This review looks into what makes the best mountain bike knee pads, and the best MTB knee pads on the market today.
Knees are the most complicated joint in the body, which you may not expect given the seemingly simple exterior. Because of this, I’d say knee pads are one of the most important
I quite like my knees. They help me get places. As such, I tend to keep them well protected during mountain bike rides.
Protection from knee pads can vary quite a lot. They range from essentially ‘scuff pads’ through to intense, bulky guards that you’d expect a motocross racer to be wearing. This guide will help you find the best MTB knee pads for you, and what you ride!
You’ll see below that we have split the pads into two types, the minimalist pads and mid-bulk pads.
- Minimalist pads are slimmer, lighter weight, more breathable pads. However, they do sacrifice a bit of protection to make them more pedal friendly.
- The mid-bulk pads do offer more protection, particularly to the top and sides of the knee. However, the extra bulk for protection does make pedalling a bit harder and generally a bit warmer.
What makes a good set of knee pads
There is a surprising amount of research and design that goes into a set of knee pads. We have summarised this all below, but essentially it is about how much of your knee is protected, without sacrificing comfort. The fit of the knee pad and ventilation play a big role in the comfort and performance of the pads.
Gone are the days when knee pads are just a plastic shell over some material. These days we have materials (such as D3O) that harden on impact. This allows the pad to be soft and malleable for pedaling, and harden on impact to keep your knee safe.
Look for protection above and around the sides of the knee cap. This keeps the sides of your knee safe from knocks to the bike frame or rocks that hit the side of your knee when you come off.
Some pads even offer shin protection which can help keep more of your lower leg protected in particularly rocky or hard terrain. It will, however, make them warmer and often a little less comfortable.
Comfort is just as important as protection. If the pads are uncomfortable, you are less likely to wear them. And nothing is worse for your knees than no set of pads at all.
For a comfortable set of pads, you want to keep an eye out for how the pads stay on your leg. Some are held up by elastic and silicone grippers, while others you can tighten using velcro around your thigh and calf.
I personally find velcro straps more comfortable as they allow you to adjust the tightness around your thigh. But if you can find a sleeve with an elastic that fits your leg well, it can be just as comfortable.
You want softer materials on the back of the leg. Otherwise, you can end up with chaffing or pinching to the back of the knee.
If you are one to ride a fair distance with your knee pads up around your knee, you are going to want to prioritize ventilation.
For many riders (including myself), knee pads are just for the descent. So anytime I climb or ride along the flats, I wear my pads around my shins or strapped to my handlebars. Hence, ventilation isn’t a priority for me.
If you are looking for ventilation though, have a look for thinner, lighter materials such as mesh at the back of the leg. Circular cutouts at the back of the knee also help air to flow through freely too.
Pads that move around while you’re biking are not going to be comfortable, and they aren’t going to help in a crash. They are likely to just slide down, leaving your knee exposed.
Too tight and they definitely won’t be comfortable. Particularly while pedaling, as your quadriceps expand and contract which will be restricted if your pads are too tight.
Ergonomic fit (or articulated fit) refers to the slight bend in the knee pads to mimic the bend in your knees as you descend. This is particularly useful for harder pads that aren’t as flexible, and hence don’t move with your knee easily as it bends.
Top 3 Minimalists Pads
Leatt Airflex Hybrid
Protection: Airflex Impact Gel
Strength: Durability (which is rare for a minimalist sleeve)
Minus: Warmer than many minimalist sleeves
Who is it for: Trail to enduro, anyone wanting to pedal in their pads.
The Leatt Airflex Hybrid has quickly become one of our favorites for minimalist knee pads. For any ride that we don’t expect to be needing full-blown downhill grade protection, the Leatt Airflex Hybrid offers a light, comfortable set of pads that offer plenty of protection.
The D3O pad is thin and flexible, allowing for easy pedaling. There is no side of knee protection but does off a little bit of upper shin protection. It is more aimed at trail or enduro riders who need to pedal in the pads.
The knitted base layer is incredibly comfortable and the backing is a thinner mesh which helps keep the sleeve reasonably cool. I wouldn’t recommend it for someone riding in extreme temperatures, but for here in New Zealand, I use them all year round.
What sets this pad above the rest is its durability of the pads. More often than not you will see the minimalist sleeves with a tear at the back of the knee from a pedal strike. Or below the elastic which has worn through from pulling the sleeve on and off. Not on the Leatt Airflex Hyrbid though!
Fox Enduro Pro
Strength: Excellent ventilation
Minus: Limited durability and protection
Who is it for: Trail or all-mountain riders who don’t need a lot of protection
The Fox Racing Enduro Pro knee sleeves are excellent for those wanting to have a bit of extra protection while riding but don’t want to sacrifice pedalability.
It really is easy to ride with the pads on around your knee. If it isn’t a super warm day, you actually don’t notice the pads are even there. They are comfortable, and in cooler weather, they even act as knee warmers!
We wouldn’t recommend these for riders wanting to hit gnarly trails at speed. Particularly rocky tracks as the D3O layer is pretty thin. There is also no side of knee protection, nor shin protection. These aren’t really an ‘enduro’ pad, despite the name! Do make sure you get the Pro version. The Pro version has the D3O inserts, while the non-pro version only has foam. Big difference when you hit the ground!
The main issue I had with these pads was the limited durability, particularly with the back panel (behind the knee). One pedal strike caused the pads to tear, and I am certainly not the only rider out in the park with the same issue with these pads. I have also seen the pads tear below the elastic at the top, usually due to riders not taking caution when sliding them on.
In all, a comfortable, light and well-ventilated pad. Ideal for those who can’t stand the idea of having a hot and bulky sleeve around their knee!
Troy Lee Designs Raid
Strength: Minimalist with padding
Minus: Too much padding for trail riding, not enough for downhill racing
Who is it for: Enduro riders. Those who want protection without the bulk.
For more padding, but still a pedal-friendly MTB knee pad, have a look at the Troy Lee Designs Raid. With protection around the sides of the knee, as well as above, this pad is comfortable and will keep you well protected on those gnarlier trails.
The pads are held up with a velcro strap at the top of the sleeve. This is assisted by a silicone gripper which prevents the pad from sliding around at all.
The neoprene sleeve is breathable, although not to the extent of the Fox Enduro or the Leatt Airflex Hybrid. The mesh on the back of the sleeve is breathable and thinner than the rest, allowing for improved airflow.
We have no concerns about the durability of the pads given the abrasion-resistant material on the front. The back may be susceptible to pedal strikes, however, similar to the Fox Enduro Pro.
Top 3 ‘Mid Bulk’ Pads
Fox Launch D3O
Strength: Offers great protection
Minus: Too heavy for long rides
Who is it for: Beginners or trail riders through to downhill riders. Everything except cross country or long distance riders.
The Fox Launch D3O is an exceptional pad. It is protective, it is extremely comfortable, and yet it retains some pedal friendliness.
Velcro straps at the top and base of the pad help keep it secure and limit the chance of it sliding down during a crash. Because the velcro is adjustable, I would loosen off the top strap if i needed to climb in the pads. This allowed my quads to expand and contract while climbing which aids in comfort.
The pad is certainly durable. Mine lasted 3 years of hard use (I crash often) with crashes on rock, ice, and long dirt slides. Not once did the pads tear or sustain any kind of damage. In fact, they would still be going today, but they were stolen last year (someone else clearly knew how good they were!).
The protection is some of the best. A relatively thick D3O pad is flexible which allows for comfortable pedaling but then hardens on impact. This protects the knee cap and acts as an upper shin guard. There is some additional foam on the sides of the knee which prevents top tube knocks, or side impacts to the knee.
Leatt Airflex Pro
Protection: Airflex Impact Gel
Strength: Comfort and a good middle ground between hardcore and minimalist
Minus: Not enough protection for downhill/shuttle lap type of riding
Who is it for: Beginners, trail riders, enduro riders and everyone in between!
The Leatt Airflex Pro offers a lightweight, versatile knee guard. It is ideal if you are after an in-between pad that isn’t as burly as the Fox Launch D3O but offers more protection than your minimalist pads.
The pads are held up by elastic and silicone grippers at the top end, and the same again at the bottom end. The Airflex Pro isn’t heavy or bulky, so the elastic is enough to hold them up! The pads are also pre-curved for that ergonomic fit.
The protection is a combination of gel and foam. The knee cap protection is constructed of Leatt’s Airflex Impact Gel which is a lightweight, flexible silicone gel. Above and to the sides of the knee cap is foam padding. This is great for protecting the lower thigh and sides of the knee from hard knocks to the bike frame or rock.
The Airflex Impact Gel is perforated to improve the airflow through the pads, and it does just that. Just like any other mountain biking knee pad, the Airflex Pro is always going to be warmer than no pads. But Leatt has done its best to keep them as cool as the minimalist pads, with moisture-wicking fabrics, and ‘MoistureCool’ fabrics which keep the knee pads breathable.
These aren’t going to be your park lap/shuttle lap choice of armor, but anything short of that, these will quickly become your go-to. Comfortable, protective, very pedal friendly- the Leatt Airflex Pro will become your day-to-day mountain bike rides.
Race Face Ambush
Strength: Protection, getting on and off mid-ride
Minus: So many velcro straps!
Who is it for: Enduro or downhill riders, or people who take their pads on and off regularly
I was initially drawn to the Race Face Ambush because of the level of padding and the overall durability of the pads. The D3O pad covers a substantial portion of the knee and part of the upper shin for excellent levels of protection. They have a super comfortable ergonomic ‘pre-shaped’ fit, with plenty of adjustability, so they work well for pretty much everyone.
One of the standout features is the open back, which allows you to take the pad on and off without taking your shoes off. I think the idea in mind was for those doing long climbs and gnarly descents or hike and bike type situations where you don’t want to be taking your shoes on and off each time. For the times I have actually taken the pads right off, it has actually been quite handy. However, most of the time I slide the pads around my shins for climbs so I don’t see it as a major benefit. Especially because the added velcro does tend to make pedalling in the pads far less comfortable.
The perforated neoprene helps to prevent the knee pad getting too hot. By no means is this a cool set of pads though. I don’t tend to pedal for long with the pads around my knees, and even on hot summer days having them around my shins can be a pain! The benefit of the velcro though, is that I can easily attach them to my handlebars or frame if needed!
These are great knee pads if you don’t mind the bulk and the excessive velcro straps. For many riders, these offer great protection and comfort at a very decent price.
All the pads listed above are top-quality, protective pads. These range from lightweight, ‘barely there’ pads, through to more serious protection with a bit more bulk.
You will need to decide whether protection or ventilation is your primary objective with knee pads. For minimalist pads, the Leatt Airflex Hybrid is a favorite from our team. It offers great protection with a bit more durability than many other sleeves.
For in-between type pads, the Leatt Airflex Pro offers a good balance between protection and pedal friendliness.
And for the ultimate impact protection, the Fox Launch Pro is an all time favorite for a lot of mountain bikers. It is comfortable, simple and will keep your knee safe in hard falls!