Today, we’ll be walking you through how to choose mountain bike shoes so you’ll want to pay close attention. Cycling off-road isn’t exactly a smooth ride, which is why you’ll want shoes that you can feel safe and secure in. Mountain bike shoes are a lot more different than road cycling shoes, which you might notice when you first look at their outsoles and uppers. Mountain bike shoes have lugs on the bottom of the soles to allow you to walk through rugged terrain more easily. The upper material is also thicker and and can withstand a whole lot more abuse. A number of other factors you’ll want to take into account include pedal style, stiffness, flex, fastening system, comfort, and fit. But that’s clearly not enough detail, we’ll have to get more in-depth with the selection process. So, here is our guide on how to choose mountain bike shoes.

How to Choose Mountain Bike Shoes


Type of Biking

First off, let’s define the different disciplines of off-road cycling and mountain biking, as there are a few. The type of cycling you’ll be doing will affect the kind of shoes you’ll need. Besides the more general off-road cycling and mountain biking, there are niche categories such as BMX, cross country, downhill, and enduro. Let’s talk a little about each.


Off-road/mountain biking shoes provide more traction than road shoes with the use of lugs and treads. The sole is stiff but not as stiff as road cycling shoes, with a good amount of padding and cushioning too. With the added flexibility, this lets you walk and run in them as you navigate off-road terrain. Some mountain bike shoes even let you scramble up steep, slippery trails. Mountain biking shoes are often heavier than road shoes as they have thicker uppers to provide protection. But as you go up in price, you’ll see that shoes get stiffer, lighter, and come with more protection.

Closure: Ratchet/velcro combo, velcro, ratchet, BOA, laces
Sole: Lugs, rugged tread, stiff with some flexibility
Compatible w/: 2-bolt mount, or could be flat pedals / flat pedals with cleats
Ventilation Waterproof, minimal ventilation in wet/cold conditions. Ventilated in all other conditions
Material Sole: rubber, carbon, nylon, vinyl, or plastic. Upper: Leather, gore-tex, microfibers, or synthetics

Off-Road Cycling / Mountain Biking - How to Choose Mountain Bike Shoes - Athlete Audit


Cross Country – Stiff, lightweight, and excellent power transfer. They’re built to be comfortable riding long distances, making them excellent shoes for general trail cycling as well. However, they are often less durable in order to shed more weight.

Downhill & Enduro – Provides more protection, durability, and comfort when walking. Shoes built for downhill and enduro often have a little more flex in the soles to make walking more manageable. This comes at the cost of less power transfer, however.

BMX – Basically a burlier version of a skate shoe. BMX shoes have tough and stiffer rubber outsoles that don’t attach to the pedals. Additionally, they also have more padding and cushioning compared to normal skate shoes to provide extra protection.


Pedal Style

When talking about how to choose mountain bike shoes, you’ll inevitably talk about cleat and pedals. Shoes built for off-road and mountain biking come in either one of two forms: flat pedal shoes or clipless shoes. Depending on the type of biking you’ll be doing, you’ll have to choose accordingly. Here’s the differences between the two:

Flat / Platform – A flat pedal shoe will have a flat outsole with good grip to provide traction, and some will have cleat mounts. Flat pedal shoes work well for BMX, casual, downhill, or enduro cycling.

Clipless – Clipless biking shoes come with a 2-hole mount to attach your cleats to. In turn, this will let you clip in to either SPD, Crank Brothers, or Speedplay pedals. Clipped into your pedals provide maximum efficiency when pedaling, which is great for when you don’t need to jump off your bike often (long distance cycling).


Flat Pedal vs Clipless Shoes - How to Choose Mountain Bike Shoes - Athlete Audit


Stiffness & Flex

Now, there needs to be a combination of stiffness and flex in a pair of mountain bike shoes. A stiffer sole allows you to pedal more effectively. A sole that flexes more will allows you to walk more comfortably. However, having more in one category will result in less of the other. In other words, more stiffness equates to less flex. More flex equates to less stiffness. So, you’ll have to decide what type of mountain biking you’ll be doing. If you’ll be staying on your bike the majority of the time, you’ll want a stiffer sole with less flex. If you’ll be getting off often to walk up hills and through rugged terrain, look for a more flexible sole.


Fastening System

Typically, most mountain bike shoes will feature either velcro straps or ratchet systems. However, some competitive mountain biking shoes can use BOA lacing as well, although it’s much rarer. You’ll also see a couple of shoes that use traditional lacing, which offers the most customization when it comes to adjusting fit. However, the laces will have to be tucked away to prevent getting caught in the chain/crank. Velcro and ratchet systems tend to be very secure and repel water and dirt easily.


Fastening Systems - How to Choose Mountain Bike Shoes - Athlete Audit



The tread on the outsole of a shoe is important for helping you retain stability as you walk. Clipless mountain bike shoes feature lugs on the outsole that will keep you from slipping on rugged trails. And of course, the cleats are recessed into the shoe in order to provide more traction. The amount of tread you’ll want will depend on what kind of terrain you’ll be walking on. Think of the tread of hiking shoes, smaller lugs work fine on trails while larger lugs can help you climb up rocky hills and rough terrain.


How to Fit Mountain Bike Shoes

Against many popular beliefs, mountain bike shoes don’t have to fit tightly in order to perform effectively. First off, you’ll want to find your European sizing first as it’s more accurate than US sizes. Try out shoes in the afternoon as this is when your feet will be the largest. Also, wear cycling socks you plan on using.

Mountain bike shoes should fit snug without causing pain or numbness; there should be no rubbing against any part of your foot. There should be no more than a 1/2″ gap between your toes and the end of the shoe. Walk around a bit in them and flex your foot in all directions to make sure of this. A little heel lift is okay as long as it doesn’t feel like it’s slipping or your feet or wiggling around. There should also be ample arch support and your feet should fit well both length-wise and width-wise. The cleats should be under the ball of your foot, not your toes or further back.


Essential Criteria:

  • Power Transfer – A stiff outsole and upper allow you to pedal more efficiently.
  • Walking – Some flexibility in the sole will make walking in them more comfortable.
  • Support – A good MTB shoe should have good arch and lateral support.
  • Comfort/fit – A MTB shoe should fit properly and comfortably, probably most important.
  • Weight – Less weight is important in helping you to conserve energy either while cycling or walking.
  • Ventilation – MTB shoes don’t need to have lots of ventilation as most are meant to be waterproof.
  • Value/budget – You don’t need real expensive shoes unless you’re competing or have extra cash to spend.
  • Durability –  Most MTB shoes have very durable outsoles and uppers. Also, just because a shoe is more expensive doesn’t mean it’s more durable. Oftentimes, the opposite is true. More expensive shoes have lighter and thinner uppers that don’t last as long as thicker uppers.


*** Tips on How to Choose Mountain Bike Shoes ***
  • Choose a stiffer outsole if you won’t be getting off your bike often
  • Choose a stiff sole with some flex if you’ll be hiking or walking often
  • Waterproof uppers work well to keep water and dirt out
  • Velcro is easily adjustable and the least expensive
  • Ratchet/velcro offers more security in fit and lockdown
  • BOA lacing is expensive but takes the trouble out of adjusting fit
  • Laces offer the most customization in fit but can get dirty quickly; takes time to tie
  • Flat pedal shoes work well for BMX, casual, downhill, and enduro cycling
  • Clipless shoes should be used for maximum pedaling efficiency/general cycling
  • Make sure the shoes will provide enough traction; focus on rugged lugs and tread
  • More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean more durable; oftentimes the opposite is true
  • If you already have cleats, make sure they fit on the shoes you’re interested in