Is Mountain Biking Dangerous? Not if You Take Steps to Reduce the Risk

Many people assume mountain biking is a dangerous sport. Mountain biking conjures up images of daredevil feats on two wheels, flying in the air and landing on rugged terrain.

In reality, most mountain bikers ride responsibly and take all necessary precautions to stay safe, so the number of accidents is likely not nearly as high as you might think.

Group of five mountain bikers in a red rock desert

How dangerous is mountain biking?

Statistics say a lot about mountain bike injuries. While you might be tempted to equate mountain biking with other physical sports such as football, the truth is that mountain biking has a much lower injury rate. According to a British study, the rate of injury is 0.37 per 100 hours for cross-country mountain biking and just 4.34 injuries per 100 hours for downhill mountain biking.

The following sports have higher injury rates than mountain biking:

  • Baseball
  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Road biking
  • ATV
  • Surfing

Keep in mind when considering the numbers that they do not reflect the severity of injuries, only the occurrences. Still, taking the necessary precautions and riding sensibly are two things that can greatly reduce the odds of getting hurt while mountain biking.

Mountain biking safety equipment

Riders usually have clothing, accessories and other protective gear to make riding mountain bikes a little safer, but of course, safety mostly depends on how you handle the bike while you’re out there.

When you consider that riding over rough terrain is part of the excitement of mountain biking, it’s easy to understand why mountain biking injuries happen. These injuries range from minor bumps and bruises to severe head injuries, and everything in between. However, many of these injuries can be avoided by choosing the right equipment, such as helmets, knee pads and other items.

How do people get hurt while mountain biking?

Mountain biker making a tight turn
For tight turns on narrow tracks, you need some technical skills to avoid spills and injuries.

Mountain bikers injure themselves in a number of ways, but below are some of the most common:

  • Rider error: Errors can’t be entirely avoided, even if you have a lot of experience. If you don’t concentrate on the trails or terrain, or your ride on the wrong side of a winding two-way path, this can cause a serious accident indeed.
  • Terrain: Mountain biking takes place on many different types of terrain, including loose dirt or gravel, steep mountainside slopes, roots and branches, narrow trails with sharp turns, and other man-made or natural obstacles that can catch you off guard. Staying focused is essential.
  • Mechanical issues: You should have your mountain bike regularly inspected to make sure the components are in excellent shape. This is especially important if you race competitively. The brakes, handlebars, crank shaft and everything else must be in top working order.
  • Inexperience: Like any other sport, the more you practice mountain biking, the better you’ll get at it. In the beginning, it is normal to have the occasional accidents simply because you don’t have the experience. That said, advanced mountain bikers suffer the most injuries—primarily because they tackle the most challenging terrain.

Cross-country vs. downhill mountain biking

Injuries are less common in cross-country mountain biking than they are in downhill racing, for obvious reasons.

Cross-country mountain bikers head down a valley trail
Cross-country mountain biking (pictured) is relatively safe when compared with downhill.

The bottom line is, if you go too fast, if your bike isn’t set up right, if you don’t look ahead or scope out a downhill trail ahead of time, or if you try something beyond your level of experience, you can get in trouble. The best way to avoid these things is to take it slow, take it seriously, and get familiar with the trail ahead of time. Have the right gear, equipment and mindset. If you do these things, you are much less likely to have an accident and suffer fractures, a head injury or a broken bone.

Common types of mountain biking injuries

Mountain biking injuries can range from bumps and bruises to concussions and serious brain injuries. The most common injuries are:

  • Skin abrasions
  • Pain in lower back area
  • Knee pain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Broken collarbone
  • Wrist fractures
  • Concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI)

Causes of mountain biking injuries

Crashes, of course, cause most serious mountain biking injuries. Indeed, most hardcore mountain bikers will plummet over their handlebars at some point, and the risk of injury from that is quite high.

View over a mountain biker's handlebars as they head down a mountain trail
Any rider who pushes herself on challenging downhill runs is bound to go over the front the bike at some point.

But you have more control over the nastier injuries than you think. Make sure both you and your bike are in shape. Avoid risk-taking and foolishness. Above all else, take the sport seriously. Mountain biking is a lot of fun, but it’s potentially dangerous as well, regardless of who you are. It’s up to you to make it as safe as possible.

Even when you play it safe, the sport doesn’t come without risk of injury. Lower back pain can result from being hunched over your bike for long periods of time, and you might suffer foot pain or heel pain from the stress on those parts of the body. These are overuse injuries that should settled down with some time away from the bike.

A similar condition that many mountain bikers experience is soreness in the piriformis muscle. That’s the muscle in your buttock that helps your thigh rotate outward as you ride. You’ll feel this pain either in your hip or traveling down your leg.

As you can see, there are a number of different types of injuries with varying causes. Using common sense and taking precautions can reduce the odds of most.

Risk factors that make mountain biking more dangerous

As with other sports, certain risk factors can increase your odds of having a mountain biking accident while you’re out on the trail. These are often things people think little about, but they are important staying safe while you’re riding.

For instance, if you are tired, thirsty or hungry, you can make mistakes that you wouldn’t otherwise make with better preparation.

If you’re going mountain biking and plan to be gone awhile, make sure you drink a lot of water before and during the trip, bring some snacks with you in case you get hungry, ride with a friend, and leave early enough so you’re not trying to make it back home after dark. Nighttime is definitely not the time to be riding a mountain bike on uneven or unfamiliar terrain. Even if the trail is familiar, going mountain biking after dark is never a smart idea.

Sometimes even your ego can put you in harm’s way and cause you to have an accident because you took a risk that you shouldn’t have taken. Riding with mountain bikers of a slightly higher skill level is a great way to push yourself and improve your abilities, but succumbing to peer pressure is a recipe for injuries. Know your limits.

Downhill mountain biker blurred against a backdrop of thin trees

Knowing the risks is part of the solution

Let’s take a look at a few more statistics that get at the risk of mountain biking:

  • 70 per cent of the injuries treated in hospital are the result of a fall.
  • Of all riders who have injuries, 28 to 55 per cent have facial trauma.
  • In cross-country mountain biking, 75 per cent of injuries are simple abrasions.

While the injury rate for mountain bikers varies depending on the type of biking and other factors, there’s little doubt that injury is a cause for concern. In fact, several mountain bikers—many of them professionals—have had fatal injuries despite their level of experience.

Nonetheless, those facts should not scare you away from giving mountain biking a try if you’re interested in learning the sport.

Use common sense to avoid injury

The main rules of thumb are to practice common sense, keep the bike in good shape, use proper equipment at all times, and get educated on how to make yourself safer. Above all else, don’t take risks that can cause your accidents to be even more severe. Remember, injury avoidance is primarily your responsibility as the cyclist.

This isn’t to say that all injuries can be avoided, but you can greatly cut down on your number of accidents if you practice these rules.

Mountain biking can be dangerous, but it is also a lot of fun. You just have to remember everything you’ve learned about it before you get out there and start riding, because this is the best way to reduce the odds of having a serious injury at some point.

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