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There must be a collection of established wisdom for what not to do on the trails when riding with a small group of 2-4 cyclists.

One example is following. If you're behind someone who's going into a brief ravine (such as a dry creek bed consisting of a descent that's immediately followed by an ascent—one that would normally take 3 seconds to complete), do not start the descent until you know that they are on the other side. If they do not shift down at quite the right moment, or if their strength/gearing doesn't enable them to go up the small hill, you don't want to be stuck behind them or, worse, risk a collision.

What are the basic rules of etiquette (and common sense) rules for MTB cyclists?

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    Depends on the group - what works for a bunch of mates won't work for a loosely connected group. e..g. if my mate gets a flat and has no repair kit, not a problem helping him out, if I go on a club ride with people I have never met, I expect them to be 100% self contained.
    – mattnz
    Apr 13, 2023 at 21:39
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    @mattnz Interesting -- when I went on club rides or "Radtouristikfahrten" (road biking), we always helped each other out, even if we didn't know each other. And I wouldn't think twice about giving someone a spare tube, patch kit or just a little air, even if I just caught them standing in the woods. Why? Because I had to push/carry my bikes for kilometres on end and I know how much that sucks.
    – arne
    Apr 14, 2023 at 6:05
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    @Sam There's sometimes the issue of pedestrians being too nice, ring your bell and they'll bury themselves in the nearest bush to let you past when you'd much rather they carry on walking while you pass them slowly and carefully. It is a shared path after all and you don't always want them to feel like you have right of way over them (because you don't). Apr 14, 2023 at 23:25
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    @Richard bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/1343/…
    – mattnz
    Apr 15, 2023 at 6:27
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    I've also had people yell at me for calling out, not calling out, using a bell, not using a bell, having a light on, proceeding on a green light (yes, really) and any number of things tangential to the primary dispute over whether bikes should be in wherever it was. Apr 27, 2023 at 18:10

3 Answers 3

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This depends heavily on geography and individual trail systems. For example, in US National Forests, cyclists yield to hikers and equestrians, hikers only yield to equestrians, and uphill traffic has the right of way (generally, see note). In MTB-specific trail systems, trails will typically be one-way, therefore some who happens to be climbing a descending trail should be alert and ready to get out of the way of descending cyclists.

But to generalize:

  • Ride within your abilities: this means your ability to complete your planned loop, descending and climbing technical terrain safely, etc.

  • Be self-sufficient, even on a group ride: If you're in the back and get a flat, your buddy's tube won't help you, since they're now out of ear shot and you are both out of cell phone range.

  • Bring enough food and water for the ride: self-evident.

  • Don't ride trails in damaging conditions: this varies by climate, local convention, and geology.

    Some trails handle moisture very well. Others form damaging ruts that lead to more moisture retention and vicious cycle of damage. Trail without canopy cover will be susceptible to freeze/thaw. During the thaw cycle, the moisture cannot drain vertically past the lower frozen layer, and horrible damage ensues. This applies to all trail users, not just bikes.

  • Smile, say hello. A little bit of human connection goes a long way in reducing user conflicts.

  • Give back: if you're able, join the local trail association as a member and volunteer during a maintenance day. In less, um official trail systems, there may be a "no dig, no ride" ethos. Respect the hard work the trail builders put in. And recognize that a simple, featureless path through the woods may have required years or even decades of tireless and thankless advocacy work.

  • Report problems and conditions for others: If the local system is on something like Trailforks, report damaging conditions, fallen trees, etc there or directly to the local trail steward. If a tree is down, take a geolocated picture with your bike leaned against it. The tree's diameter relative to the wheel will help the sawyer know how big a bar is necessary to clear it. I'm responsible for several systems near me, but I can't ride them all the time. If people didn't tell me what was needed, planning volunteer days would be shot in the dark

  • If you can't ride it, walk it: Just because a feature is challenging and slows your progress, you don't have the right to dumb down the trail for the people who are aspiring to clearing the feature or those who already can. Don't sacrifice the experience of everyone else because a certain section of trail wasn't to your taste or above your abilities.

  • Follow local user conventions: Don't ride trails where bikes are prohibited. Yield to other users who have the right of way.

  • Pull off the trail when you stop, and stop where people can see you. If there's an entrance to a technical feature that you want to scope before riding, stop well before it, move off of the trail, and be prepared to get out of the way of people carrying momentum through a tricky section. A steep rock garden is a terrible place to have to execute an emergency stop. You don't want to be responsible for someone else's crash as they try to avoid hitting you

That's all I can think of for now.

Note: Downhill traffic yielding to uphill traffic is getting a little long in the tooth, IMHO. That convention was creating when bikes were exponentially less capable than they are now. Climbing was a chore, but descents were more something to be survived than unadulterated fun. A climbing cyclist with decent hearing (and no ear buds) can almost certainly become aware of the other cyclist's presence first. If I'm climbing a two-way trail that I know is a fun descent, I'm typically off of the trail well before the descender even sees me.

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  • Are some or many MTB trails directional? If so, you could consider adding that - it seems like avoiding head on collisions would be good etiquette.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Apr 13, 2023 at 21:01
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    Section about "Don't ride it, walk it" Allies equally to making a trail section/obstacle harder because you think it is too easy. Too often where a live trails built for intermediate get F...ked around with, usually in a way that makes them way more dangerous than the technical skill dictates (It takes a good trail builder to make a technical obstacle, any twit can make a trail more dangerous than is needed not obvious. Along these lines, don't cut corners/make short cuts. The trail builder put those corners in to make the trail flow, not cool to turn it into a straight line.
    – mattnz
    Apr 13, 2023 at 21:31
  • @WeiwenNg I mention that in the first paragraph.
    – Paul H
    Apr 13, 2023 at 21:32
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    "some who happens to be climbing a descending trail should be"... banned
    – Swifty
    Apr 13, 2023 at 21:48
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    @mattnz I do not ride single trails too often, I usually get near them only with my gravel bike, but almost anytime I try one I end up in doubt whether I am still in the right direction because of the frequent unmarked intersections and shortcuts. These are the easy trails that are not too vertical and often include climbing sections. when you go straight down there is probably less doubt. Apr 14, 2023 at 8:50
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It's mostly common sense and not being selfish:

  • Don't litter—if you brought it in, carry it back out.

  • Avoid damaging the trail—if it's wet and waterlogged then ride another day. This avoids forming ruts.

  • Stay on the trail—avoid carving new lines/pathways especially near water.

  • Playing music through loud speakers is considered bad etiquette, so don't. Earphones/etc are much more "contained," so do that instead if you need some music then. People go to these areas for peace and quiet; don't spoil that for them.

  • Never spook or scare a horse—they're big.

    • Never ride a horse-only trail.
    • If you come up behind a horse on a shared-use track, say something calmly from 20+ metres back to announce your presence; don't yell and definitely not close to the horse. The rider will give you clear instructions like "go past" or "wait a moment."
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    Just realised - every point here applies to tramping/hiking too.
    – Criggie
    Apr 13, 2023 at 22:18
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    Yeh - covered by the "Don't be a dick" rule, but these days, people need rules to be more explicit. Facebook outrage works best when you can point to the exact rule that go broken.
    – mattnz
    Apr 13, 2023 at 22:51
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    The trouble though is that the kind of people who litter or who play music though loudspeakers are also those who would respond with expletive if their behaviour is ever critiqued. I was really asking about a closed group of civilized cyclists.
    – Sam7919
    Apr 14, 2023 at 3:42
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    @mattnz I was immediately reminded of the "pocket bible": reddit.com/r/freefolk/comments/aetwog/…
    – arne
    Apr 14, 2023 at 8:40
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In addition to other answers, "Leave not trace" same as asked of hikers and other outdoor users. Essentially this list is achieved by following it.

  • Don't ever ride closed trail
  • Ensure you have landowner permission and follow any requests/demands from landowner. Don't argue with them.
  • Leave gates as you found them.
  • Avoid damaging trails - often when trails are not closed but wet, taking another trail saves damage.
  • Stick to the trail - don't take shortcuts and do not 'straighten the lines' on corners (this ruins the trail as the flow the track builder intended gets destroyed (often by those that can ride fast but not ride well - if that is you, get off the trail and buy a road bike :) )
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  • In UK I was taught to close all gates, even if I find them open.
    – nightrider
    Oct 3, 2023 at 5:13
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    Always a condrumden. Did the farmer leave the gate open for a reason, or was it an inconsiderate person before you did not shut the gate? You have a 50/50 of guessing which one. A closed gate is easy... or is it - maybe someone before you closed a gate left open by the farmer, because, well.... they 50/50 fell the wrong way. If everyone left gates as they found them, no gate would be left in the wrong position.
    – mattnz
    Oct 3, 2023 at 6:23

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