Are Mountain Bike Shoes Worth It?

With all the gear purchases that a new mountain biker can make, I wondered if mountain bike shoes were really necessary. Any new hobby requires equipment, so the need to get a bike, helmet, and pump didn’t come as a surprise. But did I really need a pair of mountain bike-specific shoes?

If your mountain bike has flat pedals, then mountain biking shoes are not a necessity. However, for clipless pedals, mountain biking shoes will be required. Regardless of pedal type, mountain biking shoes can enhance your overall experience by providing better support, grip, and protection.

Some people try to use their existing pair hiking, skating, or even tennis shoes for mountain biking, but they’re really missing out on the key benefits that mountain biking shoes have to offer.

5 key benefits of using mountain biking shoes

Mountain biking shoe benefit #1 – Protection

While your tennis shoes may be light and comfortable for running around town, they offer very little in the way of protection for mountain biking. Your feet can be very exposed during mountain biking and you don’t want something flimsy protecting your foot in the event it gets smashed into a rock. Some shoes offer protection for both the toe box and ankle to help keep you having fun on the trails for longer.

Some shoes also come with neoprene sleeves around the ankle to prevent dirt and small rocks from making their way into your low cut shoe. While most blisters are far from life-threatening, they do take away from the enjoyment of riding. They are also far better at repelling water and mud that would quickly soak through common shoes and ruin your ride.

Mountain biking shoe benefit #2 – Support

At a glance, mountain biking shoes may appear similar to some skate shoes but they have a key difference that’s hard to see until you get your hands (or feet) on them – stiffness. Stiff shoes lower stress on the foot by not requiring it to do all of the work. This is particularly helpful for long rides or descents.

Mountain biking shoes have incredible foot support built into them. Whether you’re catching big air or just cruising on trails for the day, your feet will appreciate the extra support.

Mountain biking shoe benefit #3 – Better power transfer

Sure we all enjoy the fitness aspect of mountain biking, but that doesn’t mean we need to work harder than necessary! When you’re pushing hard on the pedals, any amount of give in the shoe’s sole creates a loss in power transfer.

Let’s say you’re pushing with 100% force, but your cushiony tennis shoe absorbs 10% of that power before transferring it to the pedal. You’ve just lost 10% of your effective power output! Meaning you’ll be doing extra work to complete the same ride.

Mountain biking shoes prevent this loss of power with their stiffness. Furthermore, clipless pedals can boost your power by allowing you to both push and pull the pedals.

Mountain biking shoe benefit #4 – Grip

Enhanced grip is the most obvious benefit of mountain biking shoes. Much like benefit #3, you want to spend as much time ensuring that your hard work goes to good use!

The more time your foot spends slipping around the pedal, the more energy is lost. Mountain biking shoes are specifically designed to provide the best possible grip on your pedals. Ordinary shoes simply can’t compete on this front.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that a hiking or Vibram-type shoe will have an equally good grip. Unfortunately for them, they’re wrong.

While the material of these shoes may have a similar coefficient of friction i.e. grip, they don’t use the same tread patterns as mountain biking shoes. Mountain biking shoes are designed to tack onto the metal posts of your pedals.

A lack of grip can also be a safety issue. You certainly don’t want your foot slipping off a pedal while cruising downhill, or whipping around a berm!

Mountain biking shoe benefit #5 – Longevity

Cost is always a factor when it comes to purchasing new gear. However, did you consider purchasing mountain bike shoes may actually save you money in the long run?

Let’s say you plan on using your running shoes for rides. Sure, you’ll most likely be able to ride fine but your shoes will take a beating in the process!

All the dirt, dust, and wear and tear from the pedals are not what ordinary shoes were intended for. Next thing you know, your $120 pair of running shoes that should have lasted a whole year just got burned out in one month!

Rather than buy new shoes only to ruin them again, you’d be better off purchasing a dedicated pair of mountain bike-specific shoes.

How much do mountain biking shoes cost?

Like all gear purchases, there is a wide range to the cost of mountain biking shoes. Rather than listing a wide range, I thought it would be more interesting to survey the prices from a nationwide retailer.

Picking a nationwide retailer helps to standardize the cost differences between regions.

Choosing our trusty old friend REI, I reviewed all 67 mountain biking shoes that they offer online. Below are the results of this analysis.

  • Average mountain biking shoe cost: $135.81
  • Most expensive mountain biking shoe: $284.93
  • Least expensive mountain biking shoe: $44.83

I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised to find that the average cost of mountain biking shoes offered at REI came out to $135.81. Before running any analysis I was expecting the average to fall right around $100. However, after looking closer at these results it’s apparent that the number was skewed upwards by high-end racing shoes.

While certainly not cheap, this number is not far off the average cost of running shoes these days (~$115). Considering the additional material required to manufacture mountain biking shoes and the fact that there are far fewer companies making them, it starts to seem like a better and better deal.

Types of mountain biking shoes

Flat pedal mountain biking shoes are what most beginner mountain bike riders start with. Unless you have a background road cycling, the thought of being strapped into the pedal can be panic inducing!

Flat pedal shoes simply sit on top of the pedal, and grip onto the metal pins sticking up. Their flat bottoms are coated in sticky rubber and have a tread designed for extra grip on the pedal’s surface.

The lack of physical attachment makes it very easy to put your foot down in a hurry or throw out your leg if necessary while going around a wild turn.

Without the “crutch” of being physically strapped into your pedals, flat shoes can also be a great trick for improving your riding technique. This can be especially helpful for beginning riders.

If you plan on specializing in domains like trail, downhill, and dirt jump biking then flat shoes may be a better fit for you. Other riders use them simply because they prefer the feel and grip of flat-pedal shoes.

Clipless pedal mountain biking shoes use a cleat on the bottom of the shoe to attach to the pedal. Similar to a ski boot, this is a step-in style of binding that holds the foot in place while riding. The major benefit of clipless bindings is that they allow for more power generation.

Their added stiffness also assists with the transfer of power. High-end models go as far as to use carbon fiber to create this stiffness, albeit while greatly increasing cost.

Even within clipless shoes, there’s a wide range in their stiffness because of the variety of the use. Cross country shoes are often the stiffest, making them uncomfortable for walking. Whereas, clipless shoes meant for downhill usage will appear very similar to their flat pedal counterparts.

Why are clipless pedals called clipless? In the earlier days of cycling, small baskets were fit onto pedals that riders slipped their toes into for better traction. These were referred to as “toe clips”. Once step-in attachments were created to secure the foot there was no longer a need for the dangling toe clip. Voila, clipless pedals were born!

Make sure to take a look mountain biking shoes that I recommend by clicking here to see the ones I recommend.

Related questions

  • How should mountain bike shoes fit? Your heel should feel comfortably locked in place, while your toes should have just enough room to wiggle. As with any shoe, make sure there aren’t any areas that feel like they’re digging into your feet.
  • Do I need to wear special socks for mountain biking? Special socks are not required for mountain biking. However, they are helpful for their moisture wicking abilities and a longer length for added protection.
  • How long do mountain bike shoes last? Most riders can get 5 years of use out of their mountain biking shoes. However, the length of time that they last will be dependent on how much you use them and how well you take care of them.