You are out on your favorite trail. The one that has all of the features you and your buddies have spent hours mastering. The trail you rely on to get your daily single track fix. You’re pedaling harder than you have ever pedaled before and riding almost perfectly. This very well could be the best ride you have ever had. Then while climbing that most technical and cardio intensive part of the whole trail, some Strav-A-Hole comes blasting down the trail completely unannounced. He yells at you to get out of his way as he barrels down the trail, killing all of your momentum and forcing you to walk the rest of the way up that climb. At the top you see a family hiking along and talking amongst themselves about how mountain bikers are so rude and are ruining these trails.
An interaction like that can ruin even the best of rides. You were not even the offending rider, yet you feel guilty just for participating in the same sport as him. That whole family for the rest of their hike would be on the watch out for “those inconsiderate and dangerous bike riders” and worse yet, they may just tell their friends all about how their little child almost “got run over and killed!” One bad rider makes us all look bad. Having recently had one too many bad encounters with cyclists who should know better, I decided that it never hurts to have a bit of a reminder on proper trail etiquette. I tend to remind myself of what it means to responsibly use trails at least once every ride season.
Fortunately the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) has come up with their own quick reference “Rules of the Trail” in order to ensure that everyone can enjoy multi use trails. I will go through the rules that they have and offer my own interpretation.
Ride Open Trails: This sounds self explanatory, however, it can get more complicated depending on where you live, and how far away you may be from a trail center or city. General rule of thumb is to not ride wet trail as it can damage the hard work people have put into the trails. As an exception to that, weather can vary around the world and it is considered acceptable behavior to ride certain trails regardless of weather conditions. When visiting a new area, or if you are unsure, it is advisable to check with local shops on what the riding restrictions based on weather may be. I have even visited places in the past where there is a designated rain day specific trail that can handle riders on all but the wettest of days. Only riding open trails also refers to only riding public trails. I have seen private property used as short cuts before and end up trampled by bicycles. That kind of behavior can create a lot of local animosity towards cyclists.
Leave No Trace: There is an old phrase that refers to not leaving a trace, “pack it in, pack it out”. If you like to have mid ride snack, make sure all wrappers and containers you brought with you are properly disposed of in an appropriate trash receptacle or carried back out with you. Nothing is more infuriating than riding a trail littered with Clif bar wrappers and energy shot packets. Part of what makes it so maddening is that you can generally tell which trash belonged to a cyclist and we should really all know better. Aside from trash, we also want to make sure that we do not damage the trails from just riding along. Cutting corners and switchbacks will over time damage the areas surrounded the trail and could even divert water in a very negative way rendering sections of trail unrideable. Skidding into turns and locking your brakes will also degrade a trail. A once smooth and groomed flow trail will quickly become a mess of potholes and blown out berms if you insist on dragging your rear brake around every corner.
Control Your Bicycle: Along with avoiding trail damage like the aforementioned brake bumps, you should also always be in control for everyone around you. Not paying enough attention or going too fast through a blind corner can have pretty serious ramifications. If you ever feel that you would not be able to come to a safe stop in a given situation, you are probably riding outside of your skill zone, or faster than the terrain dictates.
Yield Appropriately: This is in my opinion one of the most important rules. There are some pre established methods that tend to be universally followed unless otherwise directed. Cyclists should yield to all foot traffic unless on a designated bicycling specific trail. In regards to other cyclists the uphill traveling rider always has the right of way (downhill specific trails are obviously an exception). Something I have also encountered a lot of are horseback riders. In my opinion they should be treated just like foot traffic, always yield to them. I will even get off my bicycle and talk to the horse and the rider. I have found a lot of horses to be very scared of bikes and a frightened animal of that size can be very dangerous. Obviously all animals are different and you should talk to the rider to address the best and safest method in any given situation. Just because you have the right of way, does not mean you can just blast past anyone and everyone. You should still at least slow down enough to make a safe pass.
Never Scare Animals: Wild and domestic animals both can be easily startled. If you see a wild animal approach slowly and give it time to realize that you are there. This can give the animal adequate time to run away or at least decide you are not a threat. You can also have some run-ins turn dangerous very fast. I had an all too close encounter with a charging moose after startling her on a downhill trail. They are massive creatures and you do not want one coming after you. Bells or just a casually talking with your riding buddies are usually adequate enough to alert wildlife to your presence.
Plan Ahead: “Strive to be self-sufficient” is how IMBA describes this rule. Make sure your bike works properly and that you can at least fix it enough to get you home. Long backcountry rides get a lot longer if you have to hike your bike out all because you did not bring a spare tube. You should also always wear appropriate safety gear such as a helmet and potential have warmer clothes if you are riding in a place where the weather can have dramatic changes.
I tend to catch a lot of flak for making the rules a lot stricter than they are. My always yield (or at least slow down) approach to trail riding, is one that seems to irritate a lot of riders. And while I will admit that I am very strict with a lot of the rules, it is all for the greater good. The way that I look at it is that it makes a future for more cycling a possibility. If all other trail users see mountain bikers as courteous and responsible trail users, there will be more trail access in our future. And more mountain biking and or more trails are always a good thing.