One of the first things you realize as a new rider is that you need more than a bike to go for a bike ride!
There’s a lot of… stuff that ensures you can ride safely, stay hydrated, and be prepared for anything that comes your way. Whether it’s weather, injury, or a broken bike – some basic items can have you prepared for most of the situations you encounter.
We’ll break down the essential list into four parts: Safety, Tools & Spares, Nutrition, and Clothing.
The list is short, but oh so important. If you don’t have the items on this list, put down your bike and fix that.
- Helmet. This seems like a no-brainer, but wearing a helmet on your mountain bike is so much more important than any other piece of gear. Riding in the woods presents many dangerous challenges that put your head at risk. Unlike riding on the street, you’re navigating over roots and rocks, up and down hills, and often at speeds more than quick enough to cause serious harm. When you start pushing yourself and trying more technical terrain, it’s not a matter of if you’ll bump your head, but when. Wearing a high quality helmet is the difference between hopping back on the bike with a laugh, and going to the emergency room. A helmet is one thing worth investing in. A good helmet with new features like MIPS is still a far cry cheaper than a visit to the ER or a permanent (or life-threatening) injury.
- First-Aid Kit. You don’t need the entire medicine cabinet, but scrapes and scratches come with the territory. Carry some basic first aid items – like bandaids and antiseptic – to patch up those minor wounds.
- Cell phone/communication device. Carry your mobile phone with you in a safe place and make sure your battery is charged up enough for your ride. In the case of an emergency, your phone is your life line. If you’re riding in areas without cell service, look into an emergency device like a SPOT tracker.
- Headlamp/Flashlight. Often overlooked by daytime riders, having a source of light is an essential item for any outdoor explorer. Your phone probably has a light on it, but a spare headlamp of mini flashlight could be a lifesaver if you get stuck on the trail when the sun goes down.
- Body protection. There are many great options for lightweight body protection that you can adapt to fit your riding style. Consider the type of riding you do and the trails you’re visiting. If you’re hitting huge jumps and drops – invest in proper body armor and knee pads. If you’re just riding the local trails but you like to get a little rowdy, a lightweight CE spine protector and lightweight knee pads are a worthwhile investment, and are comfortable enough to be worn all day.
Tools & Spares
You should always carry some basic tools and spares to help get you out of a pinch. The most common problems are flat tires and broken derailleur hangers, and are often easy to fix on the side of the trail. It certainly beats walking your broken bike five miles back to the car!
- Multitool. This is possibly the most essential piece of your tool kit. A decent multitool designed for mountain bikes will have all the common allen keys and tools you need to perform most trailside repairs.
- Spare tube. You should always have a spare tube. Flat tires are less common with tubeless tires these days, but they still happen. Even if you don’t need it, chances are a friend will eventually be begging you to use it. Make sure you carry one of the correct size for your tires. There are also ultralight tube options like Tubolito which can save a lot of weight and space – but they have a price tag.
- Tire Pump. Carry a small tire pump that has enough capacity to inflate your spare tube, and fits the type of valve you use. I like the Topeak Race Rocket for standard MTB tires, as it’s very compact but has enough volume to pump up a MTB tube. It does take a bit longer, but saves you a lot of weight and space.
- CO2 Inflator. If you’re running tubeless tires, having a CO2 canister and inflator will help you reseat a tubeless tire in seconds.
- Tire Levers. You might be able to remove and install a tire by hand, but small plastic levers are lightweight and will make the job much easier.
- Bacon Strips. No, not the edible kind. If you’re running tubeless tires, bacon strips (aka tire plugs) along with an install tool are butyl strips that you can quickly jam into a puncture in a tubeless tire, sealing it very effectively. This quick fix can get you rolling again fast in many situations, and saves you from running a tube. I have tires with bacon strips that just keep on riding like new – it’s pretty great stuff.
Nutrition is a pretty subjective topic! We all have different taste, but don’t overlook the importance of nutrition. You’ll be burning a lot of calories out there, and you never know when you get stuck out longer than you planned. Running out of fuel and energy mid-ride is an absolutely terrible experience, and in some situations can lead to even worse medical situations or just plain panic.
- Water. Water, water, water. Carry it. Drink it. On hot days, carry more than you think you need. On cooler days, keep drinking even if you don’t feel thirsty. It’s so easy to get dehydrated without realizing it, and your body needs a lot of water to keep pedaling that bike. If you’re going out for a long day, or in remote areas, consider carrying a compact water filtration system like a Sawyer Mini. They are light, compact, and can filter dangerous stuff out of thousands of gallons of water before they need replacing. If you know there will be natural water sources on a long ride, and plan well, you can sometimes replace several pounds of water on your bike with a filter if you stay on top of refilling.
- Food. The other half of the nutrition equation is, of course, food. This is entirely up to taste, but carrying compact snacks high in calories is the easiest choice. Always carry a little more than you think you’ll need, and try to carry healthy, calorie-dense foods. Think nuts, energy bars, and dried fruits.
- Supplements/Energy Drinks/Gels. Generally speaking, “whole” foods – natural, unprocessed foods, are a healthier and safer alternative than the weird supplements and energy drinks you’ll find for sale. Often cheaper, too. However, if you’re riding hard for a long time, your body is going to use a lot of micronutrients and energy that can be hard to replace easily and quickly. Especially on hot days where you are sweating a lot of potassium and sodium away. Consider carrying some electrolyte powder, gels, or energy drink mix to quickly replace vitamins and minerals. Purchase them from a reputable supplier, and do your research before taking anything. If you know you’re riding hard for a long time, don’t wait until you’re dehydrated and feeling sick to get those electrolytes – plan ahead and feed yourself regularly.
Like food, clothing is subjective, but there are some key items that will make your experience on the bike safer and more enjoyable.
- Shoes. MTB-specific shoes are a huge improvement over your regular walking shoes. Many MTB shoes have reinforced toe boxes to prevent injury, stiffer soles to support your foot, and grippy rubber to hold on to the pedals. A proper, comfortable shoe will be safer and prevent pain and injury to your feet. There are two main types of shoe: flat pedal shoes and clipless shoes. Clipless shoes, combined with clipless pedals, allow you to “clip in” to your pedals so your feet are actually attached to the bike! The merits of flats vs. clipless medals is a subject for another time, but it will give you plenty to stay busy researching. Try to visit your local bike shop and try them on before purchasing, as a good fit is important.
- Layers. Weather will dictate what’s appropriate for your ride – is it a scorching hot summer day, or a brisk fall evening where the temps might drop by 25°? Be prepared to go up or down 10-20°, and carry layers.
- Breathable, durable fabrics. Choose breathable athletic fabrics that can wick away sweat easily. Cotton is your enemy. It will absorb any moisture and takes a very long time to dry out again.
- Gloves. Most of us wear purpose-built MTB gloves that have some padding on the palm of the hands, provide some extra grip on the handlebars, and a little bit of extra protection from scrapes and scratches. Depending on your riding style, you can invest in heavier duty gloves with more protection built in, fingerless gloves that just provide some padding, or super lightweight gloves to help with moisture and grip without the extra bulk.
- Padded shorts/chamois. Padded shorts aren’t strictly necessary, but as soon as you start spending a lot of time in the saddle you’ll realize the benefit. This comes down to personal choice and preference, but if you’re having a lot of discomfort and don’t think it’s your saddle fitment, investing in some comfortable, high-quality padded shorts is far more preferable than trying to deal with the problem by getting a softer saddle.
Packing it All Up
Yes, that’s a lot of stuff! Not everything in this list is 100% mandatory, and there are certainly items that you might want to bring that aren’t listed here. Some of us carry tire pressure gauges, a full wardrobe, and 3-course meals in our packs; some of us throw a water bottle on the bike, spare tube & multitool in a fanny pack and call it good.
However you pack, you’ll have to decide how and where you carry it all. There are many options for on-bike storage, but in mountain biking you don’t usually want packs and bags flapping around as you fly down the trail. Opt for a secure, compact storage bag like an under-seat bag that can be strapped securely. There are also some compact, secure top tube bag. Find a bottle cage that holds on to your water bottle nice and tight so you don’t have to run back and pick it up three times on every ride!
Many riders choose to carry their extra gear, tools, snacks, and clothes in a small backpack or fanny pack. There are many purpose-built packs that fit securely to your torso, so they aren’t flapping around or getting snagged on stuff. USWE makes an excellent line of secure packs which also have hydration packs so you can carry your gear and water.
Experiment, and find out what works for you!