PSA: Uphill Traffic Doesn’t Always Have The Right Of Way

Where did the notion that uphill mountain bike traffic has the right of way? From IMBA’s Rules Of The Trail. They state “Bicyclists traveling downhill should yield to ones headed uphill, unless the trail is clearly signed for one-way or downhill-only traffic.” I do not agree with this. Instead, I believe that common sense and common courtesy has the right of way. Read on to learn what that means.

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PSA: Uphill Traffic Doesn’t Always Have The Right Of Way

Close your eyes for a moment and envision this: You’re cruising down a super fun and flowy trail on your mountain bike – totally in the zone, totally enjoying the moment. You revel in the feeling of weightlessness and flow. You briefly take your eyes off the trail ahead of you and gaze to your left at the amazing scenery – it is stunning. The dirt beneath your tires is tacky and fast and you feel one with your bike. Life is good. You think to yourself, “this is why I love mountain biking.” Brown pow.

And then you see it: a biker coming up the trail in the opposite direction. As you both grow nearer to each other – you still having the run of your life, he grinding up the climb – you get that sinking feeling in your stomach. You know… “this guy isn’t going to pull off the trail and let me roll on by”. You’re 20 feet from each other and nope – he’s not even slowing his pedal strokes. So you pull on the brakes, halting your flow and digging your tires into the soft shoulder, and come to a stop. He doesn’t even look up or say thank you as he huffs on by.

Ok, ok, ok… this is an extreme case, but it has happened to me and it makes me so angry and annoyed that mountain biker’s almost always assume that uphill traffic has the right of way! Even on fast, flowy descents.

So where did this notion come from? I’m assuming from IMBA who’s Rules Of The Trail state “Bicyclists traveling downhill should yield to ones headed uphill, unless the trail is clearly signed for one-way or downhill-only traffic. Strive to make each pass a safe and courteous one.”

I agree that each pass should be safe and courteous – absolutely. But I don’t agree that downhill traffic should always yield to uphill traffic.

I believe that:


What does that mean? Let’s break it down a bit. (Note- these are my opinions for biker-to-biker traffic. I almost always yield to hikers).

1. Fast and flowy descents

Yield to: downhill traffic

If you see a biker coming down a fast and flowy descent, move over. Let them keep their flow and just take a little breather. It won’t kill you. Remind yourself that when it’s you coming down that same trail, you’d rather have uphill traffic yield to you so that you can enjoy every bermed turn and fun tabletop. Right? Right,



Doesn’t that look fun and fast?


2. Technical climbs & descents

Yield to: it depends

This one really depends on which rider makes it to the crutch of the techncial climb or descent first. Say you’re on the descent and you come to a tricky rock garden. There’s already a biker attempting to clean it on the up. Step aside and cheer them on. And vice versa. If you see a rider already dropping into a rock garden as you climb up a section of trail, give them a kudos as they (hopefully) pass you by you in one piece.



Yield to whoever is on the technical section first

3. On flats

Yield to: party with fewest riders

My rule of thumb for passing people on flat stretches is to yield to the party with fewer riders in the group. If I’m in a group of five we should yield to a party of two. Larger parties tend to have more stretch between riders, so it’s only fair to pull over and let two or three people pass.



I would definitely yield to smaller groups riding with this pack

4. Mellow Descents

Yield to: uphill traffic

Sure, if it’s a mellow descent and you see a rider really working hard to beat his uphill Strava time then sure, pull over. Most mountain bikers aren’t assholes. But don’t get me wrong – if it’s a fun, fast, flowy descent I WILL give you the stinkeye if you make me pull on the brakes because you think that uphill traffic always has the right of way.



I would yield to this rider. The trail is mellow and it looks like he’s working hard


What are your thoughts? Should uphill bike traffic always have the right of way?

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  1. “Uphill always has the right of way” may have worked in older times, but in modern times, with modern trail design and equipment, it makes way more sense that downhill riders should typically have the right of way. Also, I’d imagine that this balance can vary region to region, especially when sight lines are more obstructed by dense flora or steep pitches.

    Climbers can detect the downhill riders way sooner, and can more easily and safely get to the side. Sometimes, downhill riders have a split second to spot and adjust to the climbers, and collisions can occur if the climber is stubborn. I personally always yield when I am climbing, and while I in no way expect climbers to yield to me while descending due to the old-school IMBA rule of thumb, it is the safest and best practice in today’s age IMO. Thankfully, I see this practice 90% of the time in New England, at least over the past 2 seasons – uphill riders almost always are now yielding.

    1. Great points! I typically pull off the trail if I hear someone coming down as well. It’s dangerous to have the mindset that uphill traffic “always” has the right of way.

  2. All your conditional reasonings seem to be a moot point.
    Like who is gonna remember all that?

    The person going uphill should ALWAYS have the right of way. Just keep it simple.
    It’s a rarity you will come across a perfect storm, where both riders coming in opposite directions at the same time. Also, it is less of struggle for you, the downhill person, to slow down, and allow the other rider to pass while there’s a greater difficulty for the person going uphill. And you having common courtesy is not by any means a difficult thing to do.

    though honestly, the best trails are one way only.

  3. Every place I’ve biked, downhill reigns supreme. Sorry for the XC folks. Sullivan Canyon in So Cal has a fire service road right next to the single track – super flowy, super fast, all obstacles built with downhill berms ONLY. And yet there are a few old farts who still ride uphill on the blind cornered single track. Sad

  4. A lot of enduro-types seem incredulous about this, but XC is still enormously popular (I’d wager the majority of riders globally, if not the US), and for us XCers, the uphill is a huge part of the fun.

    A lot of the time, if I’m climbing a technical steep, putting a foot down is not an option. At best, it will be impossible to get restarted, at worst, I will fall. That’s why the old IMBA rule exists.

    Unfortunately, ebikes have made this conflict worse, since ebikers often have no concept of what it takes to get up a 15% section of rooty singletrack on muscle power alone.

    But, of course, common sense rules supreme. Once, a rider yelled at me and forced me off the trail on the last 30 meters of a singletrack descent, where it was very difficult to stop. She could have easily waited 5 seconds before starting the trail, and there would have been no problem, but she decided to righteously assert “the rule” instead. Super frustrating.

    1. Yeah, unfortunately “right of way” isn’t so cut and dry anymore. I definitely agree that uphill traffic has the right way the majority of the time, but as you mentioned, some people take that to the extreme.

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