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Ever since i starting reading MTBR (probably sometime in 1998) I've read people scolding others not to ride in the mud because it destroys trails. And I've read other people saying that mud riding is okay in some places, but not in others. So is it geographical? Is it okay to ride in the mud in certain regions, but not in others? Or does it have to do with the "kind" of mud, or other features of the terrain?
The reason I ask is that I've always ridden in the mud because the people who taught me how to ride have always ridden in the mud and I've never heard anybody locally say anything about it being destructive to ride in the mud.
So what gives?
(I live and ride in New England, if that matters.)
 

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Granny Gear Guru
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There were places I rode when it rained in Northern Michigan without severe damage. I will not ride in the rain in Northern Alabama (where I am now). I am sure it would destroy the trails.
 

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As you noted, it's all about the type of mud.

Mud in many northern California areas near me is really sticky clay. You will pull up half the trail on your tires leaving large ruts which then dry rock hard and stay all year until they are worn down or it rains again (which it almost never does during the summer). It also doesn't dry very quickly so you have to be careful about riding even a couple days after a good rain or a even weeks after a long rainy spell.

Other areas have decomposed granite that doesn't sticky at all and quickly drains back to normal. I've also seen thin, oily mud that doesn't come up in chunks and the trails barely seem to be affected. I'm sure there are plenty more types too
 

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This is an interesting conversation to me. Scott O is saying nothing south of the Mason-Dixon line and it appears that boomn is saying if it is a soil that is highly composed of granite it will drain quickly and much safer to ride on. Atlanta and the greater Piedmont region of Georgia sit right on top of huge subterranean granite reserve and visible outcroppings. The region has a high level of granite in the soil. Does that make it less damaging to the trail in this area? Scott O, what is your statment based on.
 

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smell the saddle...
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I’d agree that is mostly dependent on trail bed strata. Here is the far south; our local trail is built upon spoilage piles from an adjacent man-made canal. The trail bed is mostly clay with some parts sand. When it’s wet, it’s slick and slimy – will rut and eventually harden like carving a trench in concrete. This takes some riding and more rain and wear to eventually smooth out. On another trail we sometimes ride has a higher concentration of sand with hard packed dirt. While it may get muddy in spots the higher concentrations of sand will not form ruts, thus it is a perfect trail to ride after lots of rain. I don’t have much experience in rock mixture soils or others that may also react differently in wet conditions.

The typical rule here has always been to construct trail that sheds water efficiently which will allow for riding not long after rain. Of course, get enough of rain and there isn’t much you can do. Personally, I have tried to ‘smarten up’ our trail with new routes to by-pass low spots to allow for riding shortly after rain. In a sub-tropical climate you have to be diligent on trail construction or you will never ride. Far too often though, I’ll ride a different trail and witness poor drainage or bad routes that doesn’t allow for proper flow of water.
 

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It depends greatly on where you live.

Here in the UK, if you don't ride mud you get maybe 10 rides a year. So people ride mud and by extension chew the hell out of any trails that haven't got gravel or slabbed surfaces, which the well funded trail centres all have. Other trails take a lot of maintanence which is a pain, but a known one, the alternative is to not ride. Building trails with decent drainage helps too.

As for environmental damage, here it's an irrelevance really, the bushes and scrub you have to clear to make trails grow so fast (thanks to all that rain) that if you abandon a trail for even a few months it grows back to the point you would never know the trail even existed. Cutting down trees without permission gets you all kinds of trouble, so that doesn't happen. There are a few areas of sensitive land in the UK, but they're usually fenced off completely and pretty small. We certainly don't anything like Moab's 'crust' to worry about.
 

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since 4/10/2009
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It heavily depends on soil conditions, slope of the trail, relief of the terrain, frequency of precipitation, and freeze/thaw cycles.

I have not ridden clay-based soil anywhere that did not respond poorly to precipitation of any kind. Small particle sizes absorb a lot of moisture and don't infiltrate rapidly. Some types of clay even expand/contract SIGNIFICANTLY as soil moisture changes.

If the trail is mostly rock with some clay between the rock, things seem to do better where there is more rock content. But there will still be places where clay content is very high (like the bottoms of the hills) and those places will still respond poorly.

Sandy soils respond much better. They have relatively larger particles and water infiltrates rapidly. The larger particles mean for larger pore spaces which keeps the water moving. Sandy soils do not retain moisture well so they can be ridden in wetter situations (and in fact, many are better when they're somewhat wet).

Heavily organic soils respond poorly. Organic material acts like a sponge. In some places with heavy organic content, the soil remains wet all the time.

Hilly terrain can mitigate some factors. If a trail is on a poor quality soil, but it is located on terrain that drains water rapidly via sheeting, the trail can handle rain better.

Trails in floodplains are especially difficult. You've got typically poor relief, you're very close to the water table, you frequently have high organic content, and there are frequently small size particles in the soil (silts and clays). Don't play with water on these trails EVER. It's always bad.

You also need to keep in mind freeze/thaw cycles. The same process that creates potholes in the pavement also heaves soil, which can partially decompress the packed soil on trail tread. When it thaws out again, it has increased capacity to retain moisture and the mud is especially bad. But what can be worse is when only the surface of the soil is thawed, but the lower layers are still frozen. That frozen layer acts as a barrier to moisture, preventing the soil from draining and drying out. Then you have to keep in mind that the plants are not yet absorbing moisture from the soil so the soil has to drain even more moisture.

There are a lot of variables if you want to approach the situation from an analytical perspective.

Sometimes, it's better to keep things simple. If there's mud on your bike, it's too wet to ride. But, it can also be too wet to ride, but the mud does not stick to the bike. In those situations, you'll still be leaving quite a rut. I've heard guidelines that if you leave a rut at all, don't ride or if your rut is deeper than 1/2", don't ride. I think those are all good to keep in mind.
 

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Don't ride in the mud in New England, unless it's a race if you value your life.
It's hell on the bike too.
 

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Vaginatarian
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not sure where in NE you ride but its frowned upon in NH, Mass. VT. and Maine
if you're leaving ruts its not good
 

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stumonky said:
Hey Nate - are you a Geography major also?
I have backgrounds in biology, geology, geography, and statistics. They all mesh together well for studying environmental science (my current master's level major).

I'm strongest in biology, then geography (especially GIS), geology, and finally statistics. Most of what I mentioned, though, is just from observing trail conditions (keeping in mind what I've been taught). I've worked on trail projects in sandy soil, clayey soil, and rocky soil. I've worked in floodplains, in MI (where freeze/thaw cycle is a big deal), in Texas, Utah, and in the southern Great Lakes states (IN, OH, Western PA). I've seen a lot of different environments for trails and it just helps me put words to the observations that "it depends."
 

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Terrain Sculptor
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I think all the people who think it's OK to ride in the mud should make sure they spend the recommended 20 hours per year doing volunteer trail maintenance . ( I know, everybody should.)

When your hard work goes to fixing up some trail that's been trashed because people insist on riding in the mud on trails that weren't designed for it, rather than building some spectacular new line, then you can rethink whether it's a good idea to ride in the mud.

Yep, some trails can handle it. Some can't.

If you can't tell if your riding is damaging the trail, maybe you shouldn't be out there.

If you can tell but you go ahead and damage the trail, you definitely shouldn't be out there.
 

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Would you rather spend your volunteering time fixing ruts or building new trail? I know my answer.
 

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where i ride is on the canadian shield which if you dont know, is very very rocky so it dries very quick. if it rains one day, its dry enough to ride the next
 

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Pedaler of dirt
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I grew up riding muddy trails shared with horses and hikers. Trails so messed up that there wasn't much to distinguish them from a freshly ploughed field. I'd spin like crazy in the lowest gears just to cover a mile with mud flying every where. I switched from rim brakes to disc just to give me more mud clearance.
These were high use and old (+100 years) trails running through and around farms that had used them to drive cattle, sheep, horse and carts. They're still there, the trails, even after mountain bikers found them and started to ride them. They don't look any different to how they were 30 years ago when I started to use them. Nobody manages them (apart from removing the odd fallen tree) they just persist.

Not sure what my point is other that I think some folks get over sensitive about muddy trails and to be honest it's just dirt.

Do you think you're protecting the environment by not riding muddy trails or just preserving a smooth surface for other riders?
 

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Birdman aka JMJ
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Trail Ninja said:
I think all the people who think it's OK to ride in the mud should make sure they spend the recommended 20 hours per year doing volunteer trail maintenance . ( I know, everybody should.)

When your hard work goes to fixing up some trail that's been trashed because people insist on riding in the mud on trails that weren't designed for it, rather than building some spectacular new line, then you can rethink whether it's a good idea to ride in the mud.

Yep, some trails can handle it. Some can't.

If you can't tell if your riding is damaging the trail, maybe you shouldn't be out there.

If you can tell but you go ahead and damage the trail, you definitely shouldn't be out there.
+1. Invest some sweat equity with the local TM group. They will let you know what's okay and what's not.

JMJ
 
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