I’ll never forget the look on those peoples’ faces. They’d heard me coming before I even came into view, the scraping, skidding sound of my mountain bike tires sliding across the gravel as I slammed on my brakes. But it was too late. I had seen the corner coming, and knew there might be people around the corner. But I’d simply been going to fast, and instead of coming to a controlled slowdown or stop, I skidded violently, kicking up a cloud of dust and sending pebbles flying down the mountain. I was mortified—I had become one of them. One of those bikers whom hikers dread.
No, I hadn’t hit anyone, and nobody was hurt. But it didn’t matter—I was out of control, and the hikers’ expression showed that it was obvious. It had been enough to make them leap from the trail into the bushes, their eyes wide with terror. It was a turning point in my mountain biking life.
Not everyone loves to go fast. But some of us adore it. The wind in our hair, getting air off little drops and kickers. But those same things that seem like simple pleasures to us bikers can turn us into threatening menaces to other people on the trail. I’m a hiker, a trail runner and a mountain biker, so I’ve been in those other peoples’ shoes, too. Here’s what I’ve learned about having fun on my bike without striking fear and loathing into the hearts of everyone else on the trail.
Remember it’s your job to yield.
I’m not sure whether most mountain bikers don’t know this, whether they simply ignore it, or whether most hikers simply tend to move out of the way in fear anyway. But trail etiquette places mountain bikers dead last in the pecking order of who yields to whom. I didn’t make the rules, but I do try to follow them—it makes for a more pleasant day on the trail.
Know your limits—and check your speed.
It’s difficult to yield the right of way if you’re going so fast you can’t stop in time. Pay attention to the terrain ahead. If you can’t see around a corner, you have no idea what or whom might be in the middle of the trail right beyond your sight. It’s so easy to get caught up in the fun of going fast. Don’t forget how terrifying it would be to have a bike going that fast straight at you.
Aim to ride in the off hours.
The more crowded the trail, the more frustrating it can be to have to stop and go, pulling over to let a hiker or horse by every couple of minutes. One way to avoid the constant pullover is to schedule your bike rides when fewer people are on the trail. If fun is your priority, make it a point to leave a little later and pack a headlamp to finish in the dark, when you’ll probably mostly have the trail to yourself. Or vice versa, hit the trail before dawn and be wrapping up your ride while everyone else is just pulling up to the parking lot.
Pay attention to conditions.
In many climates, if there’s mud on the trail, mountain bike tires leave gnarly ruts that can take months to disappear. If you ride someplace like Colorado, where the soil vacillates between dry and muddy—unlike the loamy Pacific Northwest where organic matter helps keep trails together without washing out or rutting out—stay off the trail for a couple of days after a big rain or snow. It might seem like fun to splash through puddles and come home covered in mud, but if it tears up the trail for all the other users, it’s not very considerate.
Look for “bike only” trail days.
Some crowded trails even have alternating weekend days when either only bikes or only hikers are allowed on the trail. This takes the “who yields to whom” issue out altogether. Sometimes they’re even loop trails that only allow one-way traffic. That way you don’t even have to yield to other bikers going the opposite way.
Try out a bike park.
It might not be something you can do every weekend, but visiting a mountain bike park, whether it’s an urban park or a converted ski resort, is a fun way to completely let loose on the trail without being a pest to other trail users. Places like the Trestle Bike Park in Winter Park, Colo., are built specifically for flowing downhill, taking jumps and going fast. No hikers on the trail. No limits but your own.
Whether or not you’re a speed demon, your mountain biking affects everyone on the trail. It doesn’t take very much to really make a negative impression on a hiker. But it also doesn’t take very much effort to be considerate. A little thought goes a long way in keeping mountain biker-hiker relations on the up and up.
Hilary Oliver is contributing editor at Adventure Journal, outdoor adventure writer & doer and has her own blog, The Gription, where you can find articles about backpacking, climbing, mountain biking and more.