To Cross or Not to Cross:
Resource Trail Etiquette Behavior
William W. Hendricks
Recreation Administration Program
Natural Resources Management Department
(805) 756-1246 phone
(805) 756-1402 fax
Roy H. Ramthun
Travel Industry Management
Deborah J. Chavez
Running Head: Resource Trail Etiquette
*This research was supported in part by funds provided by the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest
Research Station and a McIntire-Stennis grant.
One management concern related to the increased use of mountain bikes on multiple-use trails is that
heavily used sites may suffer damage to natural resources. An important part of the trail etiquette
guidelines advocated by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) is protecting trail
resources. The purpose of this study was to examine mountain bicyclists behavior in two resource trail
etiquette settings. The study took
place at a protection road (dirt, fire road) on
recorded as they passed a designated area to observe whether the behavior complied with trail etiquette
guidelines. The first situation entailed whether bicyclists rode or walked their bikes across a section of
single-track trail that is closed to riding. The second situation involved whether the bicyclists traveled
through a stream or across a bridge. There was a significant difference between the number of subjects
(78.1%) who rode their bicycles across the trail and those (21.9%) who walked their bicycles across the
trail. At the stream crossing 83.1% of the bicyclists traveled through the stream and 16.7% crossed the
bridge. Significant differences were also present for gender and two potential specialization equipment
indicators. In these two resource conditions the majority of mountain bicyclists are not following trail
etiquette guidelines. These results imply that continued inappropriate behavior could result in resource
degradation at these sites. Education and enforcement regarding these two particular resource conditions
has not been a priority of land
Park and recreation resource managers are increasingly faced with adapting to technological advances,
changing social values, and varied recreational experiences in rural and urban parks, open space areas,
and forests (Hendricks, 1995; Watson, 1995; Williams, 1993). These natural resources areas are often
places of refuge, excitement, solitude, adventure, social experiences, and nature appreciation on any given
day for diverse user groups.
Since the late 1970s, one multiple-use trail user group in particular has gained the attention of the public,
media, and land managers. Mountain
biking began quietly on
the late 1970s (Edger, 1997; Hendricks, 1997) and has become one of the fastest growing recreational
activities in the
(Hoger & Chavez, 1998), the potential social and resource impacts are a concern in many areas.
Newly adopted regulations, increased enforcement, and interpretive and informational strategies have been
among the approaches employed to reduce recreational conflict, social impacts, and resource degradation
that could potentially develop from mountain bicyclists emergence upon the multiple-use trail scene (Chavez,
1996, 1997a; Hendricks, Ramthun, & Chavez, 2000; Watson, Asp, Walsh, & Kulla, 1997). As has been the
case for actions in other resource managerial decisions, the preferred strategy is usually an indirect
educational or informational approach (Chavez, 1996; Moore, 1994; Moore & Barthlow, 1997; Watson et al.,
A concerted educational campaign has been adopted by land management agencies and mountain biking
organizations to promote and protect mountain biking access to trails, to educate bicyclists about
appropriate riding techniques and behavior, and to reduce social and environmental impacts that may be
caused by mountain biking. These educational efforts have commonly been referred to as "rules of the trail"
or trail etiquette guidelines (Hendricks & Ruddell, 1995; Ruddell & Hendricks, 1997; Moore, 1994; Moore &
Barthlow, 1997; Widmer, 1997). Perhaps the most widely publicized of these etiquette guidelines are those
promoted by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). IMBA's guidelines suggest that
mountain bicyclists should (a) ride open trails only, (b) leave no trace, (c) control the bicycle, (d) always yield,
(e) never spook animals, and (f) plan ahead (Hendricks, et al., 2000; Widmer, 1997).
Applied research to assist in managing both perceived and actual impacts due to mountain biking is still in
its infancy (Hendricks, 1997; Watson, 1995). Recreational conflict between mountain bicyclists and hikers
has received some attention from social scientists (e.g. Ramthun, 1995; Watson, Williams, & Daigle, 1991).
Descriptive studies of mountain bicyclists' characteristics, attitudes, motivations, and opinions have also
been examined (e.g. Chavez, 1997b; Hollenhorst, Schuett, Olson, & Chavez, 1995; Schuett, Hollenhorst, &
Chavez, 1997; Vilter, Blahna, & Van Patten, 1995). However research regarding resource impacts caused
from mountain biking remains rather inconclusive.
What is known is that land managers have observed and documented resource impacts at local, state, and
national levels (Chavez, 1996, 1997a; Chavez, Winter, & Baas, 1993; Edger, 1997; Tilmant, 1991). Among
the impacts that have been observed that managers have attributed to the presence of mountain bikes on
trails are erosion, vegetation trampling and damage, cutting switchbacks, soil compaction, riding in wet
sensitive areas, and damage by removing or avoiding erosion structures such as water-bars (Chavez,
1997a). While most managers and researchers currently regard mountain biking as a moderately disruptive
activity, having a greater impact than hiking but less than horses or ATVs, there are still concerns that heavily
used sites may suffer damage to natural resources on or near trails.
Most of the previous studies related to mountain biking have relied on self-reported behavior or knowledge
of mountain bicyclists. For
knowledgeable about the biking regulations on the mountain (Cerkel, 1993). Similarly, Chavez (1997b)
found that mountain bicyclists supported appropriate riding techniques and trail etiquette. The question
remains is actual behavior consistent with trail etiquette guidelines? In a study conducted simultaneously to
the research reported here, 55.9% of mountain bicyclists unobtrusively observed were traveling over the 15
mph speed limit on
hikers on a protection road was to make eye contact only, but not to yield to the hikers (Hendricks, et al.,
2000). In furthering this line of research, the purpose of the present study was to unobtrusively observe the
behavior of mountain bicyclists in two resource trail etiquette settings to determine if a preferred behavior as
espoused by a land management agency and mountain bike organizations was being followed.
The study took place at
protection road (dirt, fire road) heavily used by bicyclists and hikers circles the lake. The research presented
here was a component of a larger study involving observational and quasi-experimental designs during the
Two resource trail etiquette settings were examined. In each case, trained research assistants sat adjacent
to the site and unobtrusively recorded the behavior of mountain bicyclists as they passed the designated
area. In the first setting, approximately 150 feet of trail is reduced to a single-track trail and bicyclists are
required to walk their bicycles over this section of trail. A posted sign at each end of this section of trail
states, "Walk bicycles next 150 ft." Bicyclists are prohibited from riding on single-track trails on Mt.
Tamalpais; thus, the signs are consistent with overall regulations and assist in reducing erosion from an
area where siltation
buildup in the lake is a concern. Furthermore, all watershed users on
directed by the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) to stay on designated trails and protection roads
and to help prevent damage to natural resources. The researcher recorded whether a bicyclist rode or
walked the bike on this section of trail and estimated age category, gender, and specialization equipment
that could potentially indicate behavior. These indicators included riding shorts, jersey, helmet, gloves,
shoes, sport glasses, hydration pack, and clipless pedals. The age categories were 18-25, 26-35, 36-45,
46-55, and 56 and above. The second setting involved a stream crossing on the protection road. As an
alternative to crossing the stream, a bridge is available for use. Trail etiquette guidelines suggest that
bicyclists should avoid riding in wet conditions and in sensitive areas. The research assistant recorded
whether the bicyclist crossed the stream or the bridge and the variables mentioned previously.
Data were collected on 10 days during three of four randomly selected 4-hour time blocks in June, July, and
August 1998. Observations were recorded for 772 bicyclists at the two designated areas. Two hundred
thirty-three cyclists were observed at the trail setting and 539 were viewed at the stream setting. A limitation
that occurred during data collection was that the research assistant at the stream setting had to move further
from the trail than originally planned to remain unseen and to continue to observe behavior. Therefore, with
four of the potential specialization indicators there were only 239 recorded observations. Similarly, at this
setting age was recorded for 364 bicyclists. A chi-square statistic with cross tabulations was employed for
the data analysis. For data analysis, the 46-55 and 56 and above estimated age categories were combined
because of few observations in the latter category.
Two hundred and thirty-three bicyclists were observed crossing the single-track section of trail. The majority
of these cyclists were males (n=176, 75.7%). There was a statistically significant difference between the
182 subjects (78.1%) who rode their bicycles across the trail and the 51 (21.9%) who walked their bicycles
across the trail (c2 [1, N=233] = 73.65, p < .0005). Estimated age categories, gender, and the potential
specialization equipment indicators did not result in significant differences between expected and observed
No hydration pack
No sport glasses
No clipless pedals
No riding shoes
No riding shorts
Five hundred thirty-nine bicyclists were observed at the stream crossing. Seventy-two (13.4%) walked their
bike across the bridge, 18 (3.3%) rode their bike across the bridge, 448 (83.1%) rode their bike through the
stream, and 1 (0.2%) walked a bike through the stream. For further analysis those bicyclists who traveled
through the stream were combined into one category and those who crossed the bridge were combined into
a second category. Again, most of the observations were of male cyclists (n=418, 77.6%). A significant
difference was present between those who went through the stream and those who traveled over the bridge
(c2 [1, N=539] = 239.11, p < .0005). Overall, bicyclists observed in this setting were more likely to go
through the stream (83.1%) than over the bridge. Significant differences between expected and observed
frequencies were present for gender (c2 [1, N=539] = 4.656, p < .031), gloves (c2 [1, N=239] = 8.563, p <
.003), and hydration pack (c2 [1, N=539] = 5.800, p < .016). Bicyclists more likely to cross the bridge were
females, did not wear gloves, and did not wear a hydration pack.
No hydration pack
No sport glasses
No clipless pedals
No riding shoes
No riding shorts
Discussion and Conclusions
In these two resource conditions the majority of mountain bicyclists are not following a regulation or standard
trail etiquette guidelines. Similar results have been found when examining etiquette in social condition
behavior could result in resource degradation at these sites.
The exploratory use of potential specialization equipment indicators is not particularly useful in these
resource conditions although it was effective in understanding behavior of bicyclists in the social conditions
study (Hendricks, et al., 2000). One explanation for the discrepancy is simply the statistical methods
employed. Chi-square is sensitive to sample size and in addition to observing statistical significance it is
important to observe practical differences (Norusis, 1991). For example, in the current research, when
compared to two of the other groups, riders in the oldest age group (46+) were nearly 20% more likely to
walk their bikes at the single-track trail. This difference was not statistically significant, yet it does seem to
have practical significance. Also, from a practical significance viewpoint, observations of potential
equipment indicators of specialization for this resource condition indicate that for seven of the eight
indicators those cyclists with the equipment were more likely to walk their bikes. Although only 19 individuals
were wearing sport glasses the percentage of these individuals to walk across the trail is 16.2% greater
than the individuals not wearing sport glasses. In the stream setting age again seems to have practical
relevance, this time with the youngest riding group (18-25) traveling through the stream 92.9% of the time,
whereas the other three age groups range from 79.3% to 81.8% who go through the stream. Results are
somewhat mixed in the stream setting for the equipment indicators. Statistically significant differences are
present for gloves and the hydration pack with the individuals without this equipment more likely to walk
across the bridge. There is also an 11% difference between cyclists wearing riding shoes and those without
shoes with the latter more likely to travel over the bridge. On the other hand, cyclists with the other five
equipment indicators demonstrate slightly more likelihood of going across the bridge than individuals
without this equipment.
These results do not clearly support the findings of the
social conditions study on
et al. (2000) found the potential specialized equipment indicators to be a fairly useful means of segmenting
visitors in the social etiquette settings. In their study bicyclists with equipment indicators were especially
inclined to travel a higher rate of speed. If equipment does play a role in a recreational experience as
suggested by Warnick (1995), confirmatory research needs to be conducted to further examine the potential
of this and other multi-dimensional
aspects of recreational specialization as originally proposed by
(1977). Research regarding mountain bicyclists and other trail users commitment, involvement, and skill
development may ultimately lead to innovative management actions and segmentation of users (Hendricks
et al., 2000).
Education and enforcement regarding these two particular resource conditions has not been a priority of
land managers on
etiquette conditions examined. These two situations were chosen for a subsequent quasi-experimental
study because of the control they provided in a field laboratory setting.
With an observational study such as this one it is impossible to speculate whether the cyclists were even
aware that the trail etiquette guidelines exist or whether the bicyclists think that compliance with these
guidelines is expected. As is the case with the social etiquette study, it is possible that the lack of
compliance is based on unintentional or uninformed violations (Gramann & Vander Stoep, 1987) and that
education may be an effective means of gaining compliance (Hendricks et al., 2000). Due to the potential
for additional resource degradation in these resource settings and the lack of compliance in both the
resource and social conditions trail etiquette the Marin Municipal Water District may want to consider
reemphasizing educational programs and focus some energies on these potential impacts.
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