With this article it’s my goal to write the absolute best mountain bike tire buying guide on the internet. After reading this article you should have all the necessary information to pick a set of tires that will suit your general style of mountain biking best.
I’ve written over a 100 articles on the subject of tires and have categorized them according to their respective wheel diameter. Apart from road bike tires and the odd article about 27 inch tires, it means on this website mountain bike tires are covered using the following categories:
Since I’ve written so many articles on the subject, you can easily go to the specific tires you’re interested in with the help of the following table.
I’ve written articles that focus on specific mountain bike disciplines, and articles that focus on a certain tire characteristics.
Mountain bike discipline
Mountain bike disciplines and their tires
Mountain biking started in the late 70’s with modified Schwinns. The first mass-produced mountain bike was the Specialized Stumpjumper in 1981.
In the 90s mountain biking exploded and it was the addition of mountain bike suspension, both front and back, that enabled riders to literally explore new territories. And with it came a slew of new mountain bike disciplines.
It’s easy to understand today that a mountain bike without suspension, and with 26 inch wheels will only be used for gravel riding and cross-country. Throw suspension in the mix, and suddenly you have downhill, enduro, all-mountain, and trail riding.
And all these different disciplines have different requirements placing different types of demand on tires.
Mountain bike tire technologies
When I try to determine what tires will perform best in a certain mountain bike discipline, I take the following tire parameters into account:
- tread pattern
- size and width
- casing and puncture protection
- tire bead
- TPI (thread per inch)
Let’s take a look at each of them
Probably the most distinctive and important characteristic of a mountain bike tire is the tread pattern. Tread patterns range from tires with no pattern at all called “slicks” to tires with densely spaced, small knobbies, to tires with huge knobs with a significant distance between them.
As mountain bike disciplines tend to overlap, so do the tires designed for these disciplines.
The first type of tread pattern is the true slick treat pattern. These tires have no tread pattern. Unlike road bike tires, true slicks are almost non-existent in 26, 27.5, and 29 inch sizes.
Example: WTB Thickslick
A step removed from being a true slick tire is the semi-slick. Semi-slick offer a modicum of grip on terrain such as gravel, hardpack, and tarmac. They offer a semi-slick center tread for and might have small knobbies at the edges for a bit more grip when cornering.
Example: Continental Speed King Racesport II
You can definitely use both slicks and semi-slicks for urban commuting. However, true commuter tires distinguish themselves by having close-knit flat knobbies that provide more grip and grooves for speedy water drainage on wet tarmac.
Example: Panaracer RiBMo
A solid level of puncture protection is always a good thing. But some tires excel in this area. Throw in a grippy tread pattern and you have a solid touring and/or bikepacking tire.
Example: Schwalbe Marathon Plus MTB
Gravel riding is very similar to XC, favoring speed over grip on hardpack, and gravel. If you’re a gravel purist you might argue that the knobbies are actually touching each other, so contact with a relatively smooth service is ever present.
Example: Rene Herse Humptulips Ridge
Cross-country or XC mountain biking is the least aggressive mountain bike discipline favoring human-powered speed over grip. It means the tread pattern has tightly spaced, small knobbies for increased rolling-resistance. It’s also the discipline where I feel it starts to make sense to have different tire types front and back.
Example: Maxxis Ikon
The most classic of all mountain bike disciplines, and the tread pattern we think of when visualizing a mountain bike tire. A trail tire has medium sized knobbies, sometimes alternating rows of pairs of 2 and 3. Larger knobbies are sitting on the edges of the tire and provide the necessary cornering confidence.
Example: WTB Trail Boss 2.25
The all-mountain/enduro discipline is characterized by the necessity to have the tire provide both traction for going uphill and loads of grip for going downhill. This very dual nature of the type of riding almost always requires different tires front and back. Yet overall these tires have bigger knobbies, more widely spaced for easy mud shedding, and large knobs at the edge for maximum grip when going downhill.
Example: Maxxis High Roller II
As the name implies, there’s only one way you go with these types of tires. Weight isn’t any issue, and you want to have all the grip the grip can possibly muster when reaching terminal velocity. The biggest knobs are found on these tires. How much clearance you have between knobs is determined by the condition of the trail with more clearance as they become worse and you need to shed as much mud as quickly as possible to maintain a solid level of grip.
Example: Schwalbe Magic Mary
Mountain bike tire size and width
Nowadays people prefer wider tires for their plushness, and enhanced grip. Also, with the rise of 29 inch mountain bike tires, tire widths have increased significantly when compared to the earliest days of mountain biking.
The first mountain bikes had tire widths between 1.95 and 2.1 inch, with a 2.1 inch designated for downhill. Keep in mind wheel sizes were also 26 inches. Today a front downhill tire width would easily go up to 2.6 inches for a 29 inch tire. That’s almost a 25 percent increase.
There are a number of tire widths associated with the various mountain bike disciplines:
- < 1.95 inches: commuter
- 1.95 – 2.25 inches: commuter, touring/bikepacking, gravel, XC
- 2.25 – 2.4 inches: XC, trail
- 2.4 – 2.6 inches: trail, all-mountain/enduro, downhill
- 2.8 – 3.0 inches: plus size
- > 3.0 inches: fat bike
< 1.95 inches
Tire widths below 1.95 aren’t meant to be used for trail riding, but for use on tarmac only. You won’t find any knobby tires in sizes 26, 27.5, or 29 inch.
Example: Continental CONTACT Travel
1.95 – 2.25 inches
The classic tire width of mountain bikes and current width for a whole range of disciplines, from commuter, to gravel, bikepacking and touring, and XC.
Example: Panaracer Dart
2.25 – 2.4 inches
A tire width between 2.25 and 2.4 is both XC and trail territory, depending on the type of trail you ride. Since XC is the discipline where a different tire front and back comes into play, you can opt for a wider front tire and a smaller less grippy, yet faster-rolling tire in the back.
Example: Schwalbe Nobby Nic
2.4 – 2.6 inches
A big volume tire isn’t just for grip, but also to be able to deal with a landing after a big jump. The area of trail, all-mountain/enduro, and downhill. These tires have the biggest footprint before moving into the area of plus and fat bike tires.
Example: Schwalbe Big Betty
2.8 – 3.0 inches
Not as popular as just a couple of years ago, plus size tires have a width between 2.8 and 3.0 inches and are meant for super-grippy trail riding
Example: Maxxis Minion DHF
> 3.0 inches
Anything above 3 inches is fat bike territory.
Example: Kenda Juggernaut
Weight is an important factor. Mountain biking is a dynamic cycling discipline with a lot of braking and accelerating. A low weight is a key factor to gain momentum on your bike.
It doesn’t matter if you want to move as quickly as possible away from a green stop sign or if you’re powering up for a big jump on the trail. Depending on the amount of protection you need, and the type of casing offering such protection, you can look at tires weighing between 400 grams and three times as much.
Size also matters here, with 29 inch tires obviously weighing more than either their 26 or 27.5 inch counterparts.
The visible rubber on the outside which is the mountain bike’s contact point with the road or trail is made from something we call a rubber compound.
Compounds have a certain durometer, which is the number by which the hardness of the rubber compound is measured. Hard compounds deform less easily, and are better for dry conditions because they are faster than softer compounds.
On the other hand softer compounds deform more easily, ensuring a greater contact area between tire and trail (you don’t use soft compounds on tarmac).
Premium mountain bike tires used on the trail offer composite compounds, usually 3, with a hard, more durable compound used for the center tread, and softer side knobbies when you need the most grip while cornering.
Each premium tire manufacturer uses fancy names for their tire compounds, from Continental’s BlackChilli, to Maxxis’ MaxTerra, to Schwalbe’s ADDIX. It’s sort of the secret sauce of the tire industry.
Maxxis offers the following compounds:
- Single: One compound throughout the tread optimized for longevity and performance.
- Dual: Two compounds used within the tread of select tires to offer lower rolling resistance and increased cornering grip.
- 3C MaxxSpeed: Used primarily in cross country (XC) tires, the two compounds in the outer layer are specially formulated to reduce rolling resistance and optimize treadwear and traction.
- 3C MaxxTerra: The 3C MaxxTerra compound offers more traction than 3C MaxxSpeed, yet provides better treadwear and less rolling resistance than MaxxGrip, which makes it ideal for trail riding in all conditions.
- 3C MaxxGrip: The 3C MaxxTerra compound offers more traction than 3C MaxxSpeed, yet provides better treadwear and less rolling resistance than MaxxGrip, which makes it ideal for trail riding in all conditions.
Schwalbe offers the following compounds:
- ADDIX Performance: universal compound for MTB tires in the Performance (budget-friendly) line
- ADDIX Speed: compound for XC race specialists.
- ADDIX Speedgrip: universal compound for XC, all-mountain, and trail riding
- ADDIX Soft: compound for enduro, downhill, all-mountain and trail riding
- ADDIX Ultra Soft: compound for enduro and downhill
Continental offers the following compounds:
- PureGrip: universal compound for MTB tires in the performance budget-friendly) line.
- Black Chili: universal compound for MTB tires in the premium line, sacrificing some longevity for grip and speed.
WTB offers the following compounds:
- DNA: a single layer of rubber across the whole tread to provide consistent traction and maximize durability
- Dual DNA: two compounds to provide an efficient centerline with softer rubber side knobs
- TriTec: three layered compound. A base of high durometer rubber supports the entire tread and is capped by medium stiffness center knobs and softer side knobs
Kenda offers the following compounds:
- SRC: Standard Rubber Compound combines the best attributes of low rolling resistance, extreme durability and tread longevity into one universal package that benefits riders of all disciplines
- DTC: Dual Tread Compound is a combination of two different rubber compounds: L3R Pro (center knobs) and Stick-E rubber (corner knobs). DTC rubber is most commonly found on cross country, all-mountain, and cyclocross tires due to its rolling speed and grip.
- DH-DTC: Downhill – Dual Tread Compound. Stick-E (50sA) compound down the center, RSR (42sA) compound across the transition and shoulder knobs.
- Stick-E: The 50sA rubber provides sure grip for a wide range of trails and conditions while lasting longer than softer compounds. In addition to being used as the shoulder compound on DTC tires, Kenda also offers tires in complete Stick-E compound for the all mountain rider who wants a balanced tire life with a sure grip.
- RSR: Race Stick-E Rubber. With a 42sA, the RSR compound is super soft and sticky for a variety of surface types and conditions.
Casing and puncture protection
I’ve written a separate article on casings and bicycle tire puncture protection.
A tire bead is a strong wire that sits at the edge of the tire. Its function is to keep the tire in its correct place on the rim. Rims are made in such a way that the bead can sit or snap into place when inflated.
There are 3 types of tire beads for mountain bike tires:
Wired tires have a steel non-foldable bead embedded in them. This means they need to retain the overall round shape of a wheel, even when not mounted. Often associated with lower-quality tires this is not necessarily true, although steel is indeed a cheaper, yet heavier, alternative for a tire bead.
Example: Continental Cross King Wire
Then there are foldable tires. It means the tire bead is made from a flexible material such as aramid (kevlar), which enables the manufacturer to turn the tire into a smaller package. The main benefit of a foldable tire is that the material used is lighter. The fact that this type of bead is used in general for more expensive tires, also means that besides a lighter bead the tire casing is also lighter. Since the tire bead is flexible it might be easier to mount the tire as well.
Example: Maxxis DTH
The far majority of premium mountain bike tires are tubeless compatible. There isn’t much difference between foldable tires and tubeless tires, and tubeless ready means that they can be used either with or without tubes. That being said, since a tubeless setup needs to be airtight, a true tubeless tire can have a better airtight seal to prevent burping (air escaping due to a high impact).
Example: Maxxis DTH
Johan van Seijen
Johan van Seijen is the founder of restoration.bike. His passion for cycling in general, and restoring older bikes turned into a website to share his knowledge with a broader audience. Starting out on his father’s road bike and riding classics as the Amstel Gold Race and Liege Bastogne Liege he has shifted his attention to trail, XC, and gravel riding since. No matter how much he loves writing about everything related to cycling, nothing beats actually using his ever-expanding bicycle collection.