How to Choose the Best Clipless Shoes for Mountain Biking

The HT X1 is a full platform clipless pedal for downhill mountain biking. It is best paired with a pair of soft  flexible bike shoes like this model  the Hellcat  from Five Ten. Note the Velcro strap which protects the laces from tangling with your chain.
Article By:
Curtis Smith
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Thursday

Trying to decide what mountain bike shoes are right for you? After months of testing seven of the best mountain bike shoes available, we have the answers you are looking for. There are several things you should consider prior to purchasing mountain biking shoes, and we will walk you through h the process. Different types of riders will benefit from specific shoe features and we are here to guide you to the best decision that will help you take your riding to the next level while accounting for your budget. Not sure if you need specific mountain biking shoes? Read on and we will help you make the choice.

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.
The Pear Izumi X-Projects work well with a variety of pedals seen here with a Shimano M-520 SPD.
The Pear Izumi X-Projects work well with a variety of pedals seen here with a Shimano M-520 SPD.
Beyond foot positioning, mountain bike shoes are stiff and do not flex very much, which provides good transfer of power. Another reason to buy mountain bike shoes is improved bike control. It is easier to manipulate the position of the bike in the air when jumping or when trying to get the bike up and over an obstacle such as a log or rock when your feet are connected.

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


On the left is a road bike shoe with a road bike cleat and on the right is mountain bike shoe with a Crankbrothers brass cleat. Notice how road shoes use three screws and mountain shoes use two. Also  note how the road shoe has a smooth sole in order to be more aerodynamic while the mountain shoe is designed for more traction.
On the left is a road bike shoe with a road bike cleat and on the right is mountain bike shoe with a Crankbrothers brass cleat. Notice how road shoes use three screws and mountain shoes use two. Also, note how the road shoe has a smooth sole in order to be more aerodynamic while the mountain shoe is designed for more traction.

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.

The majority of the carbon sole on the  Pearl Izumi X-Project is covered with rubber for traction and protection of the sole.
The majority of the carbon sole on the Pearl Izumi X-Project is covered with rubber for traction and protection of the sole.

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.

Cross-Country


The upper on the Giro Privateer is similar to the Giro Terraduro  but it has a bit more ventilation  and more of a performance fit.
The upper on the Giro Privateer is similar to the Giro Terraduro, but it has a bit more ventilation, and more of a performance fit.
Cross-country and general trail use shoes are designed to be stiff, lightweight, and provide excellent power transfer. Traditionally these shoes were designed for XC racing use, and have been adopted by other disciplines for lack of other options in the past. In general, they have less abrasion resistant panels and use lighter weight materials than downhill oriented designs. Often cross-country shoes make for an excellent all-around trail shoe. One example would be the Giro Privateer R, winner of our Best Buy Award. Other cross-country shoes include the Shimano XC31 and the Sidi Dominator 5 Fit.

Downhill and Enduro


The Five Ten HellCat utilizes a single velcro strap and traditional laces for retention.
The Five Ten HellCat utilizes a single velcro strap and traditional laces for retention.
Shoes designed for downhill and enduro use are generally heavier, more durable, and more comfortable to walk in. They often have a sole that is less stiff and provides some flex in key areas to make hike-a-bike sections of trail and course walks more manageable. The downside to this is less efficient power transfer than what you would find in a cross-country oriented shoe. These shoes are also more casual in appearance and have features such as rigid toecaps to protect the foot. Examples include the Giro Terraduro, Five Ten Kestrel, and the Five Ten HellCat.

Category Killer


Dual Boa dials on the Pearl Izumi X-Project make fine tuning tension before and during a ride easy and precise.
Dual Boa dials on the Pearl Izumi X-Project make fine tuning tension before and during a ride easy and precise.
The Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro is one shoe 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 Pro 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


The Giro Terraduro has very good power transfer despite being flexible enough to walk or hike in comfortably.
The Giro Terraduro has very good power transfer despite being flexible enough to walk or hike in comfortably.
If you ride a hard tail or short to mid-travel full suspension bike then you should choose a shoe that offers good power transfer to make the most of your bike and terrain. Most riders have access to trails that are best suited to short and mid-travel bikes, meaning they have to earn the downhill. If you like to race XC or cyclocross then you also fall into this category. If price is not an issue, then we recommend the Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro. It is a great all-around shoe that can easily do double duty as a race shoe and get you through any backcountry epic around. It is also our number one choice for the cyclocross rider, the combination of excellent power transfer and smooth running with good traction make it one of the best cross shoes we have ever put a foot in.
If the price tag on the X-Project is a bit too much to swallow, then we recommend the Giro Privateer R. 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 R 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 Pro but if you are not racing then the Terraduro is an awesome shoe.

Downhill and Enduro


The Mallet 3 is best partnered with a softer  grippy shoe  like the Five Ten Hellcat pictured here.
The Mallet 3 is best partnered with a softer, grippy shoe, like the Five Ten Hellcat pictured here.
If you prefer lift accessed terrain and shuttle runs, then you need to look no further than the 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.

Curtis Smith
About the Author
Curtis Smith resides in South Lake Tahoe, Ca. He can be found out on the trails, at the races or training for the next one.

 
 

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