Storm Trail Damage

What Freeze-Thaw Cycles do to Trails

We all love to ride as much as we can.  With the weather we get here in Pisgah and most of Western North Carolina, it can be difficult to find the perfect time to get out and ride.  We do after all live in a temperate rainforest!  Fortunately, we are blessed with great sunny weather a good portion of the year to enjoy ourselves. The amazing array of trails right out our door is the reason we live here.

With the recent soggy summer and #Snowmageddon a very important question arises.  Why can’t we ride whenever we want? The answer is simple and that is SUSTAINABILITY! This does not just affect our trails, but all mountain bike trails across the nation.

Water wreaks havoc on trails.  Mix in changing temperatures, grades and variable soil composition and you have a real recipe for disaster when water cannot exit the trail in a timely manner.

As far as trails are considered, too much moisture is like kryptonite.  Misplaced moisture can really destroy trails.

Understanding that there is no secret Forest Service Trail Protector Force that goes out and maintains trails once they are damaged is key.  Those trails we all love and expect to be there the next time we throw our leg over our bike for a ride are all 100% maintained by volunteer groups.  In Pisgah specifically, over 400 miles of trails are maintained by various user groups.  A lot of people think they pay their taxes to the government and the Forest Service is out there fixing up the trails when they need work. Yeah right!

With shrinking budgets for our National Parks and Forests, I can tell you that this is just not happening.  In fact, here in March of 2018 The Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest unveiled a comprehensive proposal for public input. The Pisgah Ranger District Recreation Project 2018 spoke directly to the sustainability of certain trails in our region.

Some of those projects are being funded by a non-profit close to our heart named Pisgah Area SORBA.  We sit on the board of this amazing organization and although we are recent additions, they have secured over $528,000 in grants to help work on some of these projects.  Without the dedication of thousands of volunteer hours seeking grants, digging drains and rock armouring some very steep (AKA- fun!) Pisgah trails they would undoubtedly be closed for our use.

Making trails more sustainable does not mean they need to be boring.  They just need to last, not damage other environments, hurt any wildlife babies or create any major user conflicts.

OK, so back to the matter at hand- inadvertently damaging trails while riding in wet/icy/muddy conditions.



When I was a kid (and even more recently), I loved to go splashing through mud puddles on my bike.  Getting dirty was awesome and seeing the splash of my tires in the mud was super satisfying.  Since getting involved in maintaining trails I have come to realize just how damaging and long-lasting this can be.

To understand our current state of affairs, being December the nights get cold.  Currently, we have 10-20″ of fresh snowmelt trying to make its way off the trails. Aside from the obvious difficulty getting to the trails, with a massive amount of trees down here is what happens to the tread (surface) of the trail every day.

Freeze-Thaw Cycles Explained:

  1. The sun heats up the snow and it melts during the day, leaving puddles.
  2. The saturated ground freezes at night as the temperatures dip.
  3. Water expands as it freezes, blowing up the compacted trail soil.
  4. The sun heats up the blown up compacted trail soil and makes MUD.

If you ride, and you notice you are leaving deep ruts and mud is sticking to your bike go home.  Do not ride!  If you find yourself dodging puddles to not get muddy, then you are widening the trail and ultimately changing the trial on the fly.  This is a big no-no!  We want to keep single track single.

The other obvious issue with riding your bike in the mud is that it really does a number on it.  Save your bike and save the trails, turn around and ride another day!  Hopefully, the trails will still be there when you get back.

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Getting out and working on trails with your local organization is super satisfying, knowing you are a part of the sustainable solution. Photo: Tricia Davis on Bennett in Pisgah.

If you are not doing anything to help your local trail builders, maintainers or planners then you are PART OF THE PROBLEM, not the solution.

Get involved by looking up your local organization and joining them today.


-Thanks to Trail Crew Leader and all around nice guy Charly for cover photo![/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Matt

    This is so awesome! Thank you for the education?

    1. Chad Davis

      Glad you approve Matt! :)

  2. Paul H

    This is a great post and PSA to the MTB, hiking, and equestrian communities. Thanks for sharing.

    One component of freeze thaw that is worth mentioning is the specifically how it limits drainage. What I mean is that frozen ground will thaw at the very surface first as you mentioned. The crux of the issue is that since the soil below the surface stays frozen longer, the water at the surface has nowhere to drain. Mud by itself is bad enough. But when freeze/thaw prevents vertical drainage, it’s much, much worse. The especially pernicious part of all this is when it hasn’t rained for weeks, but each night’s condensation accumulates throughout the freeze/thaw weather.

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