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
I was actually surprised to learn so many little tricks!
Last Sunday I went to the Intermediate/Advanced mountain bike skills class in Malibu and loved it! I bike quite a...
Last Sunday I went to the Intermediate/Advanced mountain bike skills class in Malibu and loved it! I bike quite a bit and feel comfortable doing pretty tough trails, but I had never learned proper riding technique. This clinic focused on the skills needed to properly ride obstacles and how to ride them with maximum efficiency. I'm a professional drum instructor and I really enjoyed Richard's teaching methods. He not only showed us how to do something, but WHY we should do it. It really makes the information stick! Kris was great too, super motivating! I was actually surprised to learn so many little tricks and can't wait to practice them on my own! I'd love to go to another clinic or do a one on one session soon. ~Andrew T.
I love to ride bikes, and I love to ride them fast. After some years of road riding, I decided...
I love to ride bikes, and I love to ride them fast. After some years of road riding, I decided (read: my boyfriend suggested) that I should give mountain biking a try. And not just weekend lah-de-dah, pack-a-peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich mountain biking--I decided I was going to RACE mountain bikes. After all, it couldn't be THAT hard, could it? I mean, I knew how to ride/race a bike, I had great fitness, and I had a totally sweet custom-built race mountain bike (courtesy of said boyfriend). So I signed up for a local race series. Well, several races and countless crashes later (and, allegedly even some tears--although I will deny it to my grave), I wanted to put the kibosh on my mountain bike race career. I had so many cuts, scrapes, gashes, and bruises that you'd have thought I was trying to bring the "mummy" look back into style with all my bandages. (Honestly, I should have bought stock in Band-aids and Advil.) And those were just the external wounds.... My pride/ego and my psyche took a big hit, too, and not even my beautiful series overall winner trophy could take that pain away (yes, I did win, but it wasn't pretty). I just couldn't understand how I could be so terrible at something (ie, how I completely lacked the bike handling skills to navigate around a course crash-free). However, instead of heeding my calls to sell/destroy/part-out my mountain bike--which at that point I had taken to calling "That Stupid Bike"-- my boyfriend suggested that I take a mountain bike skills class with Ninja Mountain Bike Skills. (My boyfriend....he is so full of suggestions). So, in March 2013 I took the Beginner Level 1 class and, wow! Boyfriend's idea was great (for once)! What an amazing and transformative experience. I had...
Aaron Lucy ran an AMAZING training camp,even as an experienced rider I learned all kinds of new skills about corning,...
Aaron Lucy ran an AMAZING training camp,even as an experienced rider I learned all kinds of new skills about corning, technical riding up and down trails, even properly setting my shocks for my exact body weight and riding style! Aaron knows his stuff and I highly encourage anyone even considering a training session to get on it! I use the skills I learned almost constantly when I ride (about once a week!) ~Bruce Barnes
I recently took the intermediate/advanced clinic. It was excellent and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to improve...
I recently took the intermediate/advanced clinic. It was excellent and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to improve their skills. All the instructors were great and made the clinic very fun and informative. ~Greg E.
They took time to explain the reasons behind what they were teaching …
I recently attended the Ninja Mountain Bike Performance -Jumping mini-clinic on March 10 along with Sorellas Jean Miller and Robin...
I recently attended the Ninja Mountain Bike Performance -Jumping mini-clinic on March 10 along with Sorellas Jean Miller and Robin Allen, another lady, and a few good men. The instructors at the clinic went above and beyond for us ladies and the entire group. During the clinic the instructors demonstrated the skills multiple times and then let us practice as we pleased. They were excellent at providing insight and recommendations as to how we could improve. They took time to explain the reasons behind what they were teaching and the variances based on rider size and body mechanics. I cannot say enough how they helped us ladies figure out how to correct our body position and land the jumps exceptionally. At one point it began to rain and after making sure we wanted to continue, they made sure the conditions were safe, checking the ramp and ensuring our safety. We were unable to finish the trail part of the clinic due to the rain and risk of damaging the trails, which they were considerate of as well. However, the instructors are allowing us to continue at another clinic anywhere they teach. How awesome is that! Rarely will you get another chance to continue something once you start it. Just another kudo to this company. Professional, kind, knowledgeable and one of a kind. Just the key elements you want from a mountain bike clinic. Be sure and check them out, you will not be disappointed! ~Emily Davenport
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.