The Psychology and Science Behind How Hiking Trails Are Created

You can find a hiking trail or walking path almost anywhere in the United States, whether you’re deep in the backcountry or a few yards from a parking lot. Most casual hikers probably give them little thought before lacing up their boots, but hiking trails don’t just appear naturally.

Sure, the popular pathways are created with shovels and sweat and grit, but that’s not all: Modern trail construction actually involves a significant amount of anticipating what potential hikers will do and analyzing the area surrounding the route. The ultimate goal: “A useful trail must be easy to find, easy to travel, and convenient to use,” according to the USDA Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.

Before the first ground is even close to being broken, trail designers consider the trail-to-be’s location and its potential users. Will visitors be hardcore hikers looking for a new challenge? Or is the trail to be set near an urban area, where hikers are considered more casual? Will more than just hikers need to use it? All of these factors will determine a trail’s layout and design.

To figure out the right layout, trail designers consult protocols like the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines, which detail “Trail Management Objectives”—the intended users, desired difficulty level, and desired experience—that will determine the width, as well as the type of tread, of the trail.

If the hikers are experienced, a narrow, single track path can probably handle that population. But more casual hikers—think friends out for a picnic, families, or dog walkers—are more likely to walk and talk side-by-side. If the trail is designated as multi-use—meaning it’s open to multiple user groups, like bikers, equestrians, cross country skiing, etc.—that’s also central to planning.

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