How to Scan the Trail Like the Pros: The 4 Techniques You Need to Know

Mt Perry tree Chris

Scanning, or reading the trail is what we all do as we’re riding along on our mountain bike.  It’s the act of looking ahead to see what’s coming up next.  Then, interpreting what we see, and making decisions to adapt as best we can.

But, there are good and bad ways to scan the trail.  And as always, HOW you do it is what makes the difference!  Here are the Top 4 Techniques you need to know, to scan like a Pro:

  1. The Golden Rule of Mountain Biking
  2. Judge Quickly and Dismiss Often
  3. Ride Hungry
  4. Ride Everything

Do not underestimate the difference proper scanning technique will make to your riding!

Read on to find out how to apply these techniques to sky-rocket your skills, confidence, safety and capability.  And make sure you check out the ‘When and Where to Look‘ Guide further down, too.

Any questions?  Send them in. Email Chris here

1. Use the Golden Rule of Mountain Biking

It’s the number 1 rule of mountain biking, “Look where you want your wheels to go, not at what you want to miss”.  Easy to say.  Hard to do, especially if you’re a beginner mountain biker.

Another way to think of this rule is ‘Your wheels will follow your eyes’.  Sure, your hands are holding the handlebar, but it’s your eyes that steer the bike, not your hands!

Picture this: There’s a huge rut on the left side of the trail up ahead, but you’ve chosen a line or path on the right.  If you keep your focus on the right side, clear of the rut, there’s a far greater chance you’ll miss it.  You don’t want to ride in the rut, so there’s no need to look at it again. But, if you keep staring at the rut for fear of slipping into it, there’s a very good chance you will!

Likewise, if there’s a nasty rock up ahead that your derailleur needs to miss:  If you know there’s room for you to pedal through then focus on the gap, not the rock, and look only where you want your wheels to go.  If you focus on that rock too much there’s a greater chance you’ll hit it.  Why?  Because, like I said ‘Your wheels will follow your eyes’.


  • No matter your level of expertise, always make sure your Golden Rule is in check.
  • If you’re having trouble on the trail, first think about how well you’re following the Golden Rule.
  • Don’t let the trail come to you.  Reach forward with your eyes as far as you can, while keeping total control.
  • Click HERE to learn where and when to place your eyes on corners, dips, rollovers and more!
  • Start Night Riding.  With less to see and a higher perceived risk, you’re forced to focus only on the important stuff!  Practice the right methods and you’ll learn to Scan the Trail much sooner.

Always search ahead for where you want to go next.  The instant you’re done scanning that part of trail, purposely boost your eyes ahead to the next trail feature.  Looking a good distance ahead gives you

  • more time to think and adapt before you get to that spot
  • more time to prepare for the bigger obstacles
  • more time to choose which line is best

But if I look further ahead then I’ve got even more length of the trail to think about…’ I hear you say.

Not necessarily.  You just need to learn how to:

2. Judge Quickly and Dismiss Often

This is important:  Train yourself to make quicker and fewer decisions by purposely only focusing on and thinking about obstacles and trail features that really matter to your forward progress.  In other words,

‘Only give any trail feature the attention it deserves’

Sure there are some little step down ledges up ahead.  But, you know the bike and you can handle that obstacle.  So, immediately boost your eyes to the next trail feature when you know you’re on the right line and in control for the ledges.

And what if you don’t know what to ignore and what to give your full attention?

With each mountain bike ride you’ll grow your knowledge bank of trails, terrain types, obstacles and the way to ride them.  And as this bank of experience grows you’ll get better at judging:

  • trail features, traction levels, the best line to take, plus
  • how you and the bike should or will respond
  • BONUS TIP: Your ‘default’ riding view should be ‘ahead along the trail’.  Sure, you’ll still need to glance regularly at the trail right in front of your wheel, like when riding up a technical climb.  But, looking close to your front wheel should be your secondary view.  Rather than only looking ahead when you feel you need to, train your habit to only look down when you absolutely need to.  For every other moment: Look ahead and:

3. Ride Hungry

Ride with a hunger to discover what challenges may lay ahead.

  • Expect the unexpected and be ready to change your gears, your position, your speed and your mind instantly
  • Enjoy the challenges, the changes in the trail, and the way that it all puts you to the test
  • Ride with a ‘Can-do’ attitude.  Success begins with the right attitude.  Then,
  • Ride home happy with the knowledge that everything you experienced on this ride, whether it seemed good or bad at the time, will help you ride better next time.  But only if you:
  • Embrace the experience.

4. Ride As Many Different Types of Terrain As Possible

It’s not a technique for Scanning the Trail, but rather a task that helps you develop your scanning skills.

The more experience you can get riding on different types of terrain, the more you’ll build your Knowledge Bank of terrain types.  This can only enhance your ability and fun in a greater variety of situations!   You’ve got nothing to lose, so go do it!

While you’re at it, make sure you know:

When and Where to Look on the Trail

Corners, no matter the size:

  • On approach you should be looking ahead to your corner entry line as early as possible
  • By the time you enter the corner, you should be searching around the turn to spot the apex or mid-corner path
  • By the time you reach the apex, you should be boosting your eyes around the turn, spotting the exit path, then
  • Accelerating your vision out of the corner to whatever is coming up next

Here’s another way to think of the same cornering method.

With no other obstacle between where you are and the corner ahead:

  • Boost or accelerate your eyes from where you are to the start of the turn as soon as possible, then
  • scan along the first half of the corner, spot your line through the apex, then:
  • Immediately boost your eyes out from mid-corner to find your exit line, then beyond to whatever comes next.


  • On approach to the dip you should be looking ahead, searching for your entry line as early as possible
  • By the time you get to the entry, you should be searching for the bottom
  • By the time you get to the bottom, you should be searching for the exit path out,
  • then looking out and past your exit to what ever is coming next as soon as possible.

Log Roll-overs:

  • On approach to the roll-over you should be looking ahead, spot the top, then your entry line as early as possible
  • By the time you get to the start of the roll-over, you should be looking at the top
  • By the time your wheel reaches the top, you should be spotting the bottom exit line with a quick glance, then
  • Accelerating your eyes away from the rollover and ahead to what ever is coming next as soon as possible.

Can you see a pattern forming yet?

Climbs, Downhills, Rock Gardens, etc:

  • On approach, you should be looking ahead to your entry line as early as you possibly can
  • By the time you get to the start of the obstacle, you should be searching your way down, along or up the obstacle, then
  • Spotting your exit line and looking out along the trail to what ever is coming next as soon as possible

Remember: The better your scanning skills and bike skills are, the better you’ll adapt to the situation and the faster you’ll ride!

Where to Next:

How to Climb Better in 90 Seconds – over 500,000 views!
How to Shift Gears on a Mountain Bike – 22 Do’s and Don’ts – shared over 10,000 times
What to Carry When Mountain Biking
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