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How to Choose and Buy the Best Electric Mountain Bike
All electric bikes combine an electric motor with pedals and some of the gearing of a traditional bicycle. This setup allows cyclists to ride further, climb longer and carry more cargo than they would normally be capable of, on a standard pedal bike. Electric mountain bikes combine these advantages with tough, go-anywhere, off-road construction.
An electric mountain bike will be burlier than your standard commuter e-bike, and may require a high-torque motor and superior brakes, to help move over and up loose terrain while carrying heavy-duty components.
For those that ride hard, there is also a very specific advantage presented by the electric mountain bike (or ‘e-MTB’). Many trail, enduro and downhill riders live for high-speed descents. Climbing, on a heavy mountain bike, is just a means to an end. If you recognize yourself in this description, or if your crew always needs one guy with a car to drive everyone to the trailhead, you may be someone who’d benefit from an electric mountain bike.
An electric motor allows you to spend more time and energy on trails and descents, without depending on a car.
Electric mountain bikes use conventional bicycle components in combination with an electric motor. The bike’s motor provides ‘pedal assist’ to supplement the rider’s own power as they pedal.
Some electric mountain bikes are also fitted with a throttle. A throttle accelerates an e-MTB in a similar way to a motorcycle and may or may not require any input from the rider.
In order to be legally considered as an ‘electric bicycle’ and not a motorcycle, electric mountain bikes must be fitted with cranks and pedals. In most U.S. states, e-MTBs are limited to a top speed of 20 mph.
‘Pedal assistance’ is the assistance given by the motor, in response to a rider’s pedal input. If you’re using a Class 1 or Class 3 e-MTB, this will be the only way that your bike’s motor supplies power. With a Class 2 bike, you may have a throttle available to give you a boost, independent of your pedal input.
Many riders prefer to pedal continuously, getting a workout as they ride. Others may be less able or less fit and prefer to work that throttle.
Throttles are fitted to some e-MTBs. Road-legal models conform to Class 2 specifications and are limited to 20 mph on roads. There are bikes that operate outside these restrictions but these are ‘technically’ illegal to use anywhere, except on private property.
Please refer to our main article on choosing an Electric Bike, for a detailed explanation of the main technical terms relating to e-bikes.
Terms (such as Watts, Watt-Hours, Amp-Hours, Voltage and Torque) are used to describe and measure the performance of your potential e-MTB purchase.
Electric mountain bikes are available with 250-Watt, 350W, 500W, 750W, 1000W, 1250W or even 1500-Watt motors. These numbers represent ‘Nominal Wattage’.
It can be tempting to judge the power of an e-MTB by its ‘Nominal Wattage’ alone, but this would be a mistake. ‘Peak Wattage’ is a better representation of a bike’s maximum power output. This figure is a result of the manufacturer’s choice of controller and battery (see our main Electric Bike article for details). The peak wattage of a 250W e-bike can be 700W or higher.
In much of Europe, motors are limited to a nominal wattage of 250W. In the U.S., laws vary from state to state. Keep in mind that any vehicle with a motor bigger than 750W is not considered a legal e-bike and will be excluded from riding trails in U.S. National Parks.
Nominal wattage is also known as ‘Continuous Wattage’, as it represents the power rating at which an e-bike can continuously operate, without undue stress being placed on its motor.
Low-wattage hub motors may overheat if they are consistently put under pressure, either on long and intense climbs or when hauling significant weight. For this reason, bulky electric fatbikes are often fitted with motors that have a higher nominal wattage rating.
When it comes to choosing an electric mountain bike, you’ll want to pay attention to torque. This is a measure of how much power is available to you at lower revolutions. In real terms, the more torque your bike has; the further you’ll climb, the more weight you’ll haul and the more mud, sand and snow you’ll be able to slog through.
Torque is measured in Newton Meters (Nm). Real electric mountain bikes will have at least 60Nm of torque available, and as much as 160Nm. ‘Off-road’ capable bikes (intended for hardpack dirt or gravel), may have as little as 40Nm available.
High-end e-MTBs always use a mid-drive motor. Because they work through your e-bike’s drivetrain and gearing, they can access a lower gear and therefore greater torque. A mid-drive motor allows you to climb steeper and longer hills than with a hub-motor, without the likelihood of overheating.
When it comes to hub motors, a geared hub motor exhibits superior torque compared to a direct-drive option. This is something to look for, if you are considering an affordable e-MTB option.
Watt-Hours and Battery Capacity
Battery capacity is indicated in Watt-hours, using the abbreviation ‘Wh’. Manufacturers can’t tell you exactly how far or for how long you can travel on a certain bike. Distance and ride-time are affected by multiple factors; including elevation, how much throttle is used, level of pedal-assist chosen and combined rider/cargo weight.
If a manufacturer doesn’t display the Watt-hours of a bike, look for the voltage (V) of the bike’s system and battery, in addition to the battery’s Amp-hour (Ah) rating.
Voltage × Amp-hours = Watt-hours (V × Ah = Wh)
The best electric mountain bikes possess different characteristics and performance attributes to electric bikes intended for casual, everyday or commuter use. For an in-depth discussion of e-bike attributes, please refer to our main Electric Bike article.
New e-MTBs will be fitted with one of two types of motors. There are significant differences between the two types; in terms of performance, riding style and price.
A mid-drive system places the motor between the bike’s cranks, resulting in even weight distribution and a low center of gravity. These motors make for superior climbing, due to the motor having access to the bike’s drivetrain gearing. They can operate in low gears, for extended periods of time.
Mid-drive motors are standard on resilient and performance e-MTBs that are intended to be used on real mountain bike trails. They employ a torque sensor which responds to rider pedal input in a smooth and intuitive manner. This avoids the delay experienced by users of hub-drives with cadence sensors.
Changing a rear tire is uncomplicated.
Due to their performance advantages, mid-drive motors do ask a higher price. They also tend to require more maintenance than a hub-driven motor, as they place more stress on your drivetrain components.
Hub-driven motors are still fitted to thriftier e-MTB options, by builders of affordable off-road e-bikes. The motor sits within the hub of a bike’s rear wheel. This results in a weight distribution that is back-heavy and which could result in unwanted wheelies.
Under duress, hub-driven motors can overheat. This is particularly the case on extended climbs in low gears. As such, they aren’t the best option to shuttle you to the peak of a downhill run.
Hub motors use a cadence sensor to control pedal-assistance from the motor. There is usually a lag in this assistance, and sometimes when it shuts off. Obviously, this could mess you up on technical sections. Cadence sensors are less intuitive than torque sensors and have been described as delivering action that is jerky, unpredictable or even dangerous.
As if that wasn’t enough, a hub-motor means having to detach and reattach cables when changing a flat rear tire. Nevertheless, hub motors can be a fine option for a budget-conscious buyer who aims to use their bike on low-elevation dirt and gravel roads.
As discussed in our definition of e-MTB terms (above), battery capacity is calculated as a combination of an e-bike system’s voltage and the amp-hours available from its battery. Most electric mountain bikes tend to run on 36 or 48-volt systems, but some manufacturers are now building 52V setups. Amp-hours vary widely from bike to bike, but anything from 9.6Ah to 21Ah can be found in the market.
This range of battery specifications results in capacities varying from around 460Wh up to 1010Wh.
Some ‘off-road-capable’ electric bikes are not intended for real trail riding, but they are suited to riding low-elevation gravel or hardpack dirt roads. Most of these bikes use 36V systems with battery capacities ranging from 290Wh up to 504Wh (8Ah to 14Ah).
E-MTBs that are lightweight and efficient may have smaller capacity batteries, while bulky and heavy fatbikes use some of the highest capacity batteries available. Very large and multiple-battery setups add considerable weight to an e-MTB, forcing the battery to compensate for this bulk. So bigger isn’t necessarily better.
E-Bike batteries are comprised of many individual cells. The quality of these cells can vary widely. For a reliable battery, keep an eye out for cells from brands such as Panasonic, Samsung and LG.
Due to the demand for high levels of power and high-torque bursts of energy, e-MTB batteries are sapped quickly. In comparison, the batteries of commuting e-bikes will last a lot longer under standard use.
Because it is important to keep weight down on mountain bikes, it isn’t practical to saddle an e-MTB with heavy or multiple batteries. Instead, some e-mountain bikers choose to have a spare battery on-hand.
Some manufacturers claim ranges of 40 mi to 60 mi and above, but these figures only apply to perfect conditions on flat ground with no wind, while using the lowest level of assist. Even on the best electric mountain bikes, 22 mi to 50 mi is more realistic (under the demands of real-world mountain bike riding).
Please refer to our main Electric Bike article for an in-depth discussion of e-bike range.
Modern mountain bikes are made with 27.5” or 29” wheels. Some bikes use a ‘mulleted’ setup, with a 29” front and a 27.5” rear wheel.
If you are a shorter rider, it makes sense to aim for 27.5” wheels, as a complete bike can be made smaller with smaller wheels. If you are extra-small, you may seek out a bike with 26” wheels. Some teenagers may even seek out an e-MTB with 24” wheels.
A number of electric fatbikes are built with 26” wheels (which are otherwise slow and obsolete). Because of the huge tires placed on these wheels, their overall circumference will be similar to that of 27.5” and 29” wheels. You will also find low-end, low-cost, off-road e-bikes that use 26” wheels. These are “new old stock” parts that help the manufacturer to reduce a bike’s overall price.
For most e-MTBers, 2.4” to 2.6”-wide tires will fulfill purposes. This includes anything from casual to cross-country riding,
Fatter, ‘plus-size’ tires between 2.8” and 3.0” are sometimes chosen for more raucous trail and enduro disciplines. They can be run at lower pressures for more compliance.
Anything above 3.0” is considered ‘fat’. Fatbike tires can be as wide as 4.5”. They’re prevalent on budget fatbikes, which are super-common and uber-popular right now. This fatness can be more aesthetic than functional. It lends a bad-ass ‘moto’ look to any bike, but huge tires are heavy and slow to accelerate.
As is the case with regular mountain bikes, e-MTBs are available with either; full-suspension (front and rear), front suspension only (also known as a ‘hardtail’) or no suspension (aka ‘rigid’). Please refer to our main Mountain Bike article for details.
You’ll want full-suspension for bombing down trail descents or landing drop-offs. A hardtail with a suspension fork will be ample for handling a few rocks, ruts and pot-holes. Fatbikes can get away with no suspension, as a significant amount of judder can be sucked up by huge tires run at low pressures.
Cheap e-bike manufacturers may include a suspension fork to impress potential buyers. However, at lower prices these forks can be heavy, spongy and/or bouncy. They might make your ride quality worse.
A better suspension fork exhibits superior ‘damping’, or the ability to compress and decompress in a smooth and fluid manner, without draining all your pedal power. If you are also using your e-MTB on paved roads, you’ll want a fork that features a ‘lockout’. Essentially, this turns your fork ‘rigid’, to preserve efficiency on a flat surface.
This is the distance that your fork or rear shock will travel to absorb impacts. Generally, fork options vary between 80mm and 200mm. The lower figure suits dirt roads. 200mm of travel is what you’ll see on a triple-crown downhill fork, meant for throwing oneself down hectic descents.
Anything less than 80mm is only suited to absorbing bumps on uneven urban roads, gravel or hardpack dirt.
Electric mountain bikes are heavy and fast. To stop this weight at speed, disc brakes are essential. There are two types of disc brake: Hydraulic and Mechanical.
Hydraulic disc brakes exhibit superior stopping power, with less effort placed on brake levers. They use fluid to transmit power from your brake levers to your brake calipers. This enclosed system requires minimal maintenance but is more difficult to adjust at home. Bikes with hydraulic disc brakes cost more than those with mechanical disc brakes. If you can afford them, aim for hydraulic disc brakes.
There are two reasons to choose mechanical disc brakes. Firstly, you may like to work on your own bike. This is a preference for long-distance riders and tourers, who may not be anywhere near a bike shop at times. This is unlikely on an electric bike though, as your battery limits your ride distance.
The second reason to choose mechanical disc brakes, is that e-MTBs are cheaper when specced with them. You may not need hydraulic brakes if the combined weight of you, your bike and your cargo is moderate.
Whatever choice you make, choose disc brakes on an electric mountain bike.
Gearing and Drivetrains
Serious e-MTBs will use a 1× drivetrain (‘1×’ is pronounced “one-by”). This means they have a single chainring and no front derailleur. This configuration simplifies gear changes and maintenance, while reducing mechanical complexity. On higher-quality bikes, the rear cassette will provide 10 to 12 gears. On mid-range 1× e-MTBs, a 7 to 9-speed cassette is common.
In addition to using old-stock 26” wheels, entry-level ‘off-road’ electric bikes are also likely to use cut-price, old-stock drivetrains. These bikes have a front derailleur and usually a (heavy) triple chainring. This chainring is mated to a cassette with 7, 8 or 9 speeds, giving a total of 21, 24 or 27 speeds. This drivetrain may only offer the same range as a 1×11 setup.
Gear Range (%)
Some manufacturers may state a bike’s gear range by a ‘percent (%)’ measurement. The larger the percent, the larger the range. The larger the range, the more difference there is between your highest and lowest gear. At least 300% should be sought out. 500% is excellent.
Mid-drive motor e-MTBs have a wider gear range than hub options. Some e-MTBs use a geared hub motor, which will add to a rider’s range, when used in conjunction with mechanical gears. A few hub-motor e-bikes use an ungeared, direct-drive motor. Range is limited on these bikes.
You can refer to our discussion of regular mountain bike gearing, in order to understand the intricacies of your e-MTB’s drivetrain.
Because of the weight of electric components, most electric mountain bike frames are made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Carbon fiber options will be lighter, more compliant and pricier.
Quality can vary, even between bikes made of the same material. Aluminum tubing comes in various grades. Less robust types must be built up with bigger tubing and gussetry, resulting in a weight penalty.
Double and triple-butted tubing is reinforced at the tube ends, reducing the amount of material used and the bike’s overall weight.
In summary, if a lighter frame is just as strong as a heavier one, the e-MTB will cost more.
There isn’t one type of e-MTB to suit all modes of off-road riding. A bike intended for heavy-duty riding is going to be more expensive than one built to roll over packed dirt or the occasional pothole.
Gentle Trekking, Gravel Roads and Rail-Trails
If you only go off-road on moderately uneven dirt or gravel, you can be content with a hardtail e-MTB with 100mm to 120mm of suspension. Mechanical disc brakes may well be adequate.
A fatbike, with or without a suspension fork, will suffice for snow, mud or loose dirt trails without drop-offs and big rocks. You may want hydraulic disc brakes to bring the extra bulk to a stop.
A mid-drive motor is preferable, but hub motors should handle this type of riding without concern.
Cross-Country: Hardtail or Full-Suspension?
Cross-country riders generally move at higher speeds on singletrack, encountering moderate rocks and ruts. Depending on the speed and intensity of the trails you prefer, the perfect bike may be either full suspension or a hardtail. Suspension travel is usually between 80mm and 130mm.
If you’re serious about performance, you’d be wise to choose a mid-drive motor e-MTB with a lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber frame.
Full-On Trails, Enduro, Downhill
If you’re hurtling down a high-speed descent packed with jumps, doubles, banks and drop-offs, you’ll need a serious full-suspension e-MTB. Suspension travel is generally between 150mm and 180mm for trail and enduro bikes, which comprise most electric full-suspension mountain bikes.
Downhill e-MTBs are still a rarity, but when they do exist they come with 200mm-travel forks and around 180mm in the rear shock.
For serious e-MTBing, seek out a mid-drive motor and lightweight frame (aluminum or carbon fiber).
Some folk commute on backroads or dirt roads. Others just like to be able to traverse both paved and unpaved roads, on their way to work. For these purposes, a low-cost ‘off-road’ bike with 80mm of suspension will suffice. Either a hub or mid-drive motor will do. Aluminum is the frame flavor of choice.
Kids’ e-MTBs? They exist. Most options are hardtail bikes with aluminum frames and 24” to 26” wheels. Depending on your budget, you can choose from mid-drive or hub motor options. Check the legal restrictions in your state.
In 2019, a change to e-bike laws took place, affecting how e-bikes can be used within United States National Parks. Since this change, any pedal-equipped bike with a motor size of 750W or less can be used on National Park trails.
The new rules specify that it’s illegal to mash your e-bike’s throttle on a National Park trail for an “extended period of time”. However, adherence to this rule is based on the ‘honor system’.
Vehicles over 750W are not forbidden from National Parks, as they should be legally registrable to be ridden on roads.
Please refer to our main Electric Bike article for a description of e-bike classes and laws in the United States.
E-Bike Class regulations are more relevant to on-road riders. However, in these situations, e-bike Class laws will apply to you and your e-MTB:
- If you ride on pavement to reach your local trails.
- If you ride off-road on dirt roads that are also used by registered vehicles.
- If you also use your e-MTB as a commuter or general-purpose ride.
Always seek the most suitable bike size for you. Please refer to our bike size charts for advice on achieving a primo fit when buying online.
A correctly sized bike will optimize comfort, control and performance while reducing fatigue.
Be aware that many budget e-MTBs are only available in one size. Some are available in limited sizes. This cuts manufacturer costs and will hopefully mean a lower price for you as a buyer. Some of these models will be fitted with a highly adjustable stem, in the hope that you can customize the bike (as closely as possible) to your reach and height.
Nevertheless, nothing is as comfortable as an appropriately-sized bike.
If you are going to be carrying a sufficient rider and/or cargo weight on your e-MTB, it is important to check the maximum weight limit recommended by the manufacturer.
You should consider whether you will be carrying cargo, kids, accessories, shopping, dogs or armory. Many manufacturers list the maximum suggested weight to be carried on their bike. While this usually tops out at around 350lb, specialist models can handle up to 550lb.
New electric mountain bikes are available across a very broad price range. For a hardtail, hub-motor e-MTB, expect to pay upwards of $1300. It’s possible to pay upwards of $15,000 at the upper end of the market.
At the bottom end, bikes as cheap as $600 to $700 may be labeled as ‘electric mountain bikes’. They may sport knobby tires and front suspension, but are often under-powered and unsafe for use on singletrack. They may be suited to gravel or firm dirt roads.
Mid-drive hardtail e-MTBs are rarely available for less than $2000. Full-suspension options aren’t usually accessible for less than $3000.
Torque of the Trail
An electric mountain bike allows you to spend more time and energy riding the off-road sections that you love. If you want to ride for longer on cross-country and dirt trails, the e-MTB has your back. If you’re sick of struggling up long, loose climbs and arriving at the peak of a downhill trail feeling pooped, the e-MTB’s got you. Has anyone ever enjoyed schlepping 35lb of full-suspension mountain bike up a mountainside?
Use our guides and go forth confidently with your next electric mountain bike purchase.
Take a load off. Feel the power, feel the speed.
- See our reviews and guide to the Best Electric Bikes in all price ranges.
- See our reviews and guide to the Best Mountain Bikes in all price ranges.
- Have questions about which bike to choose? Ask in our Forum.
- Want to win a bike instead of buying one? See our bike Giveaway.
- Find out more about BikeRide.
- Forest Service, USDA, Forest Service Statement on Electronic Bicycle Use
- Federal Register, General Provisions; Electric Bicycles
- Jeff Barber, The Current State of Electric Mountain Bike Trail Access in the U.S.
- Micah Toll, It’s Official: All Electric Bicycles Are Now Allowed in All National Parks
- Barrie Lawson, Electropaedia Battery Technology Glossary
- Barrie Lawson, Battery and Energy Technologies
- Richard Peace, Guide to E-Bike Gearing Systems