Mountain Bike Basics: How to Deal With Difficult Terrain

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
Share it:

With terrain that can be unpredictable and constantly changing, mountain biking has certain challenges you don’t get on the road. For example, learning to perfect your shiftinghandle cornersbrake and balance on a mountain bike requires time and practice as does dealing with really technical terrain.

Loose rocks, a steep descent or a narrow trail with tight turns all qualify as technical terrain and can be scary if you aren’t confident in your bike-handling. While it takes time and experience to become comfortable dealing with these situations, there are some things you can do to stay safe and make the most of your time out on the trail.

Here, a few dos and don’ts to handle gnarly terrain on your mountain bike.


One of the biggest mistakes beginner mountain bikers make is focusing on the spot they want to avoid. When you come up to a rock garden or other obstacle that has a clear, safe line of travel, it’s a better practice to stare at where you want to go instead of that big jagged rock with a 4-foot drop you’re sure will cause an accident. Staring at the obstacle inevitably makes you steer toward it and could cause a crash. Instead keep your head up and focus only on the spot where you intend to steer your bike.


Riding a technical section blind without looking it over first can be dangerous, especially if you’re nervous about your bike-handling skills. When you approach a section you aren’t sure about, don’t hesitate to get off your bike and look it over first to determine where you want to ride and the obstacles you need to avoid. To choose the best line of travel, here’s what you should keep in mind when you’re looking over a section of trail:

  • The most direct line: This will be the shortest distance to your exit point.
  • The smoothest line: This will be the line that offers the least number of obstructions that could slow you down and force you to lose momentum.
  • The safest line: This line will have the least amount of obstacles that could potentially cause an accident.

While the safe line should always be a top priority, the line you choose should take all three of these into consideration.


One key to riding fast, technical sections downhill is to get into the right body position on the bike. While there can be variations to the position based on your riding style, you’ll want to make sure you’re relaxed, comfortable and ready to react to unexpected obstacles.

Here’s a basic position you can use when riding technical downhill sections:

  • Stand on the pedals in an upright position with your head high. Keep a slight bend in the elbows and knees, with your weight toward the rear end of the bike. Drop your heels on the pedals.
  • Keep your hips loose and relaxed. This allows you to react quicker when you need to turn or shift your weight.
  • Your core stomach muscles should be contracted, giving you a solid base for balance.
  • Look up the trail and not down at your front tire, searching for the right line before you get there.

When a situation arises that forces you out of your comfort zone, it’s common to tense up. Your hands, arms, shoulders and neck get tight, making you squeeze the handlebar grips a little harder, causing you to overreact to unexpected obstacles. Instead of falling into this trap, make an effort to stay as calm as possible when riding technical terrain. Take deep breaths, relax your grip and keep your muscles loose and ready to react to whatever comes your way.


When you’re riding an unfamiliar trail, it’s common to want to try to ride every challenging section. Often, this can be a mistake. To gain confidence and develop your skills, only ride sections you know you can get through safely. Start with small challenges and slowly build up to faster, more technical sections as you gain comfort. Biting off more than you can chew can lead to an accident, which only makes you more nervous and less confident to deal with tough sections in the future. Don’t think twice about getting off the bike and walking your bike down sketchy sections if needed.


One really good way to learn to deal with rock gardens and fast technical sections is to follow a more experienced riding partner. This removes all the quick decisions you’re forced to make and lets him or her choose the safe, smooth line for you. All you’ll need to do is focus on your bike-handling and following the same line as your partner.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for


Never Miss a Post!

Turn on MapMyRun desktop notifications and stay up to date on the latest running advice.


Click the 'Allow' Button Above


You're all set.

You’re taking control of your fitness and wellness journey, so take control of your data, too. Learn more about your rights and options. Or click here to opt-out of certain cookies.