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How to Choose Mountain Bike Knee Pads

by Jim Bartlett May 18, 2016

Why Do I Need Mountain Bike Knee Pads and or Knee / Shin Pads?

Mountain Bike Knee Pads

Your knee is the largest joint in your body and one of the most complicated. The up and down piston-like motion of your knee pedaled your first tricycle and continues to power your mountain bike today. Think about it: if you have an average pedaling cadence of 80 rpm, your knee will bend nearly 10,000 times during a two-hour ride. A pair of quality mountain bike knee pads can protect you from more than just cuts and scrapes—a hard hit on a rocky trail can cause serious damage and keep you off the bike for weeks or even months. If you like to play in rock gardens, are doing any riding where there’s a good chance of crashing and going shin/knee on pointy rocks, or even just doing light free riding, mountain bike shin guards are a good investment. And if you’re using platform bike pedals, mountain bike shin guards will protect you against pedal strikes. We know that some riders aren't fans of shin guards. Given the choice between being called a wimp or getting huge gash from a pedal strike, we'd rather be called a wimp as we comfortably ride off into the sunset.

What Kind of Mountain Bike Knee Pads Do I Need?

Knee pads for mountain biking (or any action sport) are kind of like tacos, you can get hard shell or soft shell. Both types of pads have some sort of Neoprene or other soft, flexible sleeve and EVA foam or other type of padding to protect the kneecap or elbow and the area surrounding it. If your mountain biking includes high speed, downhill or dirt jumping, hard shell pads are your best choice to avoid or minimize mountain biking injuries. If you're just looking for lightweight protection in case of a tumble on a single-track trail or fire road, you'll probably be fine with soft shell pads. A third option is an advanced protective material, such as VPD, d30, or Poron, which are being used by an increasing number of manufacturers. These materials are soft and pliable but designed to stiffen immediately upon impact, theoretically giving you the best of both worlds. To learn more, check out our article on Advanced Protective Materials.

Hard-shell mountain bike knee pad:

  • Has an ABS or other hard plastic shell riveted or Velcro-ed to the front of the knee area
  • Provides greater protection than a soft-shell mountain bike pad
  • Offers the best impact protection from rocks, trees, pegs or other objects.

Soft-shell mountain bike knee pad:

  • Will have some sort of Kevlar or other abrasion-resistant panel over the front of the knee area
  • Does not provide as much impact protection as a hard-shell knee pad
  • Is smaller and lighter than a hard-shell knee pad, which makes it more comfortable over long rides
  • The panel covering the knee/elbow area is not as durable as the plastic cap on the hard-shell pad and may rip or puncture in a high-speed crash

MTB Knee Pads, MTB Shin Guards, or MTB Knee/Shin Guards?

bike knee / shin guardsThe range of potential configurations in mountain bike knee pads, knee / shin pads, and shin guards can give you option paralysis. Before you randomly point to one that looks cool and say, "Okay... that one," think about:
  • the type of riding you're likely to be doing
  • where you ride
  • the type of pedals you have

If you're doing single track or recreational cross-country riding, you'll probably be fine with mountain bike knee pads. If you divide your time between single track or fire roads and downhill, and only need shin protection for some rides, several manufacturers make compatible but separate mountain bike knee pads and mountain bike shin pads. For instance, most SixSixOne knee pads have coordinating shin guards. If you opt for separate knee pads and shin guards, consider getting ones that are made by the same manufacturer so you know they'll work together.

How do you want to put on your mountain bike knee pads?

One of the things to consider before you purchase mountain knee pads or mountain bike knee/shin guards is whether you want to be able to put them on without removing your shoes or not. There are two basic designs:

MTB knee pads that slip on or those that close in the back (often called a butterfly closure).

  • Mountain bike knee pads with a butterfly closure wrap around your knee so you can put them on and take them off without removing your shoes. The butterfly closure design is typically found in hard shell knee pads and more robust and/or more expensive knee pads.
  • Slip-on knee pads slide up your leg to your knee. This design is more commonly found in soft-shell guards, less expensive knee pads, knee (or elbow) gaskets, and youth-sized pads.


Other Factors to Consider When Choosing MTB Knee Pads

  • Look at the sides of the knee pads. If you're worried about being protected when you drop your bike, you'll want padding on the side of your knees, not just the tops.
  • Do you live/ride in a hot climate? Check the back of the pad not only to see the strap configuration but if there is a vent hole/opening
  • Venting is also facilitated through the fabric as well as any vents that may be cut into the hard shell caps. Mesh fabric and vented caps allow for the most airflow and are a good upgrade option.

How to measure for a good knee pad fit

Ready to Buy Mountain Bike Knee Pads?

Now that you know what type of mountain bike knee pads and/or knee/shin guards will be best for your needs, take a look at the latest models. At SportsProtective, we carry a great selection of MTB knee pads. If you still aren't sure what you want, or if you have questions about a specific mountain bike knee pad, please contact our protective gear specialist at 800.930.4084 or use our Contact Us page.

Shop All Mountain Bike Knee Pads


Jim Bartlett
Jim Bartlett


Founder of XSportsProtective, snowboarder, mountain biker, father of four young kids who love action sports.

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