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Trail Do's and Don'ts

This article was originally posted by Matt Rose in 2007. The information is still valid and is a good reminder to treat trails with care during the spring mud season. Most trail use issues boil down to one simple question: Could 100 people immediately duplicate your actions without creating a visible impact?


How many times have you rolled into a trailhead parking lot, and hit the trail without so much as a glance toward the kiosk at the beginning? We are all guilty--especially at trailheads we use frequently. How many times do we really need to be reminded of staying on the trail, not cutting switchbacks, taking only pictures…? It all leaves us thinking that if we wanted to be under the thumb of regulations we could have stayed in town!

There are, however, important reasons behind the requisite do’s and don’ts we all need to understand. Trails by their very nature are intrusions on the landscape and actually change the landscape, so most rules of trail etiquette have their foundation in the concepts of land stewardship. We like to think that we have sole ownership of the wilderness as we hike down our favorite trail, but in reality we share our experience with many others. The primary job of a trail manager is to create a wilderness experience for the many while protecting the resource the many have come to enjoy.

As trail users we must constantly ask ourselves: Can the next one hundred people down the trail, do what I am doing, and not leave trace of their passing? Proper trail design and construction can soften the impact on the environment and allow thousands of users to pass every year with minimal impact on the surrounding wilds. Trail managers strive for a concept known as sustainability. Sustainable trails fulfill the following goals:

• Protect the environment. Does this trail blend with the natural surroundings? Is it built in a way that prevents erosion? Does it protect critical wildlife habitat? Is it constructed and maintained in a way that does not contribute to the spread of invasive weeds?

• Meet the needs of the users. Does the trail take users to the places they want to go? Does it provide the type of experience users desire?

• Require little or no maintenance. Most trails are maintained by volunteers and repairing poorly designed trails year after year is not the best way to reward dedicated volunteers.

• Minimize conflict between different user groups. Different people have different ideas about how to use a trail and sometimes these ideas don’t mix well. Well-designed trails need to address these differences to maintain the peace.

Rules of the trail and trail etiquette are easier to follow when trails meet these elements of sustainability. There is no such thing as a perfect trail but an understanding of these design keys will help trail users understand why trails are built in certain ways. The ideal trail incorporates six principles of sustainable trail design:

1) Avoid the fall line. Any trail built straight up and down the slope will channel water and erode badly when it rains.

2) Use the ‘half rule.’. Trail grade is not to exceed half the grade of the side slope. Steeper grades become channels for water. Water is the greatest enemy of trails.

3) Ten percent average grade. Shooting for an average of a ten percent grade allows for undulations that help drainage, creates character, and allows builders to avoid obstacles with out excessively steep inclines.

4) Maximum sustainable grade. Maximum trail grade is determined by the half rule, soil type, amount of rock in the soil, and the amount of rainfall received. Generally speaking, few good trails exceed 15 percent grade.

5) Grade reversals. Simple undulations in the trail allow water to run off, rather than down, the tread.

6) Outslope. A slight slope of the tread to the downhill side also allows water to flow off rather than channeling down the trail.

Most of these principles deal with the number one enemy of trails – erosion. Left unchecked, erosion will form ruts and washouts and destroy a trail. Furthermore, the sediment from erosion pollutes nearby streams, chokes out native plants, and provides seed beds for invasive weeds.

Trail erosion is accelerated by a combination of trail users, gravity, and water. All trail users loosen soil, especially on steeper slopes. Boots, tires, and hooves all loosen soil and move it downhill, gravity accelerates the damage. The steeper the grade, the more powerful the soil-loosening impact.

Water compounds the problem if it is allowed to channel down the trail. Gaining speed and energy, loosened soil is picked up and becomes an abrasive that cuts into the trail tread creating ruts and washouts. Once again the steeper the trail grade the more gravity adds to the problem.

All the design and construction technology available to the trail manager is of no use if trail users do not stay on the trail. Cutting switchbacks creates fall line routes that will erode and cause damage. Walking side by side will create wide or parallel trails that use more land than necessary. Walking off trail tramples native vegetation and allows invasive species to root. The quality of the landscape we recreate in is determined by the quality of care we give it. Nature can handle many visitors if the impact of those visitors is confined to the narrow corridor of a trail. Remember, can the next one hundred people duplicate your actions without creating a visible impact?