filed under: conservation


Assessing the Influence of Sustainable Trail Design and Maintenance on Soil Loss

Results from a review of the literature and three scientific studies are presented to model and clarify the influence of factors that substantially influence trail soil loss and that can be manipulated by trail professionals to sustain high traffic while minimizing soil loss over time.

by Jeffrey Marion, Ph.D., Federal Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey, Jeremy Wimpey, Ph.D., Principal, Applied Trails Research


Marion Wimpey Sustainable Trail Design 2017


Natural-surfaced trail systems are an important infrastructure component providing a means for accessing remote protected natural area destinations. The condition and usability of trails is a critical concern of land managers charged with providing recreational access while preserving natural conditions, and to visitors seeking high quality recreational opportunities and experiences. While an adequate number of trail management publications provide prescriptive guidance for designing, constructing, and maintaining natural-surfaced trails, surprisingly little research has been directed at providing a scientific basis for this guidance. Results from a review of the literature and three scientific studies are presented to model and clarify the influence of factors that substantially influence trail soil loss and that can be manipulated by trail professionals to sustain high traffic while minimizing soil loss over time. Key factors include trail grade, slope alignment angle, tread drainage features, and the amount of rock in tread substrates. A new Trail Sustainability Rating is developed and offered as a tool for evaluating or improving the sustainability of existing or new trails.

Published November 2016

About the Authors

Jeff Marion is a Federal Scientist with the US Geological Survey, and is based out of Virginia Tech as an Adjunct Professor. His research specialty is Recreation Ecology, in which he investigates the environmental impacts of visitor use in protected natural areas, primarily national parks. His research has focused on visitor impacts to trails and campsites and the development of sustainable “Best Management Practices.” He was a founding member of the Leave No Trace Board of Directors, chaired the committee that guided development of the Leave No Trace principles and practices, and authored the LNT Center’s official book “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors.”

Contact: [email protected]

Jeremy Wimpey, PhD. is one of the country’s leading recreation ecology practitioners. His applied field investigations help public lands managers understand the phenomena and mechanisms associated with visitor-use-related-impacts to wildlife, water, vegetation, and soils as and impacts to other recreationists (degradation or enhancement of users' experiences) in outdoor settings. His efforts focus on estimation of recreation demand, wildland recreation classification/resource inventory, public involvement, social impact analysis, state comprehensive planning, site design, land acquisition, use measurement, impact assessment, and facility operation/maintenance. His unique background— academic, trail enthusiast, entrepreneur— brings an innovative and holistic approach to providing solutions for recreation management challenges.

Contact: [email protected]

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