Spring isn’t far off, and many trail systems in Michigan are already facing the challenges of the freeze and thaw cycle. Damage from riding or running on muddy trails can have a lasting impact on the trail experience and require a whole load of extra maintenance to repair. We take a brief look at what the cycle is and the best way trail associations can communicate trails conditions to prevent issues.
The freeze-thaw cycle is something most trails experience in the spring and fall. It’s the March-May season that is often the most dramatic, with frozen ice and snow adding to seasonal rains to contribute to very high levels of moisture throughout the various soil levels. Overnight, this moisture freezes; the effects of trail traffic during the warm, melted days is etched in the face of the trail. That itself can cause the deep trough effect that makes some trails seem to be several inches lower than the forest floor on either side.
But that wet mud can also cause more damage. Riders looking to avoid mud puddles mud pits will go around the worst bits. Even in dry conditions, this will eventually cause the singletrack to get wider and wider. It’s during the wet seasons that this process happens even faster, and even a single day can see several inches of trail ruined. You’ve no doubt seen evidence of this on your local trail, and there’s a good chance many of us have, purposefully or not, contributed to this effect.
One of the best ways to prevent damage from wet trails is simply avoiding them during the freeze-thaw cycle, while snow and ice melt, and on rainy days. Closing a trail, or at least suggesting riders avoid it, can be tough based on the policies of landowners and trail stewards. Most public lands can’t be closed, although local trail associations may discourage riding in bad conditions, much in the same way they may ask riders not to ride groomed trails on warm winter days.
Ultimately, the decision to ride or not depends largely on the unique characteristics of each specific trail. Clay, sand, loam, and other soil types all handle moisture differently, and the topography of the trail can also dictate how water drains during melts or heavy rain. It often takes a local expert to make the best guesses, and that’s usually a role best reserved for the local trail director on behalf of the trail association.
A key for these groups, however, is providing a platform to inform area riders of trail conditions before they make it to the trailhead. Using apps like Trailforks, MTB Project, groups or pages on Facebook, or posting regularly on social media channels helps riders plan their days and their rides and make better decisions. It’s hard to fault riders who show up and head out, not knowing that just around the corner the trail turns into a quagmire. Many riders will simply plow on, rather than making the responsible call to turn back. The key is to offer accurate, consistent updates that riders can rely on and trust.
As spring approaches, take the time to reach out to your local trail association to learn more about the unique challenges of the freeze-thaw cycle in your region. Find out how you can get updates about trail conditions before you head out to ride, and if you’re close to a trailhead, consider contributing to those communication efforts to help inform other riders about the trails. By working together, we can save volunteers countless hours of maintenance work that could be better invested in new trails, re-routes, or more productive projects!
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