Bike Parks 101: What To Know Before You Ride the Lifts

Downhill mountain bike trail at Killington Bike Park with sign that says "Jump" with black diamond symbol

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Mountain bike parks offer unlimited gravity-fed fun on two wheels. When my local Mammoth Mountain Bike Park opens for the season, I am stoked to swap out leg-powered pedaling for some lift-served descents.

But as a first-time visitor, bike parks can be a bit intimidating, to say the least. Questions like “What gear do I need?” “How do I load my bike onto the lift?” “Will I die?” might be running through your head. To help ease some of your anxieties, in this post, I share a few bike park 101 tips to help you make the most of your day on the lifts.

If you’re looking for a bike park near you, be sure to check out my roundup post on the Best Lift-Served Mountain Bike Parks Across the US.

First time visiting a mountain bike park? This bike parks 101 guide walks you through everything you need to know about your first time riding the lifts


Choosing a bike for the bike park

Many riders just starting out at the bike park think they need a downhill bike, but that’s actually not true. If you’re new to bike parks, I recommend choosing a full-suspension trail or enduro bike – not a downhill (or DH) bike which tend to be heavier, have more front and rear suspension, and are geared high so they’re not easy to pedal.

Enduro or all-mountain bike
Downhill or DH bike

If you have your own trail or enduro bike, great! Use that and stick to the green and blue-rated trails at first. If you don’t have your own bike, most bike parks rent them (or you can find a bike rental place in town), and let them know you want a trail or enduro bike to use at the bike park.

Typically a bike with 140-160 mm of rear travel is a great place to start.

Do a Bike safety check

It’s a really good idea to always do a quick bike safety check before every ride, but especially before heading off to the bike park. This is even true for rental bikes. Spend a few minutes checking your:

  • Tire pressure – proper tire pressure depends on what kind of tires you’re running, your weight, and how aggressive of a rider you are. Between the range of 20-30 PSI is a good start.
  • Tire wear – check the knobs on your tires to make sure you have plenty of life left in them. If the center knobs are almost completely flat to the tire wall or the side knobs are ripped off it is time for a new tire.
  • Headset – hold your brakes and rock your bike forward and backward. There should be no movement in your headset.
  • Brakes – they should be grippy and ‘bite’ when you squeeze them. They should not be soft or squishy.
  • Wheels – give them a wiggle side to side. You should not feel any movement or knocks.
  • Chain – lube it if needed and check for excessive wear.

If you notice anything wrong with your bike do not ride. It’s better to be safe than sorry and spend a few hours getting it fixed and tuned up at a bike shop than spending a few hours in the ER.


Bike park gear

So now you have a bike, but what kind of gear do you need for the bike park? Obviously, there are the typical mountain biking attire basics like a helmet, shoes, liners (aka shammies or chamois), a quick-drying jersey and shorts, and the mountain bike pack essentials. But if you’re looking for a bit more protection, here are a few extra pieces of gear I recommend for the bike park:

  • A full-face helmet. These types of helmets give your pretty face a little more protection in case you find yourself facedown in the dirt. I really like breakaway helmets like the Bell Super DH because you can use them as a half-lid for more pedally rides or as full-face for higher stakes adventures. I almost always wear a full-face helmet at the bike park.
  • Knee pads. I never ride without knee pads, even when I’m not at the park. I’ve had too many stitches and close calls not to. My everyday knee pads are the Fox Enduro Sleeves, which I love. For the bike park, I wear the Fox Launch Pro’s which offer a bit more protection with the plastic kneecap guards. You can also buy knee pads that protect the shins as well.
  • Elbow pads. Confession: I don’t wear elbow pads… but I should! I just haven’t found a pair that I like. If you’re worried about preserving your elbows at the bike park, investing in some elbow pads is a good call.
Mountain biker riding off small drop at bike park in California

What about full-body armor? Honestly, if you’re new to bike parks my hunch is that you won’t be hurdling down the doubleblack diamond trails or sending any massive jumps (or maybe you will!). I don’t wear full body armor and unless you’re really worried about getting hurt or you’re a teenage kid who is just going to go for it I don’t necessarily think you need to either. Full body armor can feel restrictive and hot and truthfully can make you feel more invincible than your skills allow.


Choosing Appropriate Bike Park 101 trails

So you’ve made it to the mountain, you’re all geared up with the right protection, you did your bike safety check and now it’s time to ride! But how do you know which trails are appropriate for first-timers at the bike park?

I suggest grabbing a bike park map (they’re usually found at the bike rental area or where you purchase your tickets) and/or downloading the TrailForks app. Bike parks usually are very well signed with trail names and difficulty, but it’s good to carry a map with you for reference.

Two mountain bikers riding down wooden ramp at bike park in California

Trail Difficulty ratings

Just like for skiing or snowboarding, mountain bike park trails are rated from easy/beginner all the way up to expert/pro. Here are the general trail rating symbols at most bike parks:

🟢 Easy/Beginner
🟦 Intermediate
♦ Advanced
♦♦ Expert
♦️ Pro-line (professional only)
🟣 Uphill traffic only

Depending on what park you’re riding, these symbols may differ but the colors typically stay the same (i.e. greens will always be easy and so on). If it’s your first time at a bike park, I recommend sticking to the green and blue trails first so you can get a better idea of what to expect on the trails.

It’s also important to note that each bike park has different criteria for rating its trails. For example, some of the blue trails at Whistler Bike Park are more like black diamonds at most other smaller parks.

Many bike parks will also have a progression scale on their maps to suggest which trails to start with and which trails to progress onto next once you feel comfortable.

Last, but not least, some bike parks differentiate their freeride trails from their technical trails. Freeride trails will have more manmade features like jumps and drops while technical trails will be more rugged with natural features like rocks and roots.

Screenshot of graphic showing how mountain bike trails are rated from beginner to proline and designated either freeride or technical
This is how Whistler Bike Park assigns ratings to their trails

What Features to expect

All trails and all bike parks are different, so it’s hard to say what exactly to expect. But in general, easy green trails will have few to no features and will be mostly smooth and wide while more advanced blue and black trails will have optional features like wall rides, small rollers and drops, and entry-level jumps and tabletops.

When you get to advanced or expert trails, features become bigger and sometimes even mandatory, meaning that there are not easier go-arounds.


Bike park 101 Etiquette: do’s & don’ts

For your first time at the bike park, here are a few do’s and don’ts:

Do’s

  • DO pull over to the side of the trail when it’s safe and let riders pass if they are behind you.
  • DO wear your helmet AT ALL TIMES when you’re riding.
  • DO ask for help loading your bike onto the lift if you’re unsure.
  • DO yield at all intersections and look both ways before proceeding.
  • DO yield for uphill riders on bidirectional trails or use common sense when passing
  • DO start with easier trails before attempting harder ones.
  • DO carry the mountain bike pack essentials.

Don’ts

  • DON’T try to sneak past a rider by cutting corners.
  • DON’T cut corners. Period.
  • DON’T poach the bike park by pedaling in without a ticket.
  • DON’T stash Fido in a chest harness. Just don’t. Leave him/her at home.
  • DON’T litter!
  • DON’T stop in the middle of the trail or leave your bike in the middle of the trail.
  • DON’T stop on features. If you need to scope a feature like a rock roller, ride your bike off to the side and have someone stand as a lookout for oncoming riders.
  • DON’T ride uphill on downhill trails
Female mountain biker riding on curvy elevated wall ride at Mammoth Mountain Bike Park
DO have fun!

Is it your first time at a bike park? What bike park 101 questions do you still have? What tips do you have for first-timers? Leave a comment below!

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A bike park 101 guide for first-time bike park goers including essential bike park gear, etiquette, and how to find beginner-friendly trails.

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