Bikes Don’t Belong?

Refutation of arguments about bicycling and Wilderness

Bicycles cause excessive wear on the trails.

The science performed to date comparing bicycles with other forms of trail use has shown that bikes cause about as much erosion as hiking. When bicyclist skid, they may cause somewhat higher erosion of trails, but that amount is small compared to the erosion compared by horses or by water flowing down poorly designed trails. Furthermore, trail erosion is primarily harm to a human transportation facility. It makes a trail less pleasant (unless you love rocky, rough routes). Trail erosion incurs impacts to Nature only in the limited places where trails cross water, and good trail design and construction can minimize that impact.

Bicycles cause too much impact to Nature.

Bicycles do cause impacts to Nature, as do all human activities. Science increasingly shows that bicycling affects wildlife, vegetation, and water about as much as hiking. The impacts of hiking and bicycling are sometimes different, sometimes quite similar, but their overall magnitude is about the same. If the impacts are the same, and we allow hiking everywhere on public lands, then ecological impacts are not a legitimate reason to ban bikes. See our review of the science.

The Wilderness Act clearly states, “…no other form of mechanical transport…”

This clause of the law is vague. That vagueness has forced the federal land agencies to interpret it. In 1966, the U.S. Forest Service said that “mechanical transport…shall include any contrivance which… is propelled by a nonliving power source contained or carried on or within the device.” (Sec. 293.6 (a))  That rule remains in force in federal law. (In another rule, the Forest Service simply says that bikes are prohibited, along with hang gliders.) The quoted clause of the Wilderness Act comes in a list of motorized devices and legal scholars say that a clause like this may mean “any other thing like that,” that is, things that are motorized. Historical evidence shows that Congressional crafters of the Wilderness Act were eager to promote non-motorized recreation.

Still, bikes are mechanical and that’s contrary to the general intent of Wilderness.

The word “mechanical” has two fundamental, different meanings in our English language. It either specifically means a machine that is motorized, or it more generally means a device that has fixed and moving parts for performing work. Bikes are clearly not motorized, so this argument is strictly about the more general second meaning. High school physics classes routinely teach that a lever is the most basic machine. The oars of rowboats are levers that significantly magnify the muscular force of human arms, just as gears magnify the power of human legs. Climbing ascenders and skis have moving parts that strongly aid human travel. Even shoes and saddles have fixed and moving parts which assist human energy. Since we allow those modes and they are mechanical, the mechanical allegation regarding bicycles is illegitimate.

The recreational purposes of Wilderness are “solitude” and primitive and unconfined recreation.” Bicycling is not that.

Since high-tech, backcountry skis and rafts built of complex rubber qualify as “primitive,” bicycles do too. The real factor is the absence of motors. People can find solitude through any form of muscle-powered travel.

Wild places need the strongest protection, which is Wilderness, and the Wilderness Act does not allow bikes.

While all wild places deserve protection from development, not all should receive the absolutely strongest legal measures. Circumstances often mandate exceptions or varied approaches. Congress has routinely modified particular Wilderness laws to make sections of the Wilderness Act not apply or apply differently for those areas. Furthermore, it is not the Wilderness Act that bans bikes. It is the interpretation of that law by the federal land management agencies. Also, is Wilderness really the strongest protection? It does not allow active management, which means wildlife managers cannot take actions to enhance conditions for endangered species.

There are many people trying to weaken Wilderness and so we cannot allow any measures that change the Wilderness Act at all.

While it is certainly, obviously true that some people and companies want to develop wild places through oil and gas extraction, mining, logging, and other uses, it is not true that those people are working to weaken the Wilderness Act. They simply try to stop the creation of new Wilderness areas. Even the radicals among motorized recreation advocates are not pushing to allow motors in designated Wilderness. They just oppose Wilderness, and many other environmental laws. Furthermore, Congress has at least once changed the law.*

Bicycles travel faster and farther than hikers so they make the Wilderness smaller.

Horses, skis, and boats in whitewater also do this, and they are allowed in Wilderness. Trail runners often travel as fast or even faster than bicyclists. Horses can carry overnight gear, which is very difficult for a bicyclist on the rough, steep, or rugged trails of Wilderness. So horses especially make wild lands more accessible and “smaller.”

Wilderness is sacrosanct.

This is a religious argument, spoken by people who have an almost religious regard for Wilderness. But these are public lands and our Constitution says the government shall not enshrine any particular religion, including a “religion of Wilderness.” We should not worship a human law. What we care about is preservation and there are diverse, human-invented mechanisms to achieve that.

Bicyclists are a safety hazard to hikers and horses.

There is very minimal evidence to support this claim. While there may have been a few instances somewhere, sometime, of bicyclists colliding with hikers in Wilderness, such collisions are far more likely on crowded, urban paths where cyclists travel much faster. The rough and narrow character of Wilderness trails significantly slow bicyclists, which greatly reduces the possibilities of collisions. Also, while bicyclists and hikers share an obligation to yield the trail to horses, equestrians also have a responsibility to train their horses to not bolt when they encounter bicyclists.

Bicyclists conflict with hikers’ enjoyment of trails and Wilderness.

This is perhaps the most real, most meaningful of all the arguments. The topic of recreational users’ conflicts is large and complex, and extends well beyond Wilderness to all public lands and trails. Cooperative, shared use is routine and successful in many places. On others, conflict is intense, for various reasons.


Should the fact that some people do not get along at times lead to the prohibition of a large, Nature-loving group of people who cause minimal impacts to the land, pay taxes as citizens, and travel quietly without pollution?

America’s wild lands are extremely large. Within this huge resource, we can have both hiking-only and shared use trails. We suggest that the criteria and decisions regarding which trails get which use allocations should be entirely separate from the question of protecting natural ecosystems. All the muscle-powered users want to see America’s wild, beautiful landscapes protected from development. The system-wide ban on bicycling in Wilderness divides and polarizes this constituency for preservation. It’s time for us to come together, overcome prejudice, and find room for bicyclists in the movement to protect our wild lands.

Allowing bikes would strengthen Wilderness by expanding the constituency for protection and therefore allowing more Wilderness to get designated more quickly.

* The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act specifically allowed wheelchairs in Wilderness.Wheelchairs are at least as mechanical as bicycles and their impact on trails is greater because they are too wide for singletrack trails.