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Questions and Answers from the webinar "Trails and the New Federal Accessibility Guidelines" presented in the American Trails "Advancing Trails Webinar Series"


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"Trails and the New Federal Accessibility Guidelines"


The following questions and answers were developed from points brought up during the American Trails webinar on the trails portion of the final "Architectural Barriers Act Accessibility Guidelines; Outdoor Developed Areas." These new accessibility guidelines for federal lands cover new or altered trails, picnic and camping areas, viewing areas, beach access routes, and related recreation facilities. See details of the Webinar presented January 9, 2014...

The Questions and Answers were written by Janet Zeller, National Accessibility Program Manager, U.S. Forest Service, with input by Nathan Caldwell, US Fish and Wildlife Service Transit and Trails Coordinator

photo of smooth, curving dirt trail

At Crotched Mountain in Greenfield, NH, sustainable trails are also
accessible trails (photo by Peter S. Jensen)


1. When does a guideline become a requirement?

When the Access Board publishes a final guideline, it is enforceable under the laws it applies to. For instance, these new federal accessibility guidelines are under the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA). That makes them a legal requirement for all those entities under the ABA (Federal agencies and those constructing on Federal lands).

The difference between guidelines and standards confuses people. Guidelines are legal requirements that have completed the rule making process by a federal agency and been published as final versions in the Federal Register. Standards are guidelines that have been accepted by a standard setting agency, for example the General Services Administration (GSA) for many federal agencies, or the Department of Justice for those under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which are State and local governments, business or private entities that are open to the public. Both guidelines and standards are legally enforceable. The only question is what law is it under, so you’ll know who it applies to.


2. Do these guidelines apply to Shared Use Paths?

No, these guidelines do not apply to shared-use paths. The Access Board accepted comments last year on their proposed Shared Use Paths guidelines. In response to comments they received, the Board is supplementing its rulemaking on public rights-of-way to also cover shared use paths.  The proposed rights-of-way guidelines, which address access to sidewalks, streets, and other pedestrian facilities, provide requirements for pedestrian access routes, including specifications for route width, grade, cross slope, surfaces, and other features. The Board proposes to apply these and other relevant requirements to shared use paths as well. This supplementary rulemaking also would add provisions tailored to shared use paths into the rights-of-way guidelines. See the Access Board’s information about this coming guidance...


3. Do the guidelines apply to partners not working on federal lands?

If you are NOT working on federal land, the guidelines are not required. However, they are best practices for sustainable design. Also be careful of the funding source. Check to see if the funder specifies that you are to use the federal guidelines. If that is their policy, you do need to follow the guidelines.


4. Does the Other Power Driven Mobility Devices (OPDMD) rule apply to open space and trails agencies as part of the guidelines?

No, OPDMDs are not addressed in these construction based guidelines. OPDMDs are covered in a whole other webinar! Also the OPDMD rule was issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and applies to all under the ADA. Go to American Trails accessibility resources web page and see OPDMD webinar as well as questions and answers.

As far as federal agencies are concerned, the OPDMD rule does not apply directly. DOJ rule is under ADA, not under Architectural Barriers Act (ABA). However federal agencies have been looking at how they deal with these devices on their lands. See travel management rules on federal lands. Just because a person has a disability does not mean they can use whatever motor vehicle they wish where ever they wish.


5. Does the new federal Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines (ODAAG) under the ABA apply to grant funds received from sources other than Federal land management agency budgets.

If the work is going to be done on federal land, then the guidelines apply. If you get federal money, like FHWA Recreational Trails funds, and the trail is not on federal land, the guidelines do not apply. Unless the funding source specifically requires the federal trail guidelines in the ODAAG are to be used as a best practice.


6. Is there going to be a similar guideline for trails on state and local government lands?

In the future, after the Access Board completes the rulemaking process under the ADA, there are expected to be guidelines that will apply to new or altered outdoor developed areas and trails of those under the ADA. The Access Board has said they expect to base the new ADA rule on the current federal rule, but they have not announced a timetable or made any statement about when that long process will be started. The Shared Use Paths and Public Rights of Way accessibility guidelines are currently in development.


7. We are told that accessible trails need to be paved with concrete.

We strongly encourage you look at the guidelines. Nowhere do they require concrete or asphalt or any specific surface material. Any surface that is suitable for the setting can be used as long as it is firm and stable. Talk with the Access Board who can help decision makers understand that concrete is not required. American Trails’ Accessible Trails webpage is a good source for how to make a wide range of trail surfaces firm and stable.


8. Is there a maximum distance that a grade can be between 5% and 8.33%?

Yes, the maximum distance for a grade that is steeper than 5% and up to 8.33% is 200 ft. in any single location on the trail. However keep in mind that 70% of the total trail length being constructed must be less than 8.33% grade which is a1:12 slope.


9. Do existing trails need to be brought into compliance?

No. The guidelines apply only to new or substantially altered trails. If you have a have identified the need to provide more accessibility to your lands and outdoor experiences, it is a good idea to look around for opportunities to provide more miles of accessible trails. When it comes to trails, we really need a wide range of different opportunities from which people can choose. Many people, including those who have disabilities prefer more rugged, natural settings. It's a broader issue, it’s about working with the terrain and setting not just providing some paved and relatively level trails.


10. How do guidelines apply to wayside rests?

For wayside rests see the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Or see ABA Accessibility Standards and the ODAAG if on federal land. A wayside rest is a roadside facility. The facilities such as parking, restroom, signage and the
“accessible routes” that connect them all must comply with the applicable ABA or ADA accessibility requirements depending on what entity owns the land base where they are located.


11. How would difficulty levels apply to the accessibility guidelines?

Trail difficulty levels do not apply to accessibility.


12. How would the guidelines apply in designated Wilderness areas? There is no exemption in the guidelines for federally designated Wilderness areas.

If you are building a new trail, you are to look at the guidelines and ask the three questions to see it the guidelines will apply. For example, in Wilderness trails are typically constructed for hikers, though it could be constructed primarily for horse in which case the guidelines wouldn’t apply.

If the proposed trail does meet the three criteria, as you lay out the flag line apply the guidelines technical provisions to your calculations. Are there any areas that fit the Conditions for taking an exception from the technical provisions in that location? For example, look at the terrain. Would construction techniques required to build an accessible trail in that location be allowed in Wilderness? Would a trail 36 inches wide change the setting? If there exceptions, due to one of more of the Conditions, would have to be taken on 15% or more of the trail, the guidelines would not apply to that new trail.


13. Does the Access Board need to be contacted about trail work and compliance with the guidelines?

No, the Access Board simply wants to know when the entire length of a trail is being exempted from the guidelines and what Conditions resulted in that decision. The Access Board wants to learn what most the common problems are so in the future they can adjust the guidelines based on conditions encountered on a variety of trails around the country. Get the Access Board form from their website, check which of the limiting factors were found, and email it to them. They will add the information to their database. It’s also a good practice to keep a copy in your project file for that trail, for future reference.


14. Does a re-route around a damaged area need to be accessible?

Only if that section of trail connects directly to the trailhead or connects to the rest of a trail that already substantially meets the provisions in the guidelines. If not, then the guidelines would not apply to the re-route and that work on the damaged section would be considered to be maintenance.


15. Have there been any legal challenges to these guidelines?

Not yet. In fact we have found increasing support because we are maximizing accessibility, but not changing the natural setting of the trail area. There may not be many trails that meet all the guidelines’ criteria and where the Conditions allow compliance. Also not as many new trails are being built in times of less funding. Certainly the need for maintaining existing trails is the priority on many federal lands. So there may be fewer trails than the public is expecting.

Another point is that the guidelines provide opportunities. Perhaps you are rebuilding a trail that is near an access point and that reconstructed area would create better access for all to a spectacular view or unique, natural setting. Nothing says you CAN'T use the guidelines on any trail that is appropriate. Even Appalachian Trail has provided some sections of accessible route to give visitors a taste of the trail experience.


16. When will the Access Board be developing guidelines for non-federal trails?

It took 20 full years from the Access Board expressing interest in trail accessibility to completing the process of finalizing the guidelines. It's a long, slow process to develop regulations. Nowwith these federal guidelines in place, there is a good model to use. However, the rulemaking process for non-federal lands will still be a long one. In the meantime, these guidelines are a best practice resulting in sustainable trails for all.


17. How does the Outdoor Recreation Access Route (ORAR) requirement apply to trails?

It doesn’t. ORAR guidelines don’t apply to trails. Keep in mind that a “trail” is defined as a route developed for the purpose of recreational hiking. Trails are not the routes in a developed recreation sites, such as in a campground or picnic area, where the route connects one facility to another. For example the route connects a campsite to the water sources or restroom, and so forth. Those connecting routes between facilities in developed recreation areas are the ORARs. There is no option to apply the trail accessibility technical requirements to ORARS, nor the other way around.


18. Are handrails and curbing needed?

There is no requirement in the guidelines for curbing or edge protection. However if it is decided that curbing will be used on boardwalk or other area along the trail, the guidelines require that curbing be a minimum of 3 inches high.


19. Information signs: is standardized formatting and information available?

There is no standardized format however the information that is required to be provided is specified. The guidelines require this information to be posted “where new information signs are provided at trailheads on newly constructed or altered trails.” This information is required on the new trailhead information signs for ALL new trails, not only those new trails that comply with the trail accessibility guidelines.

The specific information you provide is very important. Hikers appreciate the universal information. Whether the hiker uses a wheelchair, walker or other mobility aid, they have a young child or an older parent with them, a baby stroller, or they simply want to know what to expect on the trail this information helps hikers decide whether this is the trail for them that day. What people need to know is the condition of the surface, the typical and maximum grade, the typical and minimum width of the trail and the typical and maximum cross slope.

We strongly recommend you don't call it an "accessible trail." In our experience, people tend to assume that “accessible” means it's flat and paved like an accessible parking space. If a person comes to a section on the new “accessible trail” with up to a12 percent grade, as is allowed in the guidelines, and the trail information told them is an "accessible" trail, they will likely be unhappy with you the trail provider for having misrepresented that trail. Avoid that situation by providing the actual trail conditions and not referring to the trail as "accessible." You can state that the new trail complies with the federal trail accessibility guidelines to get the credit your trail deserves, but also give them the universal information.


20. If we have a federal funded trail and they don't specify the federal accessibility guidelines to be followed, can you apply ADA guidelines?

There is not an accessible trail requirement or trail guideline under ADA. The ADA Accessible Design Standards, currently the only accessibility guidelines /requirements under the ADA, only allow the 5% maximum grade for accessible routes that connect facilities in a developed area. Hiking routes do not connect facilities. However, the new federal ABA guidelines, discussed in the webinar, are good design specs to use for a sustainable trail, so they are a best practice to use for any new trail.


21. So the new guidelines are in fact "best practices"?

The new guidelines are legally enforceable on Federal lands. They are a "best practice" for trails on non-Federal lands. Since the Access Board is not currently working on non-federal guidelines, they will continue to be the best available design guidance addressing accessibility for some time. See the Forest Service Accessibility Guidebook on Outdoor Recreation Trails for graphics, photos and other user friendly information on applying these guidelines. The Guidebook is available online at

You can also order black and white printed copies of the Guidebook: 


ARCHIVED WEBINAR presented Thursday, January 9, 2014:

Links to the archived webinar:


arrow More resources on Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas


The Questions and Answers were written by Janet Zeller, National Accessibility Program Manager, U.S. Forest Service, with input by Nathan Caldwell, US Fish and Wildlife Service Transit and Trails Coordinator

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