The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose Women's Mountain Bike Shorts

We test the mountain bike shorts so that you can enjoy your ride  and the view.
Monday May 20, 2019

There has never been a better time to be a woman mountain biker! The range and quality of women's mountain bike shorts that are available these days are some of the best we have ever tested. We are overjoyed at the wide variety of shorts and jerseys being made specifically for the female market, with thoughtful attention to details and fit that can make your ride that much more comfortable and fun. And while we love having so much to choose from, we also get that it can be overwhelming if you are new to mountain biking or just don't know where to start. In this article, we will walk you through the process of how to choose the best pair of shorts for your next mountain bike ride. Make sure and check our review of our favorites, as well. The Best Mountain Bike Shorts for Women. Our review is comprised solely of shorts to be used primarily for mountain biking. First, we will determine if off-road is where you like to ride, and then focus specifically on the features needed to maximize good times on the bike.

Types of Bike Shorts



Road Biking Shorts


Do you love pedaling on the open road for miles? If freshly laid asphalt is your idea of the perfect riding surface, then we would recommend a pair of road biking shorts. Road cycling shorts are generally comprised of lycra and/or spandex and provide a snug fit. Road cyclists have an aggressive posture on the bike, pedaling up and down hills. And while they may ride in and out of the saddle, the overall position is consistent and focused on minimizing wind resistance. Road bikers want a tight-fitting, compressive short that stretches with them and reduces as much drag as possible. The seat of the short is also padded, eliminating the need for a liner short, also known as a chamois.

Mountain Biking Shorts


If your biking dreams consist of buff singletrack, chunky rock gardens, and flowing berms, we're going to suggest a pair of mountain bike shorts rather than road cycling shorts. Mountain bike shorts are designed to be a loose fitting outer short that is worn over a chamois (see below) and are typically made from some combination of polyester, nylon, and spandex with the goal of protecting your skin against abrasions, vegetation, and crashes. They vary in detail, such as the number of pockets for storage, inseam length, fabric weight, stretch, and overall fit. With so many options, you'll want to determine the right combination of features to suit your riding style and fit your needs for maximum fun on the trail.

For our test, we chose products that answer the most important questions about women's mountain shorts. All of the brands mentioned offer multiple styles of women's shorts, some of which may suit your riding style better but aren't discussed here.

Lining 'em up.
Lining 'em up.

The Chamois


A chamois (pronounced sham-me) is a padded undershort that makes lengthy mountain bike rides much more enjoyable. Almost every mountain biker wants some padding for long hours on the bike, but these days there are lots of options, including thinner chamois for short rides. While some ladies wear road biking shorts under their mountain biking shorts, a true liner short or chamois will provide cushion while also being well ventilated. Typically, they are not as heavy or compressive as a road biking short. Many mountain bike shorts come with a liner short, and others can be purchased separately. Much like choosing a seat for your bike, your preference will be influenced by the shape of your anatomy, the quality of your saddle, and the length of your ride.

An uncomfortable chamois can be a ride-ender. Truly. If you are trying out a new style or brand, make sure to give it a test ride on a backyard trail lap before heading out for a long ride. Once you find one you like, we recommend buying several, so you never have to settle for that not-so-great one that is shoved in the back of the drawer.

Riding Style


Just as trails range from green to double-black diamond, from rolling plateaus to steep and rugged ridges (and everything in between), mountain bike shorts are designed for different styles of riding. Let's take a look at the different categories of mountain biking to help you narrow down which style of short best fits your personal riding style and terrain preferences.

Cross Country


Think buff, rolling singletrack. This style of riding is powered by pedaling. Typically, the terrain is fast and rolling, and the distances covered are greater. As a rider, you're working hard in the saddle, and not too worried about technical terrain in front of you. Cross country mountain bikers want shorts made of lightweight, breathable fabric that has stretch to maximize mobility while pedaling in and out of the seat.

Look for mesh-backed waistbands and quick-drying material to help you out on long, warm days on the bike.

Cross country trails will go for miles and miles.
Cross country trails will go for miles and miles.

Trail


Most of the time we are all riding trails. However, you might consider yourself a "trail" rider if you ride the same trails as a cross country rider but have a little more suspension on your bike. You might take the alternate route and hit some small jumps along the way. A trail rider will stop to take pictures, session a tricky technical section, and maybe hang out for beers at the trailhead after a post-work lap on the local trail. You love riding, but you emphasize fun over speed and hard work.

Shorts for the trail rider might be more oriented to going from trail to pub. Look for pockets and a more street-style, casual fit.

Trail riding is all about having fun on your bike!
Trail riding is all about having fun on your bike!

Enduro/All Mountain


We think of All Mountain riding as the backcountry skiing of mountain biking. You really love the descent but have a great appreciation of the effort it takes to reach the top, and can't get enough of the views along the way. We call it "earning your turns." If you love long days in the saddle and are prepared to climb and descend perhaps multiple times in a ride, then you might consider yourself an all mountain or "enduro" rider. You're going to need gear that can do both: lightweight, breathable, and stretchy for the uphills, but protective and durable for the downhill.

If you pedal up and shred down you want shorts with lots of features.
If you pedal up and shred down you want shorts with lots of features.

With Enduro races becoming a more and more popular bike race format, manufacturers are attempting to create the one-quiver, do-it-all short: fast and light on the up, sturdy and resilient for the down.

These shorts will tend to have a longer inseam to work well with pads, lightweight fabric for ventilation and wind resistance, zippered vents, and zippered pockets to keep your personal items from disappearing into the bushes.

Downhill


If you're riding downhill trails, you're most likely moving at high speeds through rocks, roots or human-made wooden features. Whether it's lift-access bike park terrain or shuttled laps to your favorite downhill trail, you're not doing much uphill pedaling. Downhill riders are not as concerned with how lightweight or breathable the shorts are, as they need to be tough, first and foremost, with a longer inseam. Downhill mountain bike shorts should be all about protecting the rider from crashing in the gnar, sliding along the granite or being swiped at by a tree branch while charging fast and furiously. The fabric should feel substantial and have ripstop construction. Honestly, you're wearing as much protective gear as necessary, like a full face helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads, so don't go lightweight on the shorts.

Downhill riders want shorts that provide good coverage and are made from durable materials.
Downhill riders want shorts that provide good coverage and are made from durable materials.

Inseam is also an important consideration for downhill riding. Longer is better. The leg opening at the hemline should be wide enough to slip over kneepads without a gap or bunching at the knee. You're looking for optimal protection, even without kneepads.

Features to Consider



Pockets


Pockets or no pockets? Since mountain bikers almost always have a hydration pack with them, some people think pockets on shorts are redundant. Other riders prefer to have a minimal pack (or no pack) and squirrel away necessities into their available pockets. Most people want some pocket access to essential items. Not to mention, pockets are great places to collect the micro-trash you might find on the trail.

If you are carrying a pack, a few strategic pockets might be what you want for easy access to a quick snack, some lip balm, or your phone for taking pictures. Look for shorts with at least one zippered pocket, big enough to hold what you need to carry. Open or velcro-tabbed pockets will be less secure when you are moving around on your bike.

What kind of pockets do you need and where do you need them? If they are on the side of the leg your gear is out of the way of your pedal strokes.
What kind of pockets do you need and where do you need them? If they are on the side of the leg your gear is out of the way of your pedal strokes.

If you like to keep your overall kit to a minimum and not carry a backpack when you're biking, choosing a bike short with ample secure pocket options is important. We preferred having a minimum of one phone-sized zippered pocket, but some combination might work for your carrying needs.

Waist Adjustments


Men have it pretty easy when it comes to finding pants according to their waist size. Take a tape measure, wrap it around the waist, and order that number. Women don't get off quite that easily. If you're anything like our testers, you have jeans and pants in your closet that range from a size 2 to a 10. It's not easy for us ladies to find the perfect fit on the first try. If they're too snug in the hips, they might be too big in the waist. If you have an athletic build, you may prefer a short with an overall looser profile to prevent binding when you pedal.

Adjusting the waistband is a cinch!
Adjusting the waistband is a cinch!

We sized our shorts based on the manufacturer's sizing charts to fit our lead tester and ended up with a combination of numbered sizes and both size small and extra-small. As is the case with many clothing manufacturers these days, the fit was not exactly consistent.

Thankfully, panels in the rear of many models allow the shorts to stretch with your curves. It is rare to encounter shorts that don't stretch and all, and some have four-way stretch which provides a comfortable, all around relaxed fit.

Finally, almost all of the shorts tested offer different ways to customize the waistline of the shorts to best fit different body types. Velcro, button tabs, and toggles are just some of the types of adjusters. Buttons make the guesswork easier and don't attach to other things in the laundry. Webbing adjusters have infinite positions for getting things exactly right. As important as the type, is the placement. Some shorts cinch at the hip, bunching up fabric in a less than flattering manner, while others gather in front, which tends to work better with most figures. Some are inside, some are outside. We recommend cinching the shorts to fit when you try them on to make sure you like the look.


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