Do You Need Hardtail or Full Suspension Mountain Bike?

It’s a debate that’s raged for decades - do you need full suspension or a hardtail mountain bike to take on your favourite trails?

Person jumping on Marin full suspension mountain bike towards camera.

In one corner, there are full suspension bike mountain bikes.

On a full-suspension bike, the rear part of the frame is able to move and absorb impacts. A suspension unit, or 'shock', controls the rear end of the bike’s movement and reduces impacts from whatever you happen to be riding over, be it a kerbstone or a ten-foot drop.

It’s a technology that’s revolutionised mountain biking, opening new frontiers of what’s possible on a bike, from cliff drops to race podiums.

In the other corner, we’ve got hardtail mountain bikes.

These are bikes that stick to the traditional frame design that we know and love.

The frame is a single piece without any suspension or pivots. It’s mostly up to the rider to deal with the rough stuff, by picking smoother lines and absorbing the shocks from the trail with their legs and arms. Hardtails go back to the dawn of the sport and they’re not going away any time soon.

Full suspension MTBs have been around for nearly four decades now, and to many riders, they’ve come to represent mountain biking. They’re everywhere, from the Olympics to Rampage. But out in the wider world, there are still lots of happy hardtail riders.

At Marin we produce a big range of both full suspension and hardtail bikes which cover a lot of riding types.
Person skidding on Marin hardtail on gravel surface.

There are plus and minus points to hardtails and full suspension bikes, so let’s start with a general run-down of the what a full suspension mountain bike and hardtail mountain bike actually is and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Believe it or not, there are also some types of riding where hardtails have a definite edge over their squishy cousins - more of which in a bit.

Marin full suspension bike

Suspension 101

Full suspension mountain bikes help you out when the trail gets rough by absorbing some of the forces from the trail. The amount of movement that the suspension allows is called its “travel”. A 'long travel' full suspension mountain bike will let you plough through rocky trails and over big drop-offs, while a shorter travel bike will smooth out the smaller hits and leave you feeling fresher after a full day of climbs and descents.

The suspension on a mountain bike isn’t just designed to deal with drops and hits. On technical climbs, your rear wheel will hug the ground closer than it would on a hardtail, and you’ll have extra traction to clean those awkward rocky or rooty sections.

The downside of this extra plush is the cost, weight and complexity it adds to your bike. Even long travel full suspension bikes are super capable uphill these days, but they do carry a bit of extra timber when you factor in the shock, linkages, bearings and everything else. In reality that doesn't add up to a noticeable difference in the 'feel' of the bike but is something to consider.

Suspension setup is easier these days too, compared to a few years ago. We don’t normally have to tune forks by swapping springs or elastomers like in the good old days - but it’s worth taking the time to dial in your settings. You may also need to tweak them if someone else rides your bike, or if you’re doing a big ride with a heavy pack. Many of Marin's bikes come with air dampened suspension and can be adjusted very easily using a tool known as a suspension shock pump.

You’ll also need to allow for a little more maintenance. Old school full suspension bikes were often flexy and ate through bearings and shock bushings quickly. Those days are mostly in the past, but as with anything with moving parts, bits will wear out and need replacing.

Your rear shock will also need servicing once a year or so to keep it running sweetly, depending on how much you ride. So get to know your local Marin dealer or suspension specialist, and be prepared to pay them a visit from time to time.

Hardtail 101

Hardtail mountain bikes keep everything simple. No frame bearings to wear out, no shock to service. The no-frills nature of a hardtail frame means that you’ll be able to get better components for your budget, or pick up a good quality first mountain bike for much less overall.

Typically for a hardtail and a full suspension bike with the same RRP, the hardtail will have a better-performing drivetrain, brakes and fork. You’ll likely also get a lighter bike for your bucks too, if you’re shopping to a price point. Modern shocks have clever technology like platform damping which ensures that barely any of your energy gets wasted on the pedally stuff - but there’s still something wonderfully direct about the way a hardtail responds when you stomp on the pedals.

Hardtails are also great for teaching you basic riding techniques. On a full suspension mountain bike you’ll get away with poor line choices and body position - up to a point. Hardtails are great at giving you feedback from the trail and if you pick a bad line, or don’t absorb a bump, you’ll know about it.

If you start out mountain biking on a hardtail, so the theory goes, you’ll naturally tend to ride more smoothly, and if you do decide to go full suspension later on, you’ll be flying. And there’s also an addictive sense of achievement from riding a gnarly line without the safety net of rear suspension.

Some specialist subsets of mountain biking naturally lend themselves to a hardtail. If you’re looking to ride dirt jumps or skateparks, it’s much easier to track down a tough, simple hardtail than a slopestyle full suspension bike. For the long-distance adventure crew, a hardtail means more places to attach bike-packing bags or water bottles and less to go wrong in the wilderness.

So the question is, do you get your bounce from your bike, or are you happy to supply the suspension? There’s no right answer, and for some full suspension bikes there’s a hardtail that's more than capable of doing the same job.

Let’s dive a little deeper into Marin range and see what bikes might suit you.
Marin hardtail bike

So the question is, do you get your bounce from your bike, or are you happy to supply the suspension? There’s no right answer, and for some full suspension bikes there’s a hardtail that's more than capable of doing the same job.

The best way to decide is to work out what you want your bike to do. Let's break it down, using some of our bikes to help guide you through it.

Marin full suspension bike

The All Rounder

If your idea of mountain biking involves some ups, some downs and some along, you’ll probably be in the market for a trail bike.

Trail bikes generally have 120-140mm of suspension travel and are designed to pedal well all day, sitting between head-down XC race bikes and longer travel enduro machines.

The Marin Rift Zone series is Marin’s flagship trail full suspension bike, offering 125mm of rear travel paired with a 130mm fork. It’s designed to feel lively and responsive, while still being able to take bigger hits in its stride.

If you’d rather do without rear suspension, the Marin San Quentin hardtail range covers very similar territory - a bike that you can ride all day, but won’t hold you back on more challenging trails. The geometry is very similar to the Rift Zone, but the range starts at a much lower price point, making it more accessible to someone who’s just discovering the sport, or wants to try more technical riding.

There are also smaller wheel size versions available to fit the little shredders in your life - the Marin San Quentin 20 and San Marin Quentin 24.

If you're seeking out more challenging off-road descents with plenty of rocks and roots, you’ll want an 'enduro' or 'all mountain' mountain bike. These are designed to be pedalled to the top of the hill but still very capable on the way back down.

The Marin Alpine Trail model family of bikes have 150mm rear travel for taming the wildest trails. Big 29er wheels smooth out the rocks and roots, and aggressive geometry lets the suspension work as efficiently as possible to get you to the bottom of the hill with a grin on your face.

The Marin El Roy is a hardtail that can tackle the same trails you’d ride on a full-blown enduro machine. Its 29-inch wheel size and long and slack frame geometry will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s ridden a modern enduro bike, but it’ll pedal back to the top with less effort, and won’t need as much effort to set up or maintain.

Also, who doesn't love chasing down those full-suss'ers on a hardtail?!
Marin full suspension mountain bike
Matt Jones jumping on MArin Alcatraz

If you want to hit the jumps, the pump track or the skate park, a hardtail is an ideal tool for the job. Dirt jump bikes generally have stiff frames that are built to take some serious abuse, pick up speed lightning-fast and be bombproof with single-speed drivetrains and smaller 26-inch wheels.

All of these are present and correct in Marin’s dedicated jump bike, the Marin Alcatraz. While you can learn to get airborne on almost any mountain bike, the Alcatraz is the choice of dirt jump superstar Matt Jones and is the perfect bike for the job.

The Bikepacker

If you’re planning to head out for longer multi-day rides and to be self-sufficient along the way, you’ll need a bike that can carry more stuff. If you’re using soft luggage (AKA frame bags) you might want a bag that sits inside the front triangle of your frame, or you could even go with a traditional rack and panniers.

Full suspension bikes aren’t generally designed for this type of accessory, and at best you’ll only be able to squeeze a relatively small bag into the frame, due to the extra room taken up by the shock and linkage. Some full suspension bikes won’t even carry a full-size water bottle, which isn’t ideal if you’re planning to head into the middle of nowhere.

Our hardtail bikes generally feature two sets of bottle mounts as well as rack mounting points. The Pine Mountain series goes further by adding multiple dedicated mounts that you can bolt your gear to. It also has specially-designed handlebars that will hold your bar pack away from your bike’s brake and gear cables. At its heart it’s a trail-ready mountain bike, with geometry that’s ready to rip singletrack wherever you end up in the world.
Person in orange teeshirt sitting on Marin Pine Mountain on mountain top
Person riding towards camera on Marin full suspension bike

The Wallet Saver

What about the rider that doesn't have big bucks to burn? Should riders on a budget go full suspension or hardtail?

It used to be the case that full suspension mountain bikes were expensive and hardtail mountain bikes were cheap, but (as Bob Dylan said) times they are a-changin' and there are options in both camps for larger or smaller budgets.

For those looking to spend a little less, we'd recommend a hardtail. The Marin Bobcat trail family of bikes are all priced at under a thousand bucks and are perfect for mixed-terrain, singletrack and trails. For those looking to spend even less again, there's the Marin Wildcat Trail or Marin Bolinas Ridge models which are great intro-mountain bikes for lighter trails.

Looking for full suspension? We believe that the Marin Rift Zone 27.5 is one of the very best budget full suspension mountain bikes for under $2,000. The Rift Zone packs in a full suspension performance, great quality components and the ride quality of a bike twice its price, all for less than two thousand bucks.

So, Hardtail or Full Suss?

So let's wrap up, should you buy a full suspension or a hardtail mountain bike?

While you can ride and enjoy any bike you want, some riders may find one suits them better than the other. It all comes down to your budget, what you want to do with your mountain bike and a bit of personal preference.

To put it simply though, you might want to buy a full-suspension bike if you're more interested in riding off-road trails and more technical terrain and want to add speed, confidence and comfort as you push your limits. If you're riding downhill tracks, bike parks and trails with challenging features, full suspension is likely the best choice.

Go hardtail if you're less interested in making the trails feel less challenging, you're riding mellower trails or a mix of surfaces or you simply like the challenge of riding without rear suspension!

Your safest option is probably to try a few out (check out your local Marin dealer, or wait for one of our Demo Tours to come to your local trails).

And, of course, if you're budget stretches you could always buy one of each!

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