My backyard has always been a disaster. It's full of weeds, the fence is falling down, and I never want to spend time in it. I've dreamt about building a pump track for years, but I never had the time. Then the pandemic happened and I found myself stuck at home for months. Descending into lockdown madness, I decided to pull out a few shovels and finally give building my own pump track a shot.
Pump tracks are great tools for mountain bikers looking to sharpen their skills, build fitness, and have a good time. A pump track is a continuous dirt loop made up of rollers and bermed corners. Tracks can be basic ovals (like mine) or more complex with multiple turns and straights. Riders should be able to complete the loop without pedaling. Instead, you “pump” to build speed and maintain momentum. Pumping is an essential skill for anyone with a mountain bike and there’s no better tool for practicing than a pump track.
My humble track. Yes, I know my fence is janky. I said humble! I will fix it but the pump track was the priority.
I toiled in my backyard for weeks, digging, building, and shaping. There were plenty of frustrations and successes along the way. The end result is a simple, fun, and effective track. I hope to pass on the lessons I learned to any DIY backyard pump track dreamers out there.
- Shovel(s) - Most builders use flat shovels for moving dirt and shaping. Pointed shovels are better for digging down into the ground.
- Metal rake - Great for dragging dirt across large areas and shaping the face of berms and tops of rollers. They help pull out stones and chunks to create an even surface for packing.
- Tamper - You can pack features by slapping the dirt with the back of a shovel, but using a cheap and simple hand tamper saves energy and your hands.
- Pickax - If you can't dig into your ground by stepping down on your shovel blade with one foot, you have hard dirt and need a pickax. A pickax will break apart the dirt so you can shovel.
- Water source - The features of your track aren’t going to hold together without moisture. I had a hose nearby, but if you don’t, then watering cans are going to be your friend.
- Wheelbarrow - If you’re trying to move a large amount of dirt, a wheelbarrow will make life a lot easier.
- A large amount of dirt - You probably need more dirt than you think. My small 50x20ft track took about 20 cubic yards of dirt. Bigger and more complicated tracks will require more. Remember that all your features will shrink when packed. If you don't have enough dirt, you'll have to dig down to put rollers and berms below ground level. This may or may not cause drainage issues depending on your soil.
- Skidsteer (optional) - Not really necessary, but if you want to make life easy, get a machine. I rented a Toro Dingo for a day, but any skidsteer-type machine will work. Big machines are shockingly easy to rent and the learning curve often isn’t as big as you think. They don’t come cheap though.
I used a Toro Dingo to grade the backyard. Remember to call your city to have utilities marked before you dig.
Some rugged individuals might like digging alone, but most days I found myself losing steam way too fast. I’d dig for 30 minutes to an hour, get bored, then ignore the track for days. Weeds took over and the dirt hardened. So every time I'd restart, it was a nightmare. It took me two months to build my track — way too long — but with just one or two more people, I probably would have finished in a week. Having someone to share the work with keeps you focused, motivated, and accountable.
If you’re able to use a machine, that's even better. The hardest part of my own project was grading my yard to make a flat and clear area for the track. I made a go at it with a pickax and shovel, but progress was painful and slow. My original goal was to be frugal and spend no money, but for one day I caved and dropped $280 to rent a Toro Dingo from a local supplier. It was the best decision of the project because I got more done in a single day than all the other days combined.
With the Dingo, I leveled a 50x20-foot area to build the track and produced a massive amount of dirt to use. Unfortunately, I was too cheap to rent another day with the Dingo, so I had to complete the rest of the track with hand tools.
My dad, the enthusiastic old man that he is, offered to help me dig for a couple of days in May. These days were huge, and together we accomplished a lot. He’s not a spry as he used to be but my dad still moved wheelbarrow loads faster than I ever managed. Thanks to him, all the dirt got moved before the heat of summer hit. Find friends, family, and any tools that will make the job easier and use them.
Design for your space
My main focus was sweeping, easy to ride, and supportive corners.
Pump track design is something I had no experience with. I had grand plans for a track with multiple turns, crossovers, jumps, and gaps. Then, I decided to buy Lee McCormack’s book, “Welcome to Pump Track Nation,” to get some expert guidance.
The book laid out some basic rules that made me realize my grand plans required much more space than I had. According to McCormack, rollers should have a ratio of around 10 feet per foot of height. Turns ride best with a 10-foot radius. Shrink a track smaller than these dimensions and it might be too slow and awkward to be fun.
To maximize my small space, I decided to build a simple oval with two turns at either end. It’s nothing fancy, but it allows me to maximize speed, especially through the turns. Between each turn, I was able to fit four rollers spaced 10 feet apart. I dug the center two rollers so they extended across the width of the track. This allows you to change direction and do a figure-eight.
Because the track is rideable in both directions, I can stay interested and get in a hard workout. It would have been possible to increase speed on the straights even more by removing a roller and building three larger rollers farther apart, but I think the increased speed would have made my turns too hard for me to hit consistently.
At about two feet tall with a 10-foot radius, my berms are just big enough for me to get around with decent speed. I tried to make them as steep as I could to provide support through the whole corner. Berms require the most dirt and labor. Limiting myself to two let me really focus on getting them perfect.
If you’re new to building pump tracks, keep things simple. It hurts less to add features than to take away features that don't work (more on that later). I highly recommend McCormack’s book as a comprehensive resource. It covers more advanced topics like drainage, dirt composition, shaping, and offers design advice and templates.
Learn your dirt, cultivate your dirt
I watched countless YouTube videos of people constructing pump tracks and dirt jumps to psych myself up for my own project. In these videos, there are always shots of the builders “packing” features. The most common technique you see is repeatedly slapping the back of a flat shovel against the wet dirt. This magically creates a hard smooth riding surface.
But with the clay-filled dirt I extracted from my backyard, I struggled to do the same. All dirt is different, and mine was very sticky. When wet, it clung to my shoes and when I tried to pack it would stick to my shovel or tamper and tear the feature apart.
Through trial and error, I learned that the dirt had to be much, much drier to pack properly. In fact, it looked almost too dry when it was actually ready to pack. I had to learn patience. Achieving this perfect dirt consistency required extensive watering. I had to water features enough so that the dirt deep under the surface would be moist. This helps it all stick together. After a day of watering, I had to wait — sometimes overnight — for the dirt to dry enough for good packing.
Having a clean shovel helps a lot too. Wash your shovels off when you’re done working. Sand the back of the blade or hit it with steel wool occasionally because dirt doesn’t want to stick to the smooth surface. (Some builders also oil their shovels, but I didn’t bother.)
It was a tough process but I became a master of my own dirt. I discovered my dirt's little tricks and tells, and you will for yours. If you bring in dirt from elsewhere, pay extra for the screened and filtered stuff. Vegetation, roots, and rocks don't pack. Too much of it in your dirt and your features will fall apart. If you get unscreened dirt as I did from my yard, be ready to spend a lot of time picking out all the junk.
Ride it in then tune it up
The first ride on your pump track is always exciting. But just because you can ride it doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near done. After my first few laps, I immediately knew I had to fix some major issues.
The first was a large, random roller I decided to stick in the middle. I thought it would be fun to use for changing directions but it ended up being too awkward to ride properly. After trying to make it work for a few days I decided it was a dud. Destroying my hard work hurt. After going through the five stages of grief, I finally took a pickax to it and spread its remains around the track.
The second issue was that the end of my berms didn't extend far or high enough to support me all the way through the exit. Fortunately, I was able to use dirt from the roller I sacrificed to build up the exits and stop myself from rolling into the side of my house.
The biggest issue I had though was flat spots between rollers. For a pump track to run well, there should be no flat spots at all. The bike should always be moving up, down, or sideways — like riding a wave. When you're pumping, hitting a flat spot immediately steals your momentum and makes pumping feel really awkward.
When building my rollers, I thought I could just dump dirt where I wanted and shape it into rollers. But I didn't pay attention to the space between the rollers. After feeling slow and awkward through the first feel laps, I realized I needed to dig down between the rollers and focus on making smooth undulating transitions between them.
Once I fixed this problem my track felt smooth. I was able to start flowing and put in dozens of laps without pedaling. As you ride more, the surface will harden and get faster. Plus, riding keeps the weeds at bay. Ride your track as much as possible and it will get better with time.
The work never ends
I haven't had my track long, but I can already tell that maintenance will be neverending. I think I now understand gardeners. When I see weeds taking over my track I go into war mode and prune for hours. I water the surface regularly to keep it from cracking apart in the sun.
I haven’t had to rebuild anything yet, but after a few weeks of riding, I’ve had to patch plenty of problem spots. The track is going to require regular maintenance to stay in tip-top shape. I expect it will need a full rebuild after a year of riding and weather have eroded it away.
In the future, I hope to build the berms even taller and steeper to carry more speed. Then, I can reduce the roller count and make my track scary fast. Once I'm able to have friends and co-workers over, I expect some really talented riders to show me what's really possible on my basic little track.
The beauty of having your own pump track is that no one will ever know it as intimately as yourself. There’s a special satisfaction that comes from building your own mountain bike features. You know everything that went into making it. When you get it right, and it feels perfect, there's nothing better.