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How to Choose Women's Mountain Bike Shorts

We test the mountain bike shorts so that you can enjoy your ride  and the view.
Wednesday November 20, 2019
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Women have a lot of biking shorts to choose from, with thoughtful attention to details and fit that can make your ride that much more comfortable and fun. Where do you start in your quest for the perfect pair? It can be overwhelming if you are new to mountain biking, but we are here to help! 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 for miles on the open road? 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, 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 wind drag as much as possible. The seat of the short is also padded, eliminating the need for a liner short, also known as a chamois. We will not review road bike shorts in this review.

Mountain Biking Shorts


Are you planning to ride on buff singletrack, chunky rock gardens, and flowing berms? Then we're going to suggest that you wear 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 liner short (a chamois) 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 the details, including 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 riders wear road biking shorts under their mountain biking shorts, a true liner short 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


People who prefer buff, rolling trails are typically cross country mountain bikers. 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.

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. 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. 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 is 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.

Enduro races are a popular bike race format and 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. Because of the capable nature of these shorts, they are ready for almost any kind of ride, and we tested a lot of shorts that fit into this category.

Downhill


Shorts for downhill-specific mountain biking are going to have the greatest differences in terms of materials. Downhill riders are often shuttling or taking a chair lift to the top of the trail, meaning that a lot less uphill pedaling is happening and breathable fabric is less important. However, the terrain is probably more rugged, technical, and steep, requiring tougher materials and a longer inseam to accommodate knee pads. Downhill mountain bike shorts should be all about protecting the rider from crashing (and potentially crashing at high speed) or being grabbed by a tree branch while charging fast and furiously. The fabric should feel substantial and have ripstop construction. Honestly, downhill riders are 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 some kind of pack with them for carrying water, tools, and extra layers, some people think pockets on shorts are redundant. Other riders prefer to keep their pack minimal (or even leave it at home) 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, and placed where it won't interfere with your pedal stroke. 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, placed on the outside of the thigh, but some combination might work for your carrying needs.

Waist Adjustments


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.

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

Thankfully, mountain bike shorts are designed to stretch with your curves and movement, and most models have some form of built-in waist adjustment. 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.

You do not want your shorts slipping down as you pedal, so getting the waist right is crucial. While some shorts have belt loops, riding with a belt is not exactly comfortable, and will interfere with pack straps. Velcro, button tabs, webbing, and toggles are just some of the types of adjusters we encountered to help customize the waistline of the shorts. 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.

Hopefully, we have helped you start to understand the options available for you in the world of women's mountain bike shorts!


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