Planning a healthy trail system

By Matt De Young


Specialized Bicycles pro rider Curtis Keene pitches in on a flow trail build day at Soquel Demonstration State Forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo by Etienne van Rensburg.

What makes a good trail experience for a mountain biker? Is it immersion in nature, technical challenge, a place to enjoy with friends, or simply a place to get a good workout? Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things for some, or just one or two of these components for others. These are things that must be considered when a land manager is considering building new trails. A well planned trail system should satisfy the needs of a diverse user group. It should provide options for beginners and options more fitting for intermediate and advanced riders.

A thorough trail builder starts off the process of trail design by assessing the purpose of the trail. Is this trail simply a connection between point A and point B? Or is this trail being constructed to deliver a specific experience? A trail intended for climbing should be built very differently than a trail meant to be descended. If a trail is intended to be multi-directional, compromises must be made to ensure that it will satisfactorily meet both needs. A trail that is to be ridden in both directions will need especially long sight lines, so that users will be able to see each other at a safe distance to allow passing.

Multi-use trails offer another set of design constraints. If bikes are to share the trail with hikers and equestrians, trail design should incorporate features to ensure all user needs are met and that different users can share the trail safely. Windy, narrow trails will keep mountain bikers speeds down, which equates to fewer surprises for hikers and equestrians. Periodic widening of the trail will allow users to pass safely.

Bike specific trails can take on a variety of different forms. Gentle rolling trails will provide beginners with a safe pleasant experience, while steep technical trails will provide a venue for experts to hone their skills. Trails can be designed with features that lend themselves to skill building such as banked turns and low consequence jumps or drops. Downhill specific trails might have high consequence terrain such as steep rock gardens, or large gap jumps, designed to test elite riders.

After considering a trail’s intended purpose a builder then must figure out how to use the terrain so that not only is the intended user experience created, but that it’s done so in a sustainable manner. A well built trail should need minimal maintenance. One of the biggest factors in trail wear is water. Water flowing on the trail will erode the trail surface, by transporting soil and carrying it off of the trail. The faster the water flows, the more soil is transported off the trail. To mitigate this, trail builders design their trails to slow water and to shed it as often as possible. Trails built with a lower average grade will keep water from running too quickly. A grade reversal, a change in the trail’s dominant grade, i.e. a descending trail turning upwards for a short distance, provides a means to stop water and shed it off of the trail. Grade reversals can be entertaining trail features for riders as well.

Another factor of trail wear is the user itself. Hikers, horses, and mountain bikers all wear down a trail by transporting dirt from the trail’s surface. Trail builders have lots of ways to mitigate this. If there is a soft wet spot in a trail, the surface can be armored with rocks. Sharp, blind turns, will cause mountain bikers to skid, so a trail builder could either figure out a way to open up the sight line around the turn, or create a feature before the turn to slow riders down so that they are not approaching a turn so quickly.

These are just a few of the considerations that trail builders must take into account when designing trails appropriate for their intended use. Starting off with comprehensive trail design is the best way to ensure that a trail can meet users’ needs. Next time you are out on your favorite trail, think about what makes it special to you, look for the features that make it fun, and for the elements that make it a lasting resource.

South Lake Tahoe’s Corral Trail offers riding opportunities for all abilities, from the young 'uns ...

South Lake Tahoe’s Corral Trail offers riding opportunities for all abilities, from the pint sized novice …

... to  the stylin' advanced. Photo: Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association (TAMBA).

… to the stylin’ advanced. Photo: Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association (TAMBA).

Check out A Votre Santé, compiled by Michele Lamelin, to learn how mountain biking trails benefit communities in a myriad of ways.