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October 11, 2021

Downhill mountain biker aggressively takes a corner on a dirt course

For all the things that mountain bikers tinker with in pursuit of a better ride—forks, shocks, wheels, gear ratios, dropper posts—few things have as much impact as the right set of tires. They’re your only connection to the trail, yet some riders don’t give them a second thought. Learning how to read tires teaches how they'll perform in any given scenario, opening up a new level of performance, confidence, and fun. Not sure how to pick the perfect tires for your terrain and riding style? Here are the four aspects of tire design you need to know. 


The first aspect we’ll cover is the tread pattern. This is the design of the lugs on the tire, and they affect how a tire rolls and how it grips on everything from hardpack dirt to loose loam to rock slabs.

To choose the best tread pattern for your needs, consider two things:

  1. The type of terrain you ride – Are your local trails hard-packed and fast, or loose and loamy? Is there sand? Rock faces? Gravel?
  2. Your ride priorities – Think about the aspects of riding that are important to you. It helps if you think about the tires you have now and what you wish they did better. Do you want more speed for XC racing? More traction in technical rock gardens? Better floatation for bikepacking on sandy roads?
A mountain biker gets air riding on a dirt trail through the woods


Tread patterns incorporate a few different features to perform the way they’re designed. The core feature of a mountain bike tire tread design is its lugs. The term “lug” is used to describe the knobby bit of rubber that sticks out on a tire. These lugs are what provide traction on loose and rugged terrain.

Not all lugs are the same, though. Larger lugs provide more traction but roll slower; smaller lugs roll faster but are less grippy. Most tires use a combination of lug shapes and sizes to deliver the intended performance.

If you’re concerned about speed, small and tightly spaced lugs on the center of the tread will lower rolling resistance. For maximum traction, large and widely spaced lugs dig into loose terrain and can help shed debris to improve grip.

Here’s some helpful tire tread terminology:

  • A tire’s center lugs are what contact the ground when you’re riding straight upright. They’re primarily designed to provide traction while accelerating, climbing, and braking.
  • Side lugs sit at the outer edges of the tires and are designed to provide grip while leaning into corners.
  • Transition lugs are located between the center and side lugs and help to provide a smooth transition when moving from the center lugs to the side lugs in a turn.
  • Ramped lugs are angled on the leading edge of the lug, which helps to increase rolling efficiency.
  • Sipes are slits cut into lugs to provide additional grip and traction in wet or slick conditions.
Diagram of tire tread characteristics overlaid on top of an image of a Teravail tire.


Now that you understand how to read a tread pattern, let’s dive into how they work and which one might suit your needs.


  • What it does: Oxbow is a plus tire designed for floatation and traction on sand and other loose surfaces. Oxbow shines on forest roads and rocky dirt with washboard bumps, deep ruts, sandy sections, and steep climbs and descents on loose terrain.
  • How it does it: The center lugs use a paddle design with squared edges for maximum traction when pedaling and braking in loose terrain. Tall, widely spaced transition lugs are designed to help shed debris, and siped for improved traction while turning. Large side lugs dig in on turns (especially on soft surfaces).
Teravail Oxbow mountain tire with views of tread pattern and sidewall with hotpatch


  • What it does: Ehline is a modern XC tire that rolls fast exceptionally fast when going straight, but also holds fast when cornering. It’s great on progressive XC trails that are fast with a few technical sections.
  • How it does it: Center lugs are short, tightly spaced, and ramped to roll quickly, with perpendicular siping for grip when braking and accelerating. Ramped transition lugs roll quickly and are spaced out to shed mud; horseshoe-shaped siping allows lugs to conform to the terrain to maintain traction during braking. Side lugs are taller and staggered, with parallel siping to enhance grip while leaning into turns.
Teravail Ehline mountain tire with views of tread pattern and sidewall with hotpatch


  • What it does: Honcho is a trail bike tire designed to roll quickly without losing grip in rocky, rooty terrain. It performs on many trail types, especially with loose rocks or dirt.
  • How it does it: Closely spaced center lugs roll fast and enclosed siping improves traction while accelerating and braking. Transition lugs are tall and spaced out to shed mud; horseshoe siping conforms to the trail and maintains braking traction. Staggered side lugs have parallel siping for grip while leaning through corners, and a braking-shovel shape boosts traction when stopping.
Teravail Honcho mountain tire with views of tread pattern and sidewall with hotpatch


  • What it does: Warwick is a progressive trail tire that offers a balance of traction and speed for many trail types. It’s happy rolling through anything from stout XC terrain to enduro courses.
  • How it does it: Angular center lugs have stepped front faces for rolling efficiency; a flat face on the back of the center lugs boosts braking traction. An open transition area lets the shoulder and center lugs to dig into loose trails or grapple onto roots and rocks when climbing and helps reduce rolling resistance. Side lugs are large and multi-faceted for consistent, supportive cornering on rocky, rooty, and loose trails.
Teravail Warwick mountain tire with views of tread pattern and sidewall with hotpatch


  • What it does: Enduro and all-mountain tire with exceptional grip on loose and technical terrain.
  • How it does it: Center lugs are tall, angular, and ramped in the front to keep rolling resistance low; a hard edge on the back of the lugs boosts braking traction. Siping conforms to the terrain for maximum traction, and wide spacing improves grip while shedding mud and debris. Alternating side lugs are angled to add traction in every direction.
Teravail Kessel mountain tire with views of tread pattern and sidewall with hotpatch

PRO TIP: Your tires don’t have to match! Experiment with different front and rear pairings to achieve the performance you’re looking for. Consider using a knobbier tire up front (such as a Kessel) with a faster-rolling tire in the rear (like an Ehline).


Most modern bike tires are made up of multiple layers of material to create what’s call the “casing”. The casing can be constructed in many different ways to provide different ride characteristics. Teravail tires come in three different casing constructions:

  • LIGHT AND SUPPLE - Lighter, cushier ride feel, but with less puncture protection than its durable counterparts
    Teravail Light and Supple tire cross section illustrated diagram
  • DURABLE - More robust composition with a woven nylon layer in the sidewall and tread cap to protect the tire against punctures, abrasions, and lacerations
    Teravail Durable tire cross section illustrated diagram
  • ULTRA DURABLE (SELECT TIRES ONLY) – The same as our Durable casing, with an additional ½ ply of 120 tpi casing for extra insurance against abrasion and sharp trail debris
    Teravail Ultra Durable tire cross section illustrated diagram


Teravail tires use different rubber “compounds,” which refers to the firmness and grip of the rubber.

  • Our Fast compound uses firmer rubber for lower rolling resistance and a longer life.
  • Our Grip compound uses softer rubber for better traction and a comfortable, predictable ride.

Tires with dual-compound rubber typically use a firmer compound in the center tread for speed and durability, with a softer compound in the transition and side tread areas to improve grip while cornering. 


You should now have an idea what tread pattern, casing, and compound you’re looking for in a tire. The final step is to choose your size. Mountain bike tires generally come in 29", 27.5", or 26" diameters and in widths ranging from 2.1–2.8". Here are the most common tire sizes for various uses:

  • Forest Roads: 2.0–4.0" wide
  • XC and Trail: 2.2–2.6" wide
  • All Mountain and Enduro: 2.3–2.8" wide,/li>

These are just for reference; you can run whatever size tire you want, assuming it safely fits your rims, frame, and fork (read our tire size guide article to learn more about tire clearance and rim compatibility).


Congratulations! Now you know how to choose the best mountain bike tires for your riding style and trail conditions. Find what you’re looking for in our full line of off-road tires and enjoy a new riding experience. 

Two mountain bikers shown from behind descending on a gravel trail lined with rocks