Check out our handy buyer's guide to knee pads.
What to look for in the best mountain bike knee pads. Hard or soft? Pull-on or wrap-on? Which brands make the best? Why wear knee pads at all?
Knee pads are the new helmets
What we mean by this is that it’s now standard to wear knee pads just like it is standard to wear a helmet.
Back in the early days of mountain biking the only protection seen on normal riders was a helmet – sometimes riders didn’t even bother with them! Nowadays knee pads are no longer an unusual sight on trail riders. Indeed, it’s becoming odd to see riders not wearing knee pads.
Mountain bike knee pads: need to know
Regardless whether you like flying down steep, technical trails or you are a rider that takes a more sedate pace, some form of knee protection while riding is a good idea. Even the best riders or the most careful make mistakes and, while most accidents don’t always end up with a trip to A&E, the last thing you want is to curtail a ride because you’ve gashed a knee open. We realise wearing knee pads is a personal choice but think of them as an insurance policy and not just for you, your mates won’t want a trip to casualty either.
When buying your first set of pads you could go for a heavy duty knee shin, which extends all the way from the knee to the ankle. This offers the most protection but if you’re pedalling all day this style of pad can pretty hot and uncomfortable. For trail riding, we’d go for a lighter weight design. Most still have a reinforced pad to shrug off gravel rash and small impacts but they’re more comfortable to and don’t get as clammy when you turn up the heat.
There are over 30 manufacturers producing lightweight knee pads for the trail rider, all with different features and benefits. We’ve whittled this down to the 12 best, with one hobbling away with top honours.
How we test
Comfort is a key consideration when wearing a lightweight knee pad and the only way to put this to the test is to use all the pads on all-day trail rides, involving extensive climbing and descending. During test rides we made a note of any chaffing or soreness, especially at the back of the knee, and whether the pad stayed in place or needed constant adjustment. We also kept an eye on durability because pulling the pads on and off can put extra stress on the lightweight material, especially at the upper seam. Obviously crashing can damage the face fabric but we accepted a certain amount of wear and tear in this area.
All the sample pads are medium size and the weight listed in the specification is for a pair.
Mountain bike knee pads: what to look for
Kneepads are available in overlapping (small/medium, medium/large) or single sizes, such as small, medium and large. Individual sizes offer a better fit but as always it makes sense to try beforehand because they do vary between manufacturers.
To reduce weight, the base material for the majority of the lightweight kneepads is either Lycra or a thin neoprene. A Kevlar cover is often placed over the knee area to increase scuff resistance.
To stop unwanted movement, lightweight pads use a silicone gripper or an elastic hem, like you’d find in a pair of Lycra shorts. Silicone tape can cause a bit of soreness so what feels comfy in the shop may not after a few hours riding.
To really batten down the hatches some knee pads have an additional Velcro strap, either at the top or bottom. Look for a long strip of Velcro and a strap that doesn’t bunch up or narrow as you pull it tight, which can cause it to dig in.
The protective cap used in most of the knee pads is often an impact-resistant foam but some are high-tech materials, such as D3O or Armourgel. These stiffen under impact and reduce the amount of force felt at the knee. Smart materials are lighter but they are more expensive.
Knee pads are either left and right specific or can be worn on either leg. There’s often a label inside telling you what pad goes on what knee.
Cutaways at the back of the knee stop rubbing of the ligaments and also increases air flow. On some designs the kneecap is also left uncovered or has a honeycomb/perforated surface to channel air directly over the knee.
Our current pick of the best mountain bike knee pads 2019
Bliss Protection ARG Minimalist
Bliss Protection has made some significant changes to its ARG Minimalist knee pad since we tested it 12months ago. The new version still has a three-piece Armourgel pad bonded externally to the outside of the Lycra body but it’s now pre-curved to fit better – so much so that the whole thing curls up once you remove it from the packaging. It doesn’t bunch up at the sides when pedalling hard like the old pad and hugs the knee better than any pad here.
Like D3O, the Armourgel used for the knee protector is a smart material that stiffens during impacts but remains flexible and mouldable the rest of the time. The technology is effective but it does tend to provide a hard barrier between you and the ground rather than something like a crumple zone.
To improve airflow the knee protector also features an open re-entrant structure, which means it’s perforated to increase ventilation. This really does channel heat away from the front off the knee and forming holes into the material also reduces weight, making this one of the lightest on test.
The Lycra chassis wouldn’t normally offer a lot of support but with its pre-shaped pad, the ARG Minimalist feels surprisingly solid. To stop slipping, it gets wide elasticised hems top and bottom with a thin dots of silicone on the thigh. The upper portion of the pad is longer too, so can be tucked underneath your riding shorts. Flat lock stitching at all the seams ensures there’s nothing internally to irritate the skin.
The Minimalst isn’t cheap and doesn’t offer ultimate protection but it is easily one of the most comfortable. Since fit, comfort and breathability are top priorities with lightweight knee pad the Bliss Minimalist has it all.
Alpine Stars Paragon
Like a lot of the lightweight knee pads on test, the Paragon Knee Guard doesn’t have any adjustment straps, so it’s dead important to buy the correct size. Thankfully Alpine Stars offers the Paragon Knee Guard in five single sizes so you have every chance of getting this spot on.
The Paragon features a lightweight stretch mesh material chassis, which is overlaid with a rip-stop fabric at the knee area to prevent small splits becoming full-on tears. The knee cap is made from a cross-shaped piece of foam and this overlaps onto the sides for a bit of lateral protection. It’s also sewn inside a mesh pocket, which is perforated to increase air flow and Lycra lined for comfort.
With its profiled pad and flat, inward-facing, internal seams the Paragon is pretty plush and also doesn’t slide around too much while pedalling. However, the bottom edge of the Lycra does tend to bunch up after a while, causing the edge of the knee pad to rub on the shin area – it’s almost as if there’s a lack of support in the mesh material. The thin mesh is also prone to tearing and there are already few nicks at the back of the calf, where we’ve snagged a pedal, and several scuffs over the knee.
We’ve awarded the Paragon top marks in past tests because it’s packed with features, feels comfortable on the bike, comes in a ton of sizes and is great value. It’s seen a 10% price hike recently but it’s still the best value pad on test; we just felt the Bliss was harder wearing and more comfortable.
Dainese Trail Skins 2
mbr review: “All the tweaks and improvements do add £20 (compared to the old trail Skins) to the price but the Trail Skin 2 is still very good value because it such great quality. It’s also comfortable, breathable and has the right level of on-trail protection for risk takers and the accident-prone.”
Race Face Ambush
mbr review: “Comfort is excellent — once the Ambush pads are on, you soon forget you’re wearing them and the terry-towelling lining capably mops up sweat and keeps you cool in hot weather. The Race Faces are a little bit heavier than some guards with DH levels of protection, but also extremely comfortable to hike, pedal or climb in, even for extended periods.”
Troy Lee Designs KG5400 Shock Doctor
mbr review: “There’s a good reason why you’ll see these puppies in this magazine so often — our staff repeatedly choose them above all others, and after completing thousands of trail miles, they still look decent, have held their shape and are working perfectly.”
The best mountain bike knee pads
It’s a fact that the lighter a knee pad the more you’ll have to compromise on it’s ability to protect you or to be more specific to make sure the big impacts, the ones that can break bones, are mitigated in some way. To achieve this most lightweight knee pads have central knee protector to absorb the initial impact but the problem is you don’t always land directly on the front of your knee, you can land to the side and you can also slide down the trail, which can roll the knee pad out of the way leaving you exposed.
Unfortunately, this is the price you have to pay if you want a lightweight and breathable knee pad that you can ride in all day long. Our advice is any knee pad, no matter how lightweight or flimsy is better than bare skin.
The Alpine Stars Paragon is the stand out value-for-money knee pad because it’s snug fitting, comes in five individual sizes and is the best value.
The Bliss ARG Minimalist also use a smart foam but overall it feels more substantial, maybe due to the slight increase in weight but we suspect also because it really moulds to the shape of your knee. The fit is easily the best here and it’s also one of the most breathable. The Bliss ARG Minimalist doesn’t quite have the locked down feel you get with knee pads that strap in place or feature a more solid plastic protector, but it’s the best fitting lightweight knee pad here and easily deserves top marks.