Deciding what type of clipless mountain bike shoe to purchase involves first asking yourself some questions about how the shoe will be used. For example, do you need a shoe that breathes well because you frequently ride in hot or humid temperatures, do you ride trails with lots of loose rocks, do you ride in wet conditions, do your rides involve hike-a-bikes? Next consider your foot and it's shape, is it narrow or wide, low volume or high, do you need the ability to customize insoles? All of these factors play a part in your purchase decision, and some can easily be determined in-store, while others are unknown until you are out on the trail.
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 enduro and downhill shoes typically have impact zones in the footbed and sole in addition to reinforced areas to protect your foot from rocks or other trail debris. While trail or all-mountain shoes tend to sit somewhere in the middle ground. 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 your foot and type of riding. If you already know what you're looking for you, head to our full women's clipless mountain bike shoe review.
Other Considerations: What style of riding suits you?
Do you enjoy pedaling uphill as much as the downhill? Do you the chairlift ride up so you can maximize your time descending? Or, do you need a shoe that does it all? Read on to learn more about what 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 best suits your riding styles and is comfortable on your foot.
Clipless Mountain Bike 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 type of shoe might be for you. People who ride long distances typically give more consideration to weight and efficiency, seeking out lightweight, stiff-soled shoes that provide solid power transfer. Most of the cross-country style shoes we tested have a slimmer fit, especially in the forefoot and toebox, and tend to wrap the foot more like a glove than a street shoe, making the fit a bit tricky for those with wider or higher volume feet. These shoes typically sacrifice foot protection for weight savings. However, more companies are making shoes that boast both a lightweight and protective construction.
Of the shoes we tested, Giro Empire VR90 Women is not only lightweight, but it's incredibly stiff carbon sole makes it best suited for cross-country racing and riding. The VR90 is also the most expensive shoe we tested. If you're looking for something more economical, you may want to consider Sidi Trace Women, a lightweight, breathable shoe that is well suited for cross-country riding and available at a fraction of the cost.
Clipless Mountain Bike Shoes for Trail and All-Mountain Use
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. These riders typically want a shoe that is stiff and absorbs trail vibrations, yet is comfortable and protective. The ability to hike in the shoes usually plays a role as well. Weight may play a smaller role for riders, as protection is valued, especially when help may be hours away. These shoes are a great choice for someone looking for a do-it-all shoe, because they are typically designed with support, protection, and stiffness in mind.
The Pearl Izumi X-Alp Elevate, Scott MTB Elite Lady Boa ,and the Five Ten Hellcat are our top picks for trail and all-mountain riding. The Pearl Izumi X-Alp Elevate won our Editor's Choice for trail riding due to it's stiff sole, power transfer, trail absorption, extended cleat slot, and hike-a-bike abilities. The Scott MTB Elite Lady Boa received our Best Buy award, for it's solid performance on a variety of trails, Boa lacing, adjustable insoles, and very competitive pricepoint. Lastly, the Five Ten Hellcat earned Best Best Bang for the Buck honors due to it's comfort, stability, hike-a-bike ability, and stiff sole.
Clipless Mountain Bike Shoes for Enduro, Technical Trail, and Downhill Riding
Riders who spend their time on trails that require higher trail speeds, such as bike parks, or who enjoy going as fast as possible on rocky, loose, and/or technical trails have different requirements for their shoe compared to a cross-country rider. Shoes that are designed for this type of use typically offer substantially more foot protection, shock absorption, and are usually heavier than their cross-country and trail shoe counterparts.
Of the shoes we tested, the Ride Concepts Traverse won our Editors' Choice for Technical Trail Riding due to its absorption and unmatched foot protection. While not technically a downhill shoe, our tester's felt it could easily withstand the rigors of park riding. The Five Ten Hellcat can also serve double duty and can be a good choice for trails ranging from all-mountain/trail to enduro, however its drawback is a lack of ankle protection for park riding, which is a personal preference.
Now that you know a bit more about what factors go into the design and function of a clipless mountain bike shoe, give your own riding some thought. How will you be using the shoe, on what type of terrain and conditions? Don't forget to think about the type of pedal and cleat you will be using as well, as some cleats need a larger opening on the bottom of the shoes as compared to others. Lastly, don't be afraid to purchase a shoe whose intended use is in a different category than how you will use it. Buy the shoe that you feel meets your criteria best, and that also fits your foot best, because if it does not, you'll likely end up not using it.