Learn how to choose the right mountain bike tires with confidence and ease, using this simple 6 Step Guide. (including video below)
The right mountain bike tires make a huge difference to the way you ride, how you apply your skills, and how efficient you are over the terrain. So, knowing how to choose the right tires is very important!
This Guide includes all that I’ve learned about tire selection over the last 25+ years of mountain biking. You get to learn it all in a matter of minutes! You’ll discover how different tire types, tread patterns, widths, rubber compounds, TPIs and other specifics can enhance and inhibit your performance on different types of terrain.
Remember, Knowledge is Power. So, read it all! I’ve made it so easy for you to get it right. With this Guide you’re going to love choosing tires!
How to Choose the Right Mountain Bike Tires in 5 Easy Steps
Step 1. Diameter
Identify your current tire size by locating the size numbers on the tire’s sidewall.
- The first number is the tire diameter inches measured at the bead.
- The second number, after the x, is the tire width in inches.
- Your new tires must have the same diameter, but you can choose a different width, which we’ll do shortly.
- Bonus Tip:
- Stay safe: Google the make and model of your rim and keep within the recommended tire widths.
Start your list: Today, I’m choosing a 27.5 inch tire for my full suspension trail bike.
Step 2. Tubed or tubeless (in all its forms)
Identify which of the tire systems you currently ride. I’m a big fan of a tubeless setup for three reasons:
- there’s no risk of pinch flatting the tube, because there is no tube,
- you can run lower tire pressures, enhancing grip and rolling efficiency over rough terrain, and,
- small punctures are sealed by the sealant inside the tire.
- Bonus Tips:
- Tubeless type tires are indicated as such on the sidewall
- If you’re not sure whether your rims are tubeless or not, Google the make and model to find out for sure.
- Conventional tubed-type tires are usually much cheaper than their tubeless version
- Some tire manufacturers no longer make 26-inch tubeless tires
If you’re not riding tubeless tires, consider making the switch. That may mean converting your current rims using a quick and easy tubeless conversion kit like this one.
Add tubed or tubeless to your list. I’ve added ‘tubeless’ to my list of tire.
Step 3. Riding Type/Style
Really have a think about what type of riding it is that you do.
- Downhill shuttle runs and nothing else?
- Perhaps you ride groomed cross country trails with a monthly XC marathon?
- Maybe it’s a mix of hard-core enduro and technical cross-country riding?
- Bonus Tip:
- If you ride a mix of styles on the one tire, choose your most aggressive style as a starting point. Generally the more aggressive the style, the higher the risk, so you’ll need a tire that matches those needs.
Add your riding style to the list. My list so far: a 27.5 inch tubeless tire for Enduro and technical cross-country trails.
Step 4. Terrain
What type of terrain will you be riding? Don’t just choose the tires your mate rides! He might have poor choice!
- Is it loose and rocky, sandy, loamy, or hard pack?
- Muddy, wet, hilly with steep climbs, or fairly flat rolling terrain?
- Is the terrain technical, or low on technical features.
- Is your terrain a combination of just a few terrain types, or does your tire need to handle everything?
Add the terrain to your list. I’ve added “loose, or loose over hard-pack technical terrain. Steep, rocky climbs”.
Step 5. Width
How does tire width affect your ride? Use the Tire Width Comparison below to decide what effect / advantages you want width, or lack of width, to provide.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to have the same width, or even the same tread front and back. Some riders opt for a wider or grippier front tire, to enhance cornering control. Repeat steps 1-6 if you prefer a different tread or width front to rear.
While we’re on the subject of different treads and widths: Sometimes I’ll use a lighter and more ‘race tread’ type tire on the rear for a slight acceleration gain in a race (sometimes front and rear), but keep a knobbier tire on the front for more positive cornering traction. For example:
On a 26 or 27.5 inch race wheelset I’ll have a 2.1 or 2.25 Nobby Nic on the front for cornering traction. At rear, a 2.1 Racing Ralph to increase overall acceleration. For 29er I’ll use the same width both ends: A fresh set of Rocket Ron’s are scary fast on the right terrain! Schwalbe tires are only used as an example of what I’ve used. There are lots of good tire brands!
For general trail riding at home, I’ll typically use the same tread front and rear, like a 2.25 width Nobby Nic. My home town trails are very rough and loose, so I need high grip both ends: Excellent front braking and cornering grip at the front tire, plus excellent braking, cornering and climbing traction at the rear. Keeps it nice and simple, too.
Tire Width Comparison:
Below are three 27.5 inch tires that are identical, except for width. Same air pressure, same 22mm internal width rim. By comparison, here are the differences that tire width creates:
the narrow tire (1.8 – 2.1) would offer:
- lower grip levels, less floatation over rough or sandy terrain
- harsher ride because of smaller air volume, increased risk of pinch flats
- fastest for acceleration, climbing, stopping and change of direction due to lower weight
- less rim protection against rocks and trail features
the medium width tire (around 2.2 – 2.5) in the same tread would offer:
- better grip levels, better floatation over rough or sandy terrain, smoother ride due to larger air volume
- slower acceleration, climbing, stopping and change of direction
- increased rim protection against rocks and trail features because of larger air volume and shape
the wider tire (2.5 or wider) in the same tread would offer:
- highest rim protection and floatation, best grip levels
- best floatation over rough or sandy terrain, smoothest ride due to largest air volume
- Slowest acceleration, climbing, stopping and change of direction due to large mass
- increased sidewall support and less squirm at lower pressures due to wider rim
Bonus Tip: Wider rims are awesome! Using identical tires, narrower rims wrap the beads of the tire closer together, reducing its balloon and air volume. A wider rim allows for more air volume, hence more cushioning. The wider rim also provides better sidewall support, which can make the tire feel more ‘sure-footed’. The drawback: Wider rims are heavier.
Remember to keep within the min/max tire width recommended by your rim manufacturer.
Add your tire width to the list. For Enduro and technical XC, I’ve added 2.3 inch width to my list.
Step 6. Choose Your Advantages
What do you want your tire to do the best? In what ways do you want that new tire to enhance your riding? Time to sort your priorities! If they clash with the width you’ve chosen, revisit step 5.
- Use the Benefits and Features Selector below.
- Choose the top three to five most important things your new tire must to be capable of, which will
- Determine what type of tread profile and tire construction your new tire should have.
Then, add the 3-5 most important tire features to your list and Hey Presto! Now you have a list that tells you exactly what type of tire you’re looking for. And, and you can be confident that it will be the right tire for you.
Repeat steps 1-6 if you prefer a different tread or width front to rear.
Tire Benefits and features Selector
You want: Look for a tire in your style that has:
Mud traction: large, slightly pointed, well spaced knobs to release mud and penetrate through to firmer ground.
Loose over hard-pack, or loose rocky traction: aggressive, chunky looking shoulder tread and lots of knobs and horizontal bars for braking, climbing and cornering (this is your typical ‘knobby tire’).
Sand speed and traction: multiple small, lower profile knobs on a wider tire. You want to float over the sand, not dig a hole!
Smooth hard-pack traction: multiple smaller, lower profile knobs and tread features. Typical ‘knobby’ tires often feel vague.
Better acceleration: lighter weight. Lighter tires accelerate, climb, stop and change direction quicker.
Faster climbing: lighter weight. Lighter tires accelerate, climb, stop and change direction quicker.
More grip: Durometer 50 or less (see ‘Durometer Rating’ below), a wider tire, higher TPI (see TPI below), Siping.
Faster rolling (low rolling resistance): a Durometer figure of 70 or more, ramped leading edges, lower tread height.
Hard wearing tire (long lasting): a Durometer figure of 70 or more (see ‘Durometer Rating’ below).
More traction on rough terrain: a high Threads Per Inch (TPI) count, a wider tire. Low durometer rating. Siping.
More cornering and off-camber traction: aggressive shoulder blocks gussetted to keep shape, 50 Durometer or less.
A tougher tire (fewer cuts, punctures): 2-ply or heavier construction. Heavier and 2-ply tires are typically more resistant to punctures and pinch flats, and can handle more of a beating over rough and sharp terrain. Their weight can make the bike feel more grounded on the trail, too.
A tire you can pack: Choose a ‘folding’ tire, typically made using flexible Kevlar or Aramid bead fibres
More comfortable ride: A wider tire
Your typical lightweight XC race tire:
- narrow width, low profile tread for reduced weight and drag. (Durability, tread life and grip is often reduced).
- dual or triple rubber compound technology (see Multi-Compound Tires’ below).
- small, often angular tread features, all with ramped leading edges for faster rolling. Siping on knobs.
- more closely spaced and ramped center tread that imitates a continuous center ridge for faster rolling.
What Features did you choose from the list?
Add the top 3 to 5 features you want the most, to your list and Hey Presto! Now you have a list of exactly what your new tire needs to be. Repeat steps 1-5 if you prefer a different tread front to rear.
5 Top Tire tips:
- Are you asking for a puncture? The more worn the tread is, the closer the carcass rides to the sharp stuff!
- Are you a Drag Queen? Generally, larger, square edged tread patterns drag more on the ground and through the air. Keep that in mind if your next race has a ten kilometer beach section that’s famous for its 30 knot headwind!
- Top-up Time: Do you need to top-up your tubeless sealant supplies?
- Converting your rims to tubeless? You’ll need a Tubeless Conversion Kit.
- A half-worn tire is as good as dead! Like car tires, a bike tire’s typical performance life-span is in the first 25-30% of tread wear. After that, performance starts to go ‘downhill’ fast!
Glossary (Good to know stuff!):
Durometer Rating – the softness rating of the rubber compound.
50 and below is soft and sticky, but faster wearing. 60 is medium. 70 and above are the harder and longer lasting.
High Performance, Multi-Compound Tires
Double and triple compound tires seek to offer the best of both worlds, by providing a harder compound rubber in the center or underneath for faster rolling, and a softer compound shoulder tread for improved cornering grip. The triple compound of the Schwalbe Nobby Nic Evo makes it one of my favourite all-ground tires.
For Enduro, you might use a soft compound or dual compound tire on your race wheels for increased grip and performance, and ride a harder compound tire every other day so your wallet takes less of a beating.
Threads Per Inch (TPI)
Typically, tires with a higher TPI construction are of higher quality, and provide a more supple feel because they conform to the terrain better. Low TPI carcasses can feel stiff and less flexible. 120 is high, 60 is medium, 27 is low.
Sipes are small grooves in the tread. Adding sipes on knobs creates more tread edges, enhancing traction in most conditions.