Wilderness and Getting “Out There,” by Hike or by Bike

Experiencing wilderness is a treasure that many of us seek when we venture into the back-country.  It’s the feeling of being really, really out there, where the natural world overwhelms our senses.  Of all of the incredible wild places in the United States alone, there are 765 designated Wilderness Areas covering over 109 million acres.  These areas are protected and managed by the government using the 1964 Wilderness Act as a guide.

As a quick summary, the Act defines Wilderness as a natural environment that is devoid of signs of human intervention in natural processes.  That definition creates a series of management policies designed to preserve the natural and wild character of these Areas so future generations can experience them (more or less) as we do today.  Some of these policies relate to trail and resource management practices, while others set limits on how visitors use and access these Areas.  If you’ve never read the Wilderness Act, I highly recommend it.

Many people are already aware that forms of “mechanized transport” are prohibited in federal Wilderness.  Trouble is, there has been debate over what exactly “mechanized” means.  For those who primarily experience wilderness as hikers, this debate is not really a big deal.  But many people, including yours truly, seek wilderness experiences by bicycle.

Yes, I’m writing about bikes on a hiking blog. So sue me!

Bikes are machines, sure.  But they require human-generated energy to move, have a small footprint, and make little noise.  Currently, cycling is prohibited in Wilderness Areas, minimizing access to the wilderness experience to a large group of generally conservation-minded, nature-loving people.  And I’m a total fence-sitter on this issue.  First, I’ll take off my thru-hiker hat and advocate for improving bicycle access to Wilderness Areas.  Then, I’ll unclip the helmet and look at Wilderness with my feet on the ground.

A “Non-Motorized” Appeal

Loving wild places goes hand in hand with a deep desire to introduce more people to the experience of wilderness.  If wild places are important to us, we want to ensure they remain wild.  The more people who find these wild places, experience their overwhelming power, and share their experiences with others, the more likely we as a society will act to protect and preserve those places.

The wilderness feeling relies on being distinct from what we can otherwise experience in our civilization.

We also have a duty, as visitors to wild places, to consciously minimize our impact and treat the ecosystem, and other visitors, with respect.  Bringing new people into the wilderness, and Wilderness, loses its profound effect if they find trails torn apart, trash-filled campsites, and other signs of human intervention.

Mountain biking, and the increasingly popular “sport” of medium- and long-distance bikepacking, benefit from erosion-resistant trails, low-impact camping opportunities., and certainly a feeling that you’ve left the everyday behind.  Like hikers, mountain bikers have an obligation to follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, respect other trail users, and generally minimize our impact on the places we love.  That is how we protect the wilderness experience.

So why shouldn’t bikes be allowed in Wilderness Areas?

Opening Wilderness access to cyclists would only expand our community’s awe and respect for the natural wonders in this world.  We’ll more enthusiastically support conservation initiatives, participate in trail maintenance, and encourage responsible use by others.  We’ll introduce our friends and families to wild places, and by doing so enrich their lives.

Let’s all just get along

Mountain biking is more compatible with currently permitted trail use in Wilderness Areas than it is opposed.  Like hiking, paddling, horseback riding, climbing, etc, mountain biking doesn’t require motors, roads, or human-made structures.  When following LNT principles and relevant trail use rules, it is a low-impact activity that doesn’t leave lasting signs of human intervention or interrupt the “natural order of things.”

Back on the ground

My first 10 years of back-country experience were all hiking.  Growing up in New England, I hiked as often as possible in the White Mountains.  There, I was exposed to the most wild places I’d ever seen.  I could stand on top of a mountain and see only trees and rocky summits.  In the summers of 2011 and ’12, I lived and worked on the border of two wilderness areas in the White Mountain National Forest: The Pemigewasset Wilderness and the Wild River Wilderness.  I can’t express how deeply important my experiences in these places are to me.  In the hundreds, possibly 1000+ miles I’ve hike in the Whites, I’ve never ever seen a mountain biker.

I know that I’ve learned to associate certain places as “off-limit” to bikes, because I’ve never imagined someone riding a bike there.  Seeing a bicycle on top of Franconia Ridge would no doubt be a jarring, and possibly upsetting experience for me.  Even though I’d love to ride my mountain bike up there.  Why?

Because bikes remind many people of the everyday.

Shiny paint, spinning wheels, cables, hoses, levers: the list goes on.  That’s what we came out to the back-country to avoid!  It all seems too “complex” to quite fit into the wilderness ideal.  And that’s the trick with Wilderness; it is supposed to preserve the resource as well as the experience.

And besides, there’s plenty of wilderness that exists beyond the boundaries of any Wilderness.

109 million acres is a lot of land, but think of all the other Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, and other protected acres that exist.  It’s not like mountain bikers have no access to wild places.  I don’t think it is entirely unreasonable to restrict bicycle access to some areas, just as hunting, ATV/snowmobile use, and large groups are restricted in certain areas.  There are many amazing places where these activities are encouraged.

A Truce

What I absolutely don’t want to see is an increasingly regulated, codified “wilderness” experience.  I go to the back-country to be rid of many rules and social conventions that pervade our everyday.  The better we do as back-country visitors at minimizing our impact on the ecosystem and respecting each other, the fewer restrictions will be needed to preserve our amazing wild places.  And the feeling of being really, really out there.  So, if you’re on a trail that says “No Bikes,” please don’t ride your bike on it.  If you’re on a trail that allows bikes, treat that access with respect by yielding to other trail users (especially horses!), following LNT principles, and always be polite.  If you’re hiking on a trail that allows bikes, respect their access by yielding when appropriate, following LNT principles, and being polite.


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Comments 2

  • Mountain Mare : Jan 7th

    Well said. As someone who hikes, mountain bikes and horseback rides I think it’s important we all strive to get along while sharing the trails. But I do agree that Wilderness trails should remain free of mountain bikes. There are some wild places where the peace, quiet and introspective nature can be destroyed in an instant by the noise and appearance of a mountain bike whizzing by.
    All in all, as a horseback rider I have had positive experiences with mountain bikers and hikers. But one time last year, two female mountain bikers sped right between the horses that my friend and I were riding without stopping or slowing down. When we told them to please slow down and not to ride fast between our horses, they rolled their eyes and laughed at us. They even told us that if our horses couldn’t handle their bikes going by fast, then we should keep our horses off the trail. They laughed at us again when I remended them that mountain bikes are supposed to yield to horses and hikers!
    Our horses weren’t bothered by their bikes at all, just a little startled just as we riders were. But many horses do not do well with bikes speeding towards them or separating them from another horse on the trail. They are herd animals after all.
    Thankfully that has been my only bad experience with mountain bikers in 7 years of horseback riding.


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