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Mountain Biking Is Inappropriate In Wilderness

-George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide who has written or edited many books including, Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation. He has personally visited more than 400 designated wilderness areas.

I just got back from a mountain bike ride. The trails outside of my hometown of Bend, Oregon have numerous loops and degrees of difficulty, and riding my mountain bike is a pleasant way to unwind, get some exercise, and enjoy pedaling without the fear of being hit by a car. The trails are located in previously logged forests on the edge of town. These lands do not qualify for wilderness or other special protection, and thus are an appropriate location for mountain biking.

The key words here are “appropriate location.”

That is the same qualifier I would have for my four-wheel drive vehicle as well other “thrillcraft.” I am grateful to have a four-wheel drive vehicle when driving in snow, muddy roads and the like, but that doesn’t mean I feel it’s appropriate to drive it everywhere it can go. Similarly, just because my mountain bike can climb steep hillsides and traverse meadows, doesn’t mean I think it’s appropriate to use wherever I might feel like it.

Mountain Bike Star Passphoto: on Flickr

Although I can’t speak for all mountain bikers, I think my experience while on my bike is representative of most cyclists in that I am more focused on the trail and the sense of movement than I am aware of and in tune with my surroundings. In other words, the natural world I am traveling through is more a stage for my cycling experience. Whether that stage is wildlands or not is irrelevant to my biking experience. This fundamental indifference to landscape is the primary conflict between mountain biking and the Wilderness Act’s goals.

This is not to say that mountain bikers do not enjoy wildlands or that they are immune to the beauty of nature. Indeed, when I stop cycling, I often look around and appreciate the setting. But the reason I am biking is not primarily to observe nature, and I think it’s safe to say that most mountain bikers would agree. When careening down a mountain we must, by necessity, be focused on the trail in front of us, not the natural world around us.

Our wildlands are not outdoor gymnasiums or amusement parks. Part of the rationale for wilderness designation is to provide an opportunity for people to contemplate and observe natural systems.

It is clear from a reading of the debate around the creation of the Wilderness System that recreation is not the prime rationale for wilderness designation. The act says little about preserving recreational uses or adapting new types of recreation. In testimony before Congress in 1962, Howard Zahniser, the chief architect of the Wilderness Act, stated clearly: “Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness.” In an essay he authored in 1956, Zahniser wrote about the spiritual benefits of wilderness, which he considered one of its highest purposes: “Without the gadgets, the inventions, the contrivances whereby men have seemed to establish among themselves an independence of nature, without these distractions, to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility.”

I do not believe mountain bikes contribute to the development of humility, nor a sense of dependence, interdependence, and responsibility. There are four major reasons why mountain biking should not be permitted in officially designated wilderness areas or in any areas that are strong candidates for wilderness designation.

Legal. The Wilderness Act is unambiguous about the kinds of activities that are deemed acceptable in designated wilderness – namely travel without “mechanical advantage.” The rationale for the law, as stated in its opening paragraph, is “to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” Mountain bikes are part of that growing mechanization. The sophisticated advancement of mountain bike technology reduces the natural limits imposed by primeval character, whereas those walking or traveling by horse remain within natural limits.

Ecological. Bike proponents often suggest that mountain bikes may do less damage than a pack of horses or even a Boy Scout troop. This is a specious argument. The cumulative effects of numerous tires create additional erosion, sedimentation in streams, and potential for trail damage. The idea that some activities do more damage than another is not a reason to expand damaging activities. There is a cumulative impact from all uses, and adding to existing use can only increase impacts. The main goal of wilderness designation is to preserve wild nature, not to preserve recreational opportunity.

Sociological. Any mechanical advantage – whether it is a dirt bike or a mountain bike – shrinks the backcountry. This has several effects. Those walking are easily surpassed by those using mechanical means, which can psychologically dismay other users. On heavily used trails, the threat of a fast moving bike changes the experience for other trail users. If you are a hiker, the ability to relax and soak in the natural world is impeded when one is anxious about having to jump out of the way of a bike.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think: Are bikes cool in the wilderness?
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Philosophical. The spirit and letter of the Wilderness Act is to protect lands that retain their “primeval character and influence.” The more advanced the technology that we drag along with us, the greater our alienation from the spiritual values of wilderness areas. To many who are walking in quiet contemplation of nature, mountain bikes are an intrusion. They are no different to many wildlands enthusiasts than if a bike were to invade the Sistine Chapel or were ridden in the Arlington National Cemetery. The fact that many mountain bikers are oblivious to the spiritual values inherent in wildlands is one reason why those walking find mountain biking obnoxious at best, and even disrespectful.

For me – and many of my fellow wilderness advocates – the goal of conservation is to preserve the remnants of wild nature, not to protect self-indulgent recreational opportunities. With ever more technological gadgets available for distraction and diversion, we need the sanctity and self-restraint that Wilderness Areas represent more than ever.

For an opposing view, read what Mike Van Abel has to say.


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Mountain bikers are less than 3% of the population and Federal Wilderness Areas are less than 3% of the Land Area in the lower 48 States.  This isn’t even worth it for mountain bikers.  So, we might as well keep the little land that is preserved as Wilderness sacred, whether you are sick of it or not.

And the real enemies are the members of Congress who are sponsoring the STC Bill.  That also make STC the real enemy

By isawtman on Tue, July 25, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Completely disagree. Mountain bikes are perfectly appropriate on some trails in Wilderness. The whole sacred land argument gets old. How do you know the land isn’t sacred to those that want to ride there? I’ve come to the conclusion that people who fight for Wilderness don’t really want to win against the real enemy, development. Instead of a blanket “no” statement, a more reasonable approach generally gets more accomplished.

By Elizabeth WMcGlone on Sun, July 23, 2017 at 6:59 am


Just give it up. If you are supporting the “Bikes in the Wilderness Bill,” then you are not an Environmentalist, and not even close to being “devoted” to protecting the earth.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition just got two more co-sponsors for their Bill, and one of those co-sponsors has a whopping 3% rating by the League of Conservation voters in 2016.  That’s right, they finally got a someone with more than a 0% rating.  All the other Sponsors and Co-sponsors including Tom McClintock, have a 0% rating on the Environment in 2016.

And you seem to think that Mountain bikers are “gods gift to the outdoors.”  But again, research studies have shown that since mountain bikers are covering 2 to 3 times more distance than hikers in any given time period, they are doing 2 to 3 times more damage and wildlife disruption.

Jeff, at this time when our National Monuments are being threatened, we should stand united against the threat. What you are doing is being divisive instead.

By isawtman on Mon, July 17, 2017 at 4:07 pm

And you, George, are inappropriate for this planet.

I am a devoted environmentalist.

And here’s the thing: we’re going to ride. Some of the very best riding I’ve EVER done has been in RMNP, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Redwoods, and Yellowstone.

I am ALWAYS extremely conscious, careful, and deeply respectful of trails, flora, and fauna- there is zero evidence of my visit. Which is a lot more than you can say for all- yes, I said all- equestrians and most humans.

We’re going to ride. You can join us, or you can write articles like this, but we’re going to ride.

We’re not going to you, so if you want to create a partnership, you’re coming to us.

Happily deciding it’s appropriate for me to carefully ride wherever I please.

Jeff B.

By J on Sat, July 15, 2017 at 10:33 pm

Mountain bikers often complain that XC Skiing, Snoeshowing and Rowing with Oarlocks are allowed in the Wilderness, but mountain bikes are not.  Well, you have to remember that the Wilderness Act says designated Wilderness Areas must keep a “Primeval Character to them.  The word “primeval” means “ancient or of the first ages.”  XC Skis, snowshoes and oarlocks have been around since ancient times, where bikes have been around since 1817 and mountain bikes since 1980. Also, bikes are not simple devices

By isawtman on Mon, January 11, 2016 at 6:55 am

I like mountain biking but I feel conflicted. My memory as a kid hiking in the Marin Headlands was of seeing a lot of snakes both on and off trails (maybe ~5 snakes per mile in some locations). Then when mountain bikes were introduced, seeing flattened snakes, then seeing many fewer snakes on or off trail. I don’t know if this was an important or real effect or not (I was “just a kid”), or how it compares from impacts of other activities. It does seem inconsistent with the wilderness, though.

By Eric on Wed, October 01, 2014 at 7:34 am

Mechanical advantage—well, modern hiking boots, modern fabrics, and modern backpacks all offer one heck of an advantage in the outdoors.  Complete with true mechanical advantage being utilized to stabilize loads in packs.

For those who hunt and fish, which I do as well, even modern bows are almost a different thing entirely from the bows used just a few decades ago.  Very few people utilizing these tools could hunt or fish without those modern mechanical advantages.

How many people ride horses in wilderness areas utilizing only the bareback, bridle-less horsemanship?

Sociological and philosophical:  a Boy Scout troop is really having a higher-quality experience than someone out for a long MTB epic?

Likewise:  a trail runner or fast thru-hiker often may not be taking in as much as you think.  Same for kids in that boy scout troop. 

And:  you often see more wildlife, not less, when on a bike.  It is hard to roll up to some bighorn sheep or a mountain lion and not be touched by the experience.

As far as impact on trails, both horses and hikers can be more destructive.  And also produce much more noise for other users of the same area.  And yes, MTBers, I hope, produce far less biological waste than horses.

Political correctness:  well, as for MTBers being oblivious to the spiritual values inherent in wildlands, I’m sorry that the author just called out a large portion of the wilderness-using community who MTB for not having values.

By JS on Wed, September 03, 2014 at 8:34 am

“I do not believe mountain bikes contribute to the development of humility, nor a sense of dependence, interdependence, and responsibility. ”  I just want to say this sentence clearly excludes you from any group of avid bikers of any kind.  Please go for a solo multi-day mountain bike adventure and return the same “undeveloped” person. 

Ecological-  when was the last time you defecated in a stream while mountain biking?  Horses are WORSE not just different impact.

Sociological- Follow a pack train into the Sierra for a few days and tell me that your experience wasn’t ruined. I’d much rather step off the trail for a biker than 10 mules kicking dust and excrement all over me. 

Philosophical-  My bike is worse than a gun toting, bear spray, whistle blowing, boom box using, GPS, mule train renting luddite in the wilderness?

Im not advocating for bikes everywhere in the wilderness but just because the horse lobby has more money doesn’t mean I have to believe their horse $h!t.  It looks like you fell for most of it. 


By Michael on Tue, September 02, 2014 at 9:44 pm

As an outdoor recreationalist since the 1950s I agree with most everything the author said.  Perhaps the most important definition of wilderness is “absence of human intervention and activity” a place that is defined by its long history of little or no human presence and activity, a place where nature-sans-humans has the chance to become what it is through the forces of nature alone. 

To many of us, wilderness so defined is sacred—a place of spiritual refuge and renewal, a place for silence, solace, and solitude, a place to completely escape the human world and reconnect with ourselves and reflect on what’s meaningful about life, a place that is also the archetype of beauty. 

Mountain bikes, or any mechanical/electronic gismo or gadget, are fundamentally in conflict with the values and kinds of experiences I am describing about wilderness.  In my view mountain biking is not far from dirt-biking-motocross, it just doesn’t use motors, but as the author describes,  the reasons for doing the activity aren’t much different. I know many mountain bikers who also care about the natural world, are responsible stewards of natural places, and work to be responsible toward preserving the little that is left.  But a majority of the mountain biking community are like a lot of skiers and snowboarders - they are there to hedonistically shred, party, sweat, outdo the next guy, be cool, get wasted on adrenaline and who knows what else.  It’s fine to have fun like this - god knows I did some - but we also have to grow up at some point and realize how humans are degrading nature and the earth more rapidly than ever.

By Blaine A Snow on Tue, September 02, 2014 at 4:05 pm

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