How to Choose Mountain Bike Pedals

Your bike’s pedals connect you to the timeless spirit of mountain biking. But with bazillions of MTB pedal companies releasing new flat and clipless pedals that promise to revolutionize your cadence, it’s easy to get confused. The sheer number of good and not-so-good mountain bike pedals can be overwhelming. I put together How to Choose Mountain Bike Pedals to help your shopping journey in some way.

Are you building a new rig from the ground up? Maybe you’ve become a better mountain bike rider and are now looking to upgrade your bike. Or you just like changing things even when everything is working fine. Whether you’re looking to treat your mountain bike to a pair of new flat platform pedals or clipless MTB pedals, this resource got you covered.

Two Main Types of MTB Pedals

The vast cycling market offers two main kinds of mountain bike pedals. The first type is platform pedals, often referred to as flat MTB pedals. The second type is clipless MTB pedals.

I bet your bike uses flat or platform pedals. But it’s possible you’ve yet to fit your bike with clipless pedals. Because a whole lot of confusion surrounds clipless pedals. I’ll explain where that confusion originates in the next section.

You Clip into Clipless Pedals —That’s Weird

I won’t delve into the history of clipless pedals, but I need you to understand something interesting about them. While clipless pedals are called described as clipless, there’s no way you can use them without clips (cleats).

Clipless MTB pedals are in every way clip-in pedals. These pedals come with little features known as cleats that enable you to clip your cycling shoes into them.

And that ushers in an important question. What’s better for mountain biking, clipless MTB pedals vs. flat pedals?

Flat vs. Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals: Which Are Better?

I mostly ride clipless, that is, clipped in. Clipless pedals feel somewhat more secure than flat pedals. And I feel like I can’t launch into consistently more powerful pedal strokes. But are clipless MTB pedals necessarily better than flat pedals?

Well, not really, but I know that many mountain bikers that have been cycling for a while swear by clipless pedals. In terms of style, pretty much nothing makes either pedal type superior to the other.

Platform MTB Pedals Are a Good Choice for Beginners

Flat mountain bike pedals are great for beginner mountain bikers. And if you’ll be doing all kinds of tricks and jumps on your bike, platform pedals would be a great choice.

Also, when you just want to cruise down your local trail or ride the sidewalk without worrying about being unable clipping out, use platform pedals.

Clipless Pedals Can Be Challenging to Use, At First

It’s terrifying when you can’t unclip in an emergency. And it’s easy to fall when you’re panicked bad. But lots of MTBers out there love clipless pedals.

That’s mainly because riding clipless keeps you securely clipped in, and your feet won’t slip off the pedals.  And if you’re wondering if there are mountain bike pedals that are designed to boost pedaling efficiency, wonder no more. Instead, choose clipless MTB pedals.

Pretty much everyone that rides clipped-in struggles less when it comes to keeping a good cadence.

Each MTB Pedal Style Has Pros and Cons

Functionality-wise, though, there are a few differences between platform pedals and clipless pedals you need to know. There are good reasons to choose flat pedals and good reasons to not choose flat pedals. The same goes for clipless mountain biking pedals.

In the end, the best MTB pedal type for you and your riding needs is a function of several factors. I highlight below the factors you need to consider when choosing mountain bike pedals.

But before then, here are a few reasons to choose flat pedals as opposed to riding clipless.

5 Good Reasons to Choose Flat MTB Pedals

Choose platform mountain bike pedals if:

  1. The idea of your pedals failing to unclip when you need them to terrifies you
  2. You’re a beginner mountain bike rider
  3. You’re planning to get into a MTB style that involves lots of tricks. Slopestyle mountain biking?
  4. You’re about to ride wet trails that don’t promise consistent traction
  5. You don’t want to commit to buying specialized mountain bike shoes

5 Reasons to Go With Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

Choose clipless mountain bike pedals if:

  1. Pedaling efficiency is something you want more of, even if that means enduring a little inconvenience
  2. You crave feeling securely connected to your pedals especially when riding crunchy or rough terrain
  3. You like trying new things and don’t mind the discomfort that sometimes goes with mastering new techniques
  4. You desire to have better control of your bike and cadence
  5. You want others to think you’ve been mountain biking since forever and can use flat and clipless pedals equally efficiently ha

Let’s now learn how to choose each MTB pedal style.

And here is….

How to Choose Flat MTB Pedals

Pretty much anyone that’s ever ridden a bike is familiar with platform bike pedals. I bet that’s the pedals that were on your first-ever bike as a kid.

Flat mountain pedals are called platform pedals because they have a flat surface or platform. This type of pedal allows you to wear almost all types of shoes when enjoying your bike. These flat pedals lack cleats, cages, or clips. Your feet stay freely on the pedals, and you can take them off the pedals instantly. That’s nice, huh?

What about the little issue of my feet slipping off my flat pedals, you ask. Well, that happens, but not as much as you imagine. Modern mountain bike platform pedals feature spins added to prevent slipping.

These pedal pins look like small spikes. And they’re positioned intelligently on the platform to keep your feet securely on the pedals. But these pins don’t get in the way if you need to step off your bike for whatever reason.

But what features should you be on the lookout for when choosing platform mountain bike pedals? Below is a list of four features to keep in mind when deciding which flat MTB pedals would work best for you.

What to Look for When Choosing Platform MTB Pedals

Consider the following: pedal size, pedal material, pedal shape, and pedal pins.

1. What Material Are the Flat MTB Pedals Made of?

Two materials have found widespread use when it comes to manufacturing flat mountain bike pedals. These materials are metal and composite materials, usually nylon or other synthetic materials.

So, should you choose metal flat pedals or nylon MTB pedals? Each material comes with certain advantages and disadvantages.

Metal Flat Pedals vs. Composite/Nylon Pedals, Which Are Better?

One huge reason to choose metal flat pedals is that they’re long-lasting. Rock strikes happen in mountain biking. And you want pedals that can take that kind of abuse.

Metal pedals are super tough and can take pedal strikes from rocks, logs, and other objects without breaking. So, if the trails you’ll mostly ride have tons of technical features such as rock gardens, consider choosing metal pedals.

Another reason to prefer metal platform MTB pedals is that they’re stiffer than composite flat pedals. And stiffer pedals make for great power transfer. If you want durable flat pedals that allow amazing power transfer, definitely pick metal pedals.

One downside with metal pedals is that they can be pricey. But it’s not like they’re not affordable. Most of the price points won’t stop you from buying the best flat MTB pedals on the market.

Nylon or composite flat pedals are also good. But they’re not as good as metal pedals — as far as durability and stiffness.

If you use composite flat pedals on rocky terrain or on trails covered with nice baby heads, they’ll likely get scraped. And nobody likes gouges in their pedals.

But plastic pedals aren’t bad at all. At least, the best composite pedals are not. Plus, composite pedals are usually cheaper than metal MTB pedals.

If you’re a beginner and just want functional pedals that won’t break the bank, definitely choose composite flat pedals.

2. Bike Pedal Size (Platform Size)

Pedal size or the size of the platform is a critical aspect to consider when choosing flat MTB pedals. In most cases, it is best to choose pedals with a reasonably large platform.

Why?  Generally, a larger pedal platform allows even distribution of force when you’re pedaling or trackstanding. And for that reason, wider flat pedals are more comfortable than narrower ones. Another reason to choose wider platform MTB pedals is that your feet will slip off the pedals less often.

How to Size Flat MTB Pedals

So you need large flat pedals because they’re more comfortable. But there’s such a thing as flat pedals that are too wide.

Choose flat pedals that are just slightly wider than your shoes. Let your regular shoe width be your guide when deciding on pedal platform width.

You know you have fitting pedals if there isn’t too much pedal beyond the edges of your soles. Also, you got pedal size right if you have no trouble engaging any of the pedal pins.

As you shop around for MTB pedals, make sure to select a fitting size. Fortunately, most companies list their pedals in multiple sizes.

3. Pay Attention to the Flat Pedal’s Concave and Convex

Flat pedals are supposed to be completely flat, right? Right, but some flat pedals have a slightly concave or convex shape. Mountain bike pedal makers introduce concavity and convexity to pedal shape to increase grip.

But you can also use a little creativity to make flat pedals that lack concavity or convexity have more grip. One effective way to give flat pedals a bit of convexity or concavity is by adjusting the pedal pins.

You can raise or lower the anti-slip pins on the inner side of the pedal relative to the pins on the outer side. If you handle this pin length adjustment well, your flat pedals will start giving you noticeably better grip than perfectly flat pedals.

4.Look at Amount and Length of Pedal Pins, Too

Pedal pins on flat MTB pedals serve a critical role. These pins provide grip between the shoes you’re riding in and the pedals. Pin length and the number of pins on the pedals affect grip. Generally, you get better grip with more and longer pedal pins. How many pins? 10 to 12 pins should be a good number.

However, with some flat pedals, it’s not always possible to adjust pin length or even replace the pins if they break. That’s because such pedals feature pins that are molded into the pedals. And that makes swapping the pins out pretty much impossible.

Fortunately, some flat pedals allow pin length adjustment and replacement. All you need to handle the job right is an Allen key. This simple process enables you to determine how sticky your pedals should be. Plus, you can easily replace broken, lost, or dull pins.

How to Choose Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

Choosing clipless mountain bike pedals is different than choosing their flat counterparts. Unlike flat pedals, you can’t use clipless pedals with any type of shoe. You need specialized cycling shoes with cleats that work perfectly with the pedal system you have.

Mountain bikers that use clipless mountain bike pedals typically wear cycling shoes with lugged soles. These shoes also have recessed cleats that don’t have you walking like a waddling duck.

In mountain biking, you walk some of the time. And you need biking kicks that make a bit of hiking possible. Some casual road commuter riders use MTB cycling shoes for that very reason.

Clipless MTB Pedal Systems

The majority of mountain bike clipless pedal systems use a two-hole design. This two-hole system relies on tension to fine-tune the release to your weight and strength.

Clipless pedal systems link you securely to the pedal, and your feet don’t slip the whole time. The system releases when you twist your foot a bit. But there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to unclipping.

What’s more, many clipless MTB pedal styles offer some lateral float. Float is a design feature MTBers with knee problems greatly appreciate.

Most clipless mountain bike pedals are compatible with two-bolt MTB-style cleats. Typically, these pedals have a more spacious platform than do clipless road bike pedals. Having a wider platform gives you a more comfortable feel

This comfy feel becomes more noticeable when you’re standing or trackstanding. Or when you’re riding descending trails.

Also, some clipless mountain bike pedals provide wide platforms with pins, pretty much like flat pedals. Such pedals feel great and offer great traction plus power transmission.

Shimano’s SPD Cleat System

Lots of clipless MTB pedals feature Shimano’s SPD cleat system. By the way, SPD is the abbreviation for Speed Pedaling Dynamics. But the SPD cleat system isn’t the only pedal system you can choose. The cycling market provides few alternatives.

That said, the SPD system has pretty much become the standard system for mountain bike clipless pedals. So, be sure the cleats on your cycling shoes are designed to work with your pedals before buying.

But….

What Does Clipless Pedal Float Mean?

If you read clipless pedal descriptions, you probably have seen float listed as one of the specs to consider. And you’ve wondered what this float number really means.

The float angle expresses how much rotation you’ll get from the pedals when clipped in. This spec becomes super important when it comes to using your feet plus lower body to steer your bike.

The vast majority of MTB clipless pedals offer float to some extent. Generally, the smaller the float angle, the greater the likelihood of releasing unpredictably. Additionally, you don’t get much margin for error with a smaller float angle.

That said, the built-in float and the angle at which you release from the pedal are different some of the time. And that creates a little confusion between the two values.

Clipless MTB Pedal-Cycling Shoe Compatibility

Typically, MTB shoes come with a two-bolt cleat. They’re unlike clipless road bike shoes that feature a three-bolt cleat system. Beyond this difference in cleat pattern, it’s vital to pay attention to the shape of your shoes and pedals.

Some MTB shoes look like road cycling shoes. These shoes have greater sole curvature as well as different sole patterns. These slightly curved types of shoes might interact with the relatively wide platforms and pins of clipless MTB pedals differently than their flatter skate-style MTb kicks with flatter outsoles.

Flatter or curved MTB shoe soles? Neither shoe style is superior to the other. In the end, it’s a question of personal preference. Still, it’s vital to look at how the pedal’s platform or cage interacts with the shoe to make sure you have the best traction and feel.

While many riders experience no pain when using clipless pedals (with or without float), some do. And that’s when to see a professional bike fitter.

How to Use Clipless MTB Pedals

Admittedly, riding clipless can feel unnatural and scary, at first. But once you learn how to ride clipped in, you’ll want to ride clipped in forever. And you’ll never go back to flat pedals. Seriously.

So, walk your bike to your garage and start learning how to clip in and clip out. You need a place with walls or other objects you can use for support as you learn and practice. And the garage becomes that place for most beginners.

How to Clip into Clipless Pedals 

To clip in, get on your bike and put one of your feet on the pedal. Then, slide the foot forward a bit while applying a little downward pressure.

One good thing about clipless MTB pedals is that the majority of these pedals are dual-sided. You can clip into any side of the pedal. And that means you don’t need to look down at your feet as you attempt to clip in.

It’s best to begin with your dominant foot, that is, the foot you normally start pedaling with. Then, clip in and get rolling. Once you’re riding around and keeping your balance nice and stable, try clipping in with your other foot. Keep practicing with both feet clipped in.

How to Unclip

To unclip, twist your heel out and away from your bike. In my experience, unclipping was easier than I’d thought. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t pay the price. I fell a couple of times because I forgot I needed to unclip to get off my bike. It happens, you know. So, wear a helmet when practicing and always.

What if I fall unclipped? Don’t worry. If you fall before disengaging, the movement you make when going down gets you unclipped.

Final Thoughts on How to Choose MTB Pedals

Riding the right mountain bike pedals gives you the ability to make efficient, power-packed pedal strokes. You’ll enjoy your ride more while going faster. Remember to wear decent knee pads and a good cycling helmet, too.

Choosing flat MTB pedals is different than selecting good clipless MTB pedals. While pricing can’t be ignored, pedal size, material, as well as cleat-and-pedal compatibility are more critical considerations.

Hopefully, you found this MTB pedal selection guide helpful.