike

Trail types: Steep, gnarly off-piste; rocky tech; bike park tracks

Excels: Rapid descents, but can still be pedaled back to the top.

When you move up to the 160-180mm bracket with enduro bikes, you sacrifice some of the pedaling efficiency to be able to excel on steep, gnarly off-piste trails, rocky tech and bike park tracks.

180-200mm: Downhill race bike

Trail types: The fastest, roughest descents known to man!

Excels: Descending; there’s no way you’re pedaling one uphill. Forget pedaling back up to the trailhead when it comes to downhill race bikes. With around 180-200mm of travel, these are designed purely for going downhill, taking in the fastest and roughest descents.

#3 – Wheel size, which one should I choose?

Different wheel sizes
29er vs 27.5

26in Wheels

For a long time, 26in mountain bike wheels were the norm, but now with the exception of dirt-jump and slopestyle bikes, they’ve been replaced by larger, faster-rolling rims.

27.5in Wheels

The majority of new adult bicycles will most likely be equipped with either 27.5inch (also known as 650b) or 29in-diameter wheels. The latest research indicates that the market is now split roughly 50/50.

29er Wheels

29er wheels provide superior momentum, obstacle clearance, and traction due to the longer contact patch of their tires on dirt.

The bigger wheels take longer to accelerate and need more effort to stop, but they also have less rolling resistance than 700c wheels. Unless you have a particularly active riding style or enjoy riding trails that are tight, winding, and steep, 650b is advantageous.

Handling issues were common on early 29ers, but now thanks to modern geometry they ride just as well as smaller-wheeled bikes.

The 29in wheels’ extra height is something to think about, especially if you’re not particularly tall. Summed up in one sentence, 650b is enjoyable; 29in is great for high speeds and lap times.

Mullet Wheels

Mullet bike - GT Force Mullet Mountain Bike - 29er Front / 27.5 Rear
GT Force Mullet Mountain Bike – 29er Front / 27.5 Rear

Lastly, mullet bicycles utilize different-sized wheels on either side of the bike for speed and obstacle clearance. With a 29in front wheel for speed and rolling over obstacles and a 27.5in rear wheel for quick handling at the back.

#4 – Frame material, which is best?

Aluminum, steel, titanium, and carbon fiber are the four most popular materials for bicycle frames.

Aluminum is the most popular frame material for mountain bikes because it provides a suitable mix of strength, weight, and price.

Smaller boutique brands favor steel for several reasons. Not only is it readily available and simple to work with, but the same strength can be obtained with thinner-walled and smaller-diameter tubes, resulting in a desirable amount of bump-absorbing “compliance” (meaning flex).

The same can be said for titanium, which has a lighter overall weight but comes with a hefty price tag of over $2,000.

Carbon has long been one of the hyped up terms used to ‘upsell’ to bike buyers. To some extent, this is justified, because carbon fiber gives designers near-limitless control over frame shapes and ride characteristics, as well as the potential to build an incredibly light and strong chassis/frame – important if choosing a featherweight XC race bike or Enduro race bike.

Ibis Ripmo: Same model, two different materials:
Carbon or Aluminum.

It’s important to note that there are significant differences between carbon frame constructions from a cost perspective. However, there are no rules when it comes to price. Many cheaper carbon frames aren’t necessarily built with the same care and attention to detail as more expensive models. Also, keep in mind that at lower price points, manufacturers will often choose cheaper builds (lower level components).

A more well-equipped aluminum bike will almost always ride better than a carbon frame decked out with lower-quality components.

#5 – How do you choose a mountain bike based on price?

Short: The amount of money you have set aside will determine what bicycles are accessible to you, whether they’re hardtails or full-suspension, with various frame materials, drivetrain choices, and braking systems. Here’s what you can anticipate to find in each of the price ranges.

Mountain bikes under $600

Haro Flightline Two 29

The $600 mark is a reasonable starting point for a ‘good’ mountain bike. At this price, you should avoid full-suspension bikes like the plague. Spend less and you’ll discover that important elements such as the fork, gearing, tires, and brakes have been compromised to keep costs down, resulting in a rather uncomfortable and problematic ride. Look for a frame constructed of lightweight aluminum rather than heavy steel. Go with disc brakes over rim brakes, since they’ll keep working in the wet and provide more consistent power. 

Mountain bikes under $900

Trek Marlin 6

At this price, bicycles start to be more specialized to fit various styles of riding. We’ll get into the many sorts of bikes later, but you’re sure to find a hardtail that can take whatever you throw at it (within reason of course). 

The frame is likely to remain aluminum and will be made with improved manufacturing and shaping technologies. This makes it lighter and more comfortable. A suspension fork and hydraulic disc brakes are required, as well as a wide handlebar and short (35-50mm) stem. This will improve the bike’s handling drastically. 

The best mountain bikes under $900 will have an entry-level performance suspension fork. Aim to find a bike with an air-sprung fork as they’re lighter than coil springs and allow you to adjust the fork’s spring-rate (hardness or softness) to match your weight. The most well-equipped bikes at this price will also have a thru-axle fork and wheel rather than a quick-release or QR system. This uses a bigger-diameter axle, that creates a stiffer connection between the wheel and fork, improving steering/handling accuracy. Look for a fork and frame with a tapered head tube with a larger-diameter lower bearing. This improves stiffness and the ability to choose from a wider selection of forks in the future for upgrades. A single chainring up front and a wide-range cassette at the rear (often known as a 1x drivetrain), will have the same gearing as a double crankset. The 1x is easier to use, lighter, less noisy and easier to maintain. Rear derailleurs equipped with a clutch are the ones to look out for, such as the SRAM’s Type 2 or Shimano’s ShadowPlus designs. These designs prevent the chain from falling off on rough terrain. 

Also, not everyone will use an inner tube anymore, some manufacturers are now even offering tires and wheels that are “tubeless ready”. These tubeless setups WILL assist to avoid punctures and save weight. On the tire sidewall, search for the words “tubeless ready” or “tubeless compatible.” Please note that at this price point, full-suspension bikes are still likely to be proper turds to ride.

Mountain bikes under $1,500

Kona Big Honzo

This is the magic amount of money where bikes with reasonably lightweight frames and well-controlled, adjustable forks start to become available. At this price range, all bicycles should have adjustable air-sprung forks with a stiffer through-axle design rather than quick-release skewers and tapered steerers. Adjustable rebound damping is common, and it’s used to alter how quickly the shock springs back after a hit. Some forks will feature a lockout lever that freezes the suspension movement for better efficiency on smooth ascents. For greater stiffness, the best mountain bikes under $1,500 may have a through-axle at the rear wheel. You’d expect to see a 12-speed drivetrain with a clutch-equipped derailleur, as well as higher-specification equipment that would be lighter, last longer, and perform better. At this price, you’ll want to search for bikes with the “Boost mountain bike axle” standard, which will allow you to upgrade the wheels later on if desired.

Mountain bikes under $2,500

Canyon Spectral 29 AL 5

At this price, full-suspension bikes have still some concessions, but they’re becoming less common. You’ll also start to see lightweight carbon fiber frames on some hardtail bicycles, while aluminum-framed hardtail versions will come with high-end components as standard. Long-distance mountain bikes and short-travel cross-country bikes will be light enough to ride all day, while longer-travel trail bicycles will be able to tackle really difficult descents and get you back up to the top without difficulty. At this price point, suspension units will be of a higher quality, with greater damping adjustment available. We also anticipate to see 1x mountain bike groupsets at this price. The best under $2,500 mountain bikes include dropper posts that allow the saddle to be lowered without having to come to a halt. These are ideal for riding technical terrain and are a must-have for most riders as it will allow you to get into a better body position for attacking the steeper stuff.

Mountain bikes under $3,500

At this price range, you’ll most likely come across a carbon frame with lower-end components, or an aluminum frame with high-end components. The choice will be yours of whether you want to go with a carbon frame that may be upgraded as components wear or an aluminum option with top-tier parts as standard. The best mountain bikes under $3,500 will be highly focused on their intended purpose: XC race frames, enduro and DH bikes, e-MTBs – with a wide range of travel choices and frame geometries. However, full-suspension designs are becoming increasingly popular.

Giant – Trance Advance

Hardtails should be equipped with top-end components like the latest 12-speed drivetrains from Shimano and SRAM, and 1x drivetrains as standard.

Dropper-posts will be used on anything other than the most hardcore cross-country race bikes. To suit their usage, tires are likely to arrive with specialized rubber formulations and tubeless compatibility is a given.

Wheels get lighter and more robust, while rims grow broader (on trail/enduro bikes) to accommodate these heavier-volume tires.

Mountain bikes from $3,500 to $6,000

It’s at this point that the law of diminishing returns takes effect, since in order to lose a lot of weight you’ll have to spend a significant amount of money, whereas gains are more likely to be restricted by the rider’s ability rather than the bike.

Cannondale Jekyll 2

Components are almost certainly to be of high quality, lightweight, and durable. Manufacturers frequently depart from in-house components and move to aftermarket solutions.

You may choose between an aluminum or carbon fiber frame, as well as steel (including bespoke handcrafted choices) and titanium like the Moots brand for example.

When you get into the higher price ranges, carbon components start to appear – handlebars, cranksets, wheels, and so on. While these may provide bling and save weight, the difference in ride quality is typically insignificant.

Suspension components will typically include highly efficient and adjustable dampers with special low-friction coatings.

Tires will be well-suited to the job at hand, with plenty of traction and speed. Wheels may start using various construction strategies and exotic materials like carbon fiber to minimize weight and strength.

The majority of the world’s top bikes are in this price range.

Mountain bikes over $6,000

Ibis Ripmo V2
  • You’ll need deep pockets for bikes such as the Ibis Ripmo v2 XT.
  • If you’re spending this much, you should have a specific idea of what you want.
  • You might as well be racing.

#6 – What type of mountain bike should I buy?

Different kinds of mountain bikes explained.

There are many different types of mountain bikes, each with a specific purpose in mind. The amount of suspension travel will determine a bike’s category, as we’ve previously said, but geometry and specification are also significant.

Here’s a brief rundown of the many sorts of mountain bikes and what to look for when buying one.

What is a cross-country (XC) mountain bike?

Cross-country bicycles (now called XC) are designed for covering vast distances as quickly as possible, whether in a race or during a day out in the mountains.

Russell Finsterwald’s – Specialized Epic

Hardtails are still popular for racing, but more lightweight full-suspension bicycles are becoming increasingly popular. They have around 80 to 100mm of travel at both ends, generally equipped with a lockout function that helps to prevent the suspension from sapping pedaling energy on smoother sections of trail and longer climbs.

Cross-country bicycles generally utilize larger 29in wheels with lightly treaded, low-volume, and fast-rolling tires for enhanced speed. For further information, see our article on the top cross-country bikes.

What is a trail mountain bike?

This is the most popular form of mountain bike because it can be utilized for a wide range of applications.

Trek Fuel 5

When going down hills, the more comfortable angles on the greatest trail mountain bikes increase rider confidence. The frame is designed to take a beating and has steeper stems and wider bars to aid in speed control. The tread of the tires will be more aggressive.

Full-suspension trail machines will utilize a longer travel fork, ranging from 130 to 150mm. The maximum travel on a hardtail is around 100mm, while on a full-suspensation bike it’s normally between 130 and 150mm.

1x drivetrains are almost universal, with a broad gear range and reduced maintenance. 29in or 650b wheels are used on trail bikes.

What is a downcountry bike?

Downcountry is the new kid on the block, combining the best aspects of both XC and trail.

Canyon – Lux Trail

With a lightweight XC frame but with trail-friendly geometry and more aggressive tires than you’d find on cross-country race bikes, these are some of the most adaptable and versatile off-road bicycles available.

When you’ve straddled one, it’s easy to see why these are so popular

What is an enduro mountain bike?

Enduro is a race in which the descents are timed, yet you must pedal yourself across the course between them. As a result, these mountain bikes are built to excel on steep and difficult trails while remaining light and efficient enough to pedal back up.

Specialized Enduro

Most Enduro bikes have more travel than ‘normal’ trail bikes, and they’re almost exclusively full-suspension. Most travel is 160 to 180mm at both ends, with robust wheels and armored tires.

They utilize air-sprung suspensions in most cases, although they are heavier-duty and have a wider range of damping settings to tune their downhill performance. For its lower maintenance and riding consistency, there is a growing preference for builds with coil shocks.

What is a downhill mountain bike?

These bikes are about doing one thing and doing it well: going down steep, technical trails extremely quickly.

Santa Cruz V10

Downhill mountain bikes have 180-200mm of travel on both ends, with coil-sprung suspension that’s focused on pure traction and support.

The forks are braced together using legs that extend above the head tube and are then supported by a ‘double-crown’ or ‘triple-clamp’ fork, which must endure the tremendous forces the bicycles are subjected to.

What is an electric mountain bike?

The number of electric mountain bikes on the market is growing, with models suited to every type of riding from cross-country to enduro.

Trek Rail

E-bikes are a type of electric bike that usually have a motor and battery. The amount of assistance given is usually set via a control unit on the handlebar or top-tube of the bike.

These bicycles are significantly heavier than their non-motorized counterparts, but they can climb steep slopes with ease.

Don’t assume that riding an e-bike is simple. These bikes can provide a rigorous workout, as many professionals use them to train on. However, electric mountain bikes allow you to spend more time descending once you’ve powered up all those ascents.

#7 – What size mountain bike do I need?

Choosing the right bicycle is critical. Not only will it make you more comfortable on the bike, but it will also allow you to reach your full cycling potential.

The chart below shows the average heights and weights of mountain bikes according to size. However, keep in mind that geometry and sizing vary between brands, so double-check the measurements before buying.

Average Size Chart

If you don’t feel comfortable on it – the top tube is too short, for example, or you can’t get the seat low enough – it will impact your enjoyment far more than a luxury paint job and a nice suspension fork. Riding the right-size bike will also help you ride technical terrain properly.

When you’re shopping for a new bike, it might appear that they’ve kept getting longer in recent years. This isn’t due to our legs getting longer; instead, it’s because designers have learned that stretched-out bicycles with downward angled head angles perform better at speed.

You’ll soon forget about your old bike when you’re riding a larger one, and any initial awkwardness you may experience while maneuvering a bigger bike around will go away (assuming it’s the suitable size for you). You’ll be wondering how you ever managed on that cramped little “kids’ bicycle” before. Bikes have traditionally been sized by seat-tube length. Although this is still an important consideration, you must ensure that you can reach the saddle at a reasonable position for pedaling as well as drop it for descending. 

Long-travel dropper seat-posts, on the other hand, have allowed bike designers to shorten saddle tubes. This also allows riders to ‘upsize’ to a bigger frame if they want more length or vice versa.

The horizontal distance from the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube’s center is referred to as the “reach” on a bike. This measurement indicates how wide you’ll feel when standing on the pedals.

If you can, try to arrange a test ride so you can experience how the bike handles on the trail. Many brands have demo days where they bring their entire lineup for potential consumers to experience.

If you’re looking for a high-end bike, many shops will be glad to make adjustments to certain parts, such as the saddle, tires, or grips, if it means they can seal a bargain.

You won’t have the option to try before you purchase at online or direct sales bike stores, but most provide a good return policy if you decide the fit of your new bike isn’t right for you.

#8 – What about women’s mountain bikes?

True women’s-specific bikes are still produced by a select few manufacturers, with special geometries and suspension settings – the ‘Santa Cruz Juliana’ is a great example of this.

Many people claim that women’s bike needs are very similar to those of equally-sized males, so their “women’s bikes” are simply unisex bikes with a different saddle and paint scheme.

Choosing a unisex bike opens up more options, and you may modify them by adding a women’s saddle, reducing the bar length, and adding thinner grips, but for additional buying advice, see our article on the finest women’s mountain bikes.

What else might I need to get started?

Okay, you’ve decided on a new mountain bike, but what else do you need to be ready for the trail?

The first thing you’ll need before you ride is a decent helmet and protective gear.