Do E-Bikes Damage Trails?

When it comes to riding your mountain bike on your favorite trails, you do leave a small footprint, which does damage the trail in a minimal way.

When it comes to riding your mountain bike on your favorite trails, you do leave a small footprint, which does damage the trail in a minimal way. Trails are small pathways through wooded areas or up and down mountainsides. Trails are made as people walk or ride through the same path repeatedly. Eventually, the grass will disappear, and the ground will look like a small dirt road. But what about e-bikes? Do e-bikes damage trails too?

Yes, electric mountain bikes damage trails, but the damage is very small and insignificant. IMBA did a study in 2015 that says electric mountain bikes do as much damage to trails as traditional mountain bikes do. Trails get damaged from use, and even walking down a trail will cause small amounts of damage to it.

With that said, the heavier modes of travel cause far more damage than walking or biking through trails. Methods of travel like horseback, dirt bikes, ATVs, and other vehicles are the leading cause of trail damage. 

As you continue to read this article, we will go over how a trail gets damaged. Furthermore, we will be discussing how electric mountain bikes damage trails and how much damage they cause while comparing them to other modes of travel on trails. Finally, we will discuss how to minimize trail damage and how trails are restored. 

What Causes Damage to Trails?

Hiking and biking on trails have been popular hobbies for decades, and it always seems like both of these popular forms of travel have been at odds with each other. For example, hikers will claim that traditional and electric mountain bikes cause too much damage to their favorite trails. On the other hand, the mountain bikers claim that they are not doing as much damage as the hikers claim; many say that the hikers do more damage to trails than the mountain bikers. 

The simple fact is that using a trail in any way causes damage. Whether you are a hiker on foot or a mountain bike enthusiast, when it comes to this widespread debate among hobbyists, many studies have been conducted to end this controversy.

Many of the studies that have been done over the years have been conducted in numerous different national parks on a wide variety of trails. What's more, most of the studies will claim that mountain bikes do not damage the trails as much as the hikers say. Most of the studies will claim that mountain bikes do the same damage to trails as hikers on foot. Some studies even say that hikers do more damage, and only a handful will say that mountain bikes do far more damage.

The most damage caused to trails by hobbyists is after it rains. Wet and muddy dirt is much more pliable and will likely have indents made by both hikers and bikers. Once the trail has dried up, the holes made by the people who use the trail right after it rains will remain. With that said, the best time to go on your favorite trails is when it's nice and dry. This is when the dirt is packed and flat, which will allow for the least amount of damage to occur. 

Do Electric Bicycles Damage Trails?

The short answer is yes; electric bicycles damage trails much like any other form of travel. Not only that—when comparing an electric mountain bike to a traditional pedal mountain bike, their damage is nearly identical. 

Electric mountain bikes are about 10 to 20 pounds heavier than pedal mountain bikes, and technically speaking, electric mountain bikes do more damage to trails than traditional pedal mountain bikes. However, the difference in damage is extremely minimal and is almost unnoticeable. In the grand scheme of things, 20 pounds is not a whole lot, and the damage done to trails by this 20 pounds is negligible.

If you compare the damages caused by electric mountain bikes to hikers on foot, the damage is virtually identical. However, this changes if you compare one person on foot and one on a mountain bike. In a one-on-one comparison, a mountain bike of any kind will do more damage than a hiker on foot, but the difference is tiny. 

There are far more people who enjoy hiking on foot than people who prefer to ride their mountain bikes on trails, and every trail is different. Some trails will have more people on foot, while others have far more bikers. In these instances, it is evident that the primary form of travel will do the most damage.

Regardless of your method of travel down a trail, you are doing some damage to the trail in some way. However, the heavier you are, the more damage you will do to a trail. For example, riding a horseback or a four-wheeler, you are much heavier than anyone on a mountain bike or foot. Therefore, horses and four-wheelers do vastly more damage to a trail.

How to Prevent Damage to Trails

Trail damage prevention is essential to keeping our trails looking as beautiful as ever. The most damage caused to trails happens during the mud months. The mud months occur during early spring when the ground begins to thaw and absorb the melting snow and the water from the spring rain. The mud months differ by state but usually occur between April and June. However, in some states like Colorado, the constant rain and the melting of snow cause nearly all of spring to be the mud months.

We know that being cooped up during winter will get you itching to go outside and travel down your favorite trails. With that said, we have a few tips for you to keep your favorite trail from getting more damage than necessary.

First off, if you are going out hiking or biking down trails during the mud months, the best thing for you to do is to go right through the mud. While going through the mud will leave divots when the trail eventually dries up, it is better than widening the trail by going around the mud. Another thing to consider is north and south-facing slopes and hills. Hills and slopes that face south will receive far more sunlight, helping them dry up faster than north-facing slopes. Furthermore, avoiding the mud and widening the trail only leads to bigger mud puddles next spring. Overall, the best thing to do is avoid hiking and biking on trails during the mud months entirely. 

When going for a hike or a bike ride, choose your trail carefully. There are designated trails for every form of travel. So choosing the right trail is vital to preserving it. For example, riding your mountain bike down a trail meant for foot traffic only will be narrow and may have sharp turns that will require you to slow down or take a wide turn. Braking hard or taking a huge turn will cause a good amount of damage to the trail by making it deeper and widening it.

Trail Restoration and Reconstruction

There are organizations in nearly every state that hire staff and enlist volunteers to go out on their trails with shovels, rakes, and other tools to clear trails and restore eroded paths. Organizations like the Pacific Crest Trail Association have thousands of crew members to help keep our trails safe and beautiful. Furthermore, all national parks have dedicated teams to restore its trails. 

Most of the work done by PCTA and other trail management teams is done during and after spring, which is, as we have established, when a large portion of the damage to trails is done. These trail restoration teams will close off trails when work is being done, and most of the time, these trails will be closed for a few days at a time. It is best to stay off closed trails for safety, so these teams can work to keep your favorite trails in tip-top shape. 

Final Thoughts

Electric bicycles damage trails, and they do more damage than traditional pedal bicycles. However, the difference between the two is very small and nearly unnoticeable. Furthermore, for decades, there has been a debate where hikers claim that mountain bikers cause too much damage to their favorite trails. But this is not always the case—numerous studies state foot traffic and bike traffic do nearly the same amount of damage to trails. It all depends on the volume of the people per hobby.

All-in-all, traveling down a trail in any way causes some damage to it via erosion. But the most damage is done during spring, when the ground is usually muddy, soft, and wet. So if you want to prevent as much damage as possible to your favorite trail, avoid hiking and biking on it during spring. But if you want to go during these months, do not walk or ride around the mud as it widens the path. Instead, go right through it. You can always clean your boots and bike when you get home anyway.