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How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike Shorts

The Dakine Boundary provides nearly as much protection as heavier downhill oriented shorts but the leg openings are slightly too small to accommodate thick knee pads.
By Luke Lydiard ⋅ Review Editor
Saturday September 5, 2015


What is the best mountain bike short out there? We tested several different shorts from the top brands in our Best Mountain Bike Short Review and discovered some important things you should consider before you buy a baggy short for mountain biking.

First, we considered what makes a mountain bike short (rather than a road bike short or just an athletic short). We define mountain bike shorts as non form-fitting baggy shorts which provide more protection and features than tight lycra-style road shorts. The thing that separated these shorts from other types of athletic shorts is a chamois pad attached to a form-fitting liner worn beneath the outer short and features tailored towards making biking more comfortable.

Style of Riding


When shopping for a new pair of mountain bike shorts, first consider what type of riding you will be doing the most. "Mountain Biking" is a broad term which covers everything from lycra clad cross-country racing to hucking huge drops at the Red Bull Rampage in full body armor. Most riders have a pretty good idea of what type of riding they prefer, which also dictates their bike selection. Here is a quick breakdown and some ideas of how the shorts we tested fits with each riding kit.

Cross-Country


Luke Lydiard cross-country riding in the Pearl Izumi Canyon. Cross-country riding is best done in lighter shorts like the Canyon  which maximizes range of motion when in the saddle.
Luke Lydiard cross-country riding in the Pearl Izumi Canyon. Cross-country riding is best done in lighter shorts like the Canyon, which maximizes range of motion when in the saddle.
Cross-country riding is typically done on smoother trails and involves a lot of pedaling in the saddle. Bikes designed for this type of riding usually have four inches or less of travel in the front and rear. The twenty-nine inch wheel size is common to cross-country oriented bikes, as are hard tails. Cross-country riders will want lighter, less restrictive shorts which maximize pedal efficiency and ventilation. Protection and durability is not too important for this type of riding. Of the shorts we tested, we think that the Pearl Izumi Canyon and Sugoi RSX are the best shorts for this type of riding. If you are a privateer racing cross-country you should probably consider a road-style lycra short since no baggy can match the range of motion and aerodynamics of these form fitting shorts. Check out our Road Bike Short Review for the best in this category. Inversely, if you simply can't stand form-fitting lycra, look for a lighter cross-country oriented short for road riding.

Enduro


Enduro is the new hot word in mountain biking these days. While the definition of what enduro actually is may vary, it involves riding up as well as riding down technical terrain. Enduro somewhat takes the place of what used to be referred to as trail and all-mountain riding, and might be best summarized by calling it "do-it-all" mountain biking. Five and six inch travel full-suspension bikes fall into this category. Along with this new title for what most people have always just called "mountain biking" has come the return of the 27.5" or 650b wheel size which sits right between 29" and 26". Whether you are buying into this wheel size or not, you should look for shorts that balance protection with pedal ability and do-it-all features for this type of riding. Some shorts to consider would be the Zoic Ether, Dakine Boundary or our absolute favorite, the Troy Lee Ruckus all of which will work with kneepads whether you wear them just for the descent or all the time.

Downhill


Luke Lydiard sending a small drop in the Dakine Boundary. For downhill style riding consider a more protective short which fits well over knee pads.
Luke Lydiard sending a small drop in the Dakine Boundary. For downhill style riding consider a more protective short which fits well over knee pads.
Downhill is all about the down and is best done on a slack 8-inch travel bike with a dual crown fork. Wether you are riding machine groomed, lift-assisted trails at the ski area or Northshore style stunts, downhill riding requires more protection. Full face helmets, goggles, neck braces, elbow and knee pads are a good idea.
Shorts for downhill riding should be long and have large enough leg openings to fit over the tops of kneepads. Durability is also important for this style of riding since crashing in gnarly terrain is more common. Of the shorts we tested, the Troy Lee Ruckus is best suited for this type of riding since it has a long inseam length and large leg openings to accommodate knee pads while the stretch fabric is both durable and protective. For full blown bike park downhill riding where you spend much more time out of the saddle than in it, you may want a heavier downhill specific short that does not have a liner short or chamois. While we did not include these shorts in our tests, we think that the Troy Lee Moto and Dakine Descent are excellent options for pure downhill.

Other Considerations



Chamois


All of the shorts we tested have a chamois  which is a pad placed between the saddle and rider to increase comfort and prevent chaffing.
All of the shorts we tested have a chamois, which is a pad placed between the saddle and rider to increase comfort and prevent chaffing.
A chamois is piece of padding placed in the area where your body contacts the saddle. Bicycling chamois were once made from smooth leather, but are now made from modern synthetic materials. The chamois serves to pad your undercarriage from the saddle and prevent chaffing. A chamois is what makes a bike short a bike short. The one exception to this being purpose built downhill mountain bike shorts which are aimed at riding predominately out of the saddle. These shorts often do not include a chamois and are targeted at a very specific genre of cycling.

The Formula FX chamois pad found on the Sugoi RSX is constructed from dense multi thickness foam and is covered with a one piece synthetic cover.
The Formula FX chamois pad found on the Sugoi RSX is constructed from dense multi thickness foam and is covered with a one piece synthetic cover.
Not all of the shorts we tested have an included liner short with a chamois pad. You can purchase a liner short separately when needed, and often this results in a higher quality chamois than the ones that are included with mountain bike shorts, though this method it is more expensive than buying both in one package.

All of the pads we tested are made of foam except for the one found on the Canari Cyclewear Canyon II which is made from a micro-encapsulated silicone gel. A well-articulated shape that matches the shape of the body in a seated position is the first thing we look for in a chamois. We also prefer chamois with dense padding, multiple thickness zones, and a smooth, seam-free cover made from wicking synthetic material. It is important that the chamois is positioned correctly by the short to be between the rider and the saddle when in the seated position. Mountain bikers typically pedal in a more upright position than road bikers. The contact between rider and saddle is more posterior because of the more upright position, and the chamois of a good mountain short should also be sewn into the short slightly more towards the rear of the short.

Features


Mountain bike shorts are available with a variety of added features. Again, we recommend that you first consider what type of riding you are going to do most often and what type of features you need for that type of riding. We recommend buying a short with features you will use and nothing more. Unused bells and whistles are likely to just get in the way and increase the cost of a short.

For cross-country and enduro riders who always wear a hydration pack, shorts with pockets may not be necessary. However most downhill riders riding the bike park usually forgo the pack and will want a short with a least a few zippered pockets to secure a bike tool and whatever device they are using to upload their Strava times. Regardless of what type of riding you are doing, we recommend pockets that securely close with a zipper rather than velcro or nothing at all. We don't recommend carrying anything more valuable than a gu in a non-zippered pocket when mountain biking since items are likely to bounce out unnoticed as you scream through a rock garden.

The Pearl Izumi Canyon uses velcro tabs connected to elastic inside the rear of the waistband to fine tune the fit. A good fit at the waist is important in keeping a mountain bike short from riding up or falling down while slaying the trail.
The Pearl Izumi Canyon uses velcro tabs connected to elastic inside the rear of the waistband to fine tune the fit. A good fit at the waist is important in keeping a mountain bike short from riding up or falling down while slaying the trail.
All of the shorts we tested also had some sort of waist adjustment method which allows you to fine-tune the fit. This is important in making sure the shorts stay in place while riding hard. The most common, and our preferred method, of waist adjustment is by velcro tabs attached to an elastic inside the waist band. If those tabs are placed on the outside of the waist, then you can adjust them on the fly but the tabs are prone to snagging on your jersey. If the tabs are hidden inside the waist band, then they are less prone to snagging and have a sleeker look, but cannot be adjusted without unbuttoning the short. Other adjustment mechanisms we tested ranged from simple nylon belts to gimmicky and expensive Boa dials. After comparisons during our testing, we found we greatly prefer the simplicity and reliability of the velcro elastic and recommend shorts which use this method.

Sizing


Just like any piece of clothing, getting the right size is as important as any other attribute. We tested all of the shorts in a size medium or 32" inseam, depending on how they were labeled by the manufacturer. The lone exception to this was the Sugoi RSX, which we tested in large. The shorts that we felt ran true to this size were the Fox Ranger, Zoic Ether, Canari Canyon Gel, Sugoi RSX and Troy Lee Ruckus. The shorts that ran slightly small were the Pearl Izumi Canyon and Dakine Boundary. We recommend sizing these up if you like more room or are on the upper end of the sizing chart. The Endura Hummvee ran extremely small and we recommend sizing that short up at least one size. None of the shorts we tested ran large for the size.

Luke Lydiard
Luke Lydiard
About the Author
Luke Lydiard was born and raised in the hills of Western Massachusetts where he spent most of his days finding ways to ride a snowboard. He quickly moved west seeking larger mountains and deeper snow. In the Eastern Sierra, Luke fell in love with climbing as much as snowboarding. He currently lives and works in Mammoth Lakes, California where he balances a full time job as a Paramedic Firefighter with traveling the world seeking inspiring lines for both ascending and descending. Luke has climbed rock, snow, and ice in France, Canada, Chile, Argentina, and Alaska.

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