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How To Choose Mountain Bike Tires

When you’re putting in some trail time on your mountain bike, your tires are the primary point of contact with the ground (unless you’re having a really rough day, that is.)

And whether you’re a competitive racer, a bike-park addict, or a just-for-fun rider, the rubber you run on your bike can make a huge difference in how it handles. Finding that just-right balance of cushion, traction, and speed can put you in touch with your bike in a way that’s much better experienced than described. Read on to learn everything you need to know about finding the perfect set of mountain bike tires for your singletrack steed.

Wheel sizes

Mountain bike wheels come in several sizes, so be sure whatever tires you’re looking at are a match for your wheel diameter. The most common wheel sizes for mountain bikes are:

29” - Great for maximum top speed and easily rolling over obstacles.

27.5” - A slightly more nimble feel than 29ers, originally developed as a happy medium between 26” and 29”.

26” - The standard mountain bike wheel size for many years, still in service on many capable bikes. Some newer specialty designs like dirt jumpers or fat bikes also use this wheel size.

A growing number of newer bikes also come in “mullet” configurations—meaning one 29” tire in front, and a 27.5” in the rear. Some people claim it combines the best of both worlds, though the jury’s still out for others.

Tire types

Almost any kind of mountain bike can come with any of the above tire sizes. The main two defining differences between tire types for different riding styles are the width of the tire, and the tread of the tire.

Wider tires increase the size of your contact patch and allow running lower tire pressures, which improves traction and cushioning. Narrower tires require a little more finesse, but some people prefer the zippy feel they offer in exchange.

Cross Country (XC) tires: These most commonly come in widths between 2.0 and 2.3 inches, and feature smaller and/or ramped knobs for reduced rolling resistance. They may also be made with lighter-weight rubber to save weight. These tend to perform best in hard-packed conditions.

Trail & All Mountain tires: Usually between 2.3 and 2.5 inches, though you can find them even wider in some cases. These tires have more aggressive tread patterns for reliable traction in loose or muddy conditions, at the expense of more rolling resistance and heavier weights than XC tires.

Enduro & Downhill tires: Designed to maintain control at top speeds and in demanding conditions, these tires have the most aggressive tread patterns of all, and often come with beefier sidewalls or puncture-protection features (more on those later).

Final thoughts on tread: Tread patterns vary a ton within all of the above categories, so keep in mind the type of terrain you ride most. If you often ride in wet conditions, you might like a big, blocky, open tread pattern to shed mud and muck off your tires. On the other hand, riders in desert areas might like more closely-spaced knobs, which will last longer and offer better contact on ledgy rocks.

Keep in mind that as bikes have gotten lower, slacker, and more capable, the lines between these tire categories have gotten pretty blurry, especially on the trail/enduro/downhill spectrum. Don’t stress about putting an enduro tire on a trail bike—it’s almost always better to have too much traction vs. not enough.

Tubeless vs. tubes

Tubeless tires are one of the most awesome inventions in the modern era of mountain bikes, as they prevent many minor punctures and the subsequent fixing of flats. And because there’s no inner tube to pinch flat, you can run lower tire pressures, which offers a smoother and grippier ride.

Tubeless tires do require a little more maintenance, however—you’ll need to change out or top off your tire sealant at least a couple of times per year. They’re also prone to losing a little bit of air in between each ride, so you’ll need to be vigilant about keeping your tire pressures correct.

To run tubeless tires, you’ll need tubeless-compatible wheels that allow the bead of the tire to create a proper seal without an inner tube. Check with your wheel manufacturer or a local bike mechanic if you’re not quite sure whether your current wheels will work. While it’s technically possible to bodge together DIY tubeless setups on standard rims, we can’t say we really recommend it.

If you ride terrain where you rarely get flats, or you don’t want the hassle of dealing with sealant or finding new wheels, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with running inner tubes. You may even be able to find a wider variety of affordable tire options by sticking with standard tubes.

Rubber compounds

Most tire manufacturers offer their tires in a variety of compounds ranging from super sticky to firm. Stickier rubber offers fantastic grip, but at the expense of durability. Harder compounds will last much longer, but won’t grip quite the same as a super-soft race tire.

Many models of mountain bike tires also offer various options for sidewall and puncture protection. Generally, the more of this type of stuff you add, the more the tire will weigh, and the more sluggish it will feel in comparison to its more svelte counterparts. However, many riders find these differences to be negligible, especially in comparison to the annoyance of blowing out a tire sidewall.

Folding vs. steel beads

Most tubeless tires these days come with folding beads made of synthetic materials, which saves some weight while offering excellent durability. Many tubed tires still come with steel beads, which work just fine—they’re just a little heavier. The upside is that they can also be more durable and they’re less likely to “burp”—that is, spit out a little bit of air when the tire rolls partially off the bead during a sharp corner.

Save on your spring upgrades with Geartrade

While you can get a good idea of what tires are a match for your riding style by doing a little research, the best way to find out what really works for you is to try a few out. Shopping UnNew is an awesome way to save some serious cash while dialing in your ride with some fresh rubber. Happy spring upgrade season, and we’ll see you on the trails!

TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.

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