Is Mountain Biking Dangerous?

So you’ve developed an interest in mountain biking and want to know if this adrenaline-fueled sport poses any danger, right? 

Contrary to what you might be predisposed to think, mountain biking is not an inherently dangerous sport, but it can be. In fact, the injury rate of mountain biking is lower compared to many popular sports. However, the severity of injuries sustained can get pretty bad.

In this article, you’ll learn how dangerous mountain biking is, and compare it to other sports. I’ll focus only on doing a comparison between cross country and downhill mountain biking which are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

I’ll also be giving answers to questions you might have like the risks of mountain biking injury, common injuries and their causes. I’ll also touch on mountain biking tips and safety gear to keep you protected on your rides. Stick around!

How Dangerous is Mountain Biking?

Mountain biker in the air over trail

Mountain biking is inherently dangerous and partaking in it exposes you to a variety of hazards. They include: 

  • man-made obstacles, 
  • natural surface hazards
  • poor weather conditions
  • equipment failure
  • rider error. 

These safety hazards potentially put you at risk of serious physical injury, permanent paralysis and/or mental injury, disability or death. 

Here are some important mountain biking injury stats from Active & Safe Central and WEM Study.

  • 70% were due to falls
  • 14% from going over the bike’s handlebars
  • Nearly 30% was accounted for by fractures
  • And 21% was from sprains and strains

This “Injuries in Mountain Biking” reports that mountain biking athletes have an overall injury risk of 0.6% per year and 1 injury per 1,000 hours of mountain biking.

To avoid bodily harm while riding, it’s recommended that you get mountain bike lessons before you start. Also, always exercise caution and ride within your abilities.

How Dangerous is Mountain Biking Compared to Other Sports?

It may surprise you to learn that a lot of common outdoor sports have higher injury rates than mountain biking.

A Wilderness and Environmental Medicine study tracked injuries sustained from leisure activities over a period of two years in the USA. The study concluded that the mountain biking injury rate is pretty low compared to other sports. Check out the stats in the table below:

Wilderness and Environmental Medicine Study
From Wilderness and Environmental Medicine (WEM) Study

So, put your mind at rest. Know that there are risks but riding sensibly and responsibly can prevent/reduce your chances of injury.

Cross Country Vs Downhill Mountain Biking

This British Medical Bulletin review reports that the rate of injury for cross country mountain biking is 0.37 riders per 100 hours and 4.34 riders per 100 hours for downhill mountain biking.

We can see that downhill mountain biking is definitely much more dangerous than cross country.

Cross Country Mountain Biking (A.K.A XC)

Cross country mountain biking

This is the most popular mountain biking discipline and the least extreme. An Olympic discipline which involves competitors racing from point-to-point through defined trail sections in the fastest time possible.

Cross-Country Mountain Biking Tips

Cross-Country mountain biking consists of long loops or out and back trails. The terrain is flatter than a downhill trail. Some of the hazards you will encounter are the same as on a downhill trail but on a flatter terrain. 

Here are a few tips that you should consider before going on a cross-country ride.

  1. Pack enough water for your journey. 

Calculate how long the ride will take and give yourself enough water, snacks and nutrition for the whole ride.

  1. Always try to ride with a buddy

If you choose to go solo, understand the risks involved and check to see if there is cell service in the area where your trail is.

NOTE: There is always the risk of getting injured in any form of mountain biking. However, the risks are amplified when you are on a long out and back trail.  

Downhill Mountain Biking

Downhill mountain biking

Downhill biking is designed for advanced bikers who enjoy the thrill of extreme riding. They are highly intense as bikers race downhill in the fastest time possible.

Downhill mountain biking requires a great sense of balance to navigate tough terrains at high speeds. Wear additional body armor such as chest and back plates while doing the downhill mountain biking. 

Riders need a combo of total body strength, aerobics, anaerobic fitness and the acceptance of high risk of incurring serious injuries.

Related post: Full face vs Open face MTB helmets

Downhill Mountain Biking Tips

  1. Maintain your speed at a level you can manage. 

Once you start your descent on the mountain, gravity is going to urge you to let up on the brake. Don’t give into the temptation to go fast.

  1. Keep your head up and stay focused to avoid obstacles. 

Most ski resorts where mountain biking takes place are loaded with rocks and trees. Some of these obstacles are hard to recognize, especially when you are moving at high speeds. 

These obstacles also offer opportunities for you to try tricks. But be careful to only attempt tricks that are within your capability.

  1. Always check weather conditions before you begin. 

Inclement weather conditions present unique conditions for riding. Switch up your gear if necessary to make sure you are properly equipped for the ride.

Downhill biking is more dangerous and tasking than cross-country biking. When mountain biking, make sure that you take all the relevant tips mentioned into consideration for a safe ride.

Related post: Learn popular mountain biking slangs

Mountain Biking Risks of Injury

Mountain biking risks

Dehydration, tiredness or hunger may cause you to make costly mistakes while riding. So it’s important to pack sufficient water and snacks while going mountain biking. 

Note also that night time is not the time to ride a mountain bike on rough or unfamiliar terrain. Even navigating a familiar terrain at night poses a risk of getting injured.

Mountain biking is challenging enough so it’s important for you to not put yourself at risk by doing things you shouldn’t do. Know your limits and don’t go beyond them. 

Related post: What muscles does MTB work?

Common Mountain Biking Injuries

Common enduro Mountain biking injuries by injury location and type
Enduro World Series & Edinburgh Napier University Enduro Mountain Bike Medical Study

Mountain biking injuries can range from trivial to traumatic and should be taken seriously. The following are the different types of injuries a mountain biker may sustain:

1. Bone fractures

These are the most common bike injuries and often require long recovery time. Sometimes, even a biker who suffers a bone fracture may have to stop mountain biking altogether. 

Bike falls result in bone fractures which are usually upper body and facial fractures; especially the clavicle bone (collarbone).

X-Ray of Fractured Collarbone

2. Abrasion Injuries to soft tissues and skin

These are less severe and heal quite quickly. 75% of injuries during cross country and endurance races are abrasions. With a first aid kit in hand, you can quickly treat such injuries against infection and further irritation.

3. Chest and abdominal injuries

Expert and inexperienced bikers may fall over the handlebars and this may severely damage your head, shoulders or even your internal organs.

4. Facial and head injuries

Facial and head injuries are also common in mountain biking especially downhill. It’s important to protect yourself using a quality helmet. A good helmet won’t stop the impact but will greatly mitigate the chances of a lasting injury or brain damage.

Ever heard of tennis elbow? It’s a common biking injury that can be caused by improper biking posture, a weak core, or riding a wrong size bike. Any of these can cause a forearm strain and result in tennis elbow or tendonitis.

Apart from the listed injuries, fatal ones include intracranial damage, ruptured diaphragm, pulmonary contusion, transected coronary and chest trauma. The possibility of these injuries resulting in death is very high. SO BE VERY CAREFUL!

For the medical nerds out there, check out this orthopedic blogpost for more detail on mountain biking injuries.

Causes of Common Mountain Biking Injuries

  1. Rider’s mistake

As a biker, it is important to pay attention to your surroundings and be extra cautious on the trail. 70% of injured bikers reported rider error as primary cause of injury.

A lack of concentration or one wrong move can spell catastrophe. Misjudging vertical falls, drunk cycling, poor balancing and unintended braking can also expose you to injuries while riding.

2. Rough nature of terrain

Usually, an unfamiliar trail can be a problem. You can start  cycling on a smooth trail and end having to deal with quite a few obstructions midway. These obstacles can result in cycling mishaps. You should always scope out the trail before riding.

Rough mountain biking terrain

If you’re cycling downhill, the gravitational force can make it difficult to control the bike and things can go awry real quick.

3. Bike integrity issues

Regularly inspect your bike. Even if you have the best mountain bike money can buy, component failures can happen. 

Some of the usual suspects are flat tires, failed brakes, handlebars, chains, forks, suspension components and cranks.

Any of these can be caused by bike overuse or poor bike maintenance.

Related post: Check out the benefits of mountain biking

4. Level of experience

Some trails require more agility, focus and high level riding skills which are acquired through experience. 

So if you’re new to mountain biking, you should take your time to learn the ropes. With more experience and better skills, you are less likely to get involved in bike accidents.

5. Type of mountain biking

Some mountain biking styles are more demanding and dangerous than others. 

For instance, downhill cyclers are far more likely to sustain injuries compared to their cross country counterparts. 

This is because it requires a higher level of skill and endurance. Hence there is the need to be extra cautious when doing this kind of cycling. 

When MTB Crashes Happen

Mountain Biker hitting a roller (or hump) on trail

Most mountain biking crashes occur as a result of people riding above their skill level. Sometimes, they get pressured to keep up with more experienced riders. So, when a rider’s speed exceeds their skill level, crashes are almost inevitable. 

Mountain biking crashes also tend to occur more frequently during competitions so be extra cautious when competing.

When mountain bike crashes happen, some people are able to walk away with a little more than a few bruises, cuts, and scrapes while others don’t get as lucky. 

But mountain biking has proven to be capable of inflicting minor, serious and fatal injury during crashes.

Related post: Can you get shin splints from cycling?

Mountain Biking Safety Tips

Mountain bike equipped with food, water, tent and other safety essentials

Here are some tips to avoid mountain biking injuries:

  • Get in shape: Peak physical condition is needed to help you overcome the rigors of mountain biking.

  • Stretch a little to increase your flexibility and endurance. It will help you endure the physical strain of mountain biking. Personally, I recommend cardio and yoga for this.

  • Regular bike maintenance can help mitigate accidents while riding. Check your frames for cracks, make sure your brakes are functioning, your tires are okay and bolts are properly screwed.

  • Wear proper bike safety gear to help reduce the effects of accidents. You’ll need a full-face helmet, mountain biking gloves, good quality shoes, biking pads and armor. 

Knee pads, shin guards and elbow pads, chest protectors, mouth guards are also important. Also, always make sure that your safety gear is comfortable.

  • Plan your route. You know the saying “proper preparation prevents poor performance”? It’s true. You need to be familiar with obstacles to expect such as cliffs and rough areas. Being adequately prepared can help you avoid mountain biking injuries.

  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration can make you lose focus and lead you to make mistakes due to tiredness. So, drink enough water and snack lightly if you need to.

  • Pace yourself and take trails appropriate to your skill level and as you ride, pay attention to what’s ahead of you. Your eyes should focus on the immediate 10 feet to anticipate obstacles and avoid them.

  • Practice landing before take off, slow down and do not speed around blind corners.

  • Make sure your bike is trail-worthy. Get a bike with hydraulic brakes, tubeless tires, dual suspension, a dropper post and 29-inch tires for the optimum mountain biking experience. 

Although high end bikes can be expensive, they definitely do deliver.

Also, while you’re at it, remember to get bike accident insurance. Your insurance should cover treatment of injuries and bike repairs in case of accidents.

Mountain Biking Safety Gear

Mountain biker sporting all safety protective gear like helmets, sunglasses, gloves, kneepads
You should look like this guy to be fully protected.

Mountain biking can be dangerous so it’s important that you don your protective gear each time you ride. This will save you countless trips to the ER and could potentially save your life. 

Below, I will outline the different types of protective gear that you need during mountain biking.

Here’s a list of all the protective gear you will need:

  1. Helmet
  2. Goggles/Sunglasses
  3. Neck Brace
  4. Torso Armor
  5. Mountain Bike Pants
  6. Padded Gloves
  7. Elbow Pads
  8. Knee Pads
  • Helmet

The types of helmets are:

  1. Half-lid helmet: This is basically a ‘normal’ helmet without extra protection.
  2. Full-faced helmet: Is the one that has a chin guard for more protection around the face.
  3. Breakaway helmet: Can be used as a ‘normal’ helmet or as a full-face helmet by attaching a removable chin bar.

I recommend getting a full-face helmet because it is engineered to protect all sides of your head and face, including your eyes. 

Related post: Why do mountain bike helmets have visors?

A breakaway helmet provides the best of both worlds: It can be used as ‘normal’ helmet for your everyday rides and can be strapped on the chin bar to make it full-faced for mountain biking.

Remember to buy a helmet that is MIPS certified or has any other safety certification. The technology protects your brain against direct impact and rotational forces.

  • Goggles/Sunglasses

These protect your eyes from dirt, dust, or other flying objects when biking. You have two options: sunglasses or goggles. If you opt for sunglasses, make sure that they’re polarized and easy to see in both full sun and shaded trail conditions.

  • Neck Brace

This is very important for downhill mountain biking because of the speed. It protects you from whiplash or – worst-case scenario – a broken neck. And in case of a crash, it helps to keep your neck stable.

  • Torso Armor

This helps to protect your torso and its vital organs, giving you maximum protection on the trail.

  • Mountain Bike Pants

Mountain bike pants provide an extra layer of durable fabric to protect against scrapes and scratches. Wear knee pads underneath to protect your legs from harder impacts.

  • Padded Gloves

These gloves come with hard or soft pads in strategic places like the knuckles in case you accidentally hit a hard surface.

  • Elbow Pads

These can help prevent your elbows from getting scraped up or broken during your rides or falls.

  • Knee Pads

For mountain biking, I recommend burly hard-shell knee pads that will protect you from sharp rocks and high-speed crashes. 

These knee pads tend to have a thick hard plastic shell. They’re often heavier and sweatier, but worth it if you crash. For maximum protection, you can opt for knee pads that cover the shins as well.


Mountain biker lifting mountain bike in the snow

As a biker, I’m sure you know that mountain biking is a fun sport and the thrill of racing down a mountain is unmatched. But like all sports, mountain biking has hazards which can mostly be avoided. 

Always stick to the general recommendations of proper planning, preparation and problem anticipation to prevent injuries and reduce the severity of those you can’t avoid. Remember, safety first! Cheers!

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