If you plan on spend­ing any time what­so­ev­er off con­crete, odds are that you will be walk­ing on a trail.  If you aren’t walk­ing on one, any repeat­ed cross­ing on the same ground will, in fact, yield a trail soon­er or lat­er.  If built right, trails can last indef­i­nite­ly.  The key phrase here is “built right.”  If it is built poor­ly, then trails can have a very dam­ag­ing effect, erod­ing the sur­round­ing environment.

btWith the right prepa­ra­tion and care you can build a trail that can han­dle hik­ers, bik­ers, hors­es, and any­thing else that can tread on dirt.  A few sim­ple tips will mean the dif­fer­ence between ero­sion and per­ma­nent enjoyment.

Step 1: Know your slope

If you think about the slope of a trail, you may think sim­ply about the direc­tion peo­ple will be walking/biking etc.  But the angle of the fall line, or basi­cal­ly the slope that water flows, is very impor­tant to the trail that cross­es the slope.

Any trail that fol­lows the fall line will not be a trail for long.  The slope will just attract water and that will become the next river/creek/stream etc down the hill.

The main rule to fol­low is the half rule.  The half rule is sim­ple: a trail’s angle (grade) can be no more than the grade of the slope it is cross­ing.  So if the hill you are on has a 30 degree slope, your trail can have no more than a 15% grade for it to last.

The oth­er key is to have the down­hill side of your trail slight­ly low­er than the uphill side, so that any water can con­tin­ue to run down the hill.  Doing the oppo­site is a sure­fire way to become a mud magnet.

tbStep 2: No short­cuts allowed! 

If any­one has ever told you to “take the path of least resis­tance”,  it was prob­a­bly meant fig­u­ra­tive­ly.  But in life every­body will take the lit­er­al “path of least resis­tance” if they can.  This means cut­ting cor­ners and switch­backs, or tak­ing a bet­ter route around a rock/tree if the trail is not eas­i­est.  It is for this rea­son that you need to be think­ing 5 steps ahead, and work­ing along­side the ter­rain’s nat­ur­al ebbs and flows.

If a cer­tain route can’t be avoid­ed but you are sure that the route will be com­pro­mised, it might be a good idea to put some obsta­cles in the way, such as a dead log, rock (or a col­lec­tion of rocks), or oth­er items that would deter peo­ple from  veer­ing off the path.

Step 3: Stunts are your friend!

This applies most­ly to moun­tain bikes, but can also apply to walk­ing trails — albeit on a much less “gnarly” scale.  But if there is sen­si­tive ter­rain such as a wet­land, marshy bit, or water cross­ing, you can mit­i­gate the human ero­sion fac­tor by build­ing some fun fea­tures such as a lad­der or rock bridges, plat­forms, teeter tot­ters, etc… any­thing that keeps the trail user(s) from inter­act­ing with the ground.

yhFor a hik­ing trail a sim­ple board­walk can suf­fice.  It is rel­a­tive­ly easy to con­struct, and depend­ing on the juris­dic­tion you live in, you can like­ly use dead wood lying near the trail to make the ulti­mate in sustainability.

There are many oth­er meth­ods for build­ing a sus­tain­able trail, and I rec­om­mend the book Trail Solu­tions: IMBA’s Gudie to Build­ing Sweet Sin­gle­track, put out by the Inter­na­tion­al Moun­tain Bicy­cling Asso­ci­a­tion (IMBA).  It is eas­i­ly the best resource out there, despite it’s lim­it­ed availability.

Hope to see you out on the trails!  Remem­ber to check with the local author­i­ties before build­ing your masterpiece.