Mountain Biking For Beginners: 14 Top Tips I Wish I’d Known When I Started!

Mountain biker and gravel racer Robbie Ferri shares his wisdom on mountain biking for beginners

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Mountain biking is a thrilling sport, and very little can match the excitement of ripping down a trail with the wind in your helmet.

When you first start mountain biking, there’s a lot to learn, and sometimes a little bit of advice can go a long way when it comes to mountain biking for beginners.

Though I’m now a very experienced mountain biker, when I first started, I made a ton of mistakes and had to learn a lot the hard way. There are so many things I wish I had known or had someone tell me.

In this article, I’ll be sharing my top mountain biking tips for beginners. Read on for the trail knowledge you need!

Let’s dive in!

My hardtail mountain bike leaning against a tree.
My hardtail mountain bike. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

#1. The Bike Matters

Newsflash: you don’t need to blow the bank on a high-end mountain bike to be out on the trails having fun, especially as a beginner.

What you do need, however, is a bike that’s the correct size. When I first started mountain biking, my bike was way too small for me, and it was incredibly uncomfortable and hard to control.

I also used the wrong type of mountain bike for the ride I was doing.

I was taking on technical trails and rough terrain on a cross-country bike when I should have been on an enduro bike or a downhill bike. The right bike would have made me faster and my ability so much better.

If that all sounds too technical, a decent hardtail trail bike will suit most beginner mountain bikers, provided you don’t want to take on any really extreme terrain just yet.

These mountain bikes don’t have rear suspension (hence the name hardtail), but they do have suspension forks. This makes your ride more comfortable and allows you to ride longer before your hands, arms, and upper body become fatigued.

Making adjustments to my mountain bike.
Making adjustments to my mountain bike. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

#2. Learn Some Basic Bike Maintenance

When it comes to hitting the trails, it’s important to know how to fix your bike if it goes wrong.

Learning basic bike maintenance is a big part of being a cyclist, and it will not only keep your bike in tip-top condition but can give you confidence to go further afield.

I highly recommend learning to fix a puncture, adjust brakes, replace a chain, and change a brake cable. These skills go such a long way to help you as a cyclist and save you spending all your money at the local bike shop using their mechanics.

At a minimum, you should always ride with a cyclist’s multi-tool, a spare inner tube, and tire levers. Spare chain links and a spare derailleur mech hanger are also never a bad idea, especially if you plan on venturing far from your base.

You should always check your bike over for safety and mechanical issues before and after each ride, and it’s a good idea to give it a good clean too if you want to keep it in tip-top condition.

#3. Confidence Is Key

When I first started mountain biking, I was awful.

I didn’t have any confidence when it came to fast descents and even going through muddy puddles. However, the more I rode, the better I got, and the more fluent I found myself on a trail. 

Being confident is a big part of mountain biking. For myself, it helped me loosen up and find a much better flow. If you go into a technical trail thinking you will crash, you probably will.

Go in confidently, and you get a more positive experience.

A mountain biker tackles a jump.

#4. Don’t Forget To Eat And Drink

When it comes to cycling, it’s easy to forget to fuel yourself, even more so when it comes to mountain biking.

Ripping up trails can burn between 300 and 700 calories per hour, and our body only stores a limited amount. You can probably get away with an hour or two if you’re really going for it. 

I highly recommend trying to drink small amounts often, rather than waiting until you’re parched, and also bringing some decent snacks to keep you going. Running out of food and water is awful, and “bonking” is a terrible experience.

Hydration packs are a handy way to have water accessible at all times without having to stop and open your backpack or reach down to a bottle cage.

Carbohydrates are going to give you the most explosive energy, protein will help your recovery, and water is going to help transport all the nutrition around the body smoothly. 

#5. Master The Basics

Start by perfecting the basic skills of mountain biking.

It may sound simple, but I highly recommend getting your cornering, braking, gear shifting, and positions on the bike correct. You should also get familiar with trail features such as berms (banked corners).

Once these are mastered, you’re ready to tackle the obstacles that scare you and push you outside your comfort zone.

Throughout your mountain biking journey, you will always practice these skills. It’s easy to let your technique get sloppy, and many excellent mountain bikers return to basic skill sessions to ensure they can perform their best for the next season.

Riding a flat, easy trail, which is perfect for mountain biking for beginners.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

#6. Start With Easy Trails, Then Build Up

This point is related to the last one – but it’s important that even once you’re feeling confident with your newly-developed skills, you start out with easy trails and work your way up from there.

When I first started mountain biking, I wanted to be with all my friends on the tough MTB trails. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm level was much higher than my skill level, and I paid the price for that with some epic spills. 

I wish I had stepped back, even if I meant going alone to hit the easier trails. There’s a reason why bike parks offer different routes, it’s to help you progress and become better in your ability.

When first getting into mountain biking, these lighter routes are where you can perfect your skills and master the basics we discussed earlier in this mountain biking tips for beginners article.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a mountain bike trail center, they will likely grade their routes according to their difficulty. Most trail centers use a similar color-coding system to ski resorts. For example:

  • Green: Easy enough for beginners
  • Blue: Suitable for people with competent mountain bike skills
  • Red: Difficult, ideal for intermediate to advanced riders
  • Black: Challenging and should only be ridden by experienced mountain bikers

Trail centers often have skills areas and coaches. These are perfect for progressing your riding, no matter how experienced you are.

Close-up of the rear wheel of a mountain bike.

#7. Ride With Others

Mountain biking is good on your own, but it’s amazing with others.

Enjoying epic trails with other like-minded cyclists is a lot of fun and comes with some amazing benefits. Firstly, they can show you new trails, and you can show them some of yours. 

Secondly, they can greatly help you build confidence. When I first started mountain biking, I went out with a very experienced friend, and watching him rip up the trails really helped me build up confidence and the skills to go much faster.

Joining a local club is a good idea when it comes to mountain biking for beginners. If there’s one near you, and you start going on lots of club rides, it is going to turn you into an excellent rider, and it’s also good for making lots of new friends. 

#8. Teach Yourself About Tire Pressure

Tire pressure is the amount of air you have in your tires, and it has a huge effect on the bike’s performance and how it feels to ride.

The more air (psi), the harder the tire is going to be. The less air, the softer your tire is going to be. Getting this right will really improve your experience as a mountain biker. 

If you are on a very lumpy trail, you will want to use a lower tire pressure. If you’re on smooth ground, you will want a higher tire pressure. The difference it can make to how the bike rolls and the control you have is huge.

If you are unsure of what your tire pressure should be, then you can use a calculator such as the SILCA Calculator.

It’s always good to experiment using different pressures to find a setup that works for you, providing they are between the minimum and maximum safe pressures written on the side of the tire.

The rear tire and drivetrain of my mountain bike.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

#9. Trail Etiquette

When it comes to mountain biking for beginners, it’s important to understand that you will generally be sharing the trails with many other riders, hikers, and even animals.

It’s important to respect the other trail users and treat them as you would like to be treated if you were in their situation.

I highly recommend using a bell or calling out to warn people you are coming along. Also, when passing, have a nice and steady pace so you are not putting them in any danger.

Be especially careful when riding tight singletrack – sometimes it’s better to wait behind a slower rider until the trail opens up for a clear opportunity to pass.

A common rule for all mountain bike trails is that the uphill rider has the right of way.

You must also pick up any litter you might drop, and always look out for the environment’s health.

Don’t ride closed trails. As tempting as it might be to ignore a “closed” sign on your favorite trail, it could be a safety issue with the trail, there might be protected wildlife in the area, or even hunting going on nearby.

A mountain biker flies over a jump.

#10. Proper Mountain Biking Clothing Is Worth The Investment

Wearing an old cotton t-shirt and shorts for mountain biking can be a bad idea.

These will make you hot and sweaty when you ride, and then you risk getting very cold when you stop, as your clothing is wet.

Proper mountain bike jerseys, shorts, and jackets wick away moisture and allow unrestricted movement while you ride. 

Mountain bike jerseys come in various styles and fits. For example, a downhill jersey is large and baggy, so you can fit body armor under it, whereas an enduro jersey is more fitted so it doesn’t flap around when riding at high speeds.

Mountain bike shorts are made from tough materials to make them durable while giving you protection.

Some mountain bike shorts have padding to make sitting on the saddle more comfortable. If yours don’t, it would be best to buy padded inner shorts, especially for long rides.

My green mountain biking shoes with clipless pedals.
My mountain biking shoes with clipless pedals. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

#11. Your Footwear Choice Is Important

Some new mountain bikers wear hiking boots or footwear with thick soles.

Unfortunately, this means that you’re slightly insulated from the vibration feedback you get through the pedals.

You can buy purpose-built mountain bike shoes with lots of grip, feeling, and shock absorption. Alternatively, some experienced riders use with clipless pedals to keep a secure connection between the bike and their feet.

However, as a first time mountain biker, a pair of skate shoes or trainers with flat soles should be fine. These should give you enough grip on the pedals without compromising the pedal feel.

#12. Nail Your Body Positions

Neutral Position

The neutral position is how you hold your body when riding easy, relaxed trails. It allows you to be comfortable and efficient while riding, though it also means you can quickly get into the ready position when necessary.

To adopt the neutral position, stand on your pedals with them level, and your weight evenly distributed on either foot.

Your knees and elbows should have a slight bend, with your index fingers resting on the brake levers.

Demonstrating a neutral riding position on my mountain bike.
Demonstrating a neutral riding position. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Ready Position

When the trail gets more technical, you want to be in the ready position.

This ensures that your body can cope with rocks, roots, and steepness, but it also switches your brain on, so you can react.

Similar to the neutral position, stand on the pedals with your feet level, but with a deeper bend in your knees and elbows.

Your weight should be further back, with your rear end slightly over the rear wheel and your back leaning forward.

As with the neutral position, cover your brakes with your index fingers, ready for when you need them.

#13. The Fundamentals Of Braking

You can get much more out of your rides if you refine your braking technique. Good braking practices allow you to ride faster and stay safer on the trails.

The majority of your stopping power comes from your front brake, so you need to brake with consistency and control. Slamming the front brake will stop the front wheel, potentially causing you to fly over the handlebars or skid out of control.

Therefore, the proper technique is to apply both brakes evenly and lightly. Braking in this way prevents your bike from skidding, whereas sudden squeezes on the levers will lock up your wheels.

When braking, move your hips back over the rear wheel, drop your heels, and maintain the bend in your knees and elbows. You can easily get into this position from the neutral or ready positions, and it helps you stay in control.

Hydraulic disc brakes are powerful enough for one-finger braking, which is preferable as it means you have three fingers free to grip the handlebars.

If your bike has mechanical disc brakes or rim brakes, you may need to use two fingers for braking.

A mountain biker demonstrates one-finger braking technique.
One-finger braking technique.

#14. Safety Is Everything

Of all the most important mountain biking tips for beginners, one stands above them all: Safety.

Riding mountain bikes is a lot of fun, but isn’t without risk. You’re going to be riding fast on steep inclines while flying across loose terrain.

Wearing the right gear is vital. You’ll need a good-quality helmet (look for safety certifications such as MIPS), glasses or goggles, and gloves.

If you are going extreme, you might want knee pads, elbow pads, and some riders even wear protective gear such as body armor. Some mountain bikers opt for full-face helmets for extra protection too, particularly for fast and dangerous downhill and enduro riding.

It’s also good to let someone know where you are going if you are riding alone, and to have a fully-charged phone on you so you can call for help if required.

Finally, you will also want to ensure you have bike lights with you in case the ride goes into the night.

Now You Know All About Mountain Biking For Beginners!

Mountain biking is an amazing sport, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get fit and explore nature.

Beginner mountain biking can be challenging, and we appreciate that there’s much to learn when you first hit the trails.

We hope you enjoyed our top mountain biking tips for beginners, and get out there for your first mountain bike ride soon!

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Robbie has traveled the globe as an endurance athlete and bikepacker, breaking world records and competing in international ultra-cycling events such as the BikingMan series and the Transcontinental Race. He's also worked as an ambassador for some of the industry's leading names, including Shimano and Ritchey. If Robbie's not on a bike, he's either fixing them or out walking with his dog!

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