MTB Project Review
When it comes to mountain bike trail apps, MTB Project and Trailforks reign. Which is better? We’ll combine my long-term experience with third-party online information to help you decide.
About MTB Project
MTB Project is a free, crowd-sourced database that provides cyclists with access to maps, guides, photos, user ratings, GPS tracks, and detailed descriptions for 39,000+ worldwide trails, spanning more than 128,000 miles.
Content, which the company describes as a guidebook-quality resource, is solely generated by riders and expands daily. They also offer widgets that webmasters can easily implement into their site.
Owned by REI since 2015, MTB Project is part of the company’s larger Adventure Projects, which includes similar sites and mobile apps for mountain climbers, hikers, trail runners, backcountry skiers, and national park visitors.
Here, we’ll focus solely on their cycling database, including its functionality, my firsthand experience using the app for 3+ years, and how it compares to other popular resources like Trailforks. Let’s kick things off by taking a closer look at its core features.
How MTB Project Works
All trail segments and routes featured in MTB Project’s database are user-generated. The organization offers several ways to locate trails, whether listed by state, viewed via maps, searched by city or trail name, or browsed via classifications like top rides or best photos, as voted by users.
In map view, black number clusters indicate the trail density in an area, which breaks into additional clusters the closer you zoom in.
Learning More About Trails Listed on MTB Project
If you find a route you like, you can click on it to learn more, including information about the segment and the entire network (when applicable), overall length, average user rating, and whether or not it’s a featured ride.
You’ll also see a colored shape to the left, which references the trail’s perceived difficulty as rated by other users:
|Easy: 5% grade, 2″ obstacles|
|Intermediate: 10% grade, 8″ obstacles, short harder sections|
|Difficult: 15% grade, 15″ obstacles, occasional harder sections|
|Extremely Difficult: 20% grade, 15+” obstacles, many harder sections|
Clicking again will take you to the trail’s main page, where the MTB Project website displays important details like:
- The entire trail or route
- Location by state, region, and city
- How the trail ranks for the city, state, and overall
- Percent of the trail that is singletrack
- Total ascent and descent
- High and low elevations
- Detailed elevation graph that follows you along your route
- Ideal direction
- Average and max grades
- User-submitted images and their location along the route,
- Parking and trailheads
- Most recent conditions report
- Photos, comments, and check-ins.
Scrolling down the page, you can view additional details like current weather and near-range forecast, as well as if dogs and alternate vehicles like e-bikes are allowed (and if so, under what conditions).
You’ll also find an overview of the trail, a more detailed description (what you might experience in different areas, trail choices, and common ground conditions, technical spots, overall rider experience, etc.), photos, and user ratings.
At the bottom of the page, MTB Project lists land manager contacts (when available), comments, and trail ranking by the city, state, and over the entire database.
The MTB Project database also features a fairly robust selection of international trails, as well as forums and a list of upcoming races. You can even get free stickers!
MTB Project Virtual Tours
If a virtual tour is available, you can click on a button in the upper left-hand corner. This will load a 3D map that guides you through the route, during which you can adjust the image’s tilt, altitude, speed, and position.
In my opinion, this feature is fun to play with and ranks high on the ‘cool factor’ scale, although I’ve never found it meaningfully useful when planning a ride.
But, where does all of this information come from in the first place? This is what we’ll explore next.
How the MTB Project Database Accumulates, Reviews, Approves, & Edits Data
You can add any trail or ride on the MTB Project website or app to your to-do list, as well as check in when it’s time to hop on the saddle. However, routes are only added to the site by users who track and record their GPS locations, and then make these routes public.
Sometimes, the organization clarifies that they “partner with land managers, local clubs, non-profits, or guidebook authors to gather this data as well, but more often, the data is added by passionate individuals eager to share the word about their favorite rides.”
While you must use the MTB Project mobile app to record your ride, the only way to upload a new track, route, ride, picture, or review is through their desktop site.
Compared to similar sites (more soon), MTB Project emphasizes that their team of full-time editors review every content submission and “do their best to ensure that we have the highest quality information and most accurate data.”
This process—which requires two approvals before publishing and spans 5-10 days—might even include reaching out to the original member who submitted the content.
The Important Difference Between Sanctioned & Social Trails
Another advertised difference is that MTB Project only adds trails sanctioned by the land manager or owner, recognized as legal, and that are “maintained and promoted.”
If you’re considering tracking a route but have concerns about its legality and whether or not it’s open for use, the organization recommends “reaching out to the land manager, asking the local park ranger, or trying to find an official map of the trail system.”
Editing MTB Project Trail Data
After clicking on the “Improve This Page” link, MTB Project will walk users through the process of editing details like the description or GPS data.
After submitting the modification, each one is then reviewed by an admin before approval. Then, they’re batch uploaded to the database every Friday afternoon.
Comparing MTB Project’s Desktop Version to the App
On iOS-enable smartphones, as well as many popular bike computer models (such as those from Garmin), the MTB Project database delivers nearly all of the same features as their desktop version. Android phones are currently unsupported.
The biggest difference is that, whereas the desktop mode shows a user’s general location, mobile riders can track their exact location and movements. All you have to do is select “GPS Tracks / Record” and start riding.
Note: You’ll have to enable location services to take advantage of this feature.
As a result, MTB Project (among other things) acts as a live map while riding, which is shown as a pulsing blue dot. The tracking system even works without cellular service, although they emphasize you’ll need to allow enough time for the background map to cache before going offline.
After many years and countless miles, this setup has yet to let me down, even when I’m many miles—and maybe over a mountain pass or two—from the nearest tower.
Via the app, you can also tap on any “P” symbols (or drive-up camping symbols, when available) and view driving directions via your phone’s default mapping app. Again, this is something I’ve used countless times when driving far off the beaten path in search of good dirt.
Once you’re finished recording in MTB Project’s iOS app, you can convert it into a trail or ride by clicking on the appropriate track under your profile and selecting the “Share on MTB Project” link.
Keep in mind that adding photos and publishing can only happen via the desktop site, though, and that the data only refreshes once every two weeks (unless you decide to delete and reinstall manually).
Is any of this meaningfully different than the close competition?
MTB Project vs. Trailforks: How Do They Compare?
When it comes to crowd-sourced mountain bike trail databases, perhaps MTB Project’s closest competitor is Trailforks.
In fact, these two are so similar that they share far more in common than otherwise, including search functionality, map views, color-coded trail difficulties, ride reports, wish lists, images, weather, upcoming events, and so forth.
Comparing Key Numbers
The biggest difference, really, is the sheer amount of data available between the two sites (accurate as of 1/31/19, based on publically available information):
|In Business Since||2015||2014|
|Miles of Trails||128,000+||192,000+|
*We reached out to MTB Project for these numbers but hadn’t yet received a response as of publishing.
Even without a complete picture of the numbers, though, it’s fairly clear that Trailforks offer their users access to meaningfully more information than MTB Project.
However, based on my experience as well as feedback from many online riders, Trailforks’ trail density is highly dependent on location. Sometimes, you’ll have more information than you know what to do with, while in others, you’re left with surprisingly little to go on.
Despite the differences in their numbers, I’ve used MTB Project throughout much of the western US without ever lacking the information I needed to maximize my fun. Keep this idea in mind, since we’ll loop back around to it shortly.
How Trails Are Approved
MTB Project and Trailforks both gather information from users’ recorded rides, which can be edited by other users to improve accuracy. Once they receive the information, though, their vetting process is a bit different.
After saving, MTB Project puts your trail on hold and sends it to an admin for review, who looks at the content for “quality, accuracy, and legality.” If they have any questions during the process, they may reach out via email. You’ll receive a notification once approved.
While MTB Project lists contacts (land managers, etc.) at the bottom of each main trail page, the Trailforks website emphasizes that “local land managers and advocacy groups are closely involved with … confirming [their] data.”
Based on what each association sees, they can then assign a trail one of three visibility levels:
- Location Hidden
Users can export MTB Project trails as GPX files—but only from their website—and then upload them to the device of their choice (Garmin, etc.). Conversely, if you’re looking to add a new trail, you can export a GPX file from Strava and then upload it to the MTB Project website to make the process easier.
Trailforks syncs directly with Strava and allows users to export GPX, KML, and OSM file types.
Comparing Interfaces & Functionality
In the screenshots below, you can see that MTB Project and Trailforks’ interfaces are quite similar. It’s much the same with their apps, too.
A big difference for me—and one of my favorite features that keeps me coming back to the app—is that MTB Project will automatically highlight an entire route after clicking on a trail.
It will also show directional arrows for an optimal (sometimes mandatory) experience, which is something Trailforks only offers on desktop.
Comparatively, in the Trailforks app, I can click the “Discover Rides” button, and then click on the associated routes or recommended rides from there, which will highlight a whatever I’ve selected. Their page also displays mileage, the total trail count for the ride, and the number of greens, blues, and blacks.
I can understand how this detail might improve the planning/management experience on desktop, although I personally prefer MTB Project’s one-click approach when out on a trail.
In both MTB Project’s and Trailforks’ apps, I can click on a parking icon and they’ll transfer the data to a mapping app for driving directions. We had the opportunity to speak with a Trailforks representative, who emphasized:
“We actually have more functionality around this (a common theme). You can change in the app’s settings which external app you want to use for directions on iPhone (Google vs. Apple). We often show photos of the parking lot.
You can either click the “driving directions” link to open in your chosen driving app, or you can long press anywhere on the map to place a marker there and get driving directions to that point.
If you wanted to meet a friend somewhere that doesn’t have a mapped POI, you can also share a link to that spot and it will open that pin in their app.”
Trailforks also offer 3D maps, but again, I’ve found this feature in MTB Project isn’t much more than eye candy, based on my needs. Trailforks’ Ride Planner desktop feature seems like a cool idea (i.e., click between points to find the best routes) as well, but in my experience, it’s a little clunky.
From a gamification aspect, Trailforks users can earn badges and contests, which isn’t something that MTB Project offers. However, a single sign-on works across all of their adventure sites, for those who participate in multiple sports.
Given all of this, let’s wrap everything up and come to a conclusion about MTB Project.
My Parting Thoughts About MTB Project
MTB Project and Trailforks are free, robust resources that I’d consider must-haves for mountain bikers. I have both on my phone and use them frequently.
With this said, I find myself using MTB Project more often, as I’ve found its app interface more intuitive while out on the trail—especially since it displays the best direction to travel and automatically shows connected trails to maximize my ride time. Little things make a big difference, though, and my opinion is certainly subjective.
However, there’s no getting around the fact that Trailforks lists 5X as many trails as MTB Project, if this is one of your must-haves. And, according to the Pinkbike representative we spoke with, Trailforks has easily 10X more features, especially if you’re involved with trail management.”
User trail updates also seem to come in more frequently on Trailforks than MTB Project, and they offer more robust file export options, as well as Strava connectivity. Again, it’s all about which features are most important to you.
But, based on my experience as well as many third-party online reports, their trail density can vary widely depending on the part of the country where you live.
I’ll be honest, though: Based on Trailforks’ quick, in-depth response to this article, as well as detailed clarification regarding a few of my concerns, I might be convinced to switch during ride time if they made highlighting entire routes faster—and added directional arrows. Again, it’s all about subjectivity.
Tell us about your MTB Project experience in the comments below! Also, leave a star rating up top!
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