The Unwritten Rules of Trail Building
What follows is general guidance on user built mountain bike trails. If you are building trails as part of a commercial venture or if you are looking for more specialist trail types such and BMX trails or tracks to be used for once-off competitive events then you will need to obtain more specialist guidance.
To begin with if you are active in an area there are some key steps you should take. Firstly, find out if you are the only bikers in the area or if there is already an established group that may already have arrangements worked out with local landowners. In some instances clubs and riders have spent years building relationships and establishing areas to ride. Please respect their efforts before engaging in anything that may prove damaging to these relationships.
Secondly find out who owns the land you wish to ride on. Some large landowners will have established policies and clear lines of communications, with other smaller landowners some investigating and phone calls might be required in order to figure out who owns what.
Once you have established who the right person is, approach the land owner or land manager and inform them of your intended activities. They should be pretty clear in telling you whether or not they will be supportive and what are the ground rules.
If you proceed to establish trails in an area, either without seeking permission, or carry on even after being refused permission, you are in no position to cry foul when your activities are discovered and your hard work goes to waste.
If and when you are putting trials in on the ground there are some key areas which always cause difficulty. The three main areas of concern to the majority of land owners are safety, sustainability and user conflict.
Sustainability and best practice in trail construction is a massive area in itself and one we will look at another time. User conflict is probably one of the quickest ways to run into trouble. Land owners do not want to find themselves having to mediate between differing user groups and will invariably just take the simple option of siding with the established users, which in the majority of cases will not be the bikers.
User conflict issues generally arise either through using established trails that are used by other users already or putting in new trails that intersect with the established trails. The key points are as follows:
- Please see the Rules of the Trail for guidance on how to conduct yourself when riding on established trails.
- Never under any circumstance interfere with, change or modify existing trails without the full permission of the landowner and the people who established the trails in the first instance.
- There are few things more hazardous that trying to modify an existing trail that is used by other user groups. Please don’t ever attempt to do this, we can guarantee you that it will not end well.
- Nothing will aggravate your fellow bikers more than having someone interfere with their trails. If you find a bike trail that you think could do with repair or ‘improvement’ then find the people who put it in and offer your services. If they are not inclined to take you up on your offer then please respect that.
- Trail intersections are particularly problematic, especially when a descending trail crosses either an access road or a pathway used by walkers / horses. Try and avoid this if at all possible.
- As far as is possible your trials should be designed to steer clear of areas popular with other users. You should try use the full scope of the site you have and minimise the physical impact the trail has on the area. As a simple example building big features in or near car parks will just draw the wrong sort of attention.
- If it is unavoidable then the intersection has to be very carefully managed. Sight lines should be as clear as possible for both the bikers, the other users and any traffic that may be on access roads. The bike trail should be designed to slow the biker to a very slow pace to ensure that the crossing can be made safely. If possible bring the bike trail parallel to the other pathway or road, before crossing, this is to maximise the visibility and the time both sets of users have to react to the situation.
- If the landowner permits, all intersections should be clearly sign posted.
- If you are riding in an area and user conflict issues arise it is invariably better to try and establish contact with the representatives of the other user group and work the issues out. Ignoring them or complaining to the land owner will generally not yield the best results. Identifying yourself as a responsible outdoor user and actively engaging with other users is often all it takes, as sometimes the point that causes the conflict is easy to resolve.
Safety concerns are paramount for most landowners. The safety of other users, the riders building the trails and other riders who use the trails. Here are some interesting lessons learned from other parts of the world:
- Ultimately if there is an accident the land owner is right in the firing line. It may be no fault of theirs whatsoever. But due to the nuances of our legal system it is very easy to build a case against them. Even if they are successful in defending the case it can be costly and hugely stressful. Their reluctance to engage with users is quite understandable.
- Bikers will invariably say that they are grown ups and will not go after a landowner in the case of an accident. In some of the landmark cases from other parts of the world, there are some interesting facts. In one the plaintiff was not the rider, it was his widow. In another it was not a biker but someone who fell into a hole which had been dug to get dirt for a jump. In just about all of them it was not the builder or anyone even remotely connected to them, they were inexperienced riders who found the trails sometimes years after they were built and did not have the skills to deal with what they found.
- In just about every serious incident a jump or feature of some description was involved.
There are some key points to bear in mind from this:
- Digging pits is dangerous, trying to hide them by putting some branches over them is even more dangerous. Just don’t dig pits. If needed take soil from banks and grade the edges so that they are safe.
- Spikes on trees are very dangerous, make sure that there is nothing in the vicinity of the trail that riders can catch themselves on.
- Wooden structures are particularly problematic from a liability perspective, also regardless of how well they where constructed they will degrade and ultimately become dangerous. They are completely unnecessary in the vast majority of situations and should be avoided at all costs.
- Under no circumstances hammer nails into trees. Apart from the impact on the tree while it is standing there are significant safety issues when the tree is felled and goes to a saw mill.
- Constructing proper jumps safely is difficult and should only be undertaken by the most experienced trails builders. All obstacles and jumps should be 100% rollable, and very obvious to the rider as he approaches. The rider should be able to see what is ahead and make an informed decision as to whether or not he is going to take the obstacle on. The rider should be able to change his mind right the way up to it and roll through it safely if he decides to do so. There should be no unpleasant consequences for not making the jump.
- Gap jumps are just bad news and should never been constructed on the main trail.
- Road gaps are particularly dangerous and should not be constructed full stop.
- Gaps over walking trails are both extremely dangerous and fundamentally stupid. Just don’t do it.
Trials do not have to be easy, but they do have to be safe and sustainable. If you and attempting to gain permission from a landowner to build trails or have been successful in doing so and want some further guidance on construction, please feel free to contact us. Or see: http://www.imba.com/resources/trail_building/index.html