As mountain bikers, we are usually meticulous about the equipment that we ride. We focus on every gram, millimeter, alloy, and angle. While it’s all beneficial, the fact remains that when we ride our beloved machines, we only have 2 contact points with the terrain we ride on: the tires. Since your tires are the only separation between you and the ground below it’s about time we focus more on the tires we chose to ride and the terrain that we ride them on. 

MTB Tires for Rocky Terrain
When Riding Rocky Terrain you’ve got to TRUST your tires.
Photo Credit Hannah Finchamp

I took a trip down to Moab a few weeks ago and it got me thinking, “What is the best mountain bike tire for rocky terrain?”

The best all-around tire for rocky terrain is the Maxxis Minion DHF. (Link to AMAZON for price and more reviews) While that might be the best all-around tire, there are many factors that contribute to your unique tire selection such as your skill level, the type of rocks, or the speed you want to go. Here is a list of factors that can help you select your best tire from any brand you prefer. 

Puncture Resistant MTB Tires:

When riding on rocky terrain, it’s not uncommon for a sharp part of the rock to stick up and challenge the integrity of your tire. A puncture in your tire can ruin your entire day on the trails. Instead of risking puncture, pick a tire that is designed for that type of terrain.

When riding on rocky terrain it is important to run a thicker tire. When you look for a tire online, you will notice that the thicker tires are often labelled as either double or triple compound. Additionally, the most puncture resistant tires are also the heaviest because of the thicker casing.

If you are concerned about weight, Maxxis makes a puncture resistant tire that is reserved for cross country and trail tires. Maxxis’ EXO+ offers a lighter tire with an added layer of protection. 

Every company calls their layering and protection system something different so it is important to understand the concept of what you are looking for.

Picture of a folding tire for a mountain bike
Picture of a folding tire for a mountain bike

Strong Sidewall on Your Mountain Bike Tires:

More frustrating than a tire puncture, is a sidewall slash. Sometimes while riding on rocky terrain, you’ll brush up against a sharp rock, or slide as you lift up over a rocky ledge. These small mistakes can result in a sidewall cut that is not easily plugged and can even leave a tube pushing through the gaping hole. 

Instead, make sure that you purchase a tire that has extra sidewall protection. If speed and weight are not a factor then you can run a thicker and heavier casing which Maxxis labels as a “doubledown.” 

If you want to go fast, and every gram counts, then you should purchase an EXO tire. EXO is a light tire with an extra piece of protection. EXO tires have extra sidewall protection, whereas EXO+ has extra protection on the sidewalls and across the tread. 

If I am training on extremely rocky terrain and practicing skills then I might use a doubledown tire, but when I am racing my cross country bike I will reach for an EXO version. 

Tacky/Grippy Mountain Bike Treads:

There is a reason that they call it slickrock. Slickrock can appear slippery, but with the right tire you will feel like a gecko sticking to a wall. 

When picking out a tire for slickrock terrain, find a tire that is listed as having a softer compound. While a soft compound tire will wear out more quickly, it will offer better grip on the face of the rock. The soft compound allows the tire to form and mold to the rock below it. That means that if the rock rounds or attempts to bend away from your tire, the tire can mold and reach for the rock below. 

Tread Pattern:

Slick Rock: Tread pattern can also aid in making your tires feel sticky instead of slippery. When you are looking at your tire options, look for a tread pattern with the knobs (sometimes called lugs) close together. More knobs are better because that means that there is more rubber in contact with the rocks, gripping and holding on. 

Best Tread Pattern for Mountain Bike Tires
Best Tread Pattern for Mountain Bike Tires
Picture Credit MAXXIS

Taller knobs will grip the rock slightly better as well, but can slow you down, so if speed is your friend, then look for a lower profile tread. 

Finally, the more side knobs you have on your tire, the better your tires will perform on off-camber terrain or through corners.

Loose Over Hard: If you are riding on terrain that has a lot of loose rock on top of hard ground then you will want a tire with wider spaced knobs so that it can cut through the loose rock and dirt in order to reach the hard ground or rock below. 

Tire Pressures for Rocky Terrain:

Generally speaking, lower tire pressure is better on rocky terrain. Lower pressure allows the tire to compress and have a greater surface area on the rock thus creating more grip. Additionally, the lower pressure will allow the tire to mold around sharper areas of the rock instead of resisting and having the rock poke through the tire. 

If you’d like to read more about Mountain Bike Tire Pressure check out this article – Recommended Mountain Bike Tire Pressure. This article compiles an online survey of 178 folks and they’re recommendations.

Tire pressure is a tricky thing though. It is different for every person depending on weight and riding style. Make sure to practice different pressures and don’t go too low or you will risk hitting your rim on a rock and breaking your wheel. 

Front and Rear MTB Tire Combinations:

A lot of tires work well in both the front and the rear, but other tires are specifically designed to be used for one or the other.  The front tire is used for cornering traction and will often have taller knobs. The rear tire is for braking. 

An example of a front and rear tire combination would be a Maxxis Minion DHF in the front, and a DHR in the rear. 

TPI and Importance on Mountain Bike Tires:

TPI stands for threads per inch. A tire with less threads per inch is a more durable but heavier tire. The more threads per inch creates a lighter, more supple tire. 

A light and supple tire will have good grip and allow you to race fast, but is more likely to flat due to its less durable design. If you are racing then you will want to find a happy medium, but if you are just training or riding for fun then I would recommend a lower TPI because it will last longer and be less likely to flat. 

Folding Bead vs. Wire Bead on a Mountain Bike Tire

You might see the terms folding bead or wire bead when looking for tires. A folding bead is lighter and are able to be set up tubeless. A wire bead, on the other hand cannot be set up tubeless. 

Tubeless set ups are extremely valuable because you are able to run lower tire pressures thus increasing grip. Additionally, tubeless tires have less flats and offer easier fixes than a tire with a tube in it. 

Tire Extras for Rocky Conditions:

After picking your perfect tire you might consider purchasing a few extras in order to make your day on the trail as smooth as possible. 

  • Tire Insert: A tire insert allows you to run lower pressure without risking hitting  your rim on a rock. A tire insert also helps to minimize flats. 
  • Tire Plugs: Consider purchasing a tire plug. These small handheld devices allow you to plug small punctures without having to put in a tube. 

What Tires do MTB Experts Recommend for Rocky Conditions?

Racers, Enthusiasts and Serious Cross Country Riders recommend the MAXXIS Minion DHF (AMAZON link for fast delivery and competitive prices). Get a set for your bike and feel confident ripping down a rocky sand stone hill that your bike will go where you point it.

With so many tires to choose from nowadays, there is always more than one option for every type of terrain. If you have the means and resources, it’s always best to try out multiple options and decide for yourself. When asked what Maxxis tire they would recommend for rocky terrain, here is what the experts had to say:

Expert #1: The Assistant Buyer of Components at one of the largest online cycling retailers in the country recommended the Maxxis Assegai for rocky terrain. 

MTB Tires for the Rocky MOAB area

Expert #2: The Chili Pepper Bike Shop located in Moab, Utah recommended the Maxxis Minion DHF.

Expert #3: A professional cross country racer stated that he most prefers the IKON EXO for rocky cross country events.

As you can see, even the best in the business can have different opinions on tire choice. We told you our opinion, and we gave you the tools to figure out your own. Now the only step left is to put your leg over your bike and go try it out for yourself.

MTB Tools I Love and Recommend

Bike Hand Repair Stand
Bike Hand Repair Stand
Bike Hand 37 pcs Tool Box
Bike Hand 37 pcs Tool Box
Topeak Smartgauge D2 Air Pressure
Topeak Smartgauge D2 Air Pressure

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

Hannah Finchamp is a professional mountain biker for the Orange Seal Pro Team. When she isn’t riding her own bike she is coaching others to reach their goals as a Certified USA Cycling Coach and Certified Athletic Trainer. To learn more about the author please visit and follow Hannah on Instagram