Some areas of the world have mountain bike trails that are closed when wet. Have you ever wondered why? We know it’s a real drag when you want to ride and all the local trails are closed, and it may be tempting at times to go ahead and ride anyway. This may be doubly-tempting when it’s been a day or two since the last rain storm, so surely the trail is good enough. “What’s the worst that can happen?” you might ask.
Here are our top reasons why you should be patient and wait until the trail steward opens the trail back up after it’s gotten wet.
1. Learning About Soil Types
Up in the Pacific Northwest or in many UK locales, the soil is loamy and deals with water extremely well. This isn’t true for all soils, particularly soils like we have here in much of North Texas. The soil around here is mostly clay, so rather than absorbing the water it turns into something like what you’d find on a potter’s wheel—thick, sticky, and highly shape-holding.
So, problem number one with attempting to ride a wet, clay-based trail is that the mud will cake your tires so quickly and completely that your ride will be over in less than a minute. And if you think you can easily scrape that mud off with your shoe or a stick, think again. This kind of thick clay pretty much has to be blasted off with a water hose and sprayer.
The larger problem is trail damage. Again, unlike loam, wet clay doesn’t sink back down level with the surface around it. Instead, it tends to retain the shape of whatever it last came into contact with—your shoe, your tire, your dog’s paws. This means that once the trail drys out, that clay is going to harden into that same shape, deforming the trail surface to create ruts.
Those who ride wet trails and cause such damage are quick to cry out, “Why don’t we just pave the trails then? This is called mountain biking for a reason. It’s not supposed to be smooth and easy!” Well, that person is not only a selfish turd who thinks the trail is only there for their own personal enjoyment, they’ve also never shown up for a trail work day to find out how hard it is to bust those dried ruts, nor do they care that those ruts contribute to erosion of the trail, destroy the trail’s flow, and cause others riders to crash.
2. Eroding the Trail
Guess what? Trails themselves are not (typically) natural occurrences, so their very existence can lead to erosion issues if not built and maintained properly. Proper care is not only the responsibility of the land manager and trail steward, but is shared by all of us who bike and hike those trails.
In the case of ruts, low spots are created on the trail that trap water that would otherwise naturally run off. Over time, this further deepens and widens the ruts to form even wider canyons that can more easily throw even seasoned riders over their bars. Water retention also contributes to erosion of the trail, increasing the longterm damage done.
In addition, less-skilled riders will avoid these ruts by riding around them—sometimes off of the trail completely if necessary—which leads to another problem.
3. Keeping it Singletrack
When riders naturally take easier routes around ruts and gouges the trail is widened over time. What was once a nice loop of singletrack becomes a wide mess that can not only destroy the flow of a trail, but can endanger the surrounding environment.
One of the selling points of trail building to local, county, and state governments is that trails have low impact on the environment. This is only true when hikers and riders stick to the trail. When we cut our own alternate lines with our tires, we’re contributing to trail widening and cause more impact on the natural environment in which the trail exists.
PRO TIP: If you’re riding an open trail and encounter a stray puddle, make sure to ride through it. Trust that the stewards knew what they were doing when they opened the trail, so they likely know where the low spots are and where water may be standing. Do your part to not widen the trail and ride through—not around—such puddles.
4. Dumbing Down the Trail
Riding a wet trail increases the possibility of damaging the terrain by dislodging natural technical trail features such roots and rocks. That rocky climb you enjoy challenging your skills with? If you ride it wet then those rocks can be loosened or dislodged completely, which will dumb down your favorite technical climb over time. Water can wash out natural trail features such as rough terrain, so don’t contribute to the issue by riding through soft, mushy soil.
The same goes for man made features. In many cases these features were designed to be low impact and built to be ridden in dry conditions, meaning they aren’t cemented or otherwise permanently attached to the ground. When you hit a wooden feature when it’s wet, you run the risk of sliding it out of place, causing more work for the stewards and endangering riders who come behind you.
5. Damaging Your Bike
Not only will clay and mud stick to your tires, but imagine that same caked mess all over your drivetrain. If that goop is getting all over your sprockets, you can be sure it’s making its way between your brake pads as well as into your front fork, rear shock, and bottom bracket.
None of this is too big of a deal if you can give your bike a wash pretty quickly, but this type of mud deposits sand and grit over time. That grit works its way into your brake pads, shocks, and bearing and wears them down like sandpaper. Riding this type of soil and getting it all over your components is simply shortening the life of your bike and increasing how much you’ll spend on bike maintenance.
We challenge you to volunteer for some trail maintenance days in the near future. We guarantee if you spend a few hours to help the trail steward maintain and repair your favorite local trail, you’ll never be tempted to ride it wet ever again.
For an even more-detailed look at the damage riding wet trails can cause, check out Sustainable Trails from Lebanon Hills.
Check out this great video for a fun look at why you shouldn’t ride closed, wet trails.
What do you think? Have we missed any reasons why you shouldn’t ride wet trails? Disagree with any of these reasons? Let us know in the comments—just keep it classy!
Have fun, ride smart, and keep shredding!