Most people who’ve spent time cranking out the miles across the green hills of our fair land can still remember their first time heading off-road.

And if they’re honest, most would probably admit that it was a slightly scary experience. While the UK is one of the most heavily urbanised nations in the world, the countryside just a few miles away from the centre of a big city can feel like the ends of the earth if you’re not sure what you are doing.

Evans Cycle's guide to trail riding
Photo by rubber bullets

But getting out into the country is a great way to get fit and get a break from city life, and many relatively cheap mountain bikes can get you into ‘proper’ off-road territory. Here we take a look at what you should know.

Plan ahead

It goes without saying that a ride off-road takes you further away from shops and the other services you may be used to, so there are a few things to bear in mind before the off.

  • Check the map – you need a good idea of where you’re headed, so look at the relevant Ordnance Survey map if you’re not tackling an area you know. For a first try, limit yourself to a loop of 10 miles or less – you can always build up to longer rides as you get to know the surroundings.
  • Pack right – make sure you’re wearing the right clothing, with extra layers on hand if you’re hitting the hills. Check the forecast and if it looks dodgy take a waterproof jacket to be sure. If you are going on a ride of any real length, take liquids and snacks to keep your energy levels up. Thorns can puncture you or your bike, but puncture repair and first-aid kits can easily be slipped into a bag. As always, a charged mobile phone is wise.

Evans Cycle's guide to trail riding
Photo by eamoncurry123

Out and about etiquette

Any Hollywood script writer will tell you that city slickers can struggle with the way things work in the great outdoors.

A good place to start is with the Countryside Code, which gives pointers on the etiquette of getting by in the countryside.

  • Gates – these keep animals where the farmer left them. The basic rule is to leave gates exactly as you found them – usually closed – so always make sure you shut them if it was you who opened them in the first place.
  • Litter – you’ll probably need to eat or drink while you are out, but take wrappers and bottles home. It’s simply not acceptable to leave litter out on the trails – it spoils the countryside for others, potentially endangers wildlife, and it’s illegal.
  • Respect others – you must give way to walkers and horse riders. However galling it is after you’ve just picked up a nice bit of speed, this isn’t just basic decency; it’s enshrined in the 1968 Countryside Act. Keep an eye out for walkers’ dogs blundering into your path, and remember that horses can spook, injuring themselves, their rider or you. It’s best to hang back and wait for the rider to hear or see you.

Evans Cycle's guide to trail riding
Photo by eamoncurry123

Know your rights

Ours may be a fairly small nation, but we have an incredible variety and richness of rights of way – literally the legal right to cross a piece of land. This is partly due to landowners expressly giving the public access through their land – and partly because people have simply been wandering some routes since time immemorial.

Evans Cycle's guide to trail riding
Photo by Tim Green

And if you are going to get out into the countryside, it’s important to know where you can ride your bike, and where you can’t.

  • Footpaths – the name says it all, really. Recognised by yellow arrow waymarkers, footpaths are the most common right of way you’ll come across, extending across some 91,000 miles of the countryside. Unfortunately, all you need to know is that you can’t ride them – though you can push your bike along them to get to bona fide trails.
  • Bridleways – these are the cyclist’s friend. Extending to 20,000 miles and easily recognisable by blue arrows, they’re the stock-in-trade of the rider heading off-road. Bear in mind though that just because you are allowed to ride them, it doesn’t mean that it will be easy. The Countryside Act says there’s no “obligation [for landowners] to do anything to facilitate the use of the bridleway by cyclists”. In other words, you may find yourself glued in mud, fording uncharted puddles or ensnared in impenetrable thickets.
  • Permissive bridleways – these lack the permanent legal protection of the full-blown version, but function as normal bridleways as long as the landowner doesn’t change their mind.
  • Byways – typically wider than bridleways, these come in two flavours. Restricted byways are fair game for cyclists – marked with plum-coloured arrows, they also allow horse-drawn vehicles. Meanwhile, the full-blown Byway Open to All Traffic (BOAT) – marked by red arrows – allows motor vehicles; keep a look out for mud-pluggers in 4x4s or trail motorbikes.
  • Open Access Land – a little misleading, this isn’t quite the free-for-all it might sound. While it’s great for walkers – who can roam open access land with scant regard for sticking to any paths – cyclists must stick to any bridleways that run through the area.

Don’t forget, you don’t have to conquer mountains on your first trip away from the tarmac. Local knowledge always helps – ask friends and colleagues or look up riding clubs who venture out in groups. Alternatively, look for trails on Cycle Routes UK – but remember, some are more difficult than others.

Header image by Johan J.Ingles – Le Nobel