The process of building a trail is arduous and frustrating, but also immensely satisfying. For the last two years I’ve been working on a flow trail on a hill on my 70-acre property, and the ability to plan my own line and turn it into a reality is something special. It’s not all fun and games though; there’s never a shortage of friends wanting to know when the trail is ready to ride, but they all seem to miraculously dissipate when you ask for a hand on a dig day. The plight of a certain little red hen is often bought to mind.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes during the process, so here’s my guide to help you avoid them, and how to get started on your own trails as soon as possible.
Location, location, location
I’m in a fairly fortunate position of living on a large property with large rolling hills, so accessing the land to legally build isn’t an issue. If you live in the city, your options are more limited. You can’t build in national parks, and when the local ranger discovers them, they will be destroyed. In fact, your only real options are to request special permission from your local council member, or find someone you know with private land that you can beg to let you transform a corner of it. If you can’t find anywhere to legally build your trails, why not help out your local trails’ maintenance groups on their weekly, monthly or yearly dig days? It’s giving back to your mountain biking community, and you’ll still get the unbeatable feeling of sending a sweet feature that you built from scratch.
Find some friends
You can’t do it alone, so find some mates who are as committed to riding as you and offer them an equal partnership stake in your trails. If you have a core group of people committed to building your trails, you’ll still enjoy those days when your blanket invite doesn’t yield any extra helpers.
It’s always good to have a plan, but you’ve got to be able to go with the flow. If you start with a concrete plan, chances are when start to build a berm, you’ll find you’ve read the fall of the hill wrong and the trail won’t feel natural. I’ve found it’s easiest to plan a few major features to start with and then link those with a basic track, and then improvise as you go.
Build obstacles above your skill level
Whats the point of building a trail if the end result doesn’t push your skills? Build obstacles that scare you, so you don’t get bored.
We’ve all seen the footage of Dan Atherton going crazy with his 20-tonne excavator, building the tough downhill course, Hardline, at a rate of knots, but this is probably not a realistic goal for most of us. Trail building is hard work, and most of your energy goes into benching the trail, rather than building sick features.
Get the right tools for the job
Make sure you start out with the right tools for the job, and enough of them. If there is a group of you, you’re going to need a couple of mattocks, shovels, an axe, and possibly a whipper snipper. Builders without tools are just spectators, so you’ll be wasting your time.
There’s never a shortage of friends wanting to know when the trail is ready to ride, but they all seem to miraculously dissipate when you ask for a hand on a dig day.
Compact, compact, and compact again
Here in Australia we have loose dirt that doesn’t hold up at all to the abuse dished out by a mountain bike. You need to toughen it up with lots of water, and lots of compacting. When it dries out, compact it again. At times I’ve needed to resort to driving over features with my car, just to get them hard enough.
Just because a berm looks great, doesn’t mean it rides great. Make sure you test each and every feature, and more importantly, how they link together.
Don’t give up
Trail building is like any strong relationship: it takes commitment. You can’t give up just because it’s hard. There will be days when it doesn’t seem worth it, but in the end, you’ll be glad you followed through. Don’t be afraid to take a day off the build site and just go riding.