Over a Beer: Quit Hatin’ on Flow Trails

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

The existence of backcountry singletrack trails predates that of humanity, thanks to the routine passage of wild animals through key areas. When compared to animal-made singletrack, flow trails are incredibly new on the scene! Essentially, they’ve risen to popularity within just the past five years.

If there’s one category of things that everyone loves to hate it’s the new and the unfamiliar, and flow trails undoubtedly fit that category. As such, flow trails have plenty of haters, especially if you plunge deep into the recesses of internet discussion boards or Facebook comment threads.

Flow: engaged. Photo courtesy of Snow Summit Mountain Resort
Flow: engaged.
Photo courtesy of Snow Summit Mountain Resort

One of the main anti-flow trail arguments we hear almost every time we publish a flow trail article follows this general pattern:

“Flow trails suck! I hate that all the IMBAciles are dumbing down our old, technical trails, and turning them into flow trails. Flow trails are getting built everywhere, and we’re losing our technical, uber-difficult backcountry routes!”

The problem with this argument? It’s just simply not true.

First, let me clarify that I am staunchly and unrepentantly against sanitizing singletrack trails—especially when said trailwork doesn’t even help to improve the sustainability of a given trail. The odds of me writing an Over a Beer article on that topic in the near future are high, so stay tuned. But if you can’t wait, check out this older article for a teaser: “Sterilized Singletrack: A Spreading Epidemic.”

Pinning it down my favorite type of trail during the Crested Butte Ultra Enduro: rocky, gnarly, backcountry singletrack. Photo: Nick Ontiveros / BME
Pinning it down my favorite type of trail during the Crested Butte Ultra Enduro: rocky, gnarly, backcountry singletrack. Photo: Nick Ontiveros / BME

That said, the crux of the complaint above isn’t necessarily that trails are being dumbed down (that’s a separate complaint), but that flow trails are being built and that as a result, we’re losing our gnarly, backcountry singletrack. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that this argument is total BS.

It IS true that the vast majority of new singletrack being built is flow trail singletrack, or even flow trail lite—aka smooth, flowy trails. Thanks to my work with Salida Mountain Trails, I’ve been in closer contact with professional trail builders in my local area, and they’ve said that far-and-away the number one type of trail that they’re building in 2016 is flow trail.

See Also: Not all Flowy Trails Are Flow Trails

But here’s the thing: they’re not building these flow trails on top of old, historic, rocky expert lines. No, all of these flow trails are new construction. That means that this is new singletrack being added to existing trail systems and networks

Take a look at our 12 of the Best Flow Trails in the United States list. Of all the trails on that list, Ridgeline is about the only one that was a reroute of an old trail–but the original Ridgeline trail was essentially a flow trail before flow trails were a thing. The rest of the flow trails on that list are new networks that started as flow trails, or new flow trails built within an existing network. In fact, the addition of these trails is perfectly in line with my trail building treatise, “A Modest Proposal: Building Mountain Bike Trails for Everyone.”

If you think more deeply about the complaint above, you’ll realize how truly farcical it is, because an old, technical, fall-line singletrack is about the worst place imaginable to build a flow trail. But of course, if you’re an internet troll who never rides your mountain bike—much less on a flow trail—you wouldn’t know this. So let me explain it to you. If you’re trying to build a smooth flow trail, you don’t want tons of rocks—you want good dirt that you can sculpt into berms, rollers, and jumps. The trail must also have a very precise grade in order for the rider to keep enough speed for the features, but you don’t want to go too fast and overshoot jumps. As such, following an old fall-line trail won’t yield this grade. Also, the entire mountainside needs to be open to construction, in order to build the perfect flow trail masterpiece. Flow trails will always take a much more circuitous route down the mountain than an old school backcountry trail.

Because of all these factors, and the fact that basically nobody wants to do away with the old-school trails, essentially all flow trail construction is NEW trail construction. When flow trails get built, we get more trail overall, and don’t lose any of our old trails… and more singletrack is always a win in my book.

“More singletrack is always a win in my book.”

So what’s happening to all of the old school trails?

You want to know what’s happening to our old school singletrack? It’s fading away into oblivion because no one is riding it.

The trails are still there and they’re still open. Internet troll, if you don’t want to ride flow trails, you can still go ride the same classic backcountry routes that you’ve been riding–or at least, claiming to ride–for the past 40 years.

So why aren’t you? Why aren’t you shralping the snot out a rocky, chunky, skull-crushing fall-line descent?

Because we’ve observed what’s happening to these trails and over the years, they keep getting fainter and fainter, while the flow trails continue to get more and more popular. I know, because I ride ALL of these trails.


In short, the point of this column is to say that I’m sick of people complaining about new flow trail construction, because we aren’t losing any singletrack in the process—we’re only gaining new trail, which is a win in my book. And if you still want to ride super gnarly trails, that’s great, because they’re all still out there—unless a Wilderness area gets added. So grab your bike, head out the door, and actually ride them, and quit filling my Facebook feed with your ill-informed griping.

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