Modern mountain biking has evolved from its beginnings of riding modified cruiser bikes down a mountain in California into a diverse sport in terms of terrain types, technical challenges and greater risks taken by riders.
While the potential of crashing is an acknowledged part of the sport, riders often take several measures to reduce the likelihood of injury, and one of the simplest ways to do this is wearing protective equipment such as knee and elbow pads.
Not all knee and elbow pads are created equal. The diversity in modern mountain biking disciplines mean that equipment has also evolved to offer specific features tailored for each type of riding.
Knee and elbow pads designed for XC will come with different features, designs and materials than those offered for full-on DH racing. Picking the right type of protective equipment is important for not only making the correct purchase decision, but also maximizing enjoyment form your outings on the trails.
In this article we look at some of the best mountain biking knee and elbow pads available in 2021. We also offer a few tips on how to pick the best knee and elbow pads to suit how and where you ride your mountain bike.
We categorize our knee pad picks in two groups:
- Lightweight knee pads will be designed to allow full range of movement and all day pedaling comfort while offering essential impact and abrasion protection with low profile padding.
- Enhanced protection knee pads will offer fuller coverage, thicker padding, more durable sleeve fabrics which means that they aim to offer more protection but will be bulkier and less breathable than lightweight knee pads.
See the Things to consider section further down for some notes on how to pick the type best suited to your riding style.
Best Lightweight Knee Pads for XC & Trail Riding
1. POC VPD AIR Knee Pads
POC is a Swedish company that specializes in high-quality equipment for cycling and snow sports. Their line of mountain biking body armor offers some of the best protective clothing on the market.
The VPD AIR kneepads are designed for riders who want good leg coverage and unrestricted pedaling, which is a tricky combination to achieve with leg knee pads.
They’re made from reinforced stretch fabric with a neoprene anti-slip lining which keeps the pad from moving while also allowing for a good range of motion for unrestricted pedaling. Elastic hook-and-look straps allows you to dial in the fit further.
2. G-Form Pro Rugged Knee Guards
G-Form seems to have found its niche in developing some of the best minimal body armor on the market that actually offer good protection, thanks to the use of SmartFlex padding which is – as the name implies – super flexible during use, yet hardens on impact.
The G-Form Pro Rugged knee pads use a sleeve-style design which, in my experience, offers the most comfortable fit for rides that involve a lot of pedaling. The protective foam layer extends to the sides of the knees for better coverage than what most minimal pads offer.
The pad sleeve itself is made from an abrasion-resistant material called ArmorTex, which makes it very durable.
3. Kali Protectives Mission Knee Guards
This pair of knee pads form protective wear specialists Kali offers essential protection in a lightweight package suited for all-day pedaling. They have a stretchy mesh backing and silicone grippers in key areas to keep them where they need to be during power climbs.
For all-mountain adventures you want a pair of pads that you forget you have them on once you start pedaling, and this is a pair of knee guards that offer just that.
4. Troy Lee Designs Speed Knee Sleeve
The moment you slip-on the TLD Speed Knee sleeve you know that it is designed to be lightweight comfort and breathable.
Nevertheless, the Speed Sleeves don’t skimp on protection, being designed to offer abrasion protection and decent (if not full-coverage) impact protection using slimmed down D30 foam inserts. If you’re an XC rider with an appetite for rowdy trails, these are the ticket.
Best Enhanced Protection Kneepads for Enduro and DH riding
1. IXS Trigger Knee Pads
The IXS Trigger knee pads are designed with hard-charging riders in mind. They offer ample leg coverage that extends down to the upper shin. IXS designed the trigger knee pads to be left and right specific for a better anatomic fit that promotes a natural range of motion while on the bike.
IXS uses what they call XFoam padding for impact absorption, and one feature we love is how the foam inserts are removable for washing or even to replace in case they get damaged while performing their duty in impact and abrasion protection. Hook-and-loop straps and strategically placed silicone grippers keep the pads in place while riding.
2. Fox Racing Enduro D30 Knee Pads
This pair of full-length knee pads from Fox Racing offers full coverage with D30 foam while still being pedaling-friendly. D30 is a material with some amazing properties: it is flexible until subject to an impact, on which it immediately hardens offering maximum protection.
This means that you do not have to sacrifice comfort using hard plastic inserts and rigid protectors for the sake of adequate defense against impacts and abrasion. The Enduro D30 neoprene sleeve is perforated for breathability and ventilation, and the slip-on design does away with straps and latches for a low-profile design that matches up well with any pair of riding shorts.
3. Kali Protectives Mission 2.0 Knee Guard
While the Mission knee guards from kali offers pedal-friendly protection, the Mission 2.0 is the burlier sibling.
These full-length guards offer a breathable leg sleeve with articulated construction using four-way stretch elastane for unrestricted movement, with a 3D molded knee puck and an abrasion-resistant kneecap. I am a fan of the stealthy all-black look.
4. Leatt AirFlex Pro Knee Guards
Want good coverage and protection without the bulk? It’s a hard balance to achieve, but Leatt has come close with the AirFlex Pro Knee guards. These are designed to be a hybrid version of minimalist guards and full-length knee protectors. Airflex Pro uses low-profile soft-shell foam to offer full knee protection without restricting your pedaling range of movement.
The 3D molded gel impact pad is perforated to enhance cooling and moisture-wicking properties, and it is attached to a sleeve made of Airmesh and Moisture Cool fabrics to keep prevent overheating in warmer climates.
We categorize our elbow pad picks in two groups:
- Lightweight elbow pads will be designed to allow full range of arm movement and maximum breathability and ventilation while offering essential impact and abrasion protection with low profile padding. Some lightweight elbow pads are so minimal they can be mistaken for arm warmers on first glance.
- Conversely, enhanced protection elbow pads will offer fuller arm coverage, thicker padding, more durable sleeve fabrics which means that they will be bulkier and less breathable than lightweight elbow pads.
See the Things to consider section further down for some notes on how to pick the type best suited to your riding style.
Best Lightweight Elbow Pads
1. G-Form Pro [email protected] Elbow Pads
G-Form products make another appearance on this list, and for good reason. When it comes to arm protectors, the bulkiness of many elbow pads on the market make them annoying to use with some styles of riding clothing.
With the body-hugging design of G-Form pads, you can still fit it under most riding shirts, even those with narrower sleeves. They will not offer the required level of protection for full-steam DH riding on gnarly trails, but for aggressive XC and trail riding, they’re great.
2. POC Joint VPD Air Elbow Pads
Another great pair of minimal elbow pads is the VPD Joint pads from POC. These slimmed down elbow pads offer a good balance between adequate abrasion protection and a low-profile design that will fit well under riding clothing and feels comfortable enough to wear on all-day rides.
The VPD foam offers good impact protection, while the neoprene lining keeps the pads in place without movement that can result in chafing or discomfort.
3. Leatt AirFlex Elbow Guards
The Airflex elbow guards are light and comfortable enough to make them great for technical trail and XC rides, yet they still offer enough protection to make them great for days in the bike park, too.
Best Enhanced Protection Elbow Pads
1. Dakine Slayer Elbow Sleeves
The Slayer elbow guards from Dakine have a durable Aramid ripstop shell with impact absorbing foam inserts.
The Dakine Slayer elbow sleeves also have a pre-curved patterning for a more ergonomic fit.
2. Fox Enduro Elbow Sleeve
Fox’s Enduro Sleeve is designed for riders who want a bit more arm and elbow protection but would rather not have bulky hard inserts.
The Enduro Sleeve slides easily on your arm and stays put thanks to a stretchable seamless fabric.
3. 7iDP Transition Elbow Pads
These pre-curved elbow pads from 7iDP offer extended-length arm coverage with silicone grippers at the hems to keep them put as you shred your local trails.
The inner side of the pad sleeve is made of breathable mesh fabric to enhance ventilation.
Things to consider before buying your mountain bike knee and elbow pads
There is always a compromise between comfort and protection.
As much as manufacturers love to hype their gear as “do everything”, there is always a compromise based on the particular set of features emphasized in – or the primary purpose of – the product.
Knee and elbow pads designed for XC riding will be great for pedaling around for hours, but they won’t offer as much abrasion and impact protection as those designed for Enduro and DH riding. Speaking of riding styles, this brings us to the next point…
Choose the type of knee and elbow pads to match your riding style
If most of your rides are on XC trails with no massive drops, jumps or technical features, then you will want to prioritize unrestricted range of movement, maximum comfort, moisture management and breathability. For this type of riding you can compromise a little on protection and coverage for the sake of lighter and more minimal pads.
On the other hand, if you are an Enduro or DH racer, then full coverage, enhanced protection and thicker impact panels should take priority over low weight or less bulkiness.
Pick lightweight, breathable fabrics
What could seem like a slightly warm protective pad at the start of a ride can turn into a sweltering, uncomfortable sweat bucket one hour into a warm summer day’s ride. Yes, durable fabrics are great and ensure that you have the best possible protection, but it is important to find a good balance between breathability and durability.
Materials and fabrics
The basic anatomy of a piece of protective clothing is comprised of the material that goes against your skin as well as some kind of protective foam, plastic or other impact-resistant material.
Fit adjustment and closure are usually done by means of hook-and-loop straps, zippers or plastic buckles or slip-on fit (or a combination of these things). Similar to any other items of clothing, how knee and elbow pads fit will come down to personal preference, and it is always best to try before you buy.
Wearing knee and elbow pads can help protect against crash-related injuries as well as increase your confidence on the mountain bike especially when riding challenging trails. What you should remember is that no matter how well-designed protective clothing is, it will never offer complete protection against injury, and that you should always ride within the boundaries of your skills.
Gone are the days of knee and elbow pads looking like something out of a Robocop movie. These pieces of protective gear now mix smart designs, bordering on athletic fashion statements, with high performance features and modern fabrics for today’s mountain bikers.
Recently, the protective gear market has been dominated by advanced foam inserts such as D30 foam which allow manufacturers to offer superior impact absorption and protection in low-profile and lightweight packages.
Whatever the type of protective clothing you choose to wear, ensure that you pick the gear that not only offers good coverage and protection, but also fits you well and allows you unrestricted movement on the bike.
There is no point in ill-fitting protective gear that will you will end up leaving at home because it’s too uncomfortable on the bike!
Hani Morsi is a seasoned multi-discipline cyclist with a particular liking for mountain and gravel bikes. Hani is also a mountain bike coach, trail builder and experienced bike mechanic.