How to Ride Trails on an Electric Bike
Trails have had a long history - the war between hikers and mountain bikers, and now the war between electric bikers and mountain bikers. With the new waive of transportation coming further into the United States, what should the rules be on the existence of ebikes on trails? And, if allowed, how does one act on a trail?
Should Electric Bikes be on Trails?
Mountain bikes have had quite the uphill climb when it comes to getting recognition for trails. While biking has been around for awhile, the sport of mountain biking really came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s. There were various bands of cyclists who focused on downhill riding. But, mountain bikers faced some controversy when they found themselves becoming excluded from trails. In part, it was because park services at the time weren’t sure how to regulate the new, mechanised sport. As the sport became perfected, and the advocacy of mountain bikers as recreationists became larger, the need for mountain biking trails soon came. There are now over 91,000 miles of trails in the United States.
So, why should ebikes be able to enjoy the same trails as mountain bikers, who have advocated so hard for the trails they currently have? And is there any increase in the damage done by trails due to electric bikes?
The main argument for electric bikes, based on browsing countless forums, is that an electric bike has a motor whereas a mountain bike does not. The idea of a motor may bring controversy. Is an electric bike no different than a dirt bike on a trail? Is it just as damaging?
Well, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) claims otherwise. On a preliminary study in 2015, the physical impacts of low-powered pedal assist eMTBs are similar to traditional mountain bikes. There is definitely still more research to be conducted, but it’s a sign. Now, I’m not saying go to your nearest mountain bike trail and start riding wherever you please; in fact, there are some areas where you can’t ride your eMTB on mountain bike trails.
So, what’s the problem with electric bikes? Even mountain biking guru and Stumpjumper creator Mike Sinyard has jumped on the e-bandwagon. To us, there’s nothing wrong with electric bikes. To others, that seems to be a different conversation (which will be featured later) about the perception versus the reality of electric bikes. No matter the perception or the research, electric bikes are still considered motorized in a lot of the country, which means that you're restricted to motorized or electric mountain bike trails.
Off-Road Riding Rules & Etiquette
When you’re riding on your ebike, there are some general rules to live by:
- Don’t use wet trails - if you’re leaving tire prints, the trail is too wet!
- Stay on the trail. Don’t go off the trails (even to pass), create new trails, or cut switchbacks. According to the Forest Service, cutting switchbacks or creating new trails can destroy habitats and create erosion.
- Always ride alerted. Be aware that there will be others riding around you, so you’ll want to make sure you’re communicative and courteous.
- Mountain bikers must yield to hikers, horses, and uphill traffic.
- Focus on protecting the environment; after all, it’s what is giving you the opportunity to ride there in the first place! Don’t disturb wildlife, teach others trail etiquette, minimize erosion, and don’t litter.
How to Act on a Trail
If you decide to pursue trail-riding with your electric mountain bike, consider the following to make sure you’re not stepping on any toes (or wheels, or hooves).
When Passing Hikers:
- Greet hikers early
- Reduce speed to hiker’s pace
- Pass slowly, but be prepared to stop
- Even if you call out, don’t expect the hiker to notice. People can be spooked easily if they aren’t paying attention.
When Passing Horses:
- Stop at least 30-feet away from the horse
- To show you’re not a predator or threat, greet both the equestrian and the horse.
- Ask the equestrian how you should pass the horse safely. Offering to get off your bike can make things easy.
- Pass slowly and steadily, but only after the green light from the equestrian. Moving too quickly or without notice can spook the horse, which can danger both you and the rider.
When Passing Cyclists:
- Announce your intention of passing. Keep it friendly. For example, “Let me know when it’s safe to pass.”
- On a single track or on narrow trails, yield by stopping to the side, putting one foot down, and leaning away from the trail.
- Be respectful. All users allowed on trails have equal rights to them.
- Always wear a helmet!
- Do not ride side by side.
- Stay at least 10-feet away from the biker in front of you.
- Blocking trails is dangerous. Stay off to the side if you need to stop.
- On access ramps, walk your bike.
- When passing, signal, call out, or use a bell.
- If people are visible on the trail, do not use your electric assist on level or downhill grades.
- If people are visible on the trail, do not exceed 12 miles per hour.
- If children or pets are within 100-feet of you, do not use electric assist.
According to this Currie Tech guide, the definition of an electric bike used is a low-speed ebike defined by the US Congress Public Law 107-319. It is a consumer product and not considered as a motor vehicle. It must have fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts. The maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170-pounds, is less than 20 miles per hour.
Are there electric bike trails?
An excellent reference that we like to use for customers (and ourselves) is on People For Bike's webpage. They have an excellent reference for where there are electric mountain bike trails as well as motorized trails.
As with any confusing topic, you should double check with your local land manager or park ranger.
In Michigan, we're noticing a couple of eMTB and motorized trail hot spots. In West Michigan, we're seeing that there are (9) USFS motorized trails in the Manistee National Forest. There are also about a dozen or so in the northeastern area of the state, which are all USFS motorized trails. In the upper peninsula, there are (2) motorized trails and there is one electric mountain bike trail. That trail is the Keweenaw State Trail in Laurium, Michigan. It's 48.81 miles long and is close to Houghton, MI.
U.S.F.S. - Mountain Biking - https://www.fs.fed.us/visit/know-before-you-go/mountain-biking
Currie Technology - eBike Trail Etiquette Guide
Marin Museum of Bicycling - Mountain Biking History - http://mmbhof.org/mtn-bike-hall-of-fame/history/