Stick to the Trail

The worst of the winter is behind us, and we are now moving into spring conditions. The trails will be muddy, and there may be snow drifts or fallen branches blocking the trails. Should you ride through the mud and tear up the trail? Doesn’t it look easier to ride around the mud holes and other obstacles blocking the trail? What is the right thing to do?

Ride in the middle of the trail to avoid creating new trails and damaging trailside plants.

I once attended a Tahoe Rim Trail presentation, and the speaker made a statement that really made me think. He said, “Trails aren’t for people, they’re for the environment”. I had never really thought of it that way, but it makes sense. Today’s mountain bikes can pretty much ride over any type of terrain, the only limitations being rider skill and courage. Bikes don’t really need trails. If we all rode like this though, the land would severely damaged. This is why we ride on trails.

Here is some information on traveling on durable surfaces from the Leave No Trace website (

The goal of backcountry travel is to move through the backcountry while avoiding damage to the land. Understanding how travel causes impacts is necessary to accomplish this goal.

Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. The resulting barren area leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails.

I also found some good information on the Leave No Trace blog:

There are a number of reasons why it is important to travel on durable surfaces and stick to the trail in areas where there is an established trail. You want to travel on the trail even when you come to a puddle in the middle of the trail. Here are some of these reasons why Leave No Trace recommends this practice:

  • Concentrating travel on trails reduces the likelihood that multiple routes will develop and scar the landscape.
  • It is better to have one well-designed route than many poorly chosen paths.
  • Trail use is recommended whenever possible. Encourage travelers to stay within the width of the trail and not short cut trail switchbacks (trail zigzags that climb hill sides).
  • In winter conditions, stay on deep snow cover whenever possible; in muddy spring conditions, stay on snow or walk in the middle of the trail to avoid creating new trails and damaging trailside plants.

More from the Leave No Trace blog here:

Scott J
The goal of backcountry travel is to move through the backcountry while avoiding damage to the land.

From my observations, a properly designed trail largely heals itself after a muddy spell. If care is taken when riding through muddy sections not to displace large quantities of mud off the trail, mountain bike tires will pack down and smooth out the wheel ruts as the mud dries. Off trail short cuts and detours leave scars on the landscape that can last a long time. The ruts through the soft soil also channel water, further increasing erosion potential. While it can take weeks or months to revegetate the landscape, a trail can be repaired quite easily and quickly by comparison.

So get out there and start enjoying the trails! Just take the extra time to be careful navigating the muddy spots. If you encounter debris blocking the trail, take the extra time to clear it to discourage others from blazing new trails. A little patience goes a long way to land preservation.

9 thoughts on “Stick to the Trail

  1. I avoid muddy conditions not only because its harder on the trail, it is also expensive, in that it really wears down the drive train, derailurs and if you have clipless pedals, it wears those out really fast too. Sand and water is bad for moving metal parts. If it turns out to be really muddy… I turn around and put some miles in on the pavement…

  2. There are a few drifts on the north facing parts of the Ash Canyon trails on the upper half. The nice thing is that the snowbanks are really solid so your feet don’t sink into them while doing the ol’ balancing act through the ruts.

    Good info.

  3. Are you suggesting that I stop my quad, walk around the front tire, laboriously bend over to remove the obstacle, and then walk all the way back to my quad when I can easily destroy all the surrounding vegetation by going around the obstacle?

    1. Mo-Tard – It depends. Do you have the Warn Winch package? You may be able to to winch out the bigger logs for us. And by all means, drag one of those logs behind the quad to widen the singletrack to meet your needs. It must be awfully bumpy when you can only put 2 wheels in our narrow singletrack.

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