Electric Mountain Bike Trail Etiquette

As motor and battery technology has become increasingly durable, lighter weight and more powerful, electric mountain bikes have become a reality and are now widely accepted worldwide. The video below talks about what an electric mountain bike is and touches on ebike classes a bit which are further defined below.

And now on to trail etiquette… that is, how should electric bike riders behave when riding on single track trails and other off-road paths? There are many hiking paths that don’t allow pedal powered bicycles and some bicycle paths that don’t allow ebikes so be conscious and respectful… in the places that do allow ebikes knowing how to behave and represent the sport in a positive way could make a big difference in where they are permitted in the years to come. Note that for this discussion I’m using the most widely accepted class of ebikes in the United States (Class 1) which is a low speed electric bicycle defined by the US Congress Public Law 107-319. Class 1 electric bicycles are a consumer product and not considered as motor vehicles. To fit this definition they must have fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 horse power). The maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 miles per hour. In many parts of Europe this definition is 250 watt max with 25 km/h (roughly 15.5 mph).

Single track mountain biking and other off-road and trail use etiquette and guidelines:

  1. Avoid riding wet trails, this can leave tire ruts and create erosion that may wreck the trail for others… It costs money and time to repair trails and many are maintained by volunteer organizations that may not be able to make repairs before serious damage sets in, severe damage may result in permanent closure
  2. Stick to the marked trail, exploring unmarked areas may disrupt sensitive habitats and cause erosion… even briefly cutting around other riders and hikers near the main trail can widen them and cause sections to be closed or just make people resent cyclists
  3. Keep your speed under control and be cautious around blind corners. When riding a bicycle (and especially an electric bicycle which may ascend quicker than other platforms) be respectful and try not to startle anyone by sneaking up unannounced. Think ahead and ride conservatively when it’s crowded
  4. Be friendly, patient and open to others who are enjoying the space… this may be the first time they’ve seen an electric bicycle and it’s up to you to provide a positive first impression so they don’t become afraid of them or angry with the technology, most people are just curious in my experience and like the idea (how it could help their friend keep up or possibly go further on their favorite trails), be friendly to traditional cyclists and encourage other ebike riders to slow down or ride carefully if you see them making poor decisions
  5. As a cyclist, it is your duty to yield to hikers, horses and anyone going uphill (because it’s difficult ascending!)… so basically you yield to everyone! Horses especially can be easily spooked and hikers have less speed and are usually lower to the ground so you are at the top of the food chain here… it’s up to you to be respectful and slow, get out of the way if you can and use your bell well in advance to avoid startling people, don’t go off-trail to pass

Other general considerations for being a respectful cyclist (ebikes or otherwise):

  • Greet hikers early, slow down to a similar speed when passing, be prepared to stop if necessary and be patient… you’re on an electric bike and it’s probably easier for you to start and ascend again than other trail-goers, note that people and animals can be unpredictable and easily spooked, be friendly
  • When you’re preparing to pass it’s best to announce your intentions by saying “let me know when I can pass” or “coming up on your left” on singletrack or narrow trails you can yield by stepping to the side, leaning away from the center of the trail without going too far out of bounds
  • When passing horses stop at least 30 feet from the horse, greet the rider and their animal in a friendly voice so you’re not perceived as a threat or predator and consider removing your helmet and other flashy gear that might confuse the horse, be sensitive about the clicking noise of your hub (consider standing still), look to the equestrian for direction… sudden movements can spook horses and getting kicked or having to haul an injured rider to safety isn’t fun for anyone

Some common questions that come up about electric mountain bikes:

  • How fast can an electric bike go? Class 1 is 20 mph with pedal assist only, Class 2 is 20 mph with throttle and Class 3 is up to 28 mph but tends to be more restricted by trails
  • How far can an electric mountain bike go? Depending on the battery pack and motor power output (along with terrain, wind and rider weight) most can reach 20+ miles per charge
  • How long does it take to charge? Usually you can fill a 500 watt battery within six hours, the first two hours charge much faster because the cells are not being actively balanced so expect 50%+
  • Are electric bikes allowed on mountain bike trails? Are they legal? In most situations they are allowed anywhere a traditional bicycle is allowed as long as they are Class 1 (pedal assist up to 20 mph)
  • How heavy are electric mountain bikes? The bike I showed in the video above, the 2016 IZIP E3 Peak, weighs 49 pounds but the battery and wheels are removable for easier transport, which combined weigh roughly 10 pounds
  • How loud are they? Depending on the motor used, electric mountain bikes tend to be very quiet, often the noise generated by the tires on the trail at medium speed are equal to the sound volume produced by the motor

4 Comments

steve pettyjohn
2 years ago

Great information, and we all indeed need to be positive ambassadors for ebiking. One thing I would add when encountering horses, if they get spooked, it is best to stop, dismount and remove your helmet. Horses may not initially recognize you as human and therefor be afraid.

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Court Rye
2 years ago

Wow! That’s great advice Steve, I’ll update the article to include it… makes perfect sense but this is the first time I’ve heard. I noticed that some dogs will mistake me for a monster if I’m wearing a hat or some unfamiliar clothing, I guess horses are similar. Interestingly, it sounds like First People in the America’s referred to horses as big dogs upon encountering them when Europeans began settling.

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Land Manager
3 months ago

Hi Steve, E-bikes (class 1, II and III) are not allowed on non-motorized trails on National Forests or BLM lands. E-bikes are allowed on trails and roads open to motorized use. E-bikes are defined as a motorized vehicle in the Travel Management Rule which is the law governing motorized use on public federal lands.

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Court Rye
3 months ago

Thanks for the clarification, hopefully this will change soon. It feels like right now we have a broad sweeping rule that doesn’t account for how quiet, lightweight, and limited in power Class 1 ebikes are. You have to pedal to make them go and the top speed is only 20 mph which is very achievable unpowered. Perhaps this rule has more to do with limited energy or precision in enforcing one type of motorized vehicle over another? In some places, the BLM seems to be having a very challenging time keeping the native plants and spaces protected… it does not look like an easy job and I appreciate the effort that you guys are putting in.

In my line of work, I have met with a large demographic of mostly aging people who have knee, hip, and heart issues who are turning to ebikes (legally or otherwise) to get out into nature and stay active. I’d love to see them identified more closely with bicycles in the future because they aren’t much heavier (maybe 15 to 20 lbs on average) and I don’t think they’d be as disruptive as grazing cattle, fracking and drilling for oil and other minerals, or laying pipelines to transport Helium etc. Thanks for chiming in on the topic, I don’t mean to attack you or the policy and recognize that I may not know or understand all of the forces at work. I certainly do not enjoy the noise and destruction associated with ICE vehicles like motocross bikes and ATV’s.

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