What Mountain Bike Tires? How to Choose the Right Mountain Bike Tires for You

With an abundance of mountain bike tires on the market to choose from, it can be difficult to know what mountain bike tires are best for you. Follow these five simple steps to ensure you get the right tires every time.

Step 1 – Determine tire the size

Determine your tire size (diameter and width) by locating the tire size numbers on the sidewall of the tire.  As an example we’ll use the common size of 26 x 2.1 (picture at left).

-  The first number (26) indicates the tire diameter in inches when measured at the bead
-  The second number (2.1) is the effective tire width in inches (measured differently by different tire manufacturers)

To fit on your rim properly, any new tires must be the same diameter as the old tires they’re replacing.  However, when it comes to tire width, you may be able to fit a different width tire.

Google the name and make of your rim to find the manufacturers guidelines for minimum and maximum tire widths.  You can’t put just any width tire on any rim, there are limits.  These guidelines are in place to safeguard you from a tire blowing off when you least expect it!

Lock those min and max safe tire widths into your brain for later use.

Step 2 – Tubed or Tubeless?

Identify which one of the two wheel systems you ride

  • Conventional rim designed for standard tire and tube, or
  • Tubeless rim/wheelset designed for tubeless tires (no tube needed)

Tubeless or tubeless ready tires are usually indicated as such on the sidewall, but not all tubeless rims indicate they are tubeless.  Before choosing the right mountain bike tires it’s important to know if your rims are tubeless or not.  If in doubt, Google the brand and make of the rim to find out.

If you have tubeless rims, stick with riding tubeless specific tires if you can.  Tubeless tires are usually more expensive, but they have some good advantages like

  • the ability to ride lower tire pressures to increase traction, without risk of pinch flats, so long as you use tire sealant
  • the ability to seal small tire punctures as they happen so that you can keep riding

They’re two pretty good advantages!  However, let’s not forget standard tubed tires, as they are often

  • Cheaper – some popular designs can be bought for 10 bucks!, and
  • available in a wider choice of tread designs and sizes

Step 3 – What’s your style?

Determine what you will DO on the tires, so you know the basic style of tire and tread you’re looking for.  Downhill, cross-country, urban, all-mountain or free-ride?  XC Sunday race?

When searching for your new tire, compare tires that are designed for the style of riding you do.  And if you’re a mix of styles on the one bike, choose your dominant or most aggressive style as a starting point.

You can’t believe everything you read, but the manufacturer’s description of the tire will give you a few hints as to what style of riding the tire was designed for.  Other sources of information are mountain bike tire review websites, local mountain bike shop staff, fellow mountain bikers and mountain bike magazines.

Step 4 – What type of terrain will the tires be ridden on?

Know what type and range of terrain you’ll be riding to help you determine.

Is it loose and rocky, sandy, hard pack, muddy, urban…?  Or a mixture of everything?  My favorite MTB tires that handle a wide variety of terrain are the Bontrager XR3 and XR4′s and the Schwalbe Nobby Nic Evo’s.

For racing I still prefer one of those tires on the front to support cornering control, but I’ll often use a Bontrager XR2 or Schwalbe Racing Ralph on the back wheel to lower the overall rolling resistance.

Step 5 – Choose Your Advantages

Determine the two or three most important things you want your tires to do best.

Do you want a lighter, lower profile tread for low rolling resistance on your hard pack race trails?  Or do you need your tires to be super durable, rather than thin and super lightweight?  Tough enough to handle the roughest and sharpest terrain that all-mountain or free-riding can offer?

Maybe you want a folding tire to fit in your pack, or an all round performer that offers high grip center and shoulder sections for better climbing and confident braking and cornering on a wide range of terrain?

Once you’ve determined the most important features to you, stick to those choices when choosing mountain bike tires.

Use the comparison below to decide what effect you want from tire width.  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.

Sometimes I’ll use a more XC race oriented tire on the rear, but often, and for general trail riding I’ll use the same all-round tread front and rear.  My home town trails are very rough and loose, so I need high grip both ends:  Excellent braking and cornering grip at the front and excellent braking, cornering and climbing traction at the rear.

Tire Width Comparison:

Below are three 29 inch tires that are identical, except for width.  They have the same air pressure and are mounted on a 22mm internal width rim.  By comparison, here are the differences that tire width creates…

the narrow tire (1.8 – 2.1) would offer: (yes, you can get 1.8 inch 29er tires!!)

  • lowest rolling resistance (good)
  • lower grip levels
  • good response to changes in direction due to lower weight (where grip is not an issue)
  • easier straight line acceleration (where grip is not an issue) because of low spinning mass and low rolling resistance
  • less rim protection against rocks and trail features
  • less floatation over rough and sandy terrain
  • harsher ride

the medium width tire (around 2.2 – 2.5) in the same tread would offer:

  • increased grip
  • increased rolling resistance (slower)
  • good response to changes in direction
  • average acceleration because of increased spinning mass and increased tread contact
  • increased rim protection against rocks and trail features because of larger air volume and shape
  • increased floatation over rough and sandy terrain because of larger air volume and shape
  • smoother ride

the wider tire (2.5 or wider) in the same tread would offer:

  • highest grip levels for their intended use
  • highest rolling resistance (slowest)
  • slower response to changes in direction due to mass and flywheel effect
  • poor acceleration and high pedaling resistance because of high spinning mass and large tread contact area
  • better downhill momentum because high tire mass works with gravity to create a flywheel effect
  • highest rim protection and floatation
  • smoothest ride, however you may feel some sidewall deformation when cornering, due to the rim being too narrow for the tire width

Remember to keep within the minimum and maximum tire width recommended for your rims then…

Decision Time! Now you know:

  • the tire diameter you need and the minimum and maximum tire width allowed
  • which wheel system you ride, tubed or tubeless
  • your mountain biking style
  • the terrain you’ll be riding
  • the advantages you want most

Chris’ favorite all-round tires for excellent performance on a wide range of terrain are the Bontrager XR3 and XR4s and the Schwalbe Nobby Nic Evo’s.

Well done! Armed with these five answers you now know how to choose the right mountain bike tires with confidence.

Put those new tires to good use with some new mountain bike skills:

Climbing Technique for Loose and Slippery Climbs
Cornering Technique for Loose and Slippery Exits
The Downhill ‘Brake Release’ Technique

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