Types of Bike Shorts
Road Biking Shorts
If pedaling pavement and sharing the bike lane is your idea of a good time, then we would recommend a pair of road biking shorts. Road cycling shorts are generally comprised of lycra and/or spandex and provide a snug fit. Road cyclists have an aggressive posture on the bike, pedaling up and down hills. And while they may ride in and out of the saddle, the positioning is consistent, and minimizing wind resistance is the name of their game. They're looking for a tight fitting, compressive short that will stretch with them and reduce drag as much as possible. The seat of the short is also padded, eliminating the need for a liner short, also known as a chamois.
Mountain Biking Shorts
Have no need for roads? If the idea of packed singletrack, rock gardens, and flowing berms makes you happy, we're going to suggest a pair of mountain bike shorts rather than road cycling shorts. Mountain bike shorts are designed as a looser outer short meant to fit over a chamois and are typically comprised of some combination of polyester, nylon, and spandex meant to protect you against abrasions and crashing. They'll vary in detail, such as the number of pockets for storage, inseam length, and overall fit. Finding the right combination of features will help you perform at maximum happiness.
For our test, we chose products that answer the most important questions about women's mountain shorts. Almost all of the brands mentioned in the test make several styles of women's shorts, some of which may best suit your riding style but aren't discussed here.
A chamois (pronounced shammy) is a padded undershort that makes lengthy mountain bike rides much more enjoyable. Almost every mountain biker wants some padding for long hours on the bike. While some choose road biking shorts to wear under their mountain biking shorts, a true liner short or chamois will provide some cushion, be well ventilated, and not be as heavy or compressive as a road biking short. Many mountain bike shorts come with a liner short, and others can be purchased separately. Much like choosing a saddle for your bike, your preference will be dictated by the shape of your personal anatomy and the length of your ride.
An uncomfortable chamois can be a ride-ender, however, so if you are dabbling with a new shape or brand, give it a test ride on a backyard trail lap before heading out for a long ride. Once you find one you like, our testers recommend buying several, so you never have to settle for that not-so-great one that is at the back of your drawer.
Not all mountain bike shorts are designed to do the same thing, though they might tout themselves as such. From here, we'll break down different categories of riding and help you to narrow down which short best fits your own personal riding style and terrain preferences.
Think buff, rolling singletrack. This style of riding is powered by pedaling. Typically, the terrain is fast and rolling, and the distances are greater. As the rider, you're working hard in the saddle, and not too worried about the technical terrain in front of you. You want a short whose fabric is lightweight and breathable and has stretch that maximizes mobility while pedaling in and out of the seat.
Look for mesh-backed waistbands and quick-drying material to help you out on long, warm days on the bike.
Most of the time we are all riding trails. However, you might consider yourself a "trail" rider if you ride the same trails as a cross country rider but have a little more suspension on your bike. You might take the alternate route and hit some small jumps along the way. A trail rider will stop to take pictures, session a tricky section, and maybe hang out for beers at the trailhead after a post-work lap on the local trail. You love riding, but you emphasize fun over speed and hard work.
Shorts for the trail rider might be more oriented to going from trail to pub: functional but with some street style.
All Mountain riding might be considered the backcountry skiing of mountain biking. You really love the descent but have a great appreciation of the effort it takes to reach the top, and can't get enough of the views along the way. We call it "earning your turns." If you love long days in the saddle and are prepared to climb and descend perhaps multiple times in a ride, then you might consider yourself an all mountain or "enduro" rider. You're going to need the gear that can do both: be lightweight, breathable, and stretchy for the uphills, but protective and durable for the downhill.
As this style of biking has become more popular in the last few years, with Enduro races becoming a more visible race format, manufacturers are attempting to create the one-quiver, do-it-all short: fast and light on the up, sturdy and resilient for the down.
These shorts will tend to have a longer inseam to work well with pads, lightweight fabric for ventilation and wind resistance, zippered vents, and zippered pockets.
If you're riding downhill trails, you're most likely moving at high speeds through rocks, roots or human-made wooden features. Whether it's lift access bike park terrain or shuttle laps to your favorite downhill trail, you're not doing too much uphill pedaling. You're not concerned about how lightweight or breathable your shorts are, as you want them to be tough and with a longer inseam. Downhill shorts should be all about protecting the rider from crashing in the gnar, sliding along the granite or being swiped at by a tree branch while going mach chicken. You want your fabric to feel substantial and to have ripstop construction. Honestly, you're wearing as much protective gear as necessary, like a full face helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads.
Inseam is an important consideration for downhill riding. Longer is better. The leg opening at the hemline should be wide enough to slip over kneepads without a gap or bunching at the knee. You're looking for optimal protection, even without kneepads.
Features to Consider
Pockets or no pockets? Since mountain bikers almost always have a hydration pack with them, some people think pockets on shorts are redundant. Other riders prefer to have a minimal pack and squirrel away necessities into their available pockets. Most people want some pocket access to essential items. Not to mention, pockets are great places for micro-trash you might find on the trail.
If you are carrying a pack, a few strategic pockets might be what you want for easy access to your phone for pictures, a quick snack, or some lip balm. Look for shorts with at least one zippered pocket, big enough to hold what you need to carry. Open or velcro tabbed pockets will be less secure when you are moving around on your bike.
If you like to keep your overall kit to a minimum and not carry a backpack when you're biking, choosing a bike short with ample secure pocket options is important. We preferred having a minimum of one phone-sized zippered pocket, but some combination might work for your carrying needs.
Men have it pretty easy when it comes to finding pants according to their waist size. Take a tape measure, wrap it around the waist, and order that number. Women don't get off quite that easily. If you're anything like our testers, you have jeans and pants in your closet that range from a size 2 to a 10. It's not easy for us ladies to find the perfect fit on the first try. If they're too snug in the hips, they might be too big in the waist. If you have an athletic build, you may prefer a short with an overall looser profile to prevent binding when you pedal.
We sized our shorts based on the manufacturer's sizing charts and wore a size small. As is the case with many clothing manufacturers these days, the fit was not exactly consistent. None of the shorts fit every tester, and we would have needed to buy extra small to medium to have the same fit on everyone in every model.
Thankfully, all of the shorts tested offer different ways to customize the shorts to best fit our different body types. Stretch panels in the rear of many models allow the shorts to stretch with your curves. Four-way stretch also provides a comfortable, all around relaxed fit.
Finally, waist tab adjustments built into the waistband of the short allowed our testers to cinch in or relax the waist as they needed. Velcro, button tabs, and toggles are just some of the types of adjusters. Buttons make the guesswork easier and don't attach to other things in the laundry. Webbing adjusters have infinite positions for getting things exactly right. As important as the type, is the placement. Some shorts cinch at the hip, bunching up fabric in a less than flattering manner, while others gather in front, which tends to work better with most figures. Some are inside, some are outside. We recommend cinching the shorts to fit when you try them on to make sure you like the look.