Does Mountain Biking Harm Nature?

environmental impact of mountain bikingThere is little doubt that the popularity of mountain biking has increased in recent years. This is not without controversy—not long ago, there was discussion about allowing mountain biking in national parks where it had not been allowed before.

Here are some of the pros and cons of mountain biking, and some of the suggested rules that mountain bikers can follow to minimize their impact.

Environmental Pros of Mountain Biking

Allowing mountain biking in national parks increases visitation to the park. That’s good for the local economy and for the environment—after all, if a national park gets a lot of visitors, it will help the park financially. A financially strong national park can do more to preserve wilderness areas.

Mountain biking promotes bonding with nature. If more people can build an appreciation for nature, that ultimately is good for the environment.

Mountain biking provides healthy exercise. In a day when childhood obesity is a problem, getting the family out onto the trail can be an important means of increasing health and fitness.

The whole family can participate in mountain biking to some degree. That promotes family bonding as well.

Environmental Cons of Mountain Biking

The speed with which mountain bikers sometimes travel can frighten and disturb, injure, or even kill wildlife. Animals such as snakes, lizards, or frogs may not be able to get out of the way before a speeding mountain bike runs over them. Mountain bikers often crash or fall as well, making for greater disturbance.

Treaded tires, especially when speeding around curves, can cause erosion of the soil and disturb habitats.

The tearing and trampling of vegetation is a concern with mountain biking. Some plants are more vulnerable than others to this type of damage, but it’s certainly possible to destroy a plant before it can bloom or otherwise reproduce.

Mountain bike tires can create deep ruts in the trail. These ruts collect rainwater, and as the water runs through these narrow channels, it takes soil with it. When the water dries, the ruts leave hard ridges that are hazardous to other bikers and problematic for hikers.

Rules for Mountain Bikers to Minimize their Environmental Impact

  1. Stay on the trail. Riding a mountain bike in undeveloped areas is not only dangerous for the biker, it can also tear up vegetation and disturb wildlife habitat. Bikers who stay on the trail do the least damage.
  2. When making a turn, slow down and take the corner without skidding and kicking up soil.
  3. Don’t ride when it’s wet. Trails are much more vulnerable to erosion and widening when they are soggy and wet.
  4. When riding downhill, don’t “ride the brakes.” That digs the tires in and causes more soil to be kicked up.
  5. Be considerate when sharing trails with hikers. Slow down when you see hikers ahead, and call out to let them know you are riding through.

Comments

  1. A few points of clarification in your article:
    1. Multiple studies have shown that there is no significant difference in impact between tires and feet on trails.
    2. Mountain biking is fundamentally a trail-based activity. Your concern about tearing and trampling of vegetation isn’t borne out since most riders *are on the trail*. Harm to vegetation is much more likely to happen by hikers venturing off trail to try get the perfect view or a closer picture of a feature or creature.
    3. Having ridden MTB for almost twenty-five years, I can count on one hand the number of times I have encountered reptiles or amphibians on a trail. It does happen, but it is not that common. Mountain bikers are just as concerned about the welfare of wild creatures as other trail users.
    4. All trail users need to avoid trail use when conditions are soft. Deep bootprints in mud are as damaging as tire tracks. Trails that are soft and collect water have a design and/or placement problem as well. Trails should not go through wet areas ideally and if they do, need special solutions such as boardwalking or bridging to protect the soft terrain. Foot traffic in wet areas is also more likely to cause trail braiding/widening as people try to walk around a wet spot.
    5. Further, trails that are channeling water are poorly designed in the first place and break what is known as the “Half Rule”: the slope of the trail exceeds one-half of the slope of the terrain it is crossing. Trails that do this become gullies from water erosion and experience much more soil movement by feet and tires.
    6. Most cross-country riding happens at a speed of 5-8 mph, between a jog and a run – it just isn’t a sustained high-speed activity. All riders should exercise good trail etiquette and appropriate courtesy when approaching other trail users – just as all other trail users should do the same.
    7. While crashes and falls do happen, they are not that frequent an occurrence.
    8. Your comment about “riding the brakes” is inaccurate. The act of braking itself doesn’t cause soil to be kicked up. Soil would be kicked up once the tire loses traction and starts skidding, which is bad – as you note. Braking is a necessary part of riding in control.

  2. 1. Not true. Those “studies” are not scientific.
    2. Not true. Plants and animals do occur on trails, and are killed. I’ve seen those dead animals and plants.
    3. Not true. Mountain bikers typically ride too fast to notice animals that they run over on the trail.
    4. Not true. Mountain bikers often ride wet trails, especially in wet climates like BC & Washington State.
    5. Not true. Mountain bikers always blame erosion on “improperly designed trails”. Knobby tires are designed to tear up soil, and create V-shaped ruts that accelerate erosion.
    6. Not true. Just look at some mountain biking videos. They ride as fast as they can, endangering wildlife and other trail users.
    7. Not true. Serious accidents and even deaths are common.
    8. Not true. Accelerating (i.e., turning, accelerating, & braking) exert sheer forces on the trail, tearing the soil & accelerating erosion. It’s an inherent part of mountain biking, and much greater than hiking impacts.

  3. Thanks Mike!

    I’m a cyclist, hiker, and trail runner. I love, I mean LOVE the trails near my house. They are truly a privilege, and I don’t take that privilege lightly. These trails run along a river basin, and they tend to be muddy.

    Pedestrians say “oh, this is really muddy” and turn back. Mountain bikers say “woohoo mud, I’m such a badass!” and ruin the trail for everyone.

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