One of the best parts about mountain biking is traveling to new places and exploring new trails. We’re all familiar with our local trails, but what about all the other surfaces you might encounter? Here are some of the most famous (and infamous) trail surfaces and how they affect your riding.
Rule #1. Moisture is good, mud is bad
It takes a little moisture to settle the dust and prime the soil for perfect days, but mud is a red flag. It not only destroys your bike, but it wreaks havoc on the trails we love. A good rule to follow: if you’re leaving ruts or tracks then today isn’t the day to ride. Even if you’re antsy and jonesing for a pedal, it will cost the local trail crew multiple days of fixing ruts and drainage issues. Oh… and the bad voodoo we as trail builders wish upon those who ride muddy trails? You don’t want that in your life. Promise.
Let’s break down surface conditions and how to deal with them starting with the shiftiest.
Riding in sand can be a real beach. It will grab your tires, take a jarring bite out of your speed, and always seems to appear right after a nice hard-packed section or on a corner. Prepare by shifting your weight back and steering with your hips while maintaining your momentum. Looking for a detailed play by play on how to tackle sand? We have a skills article for that!
2. Kitty Litter
A loose, gritty surface that’s not quite sand, not quite gravel, and usually the ground is rock hard underneath it. Definitely sketchy! You’ll want to air down the tires a touch and pay attention to your body position in corners, otherwise that front end can wash right out from underneath you. Another word of caution: it’s harder to stop on the surface, so initiate your braking early and keep it smooth!
Also known as: Dippin’ Dots
3. Moon Dust
Found in arid regions as well as non-arid regions after long periods without rain, it’s a deep fluffy baby powder-like dirt. It wants to swallow your front wheel, steal your momentum, and thoroughly coat the inside of your mouth and nose! Use your sand riding techniques, keep your weight centered/ back, and try your best to “float” over it. Luckily, the learning curve for this one is usually forgiving – taking a fall isn’t as brutal as other surfaces!
Also known as: Baby Powder, Blown Out
Truly black gold. Found in the rich forests of the Northwest, it’s a deep, dark soil made of silt, sand and clay with a hefty dose of decomposing plant material. The knobs of your tires reach their full potential here, digging in to allow for bar-dragging turns and powerful, controlled braking. But make sure you stay loose and ready, because loam is usually going to involve some roots as well!
Also known as: Brown Pow
These are the rockier trails where the rocks themselves are actually loose. Some are rounded, others more square edged resembling bricks, plates, or even big books. These are more difficult to deal with, because the rocks are moving and therefore can’t be trusted. Best advice: stay loose in the hips, keep your weight centered, and manage your speed without using a ton of front brake. Do your best to choose your lines wisely and prepare for your bike to buck to and fro beneath you.
Pro Tip: Put on headphones for these trails so you don’t have to hear the terrible sounds it makes when rocks batter your beautiful bike.
Also known as: Baby Heads, Chunder Muffins, China Cabinet, Brickyard, Bookcase
This is as close to pavement as you’ll get on a soil trail. It packs down hard, is prime for building flow trails, and rolls fast and smooth. You might encounter loose corners with tiny clay ballbearings, so mind your speed until you’re familiar! In high traffic zones, the tire tread will color it a bluish gray.
Also known as: Blue Groove
The non-moving, stuck in the ground type. They’re not all equal and they can’t all be trusted. Mountain biking around the country can give you a hands-on geology lesson with varying terrain, colors, and textures. Be prepared to encounter rowdy, steep slabs and off-camber lines, but when it comes to traction, each type behaves a little differently.
Weight your outside (downhill) foot when you’re on off-camber angles to help the tires hold traction and lose a few PSI in your tires for maximum grip. When it comes to steeps, look before you leap. Examine your entrance point and mark it with a couple rocks to help guide you. From there have a plan of where to go with the momentum and be mindful of the runout because you’ll be accelerating!
Loads of traction in most conditions, but rider beware: add a layer of dust to the equation and things can get slippery. Want to ride some world-class sandstone? Check out Moab and Sedona!
Also known as: Slickrock
The grippiest of rock surfaces offers traction even when wet – just beware when there’s mud or moss involved! It often has great shapes that make for some very entertaining bike techniques.
Also known as: Slabs
When dry, it’s not too bad, but introduce some moisture and things change. Limestone will get slippery and difficult when wet, so pay close attention to creek crossings and armored bits if it’s been damp or even mega humid! Stay loose, manage speed without dramatic front brake action, and make good choices. If I see a limestone feature with moss or moisture, I either skip it or walk it to avoid that surprise face plant potential.
Also known as: umm… Slippy Slabbies?
7. The holy grail of trail conditions: HERO DIRT!
Sometimes the stars align and the perfect combination of moisture, soil composition, and temperatures creates this magical substance. There’s no dust, no slop, just pure traction. Come to the trail ready for a taste of what it feels like to rail a corner better than ever before and nail the line you’ve been trying to hit. You’ll ride away knowing that you’ve experienced something magical and feeling like a true bike hero!
Also known as: Velcro Rojo, Primo, Sticky Icky, The Tacktastic Voyage
He’s a wild man with a wild plan, living the nomad life as a skills instructor and trail builder. With a background in moto and 15 years of mtb experience, he has tips for riders of all levels! You can find him leading Ninja clinics all over the country and on Instagram @vitabrevis
G2 Bike looks forward to many more of these clinics in this area.
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills is a warm and friendly environment to learn new skills and hone ones you already know....
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills is a warm and friendly environment to learn new skills and hone ones you already know. It's a non intimidating environment where mistakes are welcomed so corrections can be made. I own G2 Bike is Aliso Viejo and this clinic has been ran out of the Aliso Woods area and when I interviewed the clients they had all but great things to say. None arrogant instructors and easy to follow steps. The biggest bang for many was meeting new area riders at their skill level, gaining confidence, and getting the bike set up and fit properly. G2 Bike looks forward to many more of these clinics in this area. Thanks Richard for all you do for the MTB community! ~ AJ S.
I’m so glad I made the decision to be part of the Mulberry Gap 3-day clinic.
I'm so glad I made the decision to be part of the Mulberry Gap 3-day clinic. Richard and Randy are...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
I'm so glad I made the decision to be part of the Mulberry Gap 3-day clinic. Richard and Randy are really skilled at breaking things down, very patient and kind. They were very attentive to what each of us needed individually while maintaining a no-pressure, fun vibe. The place is beautiful, rustic and offers a great opportunity to unplug. It's the seemingly little things that make a big difference in your riding, and I feel like I gained some useful insight about not only being on the bike, but set-up and nutrition as well. ~Susan Tully
Highly recommended! Essential riding skills are thoroughly broken down making them easy to understand and learn. Coach Richard and Kris...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
Highly recommended! Essential riding skills are thoroughly broken down making them easy to understand and learn. Coach Richard and Kris are some of the most professional and pleasant coaches/cyclist/people I have come across. Looking forward to one of their future clinics. ~ Tom T.
We are a group of passionate, dirt-loving, community oriented, world class mountain bike skills instructors committed to helping you reach your personal riding goals through clinics and camps. We are excited to work with riders of all ability levels and share the joy (STOKE) of mountain biking.