Trail biking a solid alternative or stepping stone to hitting the mountain

They’re rugged, tough, and sturdy. These days, they’re even light. If you’ve got a brand-new one, ­ a mountain bike that is, ­ it’s probably hard to resist the urge to take your new bike to the top of a mountain and start the blistering, break-neck dart down the trail. Doing so without the proper training or practice, however, is inadvisable.

Whether you’re working up to the mountain downhill or simply interested in something a bit more subtle, trail biking might be what’s best for you.

Trail biking can give you a chance to get to know your bike: how it handles, how it brakes, and what gear to be in during certain situations. It will also enable you to work up your confidence before taking on the mountain, or even a way to enjoy the outdoors in an activity the whole family can enjoy ­young and old.

Before you hit the trails, however, there are a few things you should keep in mind no matter what the elevation.

The first thing you should take care of is making sure you have the proper safety equipment: The first, and most obvious, thing being the helmet. Visiting a bicycle retail location is a good idea so that you can try on the helmets in person. Making sure to get a good fit is paramount, and spending time with the equipment expert will pay off in the long run. Getting a good fit will ensure that the helmet is comfortable once you get out on the trails. Having a comfortable helmet is important. You don’t want to even think about adjusting your helmet or wishing you weren’t wearing one while riding. You will need to be concentrating solely on the trails. Other safety equipment options include knee and elbow pads. Some riders even purchase wrist pads and braces. Often, however, cycling gloves will suffice for hand protection. As with the helmet, getting a good fit is important. Take your time to try on any equipment you might buy, and make sure it’s the right piece for you.

Once you’re ready to hit the trails, knowing the terrain will help you plan your ride. If you’re out for a smooth ride with little change in elevation, setting up your bike in a similar fashion for a road ride will serve you well. You’ll want the seat adjusted so that when you’re resting on the seat, your toes just barely graze the ground. Remember to keep your bike in a low gear when you’re starting off. This will give you more control as you get up to speed, and will also increase the life and durability of your bike chain. When the time comes to stop, and if you’re on level terrain, feel free to use both front and back brakes evenly, though you may want to favor the front brake as the front wheel is less likely to skid and slide because of the transfer of weight during deceleration. On most bikes, the right hand controls the back brake and the left hand controls the front brake. Though, you may always manually switch the controls if your preference demands it.

There are several adjustments you may want to make to your bike and riding techniques when your trip is going to be primarily downhill. You may want to lower your seat. As speed is easy to come by when going downhill, you won’t need the power generated from pedal strokes. Lowering your seat reduces power but increases balance and control by lowering your center of gravity. You will want to keep your bike in a higher gear and adjust you braking techniques. On most of the way down, a good rule of thumb is to favor your front brake, as this is the most effective way of slowing down the bike. Going downhill, especially on a decline that requires at least some level of braking all the way down to ensure safety and bicycle control, the back tire has less traction with the ground surface than the front tire. This can cause the back tire to lock more easily, thus causing a fishtail-type skid.

There are, however, a few instances you will want to keep in mind in which you may need to incorporate the back brake more often. If the terrain is overly bumpy or consists of loose gravel, over-using the front brake can cause a front-wheel skid. It is much harder to recover from a front-wheel skid than a rear-wheel skid. On bumpy terrain, if you are applying the front brake and the front wheel comes off the ground, the wheel may come to a complete stop. If you land on that wheel with the brakes still applied, then your tire will dig in and your bike may flip over. If you find yourself in a situation where your front wheel is off the ground, it is best release the brakes and then reapply once your wheels are both back on the ground and turning again.

There is one more piece of optional equipment that could not only increase the enjoyment of your ride, but can also be championed as a safety device. A simple hydration pack that you wear on your back can help make sure you can quench your thirst whenever you need, but will also eliminate the need to fiddle with a frame-mounted water bottle. Ride with the hydration pack’s straw in your mouth, and you’ll never have to remove your hands from the handlebars to grab a quick drink.

Once you get used to the trails and practice the pedaling and braking techniques, your confidence will grow. In time, you may even find yourself ready to tackle a mountain downhill ride. But always remember that safety must come first. Don’t forget that, like on the road, slower riders stay to the right and the riders who crave more speed will usually stick to the left. As many trails are multi-use, be mindful of hikers, especially those with children or pets.