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Is it Time to Rewrite the IMBA Trail Courtesy Rules? 

If most hikers are already yielding to mountain bikers, should we flip the script?

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When the International Mountain Bicycling Association was founded in 1988, it came right out of the gate with a sign to clear things up. Mountain bikers were a whole new user group, and some rules needed to be established.

The sign—no doubt we’ve all seen it—is a yellow upside down triangle with the words “yield to” in the middle, and in each of the three corners are icons of a bike, a hiker with a magic floating ball for a head, and an equestrian, whose horse appears to only have three legs. Arrows indicate which trail user should yield to each other, with the bike always yielding to the other two users. IMBA plastered its new sign everywhere, and it became the reference for basic trail etiquette. 

Perhaps since we were new on the block, and not everyone was happy with our presence on the trails, IMBA just went ahead and played it safe. Like, “Hey y’all, we’re here, but we’ll totally get out of your way.” Or maybe these magic, floating-head hikers have a harder time stepping to the side of the trail than the ones I see out there.

Because if we think about the problem practically, in the real world, it’s almost always easier for a hiker to slow their momentum, step aside, and resume their walking or running speed after an encounter with most other trail users. 

And before people get all pissed off at me, I’m not saying that hikers should yield, or in other words, that I take any sort of priority. I’ve never had an occasion where the trail, or the thing I’m trying to do on it, has been more important than the other humans using it. I don’t consider myself so special that I simply assume that I have the right of way all the time, nor am I ever so caught up in making a climb or sending a section of dowhill that stopping and saying hi to folks is some sort of hardship or personal insult. I find that level of self importance disgusting.

Basically what I’m saying is that any trail user unwilling to yield is an asshole.

Still though, in the vast majority of real-world scenarios, hikers step aside, breaking IMBA’s rule. And in my experience, hikers in most places are happy to do so. They say hi, smile, and say stuff like, “Whoa, you’ve got more energy than me these days,” and “Wow, did you ride that whole thing? Nice going!”

And then there’s other riders. It’s not on the sign, but the classic IMBA rule for when two mountain bikers are traveling opposite directions on a trail is that the downhill rider yields to the uphill rider. Which I’ll admit sometimes makes sense. But in real world scenarios, what most often happens is that it’s easier for the uphill rider to get aside.

An uphill rider is more likely to hear a downhill rider approaching than the other way around. And the uphill rider is going slower, so it’s often easier for them to scoot aside and put a foot down. And yes, I realize that the uphill rider is suffering or in a groove or whatever, and it’s harder for them to restart. But going down is more fun. As an uphill rider, I always yield for downhill riders because I want them to have a sweet descent. I’m not concerned about anyone spoiling my climb. Plus, I’ll always welcome an excuse to take a little breather. If an encounter happens to be at a spot I want to clean, uphill or downhill, I’ll simply go back and do it again when the trail is clear. It’s pretty basic stuff.

So, should IMBA reorganize the arrows on its trail courtesy sign? I don’t know. Part of me thinks that the rules should better reflect what actually happens out on the trail most of the time. But then again, there are always exceptions to every rule. Location, for instance, greatly affects the circumstances for who should yield—not only on a particular spot on a trail, but also in whole regions. Then again, if we officially give mountain bikers the right of way over hikers, and favor downhill traffic, perhaps riders will abuse their power and become less likely to be considerate. Have we as a user group earned the right to have the right of way? Probably not.

Personally, I think we all, regardless of how we’re enjoying the outdoors, have a responsibility to be respectful and patient with every trail user. It’s probably way too idealistic, but I think the rule should simply be something like: any trail user who sees or hears someone should slow down and try to make way. In other words, be courteous. Oh, and the three-legged horse always gets the right of way.