Before you make some assumptions based on the title of this post, no, we’re not talking about how to carry a concealed weapon to protect yourself that way. We’re referring to protective gear such as helmets and knee pads. Like many physical sporting activities, there’s a certain minimal amount of protective gear you should wear in order to adequately protect yourself. But how much do you really need? What’s the absolute minimum you can get away with wearing and what are some good items to consider adding to your stash?
We’re going to break down all the kit you should consider for protecting yourself on the trail, literally from head to toe.
Head and Face Protection
It should go without saying that should always wear a helmet while riding your bike—especially on an off-road trail. Seriously, if you’re not smart enough to know this and understand the risk of concussion or traumatic brain injury that could occur during even a small crash, then you might as well not read the rest of this post. In fact, do yourself a favor and sell your bike if you refuse to wear a helmet. Otherwise, we go in depth on helmets in our post How Do I Choose a Good Mountain Bike Helmet?
After your helmet, eye protection could be considered the second most important piece of protective gear to wear while off-road cycling. Take a moment and think about how easy your eye is to damage and then consider how fast you’re moving down a trail lined with tree branches sticking out all different directions. There’s no need to buy a pair of downhill goggles for any trail in North Texas, but a quality pair of protective lenses will save your eyes from everything from bugs and small face-slappers to large branches and rocks kicked up by someone shredding in front of you. For the budget conscious, start out with a pair of protective glasses from Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can get a pair of polarized lenses for under $20.
Torso, Arms, and Hands
When it comes to your torso you can purchase full upper body armor, but there’s really no need for it on any North Texas trails. Having said that—if you can put up with the extra heat in the summer and don’t mind the extra weight and restrictive nature of body armor—we can see why a newbie might want to buy some to gain some extra confidence on the trail while skill building. If you know you’re less likely to get hurt you’ll probably be willing to push yourself a little further. Having said that, don’t push yourself too far. Have patience, the skills will come with saddle time.
For your arms, you’ve got a lot of options. A good first step is a pair of simple arm sleeves or a long-sleeved jersey that will protect you from branches slapping at your arms as you ride the trail, and even lessen the severity of bark tattoos when you get too close to those trees. The next step would be to purchase a pair of elbow pads to protect a joint that seems prone to injury in some riders. When looking for a good pair of elbow pads, be prepared to pay a decent chunk of money to find a pair that not only offers adequate protection, but also breathes well, stays in place, and doesn’t restrict your arm movement too much.
To protect your hands, you obviously need a good pair of gloves. Whether you choose to go fingerless or full finger is up to you. We go in depth on gloves in our post Why Do I Need Mountain Bike Gloves?
Hips, Upper Legs, Knees, and Private Areas
Similar to upper body armor, protective undershorts are available which place extra protective padding and reinforcement around the waist, hips, and upper thighs. As with upper body armor, there’s typically no need for so much extra protect here in North Texas, but newbies or riders in need of extra support may benefit from the confidence the added protection brings.
As for your…ahem…sensitive area down there, check out our post What’s Up with Cycling Chamois?
When it comes to your knees there are a lot of factors to consider. Are you looking for simple abrasion protection? If so, then a thin base layer will do the job just as arm sleeves will for your arms. Do you want protection from impacts while riding or crashing? The same rules apply as with elbow pads: a quality pair of knee pads that offer adequate protection, don’t restrict movement, breathe well, stay in place, and don’t contribute to chafing are going to cost you upwards of $100 or more. Beyond that, if you’re looking for knee support due to a knee injury or otherwise bad knees, we suggest getting the advice of a professional.
Shins, Ankles, and Feet
As with the upper legs, a simple base layer is going to protect your legs from most non-crash abrasions. For increased protection, especially if you like to ride hard and fast through the gnarliest rock gardens North Texas has to offer, you might want to consider a pair of shin pads or shin guards. Something else to consider is, if you’re already rocking knee pads, you can purchase combination knee pads and shin guards. Again, you’re going to pay for quality, but we’ve heard that these types of combination guards actually stay in place better than knee pads alone.
Most riders don’t need protection per se around the ankles, though you can buy braces specifically designed for mountain bikers. What most riders really need are simply long socks. How long is up to you, but we suggest at least mid calf or higher. The higher your socks, the more abrasion protection you get between your ankles and knees.
Finally, a high-quality pair of shoes is a no-brainer when shredding your favorite trail. It doesn’t matter whether you ride flats or clipped in, you can find a great pair of mountain bike-specific shoes in a wide variety of price ranges. Brands such as Giro, FiveTen and others make shoes in both flat and clipless versions, so it’s hard to go wrong in this department. Keep in mind that we don’t suggest just riding in any old pair of tennis shoes or sneakers if you ride flats. Trust us, it’s either not going to go well for you in the long run or you’ll eventually get frustrated that your cheap shoes are actually holding you back from taking your skills to the next level.
All of the above gear is great for helping prevent physical hard on your ride, but there are additional items we think you should consider carrying when you launch from the trail head:
- Cell Phone—Don’t ever head out without your phone, even if you’re not sure you’re going to have a signal wherever you end up. If you do have a signal, you can call 911 or a friend if you get into trouble. Pay attention to trail markers and signs so you can tell emergency responders your approximate trail location. In addition, it’s always a good idea to let someone know to come look for you if you don’t show up after a certain amount of time, or can’t be reached via phone.
- RoadID—We love RoadID and recommend never going on a ride without wearing one. They’re inexpensive, comfortable, and alert emergency responders to your identity and preexisting medical conditions you might have in case you’re unresponsive after a crash.
- RoadID app or Strava Beacon—When riding alone, or in a remote enough area where getting separated from riding buddies is a real possibility, these apps can alert others if you get into trouble. We personally use RoadID and have it set to send out an alert to friends and family if we stop moving for more than five minutes. The app uses GPS to track us during the ride—so your chosen contacts can view your ride and location in progress—and sends out your last known location if you stop moving for too long. That way, friends and family can alert emergency responders with your location and/or come looking for you themselves.
- First Aid Kit—You should always ride with at least a simple first aid kit. Grab yourself a Ziplock baggie and throw in some band aids, antiseptics wipes, and maybe some anti itch cream. We’ve even known a few riders here in snake-infested North Texas that ride with a snakebite kit during the warmer months. It’s rare, but riders can get struck by an angry or startled venomous snake out on the trail.
- A Riding Buddy—The best protective gear is not gear at all, it’s a trusted friend that you enjoy hanging out with. Not only is riding with friends fun, but you’ll push each other’s skills and attempt harder technical trail features when you know your buddy is there to scrape you up off the ground. Seriously, when you get into trouble, the best protection is someone present to help you if necessary.
What have we missed that should be on this list of protective gear? Let us know in the comments.
Have fun, ride smart, and keep shredding!