Where can you legally ride off-road?

Softly, softly

Every inch of this green and pleasant land of ‘ours’ is owned by somebody. There are many places out-of-bounds to bikers, even in areas such as the National Parks. But fret not, there’s so much ‘gnarly singletrack’ (MTB-speak for a single bike-wide twisty trail) to go round there’s no need to spoil the fun of other countryside users. It’s just a matter of checking the legality of your route and knowing the basics about access law. [Note: this article is about countryside access in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Mountain bikers in Scotland – just like walkers in Scotland – have statutory right to access almost everywhere].

Sign language

According to the Countryside Agency, there are 225,000km of public rights of way – off-road footpaths, bridleways and byways that the public has a right to use – in England and Wales.

You CAN cycle on:

BRIDLEWAYS • 27,400 kms. We’ve had the right to share bridleways with walkers and horses since an Act of Parliament in 1968. Note the word ‘share’. Horses get spooked easily and we’re faster than walkers so it’s only fair to give them due consideration. Slow down, smile, say hi and pick up speed once you roll past. Spread a little happiness, it costs nothing.

BYWAYS OPEN TO ALL TRAFFIC • 3000kms. Also know as BOATs. These allow all traffic to pass, including motor vehicles.

FOREST TRACKS AND PATHS Permission is officially required for riding through Forestry Commission land. Often this permission has already been granted by the local conservator and the Forestry Commission regards mountain biking very favourably. Stick to the waymarked routes (which change from year-to-year), you don’t want to meet a 10-ton logging truck coming round the corner of a dirt track.

GREEN LANES • 10,200kms. A non-legal term for a pleasant unsealed country road, track or byway.

WHITE ROADS • 7000kms? Most roads on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps have colours to denote their status. White roads have no colour so are not recorded as having any rights-of-way status. When looking at an OS map they can appear to be farm tracks or private roads when, in fact, they might be public highways. Of the estimated 7000 kms of ‘lost’ white roads many of them are great, totally legal trails for use by cyclists just waiting to be ‘found’ and put onto the ‘definitive map’.

You CAN’T ride on:

FOOTPATHS The name says it all: tyres are not allowed. You aren’t doing yourself or fellow cyclists any favours by deliberately riding on trails you know to be footpaths. Stay clear, there’s better riding to be had on walker-free trails.

CANAL TOW-PATHS As of right, that is. However, many towpaths are now being made into cycle ways. In some parts of the country, cycle permits are necessary although these are normally easy to obtain, albeit for a fee.

DISUSED RAILWAY LINES Only those routes that have been way-marked and designated as cycle paths are OK to cycle along.

Minimal impact Climbers have ‘clean climbing’; anglers have ‘catch and release’; mountain bikers should have a similar mantra: ‘skid free biking’. Aside from the fact you’ll go through tyres like nobody’s business, you’re not riding right, or responsibly, by skidding. Bad braking is a common problem and there’s no need for it. When you skid you lose control of the bike, not an option for a good rider. Instead, use both brakes and squeeze the levers rhythmically, once a second. This can be likened to car ABS braking – it stops the back wheel locking up and gives you far more control than when slip-sliding away.

Here are three pointers for keeping the damage to an absolute minimum:

  • Always stick to the trail and keep the scarring to a minimum
  • Go through puddles not round them. Going round just makes them wider.
  • As soil and grass are more prone to damage when wet, environmentally-sensitive areas should be avoided if they are water-logged or extremely greasy. Stick to the hard-pack when it’s been raining for a while.

Doing something about the damage

If you feel strongly about trail repair, you’re not alone. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers has 90 offices around the country and supports over 1300 groups at a local level who carry out practical improvements on a regular basis. The BTCV runs training courses and organise some very popular weekend breaks as well as conservation holidays. Cyclists are very welcome! In many forests around the UK there are a growing number of trail building volunteers, sometimes called ‘trail fairies’. Ask in your nearest bike shop for your local groupo.

SIGN LANGUAGE

It’s fine and dandy knowing which routes you’re supposed to stick to, but on the ground it’s often a different kettle of coconuts. There’s not always a footpath sign when you need one and many wide, open trails look as though they must be bridleways. It’s therefore good practice to always carry an Ordnance Survey map. These don’t list every right of way – check out the ‘definitive map’ at your local highway authority for that – but will include the main ones. To find out where the best trails are check out the mountain bike guidebooks to your local area or ask in a friendly bike shop.

GETTING ON THE MAP

Want to reclaim some ‘lost’ Rights of Way? Go here for background info and advice.

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