How to Start Building Mountain Bike Trails

Nov 1, 2022
by Dillon O  

Many of us started building trails as scraggly teenagers simply because we didn't have any. We just grabbed shovels, wandered out into public land, and smashed in unsanctioned trails that were, frankly, both terrible and unsustainable. Nowadays, we recommend getting involved with your local trail advocacy groups, helping others, and learning on the job before thinking about taking the lead on a trail build. We'll save the "how to shape a sick slapper" content for another time. Instead, we asked Dillon Osleger to walk us through the basics of getting involved. Dillon is the Executive Director of Sage Trail Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to trail stewardship and environmental advocacy on California's Central Coast.

Trails often come across as simple, much the same as anything else would if observed while passing by at 15 miles per hour. Sinuous lines carved into earth, mounds of dirt compacted into basic geometric shapes, beginnings and ends tied to parking lots or vistas. Bikes on the other hand, can seem complex in their suspension leverage curves, materials, and expense. This triggers a need to validate a decision in buying one, leading to the time-honored approach of using the five Ws: who (you), what (gravel, xc, enduro, trail), why (fitness, friendship), where (a bike shop, a website), when (now or when the bank account can justify it). These five questions allow us to distill seemingly complicated problems into simple steps and solutions that justify our time and expense.

Trails pose a perfect intersection of apparent simplicity and underlying complexity. Their existence is appreciated and straightforward, and therefore do not result in questions, while those who do ponder are met with opaque answers. A search for said answers can be intimidating: “who” can be a nonprofit or a reclusive individual, “what” and “why” are governed by natural science and unspoken rules, “where” and “when” aren’t usually posted on flyers at the trailhead.

Photo Satchel Cronk
Photo Satchel Cronk

As the executive director of Sage Trail Alliance, one of the larger nonprofit trail stewardships in California, I sympathize with the predicament, and apologize for the larger trail stewardship community’s lack of communication. It should not be difficult to help support and grow a sport that so many of us enjoy. I, as well as many others, devote a fair portion of my time coming up with ways to streamline the process and welcome volunteers from all corners of mountain biking. To provide a short answer as to how one gets started with trail stewardship—you already are.

The cornerstone of our sport has been and always will be advocacy—the work to justify and further our wishes in society. Every time we clip on a helmet and ride our bike in the woods or on gravel roads, we are inherently swaying the opinions of other users through our behavior. An act as simple as a yield and a hello can lead to future trail expansion, pump tracks, and more people on bikes.

Photo Satchel Cronk

Beyond the constant work all of us have as advocates for the sport, volunteering is a great way to give back. I guarantee there is a trail stewardship group local to each pair of eyes on this article, whether or not it has ‘mountain bike’ as part of its name is irrelevant; we’re all in this together. Finding that stewardship group may be as easy as a Google search for “trail nonprofit *your town/region/mountains*”. [You can also search Trailforks' directory of trail associations HERE.] You should also head down to the local bike shop. If no one there knows the local trail stewards, it’s time for you to start patronizing a different shop.

Hopefully you’ve found your local stewardship group, but what’s next? Signing up for the email list is an easy way to be kept informed of volunteer trail workday opportunities. If you want to be proactive, email the contact form and let them know who you are. Nonprofits need logos designed, fundraising help, architectural planning, grant writing, data collection, and a multitude of other things done that they do not have an in-house staff for. A task that seems simple to you may save that organization thousands of dollars and result in new trails in your neighborhood.

Photo Satchel Cronk
Photo Satchel Cronk

If after all the steps above, the tools are still calling your name, RSVP for that volunteer trail day and heed the following:

No experience necessary. Come wearing pants, a helmet, and gloves. You shouldn’t even need your own tools, as stewardship organizations generally prefer to supply their own. They just don’t know the condition of volunteer tools and don’t want a non oiled handle cracking mid day. Any nonprofit hosting volunteer days on public land has insurance, so likely has a fair tool stash.

Expect to work, not chat. There will likely be beverages and social time after.

Come without a plan. Your day is determined by the lead builder, if they say you’re building drains and repairing erosion, don’t present a jump or berm at the end of the day.

Do not alter and amend trails you did not build. If the original trail did not have jumps, ride arounds, or features, don’t put them in yourself.

Stay aware of your surroundings. Sharp tools don’t need to be swung over your head, nor in close proximity to others.

Stay aware of your surroundings (again). See the forest for the trees. Observe and ask questions—why does the trail meander this way? What purpose does a drain serve here rather than elsewhere? How does the local environment dictate the trail itself?

Do what you can, according to your means. Your time volunteering is appreciated, and the more individuals who help, the easier the load. But like any nonprofit, it takes more than sweat to keep the lights on. Buy your builder a figurative beer by donating the same $5 you are spending on a pint post-ride to the local trail organization. Wear their logo proudly and instill in friends the value of supporting their local organizations. It all adds up—the larger our community, the greater our reach and impact, the more diverse we become, and the more connected we all are to nature.

Be patient. No trail was built in a day, and if it was, you probably wouldn’t want to ride it. Even a large crew may only be able to build or rehabilitate a few hundred feet of trail in a day, and there’s good reason. Taking the time now not only leads to a better experience on the bike, it ensures you won’t need to return in a month to do the job right.

Don’t strike out on your own. Once you have learned a thing or two about digging, it is easy to assume you can work in the time and place of your choosing, but it is important to remember that there are large-scale plans in place between land managers and stewardship organizations. Work done on your own without a Volunteer Service Agreement (VSA) and insurance leaves you liable to suits from injured users or damage to wildlife. If you are itching to repair or better a specific trail, let your local stewardship know so they can work with you to schedule a dig day sooner rather than later.

Photo Satchel Cronk

Santa Barbara mountain biking trails

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