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Trail Difficulty Ratings

WMTRA Trail Difficulty Ratings

Lets be clear from the outset. After everything is all said and done, determining trail difficulty is still very
subjective. There will always be numerous factors that play into how difficult a trail can actually be. The time of year, the terrain, daily weather changes, trail length and overall trail conditions are all significant factors. Add varying rider experience levels into the mix and it’s easy to see how ratings can become even more subjective. A rider’s skill level, knowledge of their machine, and degree of confidence are likely the biggest factors that determine which trails people can or will ride. These factors can also affect a rider’s perception of trail difficulty. As our riding skills improve, we tend to view the trails we once considered difficult, now lacking the challenge we often desire as more advanced riders. This is true, at least, for some enthusiasts. As much as possible, we attempt to rate trails into one of four categories. Oftentimes, however, a trail’s difficulty level can fall between two of the ratings. For example, we may classify a trail as being moderate/difficult. This simply means the trail is a little harder than moderate but a little easier than difficult. Weather conditions, such as snow or rain, can also turn an otherwise moderate trail into a significantly difficult one. Conversely, when the trail has dried, it returns to its normally moderate state. It is common practice to rate a trail based upon the most difficult part of that trail. The majority of a trail may actually be moderate, or even easy, yet it has a few difficult sections or difficult obstacles which must be crossed in order to complete it. In such a case, the whole trail would usually be rated difficult.

Rating the trail by this method, rather than by taking an average of its overall difficulty level, helps to reduce the risk of an inexperienced rider getting into trouble. Having said this, a rider with less experience might still want to consider joining a more advanced ride as long as the group included at least one person having enough experience to help them through the more difficult section(s). The more experienced rider could also just ride the other person’s machine through that section if necessary. It should be noted that some trails will be more difficult or even unsafe for side-by-side machines. This is usually not a factor of trail steepness but of how off-camber the trail may be. If you are trying to traverse an off-camber, talus-covered mountain slope, and you are belted into your seat on the down-hill side, you run a much greater risk of tipping over. This is because the majority of your weight is on the down-hill side. For this reason, tight, steep switchbacks are also much more difficult or even dangerous for side-by-side machines. In spite of what some people believe, there is a big advantage in being able to shift your weight around on a single rider machine. With this in mind, there may be occasions where side-by-sides are discouraged from participating on certain trail rides. Additionally, some advanced trails will be much more difficult, if not impossible, if attempted on a twowheel- drive only machine. There will be some trails that you simply won’t get up because they are too rough to travel at higher speeds. Two wheel drive machines often need to increase their speed when climbing steep grades in order to offset the lack of traction they have when compared to four-wheel-drive quads. That being said, some hosted rides may require you to have four-wheel-drive. One more thing comes to mind. There seems to be a common tendency for at least a few people to consider themselves better riders than they actually are. At some point in time we have all either been guilty of this mind-set or have known someone who was. I guess you could just attribute this to “human nature.” “Common sense”, however, should dictate that a rider base his or her abilities upon actual riding experience rather than a perception of what they “think” they are able to do. As a club, and also as individuals, we do not, nor should not, attempt to judge your abilities as an OHV rider. It is your responsibility to evaluate yourself and make that determination. Simply stated, our job is to put our best effort into assigning the correct rating to any given trail. Your job is to determine if you are fully capable of riding that trail based upon it’s level of difficulty and/or upon the duration of the ride. As you consider attending any given ride, always keep in mind this one simple maxim: STUPID HURTS!

Trail Difficulty Levels


These routes are for Beginning Riders or those with very limited experience. They are best suited for families with younger riders and others not seeking a challenge. You will be riding mostly on gravel Forest Service roads and other two track dirt roads having gradual to moderate grades. These roads have very few, if any, obstacles, challenges or off-camber situations. Because these routes are easy, they tend to provide great opportunities for enjoying the scenery.


These trails are for Intermediate Riders having a higher level of experience. These trails are for those who have gained a greater knowledge of their own abilities and a better understanding of their machine’s capabilities. This type of riding would more likely be on actual trails or narrow two track roads rather than graded, mostly level, forest service roads. Typically, this type of trail would be rougher and somewhat steeper. You may experience water crossings, some rocks, a few ruts, exposed tree roots and some mud along the way. You may encounter moderate switchbacks and/or tight corners requiring more control over your machine. These trails are for riders who are ready for a step up in difficulty and desire a moderate amount of challenge on their ride.


These trails are for Advanced Riders. To ride this type of trail you should have full knowledge of your machine’s capabilities and feel fully confident of your own abilities. Typically, the advanced rider has a lot of time on their machine and spends a considerable amount of time riding challenging trails. You should be comfortable with steep grades and significant off-camber conditions. Trail conditions can include large rocks, deep ruts, moderately deep water crossings and tight, steep switchbacks. Difficult trails may also include snow at higher elevations. Advanced riders often like to ride these trails at a faster pace and enjoy the challenges that difficult trails offer. These trails will often require four-wheel-drive.

Very Difficult:

These trails are for Expert Riders. Almost every aspect of this type of trail makes them just that much more difficult and challenging. You will experience even steeper grades and major off-camber situations requiring all your weight to be moved to one side of your machine. Generally, these trails will have even deeper ruts, can include water, mud and/or snow, are often much rockier and can have tighter, steeper switchbacks. More often than not, this type of trail will include many or all of these challenges. Trails with this rating can take you up into higher elevations. A winch is often necessary to get through these trails and spotters are often required to help you up, down, over or around various obstacles. In general, these trails can be dangerous for anyone other than an expert rider. Four-wheel-drive machines with a winch are mandatory for these trails.

WMTRA Western Montana Trail Riders Association