Mountain bike armor is essential if you're doing downhill riding/racing, dirt jumping, or any aggressive or airborne riding. A study at Nationwide Children's Hospital (Columbus, Ohio) found that injuries to the upper extremities account for 27% and shoulder and clavicle injuries for 20% of all mountain bike injuries. You have a lot of options in this area, so some of the choice is personal preference--you like the look or feel of one piece of mountain bike protective clothing better than another. But pay equal attention to functionality. Like any type of protective gear, what you choose in mountain bike armor depends on what you're going to be doing.
How to Know if You Need Mountain Bike Body Armor
Are you doing downhill riding or racing? Are you dirt jumping or doing any sort of aggressive riding where you're going airborne? If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes," then you need mountain bike armor.
Mountain Bike Body Armor CoverageYour coverage options range from chest protectors (also called "roost deflectors"), vests, spine protectors, or full jackets/shirts. What you need to ask yourself is what parts of your upper body do you want covered? What areas give you the most concern? If you’ve had back or tailbone issues in the past, perhaps you just want spine coverage. If you’ve had a shoulder injury in the past, maybe your primary objective is to keep that area protected.
Mountain bike chest protectors fit under your jersey or shirt and are designed to protect your chest/upper body. They're deliberately cut short, so there isn't much rib or lower back protection. They block the upper body from rocks, dirt, mud, and debris and offer impact protection in a crash. Many riders prefer a chest protector because they stay a little cooler and they feel it allows them the greatest range of motion on their bike. Some mountain bike chest protectors also have a bit of shoulder padding and even a little upper arm coverage. A chest protector is a great choice if you're riding in very hot weather.
VestIf you want full torso coverage, you might want to consider vest-style MTB body armor, which covers your chest, ribs, and lower back (but remember that pad placement and thickness on vests varies). Vest-style body armor does not provide arm coverage, which is a boon if you're riding in hot weather or if a full-coverage protective jacket or shirt feels too constrictive. Some riders match vest body armor with mountain bike elbow pads so they get that vital joint protection without the sleeves.
Spine ProtectorsSpine protectors strap onto your back like a backpack, only with far more flexibility and a lower profile. Spine protectors give you back and spine coverage, with most extending down to your lower back; some will give coccyx/tailbone protection. This is a good choice if you're doing dirt jumping or other tricks where you're likely to get airborne and/or flip onto your back.
Full MTB body armor comes in either a jacket or shirt design and will offer a combination of chest, rib, back, kidney, upper/forearm, and/or elbow protection. This is the coverage for downhill racers and other aggressive riders who don't want to leave anything to chance. Full coverage body armor generally uses very lightweight mesh fabric under hard- or soft-shell padding for breathability, however, a full jacket may not be your best bet if you live in a very hot weather area or if you have a tendency to overheat.
Body Armor: Hard-Shell vs. Soft-ShellJust like with tacos, you have two basic constructions to choose from in mountain bike body armor: hard-shell and soft-shell. A third option are some of the
advanced protective materials that are designed to be soft and pliable during normal wear but stiffen immediately upon impact. Some of these materials include VPD (visco-elastic polymer dough), which was designed by POC; d30, which you'll find in gear from Troy Lee Designs; and Poron, which you'll find in gear from G-Form. We've created a page about Advanced Protective Materials in case you want to learn more.
Hard-Shell Mountain Bike Body ArmorHard-shell body armor has molded high-impact plastic cups covering key areas, such as your chest/sternum, spine/lower back, shoulders, and elbows. While this is a bit bulkier than soft-shell body armor, it’s more protective. Hard-shell mountain bike body armor is a must if you're racing/riding downhill, dirt jumping, or doing any other high-speed or aggressive riding. Sticks, branches, and rocks are far less likely to puncture hard-shell mountain bike armor, plus the hard shell offers slightly more impact resistance in the event of a crash or fall.
Soft-Shell Mountain Bike Body ArmorSoft-shell body armor uses foam padding to protect your chest, ribs, back, shoulders, and elbows. By design, soft-shell body armor is more flexible and lighter weight than hard-shell body armor. Soft-shell MTB body armor is a good choice for: trail riding or cross-country; beginners who want extra protection while they advance their skills; or anyone with a prior back or shoulder injury who wants a bit of coverage.
Mountain bike body armor, bulk, and weight
Some riders don’t want to wear mountain bike body armor because they think it’s too heavy or bulky and will decrease their mobility and range of motion. However, the risks associated with downhill riding/racing or dirt jumping demand upper body protection. New technologies, like POC’s VPD technology, have made body armor lighter and more pliable than ever before while still providing excellent protection. If there are specific areas of your upper body where you want protection, let that need guide your shopping. The bulk and weight of the snowboard armor you choose is ultimately up to you.
Mountain Bike Body Armor Price RangesThere is a very wide range in pricing for mountain body armor. For the most part, more money will buy you greater protection as well as greater technology. Bear in mind that more protection/coverage does not necessarily mean more weight or more bulk.
Mountain bike body armor under $100
BMX armor under $100 will almost always have soft-shell construction. Some manufacturers may use a combination of foams to improve impact absorption for sudden, hard impacts, and/or to reduce weight. Many jackets and vests in this price category will use traditional EVA foam of various thickness. EVA foam doesn't have the puncture-resistance of a hard shell.
Mountain bike body armor from $100-$200
Mountain bike armor in this price range includes both soft- and hard-shell armor. Some, like the innovative Vigilante Air Jacket incorporate a bit of both. The Vigilante Air has hard-shell shoulder and elbow caps, stiff (but not hard-shell) spine protection, and soft-shell chest, rib, and upper arm protection. Other pieces of armor in this price range could feature a vented, one (or two) piece plastic chest plate, flexible hard plastic shoulder, elbow, and bicep protectors, and maybe even a removable, lightweight articulated spine protector.
Mountain bike body armor over $200
The top price range gives you cutting edge body armor technology and incredibly protective, yet lightweight gear. For example, POC's high-tech VPD material hardens upon impact, giving you hard-shell impact resistance with a soft-shell feel. You may also find durable construction, (anti-abrasion fabric), versatility, reduced weight, and/or neck-brace specific designs within this price range.
Are Your Ready to Buy Your Mountain Bike Body Armor?
Now that you've got a feel for what type of mountain bike body armor will suit your needs, have a look at the models we've selected. If you still aren't sure what you want, or if you have questions about a specific piece of mountain bike armor, please contact one of our protective gear specialists.