Digging COVID: Four Rules to Build By

Words Ryan Kuhn
Photos Vince Boothe
Date Jul 15, 2020
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I don’t “dig” COVID-19, but in the context of unbridled motivation, this pandemic has had an unpredictable and positive outcome; people are digging trails, and I dig that.

I have been building and maintaining trails for as long as I can remember, from the small rut track and plywood jump in my backyard as a kid to the freeride flow trails we love to fear. I have helped establish mountain bike trail societies in Golden and Kamloops, and I’ve served as a board member and president of the society in Rossland, British Columbia, where I live. This is all to say, I’m getting old.

The devastating impacts of the global pandemic are saddening, but one thing it has given us is time and isolation, two key ingredients to building mountain bike trails. In Rossland, the sheer number of people with passion and shovels in hand is remarkable. From digging trails out from snow to raking, sawing, and packing berms, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s undeniably awesome, but it can also expose naiveté.

Ryan port2.jpg

I say this to bring attention to a few rules that are worth following for newly-aspiring trail tweakers and freeride aficionados:

Many mountain bike destinations have well-organized volunteer societies that build trails and maintain extensive trail networks. Here in Rossland, we have a full-time trail manager and a seasonal trail crew, and sometimes two if trail funding is available. When the snow melts, they are the first out there with chainsaws, Pulaskis and Macleods. We rely on them to dutifully groom and open up the forests for our much-anticipated seasonal cycling shift.

However, this year was markedly different. Unemployment, self-isolation, working from home (and trail); the number of enthusiasts out in the dirt with rolled up sleeves and loam under fingernails has been inspiring. The enthusiasm is exciting to see, but it’s not always in the most beneficial or ethically sound manner.

Trail building has rules, written and unwritten. There’s generally accepted standards (for better or worse) and guidelines established by local landowner agreements, but this new found enthusiasm has meant a lot of people doing things their own way, and that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes unbridled enthusiasm can wrinkle relationships and risk the trails themselves.


The point is, groom to your heart’s content, but carefully consider before altering someone else’s vision...

I will admit to not always playing by the rules. Until relatively recently, one of the only ways to get a trail built was to dig it and beg for forgiveness afterwards. But in British Columbia these days, government land managers are more amiable, private landowners have a new level of trust, and for the most part it’s possible to turn a dream line on the map into reality. So much so, that going “rogue” can be counterproductive.

I say this to bring attention to a few rules that are worth following for newly-aspiring trail tweakers and freeride aficionados:


Don’t Modify Established Trails

You may not like it, but if you didn't build it; that doesn't matter.

Builders should not significantly change or modify well-established trails. There’s of course the more recent concern around dumbing down trails, which I wholeheartedly support, but this is more to the rad-ifying of existing trails. Chances are, the trail was either purposely built by a professional crew or lovingly crafted by a group of volunteers with an intended experience. By carving a straight line through a chicane, reshaping jumps, or berming up that old, interesting corner you love to nail but rarely do; these things alter the character of a trail. The point is, groom to your heart’s content, but carefully consider before altering someone else’s vision.

Ryan port1.jpg

Get Approval

Renegade trails are no longer cool.* With a little time and perseverance, it’s not hard to get approval to build a trail, at least not in BC. In fact, building illegal (and highly visible, duh!) trails can actually compromise access to the network as because it pisses off land managers and private owners. So either make sure it’s well out of the way or get involved with the local trail society and do it legit. For those who would say I’m a hypocrite, you’re right. But I'm a hypocrite that is excited now that we’re finally in a time when mountain biking isn’t a crime.

*Clearly where you live and ride is a critical component in this equation. - Ed.


Don’t Expect Beer

Trail building doesn’t get you beer. In my decades of digging in the woods, I’ve heard lots of compliments as people ride by. That’s nice. But trail building at heart says back in two ways;: the absolute passion and effort that goes into your experiential art and the joy of hearing people hoot and holler as they ride through the woods. In the end, it’s about self-fulfillment and other’s happiness, not kudos…I can count on one hand the number of thank-you beers I’ve been handed, and I’m ok with that.

Builder buddy w beer.jpg

Buy Them A Beverage

This Covid thing stinks. But it has brought some unexpected positives, and trails are one of them. People are living and staying closer to home. They are reassessing what is truly important in life. They have a new passion for what they love and, for many in the mountains, it’s our trails. Naturally, when you have time and love, you want to give back. I applaud everyone who has headed into the woods with shovel in hand. Just remember the sore backs of the weirdos that made our trails too.

And maybe buy them a beverage.


This article was originally presented by Nobl Wheels and can be seen in its original form here...

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+3 AJ Barlas jahosafats Pete Roggeman
Rob Gretchen  - July 15, 2020, 5:21 a.m.

Nice words Ryan!!   Great perspective and introspection.


+4 AJ Barlas Cam McRae mike Pete Roggeman
cbennett  - July 15, 2020, 7:18 a.m.

"it’s not hard to get approval to build a trail, at least not in BC."

This may differ between forest districts but on Crown land in the Squamish forest district (Whistler, Squamish, Pemberton) the application process currently uses the trail environmental screening tool (TEST). This is a 46 page fillable PDF the requires the applicant to cross reference different environmental layers through iMAP after uploading a shapefile of their GPS track.

I'm not arguing against getting approvals for trails, just that the current process is a significant barrier to entry.


AJ Barlas  - July 15, 2020, 8:06 a.m.

Last I heard, the time for approval put a serious damper on the motivation of volunteer builders too. Do you know if the waiting time in the Squamish area is still really long and slow, Curtis?


+4 Niels Pete Roggeman ZigaK AlanB
Cooper Quinn  - July 15, 2020, 9:45 a.m.

It takes a while, and RSTBC is chronically and critically underfunded. CB can speak to more specifics as we don't really do much S56/S57 stuff down here. 

But like... lets get past this whole instant gratification thing. Does it suck that your trail application may not get approved for 6 or 12 months? Sure. 

...if you aren't even committed to it for that long, how are you planning to maintain a trail that now exists indefinitely?


TonyJ  - July 16, 2020, 9:12 p.m.

Cooper is right, if you don't have the patience to wait for a permit to come through, you will never have the follow through to maintain a trail that you have built.

Best choice for people like this, is to get involved with maintaining existing trails, either through your local trail advocacy group, or hook up with some builders. If you find the right group and work with them, then you might have the opportunity to help build a new trail, offer some input into the trail design..... 

There are very few new trails being built each season, so to think that you can just rock up thinking it's your turn, well, that would be delusional.


cbennett  - July 15, 2020, 6 p.m.

Waiting time is currently over a year and a half for an approval (or rejection).


AlanB  - July 17, 2020, 8:51 a.m.

Sigh. 13+ years and still waiting for Cypress.

Here's hoping 2021 will be the year we finally get authorization for a reasonable start on the trails.


+5 Cam McRae Todd Hellinga Pete Roggeman Nouseforaname AlanB
jahosafats  - July 15, 2020, 8:52 a.m.

Ryan here (author of this piece). This is a valid point and I do think approvals vary by region and land manager discretion. BC's trail policy has been all over the map (pun intended). Over the years we've gone from resistance to acceptance to approvals to provincial MTB trail tourism/promotion. That said, trail approval is always a moving target and changing. Recently, there seems to be more resistance again, concern about trail density, and more resistance from First Nations in the absence of BC getting its act together regarding treaties. As a volunteer trail builder, the process and wait are a barrier but can be overcome. Key is to work with you local trail society, of course.


+2 mrbrett Pete Roggeman
Cooper Quinn  - July 15, 2020, 9:43 a.m.

Sure. But... there *should* be barriers to entry. Just because you have a pair of pruning shears, a rake and an insta account doesn't mean you're a trail builder. 

There's a process. Yes, sometimes it takes a long time. That's not an excuse to just wave middle fingers and do burnouts to the next fall line you scouted. 

(I know you know all this, of course).


mike  - July 15, 2020, 9:56 a.m.

Those out pruning and raking. Safe true builders tons of time!!! Check out C.U.N.T. at Bear most Tuesdays.


+2 mike AlanB
Cooper Quinn  - July 15, 2020, 10:16 a.m.

Oh, not referring to people pruning and raking existing trails. That's great!


+1 AlanB
Cooper Quinn  - July 15, 2020, 9:40 a.m.

I'm with this guy.


+1 Pete Roggeman
mike  - July 15, 2020, 9:48 a.m.

BC has a new guy looking over stuff. They are taking longer and are stricter than they where in the past. There are 2 hills in the valley that have been waiting for Section 56. Projects require sketches and drawings of structures and better descriptions than before. In some ways it,s overkill and someways it,s the right thing to do. I hope to get a few more sessions in with the crew. I,m relocating this fall so time for a new spot and building buddies.



+2 Pete Roggeman Greg Bly
jaydubmah  - July 15, 2020, 11:51 a.m.

This is a great article. For those of you who feel motivated to modify a trail beyond it's original intent (ie, dumbing it down), please STOP. Even if you feel it's in the name of safety, etc - your perspective is wrong. 

Just because you can't ride something, doesn't mean that others cannot - and there are a lot of riders out there who look forward to figuring out these challenges. 

To frame this arrogance in perspective, it would be like a 5.10 climber showing up at a crag and gluing holds onto all the hard routes that they couldn't do. Not cool.


+2 Pete Roggeman AlanB Mark Greg Bly
Cooper Quinn  - July 15, 2020, 5:31 p.m.

Um, just to clarify, there's absolutely a lot of trail work that needs to be done in the name of safety. I think I'm following your train of thought, but... yeah. Just wanted to clarify. 

Its also worth noting that 'safety' can mean different things especially as trails change: eg if a feature on a blue trail has degraded to the point where its potentially a black feature, you've got a giant liability on your hands without either 1) changing the rating and signage for the entire trail, or 2) "dumbing" the thing back down. I think that's what you mean by 'original intent'. 

What the Shore often sees is people latch on to a particular snapshot of a trail, at a particular point in time. If trail work modifies this, suddenly its 'dumbing it down', when in reality it may actually just be returning it to an earlier state. Or, in many cases here, its original state was a loamer, and the whole thing was way easier when it was first built. 🤷 

Or in a very recent case, we're catching flak for re-armouring a section of trail, that is now an eroded trench.


+1 Pete Roggeman
jaydubmah  - July 15, 2020, 7:26 p.m.

Hi Cooper - thanks for writing! I totally understand there are situations where a trail needs to be modified in the name of safety. I just want that work done by the people that created the trail / or an actual trail organization that sees the big picture.

I'm based out in the Bow Valley (as opposed to the shore), and there's been too many incidents of random riders who feel they are entitled to modify a trail to their liking.


0 AlanB Greg Bly
Cooper Quinn  - July 16, 2020, 8:54 a.m.

Oh totally. I was like.... 99% sure I was reading you right, but just wanted to clarify/elaborate. 

Risk is part of why a lot of us ride bikes - that's the fun. But minimizing unexpected or unnecessary hazard is important.


Greg Bly  - July 18, 2020, 7:52 a.m.

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