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mtb_trail_science

If you’ve ridden a new mountain bike recently you know there’s a ton of technology built into almost every bike part imaginable. From carbon fiber handlebars sloped to precise angles to hydraulic disc brakes and nano-engineered tires, it’s clear that serious research goes into building the best mountain bike equipment. But it turns out that bikes aren’t the only thing getting a boost from science and engineering these days: trails and trail building are becoming high tech too.

Environmental and Social Research

At the IMBA World Summit I got a chance to hear about the latest and greatest in trail planning and building and I was blown away by the academic rigor behind seemingly simple ribbons of dirt. For example, did you know there’s a field of study known as “recreation ecology” full of PhDs who study the impact of recreation on the environment? These guys and gals set up experiments to measure the impact various trail users (hikers, bikers, equestrians) have on the environment (erosion, wildlife, plants, etc.) and run regressions to find correlations. While this field of study is fairly new, most of the early reports show no statistical difference in environmental impacts due to hikers and bikers (good news).

Recreation ecologists also set up sociological experiments to see how trail users interact with the environment. In one example, researchers wanted to know how signage affected illegal trail usage in a particular park. They put up signs and observed who ventured off trail and even surveyed folks in the parking lot afterward to learn more about their trail choices. This study in particular found that signs aren’t very effective at keeping folks on the official trails so it’s back to the drawing board to find a better way to manage illegal trails.

Trail Use Data Counts

I have to admit I’m a big data geek and when I heard about trail traffic counts I got pretty excited. Companies like Trafx make trail counter systems that can detect when mountain bikers enter or exit a trail and the data can be analyzed to understand trail usage patterns. In fact, you may regularly ride at a trail with a counter system in place without even knowing it (most systems are unobtrusive). At Blankets Creek in Woodstock, GA, trail managers have placed counters at the trailhead and at the entrances to three loops to see how things like weather and trail design affect usage. We’re hoping to take a closer look at the Blankets Creek data for an upcoming article.

Trail Building Techniques and Best Practices

Finally, there’s a lot of technology and research that goes into creating sustainable trails through chronically wet areas. Wet conditions are the number one enemy to trail maintainers so groups like IMBA have developed methods for improving conditions where trails go through low lying areas. It turns out the best method for improving a wet trail is to add a solid foundation which involves digging a trench along the trail, filling it with rock, then covering it with native soil. Sound time consuming and difficult? It is. And yet, many of us zoom along the trail and have no idea what went into making the trail so fast and flowy. To give you an idea of the difficulty involved, typical construction costs for bike trails are in the neighborhood of $3-5 per foot (that’s about $15 – 25K per mile) but a foundation jacks that up to $10-15 per foot (as much as $80K per mile)!

These days even dirt is becoming high tech and the trend only seems to be accelerating. The upshot is more sustainable, fun trails are being built all over the world for mountain bikers to enjoy on their high tech rigs!

This is the first of a series of articles from the 2010 IMBA World Summit held earlier this month in Augusta, GA.

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# Comments

  • Goo

    I just can’t help but think that the people that are making trails that cost $15-20k per mile (not to mention 80) are just plain doing it wrong. There are grassroots trail systems all across the nation built by volunteers for next to nothing.

    -Greg
    http://gregridestrails.com

    • Luke Forder

      There is a trail near me that cost £130000 with a pump trail and it is only 1.5 mile long. WTF is no a bad ride for a small hill but the cost…

  • seenvic

    I can’t believe I just read that.

    The difference between a volunteer built trail and a professionally built trail are night and day. The $80K per mile is certainly extreme, and is not typical. I’d say this entails bridges, steep mountainous terrain…places and situations volunteers with pulaski’s would be out of sorts and simply couldn’t build. Here is a link to some expensive looking trails. http://www.trailbuilders.org/projects.html While these are not typical MTB trails, it gives one an idea of $BIG per mile type of trail project.

    Even run of the mill trails are better when built by professionals. Trails in the SE don’t cost $15K per mile, but could if it had alot of structures. $2 per linear foot is about the bottom, although I did see a 9.6 mile trail get built locally for $80,000. Builder lost money on it.

    The beauty of professionally built trails is that they are done right, are built FOR you not BY you (you can ride, go to work, live your life) while the trail is being built. An example of this….we built 25 miles at FATS in 7 months.

    Examples of professionally built trails that I think folks in the SE have ridden. Some of these were 100% professionally done, some are hybrid professional/volunteer.

    FATS, Blankets Creek, Chicopee Woods, Hickory Knob State Park, DuPont SF has many miles of professionally built trail, the Santos jumping stuff was built by IMBA Trail Solutions, Jack Rabbitt Trails, Sope Creek MTB Trail, outside the SE….Allegrippis Trails in PA.

  • Goo

    Of course the professional trail builder will have objections. But you’re already proving my point by saying that $80k is outrageous, and the avg. cost in the area is $2 per foot, which is $10,500 per mile where the previously quoted low-end was $15-20k which is 50-100% more than the price that you quoted Seenvic.

    So for arguments sake lets look at the 25 miles you put in at FATS in 7 months. At $15k per mile the cost would be $375,000 and at $20k it would be $500,000 as compared to $262,500 at $10.5k. We’re talking a big difference in prices here Seenvic. And now $80k per mile… that’d be $2,000,000 for 25 miles.

    So the price you quoted was substantially lower than all of the prices in the above article.

    Now, if developers and land managers see figures like that (the above article) when they think of adding mountain bike trails, we will never see more singletrack than we have now.

    Also, the trails you listed are good. And FATS is really good. You have made a great point. But i still stand by my original assertion that some of the best trails I’ve ever ridden have been volunteer-driven masterpieces.

    -Greg

    PS I’m not trying to make any personal attacks here, I’m just looking at the economics of all of this. I’m sorry if you took my initial comment as one.

  • trek7k

    One thing I’ll add here: The guys from Blankets Creek mentioned they spent around $50-60K for the newest loop out there (5 miles or so?) and estimated it would have taken them 3 YEARS to build it by hand using volunteers. Instead they got a new loop in just a few months.

    Time is money and building new (sustainable) trails has a big cost no matter how you do it.

  • seenvic

    We agree that $80K per mile is high. I think I called it extreme. I have never ridden a trail or seen one that should have cost $80K per mile. But I can imagine one. It would be steep, wet, have alot of bridges with materials helicoptered in. It would be armored like the trails one sees in Scotland or Wales…..almost every inch rock armored.

    FATS was easy building. Is there anything at FATS that looks like the pics I showed from the PTBA site. Anything? If so, point it out to me. You are comparing apples to oranges.

    We built all 35 miles at FATS with $325K and 2000 volunteer hours. It is still a work in progress as I go over there all the time doing stuff we would have done had we had more money. If I was in this for the money, we wouldn’t have built 35 miles for $325K, I promise. The $325K includes all the signs you see our there and the parking lots! I am confident in saying that FATS would not be there if it was up to volunteers. But even if we could have pulled this off as volunteers, we’d still be out there building it….four years later. Or we’d have a loop or two, not 6 loops making 35 miles. We would have not hosted the IMBA Summit, not have a 75 car parking lot. Very little economic impact and certainly not the one we have seen in the last 4 years.

    I didn’t take you comment as a personal attack. I took it as niave to say that MTB trails that cost $3-$4 per foot are “wrong”. $80K per mile, we agree for the most part is extreme, but $3 per foot is not. This is niave. $3 per foot in say the Pisgah district would be a DEAL!

    I gave you a list of trails that were professionally built. Many I know you have ridden and loved. Now do me a favor and give me a list of the best trails you have ever ridden that were volunteer constructed. Name a few of them.

    I have ridden quality volunteer driven/constructed trails. But for the most part, they are just ok. I’ll throw these out there: Tribble Mill, Baker Creek (I built this as a volunteer, with other volunteers), Augusta Canal Trail, Mistletoe State Park. I wouldn’t make it a point to return to any of these trails. If I was nearby, I’d ride them, but I am not going to seek them out. I don’t think any of them are as good as what the USFS built in the 70’s around here, or what we’ve built (with money) since then.

    I’ll close with this. I got into this thing as a volunteer. When I did my first major trail project, I learned that for my area, volunteers simply could not get this work done. So I started a trail building company and now we get paid to do this work. My reasoning was in America, capitalism is the best way for most things to get done. Trail building is no different. From where I sit, and from what I’ve seen in the last 10 years, it is still true.

  • trek7k

    One more thing about the $80K number: it’s just a projection of the cost per foot for laying a trail foundation. If a trail needed a mile(s) long foundation, it probably wasn’t sited correctly at all. Foundations are only necessary in wet areas so most systems only need a few hundred yards or less.

    The IMBA guys giving the presentation talked about one trail that actually cost $100K per mile that involved culverts and tons of dirt. They said it was more like a road project than a trail project but it was necessary for environmental reasons. Hey, if someone has the cash, then why not?

  • Goo

    Sure, fine, I definitely don’t have as much experience as you or a lot of people. And point about the speed that the trails were built well taken.

    However, as to my original point, it’s still a lot of money. There are some areas of the country that could in no way afford to spend that much money on a trail system. As I am “naive” I can only speak about areas that I know well, so I’ll take the county I grew up in. My dad is the county forestry and parks administrator, and manages/oversees the expansive forest, parks, trails, etc for the county (no state or federal land) (and the counties in Wisconsin aren’t like the dinky little counties here in the Southeast — they’re large). I know the financial state of the county, and there is no way they will ever be able to spend $35,000 on building a trail, much less $350,000. In fact, there currently is a policy in place banning the building of new trails of any sort anywhere on county land, for just that reason.

    Now, anyone from the Wisconsin/Minnesota/Northern Illinois area knows that Levis Mounds (on County forest land of the county in question) is one of the best if not THE best trail system in the Midwest. It was built from the ground up by volunteers, and mainly by two men, both of whom I know, and one of whom I know really well. The latter has been a friend of the family since I was too young to remember, and he got me into mountain biking when I was in high school. I’ve heard the story of how the trails were built and the evolution that they’ve gone through.
    The thing is, I didn’t know how good those trails were until I left and moved around the country. I learned to ride on those trails, but I didn’t realize that I had pristine, beautifully built singletrack in my backyard. Being in central wisconsin they don’t have the massive vertical gain or big downhills of the rocky mountain, but as far as quality trail construction and creative engineering complete with plenty of “Holy crap” sections, well, let’s just say whenever I go home for a visit I bring my riding shoes.

    In conclusion:
    1) Apparently not enough money for trails of your caliber
    2) Trails are the best I’ve ever ridden
    How does that work? Awesome volunteers.

    But as you mentioned, volunteers like that are few and far between.

    -Greg
    http://gregridestrails.com

    PS sorry if that was a bit long winded.

  • BonkedAgain

    I can’t argue the cost aspect of this debate, but as far as quality trails go, here in Colorado I lean toward volunteer built trails as being better. I suppose the main reason for that isn’t necessarily because they were built by volunteers, but more because the volunteers were passionate about making trails that are fun to ride. Much of the pro built trail around here is built as general use trail, simply intended to get people away from the parking lot. They may be well constructed, but they aren’t as fun to ride as the volunteer built trails. The pros weren’t tasked to build fun MTB trails, so they didn’t (and some of the builders I know of wouldn’t be capable of creating fun MTB trails even if they were contracted to build them).

    Then again, Curt Gowdy State Park in Wyoming hired pros (as I recall, IMBA for design; Singletrack as builders) and they knocked out something like 30 miles in a couple years. Instant trails! And the place has a great reputation for biking. They hired people who knew how to design and build biking trails and turned them loose.

    So I guess my point is, when it comes to good biking trails, it all comes down to the individuals doing the design, whether pro or volunteer. You can throw all kinds of money at a project, but if the pro designer just doesn’t get mtb trails then you will get forgettable trails. On the other hand, if you have the ability to throw lots of money at a project and you get the right people for the job then the results can be great, and you can be riding those new trails right away.

    Do I hear trail tax, anyone? The OHV crowd around here gets tons of trailwork done, and it is mostly funded by taxing OHV rigs. That may rub free-spirited bikers the wrong way, but you can’t argue with the results.

  • seenvic

    Great discussion. Add Raccoon Mtn to the list of outstanding volunteer built trails.

  • soezgg

    Does IMBA or some national entity keep track of trail building costs? It’s hard to do analysis on the costs and benefits when we don’t have aggregated data on expenditures.

  • trek7k

    @ soezgg: Yes, IMBA provided the cost per linear foot ranges used in this article. In fact, IMBA has its own (non-profit) trailbuilding arm called Trail Solutions so they have direct access to the data. The problem is that costs can vary widely depending on site conditions which makes it tough to talk about expenses in a general way.

    One stat I’d like to see is a range of volunteer hours required to build a mile of new trail.

  • mjvande

    “most of the early reports show no statistical difference in environmental impacts due to hikers and bikers”

    This is pure BS. I showed these reports to three different professional statisticians. They all said that that “research” is BS. Jeff Marion, for example, throws out part of his data (the “inconvenient” part, no doubt) before tallying his results. He also deliberately omits discussing research that doesn’t support mountain biking. Can you spell “bias”? None of that “research” would get a passing grade in any undergraduate course in scientific methodology.

    But I understand your predicament: if you told the truth, no one would support mountain biking!

  • seenvic

    VANDEMANN! OMFG! They let you out of the nuthouse?

    Banned in 3….2…1…

  • Goo

    Woa, what is going on here? “This is pure BS. I showed these reports to three different professional statisticians. ” Who are you and how do you have said reports?

    And @ trek7k’s comment “One stat I’d like to see is a range of volunteer hours required to build a mile of new trail.”

    That would be an interesting statistic to see. But again, it probably depends a lot on where the trail is constructed etc. etc. I remember reading articles about trailbuilding in Vernal, Utah where they essentially just rode old cow trails alot and they turned into singletrack. But if you’re doing backbreaking benchcutting, armoring, etc. it’d definitely take a lot more time.

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