Downhill MTB Gear Guide

Essential Downhill MTB gear I never ride without again

Most DH riders hide their protective equipment underneath their riding gear so it’s not always obvious which protective equipment is worn.

Essential gear for downhill MTB (non-negotiable):

  • Full-face helmet,
  • a back protector,
  • knee pads,
  • gloves,
  • shoes with a flat, firm sole

Optional protective equipment includes:

  • MTB goggles
  • elbow pads,
  • or a protector vest with shoulder and elbow pads,
  • shin pads,
  • padded shorts and
  • an MTB neckbrace.

Dress for the crash, not for the ride.

Now let’s discuss why some gear items are must-have, some optional and others are not recommended.

Must-Wear Protection

Full-face helmet

Proper headgear is the absolute minimum. Normal half-shell helmets (for MTB or road biking) won’t do it because they lack any face protection.

There are convertible DH-rated helmets like my Giro Switchblade MTB helmet, that can turn from a regular MTB helmet to a downhill-specific one. Ideal for beginners or riders not regularly visiting bike parks.

A Giro Switchblade MTB Helmet from the side with a big visor on top
My low-cut, half-shell Giro Switchblade Enduro MTB Helmet …
Giro Switchblade MTB Helmet with chin bar
… is convertible into a DH-rated full-face lid.
a dirty 100% Aircraft helmet Calypso silver side view
But my go-to is a true full-face helmet like my 100% Aircraft helmet.

Back protectors

When the upper or lower back take a hit, it’s usually a big crash with uncontrollable tumbling.

Most back protectors are part of a full protector vest (or “body armor”), which tends to sit better and move less.

Most back plates don’t extend all the way over the lower spine, which is a common area for injuries.

IMG 2002 edited
My POC Spine VPD 2.0 Jacket from the front …
POC Spine VPD 2.0 Jacket back view
… and the back view with the extra long VPD back protector.

Knee pads

Hands and knees are the body parts to pretty much always make contact with the ground when crashing. On top of that, even during normal riding, knees will hit the bike frame.

dirty mtb knee pads

Gloves

Good gloves help while riding and with crashing. They help with sweaty hands and blisters.

And prevent abrasions from hard ground or gravel. More expensive ones come with added hard plastic or foam protective inserts over the knuckles (like my POC Resistance DH gloves).

POV mtb crash

MTB shoes

MTB-specific flat pedal shoes or clipless shoes have stiffer, harder soles than regular sports shoes.

That’s important because the majority of control and power come from the feet.

IMG 2144
This is how soles look, that grip well to MTB pedal pins.

Regular sports shoes or skater shoes are okay for trying out DH, but are not ideal with their flexible, less grippy soles and basically no toe protection.

Whatever shoes you use, just make sure they don’t slip on the pedals.

IMG 2145
The stiff, protective toe area on my 5.10 MTB shoes saved my feet more than once.

Optional Gear

Mobility, comfort and confidence is such a big part of downhill that more protection isn’t always better.

But there is some extra protective gear, that makes sense, that you can add on top of the basics.

MTB goggles

They offer the necessary protection from wind, rain, dust and sun rays. They are big, comfy to wear, easy to pull off when pausing and can take a hit so your face doesn’t.

goggle scratch marks from helmet camera
Battle marks on my goggle lens, and thankfully not on my face.

Neckbraces for MTB

Neckbraces have their place in gravity MTB like downhill. Whether you should wear one is entirely up to your own personal risk tolerance.

While neck injuries are very rare, they can have catastrophic results. Neckbraces can help in certain crash scenarios but can be clumsy to wear.

Especially in tight turns, the head’s range of motion is limited by the brace to be able to look into the turns and at the track ahead.

This is why I chose to not wear mine anymore after a couple of seasons.

Alpinestars BNS Neck Brace in black
My Alpinestars BNS Neck Brace saved my neck in a horrible crash but has been retired eventually.

Elbow pads

Elbow pads are definitely not as trendy, it seems. But neither are hurting elbows, which are another regular body part to make ground contact.

For beginners, these are a must. Many experienced riders ditch them because they are simply not comfortable to wear, may slip down and may cause arm pump.

Body armor with shoulder pads

Shoulder pads make a lot of sense but can only be worn as part of a full upper body protector vest. I wear such a vest for downhill, but not for trail riding as it’s just too heavy, not so breathable.

IMG 2002 edited 1
My POC Spine VPD 2.0 Jacket from the front. Chest plates removed. Shoulder and elbow pads are what are valuable to me.

MTB-specific shorts or pants

MTB-specific shorts or pants are not really required but help with comfort and a little protection. They are durable, and crash-resistant while also being breathable for those long, hot days in the saddle.

Maybe most importantly: they have zip pockets to not lose any valuables and the lift card.

Padded shorts

The hips and tailbones really bad when hit. Luckily, there are ways to prevent that from happening with protector shorts.

Different brands use different materials, from VPD foam to hard plastic. Some feature tailbone inserts, and some double as bib shorts.

Do Not Wear For Downhill

And then there are gear options that make no sense for downhill. Some are simply unnecessary, others cross the border into actually being harmful.

Bib shorts

Not much time is spent sitting on the saddle in downhill. So padded bike shorts won’t do you any good. Plus they feel awkward when you’re standing up and moving on the bike.

Designer sunglasses

Regular sunglasses should not come on track with you. They usually don’t stay in place well with rapid movements, start to hurt under a full-face, and offer poor protection in case of a crash because of their size.

Road cycling shoes

While clip-in shoes are popular for mountain biking, road cycling shoes don’t fall into that category. They’re not only awkward to walk around in on a mountain, but are also dangerous since they don’t make contact with the rest of the pedal and lack control – something dearly needed on technical trails.

IMG 1996 edited scaled
Road cycling shoes without proper soles: great for cycling on even tarmac, but not on downhill tracks.
There is no contact between the pedal pins and the shoe sole, resulting in lacking contact and control.

Motocross knee braces

Full-on heavy knee braces like riders use in motocross are also a no-go as they limit the knees’ movement. Pedaling is still part of downhill, and so is balancing by moving the knees side to side.

I found thicker braces feel awkward and make me feel removed from the bike when they touch the bike frame. You just don’t feel as connected to the bike, similar to extra thick gloves.

Share it with your friends
Julian
Julian

Julian Mat is a former bike shop owner and editor of Suspension Traveler. He has been riding Downhill MTB and Enduro for over two decades.
Julian has poured all his accumulated knowledge, best-kept secrets, and proven guides into Suspension Traveler, to make it the go-to resource for gravity mountain bikers.

Articles: 88