Mountain Gear

Do a pre-ride check and take all the essential tools on every ride

Five minutes spent in the garage could save you 30 on the trail or road. Check your bike before you ride, and take the right tools so you’re ready for anything.

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Across the country, we buy more mountain bikes than any other type. We love them for the fun they bring on the trail but also because they’re comfortable and versatile, and they serve just fine for quick rides around town.

Keep your investment in top shape by following this routine before you head out the door—especially if you’re going off-road, where there’s more wear and tear.

Pre-ride mountain bike check

  1. Check to be sure that the quick-release (QR) levers or axle nuts are tight. They secure the front and rear hub axles to the dropouts.
  2. Check the brake pads for excessive or uneven wear. On disc brakes, this requires looking down into the slot in the caliper to see the pads—the pad material should be at least the thickness of a dime. On rim brakes, make sure that the molded-in grooves in the pads are not worn off.
  3. Check that the brakes are securely mounted. On disc brakes, grab the caliper and try to twist it. On rim brakes, grab and twist the brake pads and brake arms. Make sure all bolts are tight.
  4. Squeeze the brake levers. With rim brakes, this should bring the pads flat against the rims (or slightly toed-in) without hitting the tires. In the case of disc brakes, this should bring the pads against the rotor. Make certain that you cannot squeeze the levers all the way to the handlebar.
  5. Spin the wheels. Check for wobbles while sighting along the rims, not the tires. (If a tire wobbles excessively on a straight rim, it may not be fully seated in the rim; check it all the way around on both sides.) Make sure that the rims do not rub on the brake pads.
  6. Check the tire pressure. On most mountain bike tires the proper pressure is between 30 and 60 pounds per square inch (psi), although tubeless tires are able to run well below 30 psi. On fat-bike tires, pressure is 5–8 psi, with pressures as low as 2 psi for riding in snow. Look to see that there are no foreign objects sticking in the tire. If there are, you may have to pull the tube out and repair or replace it.
  7. Check the tires for excessive wear, cracking, or gashes.
  8. Be certain that the handlebar and stem are tight. Check that the stem is lined up with the front tire.
  9. Check that the gears shift smoothly. The chain should not skip or shift by itself. Make sure that each click of the shifter moves the chain over one sprocket, starting with the first click. Make sure that the chain does not overshift the smallest or biggest rear cog or the smallest or biggest front chainring.
  10. Check the chain for rust, dirt, stiff links, or noticeable signs of wear. The chain should be clean and lubricated. (Be cautious about overdoing it with the lube, though. Gooey chains pick up lots of dirt, particularly in dry climates.) The chain should be replaced on a mountain bike about every 500 to 1,000 miles of off-road riding or every 2,000 miles of paved riding.
  11. Apply the front brake, and push the bike forward and backward. The headset should be tight and should not make clunking noises or allow the fork any fore-and-aft play.

Essential tools to carry on a ride

Essential tools for mountain bike maintenance
Illustration: Mike Reisel and Todd Telander

Keep all of the following stuff in a bag under your seat or in a hydration pack or fanny pack. The operative words here are “light” and “serviceable.” Many of these tools are combined in multitools. Make sure you try all tools at home before depending on them on the trail. You don’t want to bring along a tool that doesn’t fit the part it’s supposed to fix.

  • Chain tool that works (try it before an emergency occurs)
  • Small screwdriver for derailleurs and other parts
  • Compact set of hex keys (also called hex wrenches or Allen keys) that includes 2.5mm, 3mm, 4mm, 5mm, 6mm, and 8mm sizes
  • Torx T25 wrench for 6-bolt disc-brake rotors and some SRAM handlebar controls and chainring spiders. Good multitool to replace some or all of the preceding items but with less weight and bulk
  • Tire pump and/or CO2 cartridge inflator with a spare cartridge. Larger pumps are faster than itty-bitty minipumps. Make sure the pump or cartridge is set up for your bike’s type of tire valves.
  • Patch kit. You’ll need something after you’ve used your spare tube. Check at least every year and a half to make sure the patch kit glue has not dried up. Carry glueless patches or foam insulating tape as well
  • At least two plastic tire levers, preferably three
  • Shock pump. If the fork requires a pump adapter, make sure that you carry one
  • Two plastic pad spacers if your bike has hydraulic disc brakes (in case you get rescued and have to throw your bike in a vehicle with the wheels off; spacers prevent the pistons from coming out too far if a brake lever is inadvertently squeezed)
  • Spare tube. Make sure the valve matches the ones on your bike and pump, and check that the Presta valve collar nuts on the wheels are loose enough to unscrew by hand out on the trail. Keep the tube in a plastic bag to prevent deterioration and to protect it from the sharp tools in your bag
  • Spare derailleur hanger that fits your frame in case you crash on the drive side
  • Spare chain links and two spare master links that match the chain width you’re using (i.e., 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, or 12-speed). If you’re using a Shimano chain, you can instead carry at least two subpin rivets; master links are preferable for on-trail repairs, though
  • Identification. A driver’s license or a Road ID
  • Cell phone. Like I need to tell anyone these days to carry one along!
  • Cash, for obvious reasons, and as a temporary patch for sidewall cuts in tires
  • Taillight that you can clip on or, better yet, leave mounted on your bike in case you stay out after dark
  • Wet wipes or latex gloves to keep your hands clean
  • Food and water

Adapted from Zinn & the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance, 6th edition, by Lennard Zinn with permission of VeloPress.