Most mountain biking takes place on trails that are shared with hikers, equestrians and other outdoor enthusiasts. Since 1988, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) has offered the Rules of the Trail to promote responsible and courteous conduct on shared-use trails and to help everyone have enjoyable experiences.

Think of these rules as a mountain biker’s addendum to the Leave No Trace principles for all outdoor users. By embracing these simple guidelines you can be sure that you’re doing your part to respect both the natural world and your fellow trail users.

Rules of the Trail

  1. Ride open trails.
  2. Leave No Trace.
  3. Control your bicycle.
  4. Yield appropriately.
  5. Never scare animals.
  6. Plan ahead.

Ride Open Trails

In the past, riders who played by the rules opened up the places we all love today. With so many open trails available, there’s no reason not to find one.

  • Respect trail and road closures—if you’re unsure, ask a land manager.
  • Don’t trespass on private land—get a permit or other required authorization.
  • Never ride in areas protected as state or federal wilderness—it’s against the law.

Leave No Trace 

The primal appeal of mud doesn’t justify a splatterfest that damages the underlying trailbed. 

  • Muddy trails are vulnerable to damage — consider other options if a trail is soft.
  • Stay on existing trails — never create a new one.
  • Don’t cut switchbacks.
  • Pack out at least as much as you pack in.

Control Your Bicycle

Keep your head up and your adrenaline in check. When you see videos of riders seeming to defy the laws of physics, use them as inspiration to develop your skills.

  • Obey all speed regulations and recommendations.
  • Stay alert — inattention for even a moment can put yourself and others at risk.
  • Always ride within your limits.

Yield Appropriately

Mountain bikers navigate a desert mountain single track

Learn the rules below as well as the local rules, because conventions for yielding and passing may vary in different locations, or with traffic conditions. You want every encounter to be a happy one. 

  • Always let other trail users know you're coming — give a friendly greeting.
  • Anticipate other trail users as you ride around corners.
  • Yield to non-bike trail users (gently enlighten them if the trail is clearly signed for bike-only travel).
  • Yield to riders headed uphill whenever you’re riding downhill (gently enlighten them if the trail is clearly signed for one-way or downhill-only traffic).
  • Make every pass a safe and courteous one.

Never Scare Animals

A frightened animal can be both vulnerable and dangerous. The only thing that keeps animals safe from you is you.

  • Stay alert — animals are easily startled by an unannounced approach, a sudden movement or a loud noise.
  • Give animals enough room and time to adjust to you.
  • Use special care when passing horses — follow directions from the horseback riders (ask if uncertain).
  • Never disturb wildlife, cattle or other domestic animals.

Plan Ahead

A mountain bikers negotiates a leaf strewn forest singletrack

Learning the IMBA Rules of the Trail is a good first step. You should also research your trip and pack wisely — preparing well is always easier than triage on the trail.

Many trail systems use trail signs with the same symbols that ski areas rely on to mark difficulty: green circles for beginner-friendly trails, blue squares for trails suited to intermediate riders, and black (or, gulp, double black) diamonds for expert-only options. Visit Mountain Bike Project for a free, online trail catalog with more than 60,000 miles of searchable trails. 

Additional tips:

  • Know your equipment, your ability and how to properly prepare for the area where you’re riding.
  • Be self-sufficient — keep your equipment in good repair and carry supplies for changes in weather and other conditions.
  • Always wear a helmet and appropriate safety gear.
A mountain bikers zooms down a hill

About IMBA: A longtime nonprofit partner supported by REI, IMBA’s mission is to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences. IMBA has more than 200 chapters in the United States alone—these local groups help spread the word about good trail behavior, and they also do volunteer trail maintenance and trail building, helping improve the resource for everyone to enjoy. Find a group in your neck of the woods by visiting IMBA’s Near You web page.

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