Trail Etiquette: Does Uphill or Downhill Have Right of Way While Mountain Biking

Trail etiquette - Who has right of way?

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Someone recently asked me, “Does uphill or downhill have right of way while mountain biking?” so we decided to share an answer to it.

As a biker, if it’s your first time to hit an uphill trail, you’d want to know some general rules of thumb including when you have the right of way or when to yield to descending riders.

Does Uphill or Downhill Have Right of Way Mountain Biking?

We’ll first get started with one of the mountain bike rules from IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association).

The 1970s general rule of thumb according to IMBA suggests that “Many trails that we usually ride are for multi-use (two-way trail). Keeping that in mind, mountain bikers must yield to horses and hikers. On the contrary, downhill bikers or descending riders should yield to the uphill ones. This specific yielding triangle has been adopted since the late 1970s by land managers and that’s what we follow during uphill trailing.”

“Uphill mountain bikers have a right of way compared to downhill bikers. However, the general etiquette suggests that both uphill and downhill bikers should yield to each other to show mutual respect.”

IMBA, International Mountain Bicycling Association

This rule from IMBA makes sense to a certain extent. If you think about it, if a descending biker yields for an uphill rider, it would be easier for the downhill biker to get going again.

On the other hand, if you know the hurdles of biking uphill, you’d surely not want someone to disturb you while you are going at a steady pace on rough and muddy trails.

That’s the official policy from IMBA. But it does not mean that every biking school of thought might agree with it.

Here are some of the arguments against this policy:

Counter Arguments About Who Should Have the Right of Way:

The other side of the coin has a counter-narrative.

According to some riders, the descending bikers should have a right of way and happy mountain bikers should make way for them.


They give this argument that it’s far easier for uphill fellow trail users to just go slow and move aside the trail as they are already biking with slow speed according to bicycle speed regulations.

Compared to that, the descending bikers usually have a faster pace and they’d surely face issues in stopping the bike once they see climbing riders.

This logic also makes common sense and it suggests that uphill riders are the ones that should yield to the ones coming on existing trails.

Keeping both these logics aside, one other group of bikers has another narrative!

According to them,  

“Both types of bikers do not need to yield to one another while they bike on a multi-use trail. Both uphill and downhill bikers should try to turn on their right side while maintaining their bike tires on the trail. Moreover, their bike handlebars should snake around each other. This practice will make it easier for both uphill and downhill bikers to keep going without wasting their stamina.”

However, there are some complexities in this logic. First, there’s always a chance of collision between two riders that would lead to injuries.

Second, if riders take their bike outside the trail, they will surely damage the greenery or plants grown on the sides making Mother Nature suffer.

Based on these three arguments, there’s no solid answer to who must yield for whom and this is where we take help from the basic etiquettes that every biker must know while cycling uphill or when you see downhill traffic.

Have a look at them one by one:

4 Rules of Trail Etiquette You Must Know

To show mutual respect for your fellow riders, all-mountain cyclists need to follow the below-mentioned rules:

1. Know Your Right of Way Beforehand

Knowing when to yield and to whom you should yield is important not only for mountain bikers but for hikers as well.

The Right Of Way for Hikers

As an individual hiker, simply step aside from large groups to avoid any conflicts on trails.

If you see uphill hikers while you are descending, better yield to them so that uphill hikers can keep moving without breaking their rhythm.

The same is the case when you have a counter with fellow mountain bikers. Although bikers have a good grip on their bicycles with brakes and roper maneuver, it would be better for hikers to just stay away from the mess.

No matter what happens, always yield to a horse rider as horses are difficult to control compared to bikes.

The Right of Way for Mountain Bikers

If you want to ride an uphill trail on your mountain bike, simply yield to everyone else and that includes downhill riders, horse riders as well as hikers.

Moreover, while cycling, if you see a descending biker approaching you, better shout “On Your Left” to avoid any hassle or collision.

For a downhill rider, they should yield to the ones riding uphill to show mutual respect as well as sportsmanship.

Keep good control over your bike and ride at a pace at which you are comfortable. Remember, you will not get a trophy for reaching uphill before anyone else.

2. Leave No Trace before You Hit Mountain Bicycling

The LeaveNoTrace rules are specifically designated for fellow bikers, hikers, and even horse riders.

Some important points you need to keep in mind are:

Be prepared beforehand. Choose your uphill location carefully and search about the designated trail in detail online.

Always ride with proper biking gear and keep necessary tools by your side in case you face a flat tire or instant punctures.

Don’t leave any trash. If you can pack it with yourself, simply collect it in trash bags to avoid spreading pollution.

Do not mess with mother nature by taking souvenirs. Instead, take pictures and share them on Instagram or Facebook, etc.

Respect and avoid chasing wildlife and do not try to rattle them if you have an encounter with them while mountain biking.

3. Say Hello to Everyone!

Another basic rule of thumb is to greet your fellow bikers on your way to the top.

Although it’s not necessary, saying Hello to others is a nice gesture of showing your friendly attitude towards them.

4. Take Good Care of Your Dog

Although we don’t endorse taking out dogs while biking uphill, if you are adamant about taking your pet, then take good care of it.

Make sure that the biking trail you want to go is dog-friendly and make proper arrangements to dispose of your pet’s wastage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who has right of way uphill or downhill?

The official policy by IMBA states that “Uphill climbing riders have the right of way against downhill riders”. However, it might depend upon several other factors. The best-case scenario is when both downhill and uphill bikers yield for each other to show respect.

Who has the right of way on public trails?

Horseback riders always have the right of way on public trails followed by uphill mountain bikers and then hikers. But as aforementioned, the right of way policy might change according to certain circumstances.

Why do uphill bikers have the right of way?

Uphill bikers are continuously burning their calories to push their bikes to reach the top of the trail. In doing so, their stamina levels are already low. Besides, they are also biking with a rhythm and when it breaks, uphill bikers will need to jot down their stamina again to start cycling. That’s why IMBA gives them an edge over downhill traffic who has fewer chances of wasting their energies going down.

Final Takeaways

Knowing when to have the right of way in certain conditions is necessary for every beginner mountain biker.

Make sure that you prepare beforehand for your venture and read all guidelines before you hit the trail with your bike.

Show mutual respect, pay a friendly greeting to hikers and other fellow bikers on the trail, and enjoy your ride with nothing but positive vibes.

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Written By

From riding to school since the age of 13, attending BMX races and events with his dad to himself conquering 50+ trails across the globe. For Rob, his Giant Stance 29 2 2020 is the friend that makes everything better. He is also a proud member of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).

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