There is a lot to consider when you decide to purchase a pair of clipless mountain bike shoes, how they fit and how comfortable they are, how well you can clip and unclip from them, how stiff the sole is, and if you can walk in them should the need arise. You'll also want to consider if you can feel the cleat through the sole and how much feedback you can feel in your feet from trail vibrations. Some of these factors can easily be distinguished in the store, such as fit, but others like trail feedback are unknown until you have the opportunity to actually ride in the shoes.
Most mountain biking shoes are designed with a specific riding style in mind. Cross-country shoes tend to be lighter weight with less cleat adjustment and less crash protection, while trail and enduro shoes typically have impact zones in the footbed and sole, plus reinforced areas to protect your foot from rocks or other trail debris. We're here to help you determine what features matter most to you, and why you might want to consider one shoe over another. We spent months getting to know these shoes inside and out so that we can help you pick the best shoe for you. If you already know what kind of shoe you want, dive into our full women's mountain biking shoe review.
Flat or Clipless Shoes
To begin you'll need to decide which type of pedals you prefer before you decide which shoes to use. We're not here to discuss the merits of flats over clipless or vice versa, (which you can read about extensively online). instead, we're here to help you determine what the best shoe is for your preferred pedal.
Flat Pedal Shoes
As the name suggests, a flat pedal is a traditional pedal platform. In mountain biking, the platform has a series of small pins or spikes that bite into your shoe rubber to keep the shoe connected to the pedal. Flat pedal shoes often feature a soft, grippy rubber to help this connection. The benefits of a flat pedal setup are that it allows the rider more freedom to adjust your foot position and to put a foot down. During a crash, it's easier to throw the bike away from you when you're not attached. Flat pedal shoes also make the rider learn proper technique to do maneuvers such as wheel lifts because your foot is not clipped into the pedal. Flat pedal shoes can also be comfortable when you have to get off the bike and do a little hiking and typically shed dirt, mud and other trail debris fairly well due to the lack of a cleat on the bottom.
On the flip side, some contend that flats are less efficient to pedal since you can not pull up through the top of the stroke as you can with a clipless setup. However, this is up for debate as studies and tests are showing that pulling up on the pedal may not all it's been cracked up to be and that pedaling efficiency has more to do with your pedal stroke. We'll let you be the judge of this highly debated topic.
Clipless Pedal Shoes
Clipless pedals refer to a pedal system where the shoe clips into the pedal, like a ski binding. Confusing, right? It makes sense when you look at the evolution of mountain bike pedals though. Before modern clipless pedals, bikers used pedals with cages that covered the shoe and kept it attached to the pedal. The cages were called clips. Eventually, pedal manufacturers designed a system, similar to ski bindings, that allow your feet to remain attached to the pedals without the clips (or cages), thus "clipless".
Being attached to the bike means you're less likely to slip off your pedal, it also means you can pull up on the rear wheel without needing to use technique. Of course, being physically attached to your pedals also means that it's harder to get off the bike should the need arise. You have to physically twist or pull your cleat out of the pedal, which involves a learning curve.
Clipless shoes also have a slippery chunk of metal underfoot, which depending on the design of the shoe's sole may not be great for traction or comfort when walking. The area between your cleat and the sole can also become easily caked with mud, dirt, and other trail debris, making it more difficult to clip in.
What to Choose
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to clipless versus flat pedal and shoes. We will say that if you're just starting out with mountain biking that you should seriously consider using flat pedals because you are not clipped into your bike's pedal, which makes getting off the bike easier, especially when you're learning something new. This in turn increases your confidence because you know you can get your foot down without having to worry about having to unclip.
If you're new to clipless pedals, we recommend practicing clipping in and out on flat, featureless ground to help you get comfortable with the process before heading out on the singletrack. This also allows an opportunity to test your cleat position and pedal tension and make adjustments.
For riders seeking a clipless system, some things to consider are how easily you can clip and unclip your foot from the pedal. Different sized and shaped cleat openings in the sole can make this process easier or more difficult.
Many riders have both set-ups and switch between them based on the terrain and trails they'll be riding. In the end, try both systems to figure out what is best for you.
Other Considerations: What style of riding suits you?
So now that you've settled on flats or clipless, it's time to talk trail type. Do you enjoy pedaling uphill as much as the downhill? Are you a gravity junkie? Or, do you need a shoe that does it all? Read on to figure out which shoe is best for you and remember just because a shoe is labeled one thing does not mean it can't be used for other applications. Choose the shoe that is comfortable on your foot, and that best suits your primary riding style.
Shoes for Cross Country Riders
If you enjoy cross-country racing, pedaling long distances on moderate terrain, or cranking uphill to earn mild or moderate downhills, this might be you. Long rides have a way of concentrating the mind on matters of weight and efficiency. Lightweight and stiff shoes that provide solid power transfer and a minimalist feel are popular with this crowd. Cross-country style shoes can sacrifice foot protection for weight savings. Today though, more companies are making shoes that boast lightweight but protective construction.
Of the shoes we tested, Giro Empire VR90 is the best for cross-country riding, especially racing. The Empire VR90 is lightweight and stiff and suited to both racing and daily training rides. It was also the most expensive shoe we tested. If you're looking for something more economical, you may want to consider Sidi Trace, which is well suited for cross-country riding and offers the rider a lightweight and breathable shoe at a fraction of the cost.
All-Mountain and Trail Shoes
All-Mountain and Trail are terms used to describe roughly the same style of riding, which is a mix of uphill and downhill, but emphasizes the downhill. Enduro could also be included into this category as well. Riders in this category typically want a shoe that is stiff, comfortable, and offers good protection. In these circumstances, weight may play a smaller role as protection is valued, especially when help may be hours away. These shoes are also an excellent choice for someone looking for a do-it-all shoe, as they are typically designed to be worn all day, provide support and moderate protection, and be relatively stiff.
Riders looking for an All-Mountain or Trail shoe also need to decide is they want a flat or clipless shoe, or maybe a pair of each.
All of the flat shoes we tested fit squarely in the All-Mountain and Trail category. The Five Ten Freerider Contact earned our Editor's Choice for Flat Pedal Shoes, offering a bit more stiffness and a grippier sole than its counterpart, the Freerider. Although the Shimano GR7 didn't take home any awards, it is a solid contender as a comfortable shoe with grippy Michelin sole. (Yeah, like the tires on your car.) It also has the bonus of an ankle gasket that keeps rocks, dirt, and other debris out of your shoe.
Shoes for Downhill riders
Downhill and gravity specific shoes are usually heavier and beefier to offer more foot protection than typical all-mountain or cross country shoes.
We didn't test any gravity specific shoes, although the Ride Concepts Traverse certainly could be used for days in the park, due to its unmatched foot protection. The Five Ten Hellcat can also serve double duty as both a All-Mountain/Trail shoe and a downhill shoe, the only drawback to the Hellcat for park riding is it's lack of ankle protection, which is a personal preference.