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I spoke with someone and they said they were staying off certain trails because snow melt and mud would ruin the trails. I had never thought of this and really want to be considerate.

Is this a valid concern? Should I avoid a trail because of this? How do I know when it is ok to use?

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The question has already been well answered, so let me just add this. I live in New England and do both a lot of hiking and biking. I've seen pristine trails that have been in existence for almost 300 years destroyed in a single afternoon by thoughtless mountain bikers. You absolutely do not ever ride on melting, muddy trails during the spring thaw. Doing so will earn you a lot of wrath from not only the hiking community, but the mountain biking community too because it smears their reputation. –  Carey Gregory Apr 3 at 1:34
    
My biggest conundrum, at what point is muddy, but not destructive muddy. –  Carson Reinke Apr 3 at 12:37
    
I'd say if the trail is muddy in July then it's just a muddy trail and feel free to ride. But if the trail is firm in July but muddy in April then riding it in April will damage it. –  Carey Gregory Apr 3 at 14:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 22 down vote accepted

It's common etiquette, at least everywhere I've been, to stay away from wet and muddy trails (unless they're supposed to be or always are a mudfest). Riding on a muddy trail makes ruts which make the trail conditions worse for everyone once the mud dries and the ground hardens.

In addition to ruts, if the trail is muddy and you slide out a front wheel going around a turn, for example, your wheel can scrape several inches of trail off. This can cause erosion problems later on.

However, as alluded to earlier, if the trail is a known mudbog and stays muddy year-round, one more rut probably won't hurt anything.

Another common counterexample is when the trail is melting in the afternoons but can be ridden early in the day when the ground is frozen. If you're crazy enough to be out riding then, more power to you.

But generally speaking, it is in good taste to stay off melting, muddy trails. Any time your presence can alter the trail physically (ruts, slide-offs, feature damage), everyone else who shares the trail with you will be glad you stayed off.

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This goes for foot traffic as well. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 2 at 17:52
    
@DanielRHicks Well, to a very limited extent. Wheels cut ruts that become paths for water. A single tire track down a muddy hill can easily become a complete washout of that trail during the next heavy rainstorm. But foot prints (and horse prints) are different. They're just small depressions rather than channels. They just refill naturally during the next rainstorm and don't create gulleys. –  Carey Gregory Apr 3 at 1:38
    
@CareyGregory - Yeah, it's relative. If you can walk without tearing up the soil then it's probably OK. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 3 at 2:18
    
@DanielRHicks If you can't walk without tearing up a trail then you need to quit walking. ;-) But the point is a continuous channel made by a wheel is a totally different thing than a depression made by a foot. The former is highly destructive while the latter is not. –  Carey Gregory Apr 3 at 2:26
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It depends a lot on the soil type, etc, as well as the terrain. Eg, repeated foot traffic on a slope covered with forest litter can easily strip the covering from the soil and create a rut. A single person might not be a problem, but a dozen or so can be pretty destructive. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 3 at 2:47

As Alesplin puts it, it is common practice to stay off of trails that are muddy.

I'd like to expand on his answer a little. I think there are a few factors that come into play with a question like this.

One of the biggest contributors of damage to a muddy trail is large amounts of traffic. The more people that use the trail, the more damage will be done. If you are one of a few people to use a trail, you most likely won't do any permanent damage. The worst thing you will do is create ruts, that when dry are not the nicest things to ride on/in.

Ruts can also lead to other forms of damage. A rut will collect water, which will not run off the trail. Quite often, these puddles of water will get bigger and bigger until they consume the width of the trail. This, I think, is when the real damage occurs. Trail users (both rides and hikers) will most often avoid going through the standing water and simply go around (at the cost of the surrounding vegetation). This can lead to parts of the trail being expanded unnecessarily, and there will still be the problem of the expanding rutted water hole in the middle of the trail.

In the end, if the trail is used very lightly, riding in the mud will not do much damage at all. For most trails though, it is best to avoid the muddy ones. Of course, there are always sections of trail that are muddy, no matter what. Those are a whole other matter of how to properly build and route a trail. Get dirty and have fun.

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Well said, especially with the widening puddles making the initially minor damage worse over time. –  alesplin Apr 2 at 20:13

The issue is not just muddiness and ruts. Activities like biking and hiking promote soil erosion (and soil is much more susceptible where erosion already has taken place). We try to strike a balance between preserving the condition of the trail and enjoying our activities. If the ground is very wet, the damage caused by our use is much greater, since we move more material around including whatever plants are helping to reinforce the soil (roots act like the rebar in concrete). The damage caused in one trailride could be greater than several years of use in decent conditions.
Even under normal use, trails need to be reconstructed and/or moved from time to time to allow the land to "heal". I'm grateful for the volunteers that work to maintain the trails where I ride (Thank you, Waterloo Cycling Club!) In short, thank you for your desire to be courteous and thoughtful, and please save your riding until the trail has dried up.

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IMBA wrote a great article summarizing the various studies of mountain biking's impact on trails. Their conclusion was as follows:

Furthermore, while the impact mechanics and forces may be different from foot traffic, mountain biking impacts are little different from hiking, the most common and traditional form of trail-based recreational activity.

[...]

So what does this mean for mountain biking? The existing body of research does not support the prohibition or restriction of mountain biking from a resource or environmental protection perspective. Existing impacts, which may be in evidence on many trails used by mountain bikers, are likely associated for the most part with poor trail designs or insufficient maintenance.

Managers should look first to correcting design-related deficiencies before considering restrictions on low-impact users. By enlisting the aid of all trail users through permanent volunteer trail maintenance efforts, they can improve trail conditions and allow for sustainable recreation.

In other words, current studies show that mountain bikers do no more harm than hikers and that muddy trails are a product of bad trail building and management, and not from mountain bikers riding them.

The problem here is more with perception I believe, as some small groups of extremely reactionary hikers usually wants to ban everything that is not hikers from venturing into the great outdoors. If they can keep mountain bikers off the trails by saying that they damage them, they suddenly have a great argument for doing so. And if we as mountain bikers accept this as a fact and the way that it should be, then we are suddenly at the mercy of the hikers, and this would be very unfortunate for mountain biking as a recreational activity.

So instead of staying of the trail you should help doing maintenance on them so that problems such as mud and erosion are lessened and the trails become more pleasant for everyone who uses them.

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I disagree. This is like saying that motor vehicles do not damage dirt roads, when they are muddy (and we all know the 30cm ditches produced thus). My stance on this is: riding in mud is OK only on (already raked mindlessly by off-road motorists) fireroads. –  Vorac Apr 3 at 12:33
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This sounds like the blame game to me. I don't care how well you design a trail, it will be soft in spring. –  Carson Reinke Apr 3 at 12:40
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@Vorac If you're skidding and drifting, you do have more impact on the trail and you should modify your behavior. IMBA trail design guidance mentions best practices on how to limit the temptation to skid. But as a trail user, you have a responsibility to ride in a manner that minimizes trail impact (i.e., don't skid!) –  Paul H Apr 3 at 17:29
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My state is crisscrossed by woodland trails that nobody designed. They were established by native Americans and colonial era settlers hundreds of years ago. Needless to say, nobody maintains these trails either. So who would the IMBA have me blame? –  Carey Gregory Apr 3 at 22:41
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That study is ridiculously narrow. Many of the trails in my area are in deep forest where the soil is soft and damp. A single mountain bike rolling down that trail will cut through the protective layer of forest debris and into the soil, creating a channel where water will flow. When that channel runs downhill, destruction of the trail is almost inevitable. I've seen trails completely washed by the next heavy rain after a single bike road down it and cut a channel. This does not happen with footsteps, horse hoofs, etc. Only wheeled vehicles inflict this kind of damage. –  Carey Gregory Apr 3 at 22:45

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