Ed Sutton Explains The Art And Science Of Trail Building

Ed Sutton has been building great trails professionally for 18 years.

Have you ever ridden a trail and wondered how someone designed it to be fun, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing? For Ed Sutton, the owner of Trail Dynamics based in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, trail building is both an art and a science. Ed has been building trails professionally since 2002. He cut his teeth on the trails of DuPont State Forest, and he, along with his crew, have worked on trails in 20 different states and three different countries.

For Ed, trail building was a natural progression from mountain biking.

“When I started riding, it was natural for me to look around and think about how I would use the natural topography and features if I was building a trail. It was something I started thinking about when I was riding.”

Ed’s background as a forestry major at NC State, and his work experience as a forester and arborculturalist gave him the knowledge and skills to succeed as a trail builder, but being at the right place at the right time helped launch his trail building business. Ed and his buddies had been doing volunteer work on the trails in DuPont State Forest for a little while in the late 90s when the park put out bids for professional trail work. They got the first contract, and the rest is history.

I caught up with Ed recently when he was here in Tallahassee working on one of our local trails. He explained to me the process for how he selects his projects, and how he creates the world-class trails he’s known for.

Each project must have a positive impact on the community

Trail Dynamics gets a lot of project requests every year. Since Ed only has himself and a crew of three full-time employees, he has to be selective. He prioritizes doing projects that are on public lands or are open to the public.

“We are hoping that our trails will grow the sport of mountain biking, and also provide an economic engine for the community.”

Ed cites to the work his company did on the Fire Mountain Trails in Cherokee, North Carolina, as an example. “When we got the opportunity to work with the Cherokee Tribe, we were excited because we knew they didn’t have any trails. We knew there were some local riders there that had to drive an hour and a half down to Brevard. So when the tribe found a piece of property and put out a bid for trail construction that was super exciting. We knew that community really wanted those trails, and really needed them.”

Ed and his son Rudy competed in the 2019 Fire Mountain Enduro. Photo courtesy of Ed Sutton.

In fact, the Cherokee Tribe had been looking for a way to diversify its income, which was being solely derived from a casino at that point in time.

“The chief asked me at the beginning of the project what I thought the impact of the trail would be. I told him I would love to see three things happen within the first year. A race promoter come and have a mountain bike event there. Number two, it would be great to see a bike shop come to Cherokee. And the third thing is, it would be great to have a brewery. We have a bike shop there, we have a race that’s in its third year, and we have a brewery coming. Those three things have happened, and it’s only 12 miles of trail.”

Ed also enjoyed the Fire Mountain project because it involved building new trails from scratch, which is his preference.

“We enjoyed Fire Mountain the most because they gave us the widest latitude in terms of creativity. They had no limitations. They just said go out there and make great trails. It was a blank canvas, which is the best scenario you can have as a trail builder.”

What does the customer want?

Bikes are an important tool for Ed’s business because he uses them to understand what his customer really wants.

Before Ed and his crew ever start working on a project, Ed first learns what the customer wants.

“You have to listen to your customer. It’s not about building the trail you want. Hopefully, you’re all going to be on the same page, but, in the end, you have to make sure you give them what they want.” Ed ensures he knows what his customers want by spending time riding with them before he ever starts a project. “I’ll spend 3 or 4 hours on the bike, letting them go in front of me. I tell them to take me to their favorite trail, and to take me to a trail they think isn’t a good trail and tell me why they think it isn’t a good trail.”

Ed knows from experience that he’ll get a much clearer understanding of what his customers want by spending time riding with them than having email conversations using MTB terminology that can mean different things to different riders.

“Sometimes, the words that we throw around in the sport may not be all that accurate when you get out [on the trail]. Words like ‘flow’ and ‘technical’ are dangerous words. Someone can say they like a really tight trail, and when you go and ride with them you realize they are 6’5″ and used to play football. So what they think is a really tight trail is really quite spacious to you. In a few hours of riding with a customer I can learn more than in a year’s worth of emails and texts about what they like and don’t like.”

For Ed, the trail building process is like composing a song

Ed and his crew, along with Eric Mason, Trails Supervisor for the City of Tallahassee (grey shirt), use hand tools and machinery to create their trail designs.

Ed, who is also a musician, compares trail building to creating music. “I feel like my crew and I are almost a band. We’ve been working together so long we know each other. We know who can play each instrument the best. So when we go somewhere, the first thing we talk about is what kind of rhythm are we going to have. We try to have a good rhythmic feel to all the trails we build.”

That rhythm can take different forms depending on the specific trail, and the land that it is built on.

“Each trail is different. We have to decide what type of trail we are going for. Are we going for a more flow-style trail? Or are we going for a trail that will be more technical with a lot of features. We all try to get on the same page like a band would do if they were performing together. We might be playing different instruments, but we are all sharing the same vision.”

Once the work is done, Ed rides the trail to get a feel for its rhythm. If it doesn’t feel right, he’ll go back and change it. “With our crew, we’re not afraid of telling each other it doesn’t feel right, or it’s not working and we need to go back and re-do it.”

Variety is the key to great trails

Ed and his Trail Dynamics crew are dedicated to building trails that offer riders a unique experience. Photo courtesy of Ed Sutton.

Ask Ed what the most popular trend in trail building is right now, and he is quick to respond.

“I think people are looking for variety. They are looking for a combination of rhythm flow trails, and trails that mimic traditional singletrack with lots of natural features or man-made features. We try to design each trail as an original design for the specific location we build it in. We’re not trying to reproduce anything we’ve done before.” Ed’s ultimate trail design is one that blends wood, rock, and dirt features together “to create an experience that is very unique and like no other trail you’ve ever ridden.”

Mountain bike technology has also raised the bar for trail builders. “It’s a challenge for trail builders to meet that, and trails now take more time to build because people are looking for quality. They are looking for features that are really well-designed and well-built. So trails are getting more expensive, but they are also getting better. Customers have to realize that the trails they are looking for today take a lot of time [to build]. You have to blend skills together to create these trails.”

Those of us who regularly ride the trails Ed and his crew have created can confidently state they provide the fun and excitement every rider craves, while preserving the beauty of the land they inhabit. Ed truly combines art and science to create trails that will help grow the sport of mountain biking for years to come.

Share This: