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What is Singletrack?
Singletrack is the most common type of mountain biking trail. Simply put, it refers to slim trails that are approximately the width of your bike. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) recognizes singletrack as trails with a tread of about 18 to 24 inches wide, but the tread can be as slim as 6 inches or as wide as 36 inches, depending on the trail. Because the tread is relatively narrow, cyclers must travel “single-file,” one after another. These trails are typically much more natural and rugged than the wide, man-made paths we’re used to, which means they bring plenty of technical challenges for intermediate and expert riders. With the right cycling gear and know-how, you can work your way up to conquering singletrack like a pro.
Interestingly, there is some controversy surrounding singletrack. Many people outside of the sport object to the idea of riding on slim, rugged trails due to the fact that it seems inherently unsafe and because building and riding singletrack can negatively affect the natural landscape. However, the IMBA believes that singletrack is important to the sport due to the fact that it’s, arguably, the way that cycling was meant to be done—bicycles predate paved roads and trails, after all. On top of that, the IMBA issues several Rules of the Trail, which aim to protect the environment while providing a safe place to ride. The Rules of the Trail are as follows:
- Respect the Landscape—Keep singletrack single and stay on the trail. The IMBA encourages the “leave no trace” ethos of wilderness recreation, which encourages riders to leave the landscape exactly as they found it. It’s also important that riders do not cruise muddy trails, which can cause rutting and widening.
- Share the Trail—Another main concern of singletrack is that there may not be enough room for both cyclists and pedestrians. The IMBA rules state that riders yield to horses and people on foot and that descending riders yield to climbing riders. This ensures that multi-use trails are kept universal and welcoming to all sports.
- Ride Legal Trails—There are, understandably, restrictions against cycling in unauthorized areas or creating singletrack in certain parks or preserved lands. Only ride on open and legal trails in order to ensure the safety of yourself, other riders and the environment.
- Stay in Control—The IMBA warns against inattentive riding, especially on trails with plenty of obstacles. When you’re not paying close attention to what’s in front of you, you’re unable to quickly respond to the trail’s challenges—whether that be particularly rugged roots, a rocky trail or some curious wildlife.
- Plan Your Journey—Mountain biking is like any other pursuit spent in the wilderness. It relies on your preparation and self-sufficiency. Make sure that you’re prepared for whatever the singletrack throws your way, including equipment mishaps and injuries. Always bring a map and GPS so you don’t get lost.
- Respect Wildlife—Finally, rustic singletrack often puts riders face-to-face with wildlife in their own, natural habitat. The IMBA emphasizes the importance of respecting animals and not disturbing their environment. Make sure to only bring your four-legged cycling buddy with you if off-leash dogs are permitted.
Why Ride Singletrack?
There are two primary reasons why cyclists love riding singletrack. First, it helps you perfect certain technical riding skills because you’re faced with natural obstacles like roots, rocks, bushes and trees, and because the trails are typically slim with plenty of hairpin turns and windy curves. Second, riding singletrack puts you in direct contact with a relatively unspoiled, natural landscape. There’s no gravel or pavement here to distract from the relaxing, scenic woods. Here are some more specific reasons why riders love singletrack.
- It Requires Mental Sharpness—The trail obstacles that come with riding singletrack are unlike anything you’ll ever see in manmade tracks. While you might have plenty of big jumps and alarming roadblocks at your local manmade course, singletrack cycling is much less predictable. Weather, wildlife and unmanicured trails test your agility at every turn. You must be able to quickly respond to what’s in front of you because you have fewer opportunities to make corrections.
- It Helps You Hone a Slow, Controlled Speed—The IMBA recommends singletrack as a good tool for riders who want to foster slow speeds. Although it seems counterintuitive, riders tend to take it slow on narrower trails, especially when they are shared among hikers, runners and equestrians. When you’re anticipating others, you’re much less likely to barrel down the trail at lightning speeds. Instead, you work on practicing a slow, controlled speed while enjoying the environment around you.
- It Brings You Closer to Nature—Singletrack tends to be far away from the distractions of the outside world. There are no automobiles, ATVs or traffic sounds to take you out of the experience. And because the trails are significantly less manicured, they allow you to enjoy a more naturalistic experience with fewer reminders of the hustle and bustle of life. They are also popular for solo riders who want a quiet, reflective ride.
- It’s Fun, Plain and Simple—When you envision mountain biking—snaking through windy trails surrounded by towering pine trees and wildlife, the wind rushing through your helmet—you’re probably thinking about singletrack cycling. The fact is that cyclers love singletrack because it’s challenging, fun and a big-time thrill.
Gear: A Complete List of Singletrack Essentials
You need two things to successfully complete your first rigorous singletrack trail: the right gear and the right skills. The good news is that singletrack cycling gear isn’t specially designed for narrower trails. Generally speaking, any good MTB gear will be able to handle rugged singletrack. The thing that you need to think about when planning what to bring is the length of the trail and how much time you’ll spend out and about. Of course, a mile-long ride requires much less gear than a 30-miler. We can help you figure out what kind of gear and skills are required for a successful singletrack cruise.
- The Bike—One of the things that makes a mountain bike a mountain bike is, of course, its wheels and tires. They need to be thick, sturdy and ready for all terrain types. At one time, 26-inch wheels were the standard for singletrack, but these days you’ll see that most modern mountain bikes have bigger rims. Those with 27.5-inch and 29-inch wheels are very popular for all-day singletrack rides. A visit to your local cycle shop is the best bet for finding the right size and style bike for your particular MTB goals.
- The Apparel—Singletrack biking is an extreme sport that requires extreme gear to protect you against foul weather, crashes and the occasional branch in the face. The No. 1 most important piece of MTB equipment is your helmet. On particularly demanding singletrack rides where temperatures fluctuate from cool and breezy to hot and humid, wear a cycling skullcap beneath your helmet coupled with tight-fitting, moisture-wicking activewear.
- The Pack—It’s safe and responsible to hit the trail with a few trusty essentials, and you don’t want to bog down your bike with saddlebags or other carrying solutions that limit your dexterity, balance or agility. Thus, a lightweight backpack is often a necessity. Make sure your pack includes plenty of water, snacks, a first-aid kit, a patch kit, spare tubes, a pump, a bike repair toolkit, chain lube and some emergency essentials, like a raincoat.
Skills: Practicing for Slim, Winding Trails
You can have all the high-tech cycling gear in the world, but if you’re not physically prepared for the inevitable challenges of the trail, then you’re guaranteed to come across a few metaphorical and literal roadblocks that prevent you from enjoying your ride. When training for tough singletrack courses, certain MTB skills are more important than others. In all types of off-road cycling, you must have endurance, good balance, quick-thinking skills and strong bike-handling know-how.
Reference this skill and fitness rating system developed by Sacred Rides (a top mountain biking tour company) to help determine your skill level and exactly which level of trail is best suited to your current rating. The following skills are particularly important for tough singletrack cruises, so make sure you have a handle on them before attacking your first singletrack trail.
- Speed Control—In singletrack, you must be able to maintain a slower, more controlled speed due to the fact that you’re sharing the trail with others and you don’t have a lot of time to dodge obstacles. You must feel confident at a slower speed, even when traversing steep descents.
- Shifting—Because singletrack courses tend to vary widely in grade—you might have a mix of both steep, plunging hills and gradual inclines—you need to be able to properly shift between gears as needed. Your shifting technique also helps ensure proper speed control and cadence, which ensure a smooth ride the whole way.
- Climbing—You’ve got to earn those downhill turns! Climbing practice is needed for a safe and efficient ascent that doesn’t expend too much energy. You must be physically fit enough to make your ascent with the right climbing skills so that you still have the endurance and mental sharpness needed for a safe descent.
- Cornering—Let’s face it: You’re going to come across a few hairpin turns on singletrack. It’s one of the things that makes mountain biking so much fun compared with street biking. Your cornering skills need to be good on all types of berms and you must be able to lean your bike and exit with acceleration.
- Descending—Those outside the MTB community don’t realize that descending is actually an intermediate mountain biking skill. It’s not something that comes naturally for everyone. For particularly demanding singletrack rides, you need to be able to descend in a controlled manner. If you can stand up off your seat and maintain level pedals for the entire descent, you’re in good shape to advance to the next level.
Enjoying the Ride
At the end of the day, your goal as a mountain biker is probably to enjoy the fresh air, take in the sights and get a good workout. If you’re brand-new to cycling and want to hit your first singletrack, just make sure that you take it slow and listen to your body as you push yourself to the next level and beyond. Headsweats is on hand to help you find the right cycling headgear so you can enjoy the thrill of the open trail with as few snafus as possible.