Hardtails, full suspension, cranksets, forks, derailleurs, trigger shifters, lockouts — there’s a lot of technical jargon when it comes to buying a mountain bike. When you’re in the market for the best mountain bike, you might find it challenging to filter out all the technical specs and marketing noise out there to find the perfect bike for you. Well, guess what? We’re about to make it a whole lot easier for you to choose the best mountain bike with this mountain bike buyers guide.
Whether you’re an avid enthusiast looking for a serious downhill mountain bike, or if you’re just starting out and want to ride your local park trails (and maybe get a little bit of dirt on those tires), we’ve picked top rated mountain bikes in various categories to help you get started with your mountain bike search.
Instead of you having to pour over mountain bike magazines, browse through endless websites and read reviews, we’ve put this handy article together as a starting point so you can choose the best mountain bike for the money and do something more important than reading: going out there with your mountain bike and riding.
How do we know all this? We’re hardcore mountain bike enthusiasts ourselves with a taste of riding cross country and even doing some downhill riding. But don’t take our word for it. Read through this article to see what mountain bike is best for you.
How To Choose A Mountain Bike
Gone are the days where all you could buy was a hardtail mountain bike. Today, there are many options for newbie and avid mountain bikers alike. We will cover the best full suspension bikes, women specific bikes, and mountain bikes in various price ranges. But first, here’s a breakdown of the different kinds of mountain bikes you can find, and some of the things you should consider when choosing the right mountain bike for you.
Mountain Bike Style
Within the mountain biking realm there are several bike styles. It is important to choose the one based on the type of riding you intend to do. This process could get overwhelming, especially when you actually see how many styles of mountain bikes there are. But here’s a quick glimpse at the styles you can choose from.
Trail Mountain Bikes
Generally speaking, trail mountain bikes are the most common and can be used anywhere from local bike paths and trails to some off road riding venues. It’s a safe choice if you’re starting out in mountain biking.
For those looking to get into competitive riding, cross country mountain bikes are the right choice. The configuration offers handling for technical terrain and is great for ascents and descents as well.
For beginner to novice riders, fat bikes are enjoyable and intended for pure recreation. The term ‘fat’ refers to the tires being over-sized compared to the typical mountain bike tires. They’re more forgiving when riding off road terrain.
These bikes are intended for pure performance and competitive riding. If you’re a more experienced mountain biker looking for a performance mountain bike, this is the style you should look for.
Downhill mountain biking takes riding to the extreme. And there’s only one way to go: down. Downhill bikes are intended to be used strictly for downhill riding. The gears are specifically to help you churn the trail and get great speed as you navigate a downhill course. The suspension systems are meant to be tested and tough.
Types Of Suspension
When buying a mountain bike, there are three types of suspension you can choose from. Your ultimate choice depends on your riding style and how much you want to spend.
If you’re just planning to stick with riding on paved bike paths, streets, and the occasional single track or off road trails, rigid mountain bikes are for you. As the name implies, there is no front end or back end suspension on these bikes. They’re the ‘traditional’ mountain bikes you see, but don’t let your guard down. Some rigid mountain bikes cost more than mountain bikes with full suspension. When choosing a rigid bike, have a look at the components and specifications. If you’re just looking for an entry level bike, a cheap rigid mountain bike might be for you.
Hardtail mountain bikes are perfect for newbies and enthusiasts alike. They offer front end fork suspension with a hardtail back. Most mountain bikes today, even lower priced entry level ones, offer front fork suspension. Prices vary. You can get a decent mountain bike under $300 with suspension, or spend more than four figures depending on the specs and brand of the bike.
This is where things get really serious. If you’re an enthusiast or a competitive mountain biker, consider a full suspension mountain bike. There are mountain bikes in this category intended for cross country or trail riding, but downhill mountain bikes are the most prevalent full suspension bikes. You can browse for the best full suspension mountain bike to see if this is the right choice for you.
Take a look at the following excellent video for an in-depth comparison between hardtail and full suspension mountain bikes:
The frame of the bike is what makes it, since all components such as the drivetrain, wheels and you, the rider, connect to it. Steel was traditionally the material most used for mountain bikes. Most recently, aluminum alloys have become popular as they offer a lightweight and great value. More expensive bikes even use titanium and carbon fiber.
Depending on the price range you choose when you buy a bike, you’ll either get an aluminum alloy frame or a carbon fiber one. The most important thing is to fit the bike properly and choose a frame type suitable for your riding style. Choose a lightweight frame if you do a lot of technical trail riding. Steel and heavier aluminum alloy frames are fine if you’re just a casual rider.
If you’re buying an adult mountain bike, you probably never thought of choosing a wheel size for your bike. It used to be that 26” wheels were standard. Now, you can choose from 27.5” (650b) and 29” wheels. What’s the difference?
Bikes with 29” wheels accelerate slower but are faster once you start moving. Think of the big wheel diameters of road bikes but apply them to mountain biking. These are good for long trails that are mostly straight with few technical portions on them. The higher attack angle also means you conquer obstacles much better when you roll over them.
The safe choice nowadays would be a 27.5” wheel size, but 26” remains very popular and is commonly found on a lot of mountain bikes.
Here is a nice animation showing the differences between 26" and 29" wheels:
Gears / Speeds
A 27 speed bike isn’t necessarily ‘faster’ than an 18 speed bike. The main thing to know about the gears or the number of speeds your bike has is its versatility in handling the changes in your riding terrain, whether you’re on a straight path, going uphill or going downhill. More gears or speeds simply means more versatility, allowing you to adjust to changes in terrain with ease.
More gear selection makes it easier to get uphill or downhill, since the gear setting will make it easier and have less resistance or give you more push as you adjust the gear to your riding speed. Entry level bikes have 18 to 21 speeds, while higher end can have 27 or even more speeds depending on the cogs and cassettes offered on a particular model.
Disc brakes have become the most prevalent braking system on mountain bikes recently, and most decent mountain bikes (even entry level ones) offer disc brakes in one form or another. Here’s a breakdown of the types of braking you can get on a mountain bike:
Hydraulic Disc Brakes
By far the most powerful brakes found on higher end bikes are hydraulic disc brakes. They offer stronger braking power with less effort on your fingers when you pull the brakes. The systems also self-adjust which helps with brake pad wear. Competitive mountain bikers and enthusiasts typically buy high end bikes with hydraulic disc brakes. You’ll see this type of braking system especially on downhill mountain bikes and full suspension bikes.
Mechanical Disc Brakes
Although not as powerful as hydraulic disc brakes, mechanical disc brakes still use cable activated braking to work. You need to manually adjust for brake pad wear, but overall this is still better than the traditional rim brakes. There’s a lot less wear and tear on the rims and it’s much cheaper to replace a brake rotor than a whole wheel set. You have to be consistent when it comes to inspecting your disc brake for wear so that the braking power will remain consistent.
Found on most entry level and ‘cheaper’ bikes, rim brakes were once popular before the introduction of disc brakes. This form of braking system uses pads that grip to the rims of the mountain bike wheel in order to slow it down or to stop completely.
The biggest disadvantage to this type of braking system is that it can really wear down the rim and it is costly to replace a whole rim as opposed to a disc brake rotor. You also have to replace the pads of the braking system in order to have consistent stopping power. You need to exert more effort when using this type of braking system, and it’s not as effective in wet or muddy situations.
If you’re just a casual rider, rim brakes are fine but if you plan to hit the trails more often, consider one of the two types of disc brakes we’ve mentioned above.
Don’t take this lightly — getting fitted properly to your mountain bike is one of the most important steps when choosing the bike you want to buy. If you’re shopping online, consider going to a store first to get fit, or you’ll have to do some manual measurements on your own perhaps with an old bike or a friend’s bike.
Mountain bikes come in various sizes with each size affecting how you will feel when you handle the bike and maneuver. Generally, the size of the bike you choose depends on your height. But one of the easiest ways to test out proper fit is by testing it out. You should feel as if the bike were an extension of your body. If you have to stretch your arms and legs out too much, the bike is too big for you. If you feel as if your body is compressed, the bike is too small.
Try out different bike sizes and ride them around to get a proper feel of straight riding, turning and maneuvering. It will take a few tries before you get a feel for the right bike size, especially since the frame geometry on each bike differs depending on the type of riding you intend to do.
Finally, here is a great video about how to fit a mountain bike:
A lot of newbies don’t really pay much attention to pedals. But if you are really interested there are two types: flat (platform) and clipless. Some bikes used to have “clips and straps” but you don’t really see those anymore, and we won’t talk about them here.
Flat, or platform, pedals are the typical ones you see on entry level bikes. Most bikes will come with flat or platform pedals which enthusiasts and experts replace with their own clipless pedals. Some of the more expensive bikes won’t come with pedals — the idea is for you to choose and install your own.
Flat / Platform Pedals
Aside from the ones you’ll choose if you’re buying a downhill mountain bike, most flat or platform pedals are pretty standard and are either made of highly durable plastic or composite materials, and some are made of metal. The important thing to look for when choosing this type of pedal is the comfort and the grip. It should have a comfortable feel on whatever shoes you plan to wear, but at the same time there should be enough grip to make trail handling an ease.
If you’re a mountain biking enthusiast, or planning to be one, invest in clipless pedals. You’ll have to buy specific shoes that will fit the configuration of your clipless pedals, but you’ll find it much easier to ride and maneuver with them.
There are essentially three sizes of clipless pedals depending on your experience and comfort level: compact, mid-size and full size. The compact ones offer the best for maneuverability, while the mid and full size give you much more feel with your feet. Shimano is by far the renown brand for clipless pedals but other brands such as Crankbrothers, Time and Look have great offerings as well.
Take a look at the following video for some additional information on clipless pedals versus flats:
Mountain Bike Brands
There’s no shortage of leading brands in mountain biking. What you really have to keep in mind is what a particular brand of mountain bike has to offer. There are traditional brands such as Diamondback and Raleigh, and then there are brands intended for enthusiasts and competitors such as Trek, Cannondale, Kona and many others. And you also have niche brands such as Orange, Jamis and Rocky Mountain. As you explore each brand, you’ll find they cater to a particular type of rider (recreational, sport, competition, extreme) and offer mountain bikes that suit that particular type of rider.
To help you choose, here is a glimpse of three mountain bike brands and what you can expect from each:
Diamondback’s history dates back to 1977 when this American company was founded. It started out as a BMX brand but expanded to mountain bikes in 1993. In 1999, Diamondback was purchased by Derby Cycle Corporation which also owns the Raleigh Bicycle brand.
Many riders have competed under the sponsorship of Diamondback and it is a well known bicycle brand. Its line of mountain bikes are great for beginners and enthusiasts alike, and is widely available in bicycle stores, sporting goods stores and even online stores such as Amazon. Diamondback offers an extensive selection of mountain bikes including full suspension, hardtail, youth and women’s models.
Bicycles are made in China and Diamondback is typically known for low to mid-priced bicycles, with a few high end models in their lineup. It is good to know that Diamondback has a strong presence in the mountain biking sphere, and they participate in a few advocacy groups including the International Mountain Bike Association.
Established in 1976, Trek is an American based bicycle company with around 1,800 employees working on their line of bicycles and biking gear. Their slogan, “We believe in bikes” is highly reflective of their culture and passion for bicycling.
Trek started out as a division of an appliance distributor but quickly grew as it started manufacturing steel touring frames out of Waterloo, Wisconsin. The intention was to grab a piece of the mid to high-end bicycle market that was at that time highly dominated by the Japanese and Italian bicycle models.
The first Trek mountain bike rolled out in 1983 with their “850” model. Trek is known for high quality mountain bikes in the mid to high end range, though many of their models are very affordable for beginner riders.
Trek has great visibility and sponsors many riders and participates in bicycling events. In addition to mountain bikes, Trek is known for road bikes. Lance Armstrong has ridden Trek bicycles in his competitions.
Rocky Mountain is a Canadian mountain biking company established in 1981 in Vancouver, British Columbia. British Columbia is a popular riding destination not only for Canadians but for serious mountain bikers all over the world, with many options including scenic cross country and mountain trails.
Rocky Mountain bicycles are used by professional riders, though novice mountain bikers and any enthusiast who can afford this mountain bike brand’s price tag are certainly welcome to explore their line of mountain bikes.
Rocky Mountain has won Mountain Bike Magazine’s “Mountain Bike of the Year” three times for three different models: in 1996 for the “Hammer Race”, in 2000 for the “Element Race” and again in 2002 for the “Slayer”. Marie-Helene Premmont, one of their sponsored riders, won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics.
But don’t let all of the above stop you from getting a Rocky Mountain. Even if you just want to go off road mountain biking on occasion, if you can afford a Rocky Mountain, you should consider it as an option.
The Best Mountain Bikes: Our Picks
The Schwinn High Timber Men’s 18 mountain bike fits both our best under $300 and best cheap mountain bike categories. If you’re thinking about getting into mountain biking, but don’t have enough cash to fork over, don’t fret. This mountain bike is priced under $300, which makes it easy to get into mountain biking, even if you just want to ride on your local trails. Whether paved or dirt, the High Timber has enough guts to take you through city trails and single track.
The components are sufficient to help you enjoy mountain biking but you definitely have to consider a better bike if you plan on being an extreme mountain bike enthusiast. You’ll find shifting gears easy with the Shimano 21 speed twist shifters, allowing you to shift with ease whether you’re midway into a turn or churning out your legs as you climb a hill. The Schwinn suspension fork is a great addition for a bike in this price range, easily taking away the minor bumps you’ll experience while you’re out riding your park trails.
You only have $500 (or less) to spare but want an awesome deal for a bike? Guess what — we’ve found one for you. Also in the Schwinn line, newbies and novice riders alike will be pleased when they discover that the Schwinn Protocol 1.0 mountain bike has dual suspension. With a Suntour front fork, you’re getting decent front end suspension for the price but it’s the rear shock feature that really adds to the value of this bike. A Shimano Altus 24 speed gear system gives riders a versatile choice in speed selection allowing you to tackle any type of terrain.
While the price tag of this Schwinn dual suspension mountain bike is closer to $300 than $500, many positive reviews and the fact that it’s affordable with decent parts makes this a good choice for entry level mountain bikers and even more experienced riders looking for a second bike for more casual rides. The quality is good, and the price is attractive. Definitely the best mountain bike under $500.
The Diamondback Recoil is a complete full suspension mountain bike at a cool $800. What you’re getting here is great value for the price point, and performance components that you’d want to see in a lower priced bike to give you bang for the buck. The hand built frame features a 4-inch travel shock in the rear and is made of strong aluminum alloy. The front fork is a Suntour XCT suspension with 100mm of travel, enough to round out the jagged trails you’re riding.
The high quality performance parts including Tekto Aires mechanical disc brakes for rapid braking and 24 speed Shimano drivetrain with SR Suntour cranks gives high performance at a value price. The overall design and frame geometry looks like a mountain bike that would be competing in cross country tournaments. You may want to consider replacing the pedals with clipless ones, as the standard pedals are pretty much… standard. The 27.5” wheels result in a smooth ride and overall handling. It’s not easy to get a decent performance out of a mountain bike under $1,000 with dual suspension, but this Diamondback has a lot to offer.
Women’s Mountain Bike
Treat yourself a little and splurge on this performance women’s mountain bike. The Cannondale Habit Women’s 1 is pretty, but don’t let its sleek and attractive design fool you. The paint scheme isn’t the only thing beautiful about it. Loaded with Shimano XT components and a configuration that allows you to venture out into cross country trails and even rough terrains, the price tag makes it worthwhile for any serious woman mountain biker.
The Habit Women’s model is versatile for both cross country single track and rough terrains. The RockShox rear shock with 120mm travel coupled with the Lefty front fork with 120mm travel takes care of any bumps on the road — and if you’re riding in any serious terrain, there will be lots of it. The Shimano XT drivetrain uses a Cannondale Hallowgram crank and Shimano Deore brakes give you confident braking. The aluminum frame makes it lightweight specifically for women riders. If the $3,700 price point for this women’s bike isn’t for you, have a look at our other recommended women’s mountain bikes.
With so many mountain bike models shifting to dual suspension, and with entry level price points for dual suspension bikes plummeting over the past several years, it’s difficult to choose between going with a dual suspension or shelling out the same, if not more, money for a hardtail with higher end components. With that said, it’s tough not to fall in love with the Kona Honzo AL. With its contoured lightweight frame design, mechanical disc brakes, RockShox or Fox front suspension fork and Shimano component set, you’ll have a hard time trying to resist buying a hardtail when it looks this good.
There’s a bit of humour behind the Kona Honzo AL. While coming up with the name for this aesthetically appealing yet aggressively designed hardtail mountain bike, the team at Kona intended to use the term “hanzo” as in the Japanese samurai sword. It was meant to be a reference at how sleek and sharp the frame geometry was for this bike. Thinking the word “hanzo” was spelled “honzo,” they used the latter. Turns out Honzo was the name of a monkey in an Austrian zoo that became addicted to drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. If this isn’t an indication of how much fun you’ll have with this hardtail mountain bike, maybe you should read our best hardtail mountain bikes article.
Best Full Suspension
The Specialized S-Works Demo 8 is the kind of mountain bike that you’ll fall in love with at first sight. Eye candy? Yes. It looks so good you may not even want to ride it with its clean symmetry and simple design. But don’t let its look fool you. It can take the rough handling you’re about to put it through. It’s meant for serious downhill mountain bike riding.
Let’s talk about what it’s made of. The carbon lightweight frame is connected to a custom tuned RockShox BoXXer Team 650b fork on the front end, with a 200mm travel Ohlins rear shock. Brake confidently with powerful SRAM Guide RS DH brakes with Code calipers and Centerline rotors. The drivetrain is 7 speed and Roval 650b wheels with wide 24mm internal widths allows aggressive handling. Butcher & Slaughter downhill tires grip whatever dirt you’re grinding beneath you as you zip downhill. Frame sizes are available from short to extra long depending on how you want to fit with your bike. This is definitely one of the best full suspension mountain bikes out there.
Best Overall / Best Brand
Trek does not disappoint. With a long history of producing some of the best rated mountain bikes, the Trek Fuel EX 29 is no exception. First, be prepared to spend at least $3,000, with higher end models going up to double or triple the price. You’ve got the choice of an alloy or carbon frame, giving the higher end models of this line a lightweight feel perfect for competition riding. The result is an amazingly agile handling and fast speed mountain bike that can handle tight terrains and technical trails.
Needless to say, the Trek Fuel EX29 series of mountain bikes are for serious trail riders. It’s not just the higher entry level price tag that gave it away. But the composition of high performance parts and agile geometry that make avid cross country and rough terrain riders enjoy the sweet handling of this mountain bike.
Other mountain bikes that we really like and you should strongly consider in this category include:
- the Liv Lust Advanced 1, a carbon framed full suspension 27.5” wheel bike;
- the Yeti SB5c BETI, another sleek full suspension bike;
- the GT Verb Expert with its close-to-affordable $1,650 price tag, hydraulic disc brakes and Shimano components;
- the Rocky Mountain Blizzard -50 with its fat tires and 120mm RockShox Bluto fork;
- and the Santa Cruz Bronson CC dual suspension with RockShox Pike Fork and rear shock.
Product images sourced from Amazon.com