You want the very best mountain bike shoes for playing in the dirt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean splurging on the latest tech. To help you cut through the marketing, we tested every shoe on this list on XC and enduro-style trails and compared them against each other to find the strengths and weaknesses of each model.
There are basically two types of mountain bike shoes: those which use cleats (clipless) and those that don’t (flat), and the debate as to which is better will continue as long as mountain biking exists. Whichever style you prefer, there are lots of options available—from super-stiff and light XC shoes to rugged, heavily protected enduro kicks. The current trend is to mix and match closure systems—dial, lace, and hook-and-loop (a Velcro-like closure). Whether you prefer clipless or flats, laces or dials, rugged or racy, there is a shoe on this list for you.
See at-a-glance reviews below of five of our top-rated shoes, then scroll deeper for more helpful buying info and full reviews of these and other high-performing options.
Flats for a Faster Escape
These skate-style shoes have a sticky rubber sole for better grip on the pedals and when walking on slippery or rocky terrain. They have a firm midsole to provide a good pedaling platform and some flex for more comfortable walking. They are used with flat pedals, some of which are studded with small pins to provide extra grip. Because you are not locked into the pedal (like you are with clipless shoes), the ride feel can be more fluid. The sacrifice: Without the ability to pull up on the pedal, you have to put forth a greater effort on climbs.
Flat shoes do one thing very well: They remove a level of fear for both beginners and experienced riders. New shredders can focus on fundamental technique without having to worry about the motion of clipping in and out of pedals, or slamming to the ground when they can’t free themselves in time. Experienced riders can hone their technique because, knowing they have a faster escape route, they might be more daring on technical terrain than they would if they were attached to the pedals.
Clipless for More Efficient Climbing
If you want more control, better power transfer, and a heck of an easier time on climbs, clipless is the way to go. A two-bolt cleat pattern and dual-sided pedals double your chances of clipping in, compared to road systems. Having the ability to pull up on a pedal stroke increases pedaling efficiency and bunnyhop-ability. Clipless mountain bike shoes come in two basic styles: cross-country and trail/enduro.
Cross-country: These are the ones that look most similar to road shoes. They’re typically lightweight with a stiff nylon or carbon sole and have minimal tread, just the bare minimum needed should you find yourself walking. Although they are made for maximum power transfer (read: really stiff), soles are designed around the occasional need to walk. Custom shoe maker Don Lamson, of Lamson Cycle Shoes, engineers the soles of his cross-country shoes with a little flex in the heel and front of the toe, and maximum stiffness everywhere else. He says that without that extra give, your heels won’t stay put in the shoe if you have to walk. Lamson also suggests that cyclocross shoes need a little more flexibility in the toe than XC shoes because you’ll be running more. The upper on both XC and cyclocross shoes is usually soft and supple, with a small amount of protection around the heel and toes.
Trail/Enduro: Burlier than XC shoes, because of their heavy-duty upper that is designed to withstand more rugged conditions, these are thicker around the sides and have armoring on the toes and heels to protect from rock strikes.
Choose the Right Closure
Laces: Simple, effective, and easy to use, laces are found almost exclusively on flat shoes, although some XC-style shoes like the Giro Empire have lace closures. They provide even pressure across the whole foot and are less expensive to replace than other closure systems. The downside is that they are difficult to adjust mid–ride and can take some time to dry once they get wet.
Hook and loop: This Velcro-style, sticky closure comes on shoes at every price. Adjusting a strap’s tension and position until you find the best fit is a breeze. The downside is that they can get clogged with mud and lose their grip over time.
Dial: The most popular dial closure system is Boa, and it’s often found on mid- to high-end shoes. Other systems, like Tecno 3 (Sidi) and Northwave’s SLW2, are similar to Boa in the way they look and operate. Dial closures are micro-adjustable and offer the most closing force. They’re also the most weather- and mud-resistant and the easiest to adjust mid–ride. The downside is that they can get jammed or damaged. Fortunately, repairing or replacing them isn’t a huge deal, and often a warranty will cover the replacement.
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How We Tested
Every shoe on this list has been put through hours upon hours of hard use on the trails around the Bicycling office as well as enduro, cross country, cyclocross, and gravel races by our team of test editors. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and designers, and use our own experience riding in these shoes to determine the best options. We evaluate them on performance, price, comfort, value, reliability, durability, and of course looks, to come up with this list of shoes that will best serve the needs of anyone looking for new mountain bike kicks this year.
―BEST WINTER SHOE―
45NRTH Ragnarök Reflective
If you’re serious about riding through the cold months, winter shoes are the way to go. Shoe covers are great, but they have their limitations when it comes to trail riding—namely, they cover most of the lugs on the outsole and don’t stand up well when you have to dismount and walk. Though it’s inevitable that a winter shoe will be bulky to some extent, due to the much-needed insulation, the Ragnarök Reflective is among the more low-profile shoes we’ve tested. Neoprene cuffs wrap around your ankles for an added layer of insulation, and to help keep snow and road spray from getting inside the shoe. You can traipse through the snow and bash through creek crossings without fear of getting your feet wet thanks to a waterproof membrane in the upper, and the reflective outer layer lights up like a beacon when hit with car headlights. The outsole is covered entirely with rubber and spiked with large, grippy lugs that don’t cake with snow and provide adequate traction on slippery terrain like wet rocks and logs. Despite this shoe’s long list of great features, its single best attribute, and the most important, is that your feet will stay warm well below the freezing mark.
―ONE OF OUR FAVORITES FOR XC AND CYCLOCROSS―
Shimano S-Phyre XC9
Shimano has taken the same principles it used in designing the road-oriented RC9 and applied it to a mountain shoe. The XC9 is lightweight and breathable with adjustable fit thanks to a Boa dial/Velcro strap combo. A super-stiff sole is thin and wrapped in a minimalist tread for good grip. This shoe isn’t best suited to hiking on rough trails, but for cross-country and cyclocross races it’s a winner. The synthetic leather upper dries quickly, and the glove-like fit of the shoe is comfortable and resists stretching.
―BEST WOMEN’S LACE–UP―
Giro Empire W VR90
The sleek, off-road Empire wraps your foot in a lightweight Teijin microfiber upper and a stiff Easton EC90 carbon sole. The Vibram rubber lugged outsole came to the rescue on slippery mud sections, and the lace-up design let me dial in fit to eliminate gaps and pressure points (though the shoes do fit small and narrow, so be sure to size up or, better, try before you buy). I wore these anodized plum-colored kicks during a local dirt crit right out of the box—they turned pedals as swiftly as they turned heads. And even though they held up to abuse and were still shiny at the finish line, I learned that they scuff easily when scraped against rocks. Which means I’ll be skipping them on regular mountain rides and saving them for ’cross, gravel, and mixed-terrain adventures.
―BEST UNISEX XC SHOE―
Specialized S-Works Recon
The magic of the Recon is largely in the materials. At the bottom, where your foot meets the pedal, Specialized uses its stiffest, lightest FACT carbon footplate. The insanely light and strong upper is made of Dyneema Mesh, a super-strong material that’s light enough to float on water. An added bonus is the shoes don't get that much heavier when soaked with water, and they dry really fast on hot days. The shoes have a nice roomy toe box and incorporate Specialized’s Body Geometry design, which the company claims reduces injury risk, improves efficiency, and, of course, boosts power. And small feet don't fret: the Recon is available as small as size 36. At $425, the Recons are not cheap. At all. However, they’re extremely durable and should last several seasons of seriously hard wear.
15 Month Update: These shoes rock and they don’t break down with lots of abuse, although they will show visible signs of wear and tear. Despite getting numerous other shoes to try, this tester keeps coming back to her Recons because she asserts they are her favorite off-road shoe ever.
―COMFY FOR LONG HAUL RIDES―
Pearl Izumi X-Project P.R.O.
One of our testers rode in the Pearl Izumi X-Project P.R.O. shoes during the 200 miles of Dirty Kanza and raved about how comfortable they were. The unisex shoe is stiff and light, but also supple enough to keep your feet comfy on and off the bike across all types of terrain. (The off-the-bike part can be key at Kanza, especially when rain creates unrideable mud, which leaves you pushing your bike more often than you’re riding it). Even when our tester hopped off the bike for stream crossings and accidentally slipped into the drink, the shoes delivered complete comfort for 13-plus hours.
―BEST VALUE WOMEN'S SHOE―
Shimano XC5 Women’s
These subtle kicks are an affordable way to upgrade your next mountain bike ride or ’cross race. The upper and tongue are constructed from one piece of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which tightens snugly around the midfoot with a Boa dial. The stiff Michelin rubber sole has large, grippy, mud-shedding tread, as well as a spike mount for messy conditions (if you've ever missed your cleat when stepping back onto the pedal, only to slip when the pedal meets the slick carbon or plastic in the midsole, you'll appreciate the full-length rubber covering on these shoes). Even with all this reinforcement, the shoe remains lightweight and comfortable. The women-specific last doesn't just mean they are available in smaller sizes, in this case you get a lower and smaller heel cup for more ankle movement without slippage or unwanted pressure on your ankles.
Sidi in the undisputed King of Bling when it comes to cycling shoes and function certainly matches form in this case. Sidi’s top-of-the-line carbon sole is as stiff as top-flight road shoes with none of the flex that some brands build into the heal or toe. This shoe isn’t made to feel good while walking your bike, it’s a racing shoe through and through. The Double Tecno 3 Push System closure, with both dials on the tongue, is a noticeable improvement over the Drako 2 SRS and makes for a much more uniform and snug fit. The tongue also has raised ridges on the upper edges that grip against inverse ridges on the inside of the shoe. They do such a good job of holding the tongue in place you have to pull them apart before removing your foot from the shoe. The plastic heal cup guards against the usual bumps and scratches that come along with trail riding, and the synthetic upper is also surprisingly abrasion resistant—after more than a few brushes with large rocks our shoes are no worse for the wear. The upper also cleans up quite nicely after major mud bathes. And since these shoes represent a significant investment, replaceable cleat plates and tread lugs go a long way toward keeping your shoes working like new through miles and miles of abuse.
―BEST VALUE LACE–UP SHOE―
Giro Privateer Lace
For those who don’t like bulky and overbuilt mountain bike shoes, there's Giro’s Privateer Lace. A crossbreed of the Privateer MTB shoe and the Empire road shoe, these shoes feature a simple, lace-up design and a comfortable, foot-conforming fit. In other words, there’s no extra fat—just a soft, microfiber upper with a reinforced toe cap to protect you from your own clumsiness. Compared to the ultra-stiff Empire road shoe, the Privateer is a bit more flexible, but power transfer still felt immediate during hard climbs. Rubber treads are nicely shaped for walking out of the pedals and offer enough grip for muddy off-bike adventuring. The fit is true-to-size, although the forefoot might not agree with wide-footed riders. Buy them if you like lace-up shoes that feel natural from the first ride.
―GREAT VENTILATION FOR HOT DAYS―
Giro Sica Techlace
The Giro Sica Techlace is a sharp-looking shoe with a high-tech closure system. It employs one Boa dial, which tightens the upper in 1mm increments, as well as two Velcro tabs that cinch up the laces on the lower half. The carbon soles help maximize power transfer, but aren’t so stiff that they’re uncomfortable for a few hours on the pedals. The soles are coated with a Vibram tread for excellent off-the-bike grip and durability, and the upper is generously perforated for ventilation. The ventilation holes also help your socks dry faster if you happen to get them wet crossing a stream, and rubber reinforcements on the heel and toe box help protect your toes from rocks on the trail.
Don’t be fooled by the skate style of the Dimaro: Beneath the casual aesthetic is a high-performance race shoe suited to enduro and downhill riding. It can be ridden on flat pedals or clipless, but we found it worked best with the latter. The stiff sole allowed for incredibly efficient power transfer but made it tough to feel the pedals under our feet when we were using flats. Padding throughout the entire shoe is excellent. And there’s good protection from rock strikes, plus the elastic dust collar paired with a Velcro closure system keeps dirt out and your feet dry.
―VELCRO AND BOA CLOSURE―
Five Ten Kestrel Pro Boa
The Five Ten Kestrel Pro Boa is the second iteration of the original Kestrel Boa. While that first version used only a Boa dial fit system, the newer one also incorporates a Velcro strap to alleviate the issue of hot spots that often accompanies Boa dials. It also features a stiff sole and a Stealth C4 rubber outsole, like the Kestrel Lace. It’s not as stiff as the original Kestrel Boa, but it does offer a great balance of grip, stiffness, and comfort for long days on a mountain bike. In a departure from the Lace, the Pro Boa has a seamless, welded-on toe reinforcement. The Kestrel Pro Boa also features a durable synthetic upper material that sheds moisture and stands up to abrasions. If you weren’t sold already, an additional bonus is the grippy heel cup that prevents heel lift when pedaling.
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―SUPER STICKY SOLES―
Five Ten Freerider Pro
Five Ten has become a dominant brand for flats. Its shoes can be seen at the Enduro World Series, in the bike park, and on your local trails. The Freerider Pro pretty much perfected the category. The Stealth S1 sole is stiff enough for riding and has enough flex for walking, plus it sticks to your pedals like glue. The latest version of the Freerider Pro vents well, dries quickly, and has enough protection on the toe and around the heel. These shoes are light and comfortable, and won’t look out of place if you find yourself in an unexpected social situation.
―CASUAL FIT AND STYLE―
Five Ten Freerider Canvas
Like the Freerider Pro, the Canvas uses the incredibly grippy Stealth S1 sole, which sticks to your pedals but still allows your feet to move without restriction. The shoe’s mesh/suede upper repels water well and gives the shoe a BMX/casual look and sneaker-like feel. The Canvas is just at home on canal paths and trail rides as it is on gnarly downhill runs. Our tester, who has been using the same pair for years, noted that while these shoes are good at keeping feet warm during winter rides, they never felt too hot in the summer.
―PLUSH AND FLEXIBLE―
You might not consider Bontrager a purveyor of flat-style shoes, but the Flatline is a great option for the right rider. It’s very light (656g/pair, size 41) and has a supple upper, plush interior, and a toe that flexes easily. It feels soft and springy and is more Converse Chucks than Timberland boots. It’s not aggressively armored, either, but the Vibram sole is sticky so it makes a great trail shoe for fans of flat pedals.
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