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Freeze Thaw Cycles - What You Need To Know

Cody Sovis | Published on 3/12/2023

How Freeze Thaw Cycles Impact Trails


Spring is a season of anticipation. As the weather gradually improves, mountain bikers are eager to get outside and hit the dirt for the first time in months. Depending on trail conditions and unpredictable Northern Michigan weather, it might take a while longer to ride. Freeze thaw cycles can have a big impact on the long-term health of the trails and a little restraint can go a long way.


What Are Freeze Thaw Cycles?

Freeze thaw cycling begins anytime the uppermost layers of soil thaw. During the winter months, the ground is frozen solid even if it’s not buried under a layer of snow. When exposed to warmer air temperatures and direct sunlight, the ground slowly thaws, often turning soft or muddy due to the moisture retained in the soil.


It’s tough to put a dent into frozen trails, but once the thaw begins, mountain bikes can slice through the soft dirt, creating deep ruts that are extremely tough to repair.


Not All Trails Are Created Equal

The biggest factor in a trails susceptibility to freeze thaw damage is soil composition. Clay is easier to compact than sand, which makes clay trails more vulnerable. Riding clay trails increases the odds of compacting the center of the trail. Over time, this can turn a beautiful singletrack into a deep trench.


A sinking trail compounds the problem by collecting more water, taking longer to dry out, and being more vulnerable to future trail damage.


Northern Michigan Trails Hold Up Well

Luckily, trails like the Vasa Singletrack and Cadillac Pathway are mostly sand. While this makes our trails more resilient to freeze thaw cycles and wet-weather damage, they aren’t immune. Be aware of your trail impact, especially riding soon after the snow melts and after rain showers.


Respect The Trail

If you aren’t whether it’s a good time to ride or not, check with your local trail association for guidance. In the Grand Rapids area, West Michigan Mountain Bike Alliance posts consistent updates on trail conditions and closures. Similar efforts exist for trails in the Detroit Metro area as well.

NMMBA usually doesn’t need to provide that kind of trail guidance but check for updates on trail conditions on Strava and Trailforks from your riding pals. Consider cutting your ride short if:

  • Your bike is throwing up mud
  • You can see your tires sinking into the soil
  • You see standing water on the trails

If you do encounter a puddle, always ride straight through the center. Riding around the puddle widens the trailing, turning singletrack into a four-lane highway.


Help NMMBA Keep Rolling

NMMBA is your dedicated local trail association. Our volunteers invest time and energy into building, maintaining and protecting non-motorized trails across Northern Michigan. You can help; join Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association today!