How to Lube a Mountain Bike Chain – Step by Step

Any mountain biker knows that it’s normal to get a little muddy and dirty on your ride, but all that mud can mess up your chain and drivetrain, so you need to know how to take care of them to prevent any unnecessary rust and wear. To keep your drivetrain in excellent condition and to keep any mechanical issues at bay it is important to know how to clean and lube a mountain bike chain.

To lube a mountain bike chain first, clean the bike chain, then apply bike lube, and finally wipe the chain clean. 

Keep on reading to learn why you need to lube a bike chain and the proper way to do it so your chain lasts for as long as possible. And if you need to know more about mountain bike chain installation, check out our step-by-step guide.

How to Clean and Lube a Mountain Bike Chain

No matter whether you use wet or dry lube, it’s important to clean your mountain bike chain first. You need to do this after any hard ride or if your bike has been exposed to elements like water or dirt. And when in doubt, it’s better to just play it safe and clean your chain when you get home.

To clean and lube a mountain bike chain clean it manually or by using a bike chain cleaner, lubricate the chain thoroughly, and then wipe the chain clean with a rag. 

When lubricating your chain it is important to clean the chain thoroughly first, as the experts at REI explain in this article.

Step 1. Clean the Bike Chain

Before you lube your bike, it’s important to clean it first. You’ll either need to spot-clean it while it’s on your bike or remove the chain completely to do a deep clean.

To check if you need to spot clean, stand to the side of your bike and lift the rear wheel. Slowly rotate the pedal and look at your chain closely to check the links for a build-up of grime, rust, or tight links, and also listen for any squeaking. If you notice any of these issues, you will need to spot-clean your chain.

It’s easy to spot-clean your chain. Brush out the links with a toothbrush or other firm brush to remove all the dirt or use a chain cleaning tool like this.

But when a simple brush can’t remove all the dirt, you will have to do a deep clean. To deep clean, take the chain off your bike using a chain removal tool like this. Brush off any dirt and grime that you can, then drop the chain into a chain solvent like this so that it’s completely submerged. Let the chain soak until all the dirt has come free (takes about one to two minutes, maybe longer if the chain is muddy) and then wipe it with a rag. Once the chain is completely dry, you can put it back on your bike.

You can also purchase affordable cleaning kits that help you do a thorough deep clean without ever taking your chain off the bike. Check out this article from Park Tool that explains how to clean your chain with a cleaning kit and they show you exactly how to do it in this YouTube video tutorial

Using a chain tool, remove your mountain bike chain to clean it thoroughly if a spot clean won’t be enough.
If you can’t get all the dirt off by spot-cleaning, then you’ll need to remove your chain to perform a deep clean. Image Source: RoadBikeActionMagazine.

Step 2. Apply Lube to the Bike Chain and Backpedal

There’s some contention as to whether you need to apply a degreaser before you lube your chain each time. While that’s a decision left to each person, you should definitely do so if you’re switching from dry to wet lube or vice versa, changing the brand of lube you’re using, or putting a new chain on your bike.

So once your chain is clean or degreased, it’s time to apply a bike chain lube like this. Start by applying one drop per link and try to remember where you started. Keep the lube bottle in the same position, and move to each link by slowly backpedaling while you apply. Once you have put a drop of lube on each link, slowly run the chain up and down the cassette to help distribute the lube into the rollers and pins.

Apply a drop of lube to each link of your mountain bike chain by holding the bottle in one position and rotating your pedal backward so that you can cover the entire chain.
Apply one drop of lube per link, and slowly backpedal until you reach all of them. Image Source: Singletracks.

Step 3. Wipe the Chain

Once you’re done applying the lube, let it sit for a few minutes. Then, use a clean, dry rag like this and hold the chain gently in your hand. Backpedal until you have gotten the grease and grime off the chain. It can be helpful to fold the towel part way through and then hold the chain again and backpedal. This helps remove more of the grime.

But when you use wet lube, you’ll need to bring a towel with you to repeat this process with a different clean towel at the trailhead before you start your ride. Wet lubes always need a second wipe later before you start your ride.

If you can, lube your bike the night before your ride because the lube needs a few hours to set, especially if you are using dry lube since that takes longer. However, if you’re able to ride last minute, just do it before you go. It’s not worth missing out on a ride if the opportunity presents itself at the last minute!

And, if no matter how much you lube your chain you are still having problems, it may be time to replace it, in which case our article on how to replace a chain on a mountain bike could be useful.

Use a clean dry cloth to wipe off any excess lube by holding the chain gently and rotating the pedal backward.
Wipe the lube off your chain before going out on your ride. Image Source: Singletracks.

You might also find interest in learning how to easily fix a mountain bike chain that won't shift to low gears. If so, be sure to take a look at our related article for more details.

Why Do I Need to Lube My Bike Chain?

A bike chain rolls and pushes the power you generate make from pedaling, into the drive-wheel of a bicycle. They are usually made out of plain carbon or alloy steel, but you can also purchase ones that are nickel-pated that stop the build-up of rust.

Lube a bike chain to stop it from making any irritating noises, prevent mechanical resistance, and protect it against corrosion.

If you are having problems with your chain we explain how to fix a mountain bike chain that keeps breaking. You may also find interest in learning how to tighten a mountain bike chain derailleur. Be sure to take a look at our related article to find out more.

Keep your mountain bike chain well lubed so that it can run smoothly and transfer the power from your pedals to propel your bike ahead.
A bicycle chain transfers the power from the pedals to your drivetrain. Image Source: Trek Bikes.

Here we list the reasons why you need to lube your mountain bike:

Reason 1. Stop the Chain From Making a Noise

A little chain noise is normal while mountain biking since this happens with tension. It shouldn’t be too distinct or enough to bother you. If it is, that means there could be mechanical issues ahead if you don’t solve the noise problem. And mechanical issues lead to failure, which is bad news if you’re on a trail far away from any help. In case you need to do some repairs while out on a ride check out our mountain bike tool kit essentials guide to make sure you have everything that you may need and our mountain bike tool bag ideas with tips and tricks to pack them. This way you will be prepared for any eventuality while you are out on your mountain bike.

If your chain is making a lot of noise, you should check the tension first to make sure that it is correct, using a chain tool like this, and just check your chain tension any time you do routine maintenance. We suggest that you take a look at our quick and proper mountain bike chain maintenance guide to find out more.

A major reason for your chain making noise is if it is dry, in which case you will need to lubricate it. You should never let your chain get too dry because then it won’t be able to turn properly and it leaves your chain susceptible to rust accumulation. So once you lube your chain, odds are that irritating noise that your chain was making will be gone.

Reason 2. Prevent Mechanical Resistance

Your bike chain needs to be a little wet to function properly. So, a dry chain can cause strain on the mechanical parts of your bike and force you to go slower. According to this article from Ride Far, when your chain is dry, you can lose 1% of the power going into your pedals. This means you’re using extra energy to go the same speed as you would if your chain was lubed.

So, save your extra energy to ride for longer, and always make sure your bike chain is lubed before going out.

Reason 3. Protects Against Corrosion 

Corrosion is caused when water gets into your bike’s chain and exterior elements and settles for a while. This moisture causes rust to form, ruining your chain and possibly other elements of your bike that are more expensive to fix, like your drivetrain.

Lubricant works as a barrier between your bike chain and moisture and when your chain is well lubed, it protects your bike from rust. However, you should always leave your bike out in the sun to dry after a ride to further protect it (or at least dry it off with a towel if there is little or no  sunshine that day).

To protect your mountain bike chain and drivetrain from becoming totally rusted like this, be sure to lubricate it after cleaning and drying it thoroughly.
Corrosion causes rust which can actually lead to your chain being damaged beyond repair. Image Source: IngenioVirtual.

You might also find interest in how to easily fix a mountain bike chain that keeps coming off. Be sure to read our related article to find out more.

How Often Should I Lube My Mountain Bike Chain?

You can tell that it's time to lube your mountain bike chain if it starts to make a noise. If it starts to make a squeaky sound, then you should apply some lube. But other factors dictate how often you should lube your chain, like the weather conditions of the area you are riding or how long your ride for.

Lube a mountain bike chain after every long or difficult ride, if the bike has been exposed to aggressive elements such as water, grit, mud, grime, dust, or dirt, or at least after 100 miles.

However, you should only lube your mountain bike after 100 miles if you’re riding in perfect, sunny conditions without any dirt. Since that’s nearly impossible on a mountain bike, then you should lube your chain more often.

And if you find that your chain keeps falling off, you may need to check it out immediately as we explain in our guide that provides solutions if your mountain bike chain is too long. Alternatively, you may want to learn what to do if your mountain bike chain is too short. Be sure to check that article out too.

What Lube to Use On a Mountain Bike Chain

You know that you need to lube your mountain bike chain, but with two major options, it can be hard to know which type of mountain bike chain lube to use. The best bike chain lube to use depends on the weather conditions where you ride your bike. 

Use dry lube when riding a mountain bike in sunny conditions and use wet lube for riding in wet rainy conditions.

Keep reading for more on dry and wet lube, and the major differences between each type.

Type 1. Dry Lube

Dry lube like this works best for dry climates. If you live somewhere that doesn’t see rain very often, then you’ll want to use dry lube. 

Dry lube is newer than wet lube, but the preferred lube among most bikers. You don’t have to worry about whether your bike chain is completely clean before you apply dry lube as you do with wet lube and it’s easier to apply. It’s also lighter and does a better job of keeping dirt and grime off your bike chain. 

However, the major con to dry lube is that it washes off easily with water. So if you live in a wet climate you will need wet lube. Even if it seems like the day will be sunny, the chance of unexpected showers requires you to be prepared.

It is easier to lubricate your mountain bike chain with dry lube.
Dry lube works well if you live in an area that’s dry and where it doesn’t often rain. Image Source: Amazon.

Type 2. Wet Lube 

Wet lube like this is the original type of bicycle lube. It’s wet and sticky, so you can easily make a mess if you’re a beginner who has never lubed your chain before. However, it’s an all-season chain lube and works great in the winter months when the roads are muddy and unpredictable. 

It’s also crucial to use wet lube during winter because it prevents salt from getting to your chain. This protects your chain from damage caused by salt, like rust. 

Some other benefits to wet lube are that it silences noisy chains and is perfect if you need your chain to stay moist. But your chain needs to be completely clean before you apply the wet lube, so make sure you degrease and clean your chain thoroughly, first.

Make sure that your mountain bike chain is cleaned and dried properly before applying wet lube to it.
Wet lube repels water and works great in muddy conditions. Image Source: Amazon.
Type of Lube Pros Cons Example From Amazon Example Cost
Dry Lube Keeps dirt away, can be reapplied without cleaning Not resistant to rain or mud, washes off immediately in wet conditions Muc Off Dry Chain Lube ~$10
Wet Lube  Better for rain and mud, lasts for a long time, protects well against corrosion. Attracts dirt, is messier, and messes up your drivetrain if left on too long

Muc Off Wet Chain Lube

Common Bike Chain Lube Alternatives

If you’re averse to using wet or dry lube because it can wear out your drive train with excessive use, there are some alternatives that you can try. While nothing is perfect and chains do wear out over time, you might find these better for your chain due to the climate that you live in or how often you ride your bike. Or, you may find yourself in a pinch if you’re out of bike lube and need to use something in your house to care for your mountain bike chain.

Bike chain lube alternatives include 3-in-One oil for bike chains, 2-in-1 self-cleaner, WD 40 bike chain lube, chainsaw oil, clipper oil, and silicone spray.

Alternative 1. 3-in-One Oil For Bike Chains

3-in-One oil like this was originally developed for bicycles in 1894. And while that’s not what it’s usually used for nowadays, you can still use it on your bike chain. It’s a very thin oil, so it will sink deep into your drive train, but it doesn’t stay on for as long as wet or dry lube. 

A major benefit is that 3-in-One oil outperforms almost half of bike lubricants during speed tests as this article from Pedal Chile explains. And the petroleum base is stable enough that it won’t degrade due to age or temperature changes. Also, it’s not any more likely to gum up than standard all-season bike lubricants.

This is a great one to use if you’re on a budget and already have some 3-in-One in your house. It’s easy to find on Amazon or at other brick-and-mortar stores like Wal-Mart.

Alternative 2. 2-in-1 Self Cleaner

If you don’t want to have to degrease and lube in two different steps, then you can use a 2-in-1 self cleaner like this which is great if you’re short on time, or if you live in an apartment and don’t have as much space to care for your bike.

A 2-in-1 self cleaner still reduces pedaling friction, protects in salty and humid climates, and removes grit and grime. However, some people find that the chain starts squeaking sooner than if using a separate degreaser and lube.

Alternative 3. WD-40 Bike Chain Lube

If you’re a fan of WD-40, they actually make their own all-weather bike chain lube. They claim that this works in wet, dry, or varying conditions. It also helps prevent squeaks and friction damage. Since this is a non-wax formula, it won’t build up inside chain links and the drive train. 

And while this is a good option if you want to lube your bike quickly, it doesn’t last as long for mountain bikers. However, they offer both wet and dry lube varieties as an alternative to the one-size-fits-all version. If you’re going to be mountain biking on muddy trails, then you should purchase this WD-40 wet lube.

Alternative 4. Chainsaw Oil

If you want to go on a bike ride, but don’t have any of your usual bicycle lube, there are a few items around your home and garage that may work in a pinch. 

One of them is chainsaw oil like this. Chainsaw oil is thick and sticky, so it’s great at preventing corrosion. It’s best used in rainy weather because it can attract dirt on a dusty trail. Also, you don’t want to use chainsaw oil all the time or too much of it. Use a small amount every once in a while if you’re out of your regular bike chain lube.

Alternative 5. Clipper Oil

If you own a pair of hair clippers at home, then you might have clipper oil like this under the basin in your bathroom. Clipper oil works well with bike chains if you’re in a pinch because it’s a thin oil that will coat your chain and drivetrain components well. It’s also odorless and rust-resistant. But because it’s so thin, you’re going to have to apply it a lot more often than a dry lube, which adds up cost-wise over time. Also, because it’s thin, you may want to use this in place of dry-lube only, not wet.

Alternative 6. Silicone Spray

Silicone spray like this works like clipper oil when you use it as a bike chain lube. But some extra benefits are that it dries quickly and is non-toxic, so you won’t get a headache from spraying it onto your bike. However, you do need to apply it before every ride, so that can become a nuisance if you work a lot and have little time to care for your bicycle. Silicone spray can also be used for installing mountain bike grip upgrades as we explain in our article.

Type Pros Cons Example From Amazon Example Cost
3 in 1 Oil For Bike Chain Inexpensive, you may already have it in your house Thin oil so won’t stay on as long as wet or dry lube 3-in-One Multi-Purpose Oil ~$10
2 in 1 Self Cleaner No need to lube and degrease your bike chain separately. The chain will start to squeak sooner White Lightning 2-in-1 Bike Care 4 oz Lubricant and Degreaser ~$10
WD 40 Bike Chain Lube Dries quickly and has a non-wax formula (the one-size-fits-all type) Just as expensive as other bicycle lubes WD-40 Bike Chain Lube ~$20
Chainsaw Oil You might already have it in your garage, is good for rainy weather Should be used in small amounts, attracts dirt Toro Chainsaw Oil ~$10
Clipper Oil Thin so it coats your chain and drivetrain, prevents rust and corrosion You have to apply it more often than dry-lube, may not do well in rain Premium Hair Clipper Blade Lubricating Oil ~$10
Silicone Spray Non-toxic and dries quickly You have to apply it before every ride Permatex 80070 Silicone Spray Lubricant ~$10

To learn more about the design, development, and prototyping of bike chain and gear mechanism cleaning products, be sure to check out this study from the University of Huddersfield.

If you don’t really want to use your usual mountain bike chain lube, why not try one of these mountain bike chain lube alternatives?
These lubricating products are probably lying around in your home and could work just as well as bike chain lubricant to keep your mountain bike chain going smoothly. Image Source: PedalChile.

How to Choose a Bike Chain Lube 

With so many different options out there, it can be overwhelming to figure out the right chain lube for your bike. But there are a lot of options because each one is made for different climates and activities. So all you have to figure out is the temperature and weather conditions of the area that you will spend most of your time riding, the distance you will be riding, and the type of biking you will be doing.

Choose a bike chain lube according to the weather conditions, how long the ride will be, and the type of trail and riding.

You can also use this Finish Line bike lube selector tool to help figure out which bike chain lube is right for the conditions you ride in.

Tip 1. Choose Dry Lube for Dry Conditions

No matter if you are going on a long ride or a short ride, if you are riding on a dry trail, you should use a dry lube. And this doesn’t matter if you're on a road or dusty trail, if it’s not wet out, you should use a dry lube. If the weather is dry out, then odds are you’ll encounter a lot of dust and debris that gets swept up into the air while riding.

If you use a wet lube in dry, dusty conditions, then all of that dust will stick to your bike chain. This can cause more wear and tear to your chain and is much harder to clean later.

Tip 2. Choose Wet Lube for Wet or Muddy Conditions

Wet lube is thick and sticky, and will stay on your bike through wet or muddy conditions until you decide to take it off. So it doesn’t matter if you are going on a long or short mountain bike ride, if the trail will be muddy or it looks like you are going to be riding through rain, you need to use wet lube.

If you think a dry lube will be okay for just a short ride even though it’s wet and muddy, think again. Dry lube doesn’t stand a chance against water, so even if you’re only out for a short period, you risk your chain starting to rust. Water is your bike chain’s greatest enemy, so you need to protect it with a thicker lube.

Tip 3. Choose Wax Lube for Recreational Riding

Mountain bikers rarely use wax lube like this because it can easily gunk up your chain. However, if you decide to start riding your mountain bike to work every day or riding it on roads more, you may want to switch to wax lube. Wax lube is a cleaner lube and doesn’t make as big of a mess. If you’re carrying your bike up the stairs at work or taking it on the train with you, wax lube is less likely to get all over your clothes. 

However, a major issue with wax lube is that it can easily gunk up your chain. Only use a little bit of wax lube at a time until you figure out how much your bike actually needs to run smoothly. And if you take your mountain bike into a muddy trail on the weekends, be sure to use some wet lube before you go. Wax lube is a drier dry lube and offers little defense against wet and muddy conditions.

Do I Need a Bike Chain Cleaner?

For your chain to last its full lifespan, you need to clean it between uses. If the chain is not too dirty, you could simply take a wet rag and wipe off any dirt by hand. But if you’re a mountain biker, you rarely come back with a chain that’s not covered in dirt or mud from the trail. 

Use a bike chain cleaner to clean a bike chain quickly. It reduces water usage and makes it easier to clean up so it’s especially useful for apartment dwellers or other settings where a backyard is unavailable.

A bike chain cleaner is a tool that you can clip onto your chain and cleans the chain for you while you manually push your pedals. While a bike chain cleaner isn’t an absolute must-have like chain lube, it’s a helpful tool to get your chain clean.

One complaint about bike chain cleaner tools is that they don’t offer a way to clean the drivetrain. That’s why this bike chain and drivetrain cleaning set from Park Tool is a great purchase because it gives you everything you need to keep the mechanisms of your bike pristine, so they'll last for a long time. 

Clean your mountain bike chain and drivetrain with this cleaning kit, before applying lube.
Although there isn’t a tool for cleaning the entire drivetrain this cleaning kit from Park Tool has all the items that you will need to clean it manually. Image Source: Amazon.

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