10 Ways to Make Your Mountain Bike Trail Awesome! – Part 1

polaski and macleodIf you are planning to build your own mountain bike trail, that is great!  If you want your new trail to be the fastest, funnest, and flowiest trail in town, take a look at some of these tips and advice.  They will work towards keeping your trail sustainable, so your hard work doesn’t get destroyed, and they will help make your trail interesting, so your hard work is enjoyed many others.

A Picture of IMBA book Trail Solutions: IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet SingletrackBefore you get started with your trail build, I recommend you go to the IMBA website and buy a copy of their fantastic book, Trail Solutions: IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack.  Keep in mind the money goes to a good cause.  I received one from my local Bike Club, when I began trail building, and i cannot recommend it enough.

Follow the guidelines from IMBA, and other experienced trail builders and you will create a good mountain bike trail.  Add to that your own personal passion and desire, and you will make the best mountain bike trail your riding community has ever had!

10 ways to make your mountain bike trail awesome, in no particular order:

Water, water, water. Where does the water go?

water and snow melt running down the trail
Water management is the most important step to building a sustainable trail that is fun to ride.

The most obvious and most important advice to follow when building your trail is this:  Never, for one moment, let the thought of drainage escape your memory!  You have to think like water – become like water.  A trail with poorly thought out drainage in will destroy a trail almost as fast as you can build it.  In many cases, water will be your worst enemy out there, and you need to develop a deep understanding of it.  To do this isn’t hard if you enforce a few key rules in your work.  Remember the one thing that a good Plumber never, ever forgets: “Shit runs downhill”

The first rule is what is known as the Half Rule.  This rule states that the grade of your trail shall never exceed an angle greater than half the angle of the slope that you are working on.  What this means is that if the fall line of the slope you are working on is a 20% grade, then the trail you are building across it should not exceed a 10% grade.  This rule has its limits of course, and needs to be put into use with these next to rules to be most effective.

The second rule is outslope.  Make sure that the trail surface, or “tread” is sloping away from the side of the hill.  This will ensure that any water running off the hillside will tend to run off the edge of the trail, as apposed to straight down it.  These two techniques alone will basically ensure that rain and snow melt will never cause ruts and erosion on your trail.  Keep in mind that the terrain and type of trail you wish to build will dictate the maximum grades you can build your trail surface.  An the average grade of over 10%, in most cases, is highly likely to create rider caused ruts and erosion.  Steep downhill, and freeride trails should then be expected to erode some, and are rarely ever truly sustainable, so if you are going to build one, employ these techniques as much as possible to minimize further damage from water, but be prepared to invest a lot more time in performing regular trail maintenance after the initial build is done.

One more rule that is important in water management, sustainability and trail flow, is incorporating regular grade reversals on your trail.  If water does start running down your trail, then it can only go a short distance before encountering a natural barrier.  In this way any drainage issues on your trail are kept somewhat contained.  And finally, reversing the grade often, will give your trail so much more flow.  You can break up what would be a long leg burning ascent into shorter ones with some small breaks in between for legs to recover, and thereby making your trail fun to climb, instead of a suffer fest.  Incorporating short flats and uphills on the downhill will also do wonders by preventing prolonged skidding with short, natural speed checks, ensuring your trail surface is going to be long lasting, and the riding will be kept interesting.


“Attention Deficit Disorder”

a fast and flowy downhill ending makes great first impressions
Leave behind a great impression by saving the best for last.

In this world it seems that Attention Deficit Disorder is on the rise.  While that may sound like a bad thing for society, you, the modern trail builder, can probably use this so-called “disorder” to your advantage.  It is a simple idea:  Make sure your trail ends on a strong point, because people have short attention spans, and will ride away remembering the end of the ride the most.

If you want your trail to be the most popular trail on the mountain, you should make sure that you give your riders at least three minutes of pure bliss, right before they return to the parking lot.  This error in thought may not occur in all of us, but most riders (myself included,) will remember the end of a ride the strongest.  If you get to the end of the ride exhausted, then your body will tell your mind that the trail you just rode was exhausting.  On the other hand, if the last minutes of the ride left you feeling exhilarated, then the body will tell your mind that the ride was exhilarating.  And you will believe it!

For most riders’ tastes, this means that you should probably end your ride with a nice, long, flowy descent.   I would guess roughly that the ratio of time spent climbing-to-time spent descending on your average mountain bike ride is somewhere in the area of 5:1 at best. That means 20 minutes of climbing will only get you about 4 minutes of descending.  On any ride, if you start and finish at the same spot, than the laws of physics would require that the elevation you climbed was equal to the elevation descended.  But that doesn’t mean it felt that way.

I’m sure we have all ridden those trails that felt “uphill both ways,” and if you are anything like the rest of us, you may have felt that for all that effort, there was no reward.  A five minute grueling climb followed by a thirty second downhill into another five minutes of grueling climb, will just feel like 10 minutes of grueling climbing!  In this example, no matter how fun the half-minute downhill was, it will not look like pleasure when sandwiched between two relative ages of suffering.

Fifteen steady minutes of fast, windy singletrack fun is enough to all but erase an entire hour of leg burning, lung pumping torture.  Riders will look back up at what they just came down with the glazed eyes of an adrenaline and dopamine high, and say, “That was epic!”

If your good, they will be so high that they will turn right back around and do it again!


Reward your riders with something nice.

As much of a reward the epic finish you are building will be, it should not be the only reason that people will go to visit your trail.  Because of varying levels of riding ability, and style, it is very hard to build a trail that everyone will enjoy.  The old adage stands, “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time.”  To address this, the best trails should contain some more universally accepted pleasures.

build a trail with sweet views, as well as fun ridingEveryone can enjoy natural beauty. Spending time with nature is probably the reason most of us began mountain biking in the first place.  Who among us doesn’t feel inspired when they have a scenic vista before them?  A nice viewpoint at at the top, after all the hard work is done, is a great natural reward that makes visitors to your trail feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in their efforts.

While you are doing the initial ground work laying out the trail route,  try to find and connect as many points of interest as you can.  The obvious things to look for are rivers, streams, canyons, waterfalls, high points with open views,  old growth trees, and unique terrain features.  I am sure you get the point.  Places that make people stop and linger on the trail will make it popular, and not just for mountain bikers, but other user groups as well.

Once the trail has been built, something to consider might be building benches or a railings to encourage people to stop at places on the trail that you believe are particularly beautiful.  Many riders can be so involved in their riding that they will ride past some sweet views without even noticing them. Those Hammerheads!


Be Consistent.

Don’t you just love that friend with the steady and predictable character?  The kind who you can always trust because they are unable to tell a lie, and you always know what to expect when you are around them?  The friend who needs nothing from you but for you to be yourself, and who always encourages the best in you?  Sometimes we don’t need any surprises, just a solid and dependable buddy.

Like our people friends, our favourite trail is one that we can trust.  The one that we can just be ourselves with, and makes us feel better about ourselves.  We bring that homey quality to what we are building by giving our trail a consistent and predictable character from beginning to end.  We speak and hear so much about flow, that aloof, indescribable trait that a trail either has, or does not.  Where aspects transition seamlessly from one feature to the next, rolling along in a kind of harmonious whole.  Flow is the difference between music and noise.  It is the character that all mountain bike trail builders are trying to create for their fellow riders.

But flow is not an innate quality of the trail and can not be built into it directly.  Flow exists only within that moment of time when rider-meets-trail.  Therefore, to create a flowy trail, we must assist in the creation of flow in the rider.  Although most of us have to fall into the state of flow ourselves, it doesn’t hurt to plan our trail in a way that minimizes any a stress, tension or fear.  Any thing that relaxes people, and increases their confidence in their own ability will go along way towards giving your trail a AAA “flow” rating!

Beautiful red colored bush on Rossland, BC's Seven Summits Trail in SeptemberBe consistent in your trail building. Choose a specific style of riding, for a specific level of rider, and consistently guide them down the trail from moment to the next.  Throwing in too many surprises may throw riders into doubt, moving them from the fun and flowing psychic state of peace, toward the tense and narrow minded “fight-or-flight” response.


“Obsessive-compulsive Disorder”

The best trail builders, bike mechanics and bike riders are perfectionists.  The small things are what set the best trails apart from all the rest.  Aesthetics are important, so when building and maintaining trails you should really mind the details.  Every stump, root, rut and rock matters.  Good trail builders are notoriously picky about their work.  And why shouldn’t they be?  When you live in an area with a large mountain bike scene, in an area dense with singletrack, you need to pay attention to the small stuff if you really want your trail to stand out.

Here is a tip: Build your trail wider than you think it needs to be.  A bike tire only needs a few inches to work with, and after digging you will find that most riders will be riding the same 8 inches or so of trail surface.  So why make it wider? (I recommend it be at least 30 inches wide, full bench cut).  Well, for one, this makes your trail much more sustainable, as riders will be less inclined to ride on the soft edges of the trail.  More important may be an increase in trail flow, by opening up the sight line, giving riders more line choices, and increasing overall safety.  But the number one reason for building your trail wider is that it simply looks better!

People like seeing that a lot of care and attention was put into the trail that they are riding.  Again it is important remain consistent and mind the details.  It may not seem like a big deal, and to be honest it probably isn’t, but If you leave one sketchy stump to navigate around on an otherwise super buff trail, people are going to pay a lot of attention to it!  Something like that would not feel out of place if it were on a technical, tight, twisty singletrack,  but its another story if the trail ahead and behind it had a faster, smoother character.

rider flowingdown the porcupine rim tail in moab utah, usaCare for the small stuff, and in the end your trail will ride smoothly, and bring a smile to many faces.  That feeling of completeness is hard to achieve, and in reality may take years, as trails don’t just build themselves overnight.  Some trail builders like to get a trail done, and then move on to build another one.  This is something I would try to avoid. Quality over quantity is a motto I try to work by.  Chances are that your local collection of singletrack already contains enough of these fly-by-night, lazily built trails because they are the easiest to make and offer instant gratification.

So give your mountain biking community the gift of quality.  Everyone will appreciate the effort you put in, even though the trail  you start today, may not be ready for the public to ride for a year or two or more.  Believe me, people will travel from hundreds of miles away to ride one truly great trail.  The same won’t be said about a handful of shitty trails, no matter how many miles of them you build.

Part 2 – How to Make Your Mountain Bike Trail Awesome! – Part 2




About BikeFAT 135 Articles
Mountain Biker, Trail Builder and Bike Tech


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