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
They’ve helped build my confidence and competence!
Coming from a triathlon background I had spent most of my time on the road, though I did have a...
Coming from a triathlon background I had spent most of my time on the road, though I did have a few seasons of cyclocross under my belt. I was a novice mountain biker with just enough confidence to get myself into trouble on the trails. I started by attending the free Tuesday night mountain bike workouts at Balboa Park, led by Coach Richard. While these are primarily geared toward building fitness, we learned some skills tips and I met some cool folks. Since then I've taken the intermediate and advanced skills clinics, as well as raced a couple times. Coaches Richard and Kris are great at instruction, which is not easy. Most great riders cannot teach others to do the same, but these two are exceptional at it. They've helped build my confidence and competence. In fact they have taken time during weekday and weekend rides to help give me pointers! I joined Team Ninja to train and race with this fun crew and would highly advise you check them out! ~Henry H.
All in all, you couldn’t get more for your money than this clinic.
This clinic was PERFECT for me…as a very experienced roadie but pure beginner on MTBs, Richard’s instruction was clear, detailed,...
This clinic was PERFECT for me…as a very experienced roadie but pure beginner on MTBs, Richard’s instruction was clear, detailed, and specific, so that I could start to get the feel of how to work effectively on trails instead of asphalt. Jeff (a former elite cyclocross racer) also joined us and added some solid hints and comments. All in all, you couldn’t get more for your money than this clinic. ~ Mike Sofen
I highly recommend their skills camps, and plan on attending more …
I've been a recreational mountain bike rider for a few years, and have been riding on single track, but never...
I've been a recreational mountain bike rider for a few years, and have been riding on single track, but never had any formal training. I just finished the weekend skills course in Irvine, CA with Richard, Randy and Daniel as the instructors. They are excellent instructors breaking every fundamental skill down, demonstrating the skill and then evaluating your practice runs with constructive criticism before applying the skills on the trails. Even though I have been riding single track for a few years, I quickly found out that I have been doing many things if not everything wrong, which means the people I ride with are doing it wrong too. Richard, Randy and Daniel are very patient and professional encouraging every student no matter what the age or gender (our class had males and females from late 20s to late 50s). They went over everything from bike set up, basic position, turning, high speed cornering, wheels lifts to you name it. If you have a desire to improve your skill then Ninja Mountain Bike Performance are the team to go to! I highly recommend their skills camps, and plan on attending more of their camps in the future. ~Kyle Kimm
Just finished the Intermediate/Advanced course. I had previously taken the Beginning course about a year ago. I was not disappointed....
Just finished the Intermediate/Advanced course. I had previously taken the Beginning course about a year ago. I was not disappointed. The preparation and lesson planning is great. Instructors seem to be everywhere providing input and excellent advice. Both groups had a wide range of skilled riders, but the team made everyone welcome and everyone learned important new skills. This training makes everyday more fun on my bike. DAY 2: Just rode one of my "regular" morning workout routes. 2 PR's - and I thought I was just cruising. I was making no effort to ride fast... just smooth like I was taught. ~Peter O.
….and I thought I already knew how to corner (ha, ha!)!
Congrats to Richard, Hannah, Bernadette, Cory, Shana and company for a great clinic covering many skills, all practical, in a...
Congrats to Richard, Hannah, Bernadette, Cory, Shana and company for a great clinic covering many skills, all practical, in a great environment for learning . Your professionalism, skill and experience in teaching, choice of terrain to teach in, and enthusiasm all made this a totally worthwhile experience. I would do it again and again as you never stop learning. ....and I thought I already knew how to corner (ha, ha!)! ~James Crawford
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.