Is your shifting smooth enough? Are you dropping your chain or having a hard time finding the right gears? Maybe you just want swifter, faster shifting? It might be time for an upgrade. The best mountain bike shifters work under pressure and won’t leave you in the wrong gear.
You might rock simple bar-end twister shifters or the sportiest trigger-release levers. Either way, you want shifters that are reliable, lightweight and comfortable. Shifting is the most tactile aspect of biking, and smooth shifting makes a bike feel faster.
Here at The Adventure Junkies, we make mountain biking easy by taking some of the mystery out of the gear selection. We’ve created this guide to help you evaluate mountain bike shifters for compatibility and riding style, helping you find the best gear for your ride.
For more of our top mountain bike gear recommendations, check out these popular articles:
QUICK ANSWER – THE BEST MOUNTAIN BIKE SHIFTERS
1. SHIMANO XT SL-M780
2. SHIMANO RAPIDFIRE PLUS SL-M670
3. SHIMANO TOURNEY SL-RS47
4. SHIMANO SL-4600 TIAGRA
5. SUNRACE SLM10
6. SHIMANO SHIFTERS SL-TX30 TOURNEY
7. SRAM 3.0 COMP TWISTER
COMPARISON TABLE – THE BEST MOUNTAIN BIKE SHIFTERS
MTB SHIFTERS REVIEWS
SHIMANO XT SL-M780
BEST FOR: Fast, snappy riding on hard trails and cyclocross racing
GEARING: 1×10 or 3×10
WEIGHT: 290 g
PROS: Fast, easy install, smooth shifting
CONS: Price, weight
SHIMANO RAPIDFIRE PLUS SL-M670
BEST FOR: Comfortable levers for flat-bar mountain biking
GEARING: 1×10 or 3×10
WEIGHT: 298 g
PROS: Ergonomics, speed, compatibility
SHIMANO TOURNEY REVOSHIFT SL-RS47
BEST FOR: High performance grip shift for older rear derailleurs
WEIGHT: 210 g
PROS: Price, wide gear range, easy install
CONS: None we could find
SHIMANO SL-4600 TIAGRA
BEST FOR: Road-bikes converted to flat-bar cyclocross or gravel bike use
WEIGHT: 297 g
PROS: Quality, speed
CONS: Price, weight, incompatible with mountain bike derailleurs
BEST FOR: Old-school tactile friction shifting
WEIGHT: 129 g
PROS: Old school style, compatibility, price, weight
SHIMANO SHIFTERS SL-TX TOURNEY
BEST FOR: Inexpensive trigger-like shifters for triple chain-rings
WEIGHT: 283 g
PROS: Easy install, price
CONS: Weight, hybrid twist/trigger
SRAM 3.0 COMP TWISTER
BEST FOR: High-end performance on budget bar-ends
WEIGHT: 162 g
PROS: Weight, quality, reliable, tactile
CONS: Grip position can be uncomfortable
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST MOUNTAIN BIKE SHIFTERS
COMPATIBILITY: SRAM OR SHIMANO?
The two main companies are SRAM and Shimano, and they differ in one major way. SRAM pulls the cables at a 1:1 ratio, and Shimano at a 2:1 ratio. In practice, it’s not that different, and you’ll probably never notice the switch.
Shimano may feel slightly easier to shift, and SRAM may perform slightly better in inclement weather or mud. Diffen has a breakdown of differences between the two companies if you’re feeling uncertain.
The biggest issue is compatibility; you want to make sure that whatever your derailleur is, you buy the same shifters. If you don’t have SRAM or Shimano, you’ll have to check the ratio used and then figure out what you can buy. Whatever you do, stick with the same ratio; don’t try to hack it to work.
If your rear derailleur is made by Campagnolo, you have an extra set of headaches. The venerable Italian firm hasn’t made mountain bike components since the 90s, so you’ll need to consider replacing the whole drivetrain if you want new shifters.
THUMB SHIFTERS OR GRIP TWISTS?
The next issue is a preference once. Some are happy with simple “twist” shifters, which tend to be less expensive and fairly reliable. The bike handlebar grips turn in order to shift, similar to the shifters on most of our first bikes.
The step-up are triggers or twin levers; one lever goes up the gears, the other goes down. The levers usually “click” like a trigger, and provide a lot of tactile feedback. They feel fast and snappy compared to twist shifters, and are the default on any bike setup for racing or competition.
If you’re going for casual trail rides, the twisters are good enough; if you want to do sportier, jumpier riding or racing, you want triggers. If you have twister grips and are swapping them out for twin-lever triggers, you probably need new grips. See this guide to grips by fellow The Adventure Junkies writer Richard Bailey.
FRICTION OR INDEXED?
Indexed shifting is more accurate and precise. When you press the button, the bike shifts to the next gear. You can shift better under load, too, partially because of the way the shifter works, and partially because of advances in cog manufacturing. If you need a primer on shifting technique, see Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer’s article on shifting for The Adventure Junkies.
You probably will want to stick with indexed shifters unless you know you prefer friction shifters. If you do, you’re in luck; the improvements to modern cogs also benefit friction shifters, making them work even more reliably and snappier.
Friction shifting is largely disappearing from the market. Think 1970s road bikes with downtube shifters: That’s friction. You push the chain left and right, and feel when it’s in place.
If you’re curious about friction shifting, you can learn more in this short video with a demo.
VIDEO – HOW DOES FRICTION SHIFTING WORK?
RANGE OF GEARS
How many gears do you have? If you’re just upgrading the shifter, count your gears, and make sure the shifters accommodate them. Most of the sets we’ve recommended can be bought as singles, too, if you’re running a single chain ring in the front.
If you’re making up your mind about gearing, Bikeradar has a detailed article on the pros and cons of various gear combinations. Look through their breakdown to determine what works best for you.