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QUESTIONS and ANSWERS from webinar on Sustainable Trail Design

American Trails presented "The Art of Sustainable Trail Management" June 28, 2012 as a part of the American Trails "Advancing Trails Webinar Series."

Presented by Tony Boone Trails, LLC


Q. You say never to build a trail down the "fall line." What’s a fall line?

Fall line is a line perpendicular to the contour lines on a topographic map. Fall-line trails usually follow the shortest route down a hill - the same path that water flows. The problem with fall-line trails is that they focus water down their length. The speeding water strips the trail of soil, exposing roots, creating gullies, and scarring the environment. Often may be considered for reroutes since maintenance is problematic and usually addresses the symptom, not the cause.

Q. We have a park with 20+ miles of multiple use trails; they cross in many places. Would you recommend signing every single intersection with a number and posted trail map? Is there a reference book or article that explains the best process for signing/numbering such a complex trail system?

Well another good question with no straight-forward answer. Sounds like the trail system may be using a combination of planned/designed trails and possible a few, or many user created social trails. If we are talking 30-40 trail intersections, we must consider the financial cost of implementing and maintaining a signage program, especially if vandalism has ever been an issue. And often if you sign one intersection your destined to sign all of them or visitors may still get confused. I would be open for more discussion specifically at your site, and perhaps we could come up with a reasonable and prudent solution. In the mean time here are a few references: There are chapters on signage in both IMBA books and the USFS Handbook.

Q. Challenges with managing users on multi use trails:
DAN ASKS: Tony, we have I know you touched briefly on this but in your opinion - should equestrians be on separate trails?

It depends on several factors. First, the intensity of use-- in backcountry areas with little use equestrians share motorized routes. In urban areas a separate tread along paved trails is common. In some cases trail systems are designed specifically for challenging mountain bike experiences, so those are not so good for horses. And where there are more equestrians, they may have their own trails and camping areas. In many areas, however, horses are part of the mix and there is a lot of experience with managing for multiple use. See the "Shared Use" topic at

Q. ROBERT ASKS: What do you like for mechanical trail building?


Q. ALISON ASKS: In our hardwood forests, there are existing trails that have been created by deer. What are your thoughts on ethical/environmental impacts of widening and increasing the headroom of these deer trails for human use?

Animals follow the path of least resistance for their own destinations, but they're not very good trailbuilders for humans. Some people would be concerned about ticks. Better to build the right trail in the right location.

Q. COLIN ASKS: A topographically rich ravine area containing one or more high quality native plant communities could be seen as both positive and negative control points. Can you provide examples of where singletrack and/or shared use trails have been cited in high quality natural areas without significant material disturbance or impact?

See a lot of information on this in "Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind: a Handbook for Trail Planners" and more resources in the American Trails Environmental Issues area:

Q. SHELLEY ASKS: What do you prefer for types of wood when building wood structures? What are your thoughts on pressure treated wood, especially in situations with contact with water?

Alison, I also think considering the cost (financial and environmental) of the wood will play into the picture almost always. For example it is often too costly to import certain wood species across the country, and some would perhaps, cringe at installing hardwood from an Amazon rainforest.



Q. STEPHANIE ASKS: We have a park with 20+ miles of multiple use trails; they cross in many places. Would you recommend signing every single intersection with a number and posted trail map? Is there a reference book or article that explains the best process for signing/numbering such a complex trail system? Thank you.

Q. ROBERT ASKS: Do you use any water soluble aerosol marking paints? If so... recommendations?

Sorry Bob, I do not use marking paints very often, when I have used them, it is usually day glo orange “stay on the ground till you dig it up” type. In natural surface trail design we almost always use vinyl flagging and vinyl pin flags to demarcate trail alignments and structures. This type is water-soluble paint seems decent, but it still lasts 3-8 years on trees:

Q. MEGAN ASKS: If your trail is outsloped appropriately would you still need dips for drainage?

Theoretically, if your trail tread never compacted (i.e. rocky soils), or users never-ever used it in muddy conditions and you routinely (at least 1-2X a year) re-outsloped the trail tread if it needed it, THEN you would be able to get by with no grade reversals. However, designing trails with rolling contour will help insure that any water that gets into a compacted trail will exit quicker and more frequently than a trail without changes in grade.

Also keep in mind, and “get into the head of the user” realizing that a straight trail usually offers less aesthetic interest AND less kinaesthetic diversity for users. However, a straight trail may be appropriate for a “hiking only” nature trail, or ADA trail, or dual purpose-trail for recreation and transportation by locals. Or you may simply have a limited slice of land or easement and have to design a straight section of trail. Remember trails come in all flavors!

Q. If I don't have a clinometer can I just guess the grades?

Absolutely not!

Q. Do you prefer aerials or contour maps for trail planning and design?

Examples online: What an interesting website, also a dozen other cool map slides.
And about 133,000 more!

Q. On crusher fines trails, not everyone has limestone that compacts well. Are there some kinds of rock that just don't make good crusher fines surfaces?


Q. Of the other countries you have visited, which ones seem to be the most progressive when it comes to building sustainable trails?

There are a lot of interesting trails and new ideas around the world, but Australia and Canada are buildimg great trails.

Q. Can you tell me more about what you mean by a “Living Bridge?” And, where do you primarily find them?


Q. Do you ever use volunteers to do rock work?

Many organizations do, for instance Wildlands Restoration Volunteers and Colorado Fourteeners Initiative in Colorado, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, Student Conservation Association, and Red River Gorge Trail Crew.


arrow You can purchase the archived version of this webinar via the American Trails Online Store


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