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Mountain Biking: Tips for Handling Hills

Updated on September 9, 2009

Dealing with hills is something every biker needs to know how to handle.  This goes whether you are on the road or off-road.  However, the technicalities of handling off-road hills can be more challenging because you have to deal with loose rocks, roots, mud and other miscellaneous conditions that are not usually present on the road. 

Maintaining traction in such conditions can be difficult as you try to prevent your rear wheel from slipping and your front wheel from lifting as you climb.  Learning how to get the right traction involves a combination of figuring how to achieve the right weight distribution across your bike, how to maintain your pedal power by pedalling with the right cadence and in the optimum gear, and finding the best line on the track to follow. 

As always, what goes up must come down.  Although cruising downhill may be appear more effortless than powering uphill, steep descents in wet and muddy conditions and obstacles on the trail make it a very technical experience.  It is important to develop the proper skills and knowledge before attempting to tackle descents at high speed.  Remember that even veteran riders can lose control at times. 

Experience is the best teacher when it comes to mastering the hills however there are some tips you can follow to help you along the road to conquering them.


1. Know your bike

If you’re new to mountain biking, you may want to practice on some gradual ascents before heading out on a trail.  Start with a low gear and experiment with the gears until you get a feel for which gears to use on various inclines.  Once you are confident you know your bike well enough, it’s time to hit some real hills.

2. It begins in your head

Part of learning how to conquer a steep hill involves mastering your own mind.  Muscle fatigue is your worst enemy when it comes to a long and challenging ascent.  To help you stay on track, break the climb up into several sections so you don’t get discouraged by the length of the ascent.

The other thing you need to do is pick the line you intend to follow.  If there is an obstacle in your path, take a quick note of it and concentrate on the best route around it.  Try not to dwell on the obstacle because what you think about is what you get.  If you’re too busy focussing on the obstacle, chances are that’s where you’re heading.

Give yourself some time to get into the groove.  In the initial part of the ascent, you will feel like quitting – don’t stop!  Keep pedalling and you’ll eventually find your rhythm.

3. Positioning

The best position to be in when tackling an incline is to shift your body backwards in your seat and lean your upper body forward over your handle bars.  As you get better at it, you can eventually start shifting your weight forwards to help prevent front wheel lifting.  You should also press down onto your handlebars.  This will help to keep the pressure on your front wheel and maintain traction.  If you feel as though you are pulling on the handle bars, you need to move forward. 

How much you need to move depends on the steepness of the incline and this will come with practice.  If you aren’t leaning forwards far enough, you will find your front wheel lifting off the ground (which can happen on very steep inclines).  If you are too far forwards, your back wheel will slip.  For a very steep incline, you may have to come off the seat and crouch as low as possible.

Move your hands to the end of the handle bars to open up your chest – this will help you fill up your lungs as you’re going to need all the oxygen you can get.  Keep your legs and arms flexed but don’t lock your joints.  Drop your elbows and keep them close to your side to help lower your center of gravity.  Also try to keep your center of gravity over the gears and ahead of your rear tyre. 

4. Standing or Seated

Stay seated whenever possible and save your standing position for that final push over the crest.  You can also ride standing if the incline is short.  Although standing offers you more pedal power, it is a tiring position to maintain because it utilises more energy.  It is not a good tactic for handling long ascents.  You should always save it for your last ditch attempt to get over the rise.

Some people find that standing for short durations can help break the monotony of a long climb and shift the focus to different muscles.  If you decide to do this, shift into a higher gear as you move into a standing position while pedalling.  Keep your weight centered over the pedals and press down on the handlebars.

5. Gears

Figure out which gear you need as you approach the hill.  If you have enough momentum, you can begin the ascent in a higher gear and shift down on the way up.  Otherwise, you’ll have to shift your gear down just before entering the hill.  Don’t shift into the lowest gear possible.  To begin with, select the gear that is low enough for you to tackle the hill without having to stand on your pedals.  You should always save at least one last gear for the event when you really need it.

6. Pedalling

Maintain a constant and rhythmic motion and maximise the efficiency of each pedal stroke.  Try not to enter the hill too fast or you will lose your rhythm on the way up as the pedalling gets harder.  Pay attention to your body as you pedal up the hill.  If your body is swaying from side to side as you attempt to push down harder with each foot, then you aren’t pedalling efficiently.  What you want to achieve is a smooth and even pedal stroke.

Also, instead of going for a “push-push” pedal stroke, make sure you are pulling back at the bottom of your pedal stroke – similar to the motion of scraping mud off the bottom of your shoes.  This will also help you to maximise the efficiency of your pedal strokes.  Although this is easier to achieve with clipless pedals, you can still achieve it with snugly fitted toeclips.


1. Body armour

If you’re new to mountain biking, you may want to invest in some body-armour before tackling the descents.  Even experienced riders crash - more so if you are inexperienced.  Having a face mask, helmet (goes without saying), knee and elbow pads will help minimise the seriousness of your injuries.

2. Adjust your bike

If the trail is largely a downhill ride, you may want to make the necessary adjustments to your bike to make it more suitable for downhill riding, for instance, lowering your seat and/or changing your tyres to downhill tyres.  You may also require harder suspension in the fork of your bike.

3. Mental preparation

It is important to relax and be one with your bike.  Don’t grip your handlebars too tight and be ready to move with you bike.  Pick a line on the trail and follow it down.  Look where you want to go – not at the trees, the rocks or edge of the trail, unless that’s where you want to head off to.

4. Positioning

Stand up on your pedals, shift your weight as far back as possible over the back tyre and stay low.  Keep your legs and arms relaxed and flexible.  Your feet should be on the pedals at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions, unless you are negotiating a sharp turn.  In the event that you do lose control of the bike, it will be easier for you to jump off the back of the bike in this position.

5. Braking

Most people have the misconception that you should never use the front brakes on a descent.  This is incorrect.  The front brakes give you 60% of your braking power.  It is important for controlling the speed of your downhill descent.  What you need to do is use it correctly by applying light pressure or by pumping the brake lever.  Never, never grab your front brakes hard or you risk and endo (flying over the handlebars).  Likewise, you should not overuse your back brakes.  Too much back brakes will cause skidding, so apply both brakes evenly.

Learning how to handle the hills on a mountain bike is largely achieved through practical experience.  No amount of reading about biking tips can truly prepare you for what lies ahead although it can give you a start.  The best way to learn how to handle hills while mountain biking is to get out there and practice.  Begin with the easier inclines and descents and only move on to more challenging terrain as you gain experience and confidence.


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    • profile image

      clipless pedals 

      8 years ago

      mental preparation is something that I definitely lack (afraid of heights). There is just something about when you reach the top of a rocky down hill that could easily end my life that just scares the crap out of me lol.

    • figur8 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Hahaha... yes, experience is one of the best ways to learn. I, unfortunately, am a bit of a scaredy cat. I generally prefer to be prepared before trying anything a bit "risky".

    • wanderingpops profile image


      9 years ago

      The motto of myself and the guys I used to ride with (I moved) was "If you're not wrecking you're not riding hard enough." A lot of our crashes were on descents that we might not have been experienced enough to attempt. You give some good advice here. Thanks for a good scoop.



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