Mountain Bike Trail Etiquette & Other Stuff You Should Know

So you’ve got a shiny new mountain bike.  You’ve got a helmet, water bottle and maybe even mountain bike shoes and a chamois. 

You’re looking like a pro, geared up and ready to hit the trails.  Welcome to the wonderful world of mountain biking!

But instead of excitement, you have questions and maybe some nerves if this is your first mountain bike ride.  Where does the trail start?  What if it’s too hard and I fall? 

How will I know which way to go?  Can everyone tell I’m a newbie?

Let me share with you some mountain bike wisdom, trail etiquette and a few other things I’d wish I’d known when I first started.  There’s a lot here, but don’t worry. 

There is always a friendly rider in the community that can help you along the way.  Armed with a little bit of knowledge, your nerves will be replaced with confidence and excitement as you hit the trails for the very first time.

You Belong Here!

Feeling nervous is normal if you’re new to a sport.  So now let’s change that uncertainty to pride, and build your “I belong here!” attitude. 

You belong on the trails, and shouldn’t let anybody tell you otherwise!

Trail Levels – Is this trail too hard for me?

There is a wide range of difficulty levels when it comes to the mountain bike trails.  From smooth, flowy terrain to chunky, technical climbs and descents, there’s a trail network waiting to meet the needs of all levels of rider.

Mountain biking has a colour/symbol system.  It tells you the difficulty rating of the trail.  Green circle is the easiest level, double black diamond is the most difficult, and blue square is in between. 

The IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) sets guidelines that define these levels worldwide.

Here’s a summary of the difficulty code adopted by the IMBA.  This will help you decide for yourself, if you should tackle a particular trail, or if you should leave it until you have more experience.

White Circle

Not typically called “mountain bike trails,” these are usually double-track (2 metres or wider).  They don’t have any natural or man-made obstacles and are the easiest bike trails to ride. 

They are good for mountain, gravel and hybrid bikes.  These trails are multi-purpose and are often used by hikers and horses as well.

Green Circle

These trails are perfect for beginner riders and are the easiest of the singletrack networks.  The singletrack is usually just under a metre wide as are any bridges that you may find along your route. 

Usually consisting of smooth, flowy ground, they may have a few low obstacles, such as roots or small rocks and short climbs or descents.

Blue Square

For the advanced beginner and  intermediate riders, these will have some up and down sections, often steeper than those found on green trails. 

The trail width will be 60 cm or more and may have some rocky or rooty sections to ride over.  Some of the features like logs, or rocks will have a path close by,  allowing new riders to bypass the obstacle.

Black Diamond

These more challenging trails will often have steep, technical sections of hills and rocks.  They may also have some fun flowy berms but will be much steeper than those found on a green or blue trail. 

The trail width may be as narrow as 30 cm and there may be sections where difficult trail features are unavoidable.  A Double Black Diamond trail (marked as Red on some trail networks) is more difficult yet.

Is it ok to walk a section if it’s too hard for me?

Absolutely! When you come across a section that looks difficult or intimidating, get off your bike and have a look. This is totally acceptable and encouraged.  If the section is too difficult for you on that day, walk your bike down, up or over it.

Overestimating our abilities and riding recklessly is the most dangerous mistake that riders make.  Yet one of the greatest things about mountain biking is how it helps us stretch our comfort zones.

Ride with a friend or experienced rider if you want to push your limits on more advanced trails.  What’s most important is that you ride at your level, and challenge yourself when you’re ready.  

Check out:

Trail Navigation – Will I Get Lost?

Some trail networks have better signage than others.  If you’re riding a trail system for the first time it can be hard to know which way to go and how to get back to your car when your ride is done.

If you carry a phone with you (always a good idea, especially if you ride alone), make sure to have a directional, GPS app that can help you navigate your way through.

There are quite a few apps available, but my favourite is Trailforks.  Not only does it give me a map of the network from the parking lot, it shows the trail difficulty levels as well.  If I want to avoid the black diamond trails, it’s easy to do if I follow the map and trailhead markers within the trail system.

For other recommended navigation apps, check out:  7 Tools to Find Bike Trails Near You 

Unwritten Rules

Now that you know which trails to ride, let’s tackle some of the lesser known stuff.  Here’s the etiquette that all mountain bikers should know, but sometimes forget to share.

It Starts in the Parking Lot

Where not to park:  Don’t block the trail entrance by parking in front of the trailhead.  Riders won’t be able to see the start of the trail if your car blocks the entry.  You will also risk getting scrapes and dings on your car as all the bikes go by getting to the trail.

Protect your bike:  When you’re getting ready, watch for other riders or cars entering the area.  Park your bike out of the way.  Not only is this courteous, it protects your bike from getting hit or damaged.

Chain-Side Up:  Always lay your bike down with the chain-side up.  The components of your bike are expensive and important.  Protect your investment by keeping the drive-train away from dirt and gravel.

Directional Trails

Some trails are one-way and others are two-way.  One-way trails will be marked on the trailhead sign.  You  may also see “Trail Exit” signs, meaning do not enter. The entrance to the trail is at the other end.

If you don’t see any signage indicating the trail’s direction, it means you can ride either way.  Make sure to keep your eyes up and ears open for approaching riders, especially if the singletrack is narrow and winding.


Because singletrack is narrow, there’s not always a lot of room to stop for breaks or to take photos of the scenery.  When you stop, make sure you are in a clearing, or that the trail is wide enough for other riders to get by.

Don’t leave your bike in the middle of the trail.  Park it off to the side so you’re not blocking the route.

Trail networks usually have several hubs or open areas where mountain bikers can stop to hydrate, rest or take a photo.  

Passing Another Rider

Slow, fast or in-between, there are bound to be times when you come up behind another mountain biker, needing to pass.  Here’s how:

  • The rider behind yields to the rider ahead.  
  • Approach with caution by slowing your speed.  Use polite words to let them know you want to pass.  Allow them time to find a safe spot to pull over so you can ride by.  
  • Be patient with the rider.  There may not be a safe place to stop right away.
  • Stay on the trail.  Don’t cut corners or make a shortcut through the trees.
  • Don’t tailgate.  It’s unsafe.  No one wants someone breathing down their back tire pushing them to ride faster. 

Yielding to Others

Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to let another rider go by and when it’s your turn to take the lead. Here’s what you need to know when sharing the trails with others:

  • If a rider is behind you wanting to pass, let them know you are aware they are there and that you’ll pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so.  Don’t rush or start riding faster.  They can wait.
  • Find the nearest space where the trail may widen or you feel comfortable stopping.  Let the rider go by.
  • On two-way trails, riders who are climbing up the hill have the right-of-way.  If you’re coming down, and a rider is climbing towards you, pull over, and let them continue their momentum.
  • Unless you’re on a mountain bike specific trail, you’re likely to run into other user groups. Mountain bikers should always yield to both hikers and equestrians.

Communication is the Key

  • Let other riders know what you’re planning to do.
  • It’s courteous to let approaching riders know how many are in your group.  When I’m riding with friends, I often call out, “There’s 3 of us.”  This way the other rider knows how many bikes they’ll be passing.
  • “Rider up!” Call this out if you’re in the front, telling your friends there is a rider approaching towards you.
  • “Rider back!” If you’re last in the group, this will let them know that a rider is coming up behind and wants to pass.  

Trail R-E-S-P-E-C-T

A little education goes a long way.  Hopefully we all know not to litter, or take anything from the forest systems we ride within.  Here’s a few more good habits to keep in mind: 

Ride Dirt Not Mud

Mountain biking is an all-year sport, with a few exceptions.  Mountain bikers come to know not to ride the soft, muddy trails of late fall and early spring. 

We also stay off the trails if there’s been a lot of recent rain in the area.  This isn’t because we can’t ride in the rain and it’s not about keeping our bikes clean.

It’s about preserving the trails.  When the ground is soft and wet (as is the case during our freeze/thaw seasons), mountain bike tires leave ruts in the trails.  These ruts harden when the trail dries out, leaving the once smooth and flowy singletrack a bumpy and uncomfortable mess.

If you come across a muddy section of trail, resist the urge to ride around the mud.  This widens the trail and pushes the plant life back.  Singletrack is narrow and we want it to stay this way.

The basic message here is don’t ride mud.  Let the ground harden in winter and dry out fully in the spring.  IMBA’s Rules of the Trail is a terrific list of expectations to help preserve our trails so we have years of riding ahead.   

Pay to Play

Your local mountain bike club or conservation authority may have trail maintenance days.  These are a great way to give back to nature.  By volunteering, you’ll be helping to extend the lifespan of the trails and forests.

Be aware of trail fees.  Some trail networks or mountain bike clubs have an inexpensive annual fee. 

Paying the fee doesn’t mean you are now a part of some ultra-competitive bike club.  It simply means that you’re permitted to ride the trails and your money goes towards trail maintenance equipment and future events sponsored by the organization.  It’s a great way to keep informed about trail conditions, and social ride events throughout the season. 

Put It All Together!

Here are some tips to help you plan ahead for a terrific mountain bike experience:

Be Independent. Being prepared and self-sufficient is always a good idea.  As a start, practice lifting your bike into and out of your car or bike rack on your own, and learn how to pump your tires.  

Bring your own tools. If you have a bike issue on the trail, someone riding by may be able to help you if you have the right tools in your pack.  Check out Your Guide to Bike Maintenance

Bring snacks and water.  You’ll definitely be working up a sweat and using energy. You never know when you’re going to need a boost to make it up that final climb.

Wear sunscreen.  Even though you’re in the forest among the trees, there are times when the trail opens up and the riding is exposed.  Be safe and smart with your skin.

Spray up.  Trail networks are home to mosquitoes, ticks and black flies.  Protect yourself with bug spray.

Wear your gear.  Helmet and sturdy, close-toed shoes are a must.  If you don’t have them, don’t ride.   Wear sunglasses, gloves, padded shorts (called a chamois)…whatever makes you feel safe and confident on the trails.

Ready, Set, Ride!

You’ve packed your bike and added a little bit of knowledge.  Now, you’re ready for the most important message of all:  Have fun! Remember, you belong here!

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About The Author

pearl izumi womens launch trail pant on the reviewer, Jane Gerritsen

Jane Gerritsen bought her first mountain bike at age 52 as “retirement prep” and since that time, the mountain bike community has opened up her world to new goals, new adventures and best of all, new friends.  She is most grateful for her time at home, where she is learning to renovate her garage, try new recipes, write, and of course, plan her next mountain bike adventure.

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