The Best Mountain Bike Shorts for Men
Mountain bike season is upon us, but are you ready to hit the trails? We researched over 40 of the top mountain bike shorts available and selected 10 of the best pairs, to test side-by-side for over 200 hours in the saddle. Over the course of three months, we pedaled hundreds of miles and did more shuttle runs than we can count, in search of the perfect pair of shorts. We pushed these shorts to the limit to find out which ones were comfortable enough for an all-day epic, durable enough for the bike park, and capable of keeping us cool in 100-degree temps. From the desert of the southwest to a wet and muddy spring in California, we rode in these shorts through it all. From enduro racing to all day alpine epics, we got to know all the contenders well. Regardless of what you demand from your shorts, we identify the best pair for your needs, whether you want a pair to match your style or budget - or both.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Enduro Race short
100% Airmatic All Mountain
The 100% Airmatic shorts are an enduro/trail specific short that receives our highest accolades for comfort and fit. With solid scores across the entire range of our comparative tests, it is one of those rare products that does everything really well. If we had to pick a short for shuttle runs in the morning followed by a 30-mile vision quest suffer fest in the mountains then the Airmatic would be it. The fit is perfect, threading the thin line between baggy and articulated with just enough room to accommodate knee pads without any unnecessary fabric flapping in the wind. They feel fast on the bike, and casual when you step off. 4-way stretch fabric, two zippered pockets, and an excellent waist adjustment system that can be accessed on the fly round out these amazing shorts. The only thing that we had reservations about is the rather loud color options but even our more conservative testers quickly became enamored with the Airmatic in spite of the orange color and moto styling.
Excellent Chamois liner
Polarizing color options
Read full review: 100% Airmatic
Best All Mountain Epic Short
The Kitsbow A/M Ventilated short is Rolls Royce of off-road cycling clothing, with a price to match. The fit is snug for a baggy short, and the articulated cut is perfect for laying down the power. Our testers love the subdued styling, just as suited to a post ride tap room visit as shredding singletrack. Want to race a bit of XC but just can't see yourself in spandex? Yep, we get it and the Kitsbow A/M is just what the doctor ordered. The Schoeller 3xDry fabric feels great, and while it won't keep you dry in a downpour it prevents you from riding around in a pair of shorts soaked in sweat. Alloy slip hooks provide up to 2" of slip free waist adjustment, and the slider style button is as solid of a closure system you are going to find. If you love long alpine epic rides, and pedal for every descent then the Kitsbow A/M shorts will not disappoint. Steer clear if you never leave the house without knee pads though because the shorter length cuff tends to hang up on knee pads.
Impeccable quality construction
Liner Short not included
Read full review: Kitsbow A/M
Best Bang for the Buck
Zoic Ether Stretch
If you are just getting into mountain biking, or just can't wrap your head around spending $150+ on a pair of shorts, then the Zoic Ether has the answer. You will not find a better pair of shorts with a liner for $80. If you are thinking that Zoic must have skimped on features to bring this contender to the market at this price point, you would be incorrect. Six pockets and a well-designed waist adjustment system are just some of the features that make this short a winner. The included chamois is not the highest quality, but at this price, we won't complain. The Ether outscores many shorts with much higher price tags in our comparative testing. Spending less often means compromising on functionality, but the Ether is an exception, it is a solid short and a smart buy.
Lots of Pockets
Chamois Liner Included
Not as well ventilated as other shorts tested
Stiff Chamois liner pad
Read full review: Zoic Ether Stretch
Top Pick for Bike Park and Shuttle Laps
Troy Lee Ruckus
The Troy Lee Ruckus was designed for those who concern themselves with the descent more than the climb. They are burly and well built with excellent leg coverage for protection from abrasion. These qualities along with solid scores across our rating criteria make the Ruckus short the winner of our Top Pick Award for bike park and shuttle use. The fabric is heavy duty compared to shorts like the Kitsbow A/M, and as a result, does not perform as well on long climbs, but the Ruckus works well for gravity assisted shredding sessions.
Good with knee pads
Read full review: Troy Lee Ruckus
Analysis and Test Results
Let's face it - if all riders were concerned with was performance, we would all be wearing lycra skinsuits like our roadie, cyclocross, and XC racer compatriates. Loose fitting baggy shorts generate more wind drag than lycra, and in a riding discipline like enduro and downhill racing which are, often decided by seconds or fractions of a second it would make more sense to wear the tight fitting kit. Because we are a more stylish lot, it is a rare sight indeed to see an enduro racer in a lycra kit. Of all the criteria that contribute the to the overall score of the shorts in our test group, style is the most subjective and thus bears a lower percentage of the overall score than the other metrics.
During the ranking and scoring process, we sought input from friends and other riders out on the trail, taking note of compliments or in some cases lack thereof. We wore them around town and out to the bar for post ride drinks. In the end, the highest scoring shorts were the Fox Sergeant which look essentially like a standard pair of cargo shorts. With the omission of the chamois liner, these shorts don't feel or look that much different than any other pair of shorts we have in the closet. On the other end of the spectrum, the Pearl Izumi Elevate shorts also scored highly, but they have a more technical look to them, with fabric that looks and feels almost like a light softshell jacket.
The subdued graphics and minimal branding give them a clean look that does not let on the fact that you just got done smashing gnarly lines in them all day. The Kitsbow AM also scored well for it's more subdued looks, and ability to blend in when not on the bike.
Features like pockets, waist adjustment, and the closure system can impact the end user experience of mountain bike shorts. The overall score of each short is a measure of how useful the included features are and whether they enhance the functionality of the short. Some manufacturers seem to put a minimal amount of thought into layout and ease of use of features like pockets and waist adjustment, which often seem to be added to check a box on their specification list. The Kitsbow A/M scored highest with the Zoic Ether and the 100% Airmatic close behind. We used and abused these shorts during testing, and after hundreds of hours of use, we can tell you what works and what doesn't.
Pockets are without a doubt an advantageous feature on mountain bike shorts. The days of every rider carrying a hydration pack are long gone. Many of us prefer to roll with a minimal amount of tools and gear to avoid wearing a pack. This change in dynamics makes pockets ever more critical for many riders. During testing, we assessed the pockets for their ability to carry tools, food, and smartphones. We evaluated the pockets for ease of accessibility, placement, and ease of access while riding. We also wore these shorts around town with wallets and other essentials to assess the versatility of the pocket system.
The Zoic Ether has the most pockets of any short we tested and gets a nod of approval from our testers for the smartphone pocket on the right thigh that features a headphone port. In sharp contrast to the six pockets found on the Ether, the Kitsbow AM has only two pockets one on each side in the hip area. The pockets are not large, but their layout makes them unique. Rather than a standard front hip pocket like you find on a pair of jeans, these pockets have a vertical opening, and the pocket itself angles towards the rear of the short. The design makes the pockets accessible while riding for easy access to food or your phone.
All of the shorts we tested were either a size 32 or medium depending on what is offered by the manufacturer. Every short we tested has an adjustable waist mechanism which provides an additional 2" or so of adjustment. An adjustable waist is an impressive feature which allows the rider to snug up the waist for a perfect fit. So if you took a few months off from training, not to worry, a quick adjustment will get you back in your favorite short. The execution of the adjustment mechanism varies between manufacturers. Our two favorite designs are the hook and loop system style system and the Velcro band design.
Critical of both systems is the placement. Some of the shorts we tested have an internal waist adjustment. The interior design has a cleaner look but is a pain to adjust because you have to unbutton the shorts in order to make changes. External adjusters are much more convenient and make getting that perfect adjustment much easier. The Kitsbow A/M gets our highest accolades with slick alloy slip hooks that can slot into one of three nylon adjustment points. The 100% Airmatic also scores highly with a nice Velcro based adjustment system on the outside hip area of the shorts. The hook and loop system of the Kitsbow A/M has the advantage of durability but is limited by three set adjustment points. The Velcro strap design is a bit easier to manipulate, particularly while riding and offers almost infinite adjustment within its range, but Velcro lacks the long-term durability of a hook and loop system.
Every pair of shorts needs some form of closure at the fly. All of the shorts we tested use some combination of zippers, buttons, and snaps to get the job done. Once again, the Kitsbow AM outdoes the competition with a slick and easy to manipulate slider style button. It is robust and designed to outlast the short themselves. A zipper handles the remainder of the job. The Kitsbow A/M also scores well here with a stout dual snap closure and a heavy duty zipper.
How well do these things hold up to the abuse of daily riding? We wanted to know, and we did not hold back during testing. When you shell out over $100 for a pair of shorts you should be able to get at least a season of hard riding out of them, and hopefully more than that. Beyond the rigors of daily abuse on the bike, we also machine washed and dried the shorts after every use to see if colors would fade and how the shorts would hold up to real world laundering.
Manufacturers are often attempting to straddle the line between durability, and comfort. It is easy to make a durable short, and relatively easy to make a well ventilated comfortable short, but hitting the balance between the two is a challenge. The most durable shorts we tested were not the most comfortable and were not the shorts we would choose for a 30-mile ride, complete with loads of pedaling. The overall scores of the highest scoring shorts across all of our evaluation criteria shows a trend of the middle of the road durability ratings, and excellent scores in the comfort and fit metrics.
As a general rule, we found that shorts with thicker and more abrasion resistant fabric tend to shrug off crashes and random encounters with trail flora better than shorts with lighter weight fabric. The Troy Lee Ruckus earned a 9/10 and is the highest scoring short in our durability test. This model has the thickest and most abrasion resistant fabric of any short we tested, and the overall construction of the short is top notch, with well-placed seams and double stitching in high-stress areas. The Ruckus is the winner of our Top Pick award for downhill and bike park use, and its exceptional durability is a primary reason it received the award. The Pearl Izumi Elevate follows close behind, and was another favorite amongst our testers for park riding and shuttle runs, due to its tough fabric and great leg coverage.
Mountain bike shorts by nature can only provide so much protection to the rider. The protection category is weighted at 10% because the difference between the level of protection provided by the highest scoring shorts to the lowest scoring shorts is quite honestly fairly minimal. When a crash occurs, shorts can help to prevent or limit abrasion, but beyond that, they do not offer much more protection than spandex. A nice thick fabric can help ward off the effects of random encounters with brush and branches on the edge of the trail. We looked primarily at two factors when scoring the shorts on protection. The ability of the fabric to protect from abrasion and overall coverage (the length of the shorts). Not surprisingly, the shorts that receive high scores for durability also score well for rider protection. Longer shorts cover a greater portion of the leg and tend to mesh better with knee pads, so the length of the short was an important factor when we scored the shorts for protection.
The highest scoring short we tested is the Pearl Izumi Elevate the combination of durable fabric, and a long 15" inseam provide the best leg coverage of any shorts we tested. The Elevate shorts are excel when paired with knee pads; due to the slippery and low friction finish on the interior of the legs, they do not hang up during the pedal stroke, or bunch at the top of the pad. We managed to crash in the Elevate shorts more than once during testing and appreciated the durable fabric and exceptional coverage. The Troy Lee Ruckus also receives high marks from our testers due to the heavy duty ripstop fabric and a nice long inseam for good leg coverage.
Finding the balance between ventilation and protection is difficult, and your shorts should be tailored to your priorities. Some prefer a warmer short that does not pedal as well but offers excellent protection, while some riders are willing to roll the dice a bit on a thinner more ventilated short that does not provide as much coverage or protection. For more help prioritizing these features, see our Buying Advice Article.
Fit and Pedal Friendliness
With 6" travel enduro bikes that descend as well as downhill bikes, and can be pedaled up the steepest of climbs, more terrain has become accessible to the rider who is willing to pedal for their downhill fun. Mountain bike shorts have followed suit, with high-tech fabrics that look good and offer a high degree of performance on long rides. How well the shorts fit, and how they feel when pedaling is critical to the overall performance of the short.
We assessed the cut and shaping of the fabric as well as the stretch of the fabric for its ability to move fluidly with the pedal stroke. The highest scoring shorts we tested were almost unnoticeable in use, providing a smooth pedal stroke with no resistance coming from the fabric of the short, while lower scoring shorts tend to inhibit the pedal stroke due to poor fit or lack of an appropriately articulated cut.
The Kitsbow A/M short is the closest you are going to get to the pedaling comfort of riding in spandex when it comes to baggy shorts, earning them the rare perfect 10 score from our testers. The articulated cut is superb, and the 4-way stretch fabric eliminates any unwanted resistance to the pedal stroke, while the cut and shaping of the fabric are designed to provide a perfect fit when in the pedaling position, allowing for an entirely unencumbered pedal stroke. Even the design of the leg openings is intended to provide a smooth pedal stroke, with a shorter length in the rear than the front to prevent the short from chafing the back of the knee. You won't be distracted by the sound of fabric flapping in the wind with the almost perfect amount of room in the legs and seat of the shorts. //Simply put, the Kitsbow A/M short is pure pedaling perfection.//
Also near the top of the rankings, you will find the 100% Airmatic. The cut of the short is a bit looser, and indeed less articulated, than the Kitsbow AM but these shorts are close to perfect when it comes to fit and pedaling efficiency. These were frequently chosen by our testers for long alpine days with lots of pedaling. Any resistance to the pedal stroke is minimal, due to the 4-way stretch fabric. The increased room and additional inseam length of the Airmatic make them better suited to use with knee pads than the Kitsbow A/M so they were our go to when we knew we would be doing the pads following a long climb. Another feather in the cap of the Airmatic is the included chamois liner which was hands down our favorite liner during testing. The padding is minimal, but the fit is perfect, and as a bonus, the chamois is comfortable to hike in.
No matter how good a pair of mountain bike shorts looks or how many pockets they have, it is all for not if they are uncomfortable. We based our comfort score on our testers perceptions of the shorts while riding, honing in on factors such as ventilation, fabric feel, and comfort of the chamois liner when applicable. All shorts in our test that were without a chamois liner were tested with the same type of chamois liner shorts to provide a fair comparison. Since the 100% Airmatic liner short was uniquely the best liner short in the test, we used it with the shorts that did not include one.
Hands down, the 100% Airmatic is the most comfortable short we have ever worn and receives a perfect 10 score. If we had to pick a single pair of shorts to wear every day for any activity then the Airmatic would be it. The fabric is lightweight and feels like silk up against the skin, and they always maintained an airy, crisp feel - even in the hottest weather. The only dedicated ventilation panel on the shorts is just below the waistline in the rear of the shorts. If you have ever done a long ride with a hydration pack on, you know that this is an ideal location for a ventilation panel. We found that in spite of the lack of vented openings on the front of the short, the Airmatic was amongst the coolest and best-ventilated shorts we tested. The cherry on top of an already near perfect product in this category is the superbly designed CyTech chamois liner. It has just the right amount of padding for comfort and doesn't feel like a diaper when you are off the bike.
The Kitsbow A/M is also a very comfortable short. The fabric feels good on the skin, and the Scholler fabric does not absorb sweat so the shorts always feel dry even when sweating like a pig on a long climb. The articulated cut makes for exceptional comfort when seated in the saddle, but makes them a bit less comfortable than the Airmatic when you are off the bike. Ventilation is handled by micro-perforations in the fabric in the major areas, but our testers found the shorts to be a bit warmer than they Airmatic or the Zoic Ether Stretch. The Ether short has multiple mesh panels for ventilation and a much more baggy fit than the Kitsbow A/M which our testers felt made for a cooler ride. Despite its excellent ventilation, the Ether does not score as highly as the Airmatic, due to its lower quality fabric that does not feel as good on the skin, and a chamois liner that is stiffer, and much less comfortable.
With so many mountain bike shorts available on the market, it is a real challenge to select the right pair based on the limited manufacturer information provided for each product. What one manufacturer refers to as a trail short may be comparable to another's downhill short. We spent months testing the most popular shorts on the market, in a wide range of terrain and climates to provide you with the most comprehensive comparative analysis of mountain bike shorts available. Armed with information we have provided, you should be well on your way to making a purchase that will meet your needs.
— Curtis Smith
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