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Wet Trails

You’re riding down you’re favorite trail, ’round a corner, and there’s a huge mud puddle in front of you. You’ve just driven who-knows-how-long to ride this trail and there’s no way you’re turning around. So what do you do? We’ve all been in this situation before, and chances are good we’ll be there again. Many experienced riders question the best way to handle this scenario. We want to help set the record straight.

The best thing to do is ride right through the center of the trail at a fairly slow speed. This keeps the damage to the trail at a minimum. If you ride around the edge, the trail will become progressively wider. Riding through at speed will displace more soil and water making the rut deeper. As responsible trail users, mountain bikers should always minimize our impact on the trails we use.

So when is it kosher to ride after it rains? There is a simple answer to this question. Never … and it depends. For those of you that are questioning whether to ride after a recent rain you should take into consideration the type of trail that you will ride and the landscape position the trail is on. Is it rocky? Is the trail along a ridge or in a river valley? Is the soil sandy or does it cling to your tires and brakes like velcro? What type of ecosystem are you riding in? If you live in Seattle or the UK, you can’t be expected to avoid the trails when they’re wet. You’d never be able to ride. In Southern California, the clay rich soil turns into a sloppy mess during the wet season severely limiting mountain biking opportunities. A general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t ride a trail after a rain.

Taking a more scientific point of view, we would not recommend riding a trail if your bike leaves ruts in the trail. Longitudinal ruts slow or stop water from running across the trail. This can lead to erosion if the water starts running down the trail. Water, not trail users, causes the majority of trail erosion. Check out the IMBA website. Trails that are located in low-lying or flat areas are especially susceptible to damage from riding during wet weather. Since the water doesn’t have anywhere to go, it tends to pool on the trail in low spots and other depressions. When hikers, bikers, and other trail users travel through these puddles, soil is displaced creating a deeper mud hole. As trail users avoid the mud, they tend to widen the trail from singletrack to small highways creating a huge eyesore and more than likely damaging flora and fauna. At this point, anyone who travels on the trail is responsible for the damage. If you are interested in finding out more about the physical and social impacts of mountain biking on trails, see this discussion on the Mountain Bike New Zealand website.

Now this doesn’t mean that all trails are off limits after it rains. Trails located on a hillside are less likely to hold water after a heavy rainfall, and therefore more likely to dry quickly. Extremely rock soils are also less prone to erosion and are fair game to ride even in the wettest conditions. Even more durable trail surfaces like exposed bedrock are perfectly fine to ride after rains. Mountain bikers should consider riding dirt roads if they feel that they must ride in wet weather. These compacted road surfaces are more durable than trails. You can get in a great ride, and potentially see some fresh new terrain. Another option would be riding the road bike or (gasp) taking the day off.

As bike riders, sometimes we just can’t scratch that itch unless we ride. Sometimes events get scheduled and must take place, rain or shine. If that is the case, it is essential that the trail design gets the attention that it deserves. We can make our trails more durable by bridging wet areas with a short boardwalk or utilizing rocks to make a raised surface trail through areas that are prone to staying wet. New trails need to be thoughtfully crafted with climate and ecological concerns and potential user interactions as key priorities.

From a trail advocacy point of view, riding wet trails is bad mojo. When other trail users see you pulling your bike out of your vehicle to ride a trail after it rains, there’s a chance that they’ll complain to the landowner or land manager. That information is filed away and can be used as ammunition for the next time a trail manager reconsiders whether a certain user group should be excluded from using the trail. Unfortunately the actions of a few irresponsible riders can ruin the image of mountain bikers in general. It is important for us to err on the conservative side when it comes to riding on wet trails. Some bike clubs go as far as posting trail conditions on their website to help keep trail users informed. Ultimately it’s up to individuals to make the right decision based on information that is available.

Another concern for mountain bikers who ride in wet weather is mechanical degradation. We routinely enjoy one of the most simple and efficient vehicles on earth. They have their limitations though. Multi-speed bikes, like the mtn. bikes we know and love, are quite vulnerable to gunk and debris building up in the shift system. When that happens, the bike won’t shift as it should. Grit in the drive system can also accelerate wear on the parts, leading to more frequent and costly repairs. We know that a clean bike is a happy bike. We also know from experience, that a lot of the folks that ride often in wet weather, lack the know-how to properly clean and maintain their bikes. Many of these folks are new to the sport. We also find, that as these riders mature into seasoned cyclists, they forego muddy rides and tend to their bike maintenance more often and more thoroughly. Perhaps bike rodeos for school kids or introductory skills clinics would be a good time and place for lessons on trail etiquette. This is where IMBA and its affiliated clubs around the country can help. We see time and again, that those who’ve worked on trails or have been introduced to folks in the know, generally share a common concern for trail conditions and ensured trail access.