Five Trail Etiquette Essentials To Be a Mountain Biker

Words AJ Barlas
Photos AJ Barlas
Date Sep 15, 2020
Reading time

When I was first introduced to the wondrous world of mountain bikes, a few unspoken rules were quickly learned. The speed at which these were acquired was the result of mountain bikers being viewed as outlaws back then, forced to tread carefully while scrutinizing eyes watched. We wouldn’t dare step out of line, giving someone the chance to jump down our throats, and they would for even the slightest slip-up.

The increase in riders over the last decade has seen some less desirable commonalities rise to the top. The cost of bikes has gone down in that time, like we always told ourselves it would, when it was a more ‘mainstream’ sport. Oh wait, that never happened… The increased popularity of our sport has brought some positives, MTB is accepted in many communities around the world and even seen as an economic driver in some places. But growth never comes without some pain. I've been reminding myself about the details of trail etiquette lately and thought it was time for a refresher for both new and experienced riders.

Probably even the greenest among you may be somewhat familiar with these rules, but you may not realize how specific and vital these rules are.

Stop In the Middle of The Trail

This is just common sense. When you’re riding and having a good time, even the most experienced can slip up, forgetting to shut everything down in the middle of the trail. Don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing and forget about ‘getting in someone’s way.’ Focus on yourself and the fun you’re having, you deserve it. If you’re with friends, even better; stop and high-five, followed by a chat centre trail before moving on. Whenever you can, stop with your bike across the direction of traffic and to really earn brownie points among fellow riders, stop in front of a feature. They’ll thank you for it.

While stopped on the trail ignore any rider that comes down toward you (we’ll touch on this more below). If unable to ignore them, whatever happens, do not apologize. Everyone is out to have a good time so don’t let the passersby ruin your fun. At most, reluctantly move aside while making as little eye contact possible, don't even think to say hello. This brings us directly to the next point…

Avoid Jovial Greetings

It used to be easy to distinguish the newbies from the established riders but these days it’s getting harder. More experienced riders were grumpy pieces of work that barely grunt a greeting but now some of them appear happy, even showing their pearly whites from time to time. Newer riders used to smile and wave over-enthusiastically but have been seen avoiding eye contact more often.

Getting to the point; never make contact with another rider on the trail. No greetings of any kind are acceptable with riders outside your group and certainly no eye contact. You should take offence when receiving a greeting from a compromised rider and in an ideal world, you’ll ignore them. Returning greetings or stopping to chat with a rider should only be acceptable if you know them. When this happens, slowly come to a stop – in the middle of the trail (see point one) and quietly bicker about conditions, visiting riders, or any number of subjects. Be careful not to crack a smile and have a random catch it – it will only add to the current confusion among riders.

Make Your Own Lines

For years, riders have been bound by the constraints of a thin line through the forest; the ‘singletrack.’ This strategy was misguided and for years has robbed riders of their freedom. Mountain bike pioneers used to ride their clunkers down wide open roads and terrain – at minimum a doubletrack. The closest modern mountain bikers have come to our free-thinking predecessors was four-cross with some tracks under the forest canopy. But with its demise, our freedom took a back seat. Modern downhill racing has been slow to adopt the ride-free mentality, and don’t even mention cross-country. Thankfully, enduro has pushed us in the right direction of a free future with the ‘French line’ and riders everywhere are catching on. Strava has been incredibly helpful too and is perhaps the most persuasive at getting riders to go wherever they want.

The wide-open slopes that some freeriders ski their bikes down shows they get it too, and why wouldn’t they? They’re ‘free’ riders. But this mentality is needed beneath the canopy. Sparse forest floors are the perfect candidate for lines in every direction but truly surfing the loam is hard. Create new ’trails’ off existing ones and where possible, perfectly "T" into a pre-existing trail. It's absolutely fine to have the sharp merge done at speed and where possible send riders uphill onto another existing line. Forget about merging smoothly or slowing the rider before the junction.

While sparse forest floors are ideal, don't let dense undergrowth stop you. The determined will always find a line. If a full new ‘trail’ seems too hard, start with a small line around a feature or between two corners you don’t like, and go from there. Which brings us to our next point…

Ride Everything, Even if it Means Avoiding some Features

We’ve all been there. You’re ripping down a trail having a great time until you hit a difficult, technical feature. Riders of all levels encounter this scenario. It’s one of the worst things about mountain biking but it appears newer riders are going about this the right way. Rather than ruin your flow and potentially harm your fun, find a way to ride around the feature that’s troubling you.

In many situations, it’s easy to do. As stated above, start a new way around the tricky part so you can ride the trail without having to dismount, anywhere. Remember, everyone is out in the woods to have fun and ride their bike, not to walk. Some trail builders forget this and try to confine riders to a chosen feature. Don’t feel bad about correcting them, they may even thank you for the effort taken to establish another line they didn’t have the forethought to create.

Strive to be a Loamhound

Skiing had this character trait dialled decades ago but mountain biking is finally getting there. Everyone loves a powderhound and with the number of new trails being built, in part thanks to people following the Make Your Own Line rule, more opportunities are available. Whatever you do, find a way to access trails that are hidden and share it with all your ‘friends' on social media. Better yet, make sure to track your rides with something mainstream like Strava and doublecheck that your privacy setting is "Everyone." It will be an immense help to all.

If successful, more riders will be able to find more trails and the builders will create more lines to keep the cycle going. Some riders are so good at this they find and ride new trails before the builder has opened them. What’s that? No way, why would the builder be upset? You’re helping them establish the best line and they’ll have less digging to do because of all the traffic. To help the most, make sure you create a frenzy around the new trail, sending groups of riders in search of it. This is the fastest way to establish new lines and the quicker it’s blown, the sooner everyone can stop riding it and move onto whatever's the latest and greatest.

Bonus: Ride Down Multi-Direction Trails Fast & Don’t Give Way

In some locations, multi-direction trails work as main arteries to and from trailheads. A rider, striving to be the best mountain biker they can be, must go as fast as possible down everything, all the time, even if it’s a shared-use or multi-directional trail. Pin it down trails like these, even if there’s no Strava time to chase.

If someone gets in the way and especially if they’re coming uphill toward you, keep it pointed and stay focused on the trail beyond them. Rather than call 'trail,' 'track' or even 'Strava,' motion the direction you will pass. Remember they need to stop on the trail if they’re doing things right, so you may need to create that new line to pass. Do this a few times and you're on the way to creating a new trail that's easily found so it can be blown out quickly. And whatever you do, don’t thank them as you go by.

And if you follow these rules, you can be a real mountain biker!

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-4 Sean Chee ZigaK Kelownakona goose8 Kurt Adams maxc PeterO DancingWithMyself
Lynx .  - Sept. 15, 2020, 4:27 a.m.

Hey Al, while most would get the tongue in cheek/satire of this piece, it may be wise to add a small disclaimer at the end stating that this is in fact the opposite of how we should act and what we should do, just in case a n00b reads it and isn't that "enlightened" to know better :-\


+12 Tremeer023 Timer Allen Lloyd Andrew Major hotlapz Mike McArthur Karl Fitzpatrick Peter Carson Cr4w Jonathan Mahec ollyh PeterO DancingWithMyself Lynx .
Kelownakona  - Sept. 15, 2020, 6:25 a.m.

Really?! Please don’t AJ. There’s enough dumbing down in the media these days without having to apologise for and explain sarcasm.

+5 AJ Barlas Tim Coleman Kenhoekema goose8 Jonathan Mahec ollyh ZigaK
Cam McRae  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:32 a.m.

Thank you for saying that KK. if someone can’t decipher that, we may not be the best media outlet for them. Better for them to find out now.


+3 Pete Roggeman Angu58 Todd Hellinga
DMVancouver  - Sept. 15, 2020, 7:47 a.m.

I also agree that the message is understood.

That said, using terms like “loamhound”, even if tongue in cheek, risks glorifying poor behaviour that results in us not being able to have nice things. If you leave your Strava public, blab to all your friend on social media, ride straight into hidden entrances and ride soft trails in wet conditions, I have some terms other than “loamhound” to describe you. That unnamed trail is not your new Expresso.

+5 DMVancouver AJ Barlas goose8 Cam McRae Todd Hellinga
Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:39 a.m.

Might be time for a reminder piece from the Loam Ranger himself!


+5 hotlapz taprider Peter Carson Angu58 Sean Chee
Tremeer023  - Sept. 15, 2020, 4:52 a.m.

I was riding a well established mellow single track line (short trail on a small hill) in my local woods last week to discover a new feature.  Someone has created a gap jump about half way down the trail blocking the main line with no alternative 'chicken' line.  You now have to dismount and fight through a load of tree/bracken to get past and continue the line.  The run in and run out are both inadequate for the gap and I couldn't see any tyre marks on it.  

It was definitely built by mtb'ers, but they have effectively prevented at least 90% of people (if not more) from riding the trail!


+9 Cam McRae AJ Barlas Tremeer023 Pete Roggeman Tim Coleman Kenhoekema Peter Carson Todd Hellinga ollyh
Timer  - Sept. 15, 2020, 7:16 a.m.

What AJ probably forgot to mention is that gap jumps are always the best jumps. Ideal for beginner builders, you just need a ramp, a ditch and if you want to get real fancy, add a landing. Make the landing short to leave more room for the gap, that is what it's all about, right? They also need less material than tables, so you can build many more of them.

And if your new trail (see section 3) happens to have something it its way that you are too lazy to clear, just build a gap jump over it!


AJ Barlas  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:54 a.m.

Haha. Great stuff, Timer. The list goes on!


+3 taprider Cr4w Timer
Tremeer023  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:54 a.m.

Haha.  Your description of it is worryingly accurate.  Was it you?


+3 Cam McRae AJ Barlas Peter Carson
Allen Lloyd  - Sept. 15, 2020, 7:29 a.m.

You left out roost every hiker you see, even if they are in the parking lot.  Screw those non bikers ruining our trails :)


4Runner1  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:08 a.m.

Also, copy the hottest pro riders in the latest edits and lock up your rear tire for every corner. Then, after your ride, make sure your buddies know you drifted every corner you could find.

+1 LWK ollyh 4Runner1
Cam McRae  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:35 a.m.

The difference is that those hot pro riders are not locking up their rear tires. That’s real roost without brakes and fortunately (for the trails) most of us are unable to muster that sort of edge and pressure control consistently without soiling our shorts.


+3 Pete Roggeman Cam McRae ollyh
4Runner1  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:54 a.m.

Yep exactly my point.


4Runner1  - Sept. 15, 2020, 9:01 a.m.

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Tim Coleman  - Sept. 15, 2020, 9:25 a.m.

This is the key difference between skidding (locked up brake and not cool) and roosting / brapping / shralping / drifting / cutties (no rear brake use and super cool).


+2 ollyh ZigaK
rolly  - Sept. 16, 2020, 6:44 a.m.

Sarcasm aside, how is that not trashing the trail as well? If I saw any rider, pro or scrub, doing that on a trail I built, I'd cringe.

+1 ollyh
Cam McRae  - Sept. 16, 2020, 9:18 a.m.

A couple of ways. One is that very few riders can do it while everyone can skid. The other is that, based on my understanding, to do a cuttie etc you need to reduce friction and unweight your tires a little in order to allow the wheels to drift a little. It seems to me that skidding involves digging in your rear wheel and dragging the trail surface with you. These may be subtle differences but the odd occasion when I’ve been able to do this, generally by accident, it hasn’t felt like I was damaging the trails. If we’re talking about Brook MacDonald that’s likely a completely different story.


+1 ZigaK
Mammal  - Sept. 18, 2020, 2:24 p.m.

You can definitely destroy corners through drifting/cutties, especially if they are super dry or in disrepair. However, it's not usually to the degree of faux-drift skidding, and depends a lot on how aggressive the move is. See Chris Kovarik, as a perfect example. I do agree with rolly though, if it were a trail I built, I'd much prefer people properly setup into a corner and rolled through, to take the longevity of the trail/corner into account. Unless it were a race scenario, in which case you've probably already lost any battle w.r.t. trail longevity.

+1 ZigaK
MuscogeeMasher  - Sept. 17, 2020, 11:07 a.m.

Very true, and actual roosting or cutties are fun.  But, those facts don't blunt the adverse impact of the videos that the companies and people making a living off our sport are putting out without a second thought about anything other than their own personal self interest.  Has always seemed to me that the people for whom mountain biking is a hobby and means to earn a living should give more than the rest, but it always seems like they give less.


+2 AJ Barlas 4Runner1
Cr4w  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:53 a.m.

This comment has been removed.

0 Cam McRae chachmonkey Sean Chee mrbrett Kurt Adams maxc
wily  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:53 a.m.

Came here from Google News hoping for some actual etiquette advice as a beginner mountain biker.  This wasn't it. I get that it's a joke, but this seems to be a pretty popular article and maybe this jaded, bitter look isn't really what your publication is going for?  Or maybe it is?

+3 Cam McRae maxc ollyh
Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 16, 2020, 8:47 a.m.

Hi Wily,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Satire is tricky and you're right - as a beginner, it might be hard to take something away from this. Generally, our content isn't aimed at beginners, although that's just because we tend to stay away from the how-to stuff since it's done so much by others.

You did recognize it's a joke, so I'm assuming you also would have figured out that doing the opposite of these things in each case actually could be used as advice on etiquette. I can see how it may have come off as bitter or jaded but there is a lot of behaviour out there on the trails that violates common sense or respect for others which is hard to digest for those that have been at this for a while now, and that's the real message here. In general, if you're thinking of others and trying not to be a dick, you're starting off on the right foot.

Hope to see you again in here soon, and I'm also heartened to hear that Google news picked this one up.

+2 Metacomet ollyh
Cam McRae  - Sept. 16, 2020, 9:29 a.m.

Valid points Wily. Here’s a little something that might be more helpful and strikes a different tone.


+9 4Runner1 Tremeer023 Tim Coleman Timer Peter Carson AJ Barlas Cam McRae Todd Hellinga ollyh
Cr4w  - Sept. 15, 2020, 8:56 a.m.

Show precision by riding as fast and close as possible to other trail users. This will reassure them that you are a skilled rider.


+4 4Runner1 Peter Carson Cam McRae ollyh
Hollytron  - Sept. 15, 2020, 9:43 a.m.

You forgot to mention tools! Gotta ride with tools. Lots of these "trailbuilders" seem to get lazy and leave tons of roots in the trail. NOT GOOD! Roots are impossible to roost on and for sure kill the flow in between sick sick features. Yeah boi!


+1 Mammal Cam McRae Nologo
John Keiffer  - Sept. 15, 2020, 10:07 a.m.

I personally wish I hadn't read this. It's an April 1st kind of post at best. I'm disappointed, but nobody has to care.

-1 ZigaK
Cam McRae  - Sept. 16, 2020, 9:31 a.m.

We’re happy to hear how people feel about our articles John. Thanks for taking the time to let us know.


+4 Pete Roggeman Peter Carson Cam McRae Nologo
Greg Bly  - Sept. 15, 2020, 11:33 a.m.

Slide don't ride! 

Its way more fun to shralp corners than the boring method of slowing down before the Apex and speeding out of the corner. 

Never lend your tools or a tube to a stranger!  Leave them stranded it's a good lesson for them . Only you should have a good time. 

Don't stand in the middle of a trail . Leave your bike in the middle of the trail. That way people can see you have stopped. 

Any hints on how to dry my undies when I change in the parking lot?


+1 Cam McRae
Peter Carson  - Sept. 15, 2020, 2:26 p.m.

Maybe it is that I have been a long time paddler and it is expected there but I didn't realize changing in the parking lot was bad etiquette. Easy to have privacy with a towel and doors but if I have been offending people for the last decade and a half I should change that...


+2 Cam McRae Mammal
flatch  - Sept. 15, 2020, 7:52 p.m.

I think there’s somewhat of a difference between a parking lot and in front of someone’s house.


Mammal  - Sept. 18, 2020, 2:29 p.m.

Yep, and there's also a big difference between using a towel and being nonchalant about letting your shlong/bag hang out as your swapping into your gear. That said, if my (fictitious) young children had to view grown men disrobing in front of  their livingroom window every day, it would probably grow old on me pretty quickly too.


+3 Cam McRae Greg Bly ollyh
rolly  - Sept. 16, 2020, 6:48 a.m.

Undies dilemma solved:

Leave them hanging on a branch at the trailhead, right beside the dog-walker's poo bag.  Then on your next ride you can grab them and they'll be ready to go.

+2 Greg Bly Mammal
Cam McRae  - Sept. 16, 2020, 9:20 a.m.

Save on closet and drawer space!


+2 Cam McRae Nologo
Kos  - Sept. 16, 2020, 7:05 a.m.

Ride around features?!

Around here, people ride around bumps and roots.

+1 Kos
Cam McRae  - Sept. 16, 2020, 9:21 a.m.

Ugh. So disheartening to see that.


Kos  - Sept. 19, 2020, 6:29 a.m.

ANYTHING to shave a second off a strava time!


+2 AJ Barlas PeterO
Todd Hellinga  - Sept. 16, 2020, 1:58 p.m.

when using strava to show off all the loamers you know about, don't forget to title your activity something catchy like; "LOAMY GOODNESS", "New trail hunting", "sneaky sneaky loam" or similar to make sure everyone knows how plugged in you are are to new trails. be sure to include a selfie with the trail sign so no one forgets the name!


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