When upgrade fever strikes, many riders skip straight to obsessing over the latest and greatest suspension technology, forgetting that something as simple as a tire swap can have a significant impact on a bike's handling. After all, tires are the first point of contact between your bike and the trail - how that rubber interacts with the ground shouldn't be overlooked.
When it comes to choosing an appropriate tire, tread pattern, compound, and casing are the three most important traits to consider. Picking the tire that best suits the trail conditions you most frequently ride is key; for instance, a more open tread pattern with taller blocks may work well on muddy, mucky trails, but probably won't be the best choice for desert dwellers whose trails are rock solid with a thin layer of gravel or sand over the top.
In the same vein, a tire with a super soft and sticky rubber compound is nice to have in wet weather or on steep trails where traction is of the utmost importance, but there are tradeoffs, namely in the form of a reduced lifespan. For that reason, it's not uncommon to run a softer compound up front, and use a harder compound on the back wheel to increase its lifespan.
The growth of enduro racing, and the fact that more and more riders are riding their trail bikes at an extremely high level, has led to an increasing number of tires with reinforced sidewalls designed to help prevent punctures and pinch flats. Schwalbe's Super Gravity and Maxxis' Double Down casings are the two most prevalent examples. There is a weight penalty that comes with the thicker casing, but it's still not as much as what would be incurred by running a dual ply downhill tire. All the same, in many cases running it's possible to get away with running a tire with a reinforced casing in the back and a lighter, single ply tire up front.
Should I go tubeless?
In a word, yes. If you haven't already converted, you should. Running tubeless tires makes it possible to run lower pressures, and reduces the chances of getting a flat. Modern tires are easier to set up than ever before, and in many cases an air compressor won't be necessary to get everything seated and sealed. All of the tires selected here are tubeless ready.
The six tires profiled below all have their individual strengths and weaknesses, but they share one common trait: their intended usage. These tires were designed for venturing into rough, technical trails, places where traction has a higher priority than weight or rolling resistance.
The Minion DHF is an absolute classic, a tire with a proven track record that extends back more than a decade. There's a reason for its longevity – it simply works, offering predictable traction in nearly any condition. You can run a matching set front and rear, but for the highest amount of traction, a blockier rear tire, something along the lines of the Minion DHR II is a good bet. In really thick, gloppy mud the DHF doesn't clear mud as fast as option with a more widely spaced tread pattern, but otherwise it's an outstanding contender.Maxxis Minion DHF full review Maxxis Minion DHF
• Available for 26", 27.5" and 29" wheels
• 2.3" or 2.5" widths
• Multiple casing, compound options
• Weight: 850 grams (27.5 x 2.3, EXO casing)
• MSRP: $78 USD
• Extremely predictable in a wide range of conditions
• Multiple compound and casing options
• Tread can clog in extremely thick mud
Schwalbe's Magic Mary was first introduced to the DH world, chalking up World Cup wins even before it was available to the public. Since those early days it's become a mainstay in Schwalbe's lineup, with a wide footprint and aggressive tread pattern that makes it able to find traction where other tires falter. The Magic Mary is especially well suited to loose, loamy terrain, where the tall knobs are able to claw into the ground. Downsides? The angled side knobs do make the tire a little more likely to slide out when faced with wet roots, and there's also the fact that early runs of the tire suffered from a less-than-ideal lifespan, especially considering the asking price, although the more recent versions do seem to hold up better. Magic Mary full review Schwalbe Magic Mary
• Sizes available: 26, 27.5 and 29 inch
• 2.35" width (folding bead)
• Carcass: Evolution-Snakeskin, Super Gravity and Downhill
• Compounds available: Trailstar (intermediate), Vertstar (soft)
• Weight: 795g, 1045 or 1190g (dependent on carcass)
• MSRP: $93.25 (Super Gravity)
• Excellent grip in loose terrain
• Wide footprint provides plenty of traction
• Not the longest lasting option
Bontrager's tire lineup tends to fly under the radar, which is a shame, because their current lineup is chock full of worthy options. The SE5 was derived from their G5 downhill tire, with alternating rectangular and L-shaped lugs on each side combined with a blocky center tread. As I wrote when originally reviewing the SE5, “The most noticeable trait of the tread pattern is just how predictable it is. As long as there's something for the knobs to dig into, there's no sense of vagueness or any on/off feeling when leaning into a turn.” It's also a relatively fast rolling tire despite its aggressive appearance, which can help make those long approaches feel like less of a chore. It's not quite as puncture resistant as other tires in this category in rocky terrain; riders with trails full of sharp, jagged rocks may want to look elsewhere.Bontrager SE5 Full Review Bontrager SE5
• Available for 27.5" and 29" wheels
• 2.3" width
• Weight: 935g (27.5"), 990g (29")
• Core Strength sidewall / sub-tread protection
• MSRP: $74.99 USD
• Fast rolling for how much grip they provide
• Supportive cornering knobs
• Sheds mud well
• Can be flat prone in rocky terrain The Shorty's tread pattern is another tire designed to act like a cut down mud spike, with a blocky tread pattern that resembles what you'd find on a dirt bike. Out of all the tires mentioned here, the Shorty is probably the closest to a wet weather specialist, and “although the range of conditions it works well in is broader than its full-spike relatives, for most riders it won't be a tire that they put on and forget about for the rest of the year.” That being said, the Shorty has an uncanny ability to hook up through slimy turns, keeping you and your bike from being spit off the trail and into the woods.Maxxis Shorty Full Review Maxxis Shorty
• Available for 26”, 27.5” and 29” wheels
• 2.3 and 2.5" widths
• 3C MaxxTerra compound
• Weight: 880 grams (27.5" 3C EXO casing)
• MSRP: $78 USD
• Tenacious grip in sloppy, mucky conditions
• Also works well on loose, dusty trails
• Slow rolling
• Tall knobs can slide out on wet roots
Continental used the tread pattern of a cut down mud spike for inspiration when designing the Baron, giving it plenty of room between each knob to help keep it from getting clogged with mud. The tire's overall profile is more square than round, allowing it to act like a serrated knife as it cuts through the slop. It's not the fastest rolling tire, and the casing can feel a little stiff on firmer ground, but those quibbles are more than overshadowed by the excellent wet weather performance. The Baron's Black Chili tread compound was grippy even on wet roots, making it a good option for riders based in the Pacific Northwest or locales with similar terrain. Continental Der Baron Full Review Continental Der Baron
• 'BlackChili' compound
• 240 TPI (60 TPI x 4) under tread
• 180 TPI (60 TPI x3) sidewalls
• 'Apex' sidewall inserts
• Weight: 1,035 grams (29x2.4)
• MSRP: $85.95 USD
• Outstanding wet weather traction
• Unphased by wet roots
• Sheds mud well
• Casing feels stiff on firmer ground
• Not for gram counters
A relative newcomer on the scene, the TRSr is e*thirteen's first entry into the tire world. It's available in two different tread compounds, Race or Plus, with Race being the grippiest, and Plus being a little harder and longer lasting. As I noted in the original review, “The generous width (the tires measured almost exactly 2.4”) and the tall side knobs provides a nice solid platform to push into during hard cornering, and even when running pressures in the low 20s there was plenty of sidewall support.” The TRSr has one of the lowest durometer tread compounds currently on the market, giving it incredible grip on steep rock rolls and anywhere that traction is crucial. The price is reasonable too, especially considering the performance they deliver on the trail. e*thirteen TRSr
• 27.5" or 29" options
• 2.35" width
• Folding bead, reinforced sidewalls
• Triple rubber compound
• Weight: 920 grams (actual, 27.5")
• MSRP: $69.95 USD
e*thirteen TRSr Full Review
• Ultra-sticky compound
• Supportive during hard cornering
• Reasonably priced
• Soft rubber compound can wear quickly
Which Tires Should I Get?
All of these tires work well in rugged terrain, but some stand out above others depending on what you're seeking. Here's a quick synopsis: All-around:
The Minion DHF has the widest range of operating conditions, remaining predictable in everything from mud to moon dust. The Magic Mary can be used as an all-rounder too, but those tall side knobs can cause it to be less predictable when cornering on hardpack. Grip:
e*thirteen's TRSr takes the cake for being the grippiest, stickiest tire in the group, and if you're looking for something that feels like it was constructed from climbing shoe rubber, this is the one to pick. It falls into the all-rounder category as well, but it is slightly slower rolling than the Minion.Muddy / Wet conditions:
This is a close one, but I'd pick the Continental Der Baron over the Shorty, at least for the trails I regularly ride. Why? Because of the Der Baron's outstanding performance when faced with wet roots, which is typically where cut spike style tires falter.