Looking for body protection to wear when mountain biking? We've tried and tested the best protective vests, back protectors and more to help keep you covered.
Fuelled by ever-improving, safer and more stable bikes, we’ve all got faster downhill on trails that now pack in more extreme and challenging features. With the increased speed and technicality, it makes more sense than ever to double down on protection, especially on days when hitting uplifted bike parks, racing enduro or trail riding with faster mates.
Thankfully, MTB body armour has also moved with the times, so there are now plenty of slick, lightweight and low-profile options to suit riders that regularly enjoy more technical terrain.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll only wear more protection if it is lightweight and streamlined, and ensures an unencumbered ride quality. The good news is that modern body armour is no longer the bulky, heavy and restrictive affair it was years ago.
How we tested
While it’s impractical (and downright dangerous) to seek out crashes to test protection kit, frequent use by experienced riders gives a good insight into comfort, fit and function. We prioritised freedom of movement and paid close attention to pad coverage, heat management and moisture wicking, as well as ensuring any zips, seams and fabrics were up to the task of repeated use and frequent rubbing and movement.
We also took into account each item’s impact protection rating, which is independently certified.
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Best vest-style back protector
Weight: 675g | Sizes: XS – XXL | Colours: Grey | Women’s version: No | Contact: hotlines-uk.com | Score: 9 /10
Pros: High protection rating, very comfortable, low profile look and fit, good breathability
Cons: Not as light as some vests
If you’re after low-profile sleeveless back protection with the highest impact rating, the iXS Flow protection vest is a great option.
Designed for trail and enduro riding, this is arguably the most comfortable and invisible piece of body armour that we’ve tested. It’s constructed from thin, lightweight fabric with an internal pocket which takes a slide-in protective back panel which covers a broad portion of the back.
This panel is constructed from iXS’s own X-Matter material, which hardens on impact, but stays flexible on the body when warmed up. Ridge-like features allow it to bend and flex with the spine. Rated at EU Level 2, it’s designed to handle crashes at almost motor- rather than mountain bike speeds, yet doesn’t feel bulky.
It’s not as light as some, but the fit plus wicking fabrics help with moisture management. There are even twin stash pockets at the back for riding essentials like gels and snacks, though we wouldn’t recommend carrying anything hard or sharp as it could dig into your kidneys in a crash.
Overall in our opinion this is the most comfortable protection vest we’ve tested, especially at this high impact protection rating.
Offers the highest level of protection
Weight: 1,008g | Sizes: S – XXL | Colours: Black | Women’s version: No | Contact: hotlines-uk.com | Score: 9 /10
Pros: Full motorsports-level impact certification, chest and back protection panels, foam flank protection pads, good ventilation, long and short sleeve versions also available
The Leatt 3DF might not be explicitly targeted at downhill and enduro racers, but this protection vest is the only product on this list with full motorsports-level impact certification on both chest and back panels, so if you’re likely to be getting serious speed or serious air, this should be well up your shortlist.
The foam protection pads are flexible while riding, but harden upon impact to absorb energy. They sit in pouches in the vest so you can take them out and wash the liner fabric, in a similar fashion to the 100% Tarka – good news for keeping your kit clean and stink-free.
A separate elastic wrap around the torso helps the chest and spine panels conform to the body better and lowers the visible profile of the padding, plus the back panel is longer on this new version.
We found moisture-management to be great, as is ventilation, but it is also the heaviest vest we’ve tested and we could certainly feel that extra weight.
Overall, the 3DF vest is ideal if you want maximum protection but without sacrificing pedal comfort, and it also comes in short and long sleeve versions too.
Best front and rear coverage vest
Weight: 780g | Size: S – XXL | Colours: Black | Women’s Version: No | Contact: silverfish-uk.com | Score: 9 /10
Pros: Chest and back protection panels, great ventilation, long and short sleeve versions also available, secure fit, great value, low profile
Cons: Back panel doesn’t cover coccyx
Like the Leatt 3DF vest, the 100% Tarka has both front and back protection panels, and also like the 3DF it comes in three versions; vest, short sleeve and long sleeve.
The seriously chunky padding, which gives the back panel segment a CE 1621-2 motorbike certification protection level, has large holes which allows for a cooling air flow. These panels are also removable so the vest itself can be washed.
It has an off-set full-length zipper plus an elastic waistband which we found was effective in preventing the vest from riding up. The fit is comfortably snug, despite being described as a ‘compressive’ fit, so you don’t feel squeezed while wearing it.
Despite providing a serious amount of cover all around the body, the 100% Tarka vest doesn’t feel restrictive when riding, nor bulky. It’s comfortable, and comes in at a great price for the finish quality and protection offered.
Weight: 764g | Sizes: S – XL | Colours: Black/Orange | Women’s version: No | Contact: upgradebikes.co.uk | Score: 8/10
Pros: Supple, flexible D30 padding, extra shoulder protection, lightweight
Cons: Expensive, sweaty back panel, narrow chest protection
The Six Six One Evo jacket might be one of the more expensive jackets in this list but for that money you get extra shoulder protection. There’s also a long sleeve version available for a little more money.
Padding is constructed from D30 impact-hardening polymer along the spine panel and shoulder pads, which feels supple and flexible when riding but hardens to provide protection upon impact. It’s lightweight and comfortable, but be aware that it doesn’t offer the higher Level 2 protection that other body armour items here do.
The compression fit is just that, nice and tight, but once you’re in it’s actually very comfortable and we didn’t experience any rubbing or chaffing. The fabric design also helps regulate temperature well, providing insulation when it’s cold and controlling heat build-up when it’s hot.
We did find the back panel gets a bit sweaty though, and the front chest protection isn’t as broad as others on test. We’d also like to see more padding lower down the back of the spine.
Best for breathability and low weight for low-level protection
Weight: 409g | Sizes: XS – XL | Colours: Black | Women’s version: Yes | Contact: ion-products.com | Score: 8 /10
Pros: Light weight, secure fit, ergonomic padding, breathable and wicking base fabric
Cons: Not as high level protection as others on test, hard to remove quickly on hot days
The Ion Scrub Amp Protection Vest has a pull on design, lightweight feel, impressively breathable fabric and protective padding that follows the body’s contours.
The protective padding is called Sas-Tec and is flexible in all directions; we found it flexed well with the body when riding. Sas-Tec is an expanded polypropylene foam with visco-elastic properties, which means it’s soft and flexy while riding but hardens in response to impact to absorb forces and offer protection. The padding layer is quite thin and this protection vest only offers a Level 1 protection rating.
In action, the breathable fabric, close and slightly-compressive fit and offset zip design meant the vest stayed secure and twist-free, but because it’s a pull-on design, you can’t open the front to dump heat when things get too hot.
In terms of performance and fit, we found it supremely comfortable and low profile, and it’s a direct rival to the IXS Flow Vest which is heavier, but also offers more protection.
What to look for in impact protection vests and body armour
If you’re racing, especially downhill or enduro, or riding harder, faster or on more technical trails, you may want to consider body protection above and beyond just helmets and knee-pads. Mountain bike body armour will help keep your torso, and particular risk areas such as the chest, spine, coccyx and shoulders, protected in the event of a crash.
Materials and fabric
The fabric and cut of material any protection pads are fixed to is crucial to cooling, comfort, sweat absorption and even how smelly it gets. Most vests use stretchy, perforated mesh synthetic fabrics with wicking properties, with some better than others at drying or dumping rider moisture. A closer fit ensures less wriggling and better insulation too.
A snug fit ensures less potential movement of pads and panels and also helps keep protection low profile for a sleeker look under clothing. Softer, floppier fabrics vs the tighter squeeze of a compression fit will be a personal choice.
Many brands offer multiple levels of protection, from simple back panels to short sleeve options with shoulder pads, through to long sleeve jerseys also incorporating elbow guards. Some products squeeze in extra pads to protect kidneys, coccyx and ribs (and even pockets to stash ride essentials), which are all useful additions provided they don’t add bulk.
Many pads here use impact-hardening polymers that remain flexible in normal use but harden under high-velocity impacts. Names like D30, Sas-Tec and X-Matter essentially describe similar technologies, with the only potential drawback being the materials can be a bit stiff in cold weather until body heat ‘loosens’ the padding. Other constructions include EVA polystyrene, similar to helmet liners, built onto a flexible matrix.
EU protection certification is split onto two levels, 1 and 2, referring to the amount of impact force the padding absorbs. CE level One is for forces transmitted by a 5kg weight from 1m to the wearer of under 18kN (no single value exceeding 24kN), whereas CE level 2 explains forces lower than 9kN (no single value exceeding 12kN). The level 2 cert is usually for motorsport use where speeds and impacts are potentially higher.
Weight and durability
The overall weight of any body armour has a big impact on how bulky it feels to ride in, but it’s a delicate balance to ensure protection and coverage is good and also use sturdy materials that stand the test of time. The best fitting jackets are comfortable and secure.
Women’s or unisex fit
Some brands will do a women’s specific version of their protector vests. These will be designed to take into account the narrower waist, narrower shoulders, curvier chest and wider hips that many women have. Not all women will find them necessary, and may find that the unisex fit works better for them, while other women will appreciate the better fit that these adaptations offer.
It’s not simply about aesthetics; since these garments rely on a good, secure fit to ensure the protective pads do their job, a good fit is necessary to stop body armour riding up or moving around, or simply just being too uncomfortable to wear.