How to Deal with a Bike Trail Booby Trap

Learn how to identify trail traps and find out what to do if you encounter one on your next mountain bike ride.

photos from top: Jessee Horton, Pix11

Over the summer it seems there was a rash of trail terrorism cases in the news, which understandably left many mountain bikers feeling uneasy. And these trail booby traps weren’t just showing up in a particular part of the country; everywhere from North Carolina and North Dakota to Colorado, New Jersey, and the United Kingdom have been hit in the past 18 months, seemingly at random. There was even a false report of a trap targeting mountain bikers in Alberta, Canada, which only added to the anger and confusion within the mountain bike community.

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So what should someone do if they come across a dangerous trap on a mountain bike trail? Here are some tips for dealing with trail booby traps, along with some advice for identifying a true trap vs. unsafe conditions that may be due to natural causes.

Dealing with a trail trap

If you’re riding a trail and encounter a suspected trail trap — for example, a trip wire strung across the trail or a concealed strip of nails — stop immediately and alert the riders behind you to the danger. Assuming you don’t need immediate medical attention yourself, watch the trails for others approaching and warn them well in advance.

Next, consider how you might document the obstacle to share with law enforcement officials. Again, making sure that approaching riders are aware of the trap, take photos that show the danger as it exists. This is important because it can help investigators determine if the trap was deliberately placed (more on that later) and may help identify a pattern based on other incidents in the area. These photos can also help show other riders what to watch out for when riding local trails.

After taking photos, begin dismantling the trap and making the trail safe again. It’s unlikely a CSI team will come in and collect evidence, but do your best to act as if this might be the case. Of course the main objective is to make the trail safe, but consider wearing your bike gloves to preserve fingerprints and retain any man-made objects that were used in construction (wires, metal plates, or masonry, for example.) If small items are used in the trap — like nails or screws — throw these into your pack or at least stash them in an obvious spot beside the trail where someone can find the items later.

photos, clockwise from top: Tim Fishback, Twelve50 Bikes, and Alan McKinstry.

Once the trail is safe, be sure to contact authorities — law enforcement, a park ranger, or land manager — as soon as possible. This helps establish the time the crime may have occurred and ensures the incident is documented. Even if there is little to go on or it’s unclear whether an actual crime was committed, the documentation will help if another incident is reported in the area in the future.

After officially reporting the incident, reach out to your local club to let them know what you found. Give as many details as possible, including the photos you took, and point them to the official report you filed with the authorities. The local mountain bike club will want to reach out to their members to alert them to the danger, and they may be able to help identify potential witnesses. Post the info to your social media channels as well, and reach out to news outlets if warranted. The idea is to keep other riders safe and also to apply pressure that may ultimately lead to the arrest of the perpetrator.

Always ride with caution

This should go without saying, but ride with caution, especially after encountering a trap on a local trail. As mountain bikers we often get lulled into complacency by things like one-way trails and good sight lines that are designed to minimize surprises. Not only that, our local trails are intimately familiar so we feel safe to push our limits there. But don’t let that give you a false sense of security.

I’m not the type of person who likes to instill fear in others, and that’s certainly not my intent with this article. However, the fact is that on ANY ride, ANYWHERE we can and will encounter unexpected obstacles. There could be a hiker right around every corner, a tree might’ve fallen across the trail overnight, or an owl might swoop down and claw you in the head (this happened to me while jogging one night). Scout every jump to make sure it’s safe, even if you’ve ridden it dozens of times.

This is also why smart people will continue to implore mountain bikers to ride in control at all times. If we’re riding so fast and out of control that we can’t react to unexpected obstacles, there’s a chance it will end badly. Ride assuming there is something unexpected around every corner.

The most insidious trail traps are the ones that can’t be seen, even at reasonable speeds. For example, nails and fishing line are tough to see even when standing still, and a Swiss-Family-Robinson-style, leaf-covered hole will nab slow and fast riders alike. There’s no need to ride in constant fear of these unseen obstacles, but if you’re aware of a recent trap in your area, it’s not a bad idea to exercise additional caution.

Don’t assume everything is a trap

It’s easy to get caught up in thinking every dangerous spot on a trail is related to trail terrorism based on the number of reports that came out over the summer. Statistically speaking, however, it’s highly unlikely that any of us will encounter a deliberate trail trap while mountain biking. Again, dangerous conditions can and do exist on mountain bike trails, so we should always ride in control and remain vigilant, regardless of whether trail terrorists are on the prowl.

Is a rock sitting in the landing zone of your favorite jump a case of trail terrorism? Maybe, but it’s also possible the rock just got dislodged by the last rider. Nature has a tendency to re-arrange things and make a mess of trails, too. If you’re not sure if you should be concerned about something on the trail, get a second or third opinion. Other riders should be able to let you know if you’re being overly paranoid or if you’ve identified something that’s truly concerning.

Finally, keep in mind that the fact that we’re seeing a lot of news about trail traps targeting mountain bikers doesn’t necessarily mean it’s becoming more commonplace. Remember, this is the social media age where pretty much anyone can share news with audiences far and wide. Sites like Singletacks and even national news media can then easily pick up these stories, whereas in the past the information might have gone underreported. And in some cases, like this one, trail trap reports may have been falsified to begin with.

Bottom line: ride safe and be alert. If you do find something suspicious, document it, make the trail safe, and report the incident to authorities.