With winter’s abrupt departure, we’ve entered Vermont’s least picturesque and most disparaged season…Mud. As you’ve likely taken note, most Chapters and other trail advocacy organizations have posted notifications that their trails are closed as the snow melts, ground thaws, and singletrack has had time to dry out.
What is Mud Season, anyway, and why is it so long?
Vermont’s long and typically cold winters ensure that the ground freezes pretty deep, with a frost line (the required depth of water and sewer pipes) of 5 feet (!). Compare that to our southerly neighbor, Massachusetts, for which the frost depth is a measly 32 inches. As spring arrives, the frozen earth thaws from the top down, with the frozen bottom layer providing a barrier to drainage. As the surface melts, water pools and saturates the top layer of our roads, woods, and – of course – trails. As ambient temperatures oscillate above and below freezing, it can take weeks for the frozen earth to fully thaw down to the frost line and allow for proper drainage.
When is it safe to ride?
Once we have a prolonged spell above freezing, chances are that an end to mud season won’t be far behind. But – just like any other time of year – trail conditions are entirely local. And just because a trail is wet doesn’t mean it’s unrideable – necessarily. What makes trails so fragile during mud season is the persistent frozen layer deep beneath the trail that prevents drainage and creates a water-logged surface. The following guidelines are important to follow all year long, and apply just as much to Mud Season as they do to a post-thunderstorm summer ride.
- Follow all postings from Chapters or other trail owners. This is a biggie – please check VMBA’s Trail Conditions Page – which links to Chapters’ individual trail reports, and check your favorite trail app (TrailForks, TrailHub, etc..) for user updates.
- Leave no rut. If you’re leaving a trench deeper than a half-inch, turn around. Many trails have sections that hold moisture where tires leave marks, but if leaving treads is the rule rather than the exception, you are damaging the trail.
- No (big) puddles. Standing water is a clear sign to stay off the trail, and a lot of traffic through even a small mud-hole will create a huge mud-hole eventually. Riding through puddles drags moisture further down the trail, creating more mud and mud holes. If you do encounter puddles, ride on the dry area of the trail if there is one, and if not, ride straight through the puddle to avoid widening the mud-hole.
- Avoid clay soils. Clay tracks are fast and grippy when dry, and are often a favorite for flow and jump trails. But clay handles moisture very poorly – especially in freeze-thaw conditions – and any damage re-hardens to a complete mess when dry that is difficult to repair. Clay soils are common to Vermont – it is best to always check trail conditions before you ride and do not ride on closed trails.
What if I ride anyway?
So you’ve eyed the weather forecast, saw that the trail was listed as open and, convinced that the soil should be prime for tires, arrive at the trailhead to find conditions that violate at least one of the above guidelines. But the trail is listed as open, so what if you give it a go anyway?
- Trail damage. Riding muddy trails damages the trail tread and requires Chapters to divert resources away from other projects. It can also cause irreparable damage if gullies and drainage issues are caused, leading to extended trail reroutes and closures.
- Our image. If we as a community become known for irresponsible trail use, it will become increasingly difficult to gain approval for new trails and capitalize on all the good we do in terms of building and maintaining trails. This has real, long-term consequences to our ability to protect and grow our trail networks.
- Your bike. Riding in sloppy conditions will assuredly accelerate the wear of your drivetrain, suspension, and bearings. As we continue to deal with component supply chain shortages, getting replacement parts could become more challenging, in addition to the higher costs and downtime associated with repairs.
Summing it up
All of wet-riding etiquette can pretty much be summed up by the well-worn line “leave no trace”, perhaps slightly adapted to “leave no tread”. With the growth of trail condition resources online, it’s easy to be well-informed before you head out for a ride as to which trails are rideable. And while it’s hard to bail on a ride at the trailhead, take pride in knowing you’re making the right call for the trail, our community, and your bike.