What are singletrack MTB trails?

Santa Cruz wheels
(Image credit: Santa Cruz)

The most magical part of mountain biking is riding on singletrack trails. Imagine that you're in the forest, with trees and brush all around you. The soil is moist, offering perfect traction for tires to dig into. Or maybe you're in the desert. It's hot, but rocks and cacti outline a path through the rough terrain. 

No matter the setting, mountain bikers seek out singletrack. It's the whole point of our sport. After all, nobody wants to ride a mountain bike on the road. But what exactly is singletrack, and how does it differ from riding a MTB trail? We're here to tell you, so keep reading. 

Singletrack vs trails 

Mountain bikers use the terms 'singletrack' and 'trail' interchangeably, but there is technically a difference. All singletrack are trails, but not all trails are singletrack. 

You'll likely have heard of trail mountain bikes, but of course trails have been around a lot longer than mountain biking or even cycling. The term trail is actually quite broad. Before cars and roads existed, people used trails to travel from one place to another. In the case of the European settlers traveling westward across America, trails like the Oregon Trail were rough wagon paths. So a trail is really any path that is not paved. 

In mountain biking, the least fun type of trail is fire roads or access roads. These simply dirt roads are great for gravel biking, they are often used by mountain bikers to access and connect sections of singletrack.  

In between fire roads and singletrack is double-track. Double-track trails are not quite as wide as a road but also not as narrow as singletrack. Double-track trails allow trail users to pass each other without having to get out of the way. 

That brings us to singletrack, which is a narrow trail. On singletrack, if people have to pass each other, one person will have to move out of the way to let the other by. There is no hard width limit for singletrack, but it is generally a foot in width (a third of a meter). 

Santa Cruz Megatower

Singletrack can feature natural and man-made features  (Image credit: Santa Cruz)

Riding singletrack

As we have defined it, singletrack is essentially what a mountain bike trail is. So what might you find on singletrack trails? Features like rock gardens and jumps turn singletrack into a trail that is really fun to ride on a mountain bike. 

One of the most engaging parts of riding singletrack are the technical sections. A technical section is any part of a trail where you have to really focus on what line you take. Technical sections will often feature rock gardens and roots. There can be multiple ways to successfully get through a technical section, which can reward creativity and quick thinking as well as riding skill.

Singletrack trails may also feature challenging jumps and drops. If it's an expert-level trail, these features may be mandatory, but on easier-rated trails, there will be go-arounds so riders can work their way up to tackling difficult or consequently sections. 

Mountain bike trails may also have banked corners called berms. Berms help riders corner faster by providing support for the tires to dig into. More naturally built singletrack trails won't have berms. Instead, they will rely on the path of the trail to create flow. 

Some singletrack trails will be more natural, with minimal man-made features. For example, remote backcountry trails will be more naturally built. These types of trails will feel like somebody decided to simply rough in a path through the forest. Other trails are more man-made, with jumps and berms that are often built with machines. These are great fun, especially if you like flow and air time. 

The skills required for riding singletrack trails are the same as the basic mountain bike skills that everybody should learn and practice. One important idea is to practice looking ahead and anticipating what is coming up on the trail. This is especially important on tight, twisting, and technical trails. Check out our tips for beginner mountain bikers guide for more advice. 

Ryan Simonovich

Ryan Simonovich has been riding and racing for nearly a decade. He got his start as a cross-country mountain bike racer in California, where he cultivated his love for riding all types of bikes. Ryan eventually gravitated toward enduro and downhill racing but has also been found in the occasional road and cyclo-cross events. Today, he regularly rides the trails of Durango, Colorado, and is aiming to make a career out of chronicling the sport of cycling. 

Rides: Santa Cruz Hightower, Specialized Tarmac SL4