One of the first questions any new mountain biker faces when choosing their bike is: hardtail or full suspension? This feature, more than almost any other, will determine almost everything else about your bike, from the price and weight to the riding style and more. It’s important to take your time and consider both options carefully, but the distinction isn’t quite as complicated as it may look from the outside.
In fact, you can typically break down the differences into a few main categories, and all you need to do from there is determine what your needs or desires are for each category. Then choose the bike that most matches up with what you want in each area and presto! You’ll be ready to buy your mountain bike. But first, let’s define what each of these terms mean.
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Hardtail suspension is perhaps less popular with mountain bikers who are just getting started, but that’s not because it’s a less superior set up. It’s more because most riders either love or hate a hardtail, while full suspension is less polarizing.
A hardtail bike is basically what it sounds like – it has a hard tail, or in other words, there is no shock absorption in the back. All of the suspension is in the front, so you won’t get any absorption in the back tire. The biggest reason that riders choose this style is because it is mechanically much simpler. There are no rear shocks, extra mounts, or pivots to worry about. With less mechanical parts that need to work together, there is less chance that you’ll need to deal with repairs.
Full suspension bikes have shock absorption in both the front and rear of the bike, and despite having more mechanical parts that need to be in working order, these tend to be more popular for one important reason: they offer easier and better handling on more technical terrains.
That means that if you want to be sure that your mountain bike will go absolutely anywhere, without having to guess whether the bike will handle the trail or not, a full suspension bike is probably the better choice. That’s very attractive to new riders who don’t want to have to spend their time pouring over technical information, instead of riding their bikes.
Related: Trek vs Specialized
10 Things to Consider When Choosing Between Hardtail and Full Suspension Bikes
Now that you know what each of these bike styles are, it’s time to consider the various features that will help you decide between the two. While there are a lot of small tweaks on every unique bike that make it stand out from the crowd, there are around 10 main characteristics to consider for your mountain bike.
As we stated above, the hardtail bike gets a big A+ for being less mechanically involved. This means that if you are on a trail, you don’t have to worry about what you will do if part of your suspension system breaks – because chances are, it won’t. With so few parts involved, it’s very unlikely that a hardtail bike will have many problems. Additionally, cleaning a hardtail bike is much easier because there are fewer tiny pieces involved that can get dirty or grimy.
Because of the added mechanical parts, a full suspension bike is usually heavier than a hardtail bike. This is important if you’ll be doing a lot of uphill riding, but if you prefer a full suspension in every other respect, don’t fret. While it may cost a bit more, you can get lighter full suspension bikes that were specifically made to address this issue. Keep in mind that the material of the bike will make a huge difference in the weight. Carbon fiber is a much lighter material than steel, for example, and if you’re looking at spending big bucks, a titanium bike is going to be much lighter than either of those. At the end of the day, even if the full suspension bike is a bit heavier, you may prefer it anyway due to the easier handling.
Once again, the hardtail bike comes out ahead in this area. The rear shock parts do make a full suspension bike cost more, which is why many beginners start out with hardtail bikes. However, both hardtail and full suspension bikes offer quite a range of prices, and to get a high-quality hardtail with all the bells and whistles, you’ll probably be able to find a slightly less fancy full suspension bike for a more affordable price. Just keep in mind that budget should not be your first concern because all mountain bikes have a range of prices. Don’t forget to weigh the long-term costs of the bike as well. The more mechanical parts it has, the more you’ll have to dish out in the future for repairs or upkeep.
Many people find that full suspension bikes are more adaptable to various types of terrain, due to the better traction and easier handling offered by the suspension. However, all mountain bikes are made to cover multiple types of terrain, including cross-country terrain. Even if you choose a hardtail, you are still buying a mountain bike. It may just not be quite as comfortable as a full suspension on rougher terrain.
One area in which these two types of bikes definitely differ is in the way they handle descents. There is no way around the fact that a full suspension bike offers a better ride – in terms of safety and comfort – when traversing steep descents. If you do a lot of downhill riding, you’ll want to stick to the full suspension bike in most cases. The hardtail just can’t offer you the handling precision that you need to stay safe.
Ease of Handling
We’ve mentioned how much easier a full suspension bike can be to handle a few times now. Suspension does make the bike a bit steadier on the trail, which makes it easier to handle overall. That means that when you’ve got a lot of hard corners, steep hills, or muddy or rocky conditions to navigate, the extra oomph of a full suspension bike could come in handy. Wondering why the hardtail isn’t quite as easy to handle? It’s because the rear wheel gets jostled much more without the suspension when going over bumps, and that causes you to need to shift your weight in order to keep the bike balanced. That shifting of the weight affects the front wheel, which is what you are handling. Anything that causes the front wheel to be affected will mean that you’ll have to work a little harder to maintain the same kind of control over the bike’s direction and balance.
This is a pretty straightforward feature. With more shock absorption comes better comfort. The less of the rocky trail you feel, the fewer aches and pains you’ll have the next day. So when it comes to a bike that is more comfortable, a full suspension is likely to be the best answer. However, keep in mind that full suspension bikes tend to be heavier, which can be hard on the leg muscles. If you are more concerned about the comfort of your muscles after a long ride, a hardtail could actually be more comfortable for you. Think about what you find most taxing about a ride – is it the workout or the long hours of sitting in one posture? That will help you determine which of these two bikes you’d find more comfortable.
Not every mountain biker cares about speed. Most of the time, the sport is about navigating to unexplored places, rather than zooming by all that great scenery. But if you do want to go fast, a full suspension bike is likely to give you a bit more speed going downhill, while a lighter hardtail will be a bit faster on flat regions and heading uphill.
Aesthetics are one area where there is no right or wrong answer. Full suspension bikes tend to look “meatier” or “more aggressive”, due to all those extra mechanical components on the bike. Some people really like that. It does give a mountain bike a very rugged and ready appearance. However, others like the more streamlined look of a hardtail, which appears more like a standard commuting bike. The choice here is totally up to you.
The final thing to consider is your own enjoyment! Which type of bike do you find more fun to ride? Or, maybe more importantly, what types of trails do you find more fun to explore? If you are a big fan of technically challenging trails with lots of rocky areas, steep hills, and crazy twists and turns, you’ll probably want to stick to a full suspension bike. If you are more a fan of beautiful scenery and tend to do long cruises in flat areas while you soak it in, you could find a hardtail better suited for your needs, and easier on your legs.
Side by Side Comparison
Considering all of the features of both the hardtail and the full suspension bike, and keeping in mind what type of riding you prefer to do, may still leave some riders at a loss for which bike they should buy. Maybe you’ve found that your preferences leave you split right down the middle between a hardtail or a full suspension. Here are the pros and cons of each laid out side by side, so that you can see at a glance how many riders decide:
- Hardtail Pros
- Less expensive
- Lighter in weight
- Less likely to break
- Faster uphill and on flat regions
- Easier on your legs
- Hardtail Cons
- Limited terrain
- Not as suitable for descents
- Less comfortable
- Not as easy to handle
- Full Suspension Pros
- More comfortable
- Faster downhill
- Suitable for many types of terrain
- Easier to handle
- Full Suspension Cons
- More expensive
- More likely to need repairs
- Takes longer to clean
- Harder on your leg muscles
What Type of Rider Are You?
Still not quite sure which bike is best for you? Consider choosing from another angle. Instead of thinking about the bike that you want, think about what type of riding you want to do, or normally do.
- Usually ride on flat trails
- Prefer to keep your budget limited
- Don’t want to spend a lot of time or money on bike repairs
- Are a more casual rider
- Are less athletically inclined
…then you may be better off with a hardtail bike. Don’t think that you can’t enjoy a hardtail for a long trip, either. In fact, the hardtail actually has more room for extra water thanks to the lack of rear suspension parts, so it’s a great bike for a long, leisurely cruise.
- Love traversing complex trails with hills, twists, and rough terrain
- Don’t mind spending money on your favorite hobby
- Enjoy learning how to care for your bike
- Use mountain biking as a form of exercise
- Bike regularly
…then you’ll probably be more comfortable in the long run with a full suspension bike. Keep in mind that you’ll need to carry some sort of hydration system for longer rides because the extra suspension parts don’t allow for additional water bottles to fit on the frame of a full suspension bike. That doesn’t mean you can’t still have a great ride with this versatile bike style.
Choosing Your Bike in the Store
So now you’ve learned all the differences between hardtail and full suspension bikes – that still leaves you with a huge world of mountain bikes to choose from. And if you still haven’t quite decided which type of bike would be best for you, chances are that what you need to do is head into a store and take a look at some bikes in person. Here are some tips for choosing a bike in a store:
- First, always keep your budget in mind. Mountain bikes can get into the tens of thousands of dollars, so you’ll want to have a very firm idea of what you are willing to spend before you walk in. If your budget is small (under $500), you are probably going to be looking at a hardtail bike. Full suspension bikes, even on the inexpensive end, tend to be pricier. You can get a pretty nice, mid-level hardtail around $500, however. Once you are willing to spend more than $1,000, you can start looking at the basic full suspension bikes and the upper-end hardtails. A budget over $1,500 will let you have a wider variety of upper-end hardtails and mid-level full suspension bikes to choose from.
- Next, use the guide above to determine exactly what type of rider you are. Do you ride on flat trails, or do you do a lot of off-road exploring? Don’t be too worried if your budget won’t allow you a full suspension for crazy off-roading. A good hardtail can still let you have a lot of fun – you’ll just have to practice handling it a bit firmer. Use what you’ve learned in this article about the two types of bikes to really consider what you must have in a bike. You may find that your budget has to change, or you may find that what type of riding you expected to do has to change to meet your budget.
- Talk to the salesperson in the store about what type of bike may be better for the local trails if you intend to stay local with your riding. Chances are anyone working in a bike shop rides themselves, and they may have better insight on why a hardtail or a full suspension would be better for the local terrain. They may also point out a feature on a specific bike that you can’t live without – remember, all bikes are different!
- Now, it’s time to try some bikes! The best thing about shopping in a store is that you have the ability to try the bikes on for size and to ride them around a bit. It’s usually a better idea to at least go sit on a bike before you buy it from an online store, if that’s your plan. Many bike stores offer a rental policy, or what is called a “paid demo” so that you can test out a specific bike on a nearby trail. If nothing else, be sure you ride it around the parking lot a bit so that you can get a feel for how it handles, how you feel on the bike, and if there are any glaring problems that wouldn’t work for you.
- Be sure that you talk to the salesperson about the warranty before you buy. When you are spending potentially thousands of dollars on an item, the warranty is very important. If you are buying a full suspension bike, this is even more important, because the warranty usually covers a few tune-ups, replaced parts that break in a certain time period, and so on.
- If you buy a used bike, be sure to inspect it carefully for cracks in the tires or frame, frayed cables, creaky suspension, or leaks. It may even be a good idea to have a local bike repair shop take a look at the bike before you buy it if you can. Be sure that there is no play in the suspension fittings, links, or bearings that could lead to expensive repairs.
The only thing left to do is to buy that bike and head to the trails!
The Bottom Line
Buying your first mountain bike is an exciting step towards a fantastic hobby, and it doesn’t have to be as mysterious as it seems. Now that you’ve armed yourself with the knowledge of how hardtail and full suspension bikes differ, you should be able to determine which would be better for your rides. Finding the perfect first bike is a bit of a myth – you’ll likely end up trying other bikes in the future. But for now, getting the bike that suits you best, to the best of your ability, is all that you need to do. You can get out there and start riding without breaking the bank, or without sacrificing what you want to do on the trails, even without years of experience. It all comes down to your preference as a rider.
Brad grabbed up his first bike when he was a kid and never looked back. He is an avid BMX rider and mountain biker.