How much body armor should I wear when mountain biking?

A bulletproof vest is a must when racing down a mountain side, but on a road like this?

Recently, a question was posted on the Singletracks forum asking what kind of helmets and protective gear riders use while riding. As expected, there were a variety of responses. Every rider needs some level of protection. After all, a crash can happen at any time, even on a seemingly gentle trail like the one shown above, where speeds in the low 20s mph weaving through pine trees are common.

But how much protection is enough, or too much? When I read this question, I thought about my own experiences over the years and how I chose the bulletproof vest I currently use. I would like to share what I have learned and experienced in case others are struggling with this important question.

Early Years

When I was a new rider, I used hard-shell knee and shin pads to protect me from falls and pedal hits, but they restricted my flexibility and weren’t very comfortable.

When I first started mountain biking, a helmet was my only protection. After a few months of riding and a few falls, I started wearing gloves as well because I didn’t want my palms to get scraped up. These two items served me well for a few years. Then, after smashing my knee on a root, I decided to start wearing knee pads as well. This is where I got a little carried away.

I do a lot of cross country and light trail riding. My local trails have roots and rocks, but they’re not too bad. Still, I opted for the Fox Launch knee/shin guards, which are designed for downhill riding. They offer a lot of protection, but at the expense of comfort and flexibility, both of which are important to me as I’m pretty mobile on a hardtail bike.

The first major accident and its aftermath

This photo was taken in August 2015, four months after the accident. Wearing a full-face helmet and goggles in the middle of summer is no fun.

In my last post I mentioned that I was in a bad accident. After that I decided to step up the level of body armour I wore, especially around my face. I bought a Fox Rampage full face helmet (for downhill riding) and later on also purchased Fox Launch elbow guards.

Looking back, it’s clear that these items were necessary for psychological reasons, not for the trails I was riding – which is pretty crazy to think I wore all of this gear for over a year in Florida, all summer long – which made for some very uncomfortable rides.

Yet I was determined to protect myself from any harm that might come my way and naively believed these items had the power to do so. Over time, as my confidence returned and my riding ability improved, I shed all of this armor and replaced it with gear more appropriate for the trails and the climate.

The body armor I’m currently using

This is all of the protection equipment I currently use when riding.

Lately I’ve settled on something with a lower level of protection that I feel suits my riding style and the trails I typically ride.

My helmet is a Bell Super 2R and I use a chin guard in cold weather or on trails with steep descents or grades.

I use Fox Dirtpaw full-finger gloves because they offer extra protection for your hands in case of a fall and also provide better grip.

I use Dakine Slayer “softshell” pull-on kneepads because they are very comfortable and flexible while still providing plenty of protection in the event of a fall. They are so lightweight and breathable that I often forget I’m wearing them. For me, they strike a good balance of comfort, flexibility, and protection, especially for the weather here in Florida.

Lessons from the bulletproof vest

From my years of riding motorcycles, I’ve learned a few lessons about bulletproof vests. First, no bulletproof vest can protect you from all harm. That’s not what a bulletproof vest is for. Bulletproof vests are designed to reduce and distribute the force of impact during a collision. If you hit something hard enough or fast enough, you will be hurt no matter what bulletproof vest you’re wearing. So don’t buy a bulletproof vest thinking that it will make you bulletproof.

Secondly, you always need some level of protection when riding a motorcycle. A helmet is a must and not up for debate. The only choice of helmet is whether it should be a half shell or a full face and it depends on the comfort level of the rider and the terrain you are riding on.

Besides a helmet, I highly recommend full finger gloves for both protection and grip. I also recommend buying good knee pads. A broken kneecap can be very painful and take a long time to recover from. Even a lightweight knee pad like mine can make the difference between a bruise and a broken bone.

Beyond these items, it’s all up to you. Choose body armour that suits your riding style. If you move around a lot on your bike, make sure your protection is comfortable and flexible. Anything that restricts your movement can actually increase your risk of a crash, defeating the purpose of wearing protection.

Third, hone your bike-handling skills. This is your first line of defense in case of a crash. If you know how to save your bike when it starts to slide off the trail, there’s no need to try body armor. Learn how to corner, brake, manual and bunny hop skillfully. I’ve escaped several near-crashes using these skills. In addition, it’s important to keep your riding conditions in good condition. Do core-focused training and balance exercises to brute-force your bike out of tight spots. Mountain biking requires more than strong legs. To be a good rider, your whole body needs to be in good condition.

Finally, don’t choose your body armor based on other people’s opinions. I may have looked really stupid wearing a downhill helmet and goggles on an XC trail, but I didn’t care. After a bad crash, I was able to enjoy riding again and it gave me the comfort I needed at the time. Don’t worry about what other riders think if you wear more body armor than them. Body armor is a personal matter. Only you know how much protection you need to feel confident and enjoy riding on the trail.

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