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Long ago, when mountain bikers began to define their own ride style and develop equipment suited for their unique needs, they borrowed from surf and motocross apparel to create shorts that were more protective and functional than the Lycra used on road rides and by cross-country racers. These were looser-fitting than the tight bibs made of spandex and became known as baggies.
A generation later, the term no longer works. Modern mountain bike shorts have evolved into high-performance gear made for the unique challenges of riding on trails. They’re light, breathable, and fit snugly without being restrictive. This is most evident in trail shorts, which we review here.
There’re heavier, meant for more aggressive riding, but most mountain bikers will be best served by this common style. Generally, trail shorts are form-fitting to not snag on a seat. They’re constructed of lightweight, breathable material (typically nylon or polyester or a blend of similar fabrics), often coated with a durable water repellent to keep moisture from soaking through. The better ones have a secure waist snap or buckle, a pocket on the side or rear for a phone, micro waist adjustments, and effective ventilation. Many weigh less than 200 grams (about half a pound).
While you can finder cheaper options, and some that cost more, we focused our testing on models that run about $100. These deliver everything you need for a sweaty session on your favorite trails.
How We Tested
We rode multiple laps in each pair of shorts on one of our local trail systems. Each was around 9 miles, included roughly 1,000 feet of climbing, and took about an hour and a half. We did this during late spring, with temps in the high 70s or low 80s on most rides. We evaluated the shorts on their fit, ventilation, comfort, and utility. And our women testers evaluated the women-specific shorts on a similar loop in similar conditions.
We also performed targeted testing on most model’s durable water repellent (DWR) treatment. DWR won’t make polyester or nylon shorts waterproof (liquid can still penetrate seams and zippers), but even we were surprised to see how well the coatings prevent water from passing through. And because it’s a treatment that sticks to the fibers, not between them, DWR won’t affect breathability too much. In fact, it can help, given it keeps your shorts from becoming soggy with sweat or rain (which can inhibit breathability).
We formed a small “cup” in the fabric and secured it over a jar. Then we poured in 50ml of water and started the stopwatch. We timed how long the fabric on the front side of the mid thigh prevented water from leaking through, avoiding any seams or pockets in our test area. Because chemicals and dyes in detergent can make DWR treatments less effective, we did this to new shorts, then again after one wash and after five. The six models below lasted for our max time of five minutes without a drop of water leaking through, even after all five washes.
Most, but not all, of the shorts we tested came with a padded liner. But since these are usually low quality and many riders prefer tossing those and wearing better-fitting bib shorts, we didn’t evaluate them during this test.
―BEST FOR XC―
Patagonia Dirt Roamer
The Dirt Roamer is Patagonia’s lightest (160 grams), most breathable, and stretchy mountain bike short. With a “contoured” fit, they’re slimmer than a relaxed-fit short—if they were any slimmer, you’d basically be wearing spandex. Because they’re a snugger fit, the leg openings only work with slim-profile knee pads (Example: Troy Lee’s Speed Sleeve). Even so, the 12.25-inch inseam prevents the dreaded gaper gap. Zippered cargo pockets on each leg keep snacks and other small items at hand. Being a Patagonia product, the Dirt Roamer features recycled polyester with manufacturing taking place in a Fair Trade Certified factory. The Dirt Roamer comes in nine sizes, with two adjustable toggles on the waist to fine-tune the fit. There’s also a women’s version with an 11.75-inch inseam.
Pearl Izumi Summit
These impressive shorts scored well across the board. They’re comfortable, fit well, and have good water repellency and smartly placed pockets. At 191 grams, they’re relatively light and the nylon fabric breathes well, though not quite as well as top models like the Bontrager. That said, the four-way-stretch ripstop nylon is a little sturdier and should stand up to tears or rips better over a season or two of hard use. Pearl makes women’s Summit Shorts with a 12-inch inseam—they cost $80 and use polyester instead of nylon material.
These shorts excel at every measure we looked at: They’re the lightest in the test (178 grams), most comfortable, have excellent water repellency, boast smartly placed pockets, are breathable, and have a simple but secure buckle system that allows you to fine tune the fit. The only drawback is that the lightweight fabric could tear more easily, but it held up admirably on our rides, surviving a few hip-to-dirt crashes during testing. Despite the minimal feel, Bontrager packed the shorts with pockets. There are two front ones for basic stuff, a deeper one for your phone placed out of the way below your hip, and a small zippered one for keys or cash. The 14-inch inseam should fall just about the knees on most riders—long enough for pads.
―BEST FOR WOMEN―
Wild Rye The Freel
Our testers have raved about these do-it-all shorts in the past, and their performance in our most recent testing solidifies their place as our favorite women’s short. At 226 grams, they’re not the lightest, but the sturdy, four-way stretch material resists tears and has a great feel against your skin. And the shorts move well with your body as you pedal. The DRW coating withstood water for the full five minutes in our testing and held up well to multiple washes. The Freel come in six bright patterns, and the 12-inch inseam (for size 8) sits just at the knees, an ideal length for all-day rides or shorter rips with friends.
—BEST PREMIUM SHORTS—
Rapha Trail Shorts
The Trail Shorts are the best part of Rapha’s new and excellent mountain bike collection. Both the men’s and women’s shorts received high marks from our testers. The stretch-woven nylon material is robust and thick but breathes well and has plenty of stretch for unhindered pedaling and body English. The waist is spot on: Secure without pinching, the locking snap never pops open, and the waist adjusters don’t slip nor interfere with a waist pack’s belt. The length and leg openings work well with pads—Rapha’s new knee pads are superb—and the medium-trim fit gives them a stylishly tailored silhouette as well. They look damn good, and you’ll look damn good wearing them.
―BEST PAD COMPATIBILITY―
POC Essential Enduro
Available in men’s and women’s versions, these shorts impressed all of our testers. Despite the enduro name, they’re light enough for sweaty pedal-fests, weighing in at 233 grams. The DWR-coated fabric withstood our water penetration test, even after multiple washes. POC included patches of abrasion-resistant material on the hips, but the shorts feel airy and breathable. Two zippered pockets on the thigh provide space to store your phone or food. The longer inseam and articulated knees make them compatible with pads, giving these shorts the versatility for short XC rides or ripping laps on your favorite descents.
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