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A quick guide to mountain biking

Updated: Mar 11

Cycling in the British countryside, away from the roads and the traffic is an amazing way to explore, have fun and get some exercise. If you can ride a bike, then you can mountain bike! It is a hugely popular activity in UK because it has something to offer everyone, whether you're after a family cycle on gentle paths, a cross-country trip with friends on our national trails, or the excitement of hurtling down some of the UK's miles of downhill single track. The wide availability of electric mountain bikes (e-bikes) is also making it easier for more and more people to get off road and explore on two wheels.

What is mountain biking?

Mountain biking has become a catch-all term for off-road cycling. This increasingly popular outdoor activity has considerable variety and a growing number of recognised subcategories. Cross country cycling is simply exploring the UK's countryside along recognised rights of way, including options for bike packing over longer distances. Trail riding is a more managed form of off-road cycling and can be done across hundreds of sites where there are signposted trails of varying difficulty. And down hill mountain biking can be practiced on the growing number of purpose-built and prepared single track routes that are popping up all over the UK, both at trail centres and on open access land.

How do I get started with mountain biking?

It is easy to have a go at mountain biking. If you have a bike that can go off road then simply stick your helmet on and start exploring. If you don't have a bike or you don't feel confident on two wheels, then head for your nearest bike trail centre to hire a bike, get some tuition and follow some well-marked easy trails.

If you want to progress beyond trail riding then you'd benefit from developing some basic down hill skills. These are easy to learn, but you will need to go with an experienced friend or guide, or join a club or sign up to a lesson. You can check out great places to ride off road, including trail centres, with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder - you can use the search filter to find places that suit your needs, that hire equipment, and that provide instructors and guides.

What are the risks of mountain biking?

There is always a risk of falling off your bike, but at least with mountain biking it will not involve then being run over by a car! The risks vary according to the technical difficulty of the ride, the weather and trail conditions, and the remoteness of the place you are riding. These can all be easily managed by wearing a helmet, learning some basic skills, planning for your route and not overstretching yourself. For more on how to stay safe when mountain biking, check out the Outdoor Nation Top 10 safety tips for mountain bikers.

What skills do I need for mountain biking?

Off road cycling is as easy as riding a bike... but if you can't ride a bike then learning how to is probably your first step! To progress from trail riding onto longer or more technical routes, with steep uphill and downhill sections and tight turns, you will need to build up your knowledge, skill and experience. The following skills are a good place to start.

Planning a route on a map
Cycling skills - know how to plan route

Know how to plan a route

If you're riding cross country, away from a trail centre then you need to plan your route. For this you need to learn how to use a map, ideally an Ordinance Survey map. You also need to know how to judge the difficulty of the ground you will cross and estimate how quickly you will cover distance.

Cyclist map reading
Cycling skills - know how to navigate

Know how to navigate

There is a temptation to allow technology to navigate for you. But, there really is no substitute for having a physical map and knowing how to navigate with it; after all, you need a backup if your phone signal or battery fail you.

mountain bikers descending a steep track
Cycling skills - know the basic off-road techniques