7 simple tips for taking care of your trails

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If you’re a mountain biker in the UK right now, you might be feeling a bit sorry for yourself. Winter, which is hardly ever a delightful time of year here, seems to have lasted for most of the last 12 months. Bikes that were pristine a few short months ago are seized-up piles of rust and grime. The Zwift thread on our forum is now almost 9000 posts long. It’s a dark time.

But if we have our troubles, spare a thought for the paths and tracks we ride. Hammered by tyre, foot and hoof, soaked by rain, buried under snow… if your local trails were a dog, the neighbours would have called the RSPCA months ago.

So it’s fitting that it’s almost time for IMBA Europe’s annual Take Care Of Your Trails weekend. The idea behind this initiative is to spur riders into putting some time back into the places they ride. But it’s not just about giving up a day you could spend riding. In my experience, nothing restores your enthusiasm for riding after a long winter like giving the trails a bit of a spruce up. Also, you don’t have to spend a whole day grafting on tracks – some of these you can do without getting off your bike. Here, then, are our top ways to put something back into the places you ride.

1. Pick up some litter.

I almost left this one off because it’s too obvious. Except, sadly, for a lot of people it isn’t. I’m not talking about you, here. I know that you’re a decent sort who would rather set fire to your hair than scatter rubbish around the trail, BMX track or jump spot. Yet many people don’t see the outdoors the same way, and unfortunately, when one of them starts dropping their crap, others follow suit.

Now we can tut all we like about the yoof of today, or dog walkers hanging their poo bags in the trees like nightmarish fairground goldfish, but unless we actually stand at the side of the trail 24/7, threatening anyone dropping their rubbish with bodily harm, there’s only one way to stop somewhere turning into a midden. And that’s by getting out there and having a tidy. There are good reasons to do this, beyond making things look nicer. For one thing, you can pick up inner tubes that people chuck away so you can fix them and never have to buy one. But more importantly, a load of rubbish adorning a trail creates the impression that riders are grotty little oiks who trash where they go, instead of responsible countryside users. Whereas a bunch of riders on a litter pick… you get the idea.

2. Kick a drain

Whether you ride “natural” or “man-made” trails, chances are, someone built them. And chances are that this builder or builders came up with some means of stopping said trail from becoming a swirling gutter at the first hint of rain. Around the Singletrack offices, the old packhorse tracks in the hills have an astonishing amount of engineering beneath their surface, with hidden culverts and drains taking away water from the surface. But in most places, all that’s needed is a little channel at the low point to make sure the rain can escape.

These drains tend to sit there doing their job completely unnoticed, but sometimes they’ll get blocked by leaves or mud. With water pooling on the trail surface and keeping it soft, erosion quickly starts making the hollows in the trail deeper. Luckily, sorting them out is simplicity itself. Just kick out the leaves or mud with your foot, scratch out a channel with a stick, or do whatever you need to do to get the water flowing off the trail, and in a few weeks’ time you’ll be riding a fast dusty track instead of a gopping bog.

3. Bend back a bramble

Don’t let the trails disappear

Riding a bike off road gets you close to nature. Sometimes, a bit too close. With warm weather approaching, the trails can start disappearing under a sea of thorny green tendrils. No-one wants to finish a descent looking like they’ve developed adult chickenpox, so next time you come across an overgrown section of trail, stop and take a couple of minutes to tidy things up.

A word of warning first: it’s currently wild bird nesting season in the UK, and if you start hacking away at the undergrowth with a hedge trimmer, machete or flame thrower, you might well end up disturbing them. If your trails are being taken over by brambles, often all you need to do is bend back the shoots and tuck them in like you’re weaving a basket. Then you can ride on, happy in the knowledge that you’ve tested your gloves for protectiveness, and more importantly you’ve saved the next rider from a bloody nuisance.

4. Report a blockage

Grab your phone and get the flow put back

It seems like this winter has been particularly bad for trail blockages. A series of howling winds have knocked over more trees than Godzilla on a rampage, rendering some tracks completely out of commission. Luckily, we don’t have to all don checked shirts and start second careers as lumberjacks, as most legal trails will have someone responsible for clearing them. At trail centres there will usually be a ranger with a chainsaw on standby, while for bridleways and byways, your local council’s Rights of Way team will be able to either clear the trail themselves, or nag the relevant landowner until they do the right thing.

The same goes for unridable damaged sections of track, which are worth reporting regardless, as otherwise your council’s annual budget might get spent smoothing out one of the more fun bits. For issues in the UK, I’m a big fan of the Fix My Street website and app, which lets you report problems with rights of way (yes, off-road ones included) and automatically finds the relevant authority, then nags them until they do something about it. It takes 5 minutes to file a report, and if it means a trail becomes rideable again in a few weeks, it’s well worth doing.

5. Block a shortcut

Corners, as any fool knows, are the best thing about mountain biking. Yet even in the halcyon days before Strava, there were always riders who seemed averse to them, preferring to take the supertanker line wherever possible. If enough people do this, it turns a sinuous ribbon of singletrack into a braided mess of rut spaghetti.

A quick and easy way to stop this happening is to close off the cheat lines. You don’t have to drag a massive log over them – often it’s enough just to scatter leaves and debris over the offending areas, disguising them from the straightliners. If you do this regularly enough, the trails should stay flowy and fun, and the corner cutters will get the hint and take up track cycling instead.

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6. Help out on a trail day

Careful with that rake…

All over the UK (and beyond) groups of mountain bikers are helping to look after the trails they ride. A lot of these groups hold regular volunteer sessions, and often they’re a great way of putting something back, with the added bonus of a cup of tea, a bit of cake, and a chinwag with some kindred spirits.

If you want to get involved, you can find your nearest one on the OpenMTB website, or ask around locally. Even if there isn’t a trail day coming up, they will be happy to hear from you and there are a number of other ways you can help out if you’re pushed for time, like donating to their spade and cake fund or helping them spread the word about what they’re doing.

7. Set up a trail association

Trails meetings can be fun – just ask Ride Sheffield

If you’re in an area of the country with no organised trail development, don’t despair. It’s perfectly possible to set your own group up, and there are plenty of folk with experience who can help. If the thought of constitutions, bank accounts and committees all sounds a bit dull and official, bear in mind that it can open up lots of opportunities too. You can negotiate with landowners, smooth over disagreements, raise funds, or potentially even lease a corner of woodland to build trails in.

There are several great trails groups doing sterling work in the UK, including Ride Sheffield, Peak District MTB, the Dean Trail Volunteers, and SingletrAction, all of whom are happy to share their knowledge and experience with other riders around the country. With all the joy that your trails bring you, isn’t it time you showed them some love in return?

Antony de Heveningham

Singletrack Contributor

Antony was a latecomer to the joys of riding off-road, and he’s continued to be a late adopter of many of his favourite things, including full suspension, dropper posts, 29ers, and adult responsibility. At some point he decided to compensate for his lack of natural riding talent by organising maintenance days on his local trails. This led, inadvertently, to writing for Singletrack, after one of his online rants about lazy, spoilt mountain bikers who never fix trails was spotted and reprinted on this website during a particularly slow news week.

Now based just up the road from the magazine in West Yorkshire, he’s expanded his remit to include reviews and features as well as rants. He’s also moved on from filling holes in the woods to campaigning for changes to the UK’s antiquated land access laws, and probing the relationship between mountain biking and the places we ride.

He’s a firm believer in bringing mountain biking to the people, whether that’s through affordable bikes, accessible trails, enabling technology, or supportive networks. He’s also studied sustainable transport, and will happily explain to anyone who’ll listen why the UK is a terrible place for everyday utility cycling, even though it shouldn’t be.

If that all sounds a bit worthy, he’s also happy to share tales of rides gone awry, or delicate bike parts burst asunder by ham-fisted maintenance. Because ultimately, there are enough talented professionals in mountain bike journalism, and it needs more rank amateurs.

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