Original Article + photos within the article by @NTXTrails.com (accessed online at https://ntxtrails.com/who-has-the-right-of-way-on-mountain-bike-trails on Monday, July 20, 2020, 7:38pm)
Many new mountain bikers are seemingly surprised by the presence of hikers and walkers on their local mountain bike trail. When these encounters happen, one of the first questions a novice rider has is, “Who has the right of way?” The answers are simple, yet not always obvious.
Hikers vs. Bikers
Here in North Texas, most of the trails are open to both hikers and bikers. Yes, even the ones built and maintained by off-road associations and organizations. What you’ll soon discover as you ride is that many of the trails in North Texas direct hikers and bikers to use the trail in opposite directions. For instance, bikers might be told to travel the trail in a clockwise direction while hikers are to use the same trail in a counterclockwise direction. This is to help hikers and bikers more easily see one another on the trails, and to help prevent bikers from coming up behind hikers and startling them.
Having said all that, the fact remains that on most trails hikers have the right of way. Unless the rules of a specific trail indicate otherwise, you are always better off assuming hikers have the right of way on the trail. This means to be diligent to pay attention and keep an eye out for hikers, slow down when you encounter them, and offer to move out of their way when you meet them on the trail. For the most part, hikers will typically be the ones to step aside and allow you to pass because they recognize you’re bigger than them, moving much faster, and it’s easier for them to give you room to pass than for you to do so. Just don’t ever assume that since many hikers will give up the right of way that they all should.
Always be courteous and never expect a hiker to give up ground when they do not, by rights, have to. This means even when you’re traveling through a particularly gnarly technical section or a steep downhill. Even if it’s hard to stop, the hiker still technically has the right of way, so always be prepared to stop. We suggest installing a bike bell with a loud, clear ring so that you can clearly announce your presence when you come upon a hiker. (Yes, this even means for the dude with headphones blaring so loud he never noticed your presence.) If you don’t have a bell, call out your presence as best you can.
Be polite. Say, “Hello,” or, “Have a great hike!” Ask them if they need anything if they appear to be in distress in any way. Offer water to hikers you find who are not carrying a water bottle. Above all, if a hiker is a jerk to you, don’t be one back. Keep your cool and ride onward. Choose to be a good ambassador for the sport of mountain biking, even toward those who don’t deserve it.
Horses vs. Hikers vs. Bikers
Though the majority of trails in North Texas do not allow horses or equestrian traffic there are a handful that do. This is especially true if you’re out riding one of the area greenways as most of them do provide for such traffic. As a general rule, both hikers and bikers are to yield to horses. This is mainly to prevent startling the animals and thereby injuring both the horse and the rider.
When you do encounter horses on the trail, proper etiquette dictates that you slow down before you come near equestrians. In some instances it may be better to stop altogether until you’re sure the rider sees you and either motions for you to move or tells you how you should act. Realize that some horses have literally never seen a human riding a bike before so it’s possible for your presence to spook them, especially if you appear threatening or come upon the horses so quickly the rider has no time to calm their steed.
If you come up behind horses and wish to pass, slow down and announce your presence [often 25+ feet away]. [Inform] the rider you’d like to pass, ask them how to best pass—whether you should you pass slowly at the next available spot or get off your bike and walk by the horses—and wait until the rider instructs you on how to safely pass their animals.
Uphill Bikers vs. Downhill Bikers
Many of our trails in North Texas are one-way trails, so encountering one another on a steep incline is somewhat rare. However, some trails in the greater North Texas area are in fact two-way trails, so it’s a definite possibility you’ll find someone traveling opposite of you on a hill—especially if you ride trails outside of the immediate DFW Metroplex.
Though counter-intuitive to some riders, the biker heading uphill has the right of way unless the trail rules specifically state otherwise. This is due to the fact that it’s harder for the uphill rider to restart their climb than it is for the downhiller to get rolling again. Obviously, the downhill rider has gravity in their favor.Nevertheless, let’s be realistic and understand that there are times when a downhill rider simply cannot safely arrest their momentum. If a rider is bombing down a steep hill and tries to come to a quick stop, chances are they’re going OTB whether the like it or not. If you’re the uphill rider in this situation, give them some grace and understanding even though you technically have the right of way. Do both yourself and the other rider a favor and step out of the way to prevent a head-on collision and a trip to the ER for both of you.
Not sure you understand what some of the terms in this article mean? Check out the NTX Trails Glossary of MTB Terms and Slang.
Faster vs. Slower Riders
When you come up behind other riders and want to pass, use your bell and announce your desire to pass. Keep in mind that unless you’re actually in a race, your trail ride isn’t a race. And no, your Strava record doesn’t matter. Courtesy always trumps any attempt to set a PR or grab the KOM/QOM. Honestly, no one really cares about that but you.
As with approaching a hiker, use a bike bell if you’ve got one and announce yourself. From there, it’s up to the other rider(s) to either stop and let you pass, move aside on a wider trail to let you pass, or make you wait until a better place along the trail to let you pass. The rider in front of you has the right of way, period. Are they being a jerk if they refuse to let you pass? Yep, but it’s their right to be a jerk. So, don’t be that guy.
Be awesome to your fellow riders as you pass and make sure they’re doing OK. Ask if they need anything, especially if they look worn out, overheated, need mechanical help, or otherwise seem in distress. Pass courteously when you’re given the chance and say thank you.
Keep the Trail Clear
Along your ride, it’s not uncommon for you to need to stop for any number of reasons—catching your breath after a hard climb, taking a water break, dealing with mechanical issues, etc. When you do need to stop for whatever reason, don’t stop in the middle of the trail. If you are no longer moving, you no longer have the right of way and are expected to yield to all traffic.
Shift off to the side of the trail as best you can, and if you’re at the start or end of the trail make sure you’re not blocking the entrance or exit. Always be aware of your surroundings and don’t be a danger to riders coming along who may not see you in time to be able to stop or avoid hitting you.
Leave No Trace
Finally, remember that one of the main rules of trail usage is to leave no trace. This means that if you do need to step to the side of the trail to allow another user to pass, do your best to not step completely off the trail surface and disturb the surrounding habitat. Accidents happen, so don’t feel guilty if you crash into the brush or unwittingly step off to the side too far, just do your best to be diligent and stay on the trail.
Have fun, ride smart, and keep shredding!