To find the best women's mountain bike shoe for you, we researched over 30 options and bought the top 5 to test side-by-side. We purchased a mix of clipless and flat pedal options and took them on black diamond bombers and long cross-country loops. Along the way, we rotated through the lineup constantly to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses. We even wore a different shoe on each foot to hone in on subtle differences in power transfer and comfort. When we hit hike-a-bike terrain, we took notes on how each pair performed when fording streams, slogging through mud, or scrambling across scree. Check out our results to find the perfect pair to maximize your fun and optimize your performance.
The Best Women's Mountain Bike Shoes
Top 5 Product Ratings
Best Overall Clipless Shoe
Giro Empire VR90 - Women's
The Giro Empire W VR90 is incredibly comfortable, offers impressive efficiency and is the lightest, stiffest shoe we tested. For these reasons, it's an obvious Editor's Choice. The synthetic uppers conformed to the foot by the first ride and multiple insole options allowed us to customize the fit. As a result, these shoes offer one of the best fits of any shoe we tested, making it one of the most comfortable as well. The Easton Carbon soles are stiff and provide unbeatable power transfer while remaining shockingly light.
On the downside, these shoes have minimal padding and provide very little foot protection. They are not our first choice for downhill and enduro style riding. Their stiff sole also made them awkward to walk in, but not impossible thanks to a small amount of flex behind the toe box. These are the most expensive shoes in the test. However, we think you get what you pay for in this case. The VR90 is a high-performance, high-quality and comfy shoe. There is also a men's VR90.
Read review: Giro Empire VR90 - Women's
Best Women's Flat Pedal Shoe
Five Ten Freerider Contact - Women's
The Freeride Contact is a versatile shoe with the best grip of any flat pedal shoe we tested. Five Ten employs the same Stealth Mi6 rubber used in their climbing shoes to create the closest feeling to being clipped in that we've ever experienced with flat pedals. The Stealth Mi6 rubber is softer than the traditional Stealth rubber used in the baseline Freerider. The result is a noticeable improvement in grip. Not that the conventional Stealth rubber isn't grippy. It is. This is just better. These shoes also provide reliable power transfer thanks to stiff soles, making them suitable for long and technical rides.
One of our most significant concerns about these shoes is durability. That soft rubber is grippy, but it also wears easily around the pedal pins. These shoes are not the most comfortable shoes we tested either. They did not offer great arch support out of the box. Testers complained of numb toes and cramped arches after short rides. We alleviated these issues with a different footbed. Still, we find the nearly clipless grip and power worth it and think the Freeride Contact is a great all-mountain flat pedal shoe. The Freeride Contact comes in a men's and a women's version.
Read review: Five Ten Freerider Contact - Women's
Best Clipless Bang for the Buck
Pearl Izumi All-Road V4 - Women's
The All-Road v4 is an inexpensive jack-of-all-trades shoe from Pearl Izumi that comes in a Women's and Men's version. It's a nice blend of stiff, comfortable and lightweight. We pedaled these shoes everywhere from backyard trails to XC excursions, downhill laps, and long fire road commutes and we are pleased with their performance. The synthetic uppers quickly formed to our feet, creating a comfortable custom fit. The nylon composite soles are surprisingly stiff and provide excellent power transfer and, these are the least expensive shoe we tested.
These shoes have minimal padding and very little foot protection. They are fine on mellow rides, but they aren't well suited for rides with long technical rock gardens where you might bash your feet. We are also disappointed by the velcro closures. The straps were not long enough to fasten securely, and we had to readjust the velcro fairly often. Luckily, the uppers fit so well that the lack of a secure strap doesn't compromise the fit. We recommend these shoes to someone new to biking who is seeking something light, comfortable and inexpensive.
Read the review: Pearl Izumi Women's All-Road v4 Shoe
Best Flat Pedal Shoe Bang for the Buck
Five Ten Freerider - Women's
The Freerider is Five Ten's do-it-all shoe that can easily transition from a mountain bike shoe to a street shoe. It features Five Ten's Stealth rubber, which is a bit firmer than the Steal Mi6 rubber on the Freerider Contact but still grips the pedal very well. These shoes have a more casual and comfortable fit than the Freerider Contact without sacrificing too much performance. The mesh panels and suede uppers breathe well and are reminiscent of a classic skate shoe. These shoes are tasteful enough to wear to post-ride happy hours, or as a daily shoe for bike commuters if that's your style.
These shoes aren't as stiff as the Freerider Contact, which translates to less power transfer. They are also the heaviest pair of shoes we tested. However, we think most casual riders won't mind the weight difference, and these shoes are stiff enough for all but the most aggressive riding. We'd recommend these to someone looking for a quality, versatile, low-cost shoe for recreational riding.
Read review: Five Ten Freerider - Women's
Best Clipless Shoe for Protection
Specialized 2FO ClipLite Lace - Women's
The Specialized 2FO Cliplite Lace combines solid power transfer, traction, comfort, and foot protection in a relatively inexpensive and versatile package earning it our Top Pick for enduro riders. We are impressed with the way this shoe excelled in almost all trail styles from XC to enduro, gravel grinds, to shuttle laps. The nylon composite sole is plenty stiff for almost all riding situations, but feature just enough flex to allow for comfortable walking. The 2FO Cliplite Lace also features a Body Geometry sole. Specialized claims that it helps to properly align the feet, knees, and hips when pedaling.
The water-resistant, synthetic uppers are not as breathable as other shoes we tested. There is a small mesh panel on the toe box that allows minimal air flow through the shoe. Specialized's Slip-Not rubber compound is not as grippy as the Vibram sole on the Giro VR90 or Five Ten's Stealth rubber, but it holds up well in most hike-a-bike scenarios (with the exception of sloppy mud). The 2FO Cliplite Lace balances performance with comfort and is versatile enough for all but the most competitive XC racing.
Read review: Specialized 2FO ClipLite Lace - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
Jenn Sheridan, our ladies mountain bike shoe tester, has an impressive resume. This gifted writer has been published for prestigious ski magazines and helped launch Coalition Snow, an all-female ski and snowboard company. Jenn spends a serious amount to time in the saddle and enjoys all disciplines of mountain biking from long trail rides to bike park laps.
Our shoe testing was a rigorous and extensive process. We spent time examining the features of each shoe and hand flexed them to gain a firm understanding of sole flex. We rode these shoes back to back to learn the relative strengths and weaknesses. We even went as far to wear different shoes on each feet to get a feel for walking performance, comfort, and sole grip. Oh yeah, and we rode in the shoes… a whole lot.
Analysis and Test Results
We include both clipless and flat pedal mountain bike shoes in this review. Once you've figured that out, read our review below. We evaluated a variety of shoes from lightweight XC clipless to downhill inspired flat shoes and tested them side by side to see how they compare. We spend countless hours analyzing details from power transfer and bike control to comfort, traction and walkability to help you narrow down your options. The result is an in-depth evaluation to help you choose your next favorite mountain bike shoe.
For flat pedal riders, the Five Ten Freerider is the best bang for your buck. This shoe is the least expensive flat pedal shoe we tried, without sacrificing pedal grip or versatility. Looking to go clipless on a budget? The Pearl Izumi All-Road v4 offers a comfortable fit, solid power transfer, in a versatile package,
On the opposite end of the budget spectrum is the Giro Empire VR90. These shoes will make a noticeable dent in your pocketbook. But this is a prime example of "you get what you pay for" in the form of a high quality, high-performance shoe.
Your shoes are the one piece of gear that connects you to your bike. Shoes have a major impact on everything from the efficiency of your pedal stroke (referred to here as power transfer) to how well you can control the bike.
Clipless shoes inherently provide better bike control and power transfer because riders are physically attached to the pedals and can generate more energy through the pedal stroke by pushing down and pulling up on the pedals. Likewise, clipless shoes are traditionally designed with stiffer soles which mean less energy is lost to a flexing shoe while pedaling. However, flat pedal shoes have come a long way in recent years. More rigid shoes and grippier sole materials have evolved, and companies are now designing shoes that are comparable to clipless shoes in terms of power transfer and control.
We looked at sole stiffness and how well the shoes gripped the pedals when determining which shoes had the best power transfer. Testers evaluated shoe stiffness by flexing each shoe by hand, riding with two different shoes on, riding with different pairs back-to-back, and riding a lot in general.
The Giro Empire VR90 has the most efficient power transfer of all the shoes tested. It features a carbon fiber sole that is by far the stiffest in the test group. The 2FO Cliplite was a close second in stiffness. We appreciated the extended cleat slot, which allows you to adjust the cleat placement based on your style of riding. This slot helped us find the best position for optimum power.
Of the flat shoes we tested, the Five Ten Freerider Contact had the stiffest sole and the grippiest soles which translated to the best power transfer and control.
Comfort and Breathability
Comfort is another one of the most important things to consider when purchasing a shoe. At best, an uncomfortable shoe can be a minor distraction during your ride, At worst it can end your ride. Ideally, once you start pedaling, your shoes are the last thing on your mind.
Comfort is pretty subjective, so we tried to break down the variables to consider. We looked at the material of the uppers, ventilation, closure types, footbeds, and foot protection. We also considered whether the shoes came with any options to customize fit.
Shoes that featured soft, breathable uppers which conformed to the riders foot, such as the Giro Empire VR90 and the Freerider scored high in comfort. These two shoes also feature a lace closure, which we find easier to adjust for a more precise fit. Conversely shoes with rigid upper such as the Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro scored lower on comfort. We also found it was more difficult to get a precise fit with shoes using Boa dial closures.
We appreciated Specialized's Body Geometry footbed featured in the 2FO Cliplite Lace. The Body Geometry footbed features 1.5mm of angled support to encourage better alignment between the feet, knees, and hips.
Quality insoles also played a significant role in the happiness of our feet. The Giro Empire includes three insoles with varying amounts of arch support so that you can find the best fit for your foot. We were not impressed with the insole in the Freerider Contact, opting to swap it out with a standard Superfeet insole.
Traction and Walkability
Shoe companies are working harder than ever to create shoes that are as easy to walk in as they are to ride in. We try to minimize our walking to riding ratio, but for testing, we pushed the limits of hike-a-biking. We stopped to hike up and ride back down rock gardens over and over again. We crossed creeks on wet logs, stomped through mud puddles and wandered off the trail to walk up to vistas that we usually ride right past. We also commuted to work and the grocery store in some of these shoes.
Gone are the days of unclipping for a treacherous hike-a-bike. Companies now incorporate materials like the Giro Empire's Vibram outsoles or Five Ten's Stealth Rubber, which is borrowed from their climbing shoe technology. That's sticky, making Five Ten's Freerider and Freerider Contact best shoes to have on when hauling a bike through a rock garden.
High traction outsoles aren't the only thing that makes a shoe pleasant to walk in. Shoes that have a slight flex upward curve from the ball of the foot to the toes make for easier strides. Though the Vibram soles in the Giro Empire are a much-appreciated feature, the stiff carbon fiber soles are still awkward and clunky on a hike. The Pearl Izumi All-Road V4 strike a good balance between high traction soles and a slight flex that makes walking a breeze.
When it comes to outdoor gear, anytime you can shed a few pounds without sacrificing performance it's a good thing. Lighter means less energy wasted. It's faster, and it's smoother. On the other hand, heavier shoes usually provide more protection. We weighed each shoe in the test and show the results below. However, because the differences are pretty minimal, we placed less emphasis on this rating.
The lightest shoes we tested are the Giro Empire. Our size 38 shoe weighs only 538g thanks to a carbon fiber sole and minimalist design. The Pearl Izumi All-Road v4 came in a close second at 584g per pair. The 2FO Cliplite was noticeably heavier than the Giro Empire and the All-Road V4 but the trade-off is significantly more protection. The flat pedal shoes are on the heavier side. The Shimano GR7 saved the most grams at 630 per pair. The Freerider tipped the scales at 674g per pair.
The final puzzle piece is durability. When you finally find the perfect shoe, you want to know that it'll last a couple of seasons. While we haven't worn each shoe for a couple seasons, we took extra effort to put as much wear and tear on them as possible during our two month testing period. From scuffing the uppers on abrasive rock surfaces, unnecessarily yanking on closures, and walking through thick brush, we worked to discover any weak points in each shoe's construction.
Shoes with laces like the Giro Empire, the 2FO Cliplite Lace, and the Freerider Contact may lack the on-the-fly adjustment abilities of fancier closures, but laces are inexpensive and easier to replace than ratchet straps or boa-dial systems. That said, some companies carefully place the closures where they are least likely to be damaged. Velcro closures used on the All-Road v4 and the Shimano ME3 are fast and easy to use, but velcro often wears out quickly. These straps aren't easy to replace either.
We also paid close attention to the abrasion resistance of each shoe's upper. The Giro Empire, the 2FO Cliplite Lace, and the Freerider Contact showed no signs of wear on the uppers after miles of abuse.
Lastly, we checked the sole of each shoe. It's no surprise that softer rubber like the Stealth Mi6 used in the Freerider Contact is much more prone to scuffing and wear than harder material like the Vibram soles on the Giro Empire. In general, the most durable shoes have laces, heavier, burlier construction and stiffer rubber soles.
There's a lot to consider when purchasing new shoes. Here we look at some of the most important performance aspects of mountain biking shoe to help you make a more informed decision about which shoe is the best for you.
— Jenn Sheridan