Choosing a bike inner tube is an easy process, or at least, that’s what I thought until I went to a bike pro shop and saw that I was mistaken. In fact, I was floored. There was a whole rack of tubes with more than just size differences – there were differences I didn’t even know existed.
All bike inner tubes are not the same or created equal. Different sizes, material compositions, thicknesses, and even valve types exist. Furthermore, there are tubes pre-filled with sealant to help prevent flats upon puncture.
In this guide, I will walk you through the different types of inner tubes and share the information I found when I came across this exact scenario. I’ll talk about the types, materials, valves, sizes, and even added anti-flat sealants. If you read through this short guide, you’ll be well ahead of where I was when I went to buy a tube for my mountain bike. Let’s get this rolling.
Types of Bike Inner Tubes
When I think of inner tubes for my mountain bike, I think of three distinct types, standard, puncture-resistant, and specialty (lightweight vs. heavy duty). I’ve compiled my knowledge from my years of experience and what I learned after I found out so many more types were not available to the general public.
Standard (Cheap) Inner Tubes
These are the classic black butyl rubber inner tubes you’ll find in every store that sells bikes, and they are rampant on Amazon, of course. These inner tubes are generally pretty cheap and available in every size. You’ll see some with special features, and we’ll see what each does next.
DIY MTB Pro Tip: Yes you can get bike inner tubes that avoid punctures. Find out which ones 👉 Which Inner Tubes are Best at Avoiding Punctures?
Puncture Resistant Inner Tubes & Self-Sealing Inner Tubes
Puncture-resistant tubes are usually just butyl rubber tubes injected with an adhesive to ‘seal’ and puncture like rubbery glue. They are a great idea if you have kids riding all over with their MTBs, but you might want to think twice if you’re a serious rider. Here’s why: Added weight. Now, this will trigger some debate, I’m sure, but here’s how the physics behind it work:
When a tire has extra weight, the centrifugal force of that weight causes extra momentum compared to a lightweight inner tube. That excess weight does two things:
First, it slows down your acceleration potential. Second, that extra weight holds momentum longer than a lightweight tube. So, if you’re riding downhill, it can be a savior from a flat, but if you are riding a lot of roads, packed single track or trail, it can increase the power needed to get going and make stopping distances increase slightly.
Lightweight and Heavy-Duty Inner Tubes
You may have seen inner tubes boating about their lightweight characteristics. Naturally, weight is a concern if you’re racing or serious about cutting every gram off your ride. The tradeoff for lightweight tubes is their ability to resist puncture, and often the sacrifice comes at the expense of your ride. So, unless you’re racing (or riding a road bike), I don’t recommend worrying too much about the weight of your inner tube. Now, with that said, I just finished telling you about the added weight of puncture sealant, so you can see that there are several perspectives you can have regarding your inner tube design, weight, and features. The best idea is to pick what suits your ride the best.
It seems like I’m either: buying, replacing or airing up bike tubes
🚴♀️ Can I put a tube in a tubeless tire? I explain with video 👉 Can I Put a Tube in a Tubeless Bike Tire?
🚴♀️ Presta vs Schrader which tube is better. Find out 👉 Presta vs Schrader Valves (Is One Better)
🚴♀️ I kept getting flats, are some inner tube brands better? Check out what I think 👉 Does the Brand of Inner Tube Matter?
🚴♀️ Are you getting a bunch of flats? Read 👉 Don’t Get Caught with a Flat: Why Rim Tape is a MUST
🚴♀️ Is there a right way? 👉 How to Let Air Out of a Bike Tire
🚴♀️ Presta Valves it’s a mystery 👉 How to Inflate an MTB Tire with a Presta Valve
Material Matters: Butyl vs. Latex Inner Tubes
Latex inner tubes are often found in the road bike circuit. Latex has a bit more flexibility than butyl rubber, providing less rolling resistance than butyl rubber. Furthermore, latex tubes are usually lighter, size for size, than butyl rubber inner tubes.
You might be thinking, ‘why am I not using latex inner tubes in my MTB’ it’s a valid point, but there’s a downside to these tubes compared to the traditional black butyl rubber we’re used to. The downside is that latex tubes don’t hold the air pressure as well and tend to tear when punctured. They can be a rear nightmare to patch, so I think the best option is the tried, tested, and true-butyl rubber inner tube.
Keep in mind that you can always upgrade to tubeless. But, even with tubeless, I carry a spare tube because when you get a serious flat on a tubeless that won’t hold the seal anymore, you’ll need a tube to get you back home. I’d rather carry a tube and a small hand pump than carry my bike due to a flat.
There’s a new kid on the block regarding inner tube materials though: TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane). I haven’t seen it much in MTBs, but it’s making waves in the road bike community, and it may catch on soon to our loved MTB crowd.
Valve Varieties: Schrader vs. Presta
When looking for an inner tube, you will have two basic options for a valve. There’s a third option, but it’s so rare that I won’t go into detail about it. In a nutshell, you’ll see tubes that are marked as Presta and those marked as Schrader.
Schrader valves are easily recognized if you’re a driver because those are the valves found on automobile tires. For this reason, pretty much all gas stations have pumps that fit Schrader valves. Schrader valves are pretty durable and the most common. Most air pumps found at any big box stores will likely be Schrader.
Presta valves are a little more refined in the community of MTB’ers. They are the valves you use if you’re an elite MTBer, but the downside is that you’ll need to bring an adapter to use a common air pump. I go into much more detail about these valves in my article about inner tube valves, which you can read here.
Inner Tube Sizing: Finding the Right Fit
Mountain bike inner tubes come in a variety of sizes. However, there is a general rule to MTB inner tube sizing: the tubes are generally between 2 and 3.5 inches wide. I’ve created a table below to give you a basic understanding of where each MTB size lands:
|Inner Tube Width||Typical Use Case|
|< 2 inches (5.1 cm)||Narrow Tires|
|2 – 2.3 inches (5.1 – 5.8 cm)||Cross-Country (XC) Tires|
|2.3 – 2.6 inches (5.8 – 6.6 cm)||Trail, Enduro, General Purpose Tires|
|2.6 – 3.0 inches (6.6 cm – 7.6 cm)||Oversized Tires|
|> 3.0 inches (7.6 cm)||‘Fat Bike’ Tires|
These tube widths break down further into multiple different widths. Furthermore, there are a variety of other sizes, depending on the overall wheel/tire diameter. Generally, you’ll find MTB Tires of the following diameters and purposes:
|Inner Tube Diameter||Typical Use Case|
|24” (approximately 600 mm)||Kids MTBs|
|26” (approximately 660 mm)||Standard MTBs are best for people under 5’6″ tall|
|27.5” (approximately 700 mm)||Standard (newer – since 2007) MTBs, smoother ride, best for those over 5’6” in height. Better obstacle impacting than 26”.|
|29” (approximately 740 mm)||Downhill MTBs and newer special-use-case MTBs. Best for rolling over obstacles.|
Ensuring you choose the right size is absolutely critical to your ride. The best way to tell is by reading the size of your tire itself. You’ll see a number on it, like 26-2.25, for example. The example would tell me that the diameter is 26″ and the width is 2.25″. Easy as pie. Now you just match those numbers on the tire sidewall with the numbers on an inner tube package, and you’re good to go.
There is still the question of material choice and sealant inclusion. However, these will affect your ride’s performance, so let’s review just how that will happen, so you can make the best-informed decision.
Learning about Mountain Bike Tires could take years. Let me help you just a bit quicker with some articles.
- Can a tire be great for both street and trail? – Find out in this article: Best MTB Tire for Street and Trail
- Are 26 inch Tires Dead? Heck no…Read – Who is a 26 inch MTB For
- Love playing in MUD – Read What tire is recommended – Mountain Bike Tires for Muddy Conditions
- Rocks can destroy a mountain bike tire – Find the Best MTB Tire for Rocky Conditions (PRO RECOMMENDED)
- Thinking about getting a 26 inch MTB let me help – Should I Get a 26 Inch Mountain Bike?
- Does sand slow you down? It might be you’ve got the wrong tires. Read – The Best MTB Tires for the Sand
Factors That Influence Inner Tube Performance
There are a few things you also should know about concerning inner tubes. Let’s discuss pinch flats, wheel-spoke nipple punctures, and rim tape.
Inner tubes are great, but the added weight isn’t the only thing that stands against them in the ring with tubeless. One of the most common issues with inner tubes is a pinch-flat.
Pinch flats are the worst. They happen when you hit something like a rock at the right angle and with enough force to fold/pinch a part of your tire. Inner tubes are great because they offer you an extra layer of protection against pinch-flats compared to tubeless ones. With tubeless, a pinch flat can mean you’re carrying your bike. But with an inner tube, you have a slim chance that the pinch-flat only nips the tire, not the tube.
Let’s talk for a moment about rim tape. Rim tape keeps the spoke nipples from rupturing your inner tube. Think of rim tape as a guard to protect the rubber from sharp metal – because that is exactly what it does. I’ve got an article about rim tape and some alternatives in case you don’t have the convenient rubberized tape to suit your rim size. You can read my article about rim tape here.
Making an Informed Choice: Selecting the Right Inner Tube
At the end of the day, the inner tube you select should reflect your riding style, needs, and preferences. Ensure you grab a tube with a valve you can use. Otherwise, pick up an adapter. Be sure to maintain the appropriate tire pressure, as noted on your tire sidewall. Carry a patch, spare tube, and pump, and you’re on your way.
MTB Tools I Love and Recommend
I own each of these tools and only recommend things I own and use.
- Bike Hand Bike Repair Stand. Nice mountain bikes don’t have a kick stand so keeping your MTB safe but conveniently stored is essential. I keep my bike on my stand whenever I’m not riding it. This makes it easy to lube the chain, inflate the tires and adjust the derailleur. Highly recommended – Bike Hand Bike Repair Stand (👈 Link to Amazon to see what thousands of others have said)
- A basic MTB toolbox for replacing a chain, adjusting brakes and dialing in the fit. Bike Hand has a 37-piece box that has most of the specialty bike tools to keep your MTB properly maintained. The Bike Hand brand is value packed for the avid rider. Check out the competitive prices with this link to Amazon 👉 Bike Hand 37 pcs Bike Repair Tool Kit
- Get a good air pressure gauge, if you get just a tiny bit serious about MTBing you’re going to start playing with tire pressure. A couple psi can make your tires sticking or not. Get a good gauge, I highly recommend the Topeak Smartgauge D2, it’s accurate, flexible and easy to use. An Amazon best seller, here’s a link 👉 Topeak Smartgauge D2
- Carry a multitool with you on every ride. I’m serious, most of the time you can MacGyver something to get back to the trailhead if you have a multitool. I’ve got the Crank Brothers M19, it’s worn, rubbed and abused – but it still works. Thousands sold on Amazon – check it out with this link 👉 Crank Brothers M19
David Humphries is the creator of DIY Mountain Bike. For me a relaxing day involves riding my mountain bike to decompress after a long day. When not on my bike I can be found wrenching on it or making YouTube videos at 👉 DIY Mountain Bike Read more about David HERE.