Do mountain bikers damage trails more than other groups?

01 Aug 08

| 32% YES

The speed and weight of mountain bikes on the trail make them far more damaging than hikers’ bootsteps—especially on the Southeast’s wet, muddy trails.
—Gene Nicholson, Atlanta,Ga.</em>

Mountain bikers do more damage to trails than other forms of trail users, primarily because of their sheer numbers and the ease with which the riders can lug their bikes to trailheads to reach sensitive foot trails. Yes, horses’ hooves can do a number on trails, and they do their share of damage. But a single mountain bike causes loads of damage with its knobby tires, skids, and chain rings over fallen logs.
—Karl Kunkel, High Point, N.C.</em>

I’ve seen mountain bikers modify trails to make them easier by removing rocks, cutting roots, cutting fallen trees, building jumps, and braiding trails. I also have seen skid marks and riding in the mud that contributes to erosion. Besides the physical issues, you also have some irresponsible riders going too fast down busy trails. I’m not saying that every single mountain biker is damaging the trails, but there is a significant amount of damage done by the irresponsible ones.
—Jon Livengood, Knoxville, Tenn.</em>

Bikes rut out the trails more than feet. However, I don’t mind because I like to use the trails for hiking, running, and biking. We have some trails here in town designated “no bikes” for folks who only want to use their feet, and as long as bikers respect them, it’s cool.
—Charlotte Matheny, Greensboro, N.C.</em>

It’s fairly simple. On the average, mountain bikes have a greater frequency of moments when they are teetering on the edge of control than do people simply placing feet down on a path. So they cause a greater frequency of accidents and tires skidding out on the edge of a path, thus widening the dirt path and adding to erosion and sedimentation. But the good news is mountain bikers who actively volunteer to maintain trails are probably a net benefit.
—John Rudmin, Harrisonburg, Va.</em>

Bikers damage the trail more other user groups, which is okay when the trail is made specifically for biking, but not fair when the trail is open to hikers and other user groups.
—Ed McKeown, Roanoke, Va.</em>

I have been riding mountain bikes for several years now and have seen firsthand the more extreme damage that horses do to trails. You could easily do a test. Take 10 mountain bikers and ride a trail, then take 10 horses and ride the same trail. The results would be very clear. Plus, my bike has never taken a dump on the trail and left it for everyone else to ride and walk through.
—Rick Wilson, Brevard, N.C.</em>

All user groups have an impact on trails. Whether one user group does more damage than the other depends on location, weather, terrain, and other environmental features. We all have an impact. More groups and indivudals need to get involved in trail care. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
—Woody Elliot, Richmond, Va.</em>

The “footprint” from a bicycle is minimal at best—certainly not as bad as a motorcycle or ATV. Hikers try to use that argument to keep bikes off of the trails so that they can have them to themselves. There’s plenty of room for everyone: just be courteous to all and there should be no problems.
—Joe McAlister, Greer, S.C.</em>

It’s not necessarily the bike or the equipment—it’s the rider who should be in control and respectful of the environment in every way.
—Tammy Orr, Roanoke, Va.</em>

Poor trail design, construction, and maintenance damage the trails more than any single user group. It has been my experience that any trail can be damaged by any user group, and squabbling over who is to blame is counter-productive. Instead we should be looking at who is using a trail, in what manner, and how that trail can be made sustainable. Pointing fingers is a complete waste of time.
—Eddie O’Dea, Atlanta, Ga.</em>

Water runoff does far more damage than either mountain bikers or hikers. Poor trail design is the main factor in determining how fast a trail erodes. On poorly designed trails, both user groups loosen soil, and this disturbed soil is available for the next rainstorm to take it away.
—Woody Keen, President, Professional Trailbuilders Association, Asheville, N.C.</em>

If anyone has any doubts about what group of outdoor enthusiasts do the most damage to a trail, try and take a walk on the Virginia Horse Trail on Mount Rogers, especially the section that meanders to Elk Garden. Talk about an absolute disaster:You need waders to navigate it. It’s a mud pit on any given day, causing you to sink up to your knees in areas. I have never seen a mountain bike trail cause comparable damage.
—Jeff Buckley, Damascus, Va.</em>


  • I was interested in this subject and I thought I would share what I have found

    This is from

    Observations in the field by a trained eye will report similar results to the hard science and note that horse damage to trails is easier to record. This also follows common sense logic; horses will have greater impacts due to a much higher combined weight (horse with rider) concentrated into a smaller surface area (four hooves of which not all four can be on the ground as the horse moves forward, as compared to a bicycle tire which has a large contact surface area), and horse are the only trail user with metal (most trail horses are shoed) to trail tread contact (tires of mountain bikes and shoes on hikers are rubber).

    Common belief holds that wheeled vehicles cause new trails to form more readily than the actions of feet or hooves, thus justifying the allowance of off trail travel by hikers and equestrians. Yet, erosion studies suggest that in many places, “feet and hooves will trample more than bicycle tires. The instantaneous sheer forces exerted on a plant by a foot or hoof will have much more of a tearing effect than the rolling over and crushing force of a bicycle wheel.”

    314   27 Jun 12, 2:50 pm

  • The Middlesex Fells in Massachusetts right in my town in Winchester is a great resource to have in the Greater Boston area. I wouldn’t have an issue with the mountain bikers, except that they aren’t just satisfied with a couple trails. They have to ride EVERY Trail and Make their own ILLEGAL Trails. Thats what gets me upset about mountain bikers. The fells has a designated MOUNTAIN BIKE Loop but the mountain bikers aren’t satisfied. The WHITE SKYLINE trail is off limits to bikes as is the ORANGE RESERVOIR Trail, yet there isn’t one hike when I dont see groups of bikers riding by. And usually they are in big numbers, so you dont really feel like yelling at them or getting into a confrontation with them. I usually just say hi politely but my blood boils inside when I know they are deliberately disobeying the rules. Not to mention the ILLEGAL trails I see popping up in every park where there’s mountain biking, cutting through sensitive wilderness and wetlands. People wouldn’t have a problem with mountain bikers if they respected the rules, and didn’t make illegal trails. Hikers generally stay on the marked trails because obviously they don’t want to get lost, and mountain bike tires cause a heck of a lot more damage than boots which normally stay on the trail. I rarely see many boot prints in the ground, yet after a rain I always see Tire Tracks dug into the mud. Sometimes it makes trails almost impassable to hikers because there are so many mud pools created by the bikes. I have seen erosion on banks and hillsides caused by bikes as well. I would support some parks adding more mountain bike trails, if the mountain bikers would stay on those trails and not keep breaking the rules and riding the off limits trails and making their own trails too.

    Jeff Dearman   06 Apr 12, 12:31 pm

  • Wheeled vehicles – be it ATV’s, trucks or bikes – belong on roads, not trails. Have mountain bikers enjoy their experience on fireroads, which are plenty.

    I have been noticing more of our trails get wider and new mountain bike trails get tramped/hacked out from these ‘nature lovers?’ who want wilderness to become amusement parks. It seems there trail maintenance is for their own addictive thrills of rapid decent, jumps and different ‘techniques’ the blogs mention.

    I have seen downed trees across trails (which support more lifeform than living trees!) be sawed into logs and absolutely cleared for mountain bike purpose. A hiker or equestrian could easily navigate over such a thing A biker could too, by carrying the bike but it would mess up their thrill of rapid decent.

    Do they care about the protected or endangered plants they are destroying to make slopes around curves? Do they bother with bells or other warning devices? Do they claim to be responsible but in reality we see otherwise?

    We cross streams carefully but bikers just plow through them, destroying frog and toad eggs and other reptiles that need that environment. If you want to view wildlife, you learn to walk lightly and then not move if you want to view living creatures. Just one biker racing down a hill destroys birding opportunities for an hour or more, but of course the reverse isn’t the case.

    Helen   08 Apr 10, 4:06 pm

  • Science is the answer. If you need more proof, I’ll just make up more facts and reports and refer back to other trash I’ve written before.

    Stop looking for who to blame and spend that time in the woods fixing the trails you love. Adopt them, become a steward of small part of the planet you live on!

    Michael J Vaginaman   18 Aug 09, 6:47 pm

  • In response to: #
    Mike Vandeman, Ph.D. Jan 16th, 2009 at 12:50 am

    Yes, bikes have no rights…but humans do! Humans evolved right here on earth (just like horses!). As part of our evolution we learned to fabricate tools and technology, social organization, and systems of governance. As such, we have a right to go wherever we wish, using whatever tools we invent, provided it is legal according to our government structure, and moral and ethical according to our social organizations.

    And since mankind can make bicycles and ride them on trails, and horses cannot, ipso facto, horses should be banned from biking trails. :-)

    Gerald Hutchinson   21 Jul 09, 12:35 am

  • Near my house here in Montana there are two horse outfitters who use a nearby public trail for their “dude” rides. The trail damage caused by these for profit rides is rediculous. In many places the erosion is so bad that the trail is rutted almost knee deep. This deep rutting causes other trail users to walk on either side of the original trail causing more erosion. Most locals bikers and hikers know to avoid this section of trail. The trails that don’t get exploited by the horses are in fine shape and quite nice. It is an easy comparison to make that horses cause the most trail damage. Not to mention the resourses used to transport the horses to the trailhead ie. giant diesel truck and trailer usually parked in a way to force other users to park off the parking surface causing yet more erosion. The horseback riders seem to not care weather they ride after heavy rains thus causing the most damage during the trails most vernerable time. The forest service is quite obviously playing favorites as if this behaviour were it by any other user group especially bikers would have been banned long ago.

    bigskyguy   04 Jul 09, 10:11 am

  • Hikers probably cause the least damage. Bicycles (other than scarring the surface of the trail) really don’t cause that much damage. In fact, they compact the trail. For instance, a piece of paving equipment called a “sheepsfoot” has tread like a mtn bike tire and it’s job is compaction. However, a horse weighs FIVE times the weight of a cyclist and they STOMP with steel hooves instead of rolling on rubber tires. Plus, they REALLLY tear up the trail on inclined surfaces. If you’re going to ban mtn bikes, then you definitely need to ban horses.

    Edward   17 Jun 09, 11:17 am

  • […] community. Mountain bikers obviously support the rule change while some hiking groups don’t. Now is the time to voice your own opinion. We’ve entered a 60-day public comment period which will help the park service in its decision to […]

    Speak Out - Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine   17 Jan 09, 11:26 am

  • What a load of BS! The only way to answer this question is with SCIENCE, and the SCIENCE proves that mountain bikers do a lot more damage than hikers, due to their greater speed and distance travelled. See Horses evolved in North America, so have an arguable right to go wherever they want to. This is their home. They are living organisms. Bicycles are inanimate objects, and have no rights whatsoever.

    Mike Vandeman, Ph.D.   16 Jan 09, 12:50 am

  • I’ve never heard so many people squabbling over the small stuff. Volunteer to the trails you use instead of which group causes more damage. There is more caustic runoff in a neighborhood with loose dirt, oil, fertilizers, etc going straight into the main water line.

    Shawn Stascheit   17 Dec 08, 12:36 pm

  • Mountain Bikes do not do that much damage to the trails. If the biker knows how to ride he will never skid and ride on the side of the trail. horses do way more damage to the trails. And poor trail design is the number one cause.

    Chris Hinton   14 Dec 08, 11:47 pm

  • so yes, they are

    Amarpreet   14 Dec 08, 9:57 am

  • whenever one mountain bike makes a trail, other bikers will follow that same trail making the area weak and will eventually cause ditches to be formed.

    Amarpreet   14 Dec 08, 9:57 am

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