How to Choose MTB Knee Pads

The key aspect of buying the best knee pads is knowing what is important to you and the types of riding you do. To do so, you need to know what makes a good set of knee pads. In this post, we will discuss the types of knee pads available, what to look for when buying knee pads, and how to choose the best mtb knee pads for you.

The key factors when choosing knee pads is determining how much uphill and how much downhill you typically do in a ride. If you are a chair lift or shuttle rider, the uphill riding will be pretty minimal. A trail rider will likely do a lot more uphill riding.

This determines how much protection, ventilation and the style of knee pads you will be best suited to.

How to Choose MTB Knee Pads?

There are four main things that you can use to compare a handful of knee pads.  

  1. Protection 
  1. Being able to pedal in them 
  1. Durability 
  1. Ventilation and comfort

While these are in no specific order, there will be certain aspects more important to you that you need to prioritize. For example, a rider mainly completing chair lift laps might not need to pedal too often in them. But they may want more protection. 

There also a couple of other things to consider, such as how the knee pads will stay up. For longer rides, avoid straps as they become restrictive around your thighs while your muscles are working (climbing/longer rides). But for heavier, more protective pads, elastic likely won’t be enough to keep the pads in the right position on your knee.  

Ventilation is another key factor when you choose MTB knee pads. While it is nice having warm knee pads while descending in the cool winter months, it isn’t so nice while climbing in hotter months. Keep this in mind when considering which material you want to go with.

You want to look for durable materials in ALL types of knee pads. Knee pads are not single use items, you probably want them to withstand more than just the one crash. So, make sure you have heavy duty material to reduce chances of tearing or damage to the knee pads. 

Types of MTB Knee Pads 

MTB knee pads range from lightweight, cross country pads to heavy-duty, highly protective downhill pads. The more downhill you do, the more protection you want. While the more uphill you do, the more ‘pedalability’ you want.  

Downhill Knee Pads 

Beginning with downhill mountain biking knee pads, we have high protection but limited flexibility. These tend to be quite bulky and hence a bit harder to pedal in.  

They are very highly protective and made of durable materials. Effectively, downhill knee pads have been designed for harsh, high speed crashes. You will want something that covers as much of your knee and shin as possible. Many heavy-duty knee pads will include shin guards, which protect the upper part of your shins.  

Look for:  

  • Hardshell 
  • Shin guards 
  • Inner and outer knee protection 
  • Straps to tighten the knee pads and keep them up 

We would consider something similar to this: 

Troy Lee Designs Raid Knee Guard

Highly protective, inner and outer knee protection, upper shin is covered. Ideal for difficult descents.

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Enduro Riding Knee Pads 

Enduro riders need both the protection and the ability to pedal up hills. This all depends on how gnarly you expect the descents to be, though. If you can, find a pair of knee pads closer to a downhill style that you can slip on and off easily. This allows you to have full protection, but you can slip the knee pads down to your calves so that they are out of the way for pedaling. Or for longer transfers, you could even slip them over your shoes and carry the knee pads up. 

However, if the terrain doesn’t warrant taking the knee pads off, something a bit slimmer that you can climb in will also do the trick.  

If you are constantly taking the knee pads on and off, you want the material to be durable. Often stretchy materials will stretch out of place as you try to slide the knee pads on and off your leg.  

Look for: 

  • Straps to slide the knee pads down (if you are planning on taking them on and off regularly) 
  • As much protection as you can get, without it getting in the way 
  • Well ventilated 
  • How comfortable they are to pedal in 
  • Durable materials 

We would recommend something similar to this: 

POC Joint VPD Air Knee Pad

Durable, well ventilated, easy to take on/off. Enduro style pads.

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Trail Riding Knee Pads 

Given ‘trail riding’ covers a big range of terrain, from uphill’s through to technical descents, it is hard to pinpoint the right kind of knee pad. If you are riding lots of technical descents and prioritize protection over ventilation, maybe look at the enduro section. 

Otherwise, you will want something well ventilated, easy to pedal in, lightweight and comfortable. But you will still want a fair bit of protection, as otherwise it is barely worth the hassle! Have a look for materials such as D3O, which is a non-Newtonian fluid that hardens on impact. This means you have a nice flexible, comfortable material while biking but absorbs a lot of energy in an impact.  

Another thing to consider is that while you are riding, your muscles- particularly your quads- are moving. Having tight straps around both your quads and your calves is super uncomfortable. We’d recommend finding knee pads with elastic at the top and bottom. Some also have rubber grips to stop them from sliding down. This allows the quads and calves a bit of room to contract and relax, providing you with a more comfortable pedal.  

Look for: 

  • Slimmer pads 
  • D3O or similar materials that harden on impact 
  • Slip-on knee pads, rather than zips or velcro  
  • Washable, so they don’t get too smelly 

We would recommend something similar to the Fox Enduro knee sleeve (see our review here)

Fox Racing Enduro Knee Sleeve

Comfortable, lightweight, slim padding, washable. Ideal as enduro or trail knee pads.

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Cross Country Knee Pads 

In general, cross country racers don’t wear knee pads. But if they were to, they would want something super light and something that doesn’t get in the way of pedaling at all.  

So, if you tend to ride cross country, and are wanting a little more protection, consider lighter, slimmer pads that won’t bother you while riding. You also don’t want them heating up, or creating too much friction between the knee and the material.  

Cross country riders still tackle technical terrain and tend to do it at high speeds. So protection is still very necessary! 

Look for:  

  • Super lightweight 
  • Slim padding 
  • Elastic & rubber grips to stop the pads sliding down 
  • Washable (so they don’t get too smelly) 

We would recommend something similar to the Leatt Airflex Hybrid Knee Guard (see our review here)

Leatt Airflex Hybrid Knee Guard

Slim, lightweight, well ventilated knee pads. Ideal for trail to cross country riders.

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Final remarks 

So, how to choose the right MTB knee pads for you?

Effectively, the gnarlier the terrain, the higher the consequences of the increased likelihood of coming off, you want more protection. Hence you want straps to hold up that extra weight.

If you are climbing hills or riding long distances, lighter, slimmer knee pads will be more comfortable. Ones with elastic will holding the pads to your legs will not restrict your muscles too much.

And remember to always look for durable materials, no matter the style of riding!

There is a lot of cross over in terms of what knee pads are suitable for each specific area of mountain biking. A trail rider may prefer enduro style knee pads and vice versa, and there is no issue with that! Choose what you think is going to better suit you and the terrain you’d generally ride! 

Protection on the descent
Knee pads provide the necessary protection on the rough and rocky terrain (Alexandra, New Zealand).

For more reviews, check out the Race Face Ambush Knee Pad review (pictured above), the best MTB knee pads, or are knee pads even necessary for mountain biking.