There is no doubt that a trail bike is the best option for the majority of the mountain bike population. These bicycles seek to balance uphill and downhill performance and typically offer a lively and fun ride. Terms like short-travel, mid-travel, or enduro can make things confusing. These terms subcategorize the trail bike segment of the mountain bike market and are fairly important. Worry not, OutdoorGearLab is here to help you find the right bicycle for you, your trails, your riding style, and your wallet. Over a dozen testers from various backgrounds have spent hundreds of hours and rode thousands of miles on the most intriguing trail bikes on the market. We tried our hardest to really analyze and push these bikes to gain a complete and thorough understanding of each. Some ride characteristics are obvious immediately, some of the subtleties take hundreds of miles to pick up on. While "trail bike" is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of bikes, If you are looking to get wild and value downhill performance above all, check out our gnar-smashing Enduro bikes. Are you a female mountain biker? Curious if you would benefit from a women's specific model? Mosey on over to our women's trail bike review.
The Best Trail Mountain Bikes of 2018
Best Quiver Killer 1
Ibis Ripmo GX 2018
The all-new Ibis Ripmo is a dialed aggressive trail mountain bike. This rig pairs a burly and mean front end with a lively and efficient rear end. This bicycle features 145mm of rear wheel travel and is designed around a 160mm fork. Despite its aggressive attitude, the Ripmo is a very efficient climber. The DW-link suspension functions well under seated or standing pedaling loads but is active enough to maintain traction. On the descent, this bike has the aggressive angles to be confident down gnarly terrain. The Ripmo remains impressively calm over small to mid-size chatter. At times, you need a reminder that this bike only has 145mm and it can be overwhelmed on gnarly trails. Build kits start at $4,099 and can approach $10,000.
Read Review: Ibis Ripmo GX 2018
Best Quiver Killer 2
Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a versatile enduro bike. The LT blends stellar and efficient climbing abilities with rock-solid descending abilities. This bike feels more like an aggressive trail bike or all-mountain bike compared to a race-bred enduro bike. This is great news for those who want an aggressive daily driver. Given the somewhat reserved geometry, handling is solid at all speeds. The 150mm of Virtual Pivot Point suspension offers excellent mid-late stroke support. Climbing abilities are effective thanks to the high levels of anti-squat which creates a firm pedal platform with minimal bob. The Hightower LT is an excellent choice for the rider who wants a capable bike to ride a wide range of terrain without hopping on a full-blown enduro bike. It should be noted that this performance doesn't come cheap. Our XE test bike carries a lofty $5699 price tag.
Read Review: Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
Best Playful/Fun-loving Trail Bike
Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018
The 2018 Ibis Ripley LS received a revision. The result is one of the most fun and playful trail bikes we have ever ridden. The Ripley offers a sharp-handling and precise ride. Changing lines or snapping out of corners is a blast and requires minimal rider input. This bike encourages riders to seek out trail features to boost. Climbing abilities are solid. Efficiency is decent but the Ripley really shines on loose and technical climbs where huge 2.6-inch tires offer excellent traction. Downhill performance is very fun, but the Ripley can get overwhelmed on rocky trails. This performance comes with a hefty price tag. Our $4,000 test bike is on the expensive and comes with a SRAM NX drivetrain and terrible SRAM Level brakes. The high-price tag buys you high-end performance that will have you smiling ear to ear.
Read Review: Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018
Best Short-Travel Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
The third generation, Santa Cruz Tallboy is a fun-loving and zippy short-travel bike. This shredder has the geometry and attitude to get more aggressive than its 110mm of rear wheel travel suggests. Not only does it have a frolicsome and lively personality, this wagon wheeled speed machine is a swift and efficient climber. Even lovers of longer travel bikes can appreciate the downhill performance provided by the dialed frame design on green to blue terrain. The downside? The Tallboy D that we tested featured some less than desirable components. Higher cost builds address this issue. Regardless, this is an excellent baseline bicycle to upgrade components on over time.
Read Review: Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
Best User-Friendly All-Around Trail Bike
Specialized Stumpjumper Comp Carbon 29 2019
The Specialized Stumpjumper is a 140mm travel 29er that is fun for everyone. There are some high-end bikes that require a very aggressive rider to come alive. The Stumpjumper is a more user-friendly option and is a great choice for a huge number of riders. Downhill performance is confident and reliable while climbing is efficient and comfortable. Handling is reasonably sharp and this bike reacts with minimal rider input. This well-rounded bike has no fatal flaw and makes sense for a tremendous amount of riders. Pricing is competitive with aluminum builds starting around $3000.
Read Review: Specialized Stumpjumper Comp Carbon 29
Best All-Around Trail Bike Frame
Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018
The Santa Cruz Hightower is an aggressive and versatile mid-travel trail bike that is confident dabbling in some enduro-grade terrain. This hard-nosed 29er can feed it down gnarly terrain with a sense of confidence and attitude. The Hightower is also comfortable working its way back up the hill thanks to a calm pedaling platform and neutral rider position. There is no mistaking this bike for a shorter-travel rig as its heft becomes apparent at low speeds and through uphill corners. The Hightower is one of our favorite trail bikes, but the price tag and poor components on our test bike were very dissapointing. The frame design is extremely impressive, but it is held back by a poor fork and brakes.
Read Review: Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018
Best Value All-Around Trail Bike
Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential 2017
The Commencal Meta TR 4.2 is a quick-witted trail mountain bike with dialed geometry. The slack angles on this bike make it clear that it is a downsized version of its big brother, the Meta AM. The Meta TR is a slick climber that blends efficiency with excellent handling skills. Despite its weight, this bike can hustle up hills swiftly, leaving the rider with plenty of energy. When it is time to aim downhill, the TR operates with surgical precision. Slicing and dicing your way down the trail is sure to put an enormous grin on your face. Enduro-influenced geometry makes this bike very comfortable at speed. Make no mistake, the Meta TR has only 130mm of travel and attacking super-gnar is not its strong suit.
Read Review: Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential
Best Value Aggressive Trail Bike
Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 2018
The Canyon Spectral provides a well-rounded ride on a wide range of terrain. This 140mm travel aggressive trail bike is capable charging down burly trails as well as fast and flowy ones. A meaty 2.6-inch Maxxis Minion paired with a stout 150mm RockShox Pike fork makes for a confident front end with excellent traction. Climbing positioning is upright and comfortable. The Spectral performs well with or without the use of the shock's climb switch. Most importantly, the Spectral AL 6.0 that we tested sells for an eye-popping $2399 and features excellent components.
Read Review: Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 2018
Best Women's Trail Bike
Juliana Joplin S Carbon C 2018
The Juliana Joplin is a lively 29-inch trail mountain bike that boasts nimble and playful manners. The balanced and comfortable cockpit sets riders up in an effective position to grind uphill. The calm suspension makes for quick and efficient climbing. When aimed downhill, this short-travel bike punches way above its 110mm weight class. The Joplin has a defined speed limit on rougher terrain where it gets overwhelmed. This is a short-travel bike after all. This high-end performance doesn't come cheap. Juliana only makes carbon fiber frames and our test Joplin C R retails for $4,799. The Joplin shares a frame with the Santa Cruz Tallboy.
Read Review: Juliana Joplin S Carbon C 2018
Best Hardtail Trail Bike
Specialized Fuse Comp 6Fattie 2018
The Specialized Fuse 6Fattie is a well-balanced mountain bike. This bike descends with confidence, climbs swiftly and offers absurd levels of traction. The Fuse is built around spot-on geometry that makes for a comfortable ride on a wide range of trails. The 3.0-inch tires relieve some of the harsh nature of a hardtail mountain bike and offer unbelievable traction when climbing. Gravel, sand, hardpack — these wide tires hook up like velcro. It's tiring to roll velcro uphill all day. This bike is best suited for areas with rolling terrain that lacks 45 minute or longer climbs. The Fuse is a beautifully simple mountain bike that can be appreciated by riders of varying experience levels.
Read Review: Specialized Fuse Comp 6Fattie 2018
Analysis and Test Results
After testing and racing groups of similar trail bikes head-to-head, we cross-examined the lot of them to bring you this all-encompassing trail mountain bike review. Teams of testers rode two dozen trail bikes extensively over a wide range of terrain and ranked them in terms of fun factor (worth 25%), downhill performance (35%), uphill performance (35%), and ease of maintenance (5%). We compare the best of the best below. Read about our testing methods and time trial protocols in our How We Test Article. The bikes' intended applications, build qualities, and prices range widely. We've found that our favorite bikes shine even with less than ideal components and the best are appropriate for a wide range of terrain.
With such an enormous variety of bikes to chose from, pinpointing which one will offer the best value for your needs can be a big task. The table below maps out the overall value of each bike in our test in relation to the rest of the competition. Hover over each dot to see which bike it represents, with blue dots indicating award winners and a spot further into the lower right quadrant representing a great value.
Thomas Aquinas once said, "Fun factor is critical when evaluating a trail mountain bike." Okay. Maybe he didn't, but we did. That's why fun factor is worth hefty 25% of the final score.
The Ibis Ripley LS is the epitome of a modern, zippy and fun-loving trail bike. Everything about piloting this 120mm fluorescent fun-wagon is a blast. Take some sharp handling and a quick-witted attitude, mix in a copious amount of traction. The result? Rally car handling that instills confidence to change lines in a hurry and surgically pick your way down trails. The Ripley is happy seeking out boosts and trail-side shenanigans. There are plenty of overused, cringe-inducing, terms used to describe trail bikes in 2017. Phrases like poppy, snappy, and flickable are hurled around all willy-nilly. That said, the Ripley LS is a poppy, snappy and flickable bike that truly doesn't feel like a 29er. The only time the Ripley's fun-level plummets is when we blew past its confidence threshold on rowdy descents. It's a sudden, soul-rattling shift.
The Santa Cruz Tallboy likes to party, and it will not be denied. Riding the Tallboy is a hootin' and hollerin' good time. This is another short-travel 29er that has the ability to alter the opinion of the 29er naysayers whose criticisms get quieter every month. Fine-tuned geometry encourages playfulness on the trail in the form of boosts and manuals. While the Tallboy does not possess the pure playful manners and supreme cornering abilities of the Ripley, its an incredibly capable descender. This bike can and will comfortably tackle more aggressive trails that may seem to be above its short-travel pay grade. A bonus for those of us who don't live for the climb, the Tallboy climbs comfortably and painlessly. Less pain = more fun.
The Commencal Meta TR 4.2 is an extremely fun mid-travel bike with a nice balance of capability and a ninja-like feel. Steering is direct and the 27.5-inch wheels allow this bike change directions in a hurry. The semi-aggressive geometry makes this bike feel like a mini-enduro bike while retaining very sharp handling. Navigating rock gardens is a blast as this bike encourages riders to use the maneuverability and quickness to hop in and out of lines. When the going gets rough, this 130mm bike can stand up and feels confident. Rougher black-diamond grade terrain is far more pleasant aboard this stealthy shredder compared to the shorter-travel Ibis Ripley or Santa Cruz Tallboy.
The Canyon Spectral is an impressively versatile bike given its 140mm of travel. Here at OutdoorGearLab, we find versatility to be very fun. The Spectral has a big-bike look but its climbing abilities remain very respectable. This rig is an efficient climber with a calm pedal platform. Once at the top of the hill, downhill performance is incredibly fun and user-friendly. While the Spectral is not fun on double black diamond terrain, it is a blast up to that point. This Canyon is significantly more capable than the Commencal Meta TR, Ibis Ripley, and Santa Cruz Tallboy. That said, it sacrifices much of the fun-loving, zippy, handling of the shorter-travel bikes.
Some of the harder charging options are quite fun in their own way. The Santa Cruz Hightower LT and Ibis Ripmo are a blast for those who ride aggressively on steep or rough trails. No, these longer-legged 29ers can't match the climbing abilities of some of the short-travel options, but they really shine on rough and steep trails. They are extremely fun in that they are not limited to certain trail types. You can jump aboard one of these three bikes and ride pretty much any trail. That sounds like fun.
The Santa Cruz Hightower (non-LT) and Specialized Stumpjumper are also well-rounded bike. Riders who don't typically encounter truly gnarly terrain will have a blast on both mid-travel 29ers. They climb well enough to be great all-day bikes. On the descent, they can ride pretty close to any trail, they just need to be ridden with some caution and precision on the most difficult trails. The Stumpjumper is a particularly interesting option for newer riders. This bike doesn't require an ultra-skilled rider or mach speeds to be fun. Anyone can hop on this bike and start having fun. That is a very high compliment in our books.
Shredding downhill is undoubtedly the lynchpin of a fun mountain bike experience. While all of the bikes in this review are categorized as trail bikes, some are more fun descenders than others. Downhill performance is worth 30% of the final score.
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a long-legged 29er that likes to get rad. The LT stands for long travel as this bike is the beefed up version of the original Hightower. This bike won one of our Quiver Killer awards as it can truly do it all. The LT refrains from going too slack or aggressive with its geometry and is comfortable riding mellow, flowing, terrain. Don't let the conservative geometry fool you, this bike is very supportive on bigger terrain. While the Ibis Ripmo gets shaken on larger impacts, the Hightower LT stands up a little better.
The Ibis Ripmo won another Quiver Killer award. Yes, that's two award winners, but these bikes are truly both fantastic options. The Ripmo takes a slightly different approach compared to the Hightower LT. The Ibis has very aggressive geometry and instills confidence when rolling into some sketchy terrain. A 160mm fork is paired with a 2.5-inch Maxxis Minion DHF WT and creates a supremely capable front end. The Ripmo is great over small bumps and has a much calmer rear end than the Hightower LT. The Ripmo holds its own on bigger impacts but it can't quite match the composure Hightower LT.
The Rocky Mountain Altitude is a balanced descender that is confident on a wide range of terrain. 27.5-inch wheels and balanced geometry allow this bike to react well at any speed. This user-friendly bike doesn't need to be driven hard to activate its talents like the Hightower LT or Ibis Ripmo High-speed trials with fewer ultra-steep rock gardens are a blast. This bike can get into trouble on harder black-diamond or double black diamond terrain.
The Santa Cruz Hightower is an extremely capable descender amongst mid-travel trail mountain bikes. It places riders in a confident position to work down a steep section of trail and provides excellent stability at speed. It is more difficult to find the Hightower's speed limit compared to the Commencal Meta TR or Specialized Stumpjumper. The suspension keeps the rear end calm and feels excellent on bigger impacts. Our downhill test track featured a couple relatively harsh G-Outs and drops, the Hightower ate it up. There is no-question this bike rides more aggressively than 135mm of travel suggests. Testers are confident taking this bike down the steepest and burliest local trail that often demands an enduro bike.
The Santa Cruz Bronson slides nicely into that not-quite-enduro and not-quite-trail category. This 27.5-inch bike possesses similar downhill manners to the Rocky Mountain Altitude but requires a more aggressive rider to tap into its full potential. The Bronson is also a bit harder to rattle on black-diamond terrain. The Commencal Meta TR is a zippy and quick handling performer on the descent. While this 130mm bike isn't as comfortable straight lining rock gardens, it still feels pretty aggressive and stable. Commencal built the TR with near enduro geometry on a mid-travel platform. The result is a high level of stability at speed while retaining a nimble feel.
The Juliana Joplin is our favorite women's bike for charging downhill. Despite having a slender 110mm of travel, this bike is capable on the descent. The wagon wheels motor over most obstacles on easier to moderate trails. Be warned, this is a short-travel bike and it does have its limitations.
While grinding uphill may not be as adrenaline-inducing as charging a descent, it is equally important in a trail mountain bike. Being able to comfortably ascend a long climb is critical in choosing a bike. Climbing performance is worth 30% of the final score. It is no surprise the short travel bikes dominate this category. It is worth noting that some of the longer travel options provide exceptional uphill skills especially when you consider how aggressively they attack the descent.
The Ibis Ripley is a fantastic option thanks to its tremendous levels of traction. The wide 2.6-inch tires provide a nice wide footprint that allows for exceptional performance over loose terrain. Ascending technical terrain is pleasant and effective with a planted and confident feel. Just get a portion of the monstrous amount of rubber onto a rock and the Ripley crawls right up and over. The DW-Link suspension is calm and remains fairly active. Climbing positioning is upright with riders being positioned directly on top of the bottom bracket. While this bike doesn't offer the most outright pedaling efficiency, it is a clear favorite on technical terrain.
The Santa Cruz Tallboy is an extremely effective climber. Riders are placed in a comfortable and upright position right on top of the cranks. Seated climbing efficiency is impressive and standing climbing loads are calm with a very minimal amount of pedal bob. There is no need to use the climb switch on this 110mm bike. It rides fairly high in its travel to help keep your pedals from smashing rocks or obstacles. While there is no doubt the Tallboy descends like a slightly bigger bike, uphill abilities are exactly what you expect from a short-travel 29er. Uphill handling is easy and despite the relative heft of our 31-pound aluminum test bike, this rig felt especially light-footed.
The Pivot Trail 429 has an extremely feathery feel and efficient approach. This short-travel trail mountain bike leans towards the cross country side of the spectrum. Sitting and spinning uphill is calm and relaxing. Riders sit directly over the crankset allowing for maximum power transfer. The DW Link suspension platform is calm with almost no pedal bob whether standing or seated. Every pedal stroke is productive and is effectively transmitted to the wheels. The Trail 429 is more of an efficient climber than the Santa Cruz Tallboy, but it is less comfortable charging through the rocks on the uphills and downhills.
The Specialized Camber is an excellent climber, with its cross-country oriented geometry really paying dividends. The steep 68.5-degree head angle and 76.5-degree seat tube angle puts riders right on top of the cranks. These steep angles make for responsive handling and the shorter wheelbase allows it to navigate uphill switchbacks with ease. The front wheel stays planted and doesn't want to wander. Our test bike featured a 2x10 drivetrain and provided a super-light granny gear. Like the Pivot Trail 429 the Camber can pinball through technical climbs.
Ibis Ripmo vs Santa Cruz Hightower LT
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT and Ibis Ripmo are two of our very favorite bikes. Why? Versatility. These bicycles are comfortable climbing 5000-feet and also spending a day in the bike park. You can't go wrong with either of these two bikes, but they do have inherent strengths and weaknesses.
The Ripmo offers a tremendously calm climbing experience. Despite the aggressive geometry that screams enduro, this bike works uphill very well. Downhill performance is balanced, the slack geometry and burly components instill confidence while the sporty rear end is surprisingly peppy for a big bike. This bike is best for a rider who wants an aggressive front end while still retaining a very, very sporty feel.
Santa Cruz Hightower LT
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT has feels more like a trail bike compared to the Ripmo. This bike has steeper geometry than the Ibis. Climbing is efficient thanks to high levels of anti-squat that creates a firm pedal platform. On the descent, this bicycle sacrifices small bump compliance for big-hit stability. Small chatter can be a bit jarring, but bigger lines are handled with tremendous composure. This bike is best for a rider who wants enduro capabilities and a trail bike feel.
Mountain bikes are expensive toys. They require a fair bit of maintenance to keep them running in top shape. It is best to refer to component product manuals for service schedules. That said, you should expect to service your bike regularly.
Full Suspension vs. Hardtail
There is no doubt that a full suspension trail mountain bike possesses performance advantages in every ride category. The one area where hardtail bikes have an advantage is that they don't require pivot/linkage maintenance. You should clean/regrease/torque your suspension pivots multiple times a year to prolong the life of your bearings. In addition, this will keep your bike running far more quietly.
Just like keeping up with regular car services, smaller, more frequent services can save you big bucks in the long term. Here's a quick and dirty primer:
- Before Ever Ride — Check tire pressure, brake function, axle torque levels
- After Every Ride — Clean and lube chain, wipe down stanchions
- Weekly — Clean off mud and debris, check spoke tension
- Bi-Weekly — Check for and tighten any loose bolts, check headset for proper tightness, clean pivots, check shock pressure
- Monthly — Check chain wear and brake pads. Replace as necessary
- Annually — Complete professional overhaul
Ease of Maintenance Ratings
Some bikes are more challenging to maintain than others. We ranked the ease of maintenance for the bikes in our test based on the following criteria:
- Suspension Pivots — How often they need to be serviced, how complicated that service is, and how expensive the bearings are.
- Fork and Shock — These are the most expensive components on your bike and also the most complicated. Suspension products should be serviced at least once a year. Manufacturers will tell you to replace wiper seals far more frequently. This all depends on trail conditions and how frequently you ride. We rate the forks and shocks based on how often the oil and seals need to be changed, how often it requires a complete rebuild, and how costly and accessible that service is.
- Dropper Post — The dropper post is a relatively new component. Just like any suspension product, it needs to be serviced periodically. Certain designs require far more attention than others. Mechanical droppers are often preferred as opposed to hydraulic units which have a high number of seals that wear and require replacement. Having a dropper post means more maintenance (and fun). These bikes scored a little lower.
- Brakes — Brake pads wear and the hydraulic fluid needs to be bled to have air pockets removed from the lines. This should be done annually. We score Shimano brakes a little better than SRAM. Shimano has a long service interval and uses mineral oil and a simpler bleed process. SRAM brakes require corrosive DOT 5.1 fluid and a tricker bleed process.
- Drivetrain — Chain, cassette, and chainrings all wear together. If you ride 2-3 times a week, expect to replace a chain a couple times a year and other drivetrain components annually. We don't account for drivetrain wear and tear in the rankings.
- Tires — Different rubber compounds burn at different speeds. Expect to purchase one or two sets of tires per season for your trail mountain bike. We don't consider tires in the rankings.
- Wheels — It is important to have proper spoke tension on your wheels. It is a good idea to have them trued and tensioned a couple times a year to avoid serious issues. We don't include wheels in the score either.
Our fork and shock ease of maintenance rankings reflect the manufacturers recommended service intervals. According to owner manuals, Fox suspension items require less attention than RockShox. Local mechanics we spoke with stated they have to service Fox products more often than their intervals suggest.
It can be difficult to comment on fit specifics as it often boils down to personal preference. Some folks like to ride a slightly smaller frame for added maneuverability and confidence. Other people prefer a larger frame with a shorter stem for stability and extra space to move on the climbs.Here is a list of bikes that have unusual fit characteristics:
- Ibis Ripley LS- The Ripley fits very tight in the top tube. Be careful if you are on the taller end of a recommended frame size.
- Santa Cruz Hightower- The Hightower has a long and spacious top tube. Riders on the shorter end of the size spectrum should be careful and consider a shorter stem.
- Kona Honzo- Taller riders beware. The low seat tube forces riders to raise the seat quite far to achieve a proper pedaling height. This caused the seat post to be raised above the minimum insertion line on the 100mm KS Eten post.
- Specialized Stumpjumper- The Stumpjumper is tight in the top tube. Be careful if you are on the higher end of a recommended frame size.
- YT Jeffsy- Taller riders beware. Consider sizing up if you are on the top end of a frame size.
The Ibis Ripley LS and Santa Cruz Tallboy are standouts in the short-travel category. These trail mountain bikes are ideal for the rider who doesn't feel the need to attack particularly rough or steep terrain. The Santa Cruz Hightower and Commencal Meta TR are fantastic mid-travel options. These bikes are fantastic for folks who want to ride a wide range of terrain. The Ibis Ripmo and Santa Cruz Hightower LTare excellent longer travel options. These bikes are best suited for riders who want to ride aggressive black-diamond terrain and don't mind sacrificing some climbing abilities.
Our bike-obsessed testers are racers, shop owners, mechanics, and writers. These folks spend their spare time banging out epic rides and exploring new trails. These noble riders put their time into energy into our timed benchmark testings and lay their bodies on the line to push our bikes to the limits. This is hard work, but most importantly, it is fun. We do it all of you.
Height and Weight: 6'1 and 190lbs, prefers extra large frame
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 165lbs, prefers large frames.
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 170lbs, prefers medium frame
— Pat Donahue, Joshua Hutchens, Paul Tindal