Surviving The Freeze/Thaw Season

If you’re looking forward to spring, there’s hope. If you’re hoping for just one more snowstorm, well, there’s hope for you, too. It’s Michigan; the weather changes by the minute, and on the heels of this weekend’s summer-like heatwave, there’s a good chance we see another white-out before we see the back end of winter. 

That constant change in conditions can cause fits for riders in West Michigan. While other trails in the state have sandy soil that drains quickly, many of our trail networks have different compositions that tend to retain water. This is a real problem during the freeze and thaw cycle that’s well underway and will continue for what could be weeks. 

The cycle gets its name for obvious reasons. Overnight, the moisture in the trails freezes, only to thaw out throughout the morning and afternoon. When they do, the trails are vulnerable to deep mud puddles and ruts caused by tire tracks. Even heavy walking or trail running traffic can leave scars on the moist, soft trails as the day warms up. This causes the surface of the trail to become soft and wear, often causing the trail bed itself to sink. 

Riders trying to skirt around mud or mud puddles can widen the trail, too, which can quickly turn a six or eight-inch singletrack into a three-foot-wide pathway. These changes in width and depth can have a big impact not just on the mountain biking experience but can have a far-reaching impact on other aspects of the trail like erosion that affect the long-term sustainability of even the best-designed trails. 

The good news is that much of the damage done can be fixed, but it takes countless hours of trail work which would be better spent making expansions and improvements, not repairs. Over the course of a few years, even these efforts aren’t enough to successfully revive especially worked-over sections of trail. Instead of pristine singletrack, worn-out trails may have exposed tree roots and rocks, drain even less effectively, and have substantial washouts in corners and bends. It’s often at this point that the damaged section of trail needs to be blocked off, re-routed, and left for nature to reclaim. Again, that adds an awful lot of work to trail volunteers! 

In order to keep our trails in great shape, we rely on area riders to make smart decisions about when to ride and when to bail. Over the next few weeks, avoid riding during or after rain, and if you’re sinking into the dirt at all, bag it. You can use this page on the site, or use the Trailforks app on your phone to see what other local riders have already seen. Save yourself a trip by checking conditions before you head out, and make sure you post up when you’re on the trail, too. 

We’ve got a great thing going here in West Michigan, and together we can make the new season even better by protecting the trails now so they’re in awesome shape later. If this is spring, let’s enjoy it…but don’t be surprised if we see snowflakes again, either!