Trail Etiquette
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Trail Etiquette for Mountain Bikers

By: Jim Rutberg  May 26, 2022

Riding your local mountain bike trails comes with responsibility - respect the soil, the trail system, and your fellow trail users.

Whether it’s the paved or gravel multi-use path or backcountry singletrack trail, the outdoors are shared spaces for everyone. Mutual respect, cooperation, and education are all necessary for maintaining trail systems, preserving trail access for all, maximizing safety and minimizing conflicts between various trail user groups.

Shared spaces require shared responsibility. The popularity of outdoor recreation increased dramatically during the pandemic in 2020 and trail use nationwide is still higher than during pre-pandemic years. More people enjoying the outdoors is a good thing, but increased trail use puts more pressure on vulnerable environments. To be a good steward of open spaces and support the efforts of trail managers, remember the following:

Respect the Soil

It is far easier to harm a trail than to repair or restore it. The more you respect the dirt the more fun we’ll all be able to have on it.

Stay off muddy trails

Soil types respond differently to moisture, so check with local riders and bike shops about trail conditions. Some rocky and sandy soils drain quickly and ride better with some rain. In contrast, soils with a high clay content hold water and take on the consistency of peanut butter or wet cement. Deep ruts and footprints form quickly in wet clay-rich soil, and trails can be difficult to repair once these ruts and footprints harden.

Keep the dirt in the trail bed

Even when trails are generally dry and appropriate to ride on, you may encounter occasional puddles or muddy spots. Your goal should be to keep the dirt where it is and to keep the trail at its current width. That means riding through the water or mud rather than widening the trail by riding around it. It also means slowing down to minimize the amount of soil you displace.

Ride don’t slide

Respecting the soil also means minimizing your impact on trail erosion. Many trail systems pass through fragile ecosystems. Even with sustainable trail building practices, irresponsible trail use can lead to damage. Control your speed to minimize skids and power slides. Ride over obstacles because riding around them can create channels for rainwater.

    Respect the Trail System

    Respecting the dirt ensures that individual trails continue to be fun and safe for all users. In the bigger picture, it is equally important to respect trail networks, the people who build them, and the people working to maintain access to them.

    Don’t cut switchbacks or take shortcuts

    Switchbacks exist to create sustainable trails in steep terrain. Cutting switchbacks destroys vegetation that’s already hanging on for dear life and creates erosion channels. Similarly, respect the layout of planned trails; if the trail goes around the right side of a tree, don’t cut the corner by shortcutting to the left. This leads to trail braiding, which eventually turns narrow singletrack into a dirt boulevard.

    Don’t build non-sanctioned trails

    Trail advocacy groups and land managers spend years working through the steps required to build trails legally. Unsanctioned trail building undermines their efforts and reinforces negative stereotypes about mountain bikers. Illegal trail building can slow or stop the building of new, legal trails. It can also eliminate mountain bike access to entire trail systems.

    Leave No Trace

    Pack out whatever you pack in. This includes food wrappers, tubes, and human/animal waste. Leave what you find, including trail features. Don’t add things, either, like decorative cairns or ruts from skidding.

      Respect Fellow Trail Users

      Trails are places people go to connect with nature, have fun with friends, challenge themselves, and find peace. The ways trail users interact with each other can enhance the experience or create conflicts. Learning to respect others is an essential aspect of using trails responsibly.

      The Traditional Yield Triangle

      The ‘yield triangle’ has been the longstanding basis for right of way on multi-use trails. The basic rules associated with the yield triangle include:

      • Cyclists and mountain bikers yield to hikers, runners, and equestrians
      • Hikers and runners yield to equestrians.
      • Downhill users yield to uphill users.

      The yield triangle is a good starting point for establishing right of way, but situational awareness and polite communication are crucial for minimizing trail conflicts. In many cases, particularly when cyclists slow down and use a bell or politely announce their presence, hikers and runners may yield because it’s easier for them to step to the side. However, as a cyclist you should not expect hikers and runners to give right of way.

      Similarly, sometimes there is plenty of room for uphill and downhill mountain bike traffic to move past each other without stopping. In these instances, uphill traffic should be given access to the preferable line. There may also be instances where trying to stop places the downhill rider at greater risk. These are not ideal situations, and all attempts should be made to avoid such encounters, but when they happen harm reduction takes precedence over right of way.

      Slow down and speak up

      Cyclists and mountain bikers typically move faster than hikers and runners on multi-use trails. High speed encounters with cyclists can be startling for hikers and runners, especially if they don’t see or hear you coming. Reduce your speed in areas without clear lines of sight, equip your bike with a bell, and/or announce your presence. If another trail user can’t hear you because they are wearing headphones, try to get their attention or wait until there is enough room to pass safely. Similarly, riding with headphones can prevent you from hearing other trail users

      Be a good human

      Remember that a nice ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ can go a long way to creating a positive impression. If you are part of a group, the lead rider should try to tell a hiker or runner how many riders are coming. The final rider should similarly announce they are the last member of the group. If an encounter with a hiker, runner, equestrian, or another cyclist doesn’t go as well as you planned, be polite and diplomatic, and take responsibility for your part in the situation. Mending hurt feelings may prevent that trail user from venting frustration on the next rider they encounter.