Sure, you could just wear a regular pair of sneakers when mountain biking. But having the right tool for the job means you can get the job done better, and more comfortably. In this case, that means having a shoe that helps you pedal efficiently while being comfortable and durable. There's a lot to consider when it comes to purchasing mountain bike shoes.
Mountain biking shoes are designed with a specific riding style in mind. Cross-country riders tend to prefer a stiff, lightweight shoe while gravity riders might prefer a beefier shoe that offers more protection and better pedal grip. We're here to help you sort out which features matter most to you, and why. 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
First things first — you'll need to decide which type of pedals you prefer before you decide which shoes to use. The debate between flat or clipless pedals can be as divisive as putting pineapple on pizza. However, like pizza toppings, each pedal has its pros and cons, and it's all boils down to personal preference.
Clipless shoes and pedals clip together and require a specific foot movement to release that can take practice. It can be challenging to free your foot at first, which is scary for obvious reasons. Racers tend to prefer clipless pedals because being attached to the bike allows for more efficient pedaling and the ability to sneak in a few extra strokes between features.
However, with both pedal and shoe technology improving each year, that's starting to change. Flat pedals, where you set your shoe on the pedal like you did as a kid, have pins that dig into the rubber of dedicated shoes. This grip is getting really good. Ultimately, you should try both. It will help you figure out which is best for you and it will improve your skills as you learn to navigate the different techniques each pedal requires.
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 cement this connection. The benefits of a flat pedal/shoe setup are that it gives the rider more freedom to adjust your foot position on the go or to put a foot down in an emergency situation. During a crash, it's easier to throw the bike away from you when you're not attached. Flat pedal shoes are also more comfortable when you have to get off the bike and do a little hiking.
On the flip side, there are some downsides to not being attached to the bike. For one, you're more likely to slip off a pedal in rough technical sections. (Watch for those spikes biting into your shins instead of your shoes.) Many contend that flats are less efficient to pedal since you exert upward pressure through the top of the stroke like you can with a clipless setup. It will also be more challenging to make micro-line adjustments by throwing the rear wheel around. (You can fix this with better bike technique.)
Since they are thought of as less efficient and are easier to eject from in a hairy situation flat pedals are typically geared towards enduro or downhill riders. As a result, they are a bit beefier and heavier but also offer more protection.
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 has some obvious upsides. For one, you're engaged throughout the entire pedal stroke, which allows for more efficient pedaling. It's also easier to control and adjust your line because you can throw the rear wheel around more easily. Clipless riders are also less likely to slip a pedal, which means more aggressive pedaling through rough sections. Some riders argue that being clipped in promotes lazy bike technique.
I'm sure you've seen the slow-motion fall that ensues when someone can't unclip from their pedals fast enough. Yes, there's a learning curve to riding with clipless shoes and pedals, but with a good sense of humor (and some knee and elbow pads) riders can get past this phase quickly. That being said, being attached to a bike during a crash is not ideal, and can result in pain or injury (especially if you go over the handlebars).
Clipless shoes also have a slippery chunk of metal underfoot, which is not great for traction, or comfort when walking. Occasionally you won't be able to clip back in when you want to, leaving you with one loose foot fumbling around through a rock garden.
So there you have it. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to clipless versus flat pedal and shoes. Often beginners start with flats on trails or practice clipping and unclipping on very flat, featureless ground. We recommend you try both and discover which is best for you.
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? Do you need a shoe that does it all? Read on to figure out which shoe is best for you.
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, the Giro Empire VR90 is the best for cross-country style riding. The Empire VR90 is lightweight, stiff and powerful. It's well suited to both racing and daily trail rides. It was also the most expensive shoe we tested. If you're on a budget, consider the Pearl Izumi All-Road v4. We were impressed with how lightweight, stiff and comfortable this shoe is at a price that won't hurt the wallet. The flat pedal shoes we tested were not quite as stiff, or as light as a strict cross country shoe, though you can use them as such.
All-Mountain and Trail Shoes
All-Mountain and Trail are terms used to describe roughly the same style of riding. That is a mix of uphill and downhill, with emphasis on the downhill. You can easily lump enduro riding into this category as well. Riders in this category are still looking for a stiff, and lightweight shoe. However, they may be willing to carry around extra weight for a shoe that provides more protection. All-mountain and trail shoes are the best choice for someone who wants a shoe that can do it all — as opposed to a shoe that is built explicitly for cross-country or downhill biking.
Riders in this category also have more options when it comes to choosing between flat or clipless pedal shoes.
For clipless riding, the Specialized 2FO Cliplite Lace and the Pearl Izumi X-Project P.R.O are our top picks for all-mountain and trail riding. The 2FO Cliplite Lace won us over with a comfortable fit, a nice stiff sole, and an extended cleat slot that allows for a gravity focused pedal position — earning it our Editor's Choice. It also rings in at about half the price of the X-Project P.R.O.
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. Five Ten's Freerider earned our best buy award for being a comfortable and versatile shoe for $100. 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. Of our selection, the Five Ten Freerider Contact is our top choice for gravity inspired riding due to its unmatched foot protection. The 2FO Cliplite is a suitable choice for occasional downhill, riding, but it isn't a dedicated gravity shoe and lacks adequate foot protection to head downhill all day every day. That said, we didn't mind taking a few laps in the bike park with it.