Electric Mountain Bikes
Electric mountain bikes (eMTBs) have become increasingly popular in our sport, driven by technology that has allowed equipment to become lighter, more capable, and expand access to folks who may never have dreamed of pedaling into the woods or who have become limited due to mobility constraints. 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 eMTBs, relevant current policies and regulations, and those VMBA trail systems that currently support pedal-assist (Class 1) eMTB use.
For those who are considering or who have recently acquired an eMTB, we’d strongly encourage you to check out the Trails Are Common Ground e-MTB Hub and Quick Start Guide for e-Mountain Bikers.
We also want to emphasize that VMBA does not set policy for access on properties and supports land owners’ and managers’ decisions and rules about mountain bike access on their lands. We strongly encourage all trail users to know and abide by the access and use policies for the networks they visit. When in doubt, ask – violation of these policies can easily lead to lost access for us all.
Below are some common questions for e-bike use in Vermont. If you have any further questions, please contact us.
What is an eMTB?
By the existing federal definition, e-bikes are two or three-wheeled cycles with fully operable pedals and an electric motor assist of no more than 750 watts (also known as 1 horsepower). For those familiar with wattage, that figure is a 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 ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 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 limited to a top assisted speed of 20 miles per hour but include both pedal-assist and a throttle that can be used without pedaling.. Class 3 ebikes have an electric assist limited to 28 miles per hour and are also pedal-assist,
When we refer to eMTBs, we typically are talking about Class 1, pedal-assist mountain bikes and *not* throttled bicycles of any kind. All eMTBs presently produced by major bicycle companies in the US are Class 1.
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 bikes 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 eMTBs 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 eMTB officially changes the designation of that trail to “motorized”, which while Class-specific, does have implications for funding and maintenance. These regulations hold true for all trails in the Green Mountain National Forest.
- The State of Vermont recently (2021) passed legislation declaring that “electric bicycles shall be governed as bicycles under Vermont law, and operators of electric bicycles shall be subject to all of the rights and duties applicable to bicyclists under Vermont law and that “an electric bicycle may be ridden in places where bicycles are allowed, including highways, bicycle lanes, and bicycle or multi-use paths.” This same legislation also stated, however, that these regulations do not apply to “a trail that is specifically designated as non-motorized and that has a natural surface tread … A municipality, local authority, or State agency having jurisdiction over a trail described in this subdivision may regulate the use of an electric bicycle on that trail.”
So what does this mean for eMTB users in Vermont? Private landowners may decide on a more closed approach, like the USFS, a fully open position, or something more neutral like the DOI. It is essential to check with the local trail stewardship organization – most commonly a VMBA Chapter – or land manager to understand what rules are in place for a given trail system.
What about riders with a mobility disability?
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, all ‘public accommodations’ – which explicitly include natural surface trails managed for public access on public and private land – are by default open to any individual who uses a pedal-assist bike to overcome a disability and who can provide “credible assurance” that they require the device for mobility. A simple verbal confirmation counts as such assurance and no additional evidence is required, nor is the trail manager legally permitted to ask questions about the nature of the individual’s disability. Trail managers can, however, conduct an assessment for safety purposes and limit use of Other Power-Driven Mobility Devices (OPDMDs), which includes pedal-assist bikes to specific trails. Without such an assessment – which must be based on safety concerns alone – the trail manager is prohibited from preventing a person who provides credible assurance from riding a pedal-assist bike on their trails. Lastly, if observed behavior of the user contradicts their claim as to their need for an OPDMD, the trail manager is allowed to deny a user’s verbal claim of credible assurance.
What about pedal-assist Adaptive Mountain Bikes?
Off-road wheelchairs (colloquially “adaptive bikes”) 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 (OPDMDs). Think Segways, golf carts, ATVs, motorized shopping carts, etc… Unlike wheelchairs, OPDMD 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.
What are the concerns?
So why is there so much debate over allowing eMTBs to access existing mountain bike trails anyway? Class 1 eMTBs look and act very similar to analog mountain bikes, with the motor power and assist speed limits well below what a fit adult rider can achieve. That said, there are four areas that often raise concerns in terms of allowing eMTB access:
- Environmental. Initially, the presence of a motor on these bicycles led to concerns that eMTBs would produce more trail tread damage, as it is well-established that off-road motorcycles and ATVs remove substantially more material from trail surfaces than hiking or mountain biking (Natural Resource Impacts of Mountain Biking – American Trails). A recent study, however, showed that the tread impacts of eMTBs are essentially the same as analog bikes, and that behavioral choices – e.g. riding on muddy trails – can have a much more profound impact. Nonetheless, if eMTBs enable riders to cover more distance and ride longer, the overall impact of a rider on a given day could be greater.
- Social. Class 1 eMTBs allow a rider to travel at higher speeds (limited to 20 mph) uphill, which could result in them encountering and overtaking more trail users along a given stretch of uphill or flat trail. This could lead to more disruptions and an overall less positive experience for other users – including analog mountain bikers. It is worth noting that the electric assist for Class 1 eMTBs cuts out at 20mph, these bikes do not travel significantly faster than analog bikes downhill, and that the uphill speeds achieved by eMTBs are similar to those of very fit riders on analog bikes, as demonstrated in a recent environmental assessment in the Tahoe National Forest.
- Safety. The pedal assist capability of eMTBs can allow users to pedal deeper into trail systems than they would on an analog mountain bike, and travel at higher rates of speed on certain – predominately uphill – sections of trail. The related concern is that those on eMTBs could either find themselves in over their head – should a battery die, for instance, or lead to speed-related crashes over certain terrain.
- Legal. If and when trails are opened to eMTBs, their designation can change from ‘non-motorized’ to ‘motorized’, as is presently the case for trails on USFS land. This reclassification can have significant implications for funding and regulations, and affect whether specific trails are eligible for certain grant programs, trail manager liability, etc…
The overarching concern is what these impacts could mean for access – if eMTBs are permitted on a trail and significant additional negative impacts to the environment, user experience, and/or safety were to occur, the potential for the trail to be closed to all mountain biking is real.
What do and don’t we know?
As noted above, the per-mile impacts of Class 1 eMTBs have been shown to be very similar to analog mountain bikes. It remains unknown to what extent eMTBs extend the riding distances of specific users, though we generally think of more time on the trail as a good thing. The Social and Safety impacts of eMTBs, however, remain unclear. Beyond conflicting anecdotal evidence suggesting these are both negligible and significant, we lack good evidence showing that eMTBs affect other users and/or lead to more accidents than conventional MTBs. Given these uncertainties, VMBA is helping organize and promote pilot studies at trail networks in the Northeast, two of which are being led by VMBA Chapters (Fellowship of the Wheel and Stowe Trails Partnership). These studies will focus squarely on the social and safety impacts of eMTBs at specific trail networks, along with how community perceptions change over time.
What does the public think about eMTBs?
Over time, sentiment toward eMTBs has steadily become more positive as more and more riders have had an opportunity to either test or purchase a pedal-assist bike. In the most recent Vermont-focused survey, just over half of respondents had ridden an eMTB previously and over three-quarters had seen an eMTB out on the trail. In terms of access, 70% felt eMTBs should be allowed on most or all trails, approximately 20% felt that eMTBs should be limited to specialty-designed trails, and just under 10% felt they should not be allowed on any MTB trails. These results align closely with VMBA’s most recent member survey, fielded earlier this year.
What is VMBA’s current position on eMTBs?
As an organization, we recognize the potential for Class 1, pedal-assist eMTBs to expand trail access to individuals who might not have otherwise been able to enjoy it. We also believe responsible off-road riding is primarily a function of education and attitude, not equipment, and that eMTBs can be used responsibly on many trails just as ‘analog’ bikes can be used irresponsibly. We also, however, 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 continue to grow. We look forward to the findings from the regional eMTB studies noted above, which we hope to use to provide more explicit guidance as to where, when, and how VMBA recommends eMTB use should be allowed.
Where can I ride now?
VMBA has an eMTB feature built into our Plan Your Ride platform, which provides users a simple means to hone in on the Vermont trails that officially support pedal-assist 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. Specific guidance for trails in Vermont:
- Trails in the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) are managed by the USFS and are closed to eMTBs unless specifically indicated otherwise or already open for motorized use.
- The VT Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation presently considers eMTBs to be motorized vehicles when on natural surface trails, which are prohibited on state lands with very specific exceptions. As noted above, the State of Vermont did recently declare through S.66 (Act 40) that electric bicycles are defined as motorized bicycles and are allowed anywhere conventional bicycles are permitted with the exception of natural surface trails. It remains to be seen if this definition will eventually carry over.
- Kingdom Trails Association recently established a policy that eMTBs are permitted on their network only for users who declare a mobility disability and obtain permission from the KTA office and in turn receive an identification band.
- Vermont S.66 (Act 40), A bill relating to electric bicycles: https://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2022/S.66
- Kingdom Trails Association eMTB policy: https://www.kingdomtrails.org/ride-with-gratitude#PoliciesandFAQs
- USFS Guidance on eMTB use in National Forests: https://www.fs.usda.gov/news/releases/usda-forest-service-issues-guidance-manage-future-e-bike-use-national-forests-and
- IMBA eMTB FAQs https://www.imba.com/eMTB-questions
- BLM – e-Bikes on Public Lands https://www.blm.gov/programs/recreation/e-bikes
- NEMBA’s position statement on eMTBs https://www.nemba.org/emtb
- Trails Are Common Ground e-MTB Hub and Quick Start Guide for e-Mountain Bikers
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