It's mountain bike season, so that means you're probably in search of a new pair of riding shorts. At OutdoorGearLab, we're always looking for the perfect pair of mountain biking shorts, so we researched all of the top models on the market and chose 16 to test side by side. For several months each pair was put through its paces for hundreds of miles and countless hours in the saddle, riding up, down, and all around on different types of trails and in a variety of weather conditions. These shorts were put through the wringer in an effort to expose their strengths and weaknesses, and every aspect of their construction, fit, and performance was scrutinized down to the finest detail. No matter your style of riding, fit preferences, or budget, we can help you find the best pair of shorts for you. Read on to find your perfect mountain bike shorts match.
The Best Mountain Bike Shorts for Men
To ensure this review is as up to date as possible, we've added six pairs of shorts to our test selection to compare and review against to our already impressive collection of baggy mountain bike shorts. We wanted to make sure that our award winners were still award winners and give some other models and brands a chance to prove themselves against the best. When our test period ended, the Kitsbow Ventilated V2, a recently updated version of our previous Editors' Choice Award winner, once again rose to the occasion and maintained its position as our Best Overall Mountain Bike Short. We have a new Top Pick for Enduro Racing Award winner in the Specialized Enduro Pro shorts, offering incredible versatility, functional features, and impressive performance at a great value with their SWAT bib liners included. The Dakine Syncline shorts also impressed our testers with their versatility, fit, and performance disguised by an easy-going casual style, the winner of our new Top Pick for Casual Style Award. We hope our updated comprehensive comparative review helps you find the best pair of mountain bike shorts for your needs, preferences, and style.
Best Overall Mountain Bike Short
Kitsbow Ventilated V2
The Kitsbow Ventilated V2 short is the updated version of our previous Editors' Choice Award winner, the A/M Ventilated, and returns with the same quality construction, attention to detail, and performance, but at a lower price. Although $65 less than the previous version, a retail price of $155 is still pretty steep, yet we feel these shorts are well worth the asking price. They've got a subtle and casual styling that is equally suited to post ride beers at the local brewery as it is to ripping single track beforehand. The Ventilated V2 has a tailored slim fit and shorter inseam that testers found to be incredibly comfortable and pedal friendly, perfect for trail and cross country style riding and anything from short after work spins to all day epic suffer-fests.
Constructed of a 4-way stretch soft-shell treated with a durable water repellent finish, the shorts are comfortable on the skin and quick drying. The addition of stretch mesh ventilation panels also helps to cool things down. Unique design features like a low profile zipper and an alloy slip hook waist adjustment system dial in the fit while keeping the bulk at the waistline to a minimum. Thoughtfully designed rearward loading pockets are also easy to use and hold items securely and comfortably in a pedal friendly position. The fit may not be for everyone, especially people who always wear knee pads, but if you're looking for a beautifully made, impeccably designed high-performance pair of baggy shorts, we think the Ventilated V2 is the best in our test.
Read review: Kitsbow Ventilated V2
Top Pick for Comfort
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.
Read review: 100% Airmatic
Top Pick for Enduro Racing
Specialized Enduro Pro
The Specialized Enduro Pro shorts impressed our testers and are the winner of our Top Pick for Enduro Racing Award. To be honest, these shorts are great for all types of riding, trail, all mountain, enduro, XC, you name it. They've got a clean and simple style, with a slimmer tailored fit and a shorter inseam that enhances their on-the-bike performance and pedal friendliness. What really makes these shorts shine is their wealth of performance-oriented features that enhance the rider experience. First, the Enduro Pro is a good value because they come with Specialized SWAT bib liners, the shorts and liners can be worn separately, of course. That said, the outer shorts are designed to work in combination with the bibs which have a quality Body Geometry Chamois and feature SWAT storage pockets to comfortably and securely carry your essentials underneath your jersey.
The shorts' two pockets are positioned on top of the thigh, holding items securely in place without conflicting with the pedal stroke. The waistband of the shorts have external adjustment straps that are easy to access on the trail, and the crotch gusset features laser cut holes for ventilation. Our first impression of these shorts wasn't great, with numerous loose thread ends and seemingly poor quality, but that impression quickly changed as we found this to be one of the most comfortable, fully featured, high performance, and pedal friendly shorts in our test.
Read review: Specialized Enduro Pro
Best Bang for the Buck
Zoic Ether Shorts + Liner
If you're just getting into mountain biking (or just can't wrap your head around spending $150+ on a pair of shorts) then the Zoic Ether is the answer. You will not find a better pair of shorts with a liner for $80. If you're 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.
Read review: Zoic Ether Shorts + Liner
Top Pick for Casual Style Award
If you want a technical pair of riding shorts but don't want to look like you're wearing mountain bike shorts, then look no further than the Dakine Syncline. With a casual look, medium length inseam, moderate bagginess, and agreeable solid color options, no one will ever know you're wearing mountain bike shorts. These shorts are equally suited to running errands around town or grabbing some post-ride refreshments as they are to ripping singletrack all day long. The fit of the Syncline shorts makes them some of the most versatile in our test; pedal friendly and comfortable enough for masochistic adventure rides, but right at home running some shuttle laps after work.
Made from a lightweight 4-way stretch fabric, the Syncline shorts have excellent ventilation in the form of hundreds of laser cut holes in the crotch gusset and on the lower back below the waistband. Our only gripes with these shorts are that the design of the pockets could be improved for better comfort when pedaling, and the waist adjustments could be slightly more user-friendly. Overall, we were impressed with the performance and style of the Syncline shorts, the winner of our Top Pick for Casual Style Award.
Read review: Dakine Syncline
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 100% Airmatic, and as a result, does not perform as well on long climbs, but the Ruckus works well for gravity assisted shredding sessions.
Read review: Troy Lee Ruckus
Best Padded Liner or Chamois
Pearl Izumi 1:1 Liner
The Pearl Izumi 1:1 Liner was our favorite of several chamois liner shorts we tested. Pearl Izumi's decades of experience is evident in this well made, designed, and extremely comfortable padded liner short. This $70 liner is made specifically to be worn under a pair of baggy bike shorts and is constructed of a breathable and quick-drying stretch mesh with well-placed seams that don't chafe while riding. The 1:1 Liner short incorporates Pearl Izumi's Elite 1:1 Chamois which is a seamless pad that is extremely comfortable for any length ride. The elastic waist is contoured ergonomically for comfort while riding, lower in the front and higher in the back, to reduce pressure on your abdomen. There are no silicone leg grippers on the leg openings; instead, they have doubled over a wide portion of the mesh, and in that area, there are two small stash pockets, one on each side of the outside of the lower thigh to hold small items like a packet of energy gel.
We tested the Pearl Izumi 1:1 Liner side by side with the Fox Racing Evolution Comp liner and it was a pretty close battle between the two. At $54 the Fox Evolution liner is a good value and is also a very comfortable liner chamois. The Fox liner is also made of a breathable stretch mesh, with a wide band of silicone grip around the leg opening to keep them in place. Testers found the chamois pad to feel a little thinner and less dense than that of the 1:1 liner, and was therefore not as comfortable overall for long days in the saddle. The waistband was also somewhat prone to creeping down during a ride and would occasionally require some adjustment. That said, we're kind of splitting hairs here because the Fox Evolution is definitely a comfortable liner at a good price.
The Specialized Enduro Pro shorts come with the Specialized SWAT bibs included, a great liner option for those who like the comfort of bibs. SWAT refers to "Storage, Water, Air, Tools", and in the case of the bibs refers to three pockets integrated into the lower back that provides additional storage. Testers found that they loved this storage for shorter rides, as they could carry most things they needed securely and comfortably on their backs without the need for a fanny pack or hydration pack. If you scoff at the idea of paying $70 or $54 for a chamois liner, even an $11 liner like the Baleaf is better than nothing. The Baleaf liner lacked the quality construction and design of the more expensive models we tested, but they did the job admirably considering the price. If you're on a tight budget but still want to be comfortable on the trail, we suggest checking them out.
Analysis and Test Results
Our team of mountain bike shorts testers put every pair of shorts in our test selection through the wringer, riding in each pair for hundreds of hours and thousands of miles. Through it all, we scrutinized every aspect of their performance and analyzed how the design, materials, fit, and features all played into how comfortable they are and how they perform out on the trail. We rated each pair of shorts on several predetermined metrics: Style, Features, Durability, Protection, Fit and Pedal Friendliness, and Comfort. Each rating is described in greater detail below. We tallied the scores from all of our rating metrics to determine our Top Pick and Overall Award winners. The results of this testing is the most comprehensive comparative mountain bike shorts review you can find, and we hope the information presented here helps you find the best pair of shorts for your riding needs, preferences, style, and budget.
While value wasn't one of the 6 metrics we used to rate these shorts, it's an important consideration and one that's likely to be important to many buyers. The chart below combines price and performance information for each pair we tested. Overall score (performance) goes horizontally, from lower to higher, while price is on the vertical axis, increasing as you go up. The large blue dots represent award winners, and as you can see by the number of them on the right side of the group, we award performance.
You'll pay anywhere from $75 to $150+ for one of these pairs of shorts. We like the Zoic Ether Shorts + Liner on the lower end of the price range. Save for one, they're less expensive than every other pair that scored lower in testing. The most expensive option at $155, the Kitsbow Ventilated V2, was also our overall favorite, earning our Editor's Choice award for great looks and functionality.
Let's be honest - if all mountain bikers were concerned with was performance, we'd all suit up in lycra like our roadie, cyclocross, and XC racer compatriates. Loose fitting baggy shorts tend to generate more wind drag than lycra, and in a 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. Many mountain bikers tend to be a little more concerned with style, however, and it is pretty rare to see an enduro or downhill reader clad in lycra. A typical mountain bike kit consists of baggy shorts over a padded liner, and a looser fitting shirt, and of course, there are a number of different styles, colors, themes, and looks, that permeate this basic generalization of dress. Of all the criteria that contribute the to the overall score of the shorts in our test selection, style is the most subjective and therefore is weighted at a lower percentage than the other metrics.
During the testing 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 out to the bar for post ride beverages, or to the grocery and around town doing errands after a ride. In the end, the highest scoring shorts were the Dakine Syncline which have the most casual look of the bunch. The look of these shorts hides the fact that they are a technical mountain bike short, but they certainly are. The Fox Sergeant shorts also scored highly in this metric due to the fact that they look and feel like a regular pair of cargo shorts.The Specialized Enduro Pro also scored well for its more subdued looks and ability to blend in when not on the bike.
Functional features like ventilation, pockets, waist adjustment, and the short's waist closure system can and do impact the user's experience when wearing (and especially riding in) a pair of mountain bike shorts. Our overall score for 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 Ventilated V2 and the Specialized Enduro Pro 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 Ventilated V2 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. The Specialized Enduro Pro also scored highly for their well designed and placed thigh pockets, but also for the SWAT bib liner shorts that are included and negate the need to wear a fanny pack or backpack on shorter length rides.
Every short we tested has an adjustable waist mechanism which provides an additional 2" or so of adjustment. An adjustable waist is an important feature which allows the rider to tighten the waist for a perfect fit. If you happened to gain a little weight in the off-season, no worries, a quick adjustment will get you back in your favorite short. The design and execution of the adjustment mechanism vary between manufacturers. Our two favorite designs are the slip hook system and the Velcro band design.
The most critical element of either system is the placement. Some of the shorts we tested have an internal waist adjustment; this design has a cleaner look but is more difficult to adjust, requiring you to unbutton the shorts to make changes. External waist adjustments are much more convenient and make mid-ride adjustments more manageable. The Kitsbow Ventilated V2 gets our highest accolades with a slick alloy slip hook that slots into a webbing loop and offers 3 inches of adjustment. The 100% Airmatic also scores highly with a nice Velcro based adjustment system on the outside hip area of the shorts. Both systems are easy to manipulate given their external position on the waistband of the shorts, but Velcro lacks the long-term durability of a slip hook 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 Ventilated V2 outdoes the competition with a slick low-profile fly and offset slip hook system. It is robust and designed to outlast the short themselves.
How durable are these shorts? We wanted to know, and we did not hold back during testing. When you shell out around $100 or more for a pair of shorts, you should be able to get at least a season of hard riding out of them, and hopefully more. Beyond the demands of daily abuse on the bike, we also machine washed and dried the shorts after every use to see if the colors 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's 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 certainly not the shorts we'd choose for a 30-mile ride involving 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 trailside hazards 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. Therefore the protection category is weighted less than other metrics, only 10%, because the difference between the level of protection provided by the highest scoring shorts to the lowest scoring shorts is fairly minimal. When a crash occurs, shorts can help to prevent or limit abrasion, but beyond that, they don't offer much more protection than spandex. A thicker 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 the overall coverage (the length of the shorts). Not surprisingly, the shorts that received higher scores for durability also score well for rider protection. Shorts with a longer inseam cover a greater portion of the leg and typically 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 shorts we tested are the Pearl Izumi Elevateand the Troy Lee Ruckus, with a combination of durable fabric, and longer inseams providing the best leg coverage of the shorts in our test. Both the Elevate shorts and the Ruckus are excellent when paired with knee pads; due to large leg openings they can accommodate all styles of knee pads. 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.
Striking a balance between ventilation and protection isn't easy, 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, accessibility is becoming much easier for riders 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 their overall performance.
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 when 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 Ventilated V2 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 a high 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 seated in the pedaling position, allowing for an unrestricted pedal stroke. Even the design of the leg openings is intended to provide a smooth pedal stroke, with a contoured cut that is slightly shorter in the rear 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 Ventilated V2 short is 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 Ventilated V2, 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 soft 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 Ventilated V2, so they were our go-to when we knew we would be putting on pads at any point during the ride. Another feather in the cap of the Airmatic is the included chamois liner which was incredibly comfortable. The padding is minimal, but the fit is perfect, and as a bonus, we found it comfortable to hike in.
It doesn't matter how good a pair of mountain bike shorts looks or how many pockets they have if they're not comfortable. We based our comfort score on our tester's perceptions of the shorts while riding, honing in on factors such as ventilation, fabric feel, and comfort of the chamois liner when applicable. We used a variety of liners with the shorts that didn't include a chamois liner, like the Pearl Izumi 1:1 Liner, the Fox Evolution Liner, the Specialized SWAT Bib, and the Baleaf liner short.
We had several pairs of shorts that rated very highly in the comfort metric, including the 100% Airmatic. 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, and if you've 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 Ventilated V2 is also scored highly in this rating metric. The fabric feels good on the skin and doesn't 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 stretch mesh panels in strategic areas, but our testers found the shorts to be a bit warmer than the Dakine Syncline or the Zoic Ether. The Ether short has multiple mesh panels for ventilation and a much baggier fit than the Kitsbow Ventilated V2, 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 stiffer, less comfortable chamois liner.
With so many mountain bike shorts available on the market, it's 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 the information we have provided, you should be well on your way to making a purchase that will meet your needs, preferences, and budget.
— Jeremy Benson & Curtis Smith