A hiking trail in autumn
A country track, or fieldway, in Slovenia
Nature trail in Upstate New York.
An abandoned trail in the Jinguashi mining area in Taiwan

A trail (also track, byway) is a path with a rough beaten or dirt/stone surface used for travel. Trails may be for use only by walkers and in some places are the main access route to remote settlements. Some trails can also be used for hiking, cycling, or cross-country skiing and less often for moving cattle herds and other livestock.



Trail often denotes a hiking trail. Historically the term was used for a route into or through wild territory used by emigrants (e.g. the Oregon Trail). In the early years of the 20th century the term auto trail was used for a marked highway route, and trail is now also used to designate routes, including highway routes, designated for tourist interest (e.g. National Historic Trails, the Cabot Trail and Quilt Trail). The term trail has also been used by developers and urban planners for a variety of modern paved roads, highways, and boulevards. A particularly unusual use of the term is in the province of Alberta, Canada, which has multi-lane freeways called "trails".

In Australia, the term track can be used interchangeably with trail, and can refer to anything from a dirt road to an unpaved pedestrian path. The term trail gained popularity during World War II, when many servicemen from the United States were stationed in Australia, which probably influenced its being adopted by elements of the Australian media at the time (see Kokoda Track).

In New Zealand, the term track is used almost exclusively except in reference to cross-country skiing.

In the United Kingdom, the term trail is used, but mostly for longer distance walking routes through open country with rough surfacing. In England and Wales, the government-promoted long-distance paths are known as National Trails. Generally the term footpath is preferred for pedestrian routes, but is used for urban paths and sometimes in place of pavement, as well as longer distance trails. Track is used for wider paths (wide enough for vehicles), often used for hiking. The terms bridleway, byway, restricted byway are all recognised legal terms and to a greater or lesser extent in general usage.

Trail types and use

Walking trails

Trail use has become very popular for a wide variety of users. Some trails are designated as nature trails, and are used by people learning about the natural world. Many trails are designated day trails, meaning that they are generally used by people out for a short hike, less than a day. Some trails are designated backpacking trails, or long-distance trails, and are used by both day hikers and by backpackers. Some of the trails are over a thousand miles (1,500 km) long and may be hiked in sections by backpackers, or completed in one trip by dedicated hikers. Some trails are specifically used by other outdoor enthusiasts to gain access to another feature, such as good climbing sites. Many runners also favor running on trails rather than pavement, as giving a more vigorous work-out and better developing agility skills, as well as providing a more pleasant exercise environment.

Stairway trails

Parts of many hiking trails at Mohonk Mountain House include stairway trails

Stairway trails are another way to ascend higher slopes. The stairs are constructed by making cuts in the dirt, rocks, or concrete. Stairway trails are usually for walking only. Popular stairway trails include the Stairway Trails in Bernal Heights, East - San Francisco, and the stairs at many hilltop Hindu temples such as the Palani Murugan Temple located in Tirumala, used during pilgrimage & Machu Picchu.[citation needed]

Bicycle trails

This article is about a type of path. For the geometric parameter of bicycles, see trail.

A bicycle trail in Granbury, Texas

Bicycle trails may be built to a different set of standards than foot trails, requiring more stable and harder surfaces, less strenuous grades, longer sight visibility, and fewer sharp changes in direction. On the other hand, the cross-slope of a bike trail may be significantly greater than a foot trail, and the path may be narrower in some cases.[citation needed]

A particular offshoot of trail biking is downhill mountain biking, which can be environmentally destructive, causing soil erosion and habitat destruction, if not well-directed on established trails. Downhilling is particularly popular at ski resorts such as Mammoth Mountain in California or Whistler in British Columbia, where ski lifts are used to get bikes and riders to the top of the mountain. Gravity Logic is a well established design, develop and construction company specializing in the creation of safe and sustainable lift serviced bike parks.[1]

Because of the greater need for more gradual grades, changing elevations may involve sidehill trails with multiple switchbacks, while these may not be necessary for hikers. In cases where hikers use these bike trails, attention must be paid to the potential of cutting across switchbacks.

Where bike trails intersect with pedestrian or equestrian trails, signage at the intersections is important, and high visibility onto the intersecting trails must be a priority in order to prevent collisions between fast-moving cyclists and slower moving hikers and horses. Bicycles and horses should be allowed on the same trails where the trail is wide enough with good visibility.

A well designed bike trail will have an average grade of less than 10%, and will generally follow a contour line, rather than straight downhill. The trail should slope out or across the trail 3-5% downhill to encourage water to run off the side, rather than down the trail bed. In addition, frequent grade reversals also prevent water from running down the trail, make the trail more fun and interesting to ride, and generally help keep bike speeds down, providing a more safe trail experience for all users.

Equestrian trails

Unformed BNT trail along Kunderang Brook, in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park in Australia.

Horse riding and other equestrian uses of trails continue to be a popular activity for many trail users.[2] Horses can negotiate much steeper terrain on a dirt trail, for instance, than on a gravel trail.[citation needed] Horses can usually negotiate much the same grades as hikers, but not always, although they can more easily clear obstacles in the path such as logs.[3]

The Bicentennial National Trail (BNT) in Australia is the longest marked multi-use trail in the world, stretching 5,330 kilometres from Cooktown, Queensland, through New South Wales to Healesville, Victoria. This trail runs the length of the rugged Great Dividing Range through national parks, private property and alongside of wilderness areas. One of the objectives was to develop a trail that linked up the brumby tracks,[2] mustering and stock routes along the Great Dividing Range, thus providing an opportunity to legally ride the routes of stockmen and drovers who once travelled these areas with pack horses. This Trail provides access to some of the wildest, most remote country in the world.[2] The Bicentennial National Trail is suitable for self-reliant horse riders, fit walkers and mountain bike riders.[3]

Within the United States National Trail Classification System,[4] equestrian trails include simple day-use bridle paths and others built to accommodate long strings of pack animals on journeys lasting many days. Trail design parameters for these uses include trail base width and material, trail clear width, trail clear height, access to water suitable for stock (not human) use, and trail routing.

Cross-country skiing

Prepared ski trails for cross-country skiing.

In cross-country skiing, a trail (also called a 'track' or 'piste') refers to the parallel grooves cut into the snow, one for each ski.[citation needed]

Motorized trails

A country trail created by vehicle tire marks in Butte County, South Dakota

Motorized trail use also remains very popular with some people. Such terms as ORV, four-wheeling, all-terrain vehicle, and others actually have highly specific meanings. In the United States, this group of people have a very strong political lobby. The Recreational Trails Program defined as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, play /ˌsˈt/) of 1991 mandates that states must use a minimum of 30 percent of these funds for motorized trail uses.

Urban and suburban trails

Though the term trail conjures up images of a well-beaten path in a woodland setting, more and more frequently, the term is coming to refer to any sort transportation route designed for non-automobile traffic. For example, a trend sweeping Northern America, especially in the rural Northeast, is the conversion of abandoned railways into rail trails. Examples include the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Berkshire County and the Northern RailTrail of New Hampshire. Though these wide, often paved pathways could have easily been used as roads, their focus on recreational use for pedestrians and cyclists is what sets them apart as trails.

In Northern America, where urban sprawl has begun to strike even the most rural communities, developers and local leaders are currently striving to make their communities more conducive to non-motorized transportation through the use of less traditional "trails." The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has established the Active Living by Design program to improve the livability of communities in part through the trails, both in a more traditional sense, as is being done by the Upper Valley Trails Alliance or in the broader, as is being done by Groundwork Somerville.

Another type of trail that was quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s but is less popular today is the exercise trail (also known as trim trail), which combines running with exercise stations.

The term trail has also been used by developers and urban planners for a variety of modern paved roads, highways, and boulevards. A particularly unusual use of the term is in the province of Alberta, Canada, which has multi-lane freeways called "trails".

Though uncommon in the United States, public footpaths in the UK are often through developed areas, securing legal rights for pedestrians to take shortcuts between streets, avoid the noise and danger of streets with vehicles, and reduce the appeal and use of vehicles.

Trail difficulty ratings

A simple colored symbol to classify a trail's difficulty was first used for ski trails and is now being used for hiking, bicycle, other trails and even airport security lines.[5][6]

  • Green circle - easy
  • Blue square - moderate
  • Black diamond - difficult

Other systems may be used in different locations.[7][8]


Trail segregation, the practice of designating certain trails as having a specific preferred or exclusive use, is increasingly common and diverse. For example, segregated cycle facilities, for bicycles, are used not only on roads open to motor vehicles, but also in trail systems open to other trail users. Some trails are segregated for use by both equestrians and mountain bikes, or by equestrians only, or by mountain bikes only. Designated "wilderness area" trails may be segregated for non-wheeled use (hence permit backpacking and horses but exclude mountain bikes and motorized vehicles).

Often, trail segregation for a particular use is accompanied by prohibitions against that use on other trails within the trail system.

Trail segregation may be supported by signage, markings, trail design and construction (especially selection of tread materials), and by separation between parallel treads. Separation may be achieved by "natural" barriers including distance, ditching, banking, grading, and vegatation, and by "artificial" barriers including fencing, curbing, and walls.

The opposite of segregated use is shared use. Shared use may be achieved by sharing a trail easement, but within it maintaining segregated and sometimes also separated trail treads. This is common in rail trails. Shared use may also refer to alternate day arrangements, whereby two uses are segregated by being permitted on alternate days. This is increasingly common in long-distance trails shared by equestrians and mountain bike users; these two user communities have similar trail requirements but may experience encounters with each other on the trail as difficult.

Trail administration

In 1968, the United States created its National Trails System, which includes National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails and National Recreation Trails.

The rules and regulations for a trail are written and enforced by the land management agency in charge of the trail. A trail may be completely contained within one administration (e.g. a State Park) or it may pass through multiple administrations, leading to a confusing array of regulations, allowing dogs or mountain bikes in one segment but not in another, or requiring Wilderness Permits for a portion of the trail, but not everywhere.

In the United States agencies administering trails include the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, State Park systems, County Parks, cities, private organizations such as land trusts, businesses and individual property owners.

New trail construction by an agency must often be assessed for its environmental impact and conformance with State or Federal laws. For example, in California new trails must undergo reviews specified by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).[1]

In the United Kingdom many trails and footpaths are of ancient origin and are protected under law as rights of way. In Ireland, the Keep Ireland Open organization is campaigning for similar rights.

Trail construction

A trail constructed under the waterfall Steinsdalsfossen, Norway.

While many trails have arisen through common usage, quality trail design and construction is a complex process requiring certain sets of skills.

When a trail passes across a flat area that is not wet, often all that is required is to clear brush, tree limbs and undergrowth to produce a clear, walkable trail. When crossing streams, bridges may or may not be desirable, depending on the size of the stream and the depth of its banks. In wet areas, it may be necessary to create an elevated trailway with fill or by building a boardwalk. One problem with boardwalks is that they require frequent maintenance and replacement - boards in poor condition are often slippery and hazardous.

Trails on slopes

A common mistake in establishing trails is to make them on slopes that are too steep for comfort and the environment. Such steep trails generally result in serious erosion, a wide swath of impacted area as walkers go to the sides to find better footing, and the inability of many hikers to walk the trail. Trail gradient should be determined based on a site specific assessment of soils & geology, drainage patterns of the slope, surrounding vegetation types, position on the slope of a given trail segment (bottom, mid-slope, ridgeline), average precipitation, storm intensities, types of use, volume & intensity of use, and a host of other factors affecting the ability of the trail substrate to resist erosion and provide a navigable surface. Trails that ascend steep slopes may use switchbacks (also called hairpins), but switchback design and construction is a specialized topic that takes great care.

If a trail is being made to be accessible to off-road wheelchairs, the grade should be no more than one in ten. If a paved trail has to be accessible to all wheelchairs, the grade must be no more than one in twelve, with periodic level pull-offs.

The off-slope, or side-slope, of the trail also must be considered. This is the slope of the trail from side to side, and should never be more than one in twelve. Side-sloped trails are prone to gullying. Ideally, the treadway of the trail should be almost, but not quite, level in cross-section.

Achieving the proper slope in hilly terrain usually requires the excavation of sidehill trail. This is trailway that is constructed by establishing a line of suitable slope across a hillside, then digging out by means of a mattock or similar tool to create the trail. This may be a full-bench trail, where the treadway is only on the firm ground surface after the overlying soil is removed and sidecast (thrown to the side as waste), or a half-bench trail, where soil is removed and packed to the side so that the treadway is half on firm old ground and half on new packed fill. In areas near drainages, creeks and other waterways, excavation spoils should be end-hauled (taken away in bulk and deposited in an environmentally benign area). In problem areas, it may be necessary to establish the trail entirely on fill. In cases where filling is used, it's necessary to pack it firmly and to revisit the site periodically to add to the fill and repack it until fully stable.


A waterbar in New York's Catskill Mountains. The trail forks right; the drainage ditch to the left.

A critically important and often-overlooked factor in trail construction is that of drainage. There are three general types of drainage problems on trails. The first is accumulation of water to the point that the trail is unusable. The second is erosion from moving water on the trail. The third is the creation of local mud spots.

The first type of drainage problem is common in places such as the north country. In such places, it is often necessary to build some type of raised walkway. This is often done by cutting poles from the woods, staking parallel poles in place on the ground, then filling between them with whatever material is available to create the raised walkway. The more elaborate option of the deckwalk is by necessity reserved for shorter stretches in very high-traffic areas.

The second type of problem is caused because trails, by their nature, tend to become drainage channels and eventually gullies if the drainage is not properly controlled. Where a trail is near the top of a hill or ridge, this is usually a minor issue, but when it is farther down it can become a very major issue.

In areas of heavy water flow along a trail, it may be necessary to create a ditch on the uphill side of the trail with drainage points across the trail. The cross-drainage may be accomplished by means of culverts, which must be cleared on a semi-annual basis, or by means of cross-channels, often created by placing logs or timbers across the trail in a downhill direction, called "thank-you-marms", "deadmen", or waterbars. Using timbers or rocks for this purpose also creates erosion barriers. Rock paving in the bottom of these channels and in the trailside ditches may help to maintain stability of these. Ideally, waterbars should be created, with or without ditching, at major points of water flow on or along the trail, and in conjunction, if possible, with existing drainage channels below the trail. Another important technique is to create coweeta dips, or drain dips, points on the trail where it falls briefly (for a meter or so) and then rises again. These provide positive drainage points that are almost never clogged by debris.

The third type of problem can occur both on bottomlands and on ridgetops and a variety of other spots. A local spot or short stretch of the trail may be chronically wet. If the trail is not directly on rock, then a mud pit forms. Trail users go to the side of the trail to avoid the mud pit, and the trail becomes widened, sometimes bizarrely so. If the drainage can be corrected, it must be. A common option if the location cannot be effectively drained is the "corduroy." This can range from random sticks laid across the path to split logs being laid across the path. Some of the early turnpikes in the United States were log corduroys, and these can still be found in third-world forested areas. With recreational trails, it is common to cut sticks that may be one to three inches thick and lay them in place, as close together as can be achieved. Sometimes, a short bridge may be a more feasible option.

Water crossings

For pedestrian use, footbridges may be preferred. Other options are stepping stones and shallow fords. For equestrian use, shallow fords may be preferred.

Trail width

Trail width has two main components: width of the trail base or footbed; and width of the clear space on either side of the trail, as in cuts on steep slopes, tunnels, and through vegetation. Variants in width include single track and two track trails.

Multi-use trails

Trails intended for use by bicycles, wheelchairs, equestrians, and pedestrians will often be surfaced, especially in heavily-used or urban areas. A wide variety of surface materials are used, including asphalt paving and compressed dust such as: crushed rock fines, cinders, or decomposed granite. Such trails will also have well-built bridges with a supported deck and side rails.

There has been a major effort to convert abandoned railroad grades to bike paths or multi-use paths. This has been termed "rails-to-trails". Railroads in use with adjacent trails are rails with trails.


The most common symbols used in trail blazing

For long-distance trails, or trails where there is any possibility of anyone taking a wrong turn, blazing or signage should be provided. This may be accomplished by using either paint on natural surfaces or by placing pre-made medallions. Horseshoe-shaped blazes are good for bridle trails. The Appalachian Trail is blazed with white rectangles. Blue is often used for side trails. European walking paths are blazed with yellow points encircled with red. However, other walking paths in European countries are blazed in a variety of manners.


Natural surface, single track trails will require some ongoing maintenance. However, if the trail is properly designed and constructed, maintenance should be limited to clearing downed trees, trimming back brush and clearing drainages. Depending on location, if the trail is properly designed, there should be no need for major rework such as grading or erosion control efforts. However, mountain trails which see both significant rainfall and human traffic may require "trail hardening" efforts in order to prevent further erosion. Most of the seemingly natural rock steps on the mountain trails of the northeast United States are, in fact, the work of professional and volunteer trail crews.

See also


External links

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