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The Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP)

Current training opportunities by date are posted on the National Trails Training Partnership Calendar.
See the Survey of State Trail Administrators on UTAP

By Kathy Newman, Beneficial Designs

American Trails is helping promote and further the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP). The UTAP is a tool that land managers, agencies and individuals use to monitor, improve, and document any outdoor path of travel. Data collected during the assessment can also be provided to trail users for specific conditions, such as grade, tread width, features, obstacles, and trail surface. An updated discussion on UTAP and its goals with regard to the diversity of trail activity types was made available May 14, 2003.

Beneficial Designs developed UTAP with land management agencies and organizations focused on accessibility; several are now using it to assess trails. As UTAP has evolved over the last eight years, the need to expand how the process is taught and used has become evident. Funding has been received to create software for managing UTAP data and also to develop an educational program to increase the number of UTAP Trainers in partnership with American Trails. Workshops on UTAP training are posted on the Calendar. The UTAP sponsors are also members of the National Trails Training Partnership.


Beneficial Designs received funding in June of 1993 to create a universal mapping system to communicate detailed and pertinent information about individual trails. The information was designed to be useful to anyone who might want to hike a trail, regardless of their hiking ability. Existing trail rating systems using subjective descriptions such as "difficult" do not give users the information they may need to safely attempt a hike.

Summary of the UTAP Process

The Five Access Characteristics-- During a 1991 pilot study conducted in Yellowstone National Park and the Gallatin National Forest, Beneficial Designs identified five characteristics of a trail that greatly affect access. A system to collect and provide to the public information about grade, cross slope, surface type, obstacles, and trail width was developed into the Universal Assessment Process to help make trail systems more accessible to users.

Grade -- The average grade between two designated stations along the trail is measured with a clinometer. These measurements are then used to compute the average grade for the entire trail. Short, steep sections are measured with an inclinometer and recorded as maximum grade sections. The inclinometer is 24 inches in length and thus measures the grade as it would be experienced over the course of a single stride, or by a stroller or wheelchair.

Information about the maximum grade sections found on a trail is used to add detailed information to maps. The average and maximum grades are displayed with the grade symbol to convey this pertinent information on TAI Strips and trailhead signage.

Objective information about the average and maximum grade is very useful to all user groups, especially mountain bike riders and persons with mobility limitations, including older persons and those that use canes, crutches, walkers or wheelchairs.

Cross Slope Cross -- slope is measured at designated stations along the trail with a 24-inch inclinometer. These measurements are then used to compute the average cross slope for the entire trail. Similar to maximum grade, steep cross slope sections are measured with an inclinometer and recorded as maximum cross slope sections.

This information is used to add detailed information to maps. The average and maximum cross slopes are displayed with the cross slope symbol to convey this pertinent information on TAI Strips and trailhead signage.

Cross slope information is most useful to wheelchair users. Wheelchairs are very difficult to drive or maneuver on steep cross slopes.

Width -- A tape measure is used to measure the width of the trail. The minimum tread width, or "beaten path," is measured at each station and is used to calculate the average tread width. The minimum amount of usable passage space between stations, or minimum clearance width, is also measured.

Objective information about the width of the trail and the locations of the narrowest sections is critical for people who use mobility devices such as strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs. The average manual wheelchair has a wheelbase width of less than 28 inches. If a trail narrows to 26 inches, persons in a 28-inch wheelchair will know that they will not be able to venture past this point unless they are capable of transferring out of their chair and maneuvering their chair through this narrow location. If the width of the trail is disclosed, mobility device users will be able to determine before embarking on a trail exactly how far they will be able to hike and whether they will be able to reach their destination.

Surface -- The type of surface found in between stations is recorded, as well as a description of its characteristics. Trail surface type is a major influence on the degree of access for all user groups.

Trail Length -- The distance from the trailhead is continuously recorded to indicate the total length as well as the position of each measurement site relative to the start of the trail.

UTAP Tools and Materials

Our Universal Trail Assessment Tool Kit includes a complete array of inexpensive and easy-to-use devices that will enable you to assess your trail accurately while keeping your costs down.

Each kit includes a Suunto compass to determine the trail bearing; a Suunto clinometer to measure the average grade between two points of the trail; a digital SmartTool inclinometer to measure trail sections for maximum grade and maximum and average cross slope in percent, degrees, or rise:run a Rolatape to measure the trail length and the positions of trail features and points of interest.

Also included in the tool kit is a good old-fashioned tape measure to measure tread and clearance widths and the magnitude of obstacles, two clipboards to hold data sheets, pre-printed marking flags, a roll of marking tape, a dictaphone and cassettes, a 2-3 person First-aid Kit, master copies of the Trail Data Forms, a permanent marker for writing on flags, and a backpack for carrying essentials. All items fit into a sturdy carrying bag, with plenty of room left for granola bars and rain gear.

The above items can be purchased separately or as a kit. The Minimum Kit includes all of the above items for one low price, and the Preferred Kit includes a second compass and inclinometer.

For purchasing information, contact

Trail Assessment Training Manual

The Universal Trail Assessment Coordinator Training Manual teaches you how to asses a trail for access, mapping, and maintenance information. Illustrated step-by-step instructions show how to use each assessment tool, how to accurately measure grade, cross slope , width, and obstacles and how to describe surface type.

The manual includes tips for putting together an effective trail assessment team, checklists for organizing a trail assessment, slope conversion tables (percent:degrees:run/rise), and both the Access Board's and Beneficial Designs' proposed design standards for outdoor recreation access routes and trails.

The Training Manual also teaches you how to correctly complete each line on the Trail Data Form and record trail descriptions. The Training Manual includes examples of obstacles, trail features, points of interest, maintenance issues, and other descriptive information.

Although the Training Manual offers detailed instruction for conducting a Universal Trail Assessment, there's no substitute for hands-on training. We strongly recommend that before you conduct a Universal Trail Assessment, you participate in a Universal Trail Assessment Coordinator Training Workshop. The complete list of UTAP training opportunities by date are posted on the National Trails Training Partnership Calendar.

Benefits of UTAP

The UTAP can be used to:

  • provide Trail Access Information to users document and monitor trail conditions and the environmental impact of the trail
  • identify and prioritize maintenance, access and construction needs create detailed logs of signs, bridges and other facilities
  • increase user safety and enjoyment by enabling informed trail choices
  • gather interpretive information about the trail environment
  • enhance trail access and use for a wide variety of users, including older adults, inexperienced users, families and people with disabilities
  • track changes in trail conditions over time
  • determine trail compliance with design standards
  • create trail maps, signs and other information products accurately
  • budget for trail maintenance activities
  • provide detailed reference information for search-and-rescue plans and activities

UTAP Train-the-Trainer Program

For information about upcoming UTAP Trainer workshops, see the Calendar

  • This research project addresses the need to increase the availability of training opportunities for land management agencies and trail organizations to learn the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) through the development of a Train-the-Trainer program.
  • UTAP Train-the-Trainer Project Training for the UTAP is limited, particularly in rural areas, by the small number of trainers. Through this project a training program will be developed to create a large, geographically diverse pool of UTAP Trainers, which will increase the opportunity for and frequency of UTAP workshops throughout the country.
  • Widespread availability of the UTAP will enhance trail access for all Americans, including those with disabilities, by enabling individuals to make informed decisions about which trails are appropriate for their interests and abilities.

Phase I -- Phase I ended in January 2000 with the completion of these objectives:

  • established a project advisory board
  • developed the format and draft materials for UTAP Train-the-Trainer courses
  • identified potential Train-the-Trainer candidates
  • developed a national implementation strategy.

Phase II -- The objectives of Phase II (September 2000 - August 2002) and into 2003 include:

  • review and finalize UTAP Coordinator Workshop training materials;
  • conduct Train-the-Trainer pilot courses;
  • refine UTAP Train-the-Trainer materials and evaluate their effectiveness; and
  • implement the UTAP Trainer Courses nationally.


This work is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) under Small Business Innovation Research Phase I Grant #99-33610-7523 and Phase II Grant #00-33610-9415.

March 2004

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