Why is anything inherently dangerous always so much fun?
Sure, we could spend our time doing anything: Knitting or doing puzzles or watching home improvement shows or whatever is it that indoor people do with their time, but as a wise man did once say: “Gimme Danger.”
We’re mountain bikers.
Purveyors of good times in the open air.
And we can have all the danger we want out there while still following the 5 commandments of mountain bike safety.
To that end, we’ve put together 5 essential mountain biking safety tips for anyone looking to chase thrills without landing in the hospital for one reason or another.
There’s something for everyone here, so whether you’re brand-spankin’ new to the sport or some grizzled old veteran still pedaling an old 26’er, we’re about to make your inherently dangerous fun a little more sustainable.
Is Mountain Biking Dangerous?
Mountain biking – like most exhilarating activities – comes with some inherent risks.
Traveling at high velocity over varied terrain, navigating with just your wits and ability: slips and spills are almost guaranteed.
However, by implementing some basic safety tips you can mitigate both the likelihood and impact of the risks of mountain biking.
Follow these 5 tips to make your ride the safest – and most fun – it can be!
Want to know the difference between a pro and a poser?
You’ll never see a professional-level rider hit the trail without a helmet.
Well, that plus hours and hours of practice combined with years of dedication. But also a helmet!
In fact, most professional athletes don’t stop there either. Knee pads are worn in just about every form of mountain bike racing and free riding.
You’ll also see back and chest protectors, goggles, and even bionic neck braces.
Personally, we’re going out with a helmet and knee protection at a minimum.
Ask anyone who has learned the hard way: Knee injuries are a major pain and they take forever to heal.
If you’ve never worn knee pads before, they feel a little annoying at first but within the first five minutes, you completely forget they’re on.
Giving your mountain bike a proper once-over before blasting off down the trail is always a good idea.
Learning that your brakes aren’t working in the parking lot is no fun, but it’s always preferable to finding out while flying down a hill toward a sharp turn.
There are a few different aspects of a good pre-ride mountain bike safety routine, so we’ll break each of them down for you here.
Whether or not you remove either of your wheels to transport your bike, you’ll want to check them both before you start pedaling.
Start by checking for any issues at the front end giving the front wheel a shake side to side.
If there’s any left/right wiggle or “play” between the fork legs, you’ll need to address it before riding.
Typically this can be solved by simply tightening down your front axle, whether it’s a quick release or one of the many thru-axle designs currently available.
If you’ve properly tightened your axle and you’re still feeling play in the system, chances are you’ve got a bearing that needs replacement, and it’s off to the local bike shop for you.
Next, check your spokes by squeezing them in horizontal pairs, working around each side of both wheels to make sure you don’t have any loose ones. If you do happen to find a loose spoke, make sure to tighten it up before taking off.
No need to get scientific here, just turn it in using your spoke wrench until it feels equally tensioned with the spokes on either side of it.
If you’ve been riding for a while, chances are you can check your tire pressures by simply giving them a good squeeze.
If you’re newer to biking or your tire doesn’t feel quite right, we recommend using a tire gauge to confirm the pressure.
Tire pressure is largely up to personal preference and depends on several factors including terrain, tire choice, and whether you’re running tubes or a tubeless system with sealant.
If you’re not sure which pressures you should run, just go with the manufacturer’s recommendation and air up or down from there to find the ideal grip for conditions.
When we check our brakes we’re looking at two main components: Brake levers and brake pads.
Up at the bars, we want to make sure our levers themselves are securely mounted, and that they provide good feel/resistance when we squeeze them to activate the brakes.
If you’ve got a lever that pulls all the way down to the grip with little or no resistance, you need to stop and sort it out before hitting the trail. Chances are you’ll need to bleed your brakes, but sometimes a lever adjustment is all that’s needed to get things feeling right.
As far as the brake pads themselves go, get a good look at the pads at both your front and rear wheel.
You want to confirm there is plenty of braking material left between the metal disk and the metal backing of the pad. Run out of pad, and you’ll be hearing the unpleasant squeal of metal-on-metal contact in short order.
Not only does this sound awful, but it also performs horribly and destroys your rotors, making for an expensive repair.
Checking your chain couldn’t be simpler.
Just clean it and lube it, checking for excessive wear and rust as you go.
Ideally, you’ll want to give your chain a quick clean and wipe down with your solvent of choice (we stick to good ol’ fashioned WD-40), then hit it with your choice of dry lube.
This one can be tough to gauge because pushing our comfort zone is often the fastest way to build both our skills and our confidence out on the trail.
You’re going to have to try those steep drops, technical climbs, or rocky descents at some point, but we recommend finding a way to ease into it.
Never gone off a jump before? A 20 foot double is probably a bad place to start.
A little trailside kicker with plenty of space to land on the other hand?
Hit it, circle back and hit it again, then do it again 50 times. Once you can confidently hit it as hard and fast as you please, go find a slightly bigger one. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The same approach applies to just about every feature or obstacle you’ll find as you explore new trails.
Try a two-foot drop before you go sending it off a 10-footer.
Learn to ride loose terrain before you go ride loose terrain on the side of a cliff.
We think you get the point.
Getting the fundamentals like body position, braking, and traction down will give you the foundation you need to hit bigger, gnarlier features with confidence.
A good pre-ride inspection routine keeps your issues out on the trail to a minimum, but even the best mountain bike parts fail from time to time.
Getting stranded out in the woods miles away from your vehicle can be dangerous, especially close to dark or in questionable weather.
That’s why making sure you’re prepared with a quick run-through of your trailside checklist is always a good idea.
At a minimum, we recommend the following for making it back to base in one piece:
- Food and water (more on that below),
- Multitool for repairs and adjustments,
- Any extra tools your multitool may be missing (like tire levers),
- A spare tube (even if you run tubeless),
- Hand pump for airing up tires (or a CO2 cartridge system),
- A basic first aid kit for injuries.
Outside of that, you can add or substitute as it suits you, but the ability to handle common issues like flat tires or crash damage (both to your bike and your body) goes a long way to getting you home safely.
Just like any physically demanding activity (especially those in the outdoors), making sure you bring along enough water to get you through the day is paramount to mountain bike safety.
Being dehydrated is no fun, and has a way of sucking the joy right out of even the sweetest trails.
Let it go on for too long, and being thirsty turns into being disoriented, dizzy, and prone to fainting.
Not where you want to be while flying down a rocky slope.
As a good rule of thumb, you should bring at least 20 ounces of water for every hour you plan to ride.
Your typical cage-mounted water bottle holds just under that, which is why many riders prefer either a backpack-mounted hydration bladder or a hip-pack for hydration.
As far as snacks go, you’ll want to put something in your pack to provide your body with the energy it needs, especially for long days on the trail.
Some folks bring fresh fruit like apples or bananas, some prefer an energy bar, and some stick to quick and easy energy gels. Remember your body needs salt as well, so salty, calorie-dense snacks make some of the best options.