How Mountain Bike Trails Work

Image Gallery: National Parks Mountain bike trails can be challenging, but sometimes you get to enjoy a beautiful landscape like this one. See pictures of national parks.
Image Gallery: National Parks Mountain bike trails can be challenging, but sometimes you get to enjoy a beautiful landscape like this one. See pictures of national parks.
Scott Markewitz/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

In mountain climbing, the peak is a beacon to new outdoor adventures. For mountain biking, it's either the challenge of the trail or just the fun of riding. The mountain bike trails you choose say a lot about the kind of adventure you're looking for.

Mountain biking has been growing as a sport since the 1970s. Enthusiasts started their own organizations to support the sport, like the National Off Road Biking Association (NORBA) formed in 1983 (today part of USA Cycling), and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) formed in 1988.


Some organizations developed events and rules for competitive cyclists. The first Mountain Biking World Championships were held in 1990 by the International Cycling Union (UCI), which continues to be the respected authority on competition regulations. By 1996, mountain biking was added to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga., and is scheduled to be a part of the 2012 games in London.

Other organizations focused on the recreational sport of mountain biking. This includes building and maintaining trails across the United States and around the world, used by millions of cyclists. IMBA continues as one of the biggest organizations supporting mountain bikers and trails. Each year IMBA members contribute a million hours to trail work projects, and there are more than 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) of trails today as a result of their contributions [source: IMBA].

Grab your helmet and bike, and pedal over to the next page! This article covers a lot of ground about mountain bike trail design, how to choose a trail and how trails are maintained.


Mountain Bike Trail Designs

The IMBA's trail rating system helps you determine if your skills are up to the challenge of a particular trail.
The IMBA's trail rating system helps you determine if your skills are up to the challenge of a particular trail.
John C. Russell/Photodisc/Getty Images

Since off-road cycling began, mountain bike trail designs have the lengths, grades (the slope of the land), terrain and obstacles that appeal to different cyclists' interests. Designers build trails according to the skill of the riders who will use them. Trail designs around the world appeal to those looking for many different types of outdoor adventures.

A mountain bike trail aimed at a variety of riders should balance the technical challenge with easier-to-ride areas. Trail designs vary in width based on their intended use. Single-track trails are narrow, inaccessible to vehicles and horses, and sometimes they're used by hikers. Double-track trails are wide enough for two cyclists side-by-side.


To help riders determine if their skills match the trail, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) established a Trail Difficulty Rating System. The ratings are similar to those you'd see worldwide for downhill skiing, including the famous black diamond ratings for the most challenging trails. Trails are rated on width, tread surface, average grade, maximum grade, natural obstacles and technical trail features [source: IMBA].

Competition trails target adventure sports enthusiasts, and they're designed according to the rules of the sport. The International Cycling Union (UCI) is a long-standing non-profit organization for maintaining international standards in competitive cycling. UCI trail requirements are listed in detail in their official rules, including the requirements unique to events such as cross-country, downhill and mountain cross.

Trail builders include groups of mountain biking enthusiasts as well as professional construction workers. IMBA members volunteer to help in trail building worldwide. IMBA maintains a list of the "10 Most Common Trailbuilding Mistakes" to help avoid the mistakes of past builders. When governments and non-profit groups are looking for paid contractors to build trails, they can look to organizations like the Professional Trailbuilders Association (PTBA) to find contractors who specialize in trails.


Choosing the Right Mountain Bike Trail

Mountain biking can be a leisurely ride on a well-worn wooded trail, or a challenging trek with inclines and obstacles around every corner. When choosing a mountain bike trail to ride, consider the types of outdoor adventures you're looking for. Then, read bike and outdoor magazines, mountain biking Web sites and tourism guides that have information about trails that interest you.

Each trail should include a topographical map to help you plan your ride. Know how to read the map and select a scale which will give you the most detail. Once you know what the trail has in store for you, be sure you have the skill, strength and stamina to handle it.


Information about each trail should also let you know how easy or difficult the trail is for biking. Some trails use the IMBA Trail Difficulty Rating System described in the previous section. Others have ratings that don't follow any particular standard. These ratings are often created by other mountain bikers, hikers who share the trails or those who own or maintain the trails.

If you're looking for longer rides akin to hiking on two wheels, look for cross-country trails. Competitive cross-country trails can be 16 to 28 miles (25.8 to 45 kilometers) long for the long tracks, and about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) for short tracks. The long-track competition is the one that joined the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

If you're looking for speed in your adventure sports, downhill tracks may be for you. Competitive downhill events include descents that last 4 to 8 minutes, and head-to-head competitions lasting only seconds. Cyclists wear heavier gear for downhill, and they can reach speeds up to 60 miles per hour (96.6 kilometers per hour).

If you're focusing on skill and technique rather than endurance and speed, look for shorter trails with more obstacles like mud, water and rocks. Such trails also inspire competitive events called observed trials, where riders are challenged not to put down a foot or reach out a hand for balance.

No matter what trail you choose, be aware of the laws in your area that govern where you can ride. If the trail is not specifically for mountain biking, determine if you're allowed to bike there. Also, know the usage policy for the trail you want to ride, such as whether or not you're allowed to camp.


Mountain Bike Trail Maintenance

According to enthusiasts, mountain bike trails are created to be in harmony with their natural surroundings. Nature, though, likes to be in control. Trees and other plants continue to grow into the paths of riders, and weather conditions can damage or clutter the trail. Basic trail maintenance includes keeping tree limbs cut back, clearing excessive debris after storms and repairing damage to the trail such as ruts and ditches from water erosion.

Land owners and managers may provide the financial support for mountain bike trail maintenance. However, volunteers, including cyclists who use the trails, do the bulk of the maintenance. Local organizations may also volunteer for regular maintenance work. Larger organizations have volunteers who travel across the United States offering support, building and maintaining mountain bike trails. IMBA also provides trail maintenance training for those new to pitching in.


While you're using bike trails in your area, you can also do your part to help maintain the trails. One tip is to carry a foldable pruning saw with you, especially in the early spring, to cut back limbs that have grown out into your path. Also, be sure to let the land owners and managers know when you see trail damage from erosion, weather or vandals.

Trails can be designed and built to be sustainable. Sustainable trails have lower maintenance requirements and limited environmental impacts. In a 2006 presentation at the IMBA Summit/World Mountain Bike Conference, speakers outlined ways to meet these goals when building sustainable contour trails. Existing trails can be improved, too, by rerouting to a new sustainable trail and allowing vegetation to reclaim an old trailbed.


Mountain Bike Trail Safety

Be aware of signs like this when you're on the trail. This sign is warning you that there's a steep descent ahead.
Be aware of signs like this when you're on the trail. This sign is warning you that there's a steep descent ahead.

Whether you're a seasoned enthusiast or just getting started, mountain bike trail safety should be a priority. Safety starts with having the right skills and physical conditioning to handle the mountain bike trails you're riding. Always study a map of the trail before you go riding, know what challenges are coming and how long your trip might be. Don't go faster than you're comfortable riding, and don't get caught unprepared for a steep incline, tricky terrain or darkness.

When you know you're ready to hit the bike trails, check your equipment and safety gear. Make sure your bike and helmet are in good working condition and appropriate for the type of trail you're riding. Also, check the weather and determine if it will affect the trail. Be prepared both physically and mentally for any muddy, icy or foggy conditions.


Gather the gear you need to be prepared for any situation on the trail. For longer cross-country trails, the essentials are a map and compass to help you follow the trail, and food and water for energy and hydration. Emergencies could leave you stranded on the trail, so carry a pack with a first aid kit, a light, spare bulbs and batteries, rain gear, a reflective blanket, a mobile phone or radio, and your bike repair tools: a pump, wrench, Y-socket tool, multi-tool, Allen keys, tire levers, and spare tires and tubes [source: Crowther].

Don't forget your most important bike trail safety tool: your brain. You need to know how to maneuver the obstacles you'll encounter, and how to handle and repair your bike. You also need to know how to read your trail map, and how to use your compass and map to find your way. Finally, help keep the trail safe for others by letting those who maintain the trail and other riders know when conditions change.

For more great links about mountain biking trails, trek across to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • ABC of Mountain Biking. "Features of a Good Mountain Biking Trail." MaxLifestyle International. (Dec. 4, 2009)
  • Bernhardt, Gale. "Get Involved in Building and Maintaining Mountain Bike Trails." The Active Network, Inc. (Dec. 4, 2009)
  • Bull, Andy. "Learn Mountain Biking in a Weekend." Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1992.
  • Crowther, Nicky. "The Ultimate Mountain Bike Book." Firefly Books. 2002.
  • Hayhurst, Chris. "Mountain Biking: Get on the trail." The Rosen Publishing Group. 2000.
  • Hewitt, Ben, Editor. "Bicycling Magazine's 1,000 All-Time Best Tips." Rodale. 1999.
  • International Mountain Biking Association. "Attracting and Keeping Trail Volunteers." Summer 2001. (Dec. 4, 2009)
  • International Mountain Biking Association. "Closing and Reclaiming Damaged Trails." (Dec. 4, 2009)
  • International Mountain Biking Association. "IMBA Epics." (Dec. 4, 2009)
  • International Mountain Biking Association. "IMBA History." (Dec. 4, 2009)
  • International Mountain Biking Association. "Trail Difficulty." (Dec. 3, 2009)
  • London 2012. "Cycling - Mountain Bike." (Dec. 3, 2009)
  • Mountain Biking in Western North Carolina. "Mountain Biking the Pisgah National Forest." (Dec. 3, 2009)
  • Schoenherr, Alicia and Rusty. "Mountain Biking." The Child's World. 2005.
  • USA Cycling, Inc. "Mountain Bike." May 18, 2004. (Dec. 3, 2009)
  • Weintaaub, Aileen. "Mountain Biking." Rosen Book Works. 2003.
  • Weiss, Chris. "Mountain Bike Safety Gear.", Inc. (Dec. 4, 2009)