To find the best MTB flats, we researched 20 models and bought the 6 best for side by side tests. We then took the trails to find which models had the most grip, comfort, durability, and breathability. Sometimes we put a different shoe on each foot to discover the traction subtleties. At the end of testing, predicably Five Ten took a bunch of awards. However, this year we were impressed with Shimano's new offering took the top spot. Read to find the best mountain bike flat shoe for you.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
April 2018 Update
After months of testing, we're giving the Shimano GR7 a "co-Editors Choice" with the Five Ten Freerider Contact. Both are so good that it's hard to pick one as the winner. This is a big moment as Five Ten has always dominated the podium in past reviews. Finally, other companies are catching up. For in-depth details and more comparisons keep reading below. We also added in a few skate style shoe but we were less than impressed.
Best Overall Mountain Bike Flat Shoes
Five Ten Freerider Contact
Ability to easily escape pedals
Sole durability is questionable
Five Ten takes their Mi6 rubber commonly found on climbing shoes, to create a clipped-in feeling with a flat shoe and pedal combination. Mi6 rubber is Five Ten's softest rubber compound offering the highest level of stickiness and pedal grip. The Contact is also a bit unique in that designers chose to forego the standard continuous dot tread pattern across the entire sole. Instead, they use a smooth climbing shoe-like patch of rubber at the ball of the foot. Between the soft nature of the rubber and the large contact area, the Contact has tenacious holding power. The upper is a sturdy synthetic mesh material with excellent breathability for long hot rides. The mesh panels are located in less vulnerable zones and a more robust synthetic leather material for trim is used in the areas that are most likely to take a beating. It appeals to a good portion of the mountain bike community, with its solid performance in every riding style; cross country, enduro, light downhill, grinder climbs, it does it all.
The only downside, other than the $150 price tag, is these are not the most durable. The rubber wears relatively quick. For a more hearty sole, consider the Freerider Pro. The Freerider Pro also looks better around town. Some testers preferred the Freerider Pro, but at the end of the day, the Contact took top honors from Five Ten.
Read review: Five Ten Freerider Contact
Also an Editor's Choice
Great balance of protection, durability and power
Most comfortable high-performance option
Neoprene cuff = less style for casual use
After our last round, we were encouraged by the Shimano AM7 and its' overall performance, even though it fell short when compared to the Five Ten Freerider Contact (this year the AM7 was redesigned as a clipless shoe). We're impressed with how Shimano has continued to develop and improve on their designs. They have several standout features, including a new Michelin sole, a burly synthetic upper complete with a reinforced toecap, an interesting new ankle cuff, great comfort for both on and off the bike, oval lace eyelets, and they even added a stretchy lace keeper loop. These appeal to a large audience, from the casual rider to the expert crowd and enduro racers, even holding their own in light downhill riding. It had the similar overall performance of the Five Ten Freerider Contact, but with added durability and walk-friendliness. It outscored our other Editor's Choice by 3 points. It feels similar to the Contact, but has more all-around versatility and durability.
Our only gripe is the look. Both the neoprene and overall design do give a good off the bike style. One thing we love about the Freerider Pro is it works great for bike commuting, around the office, and a casual night on the town. It's a "swiss army shoe." We limit the GR7 just to biking. But it does that well and for $20 less than either the Freerider Pro or Freerider Contact.
Read review: Shimano GR7
Best Bang for the Buck
Five Ten Freerider
Outstanding pedal grip
Uppers lack durability of other models
Lacks some rigidity and power transfer
The Five Ten Freerider has several similarities with the more aggressive Freerider Contact, our Editors' Choice Award winner. Durable construction with synthetic mesh and leather, soles with classic Five Ten Stealth rubber, and the ability to hold its own in almost any riding arena make this a worthy flat. Add bike comfort and street-friendly style with a multitude of color combinations, and a price that won't break the bank, and this is a shoe that appeals to riders from beginner to expert.
It's not the most rigid and doesn't have the same power transfer as competitors. It also doesn't have the most durable or protective upper. That said, while cheaper shoes exist, we have yet to find one with the same high-performance capabilities of the Five Ten Freerider. There is a good reason it's a staple of Five Ten's mountain bike line.
Read review: Five Ten Freerider
Analysis and Test Results
The big question as always is: What are the best mountain bike flat shoes? That's a complicated question with no single or easy answer. There is a multitude of factors consider in selecting the right shoe. Questions like which shoe has the best fit for my foot? Where will I be riding? What kind of weather will I be riding in? Will I need to walk in my riding shoes? We'll help you answer all of those questions.
The blue dots below are award winners and the gray dots are the rest of the field. TheFreerider offers the most value in the pack. It's the least expensive shoe and scores decently. The other value standout is the GR7 which is both the highest scoring and $20-40 less expensive than most of the field.
Criteria for Evaluation
After riding for several months through a wide range of terrain and weather, we determined the most important metrics to measure the performance of all the shoes and graded them side-by-side. We evaluated for grip, comfort and arch support, rigidity, weight, breathability, and durability.
When comparing mountain bike flat shoes, assuming you get the right fit, grip is the most important metric. Unlike clipless shoes and pedals, there is no hard connection between rider and mountain bike, but a more temporary connection which relies on rubber compounds and tread patterns. A good positive grip, like the Five Ten Impact VXi has, provides an effortless and fun ride, whereas a less positive grip can make for a frightening and shin-scraping bloody ride that nobody would be envious of. Until recently, the majority of mountain bike shoe soles were made by either Five Ten or Vibram.
Although Michelin is a company with a history approaching 150 years, they are a relative newcomer to manufacturing shoe soles. New competitors in this market are welcomed and should provide more competition and product development. It looks like Michelin is fully committing to manufacturing shoe soles and now produces soles for several activities: motocross, snowboarding, mountain biking (both clipless and flats), running shoes, tactical and work boots, and casual footwear. We look forward to seeing how Michelin and this new competition drives footwear technology forward.
Generally speaking, a flat shoe can't have enough grip, until it comes to time to adjust foot position or hit the ejector seat button. Too much grip can make for a bit of an awkward ride. A good mountain bike flat shoe strives to find the perfect balance between not enough and too much grip, like the grip on the Five Ten Freerider Contact, which was the only contender to score a perfect 10 out of 10 in this metric. With the new Shimano GR7 in the running, we found this new contender may have found the perfect balance between on the bike pedal grip while maintaining the ability to adjust foot position. They performed similar to the Five Ten Freerider Contact but with greater traction and comfort off the bike. One wild card that came into play during our testing was the issue of moisture; not all shoes performed the same when the pedals or ground became wet or snowy. We had the good fortune to test shoe/pedal grip in conditions that ranged from hot and dry to cold and wet. After comparing shoes and conditions, not all models had the same grip on dry and wet days. A finer tread pattern like the Giro Jacket, and the Five Ten Freerider Contact did not perform on wet surfaces as well as the Shimano GR7, Five Ten Freerider Pro, or even the Five Ten Freerider.
Comfort and Arch Support
This category can be a difficult metric to measure. There are many variables in comfort, from basic shoe construction to weather and climate where the shoe is used, and even the rider's foot shape and volume. We looked at support, padding, and cushioning for riding and walking, as well as shoe shape and volume. Less porous and higher density materials in the midsole had a better feel over the long haul when we racked up the miles. That extra layer of material in the midsole does wonders for providing additional protection between our feet and the abuse that is below, whether it be pedal pressure or rocks and sticks while hiking the bike.
The Freerider Contact and Impact VXi are made with a stiffened, compression molded EVA midsole which provides added stiffness, support, and shock absorption, ultimately increasing comfort, especially for longer rides. The Five Ten Freerider, without this added midsole reinforcement, performed well for shorter rides, but pedal pressure becomes increasingly present as the miles add up.
Arch support also becomes a factor when either riding or walking longer distances. The Five Ten Contact and Five Ten Impact Vxi, as well as the Shimano GR7 provided more arch support than the skate-style shoes like the Five Ten Freerider. The Shimano GR7 has an orthotic style insole with added arch support and we found has the most overall arch support. Extra midsole materials tend to make shoes less walk-friendly and less sensitive, so one rider's ideal may not be another's.
For riders with wider or bulkier feet, a higher volume shoe will be more comfortable by allowing the foot to maintain a more natural position. We found that all of our test shoes from Five Ten possess a higher volume fit, especially in the forefoot. The Five Ten Impact VXi is designed with extra space in mind and is made with a "wider toe box". The Contact's fit was also roomy in the toe box, though not quite as voluminous as the Impact. This not only increases comfort but also overall efficiency through a more relaxed and natural foot position and increased circulation, especially to the toes. We were pleasantly surprised to see that Shimano has decided to widen their last through the forefoot as well. The new Shimano GR7 also provides a roomier fit through the forefoot which gives greater surface for pedal grip.
Conversely, a rider with lower-volume feet, which tend to be narrower and thinner overall, may have difficulty in lacing tightly enough to feel connected to the pedals. This too can result in an uncomfortable ride with poor circulation to the foot and toes. We found some of our test shoes had a lower-volume fit, like the Shimano AM7, and the Giro Jacket. Even though we graded all of our test shoes as objectively as possible, keep in mind your foot shape and the type of riding and use you'll typically expect to encounter.
After miles of riding and with all of the factors above in mind, we found the Five Ten Contact and Shimano's GR7 to be the most comfortable overall. Both shoes provided great out-of-the-box comfort that was maintained even after riding the longest and most technical rides we encountered; the comfort was consistent through all conditions, both on and off the bike, especially the GR7. The skate styled models, like the Afton Keegan, Five Ten Freerider and Giro Jacket, generally felt right out of the box, but with less support overall, this initial comfort diminished as our ride times increased.
Rigidity and Power Transfer
Power transfer, most directly related to rigidity, is crucial to performance, especially as the time in the saddle increases, particularly when climbing and pedaling through cross country rides. While flat shoes take a conscious effort to make sure foot placement is in the optimum position, ball of the foot over the pedal spindle, clipless shoes are automatic. As a result, flats take more rider input and judgment.
We found that with some of the flats, like the Editors' Choices Shimano GR7, Five Ten Freerider Contact and the Shimano AM7, our ride times were on par with past rides with clipless shoes and pedals. This is seemingly linked to the overall rigidity and rubber stickiness. Other shoes, like the Five Ten Freerider and Giro Jacket, slowed our times slightly which seemed to be correlated to the lesser degree of stiffness and overall support.
As with grip, usually more is better, but for the more rigid shoes in our test, pedal and walk sensitivity was somewhat diminished. The added rigidity of the stiffer models, especially the Five Ten Impact VXi and the Five Ten Freerider Pro, decreases sensitivity on the pedals and the trail, feeling more like a hiking boot than a riding shoe. For riders who do more hike-a-bike terrain or wear shoes off the bike, this may be a factor.
Virtually every item a rider uses or carries is under scrutiny for weight penalty. This portion of our testing turned out to be less important that we originally thought. We knew all of our test shoes claimed weights were very close, but we chose to perform our independent weigh-in.
We found that from the lightest, the Five Ten Freerider Contact, to the heaviest the weight difference was only a total variance of 1 oz for a men's size 9. With such a minor difference, little significance was given to this category. However, if you're a weight weenie that insists on having the lightest pair possible, give a good hard look at the Five Ten Freerider Contact.
A mountain bike shoe's breathability becomes increasingly important as the length of rides increases. For a short ride, particularly in cooler temperatures, breathability becomes unimportant, but as the clock ticks more and more through longer rides, the more a shoe breathes, the better. Less breathable uppers like those found on the Shimano AM7 and Freerider Impact Vxi kept our feet warmer on cooler days but with this decreased breathability, our feet felt the heat on warmer days.
Conversely, the Five Ten Contact and Shimano GR7 performed better in warmer conditions due to the nature of the open-weave material and its subsequent increased air flow. With those observations in mind, we rode in temperatures varying from 25F to 85F, and overall, our feet were relatively comfortable no matter the shoe, especially with the use of a warmer wool sock on colder days and a thin cycling sock on warmer days.
As is the case with the other criteria in our test, keep in mind your use and environment. If your rides take you into colder climates, the Shimano AM7, Five Ten Freerider Pro, and Five Ten Impact VXi will keep your feet warmer than the more ventilated options. Shoes like the Five Ten Freerider and Freerider Contact may be cooler choices for these locales. For wetter conditions, the Shimano AM7, with its synthetic leather upper, and reinforced toe cap will help keep your feet drier than our other test shoes.
Durability is a crucial part of a shoe's overall long-term performance and brings into play economics and rider satisfaction. The world's most high tech, feature-loaded and expensive shoe quickly loses its appeal if it falls apart shortly after purchasing, especially if it leaves you stranded on the trail in the middle of nowhere in a storm. All of our test shoes feature primarily synthetic materials, with the exception of the suede trim of the Five Ten Freerider. After using and abusing our test shoes for over two months, we didn't experience any catastrophic failures and most shoes showed only minor wear.
Our Editors' Choice, the Five Ten Freerider Contact, sustained the most signs of wear, showing a lesser level of durability. However, its higher level of performance offset this shortcoming. For a shoe with similar performance but greater durability, check out our other Editor's Choice Shimano GR7. For riders seeking the most durable option, a shoe like the Five Ten Freerider Pro or Five Ten Impact VXi should be considered. Their solid synthetic uppers and beefy sticky dot Stealth Mi6 soles displayed almost no signs of wear. Each rider should decide how much emphasis they place on durability versus performance versus comfort and make their choice accordingly.
Other than purchasing the right bike with the right tires, shoe selection is the most important influencer on ride satisfaction. Several factors come into play when making a mountain bike shoe purchase. Keep in mind the riding you intend on doing most often, where you ride, and when you ride. Like most of our gear, not all shoes are created equal and one model is unlikely to be the ideal choice in every situation. Our Mountain Bike Flat Shoe review is intended to help you negotiate through the shoe purchasing process by providing solid information on the many options available. Please read through our Buying Advice article for additional assistance and information. Click on the help link at left for more tips and guidelines.
More on The History of Flat Shoes and "Clipless vs. Flats"
It seems over the past couple decades that clipless pedals and shoes are an increasingly common sight on the trail so much that they have been phasing out flat pedals to become the norm for mountain bike riders everywhere. Well, everywhere other than downhill and park riders who have been sticking with flat pedals and shoes. While this trend may be true, we have noticed a resurgence in riders experimenting with flat pedals and the shoes that are made to work best with them. We've seen an increasing number of riders on flat pedals and shoes, not just downhillers at resorts and park riders, but also your average riders out riding in varying terrain and conditions. Mountain bike flat shoes aren't your garden-variety sneakers or even skate shoes since they have additional protection and features not found in those more commonly seen types of footwear. Flats have evolved into a type of specialized footwear over the past couple of decades, much like their relatives, clipless mountain bike shoes. We already put clipless mountain bike pedals and shoes to the test recently and thought it was time to put some of the most popular mountain bike flat shoes through the OutdoorGearLab wringer.
Aren't these flat shoes clipless? While that seems to make logical sense…"I'm not clipped in so I'm clipless," but we have to look back a few decades to fully understand the terminology. It's pretty quick and easy. Until the 1980s, "serious" riders, primarily road riders, were riding with stiff-soled shoes, generally made of wood or Lexan, with a grooved cleat that nested onto the rear of their pedal cages. That didn't provide enough security and power, so toe clips and straps came to be, and a rider's feet were physically strapped to their pedals. During this same era, "modern" mountain bikes came into existence and many mountain riders simply rode with sneakers, hiking boots, or running shoes, which quickly proved inadequate for more serious riders and racers. With that, mountain bike riders began using toe clips and straps like their road cycling counterparts and as you'd guess, carnage ensued. Imagine riding your mountain bike while being strapped to it — your fun ride now turns into a terrifying proposition.
Finally, in the mid-80s, an alpine ski binding company, Look, came up with a revolutionary idea, mounting a cleat to the cycling shoe which allowed it to be locked in securely, and as importantly, to be released at will. This effectively began the phasing out of toe clips, hence the term "clipless" came into existence. Mountain bike racers began experimenting with riding their road pedals and shoes, but just like today's equipment, it just wasn't too practical and something better was bound to come along. By the 90s, companies like Shimano and Time had begun refining clipless technology, now gearing it to mountain bike riders as well as road riders. Since then, the clipless pedal and shoe world has continued expanding and the gear has gotten good. With the proliferation of clipless mountain bike shoe and pedal options, why would anyone want to go back to a mountain bike flat shoe and pedal? There are several potential reasons; it just depends on the rider.
Let's start with riders who are new to the world of mountain bikes and trail riding. A significant positive for flat shoes and pedals versus clipless shoes and pedals is the ability to escape the mountain bike with greater ease. Aside from the physical aspect of this characteristic is the psychological security a newer rider can feel. We've likely all seen riders with their new clipless pedal and shoe combo, out for one of their first "real" rides on their shiny new gear, but rather than joy and excitement; we see nervous apprehension instead. The consequences, either real or perceived, can get into the head of a newer rider. If they haven't already developed basic bike skills and good habits, locking into a pedal can be a terrifying proposition. Mountain bike flats and pedals can assist a new rider with easing into a new sport. Honing those newfound skills is a lot more enjoyable when you have a little safety cushion instead of a harsh and bruise-filled learning curve.
Moving on to more experienced riders, let's start with an easy one: Flat shoes and pedals are fun! With the easy escape hatch provided by not being physically locked to your bike, trail sections and features that were previously too committing to comfortably try look a little more realistic. Erasing or at least minimizing the potential for a slow-motion tip-over gives some piece of mind that clipless riders don't have. That rock garden you've always been tempted to try and ride cleanly but were afraid to while clipped in? No worries, give it a shot! If you don't make it, just put a foot down, and give it another try! Another major factor in the decision to run flat pedals is that they reinforce good habits and punish bad habits.
By this we're talking about things like the way clipless pedal users can lift the bike when jumping and clearing obstacles, primarily with a toes-down, body-forward position, which does work, but is not nearly as stable in the long run. Watch a good flat pedal rider and you'll see just the opposite of the clipless rider position we just mentioned, position is a heels-down, body-back position which creates more stability. Riders on flat pedals are capable of ridiculously difficult riding that clipless riders generally wouldn't even attempt. Other positives are improved cornering and bike control through the ability to move your shoes around on the pedals, like more outward positioning on the outside leg while turning. Braking can be more effective as well, simply by dropping the heels, which is almost a forced movement when riding flats.
While riding flat pedals may not be for everyone, the newer and improved shoes, combined with more advanced pedals may be worth revisiting. Some of us who have sworn by clipless longer than we'd care to mention are now sporting new flats. Back to basics?
— Jason Cronk
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.