Build Your own Bike Trail!

Mountain biking. What would it look like with out singletrack trails? Would you still be a mountain biker? I’m pretty sure that I would not be! Luckily, all around the valley I call home, we are blessed by hundreds of Kilometers of sweet singletrack bike trail. What makes my particular home amazing, is that for the last twenty years new trails have been, and are being, built by the mountain bikers and bike community itself.
We are not mountain biking on hiking trails. We are not mountain biking on horse trails. We are mountain biking on mountain bike trails, which brings me to the first topic of how to build your own mountain bike trail. Ride mountain bike trails first.
The truth is, the more mountain biking experience you have, the better the mountain bike trail you will build. So before you get started with building any trail, please be encouraged to ride as many different trails as you can. The more trails you see and ride, the better understanding you will have of what works and what doesn’t. Reading terrain – the ability of being able to feel how what you are seeing will ride – is a skill that only comes from riding experience.
So that is my first advice, and I feel safe to assume that if you are here and really want some tips on trail building, then it is because you already have the vision, so this first step has already been completed! I look forward to going more in depth on the topic with you! Stick around together we will progress the sport of mountain biking by building some sweet singletrack. As my good trail building buddy Mitchy says “We’ll berm the world!”


Build it and they will come.

The trick is getting started.

So you have the vision! You know what you want in a bike ride. You saw what was lacking in your local trail network, and your new life mission is to fix it!
Where do you go from there?
The first thing you are going to need is a location for your new trail. There are a few things to keep in mind while searching for a location. The first thing is finding a place where we can work freely. For those wishing to build a “Legal” trail, that means a lot of talking to land owners and land area managers and the like. A whole book can be written on this. In fact an entire book has been written on this. Check out IMBA’s site.
If you plan on doing it “illegally” (which I would not recommend, although you would be surprised what you can get using the “do know, ask forgiveness later” philosophy!) At the very least, choose a location where you run the least likelyhood of upsetting any body else, and keep your project a little secret between yourself and a few trustworthy helpers. If in the end your trail is really good, you can probably have it legalized in the future. Perhaps your local bike club can help.
As mountain bikers, our mission statement is to build a quality trail. One that flows well, that is fun, that challenges ourselves, but can be enjoyed by others. It also needs to be sustainable, as we don’t want all our hard work going down the drain with the next torrential downpour!
These qualities can be built into almost any trail, in almost any place, so when choosing a location, we consider also where it is going from a simply aesthetic point of view. These are the things that make a trail popular to the masses. A nice view, dramatic scenery, open vistas, wildlife viewing opportunities, and unique terrain features all stand out to set your trail apart from anything else.
Got a location in mind now? Good! Now go out and scout some lines! This is in some ways the most important part of the whole trail. You should have a really, really good idea of where the trail is going to be layed before you lift a single tool. For help with the technical details, I very highly recommend you buy and study the IMBA Trail Solutions book. It is an amazing resource, and nothing I can tell you here will come close to being as useful and informative as that book has layed it out. Get it!
Then on to the next step…Tooling up!

Tools for trail building success!

have the right tools to get the job done.

Now that the planning phase is completed, (you didn’t rush it did you?) You can start outfitting yourself for a successful, though probably low paying career in singletrack trail building. I will share with you my list of tools that I use for most of my trail work, which you will probably use most on your trail too. I will number them from most-to-least used from my own experience, but depending upon terrain, the order you would place them may be different.
1) The most used tool in my arsenal is my folding hand saw. I have a small folding one in my camelbak at all times, they are useful for cleaning up branches and small windfall that is often encountered on a bike ride in the forest after a storm, but even when building a new trail, the speed at which it can be drawn makes it indispensable for hacking your way through the forest. It is easily stored in your pocket while you work and can be used for cutting overhanging limbs, and for cutting troublesome roots that have been exposed, quicker than you can usually chop them with your axe. I have successfully cut trees up to ten inches thick with a 6″ inch folding saw. It gets my vote for most important tool for any trail builder, or any one interested in performing a little trail maintenance while out on a bike ride.
2) Once the brush is all cleared, and its time to start digging, I always start by reaching for my trusty clay pick. My favorite one has a pick at one end and a scoop, about 6″ wide, at the other. Use the pick end to penetrate through the hardened ground and clay or rock, then use the scoop end to quickly move the dirt to where ever you need it. You can move an unbelievable amount of dirt with the scoop end, which is basically a little shovel with a handle at 90 degrees. If the ground you are working in is rockier, then you might need to spend more time on a more traditional pick-axe with a two or four inch blade on the other side of the pick.

3) Important tool number three is the mountain rake, commonly called a Macleod. This tool is the best for doing finishing work, however, if the ground is soft enough, you can almost build your entire trail using this tool. The Macleod is a rake with large, triangular, well spaced teeth, opposite a wide, square edged hoe. This tool can do a lot of side cutting and can move a lot of material if conditions are right. It also makes a great tamper to pack the trail surface with before you move on. A builder with good skills on the Macleod will make a beautiful finished product!

4) The fourth most used tool in my kit is probably the Polaski. The Polaski is a tool that basically has two axe heads, one that is parallel with the handle, and another that is horizontal with it (an adze). As an axe, this tool can cut through any wood. It is especially worthy for grubbing and cutting roots out of the ground. If you are going to be cutting whole tree stumps out of the ground, then this tool is necessary.

5) The tool I ranked number five is the chainsaw. I know that for many trail builders, the chainsaw would probably rank number one on this list, but I honestly don’t use it too much. There is likely no faster way to cut trees out of the way, but I like to work my trail into the natural landscape as much as possible, which means not falling a tree unless absolutely necessary, which is rare. Sometimes a very large tree will come down across the trail, and a chainsaw is the only easy way to clear it, but there are not many logs that cannot be cut by hand. I like to leave my tools up on the mountain, and almost always ride my bike to the trail to work, so carrying a chainsaw is just plain inconvenient. If there are multiple trees down on the trail, I will often skip past them and work in between, so that when I am done, it takes just a quick trip up an almost finished trail to cut them all at once. (The chainsaw, to me, also kinda ruins the peace!) Use one if you want, but realize that it isn’t as necessary as most people seem to think.

There are many other tools you might need. A brush saw, (a glorified weed-wacker,) will make really quick work of the brush growing in from the sides of the trail. A rock bar, sledge hammer, or wedge will be needed if you are building a section of trail through very rocky mountain side. A come-a-long winch can be a lifesaver when it comes to pulling out large tree stumps. Again, i recommend the IMBA Trail Solutions Book if you want more technical details on the tools and how to use them.

A few good trail building partners, each with a tool in hand, can whip up world class singletrack faster than…well, faster than you can by yourself. Work safe when in the presence of others, sharp tools, rocks and trees can add up to someone getting hurt if there are any lapses in attention!
Get equipped and get building!
Next installment…Mastering the Art.

The Wizard of Dirt

Mastering the art of trail building.

Sorry for indulging in the cliche, but I just can’t help it. Building trails is art. Your axe and pick are your brushes, and the dirt is your canvas!
Try, as you build, to put as much of yourself in the trail as possible. Feel the terrain. I mean really feel it. Whatever passion you have for the sport will be transfered directly into that trail. Not only must you love the sport of Mountain Biking, but you must also have a passion for trail building. A trail builder who is only building the trail to ride it is likely to rush the job, take shortcuts, and leave some things a bit unfinished. The best trail builders tend to be perfectionists, perhaps even a little obsessive-compulsive. They will be bothered by the slightest gap in trail flow, and will fuss over the tiniest bits of dirt. You will probably never hear these types say that the trail is “done” or “finished”, because in their eyes there will always be a section of trail that can be just a little bit better. Complete re-routes of trail are not ruled out, if there is a problem to be solved. No great artist ever wants to see their hard work fall apart, so they watch after every rain storm, and observe every change in season, to correct any danger they see of trail erosion.
It is probably an understatement to say that trail building takes patience. One can expect to spend months or even years designing, building, tweaking, and maintaining their trail. Having help from others can be very important toward getting the job done in a reasonable time frame. You can not underestimate the benefit of just having another pair of eyes, looking at the trail from a riders standpoint. There are simply some things that one person will be blind to, that to another will appear obvious. Take advantage of other riders inputs, they will help expand your awareness, and in the end aid to creating a trail that can be enjoyed by many more people than just yourself. However, keep in mind that having to many acting project managers can result in a discordant end result. As compromises are made to accommodate the expectations of more than one individual, there is a danger of the trail loosing its natural, unanimous flow.
In wrapping up this installment, I would like to urge all prospective trail builders to remember one thing:
Don’t let your excitement of riding, overpower your desire for building trail. For the great artist, the performing of the art itself is where the enjoyment is found. Likewise, for the great trail builder, the activity of trail building should be an enjoyable end in itself. The fantastic riding that is had after the building is done, is just a trophy. I really hope that this article will be some sort of inspiration to somebody out there, and the sport of mountain biking is progressed by what they accomplish.

Happy Trails!

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

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