Mountain biking is one of the most popular outdoor activities in America, and it's easy to see why: Few other sports combine heart-pumping exercise with such breathtaking views and close communion with nature.

In 2008, approximately 7.6 million Americans hit the trail, a 10 percent increase over 2007 [source: Outdoor Foundation]. The numbers are even more impressive for younger riders, whose participation in the sport rose 17 percent.

One of the best things about mountain biking is that it embraces a wide range of skill levels and riding styles. Casual riders can head out with the family for a leisurely cross-country run through the forest, while serious cyclists can compete in hair-raising downhill races or get airborne with extreme freeriding.

Whatever your style, the right mountain biking gear is essential to creating an enjoyable riding experience. If you hit the trail with the wrong shoes, the wrong shorts and the wrong protective equipment, you could run the risk of painful blisters, overheating and even serious injury.

Keep reading to learn more about essential mountain biking gear and how to get the most out of this exciting sport.