Freeriding and Risk Management: 15 Steps to Success

The freeride movement went through an awkward adolescence in the 1990s. Early movies and magazine stories gave many people the impression that “freeriding” was synonymous with riding off-trail and mountain biking in a reckless fashion. As a result, some land managers cling to the notion that technically challenging trails are fundamentally unsafe. They oppose freeriding out of a fear of potential injuries and lawsuits. The good news is that mountain bikers can responsibly create and ride challenging trails without sparking liability concerns or provoking lawsuits. In this article we present 15 steps to managing freeriding risk.

1. Be Aware of Possible Social Issues

There are many social and emotional issues surrounding freeriding. Technical riding areas, both natural and constructed, have been opposed by a variety of groups, including land managers, environmentalists, neighbors, other trail users, and even other mountain bikers. If you’re planning to develop new freeriding opportunities, you should be aware of some of the social issues that may come into play. These issues can be effectively addressed through open communication and understanding.

2. Build Partnerships and Communicate

Successful trail projects require close collaboration among freeriders, land managers and local mountain bike clubs. By consulting with freeriders and incorporating their suggestions into trail management decisions, planners can develop trail systems that have broader appeal. This effort will also reduce unauthorized trail construction. Judgemental attitudes and negative stereotypes from either side can undermine successful partnerships.

3. Determine Shared Use or Single Use

IMBA supports shared-use and single-use trails. A purpose-built freeride trail will usually be more successful if it is single use. Frequent technical trail features are unsuitable for horse use and may not provide an enjoyable experience for hikers. Adding technical trail features to a crowded trail shared by joggers, dog walkers and inexperienced trail users is rarely a good idea. However, shared-use trails that offer technical challenge are feasible in the right situation.

4. Understand Local Liability Laws

One of the first things people want to know is, “Will I be held liable if someone gets hurt while riding a trail on my property?” Most states have laws, called Recreational Use Statutes, which protect land managers and private property owners from being held liable in the event that someone is injured while recreating on their property.

Recreational Use Statutes vary from place to place, so we recommend that you research the laws governing your own area. IMBA partnered with American Whitewater to list info on liability laws, and analyses of each U.S. state’s Recreational Use Statute.

One critical point to remember about most Recreational Use Statutes:

Private landowners are rarely at risk of being held liable for injuries incurred on their property, unless they charge the public a fee to access their land, or if it can be proven that the injury was a clear result of their gross negligence.

It’s important to note that while Recreational Use Statutes often prevent landowners from ultimately being held liable, they do not prevent lawsuits from being filed in the first place. It takes time and money to mount a defense against a lawsuit, regardless of the outcome. Therefore, the goal is to practice diligent risk management techniques that will prevent lawsuits from being filed.

5. Understand Related Case Law

Case law is how the courts have ruled in the past. These previous judgments can help demonstrate that, generally speaking, courts have upheld limiting land owner liability related to trail use.

Records show that few lawsuits have been filed related to mountain biking accidents caused by trail conditions. Of the suits filed, hardly any were decided against the land owner.

If local government officials are wary of lawsuits, you could research and include specific case law in your trail proposal. Consider enlisting a local attorney/mountain biker to help research case law and overcome liability concerns.

6. Provide for Skills Progression

It’s important to introduce freeriding challenges to users sequentially so they can enhance their skills in a managed environment. Construct a practice area with a wide variety of challenge, from easy to difficult. The most challenging features should mirror the most difficult obstacles users can expect to encounter on the trail system. Another great idea is to offer regularly scheduled skills clinics. In addition to teaching riding techniques, include tips on responsible trail use.

7. Place Technical Features Appropriately

There are two suitable locations for technical trail features: one, a challenge park; two, a trail. The placement of a technical feature on a trail is determined by a number of factors. Is the trail shared use or single use? What are the skill levels of trail users? (When assessing trail user abilities, don’t forget to consider the varying skill levels of all visitors – not only mountain bikers.)

On beginner to intermediate-level routes, always locate your technical trail feature to the side of the main trail – as an optional path for advanced riders consciously seeking a more challenging line. On the other hand, if the trail is clearly designated for advanced users, the reverse is true: locate the technical feature on the main trail and provide an easier option to the side of it.

8. Develop an Effective Signage System

It is important to develop a comprehensive signage system for your trail network. Signs should be placed at the main trailhead, trail intersections and at other key locations. The main trailhead kiosk should describe trail difficulty using a trail rating system. Pay particular attention to signs at the intersections of trails with differing difficulty levels. Also, it’s important to sign before very challenging technical trail features, like big drop offs, narrow bridges or other elements of increased risk. When placing signs, consider where you are. Trails with high use should be well signed. Conversely, a technical trail deep in the backcountry should have far fewer signs. Signs can be an intrusion on a visitors outdoor experience – use them with care.

9. Utilize Trail Filters

A trail filter, sometimes referred to as a gateway or qualifier, is a high-skill-level, low-consequence obstacle that demonstrates the difficulty of the upcoming trail or trail feature. Examples of a filter are a narrow, handlebar width opening between two trees, a rock garden or a rock step. Place filters at the beginning of each advanced trail and just before technical features. By making the entrances to technical trails and features difficult, you prevent unprepared riders from overstepping their abilities.

10. Provide Optional Lines

There should always be an easier, alternate route around a technical feature. On advanced trails, the technical trail feature can be located on the main line, with an easier option to the side. On intermediate or beginner routes, technical trail features should be outside the main trail flow, and potentially even disguised from the main trail. Optional lines could potentially be in the same corridor as the main trail:

For example, a drop-off could vary in height from one side of the trail to the other.

11. Provide Adequate Fall Zones

A fall zone is the area adjacent to a technical trail feature that provides a clear landing for a rider who has failed to negotiate the obstacle. Fall zones are located at the bottom of descents, on the outside of corners, and on the side of the trail and obstacles. Consider removing branches, stumps, logs, rocks and other protruding objects that could cause injury. Another option is to add mulch or dirt to further soften a fall zone.

12. Follow Construction Guidelines

Both natural and man-made additions to trails must be durable, predictable and designed to minimize injuries when trail users fail to negotiate them properly. Consider IMBA’s detailed construction advice in the freeriding section of the IMBA website.

13. Develop an Inspection and Maintenance Log

All trails require consistent inspection and maintenance. Technical trail features should be inspected for durability, predictability and safety. Consistent maintenance logs should be kept to ensure trails and features are being kept up to standard. Different trails require different levels of maintenance, depending on a variety of factors, including climate, volume of use and the number and type of trail features. Wooden structures, like bridges and teeter totters require routine upkeep. You must be committed to their inspection and maintenance.

14. Designate a Risk Management Coordinator

Recruit an individual who will be responsible for making sure recommended risk management techniques are properly implemented and documented. This person will consolidate all of your safety measures and should work with the land owner to create an emergency management plan. Assign responsibility to an individual who is known for their conscientious behavior and attention to detail – and be sure they are willing to perform the job. Remember that the Risk Management Coordinator shouldn’t be saddled with executing the plan by themselves. Rather, they should serve as a point-person for a group of volunteers.

15. The Final Step: Be Prepared to Give Answers

When seeking to create freeriding opportunities, a written trail proposal may be necessary. When freeride and technical trails are proposed, it can be important to address the risk management concerns listed above. Consult with your land manager to determine what steps need to be taken, and what level of detail is required in a proposal.


Work with Land Managers to Create Special-Use Challenge Parks
Technical trail features are becoming increasingly popular with mountain bikers. Many land managers are open to the idea of having special use zones or playgrounds for these types of stunts, similar to skateboard or snowboard parks. Work with your local land manager to create these.