After testing the best mountain bike shorts for the past 4 years, we've had our hands on over 28 different products. After purchasing 16 of the finest to put through several head-to-head challenges, these shorts, and our testers, have done it all. We've spent hundreds of hours in the saddle while exploring trails across California and Nevada. Parks, enduro days, quick laps, cross-country missions, you name it, they've been through it. After enduring all types of weather, from hot and dry to cold and wet, we offer you this comprehensive and unbiased review to help you find the perfect mountain bike shorts for your needs, riding style, and wallet.
The Best Mountain Bike Shorts
Best Overall Mountain Bike Short
Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated
The Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated 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 significantly less expensive than the previous version, they are still pretty spendy, 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 Mescal Ventilated 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 with 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 Mescal Ventilated is the best in our test.
Read review: Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated
Best Bang for the Buck
Fox Racing Ranger Cargo
The recently redesigned Fox Ranger Cargo shorts are the new winner of our Best Buy Award. This versatile and comfortable short comes with a chamois liner included at a very reasonable price. Not only are they are a great deal, but these shorts have a casual and straightforward style both on and off the bike, with a comfortable loose, but not overly baggy, fit. They have four functional pockets that all work well when pedaling, and an articulated waistband for comfortable pedaling while seated. The waist closure consists of an adjustable metal hook and webbing system that pulls tension evenly around the waist for a comfortable and secure fit. They also come with a chamois liner, it's far from the best, but it's way better than none at all, adding to this shorts' list of features and impressive value.
There was little we didn't like about the Ranger Cargo, but we found the medium weight fabric and lack of ventilation to be on the warmer side compared to some of the other shorts in our test. While we liked the innovative adjustable waist closure, we didn't like the fact that Fox didn't include a zippered fly on the Ranger Cargo. Other than that, we found these shorts to be comfortable, perform well, and look good doing it, especially for the price.
Read review: Fox Ranger Cargo
Best for Comfort
Fox Racing Flexair
Fox Racing has a wide range of shorts in their lineup. Traditionally, they have been known for the gravity/downhill side of the spectrum. The Fox Flexair shorts are a deviation from this moto-inspired trend. The Flexair shorts deliver a high level of pedal-friendliness and an incredibly comfortable fit. These shorts have a high-quality trim/slim fit. This reduces the amount of excess material that bounces and flops around as you pedal. The lightweight construction with oversized laser-cut perforations allows for a tremendous amount of airflow, making these a great option for riders in warm climates.
The Flexair shorts aren't perfect. The super-light construction and the thin, comfortable, fabric won't fare well in the event of a crash. Riders who are somewhat crash-prone may want to think about this ultra-thin construction as it would be a shame to ruin a pair of shorts with one fall. These shorts also don't work well with knee pads. One more small criticism is that the black waistband on our dirt colored shorts seem a little out of place. The other colors of these shorts have a matching waistband. The black waistband looks a little cheap and ill-conceived.
Read review: Fox Racing Flexair
Best 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. These shorts are great for all types of riding, trail, all mountain, enduro, XC, you name it. They've got a clean and straightforward 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 for Minimalists
Patagonia Dirt Roamer
Patagonia is well known for producing some of the highest quality outdoor gear available, but they are a relatively small player in the mountain bike apparel market. We approached their Dirt Roamer shorts with skepticism, but testers quickly became enamored with them for their exceptional level of comfort and pedal friendliness. Their slim performance oriented fit is complemented by their functional minimalist design, which we found to be ideal for XC and trail riding. Their lack of bulk, excessive bagginess, unnecessary pockets, and useless features are a big part of what we love about these shorts. They've also got a classic and timeless style that looks as good on your all-day suffer-fest as it does grabbing a cold post-ride beverage at the local watering hole.
The Dirt Roamer shorts don't have any ventilation. Instead, the light material used in their construction is so breathable and quick drying that you'll probably never notice. They are incredibly lightweight, made from a recycled 4-way stretch fabric with sonic welded seams, you may forget that you're even wearing them. Testers found the Dirt Roamer shorts to be so comfortable that they found themselves opting for them more often than not, earning them our Top Pick for Minimalists Award.
Read review: Patagonia Dirt Roamer
Best for Gravity Riders
Troy Lee Ruckus Shell
The Troy Lee Ruckus Shell shorts are burly and substantial shorts designed for the trail rider who trends towards the downhill/gravity side of the spectrum. This rider is more concerned with charging down gnar as opposed to spinning uphill for hours. These shorts have a burly and tough feel that will stand up to crashes. Also, the Ruckus are quite comfortable and although they are baggy, have a nice fit.
The shorts do have a heavy feel, and they cannot match the pedal-friendly nature of other shorts. While you can do a huge, half-day, ride with these shorts, it is not their strong suit. They breathe okay but they still aren't the best choice for warm days.
Read review: Troy Lee Ruckus Shell
Best Padded Liner or Chamois
Pearl Izumi Select Liner
The Pearl Izumi Select Liner was the 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 liner is explicitly made to be worn under a pair of baggy mountain bike shorts and is constructed of a breathable and quick-drying stretch mesh with well-placed seams that don't chafe while riding. The Select 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 Select Liner side by side with the Fox Racing Evolution Comp liner and it was a pretty close battle between the two. The Fox Evolution liner is a good value and is also a very comfortable liner chamois. The Evolution 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 slightly thinner and softer than that of the Select 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 splitting hairs here because the Fox Evolution is a comfortable liner at a reasonable 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, similar to the pockets found on a road cycling jersey. Testers found 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. Even a very inexpensive 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 do their 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.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our mountain bike shorts test is a collaboration between three veteran testers. Jeremy Benson is the Senior Mountain Bike Review Editor for OutdoorGearLab, and he's been mountain biking since the early 1990s. He moved to the Lake Tahoe area in 2001 and has been obsessively riding the wealth of trails in the region ever since. He is the author of Mountain Bike Tahoe, a guidebook to the greater Tahoe area published by Mountaineers Books. Benson is an avid mountain bike and gravel racer and a constant podium threat in the Expert 31-40 division. He enjoys all types of riding, from long XC epics, short backyard laps, to shuttle runs. Benson was joined by Curtis Smith, a long-time contributor to OutdoorGearLab. The South Lake Tahoe resident is an avid racer of all types of bikes and can often be found mountain biking on the trails throughout the area. Pat Donahue is the former In-house Mountain Bike Review Editor at OutdoorGearLab. Pat's decades of riding experience are complemented by many years in the mountain bike industry, and he is now the co-owner of a bike shop in South Lake Tahoe, CA.We constantly research the best, most popular, and newest mountain bike shorts on the market. Our selection includes 16 different models that cover the spectrum of baggy mountain bike shorts. Our testers rigorously tested each model in a range of weather conditions on a variety of trails for countless hours and hundreds of miles. At the end of our test period, we compared notes and rated each model to determine our award winners.
Related: How We Tested Mountain Bike Shorts
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 countless hours and hundreds of miles. Through it all, we scrutinized every aspect of their performance and analyzed how the design, materials, fit, and features all play into their comfort and performance 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.
While we don't score the products we test based on their price, we do still appreciate a good value. Often price and performance go hand in hand, but this is not always the case. Sure, our Editor's Choice award winner, the Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated is one of the most expensive shorts in this test. That said, our Best Buy award winner, the Fox Ranger Cargo cost about half as much and still score relatively well.
As much as we don't like to admit it, style matters! If all mountain bikers were concerned with was performance, we'd probably all still be suiting 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 or downhill racing, which is often decided by seconds or fractions of a second, it would make more sense to wear the tight fitting kit. We mountain bikers tend to be a stylish bunch, however, and it's 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. Of course, there are many different styles, colors, themes, and looks, that permeate this basic generalization of dress. Of all the criteria that contribute 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 the grocery and around town doing errands after a ride. Despite being made of technical fabric, the Patagonia Dirt Roamer also has a decidedly casual look with subtle styling that hides their true identity.The Specialized Enduro Pro also scored well for its more subdued looks and ability to blend in when not on the bike.
For those who are fans of the laid-back, gravity-inspired style, the 100% Airmatic and Troy Lee Designs Ruckus are great options. These shorts offer a relaxed, baggy, fit while also maintaining well-designed and well-executed design. There is no excess material hanging around in odd places like the 7Mesh Glidepath.
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 the 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 Specialized Enduro Pro scored highest for their combination of thoughtful, useful, and well-executed features. 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, while others would prefer to have none. 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 Mescal Ventilated 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 or drop a few pounds during the riding 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. Two of our favorite designs are the slip hook system and the external Velcro band design.
The most critical element of either system is the placement. Some of the shorts we tested have an internal Velcro 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 Specialized Enduro Pro features a user-friendly Velcro based adjustment system on the outside hip area of the shorts. The Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated is another of our favorites with a slick alloy slip hook that slots into a webbing loop and offers 3 inches of adjustment. 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 Mescal Ventilated outdoes the competition with a slick low-profile fly and offset slip hook system. It is robust and designed to outlast the short themselves. Another unique system is the Opposet button on the Patagonia Dirt Roamer shorts. This system has a button at the top of the fly with a thin piece of webbing that runs through it, which can be used to adjust the tension of the waistband securely.
How durable are these shorts? We wanted to know, so we didn't hold back during testing. If you're shell out roughly $100 or more for a pair of mountain bike shorts, you want to be sure that you'll get at least a season of hard riding out of them, hopefully, more. Beyond the demands of daily abuse on the bike, we also machine washed and dried the shorts after every use to see how they hold up to real world laundering.
Manufacturers are often attempting to straddle a line between durability and comfort. It's easy to make a durable short, and relatively easy to make a well-ventilated comfortable short, striking a balance between the two is a challenge. The most durable shorts we tested are not the most comfortable and certainly not the shorts we'd choose for a 30-mile ride involving loads of pedaling.
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 made from lighter weight fabrics. The Troy Lee Ruckus Shell is the highest scoring short in our durability test. The 100% Airmatic shorts have a similar feel and construction. Both models have a thicker and more 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 the gravity crowd, and its exceptional durability is a primary reason it received the award. The 100% Airmatic follows close behind and was another favorite amongst our testers for park riding and shuttle runs, due to its sturdy fabric and great leg coverage.
As a general rule, mountain bike shorts can only provide so much protection to the rider. Therefore, the protection category is weighted less than other metrics, only 10%, because the differences in the protection provided by the highest scoring and lowest scoring shorts are fairly minimal. If you crash, shorts can help to prevent or limit abrasion, but beyond that, they don't offer much more protection than spandex. Thicker fabrics can also help to ward off the effects of random encounters with brush and branches on the edge of the trail. We primarily considered two factors when scoring the shorts on protection, the ability of the short's 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 provide more coverage of the leg and typically mesh better with knee pads, so the length of the short is an important factor when scoring the shorts for protection.
The highest scoring shorts are the 100% Airmatic and the Troy Lee Ruckus Shell. It is no coincidence that these two shorts were also top-scorers in the Durability metrics. These shorts both have burly and robust materials and a slightly more substantial feel. These shorts will survive the occasional crash more effectively than the other shorts. The 100% and the Troy Lee Designs Ruckus Shell work well with knee pads. They offer enough space in the leg hole to allow proper movement and also are long enough to prevent the dreaded pad gap.
Balancing protection and proper ventilation is extremely difficult. A thicker construction is detrimental to airflow. Cycling is a game of tradeoffs, and you need to figure out if you are willing to trade off a bit of comfort and airflow in favor of added durability.
Fit and Pedal Friendliness
Depending on the style of riding you do, the pedal friendliness of a pair of mountain bike shorts may be one of the most critical considerations or just an afterthought. XC and trail riders who spend long hours pedaling up steep climbs will typically appreciate shorts with a more performance oriented fit and materials that have virtually no resistance while pedaling. Gravity oriented riders, on the other hand, are more likely to be concerned with a short's durability, leg coverage, and compatibility with knee pads than how well they work for pedaling.
We assessed the cut and shaping of the fabric as well as the stretch of the material 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, stiffer materials, or lack of an appropriately articulated cut.
The Fox Flexair 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. There are a few reasons these shorts are a cut above the competition. First, they have an extremely lightweight construction. Second, the trim and fitted design offers just enough material while reducing any excess material that may bounce around or restrict your legs. Third, they have tremendous airflow that will keep you cool on the hottest of summer days. Testers feel the same way about the Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated and Patagonia Dirt Roamer for virtually all the same reasons.
Also near the top of the rankings, you will find the Specialized Atlas Pro and Troy Lee Designs Skyline. The cut of these shorts is also on the tighter, more trim side of the spectrum. They tick a lot of the same boxes as the Fox Flexair; they just don't function quite as well. The Troy Lee Designs Skyline have a nice fit but are substantially heavier than the Flexair. The Atlas Pro Shorts are close, but a terrible waist adjustment system makes them difficult to fine tune the fit.
Comfort is critical. It is easy to get fixated on how shorts look or how the features function. That said, how a short feels when riding in them is the most important. Comfort scores are based on several factors like ventilation, fabric quality, and the inclusion of a chamois liner, or not. We used a variety of liners with the shorts that didn't include a chamois liner, like the Pearl Izumi Select Liner, the Fox Evolution Liner, the Specialized SWAT Bib, and the Baleaf liner short.
We have several pairs of shorts that rate very highly in the comfort metric, including the Fox Flexair, our Top Pick for Comfort Award winner. They have an exceptional tailored performance fit and are made from an exceptionally thin and soft material. The fabric is lightweight and feels pleasant sitting against the skin. When paired with the laser-cut perforations on the inner part of the lower legs, the fabric is exceptionally breathable and quick-drying. These shorts are so comfortable that you may forget you are wearing shorts at all. Just don't crash in them, the thin construction will be far less comfortable when being dragged across gnarly rocks or gravel.
The Dirt Roamer shorts another very highly scoring short in terms of comfort. They were the former Top Pick for Comfort award winners. Even though they were dethroned, they are still an insanely comfortable short. Comfort begins with the tailored trim fit. 4-way stretch fabric delivers a great feel against the sky while also providing outstanding mobility. Much like the Fox Flexair, these shorts make it feel like you aren't wearing shorts at all. These shorts can't match the ventilation of the Flexair, but they are so light that it hardly matters.
The Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated 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. Stretch mesh panels handle ventilation in strategic areas, but our testers found the shorts to be a bit warmer than the Zoic Ether. The Ether short has multiple mesh panels for ventilation and a much baggier fit than the Kitsbow Mescal Ventilated, 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.
There are a mind-boggling amount of options on the market, and it can be a daunting task to find the right shorts for you. There are several factors to consider, and our testers spent months figuring them all out for you. Rest assured, we rode these shorts in every condition from sweltering heat to snow/sleet. This ultra-thorough comparative analysis should guide you to the right pair of shorts to fit your needs.
— Jeremy Benson, Pat Donahue, Curtis Smith