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How are Mountain Biking Trails Made?

A person in the middle of mountain bike trail.

As their name suggests, mountain bikes can climb mountains. Well, not exactly, but they can cover rough terrain, slopes, slippery trails, and significant downhill slopes. However, a bicycle is still a bicycle and cannot literally go anywhere. There does need to be some form of the trail for even a mountain bike to follow.

Making a mountain bike trail is a process that begins with planning and ends with signage. And a lot happens in between.

How are Mountain Biking Trails Made?

Making a mountain bike trail effectively begins with planning, which involves understanding the purpose of the trail, the nature of the riders, the proposed route, and the type of terrain. The first step in actually building the trail is cutting a rudimentary trail by cutting away vegetation and obstacles and digging along the slopes where necessary. After that, it is a matter of smoothing out the surface of the trail and making sure the run-offs are sufficient.

Planning the Trail

Group of bikers on a mountain trail.

Creating a mountain biking trail depends on a few important factors, which affect the way it is made. The first thing to look at is the purpose of the trail and at whom it is aimed. Then, you will need to consider the terrain and, finally, the features that the trail requires.

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Purpose of the Trail

It would, of course, be great to be able to create a mountain bike trail to suit every taste, but there are some commonalities that have to be built into trails so that they can accommodate a variety of styles and preferences.

Reading the Terrain

A small creak on a rocky mountain.

A mountain bike trail has to be designed very carefully in relation to the terrain. It is vital to read the direction and degree of the slope, the type of vegetation and soil, and any rocky outcrops or other obstacles. The designer must have a clear idea of where the trail can go and identify any features that they will need to get around, over, past, or through. Or if the obstacles can be removed.

Features of the Trail

A cycling biking on a forest trail.

There are four basic types of mountain bike trails: cross-country, trail riding, mountain, and downhill. Each of these has certain features, which will affect the way the trail is designed.  

Building the Trail

Put simply, building a mountain bike trail means marking the trail; removing any trees, vegetation, and other obstacles; digging away at certain areas to keep the surface of the trail relatively even and compact, and building bumps and run-offs as necessary.

In real-time, each stage has to be undertaken methodically and carefully before the trail can even be considered to be complete. Depending on the size of the trail, the building can be undertaken by hand, or on a large scale.

Securing the Base of the Site

A person on his mountain bike on a forest trail.

Not all mountain bike trails require the same approach to building. Some trails can be built on the site as it exists because the percentage of rock in the soil and the quality of the soil itself are suited to trail building.

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To build some trails, stones, and even soil may need to be brought in, to create a base for the trail that is strong enough. As the trail is built, it is essential to compact the soil and to let it settle before any traffic is allowed.

Equipment Needed to Build a Mountain Bike Trail

Any mountain bike trail will need some degree of ground clearing and shaping. To clear and dig will, naturally, require some special equipment. Not all the pieces are used in making all types and levels of trails.

Trail Dozer

A trail dozer is really a mini bulldozer, with an u-blade that is only 4 feet wide. The machine can move relatively quickly and pushes soil, debris, and vegetation out of the way efficiently. It is also the perfect machine for removing the topsoil to reveal the stronger under-layer of soil. A trail dozer is not efficient on slopes, though. This is why a rudimentary trail is usually cut through more challenging terrain that the trail dozer will follow.


An excavator is basically a digging machine. It consists of a cab and engine, with an extendable arm and ‘fist’ that is capable of digging and even picking up relatively big objects. This is useful to get rid of trees, rocks, and other obstacles.

Even before all of this, the first thing that an excavator is used for is to cut a basic trail along the contour of a hill. It can also be used to dig out areas and flatten rises and bumps. An excavator is also very useful to create run-offs to help to counteract erosion along the trail.

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A person using shovel to dig in the ground.

There are some aspects of a mountain bike trail that need a smaller, personal touch. A shovel is just the tool to use here. Think about a shovel as allowing a more careful touch to parts of a trail. You can move dirt and soil when it’s necessary to smarten up a jump or to set up some specific details.


When a substantial trail is made, it is often necessary to get rid of the vegetation, rocks, and debris. It may also be necessary to remove excess soil. This is when trucks are necessary to carry it away.

Marking the Trail

The final stage of making a mountain bike trail is possibly the most important. This is when all the information is set along the trail so that riders know where they are, what is allowed, and when to be careful.

Well-constructed mountain bike trails will have sufficient information at the beginning of the trail for the riders to take note of any elements they need to be aware of. Along the route, signage should clearly indicate the directions to follow and may communicate distances. When an object approaches, this must be clearly indicated to warn the riders.

Let the Rides Begin

Cyclists on marathon mountain bike race.

Once a mountain bike trail has been constructed, it is, of course, time for the riders to take to the route. The proof of the efficiency of the structure of the trail will be in the feedback of those that ride it. A well-built trail will become so busy it will eventually need some attention to keep it at its original standard. This is the mark of a successful trail.

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