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I am a mountain biker and a hiker, and I love both activities very much. Recently, while biking on a shared single-track trail, I came upon a group of hikers. One hiker began a discussion about how we're ruining not only the experience of the trail for them and other hikers, but that we were in fact ruining the trail itself by riding our bikes in the first place. It has always been understood by bikers that riding trails while they're very wet and/or not properly groomed can cause ruts to form and overall just contribute to screwing up the path and the area around the path in general. However, when the trails are dry and clearly intended for hikers as well as bikers, due to their grooming status, my friend and I couldn't see any reason that riding our bikes would cause damage to the trail.

My question then (not to do with the interactions/opinions of hikers and bikers with each other) is:

Do bikes actually impact hiking trails in a significantly negative way? If so, how bad is it? Can anything be done to solve this without restricting trails to hikers only?

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  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I figured that most of the multi-use trails were put in place by mountain-bikers, as it often seems like they're so well designed for it. And I'd like to think that I follow the rules and respect others on the trail as well as I should. Hopefully a little better even, lol. Thanks for the perspective!
    – Flats
    Jul 9, 2021 at 21:14
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica totally agree, which is why we had dismounted when it was clear they didn't intend to leave the path in this encounter, I just hadn't experienced such a profound reaction and follow-up discussion before, as mostly it's just a look of disdain or nothing at all. (a vast majority of the time, a friendly smile and a greeting honestly, which is what I do when hiking and I step off the path to let a biker or a faster hiker pass)
    – Flats
    Jul 9, 2021 at 21:41
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    There are a lot of whiny people out there. I'd just ignore these busybodies and keep on cycling. Not worth the hassle of even bothering to respond to them verbally. Jul 10, 2021 at 21:02
  • bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/83437/… Backlink, cyclists have the same question but the other way around.
    – Criggie
    Apr 11 at 20:44
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    @Criggie Its always interesting reading something from the other person's perspective. Hopefully what we can take from this is that some people are just grumpy, and it's better overall to just work together in situations where the two activities collide :)
    – Flats
    Apr 11 at 20:48

5 Answers 5

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Answer from a background of part-time trail maintenance, focusing solely on physical damage to trails, rather than interpersonal interactions. All trail users, including hikers, bikers, equestrian users, and motorsport users cause degradation of trails; it is simply a matter of degree. In my experience, the ranking of impact is roughly hiking < biking < horses < motorsport. Mountain bikes have the following impacts (especially in comparison on hikers):

  • In comparison to the static weighting/unweighting of walking, mountain bikes often skid when braking or cornering aggressively. This rapidly wears away the trail surface, leaving dusty ruts and loose rocks. The degree of this effect can greatly vary depending on the conditions and geology. Over time, this tends to result in a deep rut and subsequently wider trails as all users try to avoid the rut. To counteract this, aim to ride smoothly and under control, avoiding skidding whenever possible.

  • When faced with a water bar or steps, many mountain bikers cut around them. This results in arms race between trail maintenance crews building ever wider water bars and mountain bikers widening the path around them. It can result in somewhat comical situations of a narrow singletrack trail with periodic 8ft wide water bars. To counteract this, always ride directly over water bars and learn to bunny hop. Help respect that a trail maintenance crew (often composed of volunteers) carried in tools and perhaps even lumber to build that water bar in order to improve trail drainage and stability.

  • The contact patch of bicycle tires is significantly smaller than that of a hiking boot, resulting in a higher pressure at the rubber/trail interface. This causes more trail wear, especially in muddy or dusty/sandy conditions.

  • Tire rubber tends to wear off on rocks, marking them black.

  • As a general rule, bicycles cover many more trail miles than a hiker in a typical outing. A 20mi ride might be an afternoon outing on a bike, while the same trail would be an all-day endeavor when hiking. This combination of more user miles and greater impact per mile results in more trail wear per user day. There isn't really a way around this, it's simply the nature of moving more quickly on an energy saving vehicle.

None of these qualify as "destroying the trail" per se, but it is important to recognize that a mountain bike causes more damage than a hiker, especially when aggregated over the total number of user miles. One should aim to be a steward of the sport and of the trail by riding smoothly, riding in appropriate trail conditions, minimizing interpersonal conflicts (always slow and dismount when respectfully passing other users per the yield triangle), and volunteering for trail maintenance efforts.

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    Love the input from someone with personal experience on trail maintenance. Especially the caveat that biking trips are usually longer and cover more trail than hiking trips. I'll be sure to take your suggestions into account, especially the mention of water bars. It's something I think a lot of people ignore, or just forget to think about. +1 from me for sure.
    – Flats
    Nov 17, 2021 at 13:58
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As a hiker, rather than mountain biker, I'd be careful about taking hikers' words for it. In Vancouver's North Shore mountains there are tons of mixed-use trails, many initially put in place by mountain bikers. Doesn't stop hikers from repeat whining in local media. Me? I occasionally run/walk these trails, so happy someone put them down and I find looking at cyclists fun to watch.

Mind your actual actions and the actual conditions, don't crowd hikers and sloooow down in low viz areas, esp going downhill.

Most of all, stick to trails that are signed for mountain bike use (not just ones you think should allow for it).

Otherwise, ignore the occasional curmudgeon. Well-behaved cyclists ain't an issue.

Bit of extra perspective for obnoxious anti-cyclist behavior in this area.

On other hand, keeping in mind with your edited out bits of your question: end of the day, if you really do get too close to hikers, esp elderly/childen, while riding a 30# mountain bike, fully protective-geared, sympathy will turn against you really quickly and too many incidents may cause review of mixed use trail status, so take the high road, dismount, walk around them. Yes, even if they are a******s.

To be very clear: make sure you have an open mind whether or not the cycling is deteriorating the trail. In my area, the parks are well looked after, the cycling community is responsible, does a lot of trail maintenance and the terrain supports this type of use. That may not be the case in your area.

My point was that a small minority of hikers can become very vocal and bossy about what should and should not be allowed in their wilderness. As far as the "incident" goes, people who refuse to let faster people go by on a narrow trail without a good reason are not people I'd want to hike with as it displays a basic lack of manners.

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We are hikers and we just finished hiking the Colorado trail (a long-distance trail in the USA).

About half of the Colorado trail is shared between hikers and bikers and the other half is hikers only (the bikers take a detour). So we got a very clear first-hand experience of what impact bikers have on the quality of the trail itself.

The negative impact of biking on the quality of a shared hiking/biking trail is real and dramatic.

The sections of the trail that were hiker-only where very nice: narrow and smooth.

The sections of the trail that were shared between hikers and bikers much rougher, completely torn up by the bikes with lots of loose soil and loose rocks everywhere. Also, there was often a deep rut in the middle of the trail that made hiking difficult. Finally, both hikers and bikers often tried to avoid the most torn-up section by walking/biking around them, making the trails much wider.

I know you only asked about the impact on the trail itself, but there is also a safety aspect and annoyance aspect. Bikers tend to go downhill very fast and it is difficult for them to make a timely stop when they run into a hiker unexpectedly.

I have nothing against mountain biking: it is a great activity. But my personal opinion is that everyone would be better off if bikers had a dedicated track, separate from the hikers track.

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  • I hadn't thought about the widening aspect of the trail, that's definitely something that I agree with you on, even if I don't really agree that the soil gets torn up by the bikes. It's been my experience that most all bike trails are rather packed down and smooth except in areas where there is pooling of water or significant mud. Even so I think you make a good point, especially in that last sentence. Perhaps it would be better off if they split the hiking and biking trails all together. (But kept them close :) so there can still be healthy and friendly interactions) Thanks for the answer!
    – Flats
    Nov 1, 2021 at 13:09
  • Trails are different — you may have completely opposite experiences, and both would be real. Even in the same region, there might be trails susceptible or resistant to erosion.
    – anatolyg
    Nov 18, 2021 at 10:57
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I believe this answer might open up a broader perspective. I am from India where there aren't many (any, if at all) biking trails as such. However, there are plenty of hiking trails.

I have been trekking for about 15 years now so I think I might add to the opinion of the hiker you received. I have done little bit of mountain-cycling as well. I come from the place where most of the trails are not maintained, those are more-or-less left to nature. So most of my thoughts may not be applicable to well-maintained trails.

Talking about the aspects of structural damage to trail, I can imagine that the frequent braking would loosen up the soil to a considerable extent. Most of the trails I hike through aren't too wide and clear. If this trend of sharing trails increases, then obviously a narrow pleasant trail will have to be converted into a slightly broader trail, natural steps might get converted into small ramps made of soil. We might have to clear out the small (but large enough to sit on) stones from the trail. These stones help hikers to rest for a minute :-)

But hey, hiking is not just about walking on trails, right? We have to consider the impact on other aspects. If such a trail is frequented by mountain-bikers then I can imagine the kind of disturbances it might cause to birds forcing them to go away and insects would get rare sightings than what we get to see as we just walk.

The biggest negative aspect of sharing a hiking trail with moutain-bikers would be the caution required to be followed.

I just see this as footfall in certain areas of world are already a problem, a mixed crowd of hikers and mountain-bikers would be another trouble.

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    An interesting perspective, thank you! @WedaPashi
    – Flats
    Jul 11, 2021 at 0:38
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The problem is not just whether the trail is maintained or not. Usually people walking press a little bit the ground and over time a hard layer is formed on the surface, bicycles often have the opposite effect. It depends on the type of soil, on the humidity on the amount of stones and so on, many variable influence how easily it is compacted and how easily it will be broken by the tyres of the bicycles. So the opinion might change from trail to trail. The best thing you can do is walk over a trail at least once before cycling over it and judge it by yourself.

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