One (meaning, I) would intuitively think that a couple mountain bikers riping down a dirt trail would do more damage than a couple gently walking through the same scenery, but recent research suggests this isn’t the case, and that walking may be just as – or even more – damaging than mountain bikes.
In this article from the UK’s Mountain Bike Rider, author Jamie Darlow assembles evidence including a recent study in the US (and another in Australia) in which researchers specifically compared erosion from hikers, horses, motorbikes and off-road bikes on trails.
They watered the trail to simulate wet weather and each group passed over the ground 100 times. The result? Not much difference between walking and MTB. The horses and motorcycles did cut up the trail though.
The Australian study was a physical impact study in Tasmania from 2013, which also found no difference between the impact levels of mountain bikers and walkers.
The third and final study cited was from Jeff Marion of the USGS, which looked at 125km of trails in Big South Form National River and Recreation Area, in Tennessee and Kentucky. After comparing equestrian, walking, mountain bike, and ATV trails, Marion found that the mtb trails showed the least erosion, and further computer modelling showed they suffered less soil loss, too.
Unfortunately, the work in Australia also showed that, when a trail was wet, very steep or riders skidded more, erosion was worse. In fact, water could be the biggest trail destroyer of all, according to the Montana research, eclipsing the impact of either wheels or feet.
Regardless of this research, everyone agrees that biking and even hiking on wet, muddy trails is damaging, especially this time of year as the snow melts and rivers swell. When that mud dies, the ruts and footprints could be there all summer long, baked in for the season.
Gatineau Park and Camp Fortune are not opening their trails until May 15th this year, thanks to our great winter of snow, and the OMBA is asking riders to stay off the trails at South March Highlands and elsewhere in the Greenbelt until things dry out a bit more. Limerick Forest seems to dry out pretty quickly though, so check it out if you’re jonesing for a ride!