So you're diving in headfirst into the world of trail riding? Wonderful, as this may be one of the best decisions you've made in your life. In this primer we'll let you know what to buy, how much to spend, and what the key things are that you need to know before making that purchase. We'll assume that this is your first or second bike, that you've set aside some funds, and that you are highly motivated to start riding on trails. Here's what you need to know when buying your first mountain bike.

1. Expect to spend between $500-$2,000

If you have no idea how much you want to spend, we'll set this target range out there for you. It is the sweet spot of mountain biking where you get the most performance, and bang for your money. You can certainly go below or above that if you have specific needs and if you have an expert friend guiding your purchase. Stay away from department store bikes, as they are not ideal for rough trails as explained here. Bike shops are ideal, but note that viable consumer-direct options exist now.

What do you get for your money? For $500 to $750, you can get a decent, starter hardtail. And at the higher end of the range, you can get a capable full suspension bike. Neither will be lightweight or cutting-edge, but both will be dependable and worth upgrading, should the urge come later.

Trail bikes are the swiss-army knives of mountain biking since they provide a happy medium between climbing and descending.​

2. If unsure about the type of bike, get a trail bike

If you don't know what category of mountain bike you need, then a trail bike is probably the answer. This kind of bike is what most mountain bikers ride because it can handle most terrain and riding styles well. They provide the most ability, safety, and most importantly, fun. They can take the form of a hardtail (no rear shock) or full-suspension with 120-140mm of travel.

The other categories are:

Cross-Country - If you want to race, or enjoy going uphill and like all-day rides
All Mountain - You want to focus on descending and tackle steeper, more demanding trails
Downhill - You want to ride primarily lift-assisted and shuttle assisted trails

Dropper posts allow your saddle to go and down at the press of a handlebar mounted button.​

3. Dropper posts and 1x gearing are key

These are perhaps two of the greatest revolutions in mountain biking and they're actually approachable now for all mountain bikers. In the old days, we essentially rode road bikes converted with knobby, balloon tires. This went on for the first 20 years of the sport but the last decade has seen a revolutionary change.

One of the greatest advancements is the introduction of the dropper seatpost, a telescoping post that goes up and down with the press of a lever on the handlebars. Climbing is best done with the saddle way up to maximize power with ideal leg extension. Descending on the other hand is best done with the saddle low to the frame to lower the rider's center of gravity and to allow the legs and the body to absorb shock and riding forces. It's basically the 'eureka' product of mountain biking that allows safety, speed, and fun as you change your saddle height up to 50 times during a ride!

Less is truly more in the case of 1x gearing for mountain bikes.​

The other great revolution is 1x gearing. This is defined by one chainring in the front (and many in the rear), instead of two or three front chainrings. Three chainrings in the front are the legacy of road bikes that required massive gear range for varied road conditions. Mountain biking divorced from this complex contraption over five years ago and have been liberated by simplicity, less weight, and a much more usable drivetrain with sufficient gears to tackle even the most demanding terrain. 1x12 gearing is ideal with on ring in the front and twelve rings in the rear with a massive range.

Mountain bikes have now moved on to 27.5 and 29 inch wheels. Stick with those options to ensure availability of compatible tires and suspension forks.​

4. The old wheel size, the 26er is dead. Now it's split between 29-inch and 27.5-inch wheels

It turns out, big wheels are handy since they're faster, get over obstacles better, and have increased traction. But sometimes, a big wheel can be too big for someone short of stature or one who wants to throw the bike around in the air or on corners. So we're left with two great options these days, the 29-inch and the 27.5-inch mountain bike wheel. For your first mountain bike, we'd recommend a 29-inch mountain bike since it is safer and more confidence-inspiring.

It is a complex issue that can be summarized best by:
"The 27.5-inch wheel is ideal for popping over stuff, changing speeds and direction, and playing with the trail. The 29er is best for going fast and winning races. It covers ground well, stays planted, and plows over obstacles."

We break it down here in detail

EMTBs have arrived and many new models are being introduced each month.​

5. EMTBs are a thing now

The Electric Mountain Bike is the fastest-growing category of mountain biking and it shows no sign of slowing. Formerly the outcasts of mountain biking, they now outsell traditional pedal bikes in many countries and will likely take the majority share here in the US within five years.

Class 1 EMTBS that assist your pedaling up to 20 mph are gaining popularity each month because they enable a wealth of riding options and possibilities. One can ride from the garage on a 90-degree day, 10 miles to the trailhead, climb a 3000-foot hill and be back home before noon, for example. It also opens up the sport to a wider array of folks that would not otherwise take up mountain biking.

But legality in all trails is still evolving and EMTBs are not allowed everywhere bikes are. It is surely opening up though around the world and in the US. Look for a bottom bracket motor system (not hub) and expect to spend between $2500-$5000 for a starter EMTB.

The mountain bike can improve your quality of life if you're able to get out on trails regularly.​

Bottom Line

We could go on and on but those are the five things you need to arm yourself with to make an educated first mountain bike purchase. Set your aspirations but realistic and aim for your mountain biking mark. And due to the pandemic, "get outdoors" mentality, used bikes are in very short supply and very expensive. So unless you are a very savvy used bike buyer (or have a friend), we recommend buying a new one from a bike shop or online direct source in 2020.

Remember that you'll probably need to spend another 25% of your initial investment to buy some bike clothing, protection, tools, and perhaps a car rack. And also understand that mountain biking is a skill sport much like golf, tennis and skiing so mountain biking lessons whether, online, group, or individual will go a long way towards your safety and fun.