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Stay Off the Trails During Mud Season

Spring is the most sensitive time for trails (March 2003).

By Philip Keyes

We know that this has been a tough winter to fulfill our dirt trails passion. Tons of snow and bitter cold have left us with a jones to get out there and ride on real dirt. But use your head and stay off the trails until the thaw is out of the ground and the trails have dried and hardened.

One of the worst things you can do is ride or hike on trails before they are ripe. Trails are dynamic and change with the seasons and weather conditions. While during most of the season the mineral soils that make up good hardened trails are fairly stable, spring is the most sensitive time for trails, making them vulnerable to erosion and long term damage.

As frost works its way through the upper soil cap, the soil moves and shifts. The trail looses density as frozen water pushes and prods the mineral particulate, and Mother Nature becomes vulnerable. As the frost thaws and releases water, the dirt resettles and realigns in a muddy mix, and the organic matter for last fall's leaf litter blends in with the mineral soil to begin to create a new generation of trail dirt. This organic/mineral mix eventually re-hardens and makes for a primo path through the woods, but it's critical to let this process happen on its own.

"If we ride, hike or horse around on the trails before this process is complete, the damage to the trail could be permanent."

If we ride, hike, or horse around on the trails before this process is complete, the damage to the trail could be permanent. The soils will be churned up, and gravity and the sheeting action of rain will wash them away, leaving a mess of exposed roots and rocks. If the trail is soft, our wheels may leave sunken tracks, which can become natural channels for rain to carry the soils away. If we hike, our heels will dig deep into the trails and help push the soils downhill.

We know it's hard when you want to ride but be patient. Just because you "can" ride, doesn't mean that you "should." Here are a few ideas and other riding option:

  • Use your lawn as a trail barometer. Before you think of hitting the trails, take a ride on your lawn. If you can see your tracks sinking in, stay off the trails. Chances are they are not yet ripe for riding or hiking.
  • Use mud season to build fitness by putting in some serious "base miles" on the road. If you don't have a road bike, buying some skinny slicks will make you feel super-charged, and the fitness you'll develop will make your trail riding that much more pleasureable later on.
  • Do some urban or suburban assault rides. Explore the neighborhood for ramps, steps and other challenges that can hone your technical skills.
  • Ride on rail trails or other hardened bike paths. You'll be away from traffic, getting some needed fitness, and feel good about yourself since you're doing the right thing by staying off the trails.
  • Lastly, use the "Trail Conditions" section of NEMBA's Online Forum to check out where the riding is good and where it isn't.
  • If all else fails, go to the gym and take a spinning class! You will be riding dirt before you know it.

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