We generally counsel that to get a new mountain bike that will be both fun to ride as well as hold up to the ongoing abuse of riding trails, you should expect to spend at least $2,000. If you plan to log a ride or more a week, we still think that figure (or more) will save you money in the long run as the parts on cheaper bikes are likely to wear out and need replacement faster. Generally speaking, more money means less weight, increased durability, and improved turning. Still, if you’re only going to ride occasionally, you’re just trying out the sport, or your sizing might change (as in growing kids), you can probably get away with a bike that costs less. However, budget buyers can do themselves some favors with a few simple rules of thumb.
First, get your bike at a bike shop, not a department store. Bikes stocked at specialty bike shops will generally be reputable brands with better parts, and the bike shop should be able to help with fit suggestions, parts swaps, and service issues—none of which you will get at a department store.
Second, look for bikes equipped with parts from major component manufacturers, such as Shimano, SRAM, RockShox, Fox, and WTB. Because the companies equip high-end bikes as well as budget ones, these components generally benefit from a trickle down technology and know-how. Be wary of brands and manufacturers you’ve never heard of. As far as specific component suggestions, look for a triple chain ring up front for easier gearing and pedaling, and choose 29er wheels for fully rigid bikes or hard tails (no rear suspension) as the big wheels will help smooth out the bumps in the trail.
Third, think simple. On budget mountain bikes, the parts that are most likely to wear out, break, or simply work badly the soonest is the suspension (forks up front; shocks out back). For this reason, we generally think it’s best to forgo full suspension in this price category and go with a hard tail design. (Though we did find a full suspension bike that surprised us.) If you are intent on having suspension, make sure it has some sort of damping capability and rebound adjustment, which modulate and slow the speed of return. Without those, the suspension will simply be a pogo-like spring that will make it feel as if you’re going to bounce right off the bike.
Finally, consider used bikes or previous year’s models. While it’s great to buy new, the consignment racks at your local bike shop or online vendors like Craigslist can often yield great bikes at half the cost you’d pay for them new. Many enthusiasts upgrade every couple of years or more, so it’s possible to scoop up a lightly used model at a killer price. And buy at the end of the season (fall and winter), when bike shops frequently drop prices to clear out last year’s inventory. One word of caution: If you’re buying used from a third party, you should have good knowledge of components (or bring someone who does) and, if possible, take the bike to a shop for an inspection before you buy it to make sure there are no major issues.