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Trail Mountain Bikes

How to choose a trail bike: Trail bikes work well for many applications – think of them as something in between an XC bike and an all-mountain / enduro bike. They usually come from the manufacturer with either a single or two front chainrings, and may or may not have a chainguide or bash guard. This configuration provides suitable gear range to allow you to climb to the top of the hill and earn your descent, as well as cover a number of miles on a cross country route. To be classified as a trail bike, frames and forks generally have anywhere between 3 to 5-inches of suspension travel, which is enough to have a fun ride down, even in more demanding terrain. The most common wheel sizes sold today are 27.5” and 29”, in addition there are many legacy 26” bikes that are still in use. Depending on the components spec'd, most trail bikes usually weigh around 28-33 pounds and come with ~2.3-inch wide tires. If you're looking for a bike that can "do it all," with an even split between earning your turns and covering ground, this is the right type of bike to consider. While it won’t be perfect for everything, it can likely get the job done – if you need something more aggressive to handle rougher terrain, higher speeds, and bigger jumps, you’ll want to look at an enduro bike.


Typical Trail Bike

Things to Look for in a Trail Bike

  • Suspension: The quality of fork and rear shock play a major role in how a bike rides. The best suspension will feature rebound, compression, air pressure or preload settings.
  • Brakes: Brakes that perform well encourage you to ride better, simply because you know that when you need to stop or slow down, you can. Look for hydraulic disc brakes from a reputable brand (SRAM, Shimana, Hayes, Formula, Magura, and Hope are all good brands).
  • Saddle: Since you’ll be seated a lot on a trail bike, it’s important that your bike has a comfortable saddle. Test a few out before making your purchase. Many shops will even allow you to swap saddles when you purchase a complete bike.
  • Seatpost: Height-adjustable (also known as “dropper”) seatposts are an incredible addition to any trail bike. They make it convenient to change your saddle height on the fly to the ideal position for the terrain you’re approaching. If this option is available to you, we highly recommend it.
  • Stem Length: On a trail bike, you’ll want a stem in the 50-70mm range. Anything longer and the bike will be difficult to steer in certain technical riding situations. We recommend a shorter stem and wider bars whenever possible.
  • Chain Retention: If you don’t want your chain to fall off while riding, look for bikes that have a chainguide on the front chainrings. It’s not very common for the chain to fall off without a chainguide, but it does happen occasionally.
  • Tires: Wider tires are often preferred for trail bikes because they offer more traction and flat protection. Look for tires ranging from 2.2 to 2.4-inches wide.

Trail Bike Frame Sizes

One of the most important numbers when it comes to sizing a modern trail bike is reach. Bikes have steadily grown longer as riding styles and subsequently bike geometry evolves, but not all brands view this aspect of sizing in the same way. There can be large differences between the reach numbers of bikes with the same nominative size from different manufacturers. Your choice of reach/size also depends on personal preference as well as the type of terrain you ride.

Another common way to size a trail bike is “standover” height, also known as inseam clearance. You want plenty of room between you and the top tube when you come to a stop, especially on uneven surfaces. As a rule of thumb, there should be at least four inches of clearance from the top of your inseam to the top of the top tube. Note that for some frame models the distance will be much larger than four inches due to a sloping top-tube. This is okay, provided the length and cockpit area of the bike fit you well.

Most manufacturers provide suggested sizing charts, and because models vary so much between categories, we recommend searching for the chart specific to the bike you’re interested in. As we said previously, it’s important to note that everyone has different riding preferences, so it’s best to test out a variety of sizes before making a final decision.

Men’s Trail MTB General Size Chart
Bike Size Small Medium Large Extra Large
Rider Height <5'8" 5'7"-6' 5'11"-6'4" >6'3"
Women’s Trail MTB General Size Chart
Bike Size Extra Small Small Medium Large
Rider Height <5'3" 5'2"-5'7" 5'6"-5'11" 5'10"-6'2"

Trail Bike Frame Materials

The overall feel of a bike is largely dependent on what material(s) the frame is made of, so this is an important consideration.

Aluminum - Aluminum is light, stiff, and affordable, making it the most commonly used frame material. Because it is so stiff, aluminum bikes are characterized by a slightly rougher ride than those made from chromoly or titanium.

Carbon Fiber - To make bikes or parts of carbon, thin strands of carbon fiber are twisted and/or woven together, placed in a mold and then coated with a stiff resin or plastic which is heated to “cure”. Carbon is one of the lightest materials available and is commonly used for high-end cross-country and trail bikes, but it has also found its way into enduro, freeride, and downhill bikes as carbon construction techniques have improved. Today, carbon trail bikes can be made stronger and lighter than their alloy counterparts, although the material is often more sensitive to impact damage than a frame made from aluminum, especially on very lightweight models.

Chromoly Steel - Chromoly (a steel alloy) is lighter than high-tensile steel, strong, responsive, and offers a relatively supple ride. However, it is heavier than aluminum, carbon, and titanium.

Titanium - Titanium (also referred to as “ti”) is very light and stronger than steel. It is also very expensive, and for this reason is only seen in very high-end or custom frames. Titanium also offers a smooth ride because it flexes well.

Material Combinations - If a frame is made of more than one material, it is usually carbon fiber and a metal - either steel, aluminum, or titanium. Material blends are not common, but constructing various parts of a frame from different materials is (ie – a carbon fiber front triangle with an aluminum swingarm). A frame made out of more than one material can help provide better stiffness, compliance, or damping in specific areas.

Wheel Size

If you’re considering a trail bike, you’ll need to decide between 27.5-inch and 29-inch wheels. For many years, 26-inch wheels were the standard on these types of bikes, but recently the 27.5” (or “650B”) and the 29er wheels have become increasingly popular in this category of bikes. We have also seen the recent emergence of wider tires knows as “Plus” tires, with widths up to 2.8”, although these tend to be more of a specialty item and not where we recommend you to start your search for your next trail bike. Some manufacturers make bikes that will accept both 29” and 27.5+ tires. As for choosing between 27.5” and 29”, the larger diameter wheels roll over obstacles more easily and the tires can be run with less air pressure, providing better traction. On the other hand, larger wheels are heavier, more flexible, and there are fewer component and tire choices available. If you’re on the fence about wheel size, we highly suggest testing both sizes before making a purchase.

How Much to Spend

Deciding how much to spend is a tough decision. As a general rule, the more you spend the better bike you get. There will be major difference between a $900 bike and a $3500 bike. Similarly, the more expensive a bike is, the more durable it will be (at least until you start getting into the absolute high-end where lightweight construction may reduce durability) and the better components will perform. If you’ll be riding regularly, we recommend spending at least $1000 on a trail bike, more if you want a full-suspension model (which we generally speaking would strongly advise you do). Anything less and you’ll be constantly repairing the bike and replacing components. If you’re a first-time buyer, you may be tempted to purchase a low-end bike and later upgrade the components as necessary. Know that it is often much cheaper to buy the components on the bike in the first place than it is to buy components later and upgrade.

For comparison, the three bikes below are priced at $2600, $3800, and $8699, respectively.


Giant Anthem 2

  • Price: $2600
  • Aluminum frame
  • Mid-grade components
  • Dropper seatpost
  • 1x11, 11-46t gearing

Trek Fuel EX 9.7 29

  • Price: $3800
  • Aluminum frame
  • Mid-grade to high-end components
  • Dropper seatpost
  • 1x12, 10-50t gearing

Pivot Trail 429 Team XX1

  • Price: $8699
  • Carbon frame
  • Carbon wheels
  • Top-of-the-line components
  • Dropper Seatpost
  • 1x12, 10-50t gearing

Product Reviews

Be sure to do your research and read product reviews. Reviews are a great way to find out specifics about a particular model of mountain bike, user impressions, and things to watch out for or to upgrade right off the bat. After you’ve purchased a bike and had enough time to thoroughly test it, we encourage you to leave a review for other people to see when they are researching bikes on the web.

We hope you’ve found this information to be helpful. If you have a question that isn’t answered in this guide, our mountain bike forums are a great place to get advice from knowledgeable riders. Your local bike shop is also a great resource and the best place to test ride bikes before making a final decision.

Still need help choosing the right type of bike? View our general Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide.

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