Ready to Ride? 3 Trail Selection Tips for Beginners

Photo: Joseph Regner.

You have the bike and the gear, and you’re itching to get out and ride! But before you do, there are a few things you should know when it comes to selecting the right trails.

You may think you’re in shape since you’re a pretty active person. I was always outside hiking, running, or horseback riding before I started mountain biking, so I thought I was in good shape. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumptions!

This even goes for you road riders out there too. Just because you can climb a 15% grade and average 20mph doesn’t mean you have the fitness for a mountain bike ride (yet). Mountain biking is pretty similar to running an interval while carrying a 20 to 30 pound backpack up or down a steep trail in the woods. The bike is heavier than a road bike, there’s more resistance due to larger tire size, and now you have to maneuver your way around and over obstacles. Also, the mental fatigue is much greater than it is on the road. You need to have much more focus on the trail–no zoning out and pedaling.

Now on to the topic at hand: you want to ride, but don’t know where to go. Step one should be talking to someone at your local bike shop and seeing if they have any group rides or suggestions for trails. And step two should include checking out the trail database and forums here on

Warning: Ladies, if you have a significant other that has been mountain biking for years and wants to “introduce” you to the sport, do not ride with them your first few times. I say this out of experience. They may think they have a good idea of what trails to take you on. but they don’t. Ask them if they know any girls that ride, or a shop ride you can go on. Your first rides can be very frustrating, and will most likely cause arguments. This will lead you to not only resent your significant other, but mountain biking as well.


So without further ado, here are 3 things you should ask about/look out for when it comes to deciding what trails to ride:

1. Technical difficulty of the trail

Photo/rider: mtbgreg1.

Is the trail very rocky, or does it have a lot of roots? You will inevitably encounter rocks and roots–you’re in the woods, and it’s going to happen. A few here and there are manageable, but I have run across trails where the frequency and quantity of these obstacles are too often and too much. You want to avoid this: the smoother the trail, the better for your first few rides. Some parks use the same rating system as ski resorts,:green circle being the easiest, and double black diamond being the hardest. If you ride at a place like this, start with green circles and make your way up. If you’re bored and/or comfortable on those trails, progress onto others.

2. Amount of elevation gain, and exposure

Are there large hills on the trail? Are there any elevated bridges? Are there any sections of trail where the ground becomes a cliff on one side? A trail can be as smooth as a baby’s butt, but if it has a hill that goes on for four miles at a 20% grade, you will hate yourself. That’s not a fun way to start your first few rides.

Also, elevated bridges, like three or more feet off the ground, still scare the bejesus out of me, so I am sure they might intimidate you. It would be nice to know that these are on the trail so you’re prepared for them.


Lastly, the cliff effect: a trail can be easy, but if one side involves falling to my death if I happen to fall off my bike, I get really freaked out. This is often called “exposure,” and it’s normal to get a little freaked out by it.

Hans Rey riding the cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

3. Length of the ride

How long will this ride be? You may think that you’re ready to be on your bike for two or three hours, but in the beginning you’re definitely not. The ride could be perfect for you, but you will get tired mentally and physically if you’re on the bike for a long time. I recommend limiting your first few rides to about an hour in length, and then build from there. There is nothing worse than being exhausted and stuck out in the middle of the woods with another two-hour ride back on your hands. Don’t be afraid to pipe up and tell the other people you’re with what your limits are.

When in doubt, riding smaller loops close to your car is better, so that you can get back in case something happens or you want to bail.

Parting Thoughts

Mountain biking is about enjoying yourself and nature. If you’re scared of a section of trail, please get off your bike and walk. There is no shame in walking… it’s better than a hospital trip!

Also, make sure you have plenty of food and water with you. Mountain biking is way more demanding on your body than you might think, and you’re going to get hungry and thirsty.

Your Turn: What tips would you give a beginning mountain biker?

You can learn more about me and my story by checking out my blog at

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