Here on the North Shore we're very lucky to have a trail network that's rideable pretty much all year round, save for the few weeks (or even days) that we get some snow cover. Many places, some not that far from here, are unrideable for 6 months of the year due to snow or just soil composition that doesn't hold up well in the wet. That said, just because we can ride all winter long doesn't mean we should do so without giving some thought to what we're riding.
The ground here on the shore drains pretty damn well - a lucky fact given how much rain we get here, but some trails definitely are more suitable for wet weather riding than others. We spoke to Sarah Mcleod, Trail Director at the NSMBA to learn more about the do's and don'ts of trail riding through winter.
If the trail looks like this, it might be best to avoid it
Q - What are some good examples of wet weather trails and how can we know or decide which trails we should be riding on a wet day? Also can you give an example of some trails that really don't hold up well in the wet? Are there entire areas we should stay away from or key things that we should look for?
A - It's actually not as complicated as I think everyone makes it out to be! The beauty of the north shore trails is that most of them are rock- and wood-heavy, which is ideal for wet weather riding, so it’s almost easier to list the trails that you should avoid riding in the rain. Trails that are mostly dirt – the Expressos, Lower Digger, Pennzoil, and John Deere, for example – should be avoided. Other trails that are closer to loamers – Bookwus and Pile of Rocks – are also bad candidates for riding in the rain. Loam-style trails are made up primarily of organic material – a dark brown, spongy dirt – that drains quite poorly, and therefore takes a pretty good beating when ridden in the wet. As for areas to stay away from, the north-east side of Fromme – Kirkford, the Griffins, and Floppy Bunny – tends to get mushy pretty quick in the rain. Something about the make-up of the soil makes these trails less likely to harden up!
Q - The soil drains pretty well here right? How long should we wait before riding other trails that maybe don't hold up quite so well?
A - Again, it’s a lot less complicated than you would expect! As long as you’re not riding in the pouring rain – think “atmospheric river, weather warning” type rain – you’re good to go! For those loam-style trails, I would avoid them for a couple days to let them fully dry out, but the mineral-soil trails shed water pretty quickly.
Q - What can happen if we ignore this advice and just go ride whatever we want when it's raining?
A - When we build or maintain trails, we’re always focused on ensuring proper drainage. Rain and running water cause erosion faster than any other factor (including e-bikes! Sorry die-hard acoustic fans), so we’re always making sure to build drainage features like reverse grades and knicks into the trail every 10ft or so. The mineral soil packs down enough that it will harden and shed water quite well – so the good news is the answer to your question is: not too much! That being said, fresh dirt that hasn’t had the time to set up properly will not drain the way it’s intended to – instead, we get that oh-so-nice peanut butter soup. If you’re noticing soft sections on the trail you’re riding, find another one! Disturbing that squishy dirt will only introduce more moisture, which further delays the trail in setting up properly. Again, loam-style trails are much more susceptible to damage in the rain, so with continuous disturbance during rain events, you'll start to see those tire-eating holes between roots as the organic material packs down. They're also much more difficult to repair, so avoid riding them in the rain at all!
Q - Obviously riding dirt trails in the wet can ruin the trail surface, but are there other environmental/ecological factors that are less obvious (but equally important)?
A - On the north shore, it always comes back to water management. A huge factor we see here is continual braiding of trails – cutting corners and riding off the trail surface. When braids open up – whether by riders or by hikers – they create new pathways for the water to flow, often disturbing and eroding both the trails and the forest in an uncontrolled way. While we try to keep the water off our trails, we’re always conscious of our impact on the rest of the forest. With more braids opening up, we have to spend our time closing those down, when we could be working to make our trail network better! If you’re really going after that Strava KOM, do it right and don't cut corners.
If you know the trail is going to be covered in standing water, maybe try riding a different trail
Q - Is there anything else I haven't thought of that you'd like to talk about regarding sustainable winter riding?
A - If you just have to get that KOM during an atmospheric river, please consider signing up for a trail day with the NSMBA or donating a trail boost to offset your impact! Every bit counts to support our trails. And if you ride the north shore trails, become a member of the NSMBA. The trails might be free to ride, but ensuring they stay rideable is not!
Thanks Sarah for clearing things up for us, the consensus seems to be that unless it's actively pouring down, a lot of the trails around here are good to go, but to avoid some of the dirt-surfaced trails ie John Deere and the Expressos when it's actively raining, in favour of riding more rock-armoured trails. Give the trails a day or two after rain however and most things are pretty rideable. As always, use your best judgement and if something looks like either a swamp or peanut butter, it's best to avoid it until things dry up a little.
As always, please consider buying your NSMBA membership or donating, and consider signing up for a trail day. You can read more about wet weather riding on the NSMBA's website here. For those that aren't aware, Steed Cycles is the TAP (Trail Adoption Program) sponsor for lower Fromme trail Pennzoil; you can read more about our 2022 trail days here - stay tuned for our plan for 2023, we'd love to see you at one of our monthly trail days starting in the spring!