Mountain biking is one of those outdoor pursuits I put in the "inherently risky" category. Flying through trees, over and around obstacles, and up and down steep hills is a blast, but there's also high potential for injury. Use these tips to minimize risk while still having fun out on the trails.
Do some research before you go.
Just like you wouldn't jump in your car en route to a place you've never been without a map, or try to assemble a piece of furniture without directions (unless you're me), you need to know what you're getting into.
Ask yourself, or your biking buddies, questions like: Is the trail hilly? Are there cliffs or other drop-offs on the sides of the trail? Is it a multi-use trail? How long is the trail, and are there options to extend or decrease the length? Is there an abundance of rocks, roots and other obstacles? If you're just starting out, a trail that will force you over obstacles won't be as much fun as a route that's beginner-friendly. And if you're hoping for a quick afternoon ride, don't inadvertently choose a thirty mile loop trail. The more you know, the easier it is to ensure you're not in over your head.
Singletracks.com is a great resource and the website's forums are packed with helpful tips and discussions.
Maintain and prep your bike.
I've paid dearly for my lack of commitment to maintaining my ride as often I as I should, typically in the tire department. Though a tune-up by a professional is a smart way to make sure your bike is ready for action, there are a few things even those of us without much maintenance experience can do before we ride.
Start by making sure your tires are inflated to the recommended PSI; it's usually listed on the tire itself. Too much pressure means you run the risk of a blowout, and too little pressure just makes it harder to ride. Make sure your brake levers are positioned correctly; it's tough to brake properly when you can't reach the levers comfortably. Check your brake pads and give the levers a squeeze to make sure everything works properly. Also, be sure to keep your chain clean and lubed up.
Take someone, and emergency supplies, with you.
It's important, and more fun, to bike with a buddy, especially if you're on a new trail or just getting started. Changing a tire tube, among other things, is easier with two sets of hands. If there's an accident, having someone to help is always a good thing. Plus, experiences like those #TeamSierra and Sierra Trading Post encourage you to have outdoors are more fun when they're shared.
And on the subject of changing a tube, make sure you have everything you need to take care of yourself in the event of a blown tire or an accident. A bike pump, spare tube, tire levers, a patch kit, a bike multi-tool, and a small first aid kit are among the things it's good to have on a ride. Though taking a multi-tool and tire levers is a good idea, they're useless if you don't know how to use them. Practice changing tires, patching tires, and adding and removing chain links at home.
Gear up properly.
Aside from choosing the wrong bike, one surefire way to be in a world of trouble during your ride is to skip essential gear. Always, always wear a helmet and make sure it fits properly. Wear sunglasses, or some form of eye protection. It's not (entirely) about looking good; it's about ensuring your eyes are protected from the dirt, rocks and other particles you'll inevitably hit with your face while you're riding.
Also, you might be able to get away without padded cycling shorts on smooth ground, but one ride on the trails without them and you can bet you'll be looking at spandex differently. If spandex isn't your ideal way to make a fashion statement, there are other options for padded bike shorts. (Pro tip - don't wear underwear with them.)
Last, but not least, on this non-exhaustive list? Food and water. Water bottles in cages are great for road riding, but some of the folks I've ridden with prefer a hydration bladder in a backpack. Water bottles can get mighty dirty on the trail, and there isn't always a convenient time to grab them.
Keep these helpful things in mind while you're riding.
Don't want to hit the giant rock in the middle of the trail? Pretend it's not there. Look at where you want to go, not where you don't want to go. Choose your line carefully, which should sound like a familiar concept if you ski or snowboard. And remember, wherever you look is typically where you end up going.
Keep your fingers off your brake levers, too. If you flinch going over a rock or root and you've got a slight grip on the brakes, you might find yourself mid-nose dive over the handlebars. When you do need to brake, use both the front and rear brakes. The front brake carries most of the stopping power, but if it's the only one you use and you squeeze the lever really hard really quickly, things won't end well.
Remember that in most cases, gravity is your friend. Keep up a little speed because if you're moving too slowly, you might not make it up and over hills, and you might get stuck on rocks or roots you'd otherwise roll over.
Anticipate when you'll need to downshift; don't wait until you're halfway up a hill to shift into an easier gear. It's difficult and generally not great for your chain. When you're climbing on your bike, staying seated is a more efficient way to make upward progress. And if all else fails, just try harder.
Most of these tips come from experience, and from my riding with people who are better than I am and willing to share what they've learned. That's how we all get better! For those of you with mountain biking experience, how else do you recommend not dying, and instead having fun, on the trails?
**Katie Levy is a regular contributor to the Sierra Social Hub as part of #TeamSierra. Learn more from Katie on her blog: Adventure Inspired.