Choosing Mountain Bike Tires:
Tips to Improve Your Ride

The right mountain bike tires make a huge difference in the quality of your ride. It is important to have bicycle tires that are safe and provide a high level of control since they are the only parts of your bike that have contact with the least most of the time, hopefully.

I did not realize the importance of bicycle tires until I tried out some different types of tires. I could not believe how differently my bike handled with each type of tire.

The right bicycle tire can make you climb faster, have more stability on downhill sections, or corner better. The right tire fits your riding style and terrain.

This page provides information on mountain bike tires and includes tips to help you choose the best bicycle tires for your type of riding.

Tire Size
Mountain Bike Tubes
Kevlar vs. Metal Beads
Casing and TPI
Selecting Tires for Type of Terrain
Tire Pressure
Tubeless Tires

Tire Size

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Mountain bike tires range in diameter and width. Most mountain bikes come with 26 inch wheels, but there are also mountain bike wheels and tires that are 29 inches. For more information on 29-inch tires, please visit our page on 29er Mountain Bikes

Mountain bike tires are wider than road bike tires so they have more stability for trail riding. There are different widths of mountain bike tires for different riding purposes and terrains.

Your rims will have a range of tire sizes that it can accommodate. When buying bicycle tires, the size is specified by a number that has the diameter listed first and then the width; for example, 26 x 2.1.

Mountain Bike Tubes

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It is important to select mountain bike tubes that fit your tires and rims. Bicycle tubes come in different diameters, widths, weights, and materials. There are also 2 different types of valves. For more information on how to choose mountain bike tubes, please visit our page on Mountain Bike Tubes

Kevlar vs. Metal Beaded Tire

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Clincher tires have beads that attach to the rim and keep the tube inside the tire. This is in contrast to tubeless tires, which have no bead because they do not require tubes.

The bead of the tire can be made of either kevlar or metal. Kevlar beaded tires are often called folding tires. Kevlar mountain bike tires are lighter than the metal beaded tires and just as durable. The only disadvantage is they cost a few dollars more.

Casing and TPI

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The casing on a bicycle tire is the fabric that the rubber adheres to. Casing is made in varying threads per square inch or TPI ranging from 22 to 120.

Mountain bike tires that have a higher TPI are thinner, lighter, and more flexible than tires with a lower TPI. They provide a higher quality ride because they are better able to conform to the trail, which means better control. Tires with higher TPI are more expensive than tires with a lower TPI.

Tires with a lower TPI are thicker and not as easily punctured so they may last longer then higher TPI tires, but they do not perform as well when tight handling and control are needed.

Type of Terrain

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Which mountain bike tires are the best depends on what type of terrain you will be riding. A tire that works well for smooth hardpack will not be a good tire for technical trails with roots, loose rocks and other obstacles.

Based upon the terrain you will be riding, you want to select a tire that has the right balance of weight, durability, traction, and rolling resistance.

Smooth hardpack and racing-

If you don't ride terribly technical terrain and plan to mostly ride on smooth hardpack, you want to choose mountain bike tires that have low rolling resistance. If you plan to race, you will also want a tire that has low rolling resistance.

A good choice for this type of riding terrain is a tire with low, closely spaced knobbies. Smaller knobs are faster and smoother, so they are good for racing also. Knobs that are wider at the base are good for cornering on hardpack. An example of a great racing tire is the Kenda Small Block 8

A narrower tire (1.9-2.2) is best for hardpack conditions because it will decrease rolling resistance. If you are heavier or there are rocks mixed into the hardpack, you will want to stay in the wider end of the range, but stick with a similar type of tread pattern.

You will not have a lot of traction if you decide to do climbing in loose conditions with this type of tread pattern.

Loose and technical conditions-

If you ride on trails with loose rocks, roots, and loose climbs, you want mountain bike tires that have a more aggressive tread pattern to give you better traction.


A great choice for this type of terrain is a tire with taller knobbies so that they will dig in and provide traction. This type of tread does have more rolling resistance, which means it takes more effort to move the tire, which is why it isn't a good choice for smoother conditions.

Tires made for loose, technical conditions often come with a front specific and rear specific tread. The front tread pattern is usually designed to provide cornering stability and the rear is designed for acceleration and braking traction.

The Panaracer Fire XC and the Schwalbe Nobby Nic are both great tires for loose, rooty, rocky, and technical conditions.

Most bicycle tires for more technical cross-country riding range in width from 2.1 to 2.4. In general, narrower tires will climb better but are less stable for downhill. Wider tires are heavier and have more rolling resistance so they do not climb as well, but are more stable on the downhill. The key is to find the right balance for the type of riding you do. I want to continue to become faster at climbing but also want to feel stable enough on downhill technical sections, so I have a wider tire in the front for stability and a narrower one in the back for lower rolling resistance.

Muddy conditions-

Riding in mud is bad for the trails and for your bike, but if you have to do it, you may want to use narrower tires. That way, if mud clings to the tires, it won't clog up your fork and stays as much. Also, a tread pattern that is widely spaced, like the Michelin Country Mud Tire allows the mud to fall off rather than getting stuck between the knobbies. This particular tire is also versatile enough for other types of riding conditions.

Winter riding-

A good choice for winter mountain biking is a tire that is sticky and has good knobs for traction. There are also some tires that have studs to grip the snow and ice. For more details, please check out our page on recommended tires for winter mountain biking.

Downhill riding-

Downhill mountain bike tires are wider than cross country tires and usually range in width from 2.2 to 2.8. Tires for downhill riding are also beefier than cross-country tires. A downhill bicycle tire has a thicker sidewall to prevent punctures and tears, larger knobs, and a more aggressive tread pattern.

Downhill tires are usually made of a soft sticky rubber for better control and traction. The Maxxis Minion Super Tacky DH Tire is a great example of an awesome downhill tire.

Variety of terrain-

I'm sure you have figured out by now that mountain bike tires that are made for a specific type of riding are very good for that type of riding, but probably not so good if you decide to take them on a different type of terrain.

It can be difficult to choose a tire if you are unsure of what terrain you will be riding or if you plan to ride a variety of conditions.

The best bet in either of those situations is to get a fairly tightly spaced low tread pattern. This way you will have some climbing and cornering traction, yet fairly low rolling resistance.

Tire pressure

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The amount of air pressure in your mountain bike tires has a major effect on riding performance.

Lower tire pressure is one of the best ways to increase your tire's traction because it increases the amount of tire that is gripping the ground, but if you go too low you can get pinch flats, which is when the tube gets pinched between the rim and a rock or other hard obstacle.

Higher tire pressure decreases rolling resistance so you can move the wheels easier, but it reduces traction when cornering and climbing. Having higher air pressure can also cause you to bounce around a lot when riding technical terrain.

Tubeless Tires

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If you like to run low tire pressure, but have problems with pinch flats, tubeless mountain bike tires may be a good option.

With tubeless tires, the tire is sealed to the mountain bike rim and a tube is not needed. An advantage of tubeless tire systems is you don't have to worry about pinch flats so you can run less air in your tires, which is better for traction, control, and absorbing bumps.

There are special rims and tires that are tubeless tire compatible. The rims are sealed and do not have spoke holes so that air will not escape. Tubeless tires do not have beads and have more durable sidewalls than most clincher tires so that they can support the lower air pressure.

There are also less costly do-it-yourself systems, like Stan's No Tubes that you can buy to convert your existing mountain bike tires and rims to a tubeless tire system. These systems involve attaching a rim strip to your rim to seal it and adding a latex sealant to seal your conventional tire. An air compressor or CO2 cartridge is needed for this process.

With tubeless tires, it is still possible to get puncture flats. Also, the tire can sometimes separate from the rim when cornering or hitting objects, especially when riding with low air pressure. Sometimes, I have seen my riding buddies re-inflate their tires successfully with a CO2 cartridge or even a pump, but this does not always work. Because of this, it seems to be a good idea to still carry an extra tube on rides. I recently got a cut in my sidewall and had to put a tube with a dollar bill as a patch in my tubeless tire. Surprisingly, it held out for the rest of the ride.

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