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Essential Gear for Mountain Biking

Are you ready to ride? Mountain bike? Check. Helmet? Check. You're ready for the NICA season, right?


Not so fast, young padawan.


flat mountain bike tire

As a mountain biker, you will experience a mechanical issue with your bike at some point and need to perform a trailside repair. Whether it's a flat tire, broken chain, or misaligned part, the question isn't if it will happen; but when.


And Murphy's Law says it's probably going to be when you're miles away from the trailhead with a thunderstorm quickly approaching.


So to become a true mountain biking Jedi, you need to carry the right gear EVERY time you hit the trail.


THE ESSENTIALS


If you don't have these super-important items, head to the bike shop ASAP. Don't get stranded on the trail without them. And absolutely don't be that rider that relies on others to carry what they need to get out of a jam.


Spare Inner Tube

By far the most common part failure you'll experience on your bike are punctured tires. Sharp rocks, thorns, broken glass, and other pointy things are all lurking out on the trail, waiting to take your bike from rideable to unrideable in no time flat (see what I did there?).


When your tube gets a hole in it and won't hold air, you need a new one to replace it. Just make sure you've got the right kind for your needs.

presta and schrader tube valve stems
  • Get the right size for your bike. Most mountain bike wheels are either 29", 26", or 27.5" in diameter. You'll want a tube that matches your wheel size. Not sure what size wheels you have? It'll almost always be printed on the side of your tires.

  • Presta vs Schrader. Mountain bike tubes will have one of two types of valves. The Schrader valve is the wider type and is the same as those on car tires. It's usually found on inexpensive bikes. The Presta valve is thinner, has several advantages over the Schrader, and is the most common type on mountain bikes. You can buy whatever type you have on your bike currently, or just default to the Presta.

  • What about tubeless tires? Some bikes have what's called a tubeless setup. Instead of an inner tube to hold air, they rely on an airtight seal between the tire and the rim, as well as a liquid sealant inside. If you get a small puncture in your tire, the sealant will usually close up the hole and keep you rolling. That's not always the case, though. If your sealant is old and dried up or the puncture is too large, you're out of luck. Unless you have a spare tube. Tubeless or not, make sure you always carry this must-have item.


Mini Pump

A spare tube is worthless without some way to get air into it. That's why you need an air pump small enough to carry with you on the bike.


selection of bike mini pumps

There's a wide variety of mini pumps out there. Don't get too hung up on the little differences. Just make sure you get one that works with your valve type (see above), and if a model has both "high pressure" and "high volume" versions, get the high volume one. That'll fill big mountain bike tires faster.


There are mini pumps that use CO2 air cartridges instead of manual pumping by hand. They can be tempting to buy because of their speed and tiny size, but they can be finicky to use and are only good for as many cartridges as you carry. Make a mistake or get multiple flats, and you could be walking.


Bike-specific Multi-Tool

Your mountain bike is a complex machine, with all kinds of parts, bolts, and bits subject to breaking or misalignment. You won't be able to fix everything out on the trail, but a multi-tool designed for biking will help with some of the more common issues.

bike multi-tool with too many functions

Now, if you thought there were a lot of different types of mini pumps, just wait 'til you go to pick out a multi-tool. A single brand might sell 20 different models, some with 30-plus different tool functions.


Unless you're a gearhead, no need to go overboard, here. More functions means bigger, heavier, and more expensive. Something with a dozen or so tools is a good middle ground. That'll get you a useful range of wrench sizes and screwdrivers tailored specifically for bikes.


One function that doesn't come on all multi-tools but probably should is the chain tool. Also called a chain breaker, this tool will allow you to remove damaged links if your chain breaks while riding. Some riders even carry a separate chain tool, as the small one on a folding tool can be a little tougher to work with.


OTHER ALMOST-ESSENTIAL GEAR

If you choose to carry just the bare minimum while you ride, a tube, pump, and multi-tool are the key elements (along with some way to carry them, like a hydration pack, saddle bag, or jersey pocket).


You can save yourself some time, energy, and frustration, though, with a few add-ons:

bacon strip tubeless tire plug repair kit
  • Replacement chain link. Sometimes called a master link, missing link, or quick link. This takes up almost no space in your pack and will save your bacon if your chain breaks in the middle of a ride.

  • Bacon Strips. Speaking of bacon, these deliciously named gummy strips will plug up a tubeless tire puncture that's too big for sealant alone to seal. To insert them, you'll need a specially designed tool (usually sold with the strips and available on some multi-tools).

  • Tire Levers. If your tire fits tightly on your rim, you're either going to need super-human strength or a tire lever or two to get it off and back on.

  • Patch Kit. What if you get a puncture in both your original tube and your spare? You can patch a tube with one of these. A kit includes patches and rubber glue. Self-adhesive patches omit the separate glue and are quicker to use, but they might not be as reliable.


And finally, make sure you learn how to do basic repairs. All the tools in the world are useless if you don't know what to do with them and don't have a riding buddy who does either. Watch YouTube videos (like this one) to level up your mech skills, or ask a coach or friend to show you how.


WHAT I CARRY

I've been mountain biking for about twenty years now and have pretty well figured out what works for me. If I'm doing an adventure race or a long, backcountry ride, the list is longer, but here's what I carry for an everyday ride:

  • Water bottle - Carried in the bottle cage on my bike.

  • Hip pack - I prefer this to a full backpack because of the lower center of gravity and it helps my back stay cool. It holds everything below and will hold an extra water bottle or two, if needed.

  • Multi-tool with chain breaker

  • Chain link

  • Bacon strips and insert tool

  • Mini-pump

  • CO2 inflator and CO2 cartridge - I'll usually only use these if I'm in a hurry or the bugs are attacking. Otherwise, my mini-pump is more reliable and less expensive.

  • Tube

  • Tire lever

  • Self-adhesive tube patches

  • Snack

  • Smartphone with the Trailforks app - TrailForks is awesome, because it gives you a map of the trails you're on, shows you where you are on the map, and works even if you don't have cell service. MTB Project is a free alternative, though its collection of trails isn't as extensive.


Maybe that all sounds like a lot, but it all fits in my small pack and is hardly noticeable when I ride. Plus, I've never had to push my bike several miles back to the trailhead, through storms, sweltering heat, crazed mosquitoes, or approaching night.

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