Before you leave home, scope out the trails as best as you can. And be prepared to still be surprised. I’ll research the system on Trailforks and other apps, the local trail groups on Facebook and websites, and whatever else I can find. I’ll study and print out maps because my mostly good sense of direction gets scrambled with apps when they don’t point north consistently. And I’ll figure out in general where to park and what the weather might be.
Once in a while I’ll just research where to park and figure out the rest once I get there. Recently I rode around the parking lot at a new-to- me trail system a couple of times, and even up the road without seeing where the trails started! After finally asking a local, I discovered the mixed-use trail that lead around the outhouse building. 50 yards up that trail, at a gravel road, was the kiosk and trail maps! Who knew! Just as delighted as if I had discovered a waterfall no one had ever seen before, I took a picture of that map and headed out for real.
Watching videos of people riding those trails can tell you what color the dirt is, and that might be about it. Unless you know the rider well and how they ride, it’s really difficult to gauge speeds that would be appropriate for you as well as the trail’s steepness, the dirt feel and more. Have you ever looked back at the photos you took of that really gnarly, steep section and have it not look that dramatic? Or vice versa? My personal pet peeve is how the cameras in those videos don’t move like my eyes do or they’re not pointed where I want to be looking.
It’s might be more worthwhile to watch race videos even if there is no way you’re going to be moving that fast. They’re taken from many different perspectives than someone’s chest-view. And, it’s entertaining to see where the crowds are because you know that’s probably near the end of the trail and that will be a particularly interesting section!