Hey David, Should I Get Clipless or Flat Pedals?
Yes, one of those two types of pedals should be used on your mountain bike.
Seriously though, it depends on a few things…
If you are completely new to cycling, or haven’t thrown a leg over a bike in a long time, it’s probably going to be easier if you start off with flat pedals. Flat pedals are great when you’re learning, ‘cause you can just step off the bike any time, go back and try it again. No muss, no fuss, easy-peasy. If you rode/ride BMX, flats may be easier.
Many people get a mountain bike and roll clipless pedals immediately. The learning curve is a bit steeper, but if you practice getting in and out of the pedals on grass before hitting the trail, you’ll likely be fine. The key thing to remember is to unclip BEFORE you stop. Almost everyone will have an “oh FRACK” moment where they stall going up hill and forget to clip out, resulting in a slow-motion fall that might wound their pride, and will have their friends laughing at them. That’s okay, lying on the ground while your friends laugh at you is what mountain biking is all about. If you ride with clipless pedals on your road/commute/CX/touring bike, you will probably be able to handle them on a mountain bike without issues. That’s how I progressed: clips + straps >> road clipless >> mountain clipless.
The main benefit to clipless is that your shoes are attached to the pedals, and won’t come off until you want them to. This makes it easy to maintain an efficient pedaling cadence, often referred to as “spinning”. It’s not a big deal on short rides, but when you are climbing for a solid hour up a steep grade, being able to push and pull on the pedals with as many of your leg muscles as possible is a good thing. Another benefit is that your feet stay on the pedals when you’re going through rough terrain. If you happen to crash, you pop out of the pedals, much like you pop out of ski bindings. Lots of win here.
Nota bene – pedals might not come with your new bike. Seriously. The shop will be happy to sell you some. If you go for flats, get something that has some sort of metal traction pins/screws so your shoes have something to grip. They can cost as little as $30. If clipless [$45+] is your thing, I recommend pedals that have adjustable release tension, and that the shop shows you how to adjust it. A lighter tension makes it easier to get in and get out, which is very helpful when you’re learning. You WILL need the special shoes for clipless pedals. Don’t get combination clipless/flat pedals. They are not useful for mountain biking.Bike shoes are worth a mention. For flats, a shoe with a sticky/grippy sole is best, like some of the FiveTen shoes. As a bonus, they can do double-duty as regular walking-around shoes. If you are using clipless pedals, you’ll need to get shoes that will work with your pedals. Most bike shops have loads of shoes that will be compatible. The carbon-infused super-light space-age selections might not be the best choice when you’re starting out, but it’s totally up to you. Get something that you can walk in for a bit, and that isn’t too big. If the shoes have laces, make sure there’s a lace cover or some way to keep the laces from flapping around or getting caught on the chainrings as you ride.
Personally, I ride with clipless pedals all the time, even on my DH bike. I really like that feeling of being connected to my ride. I might think differently if I had a BMX instead of a road bike in Jr high school, or if all my friends were riding flats, but such is life. If you can’t decide, start with flats. Switch to clipless later if you feel the urge, but don’t feel you have to. As long as you’re having fun, it’s all good.