Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Anatomy of Intelligent Trail Design

Is the best tool for trailbuilding an axe, or chainsaw? Or a shovel perhaps? Its neither, the best tool for trailbuilding is this:

But how does brain neurons translate into great trails? Well, keep on reading, as I respectfully shed some light on that, lets start with the most basic thing:

What do you want?
DO: Have a plan and a vision. What direction do you want the trail to take? Do you want flow? Or a tech section, something open and fast? Or perhaps something super tight? Be progressive, not conservative. Ambition doesn't hurt either. Determination is your friend.

DON'T: Have a great flow one second, going right into something awkward that destroys the experience or flow. Know what you want from the trail experience, don't wander in the dark.
Real life example: 2 of the most popular local xc-trails provide small drops - followed by a very tight left/right turn. What this means is, that the drops has to be taken at very slow speed, punishing experienced riders who rides fast over drops. Don't punish fast riders!

Plan 3 steps ahead.
DO: See a trail-section in parts. Its easy to understand, hard to master. There is a start (green), a middle (blue), and an end (black). This can be applied to a trail that's 50m long, or 500 meters long, and anything in between. The important thing is to connect these sections in the best possible way. One have to complement the other, like a synergy.
Real life example: Ever been to Whislter? Or some place where every part just made sense, where the green blue and black part where working together in perfect harmony? Then you know what I'm talking about.

DON'T: Be lured by something that might look attractive as a trail (green or blue or black) but it just doesn't match with the other colors.
Real life example: I remember when a friend of mine found a really nice drop, with a good run-in, and a nice transition, after the transition however, there was a natural ditch, rumply ending any possibility for any further advance. So to use the color codes again; He had his green (fun run-in) and blue section (good drop), but the black section was missing(end).

Think of a trail in longer segments, then divide these segments into parts.
Here you have a single segment of a trail, divided into 3 parts:

Make it worth while.
DO: Reward the rider. Make the rider forget that pain in the legs during the climb, the prospect and anticipation of that sweet rewarding descend is worth the entire climb, two fold!

DON'T: Punish the rider. Don't demotivate the rider, to take that climb to the top, where all that awaits is a dull descend. Its ok to let the rider work for his carrot, but let that carrot be as sweet as possible.
Real life example: We all been there: climbing a  hard mountain to the top, just to see that the entire descend afterwards, is a dual track gravel fireroad.

Build stuff that challenge you beyond your "safety box".
DO: Build jumps and drops that seems to be just a tad too big or high/steep. Make stuff difficult. Within a few weeks you WILL be riding it, and even hitting it hard.
Note: Sketchy does not necessary equal fun. Challenge, however, equals fun.

DON'T: Build stuff that you can ride full throttle the very moment its build. There is no progressive challenge in that, and you will most likely get bored with this feature within a very short time. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.

Understanding kinematics.
This is probably some of hardest things to master. How a bike rolls, and how much energy it costs. But its also one of the most important things, as its a fundamental part if you want to achieve "flow". Some trail builders have a great understanding of kinematics - perhaps even without knowing it. Others, are completely oblivious about it, and build as if gravity didn't exist. It does however - and its all about taming it to an kinematic advantage. There is much more to be said about this subject, but I would probably run out of ink..
DO: Be smart, be clever, and use the kinematics to your advantage.

DON'T: Ignore the physics, ITS THE LAW.
Real life example: Too many to mention here, its a huge problem.

If it doesn't work, don't use it.
Sometimes, something just doesn't work. Its only human nature to fail once in a while, luckily its also human nature to learn from the mistakes.
DO: Have the ability to scrap a trail section, a drop, or a jump, if it isn't fun, or doesn't work. Its heart breaking at times, but its the right thing to do, and deep inside of you mtb heart, you know it.
Real life example: My (good) local trail builders told me of this 400m section they where building on for 3 months, cutting down trees, adjusting and test riding. But in the end it just wasn't fun. They took a deep breath, shed a tear, and abandoned it. 3 months of hard work down the drain. It sucks, but its for the greater good.

DON'T: Ignore what doesn't work. It will haunt you, and your fellow riders, and depress the overall joy on the trail.

Make the best use of the terrain.
DO: Take every advantage of the terrain possible. Squeeze the most out of it. Scope it not once, but twice, preferable three time, to make sure you take absolute best advantage of it.


One hill, two different lines, be smart about what line you decide to build.

Trail maintenance is not an option, its a MUST DO.
DO: Take care of your trails. Riding will be hard on your trail, and the trail will slowly die on you if don't groom you trail. Service it, and you will have a trail that works as intentioned. It might even get a bit better after some time.

DON'T: Ignore the importance of trail maintenance. The result will be a damaged trail, that will suck the fun out of it, and you can even risk permanent trail damage.
Real life example: Well, I bet you know a trail or two that hasn't been serviced for a while, and it tells.

Trail testing: (ADJUST or ABANDON)
DO: Test what you have build. Its simple actually; is it fun? Challenging? Does the flow work? If you can answer "No" to one of these points, then ADJUST or ABANDON.

DON'T: Underestimate the value of the test-riding and micro adjustments. Micro adjustments can make or break a line!

Build With Passion
Jack Nicklaus pretty much nailed it: "I'm a firm believer in the theory that people only do their best at things they truly enjoy. It is difficult to excel at something you don't enjoy."
DO: Build with passion, it will most likely reflect on the trail. Passion breeds quality.

DON'T: If you don't enjoy it - It will tell.

Hope you enjoyed this post, and my mad paint-skillz as well. This is my tribute to all the great trail builders out there, you guys rock. If you have a comment, something to add or critique, then don't be shy, bring it to the comments section, it doesn't require a sign-in.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey man, even though this isn't a new post, just wanted to say this is really good stuff! Found your post on MTBR a while back. Do you build trail anywhere?

  3. Hi there Mark. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it : ) I build here and there, wherever legal trailbuilding is possible.