Mountain Bike Tire Buying Guide – What Are The Best Mountain Bike Tires in 2020?

TL;DR – In a hurry and just want to know what are the best mountain bike tires? The five best MTB tires available are (in my opinion):

Tires for technical riding:

Tires for trail riding:

Tires for cross country riding:

If you are just starting out and are going for an entry level bike, you probably don’t need to worry about what tire you should be putting on your bike just yet. However, if you are a bit more experiences and want to start upgrading your bike with components, one of the areas you can gain some performance is by getting the right tires on your bike! But what are top rated mountain bike tires? Is there a single answer?

The short answer is no. To get the right MTB tires for improving your performance, you need to know what you are looking for first.

Overview and Important Specifications

Choosing a mountain bike tire can be a daunting process and to be able to find the right mountain bike tires for your needs, you will need to keep a few things in mind (there are enough tire models and tread patterns there, often with overlapping applications, that can drive any mountain biker mad!).

But the tire is easily one of the most important components on the bike. The right or wrong tire will have an immense effect on how much you enjoy your bike and your rides.

There is not one single answer to the question “what are best mountain bike tires” as you will have a set of specific needs unique to you. This guide can help you cut through this maze of marketing red tape. Knowing the parts of a tire, and what they do, is critical in choosing which tire will work best on the kind of terrain and in what kind of weather you ride.

This guide covers this and suggests some strong options in the tire market that can start you on your quest to find the right tires for your needs.

Parts of a Tire

Before I get into which tires I think are the best MTB tires, I first want to cover what you need to keep in mind when shopping for mountain bike tires. To do that, lets look at what the important bits are of a tire.

The parts of a tire we will look at, are:

  • Tread pattern
  • Rubber compound
  • Casing
  • Bead

Tread Pattern

The tread pattern of a tire is the most noticeable thing about it and is often what sets tires apart in terms of brand identity and performance. The tread is made up of the center knobs, the side knobs at the edge of the tire and the intermediate knobs in between the two.

The shape of the center knobs determines how much rolling resistance, how strong its braking performance is and the straight-line stability of a tire. A tire that has center knobs very close to each other with ramped forward rolling edges is designed for the best rolling resistance at the expense of braking performance.

A tire with wide center knobs spaced further apart is designed to scoop dirt and therefore have a good braking performance at the expense of efficient rolling resistance. A center knob pattern with a channel straight down the middle provides reliable straight-line stability and cornering performance at shallower lean angles at the expense of braking performance.

Side knobs determine how well tire corners and usually varies based on what kind of terrain it is designed to corner on. Large, tightly spaced, side knobs grab loose dirt and maintain stability in rough conditions but are at risk of folding over on harder terrain, especially concrete. Large, widely spaced, side knobs bite into soft dirt or mud and clear muck that would gunk up a tire with tightly spaced knobs.

Tires with smaller side knobs perform better on harder terrain and accommodate steeper lean angles without folding over. They also have less rolling resistance, meaning you will lose less speed when cornering on roads or hard packed dirt.

On the other hand, running these tires in loose conditions is practically an invitation to wash your front tires out. Intermediate knobs are a huge factor in the overall feel of the tire. Intermediate knobs that are sized similar to the center and side knobs provide a smooth transition between shallower and steeper lean angles. These kinds of tires are more friendly to riders who don’t ride aggressively and utilize shallower lean angles more often.

Tires that have no intermediate knobs are popular for aggressive riders because they are superior at steeper lean angles and have a more predictable feel as your tires lose traction. Generally, tires like these are easier to drift because traction at the extremes is lost slowly and relatively predictably.

Tires with prominent intermediate knobs lose traction suddenly at extremes because the intermediate knobs that give you more traction at shallow lean angles actually keep your side knobs from grabbing more dirt at steeper lean angles.

Knob spacing determines what kind of weather conditions tires are built for. Tires that have many knobs close together are the best for dry and hard packed conditions. These often roll very efficiently but can pack up with mud in the wet. Tires which have large spaces between taller knobs have optimization for muddy or very loose riding conditions. These tires are great at biting into the ground but are at risk of having their knobs fold over on hard-packed ground.

They roll much less efficiently than tires with tightly spaced knobs and often wear out faster as well. Most tires out there use tread patterns that balance the strengths of each knob section, mentioned above, to achieve the best performance on specific kind of terrain and riding style. 

Some of the best all-around tires compromise between the strengths of certain tread patterns but may not be the best for specific trail conditions.The take away from these tread patterns is to stay away from tires that seem to have tread patterns composed of a mosaic of seemingly random angular rubber knobs.

Tires that have a clear purpose-based pattern of their knobs will always perform better.

Rubber Compound

Rubber compounds are just as influential to a tire’s performance as the tread compound. The unit for describing the softness of tire rubber is their durometer.

On mountain bike tires, this can be as soft as 42a to as hard as 70a and can usually be found on the tire’s product description or on the tire itself. Hard tires will roll much more efficiently than soft tires.They will also last much longer and provide more support in corners. Unfortunately, hard rubber also doesn’t grip nearly as well as soft rubber.So even if a hard knob is more rigid, there is a strong chance that it will just slip instead of grip. Hard compound tires are also harsher and transmit chatter to the bike more severely.

Soft compound tires provide amazing levels of grip. They also provide an extra layer of damping that can make bumps feel like a thud rather than a snap, especially on tires with wider and taller knobs.

This comes at the price of less efficient rolling and the tendency to knobs to fold over on hard surfaces. Many higher-end tires will contain several compounds of varying durometers. Each brand has its own term for this. But in general, they consist of soft outer knobs with a core of hard rubber, medium center knobs that provide a compromise between efficient rolling and grip, and a base layer of hard rubber to give the tire stability.

These tires perform the best but are also the most expensive. They also lose performance drastically when the soft part of the tire has worn away. Tire models often get poor reviews because of misunderstanding of the rubber compounds. Lower end bikes often come with the cheapest tires that have the hardest rubber compounds. No matter how good the tread pattern is, hard compound tires will be slippery – especially in wet condition.

Casing

A tires casing is what the side wall and stuff underneath the tread are made of. It is the structural support of the tire but also its heaviest part. Balancing the merits of weight and durability is critical in any tire. Compromising one for the other can have huge consequences but also huge benefits. The lightest casings in mountain bike tires are ready in terms of cross country.

Light tires make a bike significantly nimbler when changing directions and are much easier to accelerate because you are turning less mass. In general, lighter tires make the bike feel much livelier and can even make you feel like a stronger rider.

On the other hand, they often require higher pressures to maintain stability. This means that it needs enough air pressure such that in tubeless applications, they will stay mounted on the tire under stress and, in tubed applications, keep the tire from bottoming out and pinching the tube when going over sharp-edged bumps.

The price you pay for having to run higher pressures is reduced grip and a harsher ride. Downhill specific tires are the heaviest, sturdiest tires that often use double-ply casings. These casings allow these tires to be used with lower tire pressures while still being able to survive rock gardens and high-g corners.

At speed, these mountain bike tires are also very stable. Their weight, when rotating, keeps the bike going straight even through hits that would otherwise deflect bikes with lighter tires. Stability in mountain biking is the antonym of nimbleness and this is where you feel the heavy tires. The bikes will feel sluggish under pedal power, through jumps and even through corners.

Most manufacturers will have one or two tiers in between the lightest and the heaviest types of tire casings which carry different balances of the compromise between weight and durability.

How durable of casing you should get is dependent on what kind of application you’re going for and your own weight. Lighter riders, under 150lbs, can often get away with lighter casings but heavier riders, over 200lbs, will often need sturdy heavy tires for even milder trails. Tire inserts are also a new development in tire technology that may let you get away with lighter casings or further reinforce downhill tires.

Bead

The bead is a pair of strings that go along the two lips of the tire that enter the rim. They’re designed to lock into the rim upon inflation of the tire. On tubeless-ready tires, the bead is lined with a finish that keeps the tire sealed under pressure when it locks into the rim.

A sturdy bead will keep your tire locked on to your rim through stronger lateral forces, even under lower tire pressures. A failure in the bead lock can result in a burp on tubeless tires in hard corners, or a complete explosion of the tire if the bead fails catastrophically.

There are two types of bead you’ll usually come across in mountain biking. Wire bead tires are almost exclusive to heavy downhill tires. It is the stronger and heavier of the two types of beads. You may identify wire bead tires from how the tire sits.

They cannot be folded down and will still be round and a little rigid even without a rim. The other type of bead is Kevlar bead. This is still very strong and stable but much lighter than a wire bead tire. Most tires use Kevlar, or “folding”, bead. You may identify it easily enough as Kevlar bead tires can be folded down when off the rim, as the other moniker suggests.

These are the ones you see folded on store shelves in packaging.

The Best Mountain Bike Tire for You

The mountain bike tire compounds and casings often go hand in hand with soft compounds and thick, heavy casings for gravity applications and harder, more efficient compounds with lighter, thinner casings for cross country and long-distance riding applications. There are dozen of different combinations of the two in between these specialized applications to suit the kind of riding you do.

The guide on tread patterns can help you choose what kind of patterns you would need for your hard packed, loose, steep, lengthy or even fire road home trails. Choosing the right mountain bike tire for you can be a little involved, but it’s definitely worth it. Tires are also a relatively cheap consumable, so don’t be intimidated by the purchase and allow yourself to try different ones when your current set starts to wear out. Narrow down your preferences and understand what kind of feel each tread pattern, rubber compound or casing gives you and you will surely settle on a tire design that works best for you.

Gravity and Technical

Maxxis Minion DHF

Maxxis Minion DHF Wide Trail 3C/EXO/TR Tire - 27.5in 3C Maxx Terra/EXO/TR, 27.5x2.5
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The Maxxis Minion DHF tread pattern has remained practically unchanged for over a decade. It is the standard and is one of the best tires at what it does. The DHF’s tread pattern is perfect for aggressive cornering and high efficiency rolling at the cost of poor braking performance. It is an excellent tire for hitting fast high-commitment race lines and it rewards leaning the bike over for hard corners.

These traits also make it a great trail and aggressive cross-country tire in the lighter casing versions. Don’t let the ‘F’ in ‘DHF’ fool you, this tire is perfectly good as a rear tire as well if you’re hell bent on letting go of the brakes. It is easily the most iconic tire in mountain biking and remains a solid choice for an aggressive riding style to this day.

Maxxis Minion DHF Wide Trail 3C/EXO/TR Tire - 27.5in 3C Maxx Terra/EXO/TR, 27.5x2.5
  • Compound:3C Maxx Terra
  • Size: 27.5 x 2.5 in
  • Type: tubeless, clincher
  • Casing: EXO TR
  • TPI: 60

Maxxis Minion DHR2

Maxxis Minion DHRII 3C Exo Tubeless Ready Folding Tire, 27.5x2.40WTinch
Click on image to go to Amazon

The Minion DHR2 is a redesign of the less-than-stellar rear tire pair of the original DHF. The DHR2 keeps the DHF’s amazing side knob design and replaces the center knobs with a pattern that allows for strong braking while keeping a good compromise with rolling resistance. This compromise has made this mountain bike tire one of the most versatile out there and easily one of the best all-rounders.

The tread pattern maintains a small channel between the center knobs and the side knobs for aggressive cornering but now you can actually slow down on steep loose terrain if you choose to. If you’re riding any kind of terrain except long distance fire roads, you will be happy on this tire.

Maxxis Minion DHRII 3C Exo Tubeless Ready Folding Tire, 27.5x2.40WTinch
  • Compound: 3C Maxx Terra
  • Size: 27.5 x 2.40 in
  • Type: tubeless, clincher
  • Casing: EXO TR
  • TPI: 60

Maxxis Assegai

Maxxis Unisex's Assegai MTB, Black, 27.5 x 2.5 3C Maxx Grip Downhill
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The Assegai is a new addition to the Maxxis gravity line and is designed to be a dry weather aggressive tire. Its sizeable knobs with good coverage all over the tire make this an excellent option for loose, rocky trails. The soft rubber and thick knobs practically add another layer of suspension to the bike. The price of all this rubber is weight. The big knobs make this one of Maxxis’ heaviest tires. It was originally devised for rocky downhill trails but has been released in lighter casings for enduro applications.

Maxxis Unisex's Assegai MTB, Black, 27.5 x 2.5 3C Maxx Grip Downhill
  • Foldable Bead
  • 60 TPI
  • 3C is a soft compound that offers more traction yet better rolling resistance
  • Max 60 PSI
  • Tubeless Ready

Schwalbe Magic Mary

SCHWALBE Magic Mary Addix 29''x2.35 tire, Black
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Schwalbe is one of the few companies to go toe-to-toe with Maxxis and develop an iconic tire that isn’t a knock-off of the DHF. The Magic Mary, developed from the Muddy Mary, uses a different patter convention on the side knob than the DHF and its copies use. This tire is quite a bit chunkier than most of its competitors making it a favorable choice if your choice of riding falls on trails with thicker dust or muddier terrain. They also tend to come in heavier and with lower rolling efficiencies than the competition. But it also has still become very popular and it is easily Schwalbe’s most iconic tire.

SCHWALBE Magic Mary Addix 29''x2.35 tire, Black
  • The favorite among downhill and enduro experts.
  • The perfect choice for virtually any track.
  • Intermediate tread: maximum brake traction and corner grip even on extremely muddy terrain thanks to strong shoulder studs and the aggressive, open tread design.
  • Sport Type: Cycling

Kenda Hellkat

Kenda Hellkat Pro Tire 27.5X2.40 RSR AGC 60TPI Wire
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The Hellkat is a new tire from Kenda that has brought the company back into the competitive market of tires. It has also achieved this without being a blatant copy of the Maxxis DHF or DHR2.

The Hellkat is a very versatile tire which handles braking and cornering in loose terrain very well. Although it may not have the huge side knobs of other gravity tires, the strong coverage without the dense spacing, make it ideal for a huge variety of conditions including the wet.

Kenda Hellkat Pro Tire 27.5X2.40 RSR AGC 60TPI Wire
  • A layer of aramid weave that offers more cut resistance and low weight than traditional downhill tires.
  • The casing is topped with the soft RSR race rubber for better traction , control and wearing characteristics.
  • All Hellas model are tubeless
  • The hell Kat was designed a variety conditions , with a wire bead for the toughest tracks. ROUGHT/ROCKY TERRAIN, 25-50PSI
  • Advanced Gravity Casing (AGC) - three pieces of KVS help prevent cuts and punctures, and a 20mm apex reduces the chance of pinch flats or burping.

Trail Tires

Maxxis Ardent

Maxxis Ardent Skinwall Folding Bead Tire, 29-Inch x 2.4-Inch
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The Ardent is another classic all-rounder mountain bike tire from Maxxis. It features low rolling resistance from low profile knobs. The intermediate knobs are sparse enough to allow for some side knob bite but the low-profile knobs on this tire keep it less than ideal for loose conditions. The design also uses a high-volume design meaning the tire itself is larger despite the smaller knobs.

This means that there is a lot more tire to absorb bumps and it allows for a good compromise between weight and impact absorption. The Ardent is an excellent option for an all-arounder for the less extreme styles of riding.

Maxxis Ardent Skinwall Folding Bead Tire, 29-Inch x 2.4-Inch
  • Race winning tires
  • Used by professionals and amateurs alike
  • Tested for durability
  • Single compound rubber
  • 60tpi Construction

Schwalbe Nobby Nic

SCHWALBE Nobby Nic Addix Folding Addix Speedgrip Snakeskin 67TPI 23-50PSI 720g Tire, Black, 275' x 20/35'
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The Nobby Nic is Schwalbe’s all-purpose tire for hard packed and slightly loose trails. The high-density knobs make grip plentiful on hard surfaces but also make this tire a poor option for any mud. The many intermediate and side knobs do mean that the tire can handle some loose dirt while still performing great on harder surfaced trails.

The gaps in the center knobs also make it a viable choice for steep terrain. This is a strong option if you want an all-arounder tire but find the knobs on the Ardent too small.

SCHWALBE Nobby Nic Addix Folding Addix Speedgrip Snakeskin 67TPI 23-50PSI 720g Tire, Black, 275" x 20/35"
  • Tread design: excellent traction and braking performance thanks to special central stud arrangement and large shoulder studs
  • The all-rounder that works in every situation, no matter the weather, no matter the terrain
  • Widest possible range of use: for tour and all-mountain, for difficult cross-country tracks as well as technically challenging endure trails
  • Country Of Origin : Taiwan

Continental Trail King

Continental Trail King Fold Protection/Apex, Black Chili, Mountain Bike Tire, 29 x 2.2-Inch, Black
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Continental has been a player in the mountain bike tire industry for a long time but it has never gained the same amount of traction as Maxxis or Schwalbe. Their lineup, despite its many quirky tires, has some gems. The Trail King is one of those gems. It has sparsely space, wide center knobs that give it immense braking traction despite the poor rolling resistance.

This open knob pattern along with the prominent side knobs also gives it a strong bite in the corners. And, actually makes it a great all-rounder if you encounter wet trails regularly.

Continental Trail King Fold Protection/Apex, Black Chili, Mountain Bike Tire, 29 x 2.2-Inch, Black
  • BLACK CHILI- Features Continental’s revolutionary Black Chili Compound which reduces rolling resistance by 26% improves grip by 30% and adds 5% more mileage out of your tire.
  • PROTECTION APEX- Floating ply on top of the 3:2 overlap, apex insert and an improved Continental casing rubber done by utilizing a higher rebounding more complaint compound to help the casing better withstand the abuse of WC endure. Topped off with added rubber at the bead to improve retention, minimize burping and ease tubeless-ready setup.
  • HANDMADE IN GERMANY-Continental has been hand making their tires since 1871, maintaining the integrity of tradition, while evolving with the most advanced technology.
  • LIGHT AND AGILE- The Trail King has a light and agile footprint, which when combined with its reasonable weight, rolls exceptionally well and hooks-up over a broad range of conditions.
  • UNIQUE COMPOUND- The special compound structure of the Trail King wears forever and rails whether wet or dry.

Cross Country

Maxxis Ikon

Maxxis Ikon 3C EXC EXO Folding Tire, 29-Inch x 2.2-Inch
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The Maxxis Ikon is one of the standards in XC tire design. It features low profile knobs across the board with a creative tread pattern. That tread pattern helps keep braking strong despite maintaining efficient rolling characteristics. This tire is also one of Maxxis’ lightest and is definitely one of the strongest options if you ride on hard packed trails or fire road.

Maxxis Ikon 3C EXC EXO Folding Tire, 29-Inch x 2.2-Inch
  • Race winning tires
  • Used by professionals and amateurs alike
  • Tested for durability
  • Exception race specification
  • 3C Triple Compound Technology

Maxxis Aspen

Maxxis 29 x 2.1 Aspen eXC Fldg 60a Tire
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The Maxxis Aspen is a more aggressive cross-country race tire than the Ikon. It features an extremely low-profile center knob profile, minimal intermediate knobs and a relatively aggressive line of side knobs. This makes perform in a similar manner to the DHF in which aggressive cornering can be achieved through the creation of a channel.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this can handle hard G’s as it is still an XC tire with XC-sized side knobs. The center knobs being very low profile also makes this tire prone to wearing relatively fast compared to other cross-country tires. This is a small price you pay if you need the best short-term performance.

Maxxis 29 x 2.1 Aspen eXC Fldg 60a Tire
  • Hardpack maxxis racing tire
  • This tire is Got recommended in the mud
  • 475 grams (26 x 2.1), 530G (29 x 2.1)

Schwalbe Racing Ralph

SCHWALBE Racing Ralph HS 425 Addix Speedgrip Snakeskin Folding Mountain Bicycle Tire (Black - 26 x 2.25)
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Schwalbe has gained popularity by going toe-to-toe with Maxxis with successful tread patterns. They tend to go on the more aggressive side of things. This remains true on their XC race tire. The Racing Ralph ha wider and slightly taller knobs than a lot of dedicated race tires from other brands. This also makes it a stronger performer in looser terrain.

Races often don’t stay hard packed for long and become loose – especially on the descents. This is where the Racing Ralph’s aggressive center braking knobs are great to have. The focus on biting grip makes it a more comfortable mountain bike tire to use on where you’re not trying to set lap records.

SCHWALBE Racing Ralph HS 425 Addix Speedgrip Snakeskin Folding Mountain Bicycle Tire (Black - 26 x 2.25)
  • SnakeSkin, TL Easy
  • ADDIX - Evolution Line, Folding Bead
  • 26-54 psi
  • 67 EPI
  • 560 g (26 x 2.25)

Wrapping-Up

This article is probably one of the longer buyer guides I have done so far. But the reason is simple, finding the right tires for your needs is not as simple as walking into a store and telling the sales guy you want the best sunglasses! There are some technical elements we need to keep in mind to be able to choose the tire that is actually going to give you a performance improvement.

What do you think, what are the ultimate mountain bike tires you have used so far? Have you ridden on any of the tires we mention above? If you have any thoughts or comments, please share them with us. We would love to hear from you!

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