Muddy Trail Etiquette: Spring Rules for Cyclists

MTB Trail Etiquette Mud Season

Now that we’re fighting our way out of winter and mountain bike trails are opening up, it’s time we have the annual conversation about muddy trail etiquette. Should you ride muddy trails? Should you avoid them?

We deal with these questions every year, so let’s put the record straight. (Then you can just bookmark this post and come back to it next spring.)

Trail Etiquette

Unfortunately, the short answer is “use your best judgment.” It depends largely on the exact conditions and the trail itself.

If you don’t have muddy trail judgment yet, keep reading.

When the Trial is Muddy Riding

If you’re not sure whether or not a trail is too muddy to ride, you can use this rule of thumb:

It’s too muddy to ride if mud is sticking to your tires and frame.

Image credit: cake rider via flickr.

Sometimes a little mud is fine. But if it’s sticky and clogging up the treads on your tires and getting stuck to your frame, it’s too muddy to ride.

(It’s important to note here that trails in traditionally muddy areas, like the Pacific Northwest and the UK, may be designed to handle lots of mud. If a trail has been designed with mud in mind, these rules may not apply.)

Mountain Biking After Rain

Okay, let’s start with the basics. Riding a muddy trail can absolutely be bad. But why?

It comes down to trail damage. Have you ever ridden a trail in the summer that has super-hard ruts etched an inch or more into the dirt? They’re annoying to ride over, and they were probably created by someone riding through a big mud puddle.

Image credit: Alan Levine via flickr.

That’s one reason—because it decreases the quality of the trail. Those ridges do get worn down again, but it can take a while.

In some cases, the damage is more severe and will require maintenance on the trail. That means mobilizing volunteers to fix damage caused by irresponsible riders. Which sucks.

Riding at high speeds through muddy sections exacerbates the problem.

And if you ride around a mud puddle instead, you’re widening the trail. Which causes erosion and is even more difficult to fix.

Almost all of these problems can be fixed with good trail maintenance. But wouldn’t you rather have volunteers making new trails, instead of fixing old ones? Mountain Biking does destory trails without proper care, lets all do our part to leave little to no impact.

5 Great Spring Mountain Bike Destinations

For those itching to get back on their mountain bike or escape to warmer weather, these destinations will satisfy your needs.

Sedona Arizona Mountain Bike

Sedona, Arizona Mountain Bike Trails

Gorgeous views, ripping singletrack, and easily accessible networks of trails which encircle the town are just a few reasons why Sedona is one of the best mountain bike destinations in the western states. Whether you prefer smooth and fast singletrack such as the Llama trail, or terrifyingly exposed routes such as Highline or Hangover, Sedona has it all. At the end of the day, you can soak your feet in the waters of Oak Creek, or explore the numerous vortex/crystal/psychic shops in town – which is a whole different kind of spectacle. Be sure to visit Over the Edge Sports to get trail recommendations or demo one of their high-end bikes.

Fruita, Colorado Mountain Bike Trails

Jones Ridge Trail - Fruita, Colorado

Jones Ridge Trail – Fruita, Colorado

The 18 Road Trails in Fruita, Colorado is as close as you can get to experience the thrill of a roller coaster ride on your bike. Zippity Do Da and Joe’s Ridge are a must if you have never ridden in Fruita before.  However, the Kokopelli trail system south of Interstate 70 offers equally awesome terrain. Mild spring temperatures make Fruita an ideal escape for those living in the Front Range, Denver is a four-hour drive away.

Moab, Utah Mountain Bike Trails

Slick Rock - Moab, Utah

Slick Rock – Moab, Utah

Where the bike shops far outnumber the grocery stores, you know there is good riding. Moab has spectacular and challenging trails but also offers options for beginners or intermediate riders such as Klondike Bluffs or the Intrepid Trail. For those looking for something more challenging, check out the Porcupine Rim Trail or the Portal Trail. Hotel rooms can fill up fast, so book in advance. Plenty of camping options are also available, the BLM maintains 24 campgrounds in the area and individual sites are available on a first come/first served basis.

San Louis Obispo, California Mountain Bike Trails

Montana de Oro State Park - San Luis Obispo, California

Montana de Oro State Park – San Luis Obispo, California

From technical downhills to lung-busting singletrack climbs, this coastal town has an incredible variety of options. If you are looking for scenic routes, try the Hazards Peak Trail at Montaña de Oro State Park. At the top of the climb, you will be reward with 360-degree views over Morro Bay and Irish Hills. For those with big travel bikes, check out the Eucs Grove area – a dedicated trail system for freeriders built by freeriders.

Phoenix/Black Canyon City, Arizona Mountain Bike Trails

Black Canyon Trail - Black Canyon City, Arizona

Black Canyon Trail – Black Canyon City, Arizona

Phoenix is the only major city on this list, but it offers a variety of options for all abilities.  South Mountain is a good place to start with over 51 miles of trails which loop through the saguaro-covered landscape. If you prefer to escape the Phoenix city sprawl, head north on I-17 and check out the new Black Canyon Trail – an 80-mile stretch of rugged and remote singletrack located between Phoenix and Sedona. Sonoran Expeditions offers multi-day tours of the Black Canyon Trail, or pick up a map and explore it on your own. The best time to ride in Phoenix is the early spring or winter months, so plan accordingly.

The Crucial Factor: Soil Composition

One of the most important factors in determining whether it’s a good idea to ride a trail is the soil composition. Sandy soil tends to drain quickly, meaning the trail dries out sooner. Soil that’s made largely of clay is more likely to hold onto water, keeping it muddy longer.

On the Front Range, we have generally sandy soil, which is why there are a few trails that are rideable all winter long. Some places have a slightly higher clay concentration, and even specific parts of trails can retain more water than others.

You don’t need to be an expert on the soil to make the decision. But it’s something to keep in mind when you’re not sure whether you should ride.

How to Ride a Muddy Trail

In general, it’s best to avoid muddy trails. But that’s not always going to be easy. Sometimes you get out on the trail before you realize that it’s a mudfest. Other times you know it’s going to be a little muddy and it ends up being much worse.

No matter the reason, you’ve found yourself on a muddy trail. What do you do?

Your first priority should be to ride more carefully than usual. If a corner that you usually tear through is muddy, don’t ride it at full speed. Muddy corners are not only especially easy to damage, but they can also be really slippery.

Image credit: Lisa Picard via flickr (unless you’re in a cyclocross race, don’t do this).

Similarly, when you come across a puddle of water that’s collected on the trail and formed a mud puddle, don’t go flying through. And even more importantly, don’t go around it. You should ride through the mud instead of widening the trail, which is much more difficult to repair than just filling in a hole.

And by slowing down, you’re less likely to create a big rut in the trail.

If a trail is really muddy, it’s everyone’s best interest that you call it a day and turn around. But if you decide to keep riding, it’s important to take it slow and do whatever you can to not damage the trail.

Use Your Head

In the end, most of muddy trail etiquette comes down to common sense. If it’s really muddy, don’t ride your bike on it. If you have to, ride slowly and carefully. You’ll also want to use the right gear, including a solid fender like the SKS X-Blade and a good mud-shedding tire like the Schwalbe Nobby Nic (which was very popular in England when I was riding the mud there).

And, of course, do whatever you can to avoid damaging the trail. One great way is to go hiking instead.  The Pacific NW is full of amazing hikes that are easily accessible from just about everywhere.  Take a look at some of our picks for the best hiking trails in the Pacific Northwest.

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About the Author

Dann Albright
Dann is a freelance journalist whose love of the mountains keeps him coming back to Colorado. A mountain biker, skier, runner, and hiker, he seeks to shed light on the issues that matter most to the people who live in and around the Rockies.

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