Why Buy Mountain Biking Shoes?
First, it is important to note that this review is specific to clipless mountain bike shoes. Clipless mountain bike shoes are designed to be mounted with cleats which are specific to the pedal manufacturer. So if you are using Shimano pedals you will mount Shimano cleats to your shoes.
Wait…. clipless shoes are used with cleats and they clip into the pedal?
Yes, and here is why they are called clipless: prior to the introduction of the clipless pedal, road and many early mountain bikers used flat pedals equipped with a basket and strap that secured the foot to the pedal for greater efficiency. The basket portion of the pedal was commonly called a Toe Clip. So after 50+ years of referring to the retention portion of the pedal as a toe clip, the most visibly obvious thing missing from the early Look clipless road pedals was the toe clip, hence the term clipless pedal. Apparently, no one realized until it was too late how confusing this term would be 20 years down the road to a generation of cyclists who have never seen early pedals or heard the term toe clip, but now we are stuck with it.
If you are reading this you are likely considering purchasing a pair of clipless mountain bike shoes, and you should be. Being clipped into your pedals greatly increases efficiency when pedaling, primarily due to the fact that your foot is always in the perfect position over the pedal spindle to produce power. In contrast, if you have been riding flats, you have likely experienced the annoyance of finding your foot in a less than optimal position on the pedal, particularly following a technical section of trail.
If you are worried about the ability to unclip and get out of the pedals, we can assure you that with time you will not only get the hang of it but it becomes second nature. You may tip over when getting used to things, but the benefits far outweigh the short period of time it will take you to become proficient. We know lots of people who used to ride flats, but not very many who have tried clipless and switched back.
Mountain Bike vs. Road Bike Shoes
There are several differences between mountain and road clipless shoes. First, mountain bike shoes use a two-bolt hole pattern and a smaller cleat. Road bike shoes have a three-bolt hole pattern and use a much larger cleat. If you have ever tried walking in road shoes, you know how awkward it can be, mainly due to the cleat protruding from the sole of the shoe, but also the stiffness of the sole. The smaller cleat used on mountain bike shoes can be recessed in the tread lugs of the shoe to allow for easier walking and better traction. Road shoes generally have very little rubber or tread to reduce weight and improve aerodynamics, and mountain bike shoes generally have lots of rubber and tread both for traction and to protect the midsole of the shoe that provides stiffness and the pedaling platform.
Types of Mountain Bike Shoes
Shoes for mountain biking can be generally broken down into two types: cross-country shoes and downhill or gravity shoes.
Giro Privateer, winner of our Best Buy Award. Other cross-country shoes include the Shimano XC31 and the Sidi Dominator 5 Fit.
Downhill and Enduro
Giro Terraduro, Five Ten Kestrel, and the Five Ten HellCat.
Pearl Izumi X-Project 1.0 is one shoe we tested that does not cleanly fall into the standard categories. More often than not, the stiffest shoes provide the best power transfer, but also are the most difficult to walk in. The X-Project 1.0 has a unique carbon midsole that is stiff in the pedal contact zone, but is thinner and more flexible in other areas. The result is a shoe that pedals like a purebred cross-country race shoe, but flexes for walking and running. It also utilizes a soft, heavily lugged rubber outsole that provides great traction, and also protects the carbon midsole.
Choosing a Mountain Bike Shoe
Your shoe purchase should be driven primarily by the type of riding you enjoy. If you spend more time pedaling uphill or over rolling terrain on your local trails, then a trail or cross-country shoe is your best bet. If, however, you are more likely to find yourself in a lift line or shuttling with some friends rather than pedaling, you need a downhill or enduro shoe. Not all shoes that fall into each category are equal. We will walk you through the pros and cons of different design approaches and give you options based on budget.
Trail and Cross-Country Riders
If the price tag on the X-Project is a bit too much to swallow, then we recommend the Giro Privateer. It is around half the price, but it is competent on the trail and won't let you down for a weekend race. The Privateer is not as good for running as the X-Project, but we have used it in many a cyclocross race without issue.
The Giro Terraduro is another option for the trail rider; it is a great all-around shoe with excellent walking and hiking characteristics and still has reasonably good power transfer. If you are planning on racing XC or cyclocross then you would be better served with the X-Project 1.0 but if you are not racing then the Terraduro is an awesome shoe.
Downhill and Enduro
Five Ten HellCat. The HellCat is a great, durable, downhill specific shoe and a favorite at OutdoorGearLab. It has a sticky Stealth rubber sole with enough flex that you might forget you are not walking in your skate shoes. Other options include the Giro Terraduro, which is stiffer, and provides better power transfer, but it does not have the casual look of the HellCat.
If you do it all, it is best to have two pairs of shoes. Downhill is tough on equipment, especially shoes designed for lighter duty. If buying two pairs of shoes is not an option, then the Giro Terraduro is your best option to get you through both trail rides and bike park duty.
For a detailed analysis of all the products we tested, see our full Mountain Bike Shoe Review.