Managing Public Rights of Way for Quality Mountain Biker Experiences

On 10 November 2015, MSC student Emma Peasland put a call out on the PDMTB Facebook page asking for feedback to her MSc research into how trail management affects mountain biker experiences and using the Peak District as a case study. Emma has been back in touch to share with us a research summary for the PDMTB site, and here it is. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Emma Peasland

This research was undertaken for a dissertation for an MSc in Environmental Management at Sheffield Hallam University. It aimed to explore whether rights of way management affects mountain bikers’ experiences and, if so, how. This information was used to recommend some basic principles for how to manage rights of way to provide quality experiences for mountain bikers. The topic was chosen after observing conflicts between rights of way managers and outdoor recreation users, including mountain bikers, in the Peak District National Park. So the Peak District National Park was used as a case study for this investigation.

This post starts out by explaining why managers of natural areas, like the Peak District, might want to provide quality experiences for mountain bikers before giving a brief summary of the results. To finish, the recommendations made for managing rights of way to meet mountain bikers’ preferences are summarised.

Managers of natural areas have the difficult task of balancing their duties of conserving an area and also promoting and enabling recreation and tourism in the same space. UK National Park legislation states that managers must do both of these things as it states that these are the two purposes of a national park. Over the last 30 years, mountain biking has become increasingly popular and this has meant a new user group adding pressure to public rights of way (PROW) on top of the impacts of the more established activities of hiking and horse riding. Local authorities have to manage these recreational impacts as they have a duty to maintain PROW in a ‘fit state’ for all users.

However, it is also important that managers provide quality experiences as this can help to manage the impacts of users and reduce any conflicts that can occur. For example, previous work has shown that if trails don’t satisfy the preferences of mountain bikers, riders have built their own trails, modified trails or ridden where they shouldn’t, such as on footpaths. In protected areas like the Peak District National Park these actions can damage important habitats or archaeology and cause conflict between mountain bikers and land mangers or other users. Therefore, ensuring that mountain bikers’ trail preferences are catered for can help managers to achieve their dual aims of protecting the national park and enabling recreation.

This research began by asking why people mountain bike and what their trail preferences were as these things are likely to be related. For example, a downhill racer is likely to prefer trails that are different from the favourite trails of a novice cross-country rider; so, their experiences of the same trail might be different.

The results showed that two of the most popular reasons people mountain bike were to spend time outdoors, often in a wild feeling landscape, and to experience the thrill you might get from riding a challenging descent. These motivations were related to trail preferences and participants said that they preferred trails that were natural looking with a variety of features such as rocks, roots, steps, drops and perhaps some loose material. Any combination of these features could make a trail that is challenging and allow riders to experience the thrill that is a motivation for mountain biking.

People who took part in group discussions for this research explained that when managers surfaced a trail with a uniform material it takes away the challenge provided by rocks, steps, roots etc.; therefore, these trails were no longer thrilling or fun to ride. Examples people gave of this were places like the Chapel Gate bridleway, which runs from Edale to the top of Rushup Edge and Wigley Lane, near Rowland, in the White Peak. Not only was the opportunity for thrill removed, but these trails were also considered dangerous because of the loose surface.

At the other end of the scale, trails with exposed bedrock, steps and a variety of features were considered enjoyable, and if trails were managed to maintain these features then management could enhance the experience. A good example of this, which many people mentioned, is the descent into Roych Clough. Certainly, some management could greatly improve trail conditions, particularly if a trail was poorly drained and boggy. The trail across the top of Totley Moss is a good example where adding gravel and hard-core has made the, once boggy, trail passable year round.


There were trails in the middle of these two extremes and, although these might not be especially fun to ride, participants recognised that sometimes the management might be necessary to stop an area becoming highly eroded by mountain bikers and other users. The flag stone bridleway on the top of the Mam Tor ridgeline is a good example of this.


With this in mind, it was interesting that in all of the three discussion groups people explained how sometimes uniform surfacing can be good for opening up access to the Peak District to more novice riders or for providing an easier climb. The surfacing on Stanage Causeway divided opinion here as some people felt that they were more likely to use the route as it is now an easier climb, whilst others thought that the route had been ‘sanitised’ because they used to enjoy riding it as a descent. However, almost everyone thought that it looked unnatural and disliked this.


So, the take-away points are that the mountain bikers who took part in this research liked trails that had a variety of features, which add a challenge to the trail and make it fun or thrilling to ride. Another strong opinion was that trails should look as natural as possible and be in keeping with the setting and, if management works need to be carried out, these should also be in keeping with how the trail was before. In light of these findings, the following recommendations were made for trail managers who want to provide quality experiences for mountain bikers in order to reduce potential conflicts:

1. Ensure that trail surfacing maintains a variety of features or line choices.
2. Allow for a variety of trails within an area as less-challenging trails are often used as climbs, or to link challenging descents.
3. Ensure that all trails look as natural as possible, and are in keeping with both the setting and the nature of the trail before any work was started.
4. Use locally occurring materials to ensure that the trails are as in keeping with the setting as possible. E.g. Use gritstone in the Dark Peak and limestone in the White Peak.
5. Understand how mountain bikers use trails, and the best way to find this out is through consultation. Therefore, consult mountain bikers, and other users, on plans for trail management.
6. Use local advocacy groups, like Ride Sheffield or Peak District MTB, to communicate consultation opportunities as many local riders visit advocacy groups websites / social media channels.

In considering the application of these recommendations a final point that is worth noting is that UK national park legislation includes the ‘Sandford Principle’. This states that, although national parks have the dual purposes conservation and promoting recreation, if there is a conflict between these two purposes, and it cannot be managed, then greater weight must be given to conservation. Users must also remember that managers have a duty to maintain PROW in line with statutory requirements. However, participants in this research highlighted examples of work that meets mountain bikers’ preferences, has undergone consultation and, consequently, is highly regarded, which suggests that a balance can be achieved.

23 February 2016