Electric Mountain Bikes

Ansel Dickey

Electric mountain bikes (eMTBs) have become increasingly popular in our sport, fueled by technology that has allowed these machines to become lighter, more capable, and expand access to many folks who many never have dreamed of accessing trails deep in the woods. The popularity of these bikes has brought with it controversy and confusion as to where eMTBs are allowed and under what conditions. This page is intended as a resource to help trail users understand more about eMTB, relevant current policies and regulations, and those VMBA trail systems that currently support eMTB use.

We also want to emphasize that VMBA does not set policy for access on properties and supports land managers’ decisions and rules about mountain bike access on their lands. We strongly encourage all trail users to know and abide by the policies set by land managers for access and trail use. E-bike or not, it is a rider’s responsibility to know the rules wherever they choose to ride. When in doubt, ask – violation of these policies can lead to lost access for us all.

What is an eBike?

By the existing federal definition, e-bikes are a two or three-wheeled cycles with fully operable pedals and an electric motor assist of no more than 750 watts (1 horsepower). For those familiar with wattage, that figure is bit misleading, as it is peak power output – almost all modern eMTBs have a nominal power output of 250 watts.

There are 3 primary classes of eMTBs: Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3.  Class 1 ebikes have an electric assist that cuts out above 20 miles per hour, and the electric motor works only when the rider is pedaling (referred to as “pedal assist”). Class 2 ebikes are also assist-limited to 20 miles per hour, but they have throttles that work whether or not you’re pedaling. Class 3 ebikes have an electric assist limited to 28 miles per hour and are also pedal assist, though some states also allow a throttle to be used up to 20 mph. Because big states like California do not permit throttles on Class 3 bikes, these are usually pedal-assist only, like Class 1 e-bikes.  Presently, all eMTBs from major vendors in the US are Class 1 only.

Zach Walbridge

What are the rules?

Here’s where it gets tricky. The rules regulating which eMTBs may be used where are not consistent, and vary even within federal land owners. State and local municipalities may have unique restrictions, and private landowners have final say as to what types of eMTBs – if any – are permitted on their land.  In terms of the national-level rules:

  • The Department of the Interior – which includes the Bureau of Land Management, National Parks system, and the Fish & Wildlife service – has provided a motorized exemption to Class 1 and 3 eMTBs. This means that both Class 1 and Class 3 ebikes are treated just like “analog” mountain bikes and are permitted on any MTB trails on BLM, NPS, and FWS land. Class 2 eMTBs are department-specific; they are considered motorized vehicles by the NPS but not directly addressed in the BLM regulations. These rules are the most consistently supported by MTB advocacy organizations. While there is very little DOI-managed land in Vermont, land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) typically adheres to this standard, and there are ACE areas in Vermont that either currently have or are involved in future planning for mountain bike trails (e.g. Ball Mountain Lake).
  • The US Forest Service has recently determined that it considers all classes of e-bikes as motorized vehicles. This means that eMTBs are prohibited on any trails that do not permit motorized traffic. Should a local land manager wish to add eMTB access, they must go through a public process and environmental impact analysis. Furthermore, opening of a trail to eMTBs can open access on a trail to all motorized traffic (e.g. ATVs). The specific Class of eMTB is not considered. These regulations hold true for all trails in the Green Mountain National Forest, which means eMTBs must stick to motorized trails for the time being.

So what does this mean for eMTB users in Vermont? Private landowners may decide on a more closed approach, like USFS, a fully open position, or something more neutral like DOI. It is essential to check with the local Chapter or land manager to understand what rules are in place for a given trail system.

An Important Exemption: Adaptive Mountain Bikes

Off-road wheelchairs (aka “adaptive bikes” colloquially) enable individuals with mobility disabilities to access the great outdoors, hiking, and biking.   These devices must meet specific parameters; are made specifically for someone with a disability, are 36″ wide or less and have non-damaging tread. Adaptive bikes also typically include electric-assist motors, (imagine biking with your arms!) making them battery-powered wheelchairs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal and state lands open to the public for pedestrian use – including wilderness – should be aware of the definition of a wheelchair and that increased technology means there are many versions of these devices available for people with disabilities, greatly increasing their recreation opportunity. Any powered mobility device that may be used by but are not primarily designed for such individuals for the purpose of locomotion are considered Other Powered-Driven Mobility Devices (OMPMDs). Think Segways, golf carts, ATVs, motorized shopping carts, etc… Unlike wheelchairs, OMPMD access to trails can be restricted. What does this mean for trail users in Vermont?  Three or four-wheeled adaptive trikes, battery-powered or not, are legally allowed anywhere pedestrians can travel.
Zach Walbridge

What is VMBA's position on expanding access to eMTBs?

At the moment, VMBA is wholly committed to protecting and expanding landowner protections in Vermont and ensuring that undue regulation does not threaten trail access, generally. As an organization, we recognize the potential for pedal-assist eMTBs to expand trail access to groups who might not have otherwise been able to enjoy it. We also believe responsible off-road recreation is primarily a function of education and attitude, not equipment, and that eMTB can be used responsibly on many trails just as ‘analog’ bikes can be used irresponsibly. Ultimately, we fully respect the policies land owners and managers have in place and strongly encourage our members to understand and adhere to these rules as eMTB use and awareness continues to grow.

Where can I ride?

VMBA has an eMTB feature built in into our Plan Your Ride platform, which provides users a simple means to hone in on the Vermont trails that officially support pedal-assist (Class 1 and 3) eMTB use. Trail forks and other trail mapping applications have also built in an eMTB filter, though we would strongly encourage eMTB enthusiasts to confirm the rules before they visit a trail system.

Additional Resources