Mountain Bike Trail Etiquette

Just like there are written and unspoken rules when driving on the highway, mountain biking has its own set of rules and trail etiquette to make sure everyone stays safe and enjoys the ride.

The International Mountain Biking Association introduced its “Rules of the Trail” in 1988 to education bikers and serve as an advocacy resource. Learn some of the basic rules and trail etiquette so you will enjoy many safe and happy miles of pedaling.

Respect the Trails and Landscape

Local trail builders put a lot of time and energy into maintaining and building trails. Be a good steward of the trails and the environment by considering your impact. Stay on the marked trails and avoid riding muddy trails. This causes ruts, which turn into gullies and other issues that can be difficult and costly to repair. Only ride trails that are dry and open.

Stay on the trail. Ride through standing water, not around it. Ride or walk technical features but don’t go around them. Imagine the impact of hundreds of people trekking over alternate routes.

Only ride open and legal trails. Don’t ride on trails that are closed to cyclists. “Poaching” trails, building illegal trails, or even adding new features to existing trails may have long-term consequences to the entire community. The negative impacts of violating this rule may be as small as putting other trail-users (or yourself) at risk and the cost might be as significant as causing trails to be closed.

Yielding Etiquette

“Yield” means that one person is allowing another person to go past or around without interference. Most trails are designated multi-use paths, meaning there are also hikers and horseback riders enjoying the trails alongside mountain bikers. The standard yield rule is bike traffic must yield to both horse and foot traffic; foot traffic must yield to horses.

The Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance says the best way to share the trail is, “treat everyone you meet like you would treat your mother… or someone you really really like.”

Bikes can startle or scare even the most “trail-hardened” horses. When approaching a horse and rider, slow down and call out a greeting from as far away as reasonably possible. This lets the horse know you are a human and alerts the rider to your presence (if they haven’t already noticed you). The most polite thing to do is ask the equestrian how they would like you to pass—get off and walk your bike, pass slowly at a wide enough spot, or stop and allow them to pass you. If the horse is very skittish, this polite act might save both you and the equestrian from an incident.

Bikers are also responsible for yielding to hikers. The most polite practice is to slow down to a safe speed and greet the hikers. If they don’t readily move, politely ask if they mind finding a safe place for you to pass. Most hikers will happily step aside and let mountain bikers pass.

When you encounter another mountain biker on the trail, uphill traffic gets the right-of-way. Nothing is more demoralizing than being forced to stop in the middle of an uphill grind. If there is no clear “uphill” rider, the person with the most obvious pull-off should yield the trail.

Whenever you yield the trail, practice “the Fruita Lean”. Pull as far over to the side of the trail as possible and stop. Put your outside foot down off the trail by a few inches and lean your bike to the side to clear as much of the trail as possible. This method gives space and helps protect the vegetation around trails.

There are some exceptions to the rules about yielding on single-use and directional mountain bike trails. Be sure to know the trail code where you ride so you can respect the local rules and keep everyone safe.

Ride Aware

Be aware of your surroundings. Some trails have a poor line of sight and blind corners. Always assume there might be someone just out of eyesight or around the corner. Proceed with caution and make sure you are always in control of your speed.

Make sure you can hear what is going on around you. It is unsafe to ride with earphones in or music blaring from your phone or speakers and it may disturb other people who are also out enjoying the trail.

Be aware of wildlife in the area, particularly if the trail runs through pasture land or other places with a lot of animals. In some regions, causing cattle to run or unnecessarily disturbing wildlife are serious offenses with penalties attached. Be aware of who is on the trail and what is going on around the trail, too.

Leave No Trace

Like any other venture into the backwoods, the rule of thumb is “leave no trace”. Stay on the trails. Pack out your trash—even “natural” trash like banana peels and apple cores. Tossing “natural” trash attracts wild animals to the trail. Not only is this trash unhealthy for the animals, over time they may become aggressive or a nuisance.

Plan ahead and be prepared

The mantra of every good Boy Scout and all mountain bikers is “be prepared and self-sufficient”. Always be prepared to fix a flat or make minor repairs. Tuck a spare inner tube, tire levers, pump (or air canisters), and an Allen key into your pack for any maintenance needs.

Always carry a trail map, especially when biking in new areas. Bring a snack, water, headlamp, and rain gear just in case. A small first aid kit is also a good idea. Share your ride plans with someone if you are heading out alone, or bring a friend along.

Lend a hand

Most trails are maintained by volunteers who give hundreds of hours of work to keep the local trails in great shape. Over time all trails suffer wear and tear so consider giving a little of your time and energy to maintaining the local trail systems. Volunteer days are actually fun social events and a great way to get together with fellow mountain bikers.

And, finally, lend a hand on the trail. Whether you see another rider go down in an unfortunate crash or pass someone fixing a flat, stop and check to make sure they’re ok. You never know when you might need a helping hand out on the trail someday.

Now you’re up to snuff on the basic mountain biking trail etiquette! Do you have any rules or etiquette to add? Share in the comments below.

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