Design a Trail to Last 100 Years

We plant trees for our Grandchildren to enjoy, why should we expect any less of the trails we build.

The challenges of balancing ecological protection, physical management and social demands on natural surface hiking, equestrian, mountain biking and multi-use trails can be overwhelming. However, it IS possible to meet these challenges by designing sustainable trails that are created to last into the next century.

by Michael Osborne, Park Manager, Five Rivers MetroParks

I am fortunate to work for Five Rivers MetroParks in Montgomery County, Dayton Ohio. Protecting open space and natural areas is at the heart of the mission of MetroParks in all of its 25 facilities. These include 18 parks, portions of six regional bikeways — as well as 11 conservation areas, all of which protects nearly 16,000 acres of forests, grasslands, farmlands and wetlands.

The common element to all of these areas is the trails Five Rivers manages. 75 miles of hiking trails, 30 miles equestrian trails, a 9 mile mountain bike area (MoMBA) and the 29 Mile Twin Valley Backpacking Trail. Ohio’s Miami Valley region also provides over 330 miles of paved, multi-use recreational trails making it home to the nation’s largest network of paved, off-street trails.

In 2005, Five Rivers MetroParks embarked on the development of two facilities, MoMba, a 100 hundred acre mountain bike area and creation of the Twin Valley Backpacking Trail. These were the catalyst for creation of MetroParks’ Sustainable Trails Initiative and the ensuing 13 years of lessons learned in Sustainable Trails design, installation and management.

Why Trails?

Trails are generally an agencies largest infrastructure. Just one average trail that is 5 miles long covers the same area as a 100,000 sq ft building, almost 2.5 acres. Studies repeatedly show that the public values trails as one of the most used, appreciated and important amenities of a park system. Designing them in the most sustainable manner possible makes fiscal, ecological and social sense.

A few things to keep in mind as we get started. First, ALL trails have an impact, work to keep it to a minimum. Secondly, All trails change over time, no free rides, no maintenance free trails. Trails must be designed in anticipation of changes to ensure they remain relatively stable with appropriate maintenance and management. And Third, at the core of ALL trails planning is satisfying a trail user’s desire for a specific type of trail experience.

To develop truly sustainable trails there are three primary disciplines, Physical, Ecological and Social sustainability. Let’s break each of these down before we put them together to design and build your trail that lasts into the next century.

Physical Sustainability

Physical sustainability in trails is a science of WOPO (water off, people on). It’s all about water management and ease of travel for a particular trail user type. Natural surface trails can serve a variety of user groups that often have different design needs and experience expectations. However, designing a trail for any of them follows similar design techniques and principals. A few of the basic features that help create physically sustainable trails are, rolling grade design, out-sloped tread and avoiding fall line trails. A more in depth examination of these and other beneficial design elements can be found at

Physical Sustainability can be quantified into a defined set of techniques and design elements that are combined to keep water shedding off the trail, which lowers erosion and tread degradation. The trail features should be distributed in a manner to feel natural and not forced. Gentle rolling trails that have a feel of developing naturally from the land will carry the traveler along easily and the drier and more stable your trail stays, the more people stay on the trail.

Ecological Sustainability

As a physician approaches a patient, we should remember to approach the natural environment with the same credo to “Do No Harm”. We are stewards of the forests and fields, hills and valleys that we travel and build upon. It is our duty to protect and preserve these special places for generations to follow.

One of the most important best practices for ecologically sustainable trails happens before a shovel ever hits the dirt. Develop a complete and in depth site survey that should include; a comprehensive biological inventory (which may take up to a year of monitoring), topography, property boundaries, cultural sites, hazardous situations, existing site features and anchors and any other pertinent information about the proposed build site.

This important information will prove invaluable for choosing best possible routes and layout for your trail. You can plan to avoid sensitive ecological areas, critical habitats and threatened and endangered species. There may be known delicate ecological and hydrologic systems and areas that users will want to experience and the trail will need to control traffic as to not negatively impact these areas.

Having a clear picture of the existing features and anchors that inspire users will allow you to “connect the dots” from one to another, traveling sensitively through the ecosystem and working with the natural topography to design a trail that feels natural and not pushed.

Another critical component of ecological responsibility is to formally decommission and restore unsustainable trail corridors. If you’re moving a trail, chances are, the old one failed and needs to completely go away. Dropping a tree across the trail with a “trail closed” sign will not stop user traffic or improve the habitat.

Here are the steps for permanently erasing a trail. First, remove the “hand of man”. All non-natural elements such as signage, culverts, curbing and built amenities must go. Then break up the tread and restore it back to a natural state. Revegetate the restored trail corridor to match the surrounding area and provide for ongoing monitoring to make sure it stays closed.

Social Sustainability

Now you know how to build your trail and where to build it, fire up the machines, Right?! Wrong. Social sustainability is sometimes the least thought about but most important of the three pillars of true trail sustainability. Public user acceptance is what keeps a trail used and viable.

Some points to planning the social design of your trail.

Actively engage all stakeholders involved with the trail, both internal & external. Identify your current primary trail users & user groups. Remember to engage users early in the process, before design & construction.

Next, gather your data. Use trail counters and cameras to determine type and quantity of users. Conduct surveys on the trail, with staff and connect with the community through electronic & social media. Significant questions to answer will be; who’s using the trail, how many of them, why are they out there, what do they like, what don’t they like. This information will be some of the most impactful facts you will use later in the final design of your trail.

Communicate early and often with the public through trail signage, print media, open houses and social media. The quickest way to turn a loyal user base into a park board meeting room full of angry villagers with pitchforks and torches is to start closing trails with no explanation. An informed community is an engaged, happy and supportive community.

Putting it all together, Design your trail

Now the real design work starts, bringing together all the information you have gathered. Ecological -You’ve got your site survey that includes the cultural and biological information. Physical – the topographic survey along with listings of property boundaries, features and anchors. Social – intended users and expectations have been identified.

Next you will establish the trail identity, also referred to as Trail Fundamentals and Trail Management Objectives. The trail should fit with the intended park or area use. The social survey and master site planning will drive establishing the trail type, trail class, designed use and managed use.

Designed use is the single managed use of a trail that requires the most demanding design, construction and maintenance parameters. This is determined by establishing the trail user group the trail will be designed for. In the case of multi-use trails, one user group will be determined to be the primary which again, will drive design. Some examples of user specific design are; equestrians will need a hardened tread with a taller corridor height, runners prefer corners with open site lines, hikers may be drawn to gentler grades that end in destination view sheds while mountain bikers will thrill in undulating, winding single track trails.

Managed use is mode of travel actively managed and appropriate on a trail. There can be more than one appropriate mode of travel on a trail section. One example is, a trail may be designed for hikers but also managed for runners by keeping site lines clear and for emergency service access by keeping the corridor open to minimum width for rescue ATV’s.

The other two trail fundamentals are Trail Type and Class. Trail Type will break down into: pedestrian, equestrian or OHV natural surface, paved multi-use, snow or water trails.

Trail Class allows for defining the trail experience. The United States Forest Service breaks trails into five classes that go from Class 1 – Primitive / Minimally Developed, up to Class 5 – Fully Developed / Paved. Each trail class will have prescriptions that control factors such as tread type & width, obstacles, features and elements, and signage. For a consistent positive user experience, trails, or looped sections, should be designed with a single class driving design.

Head spinning yet? Hang with the process, you’re getting close. Take the time to put a few additional master planning steps in motion. Documentation - compile all your survey data, mapping and information that led to the designed & managed use and trail class and type. Develop your trail construction and management plan. Define the capital needs and prioritize development. Lastly, don’t forget, communicate with public!

Ok, you’ve decided what kind of trail you’ll construct because of the chosen user group, you’ve defined the corridor it can follow that is ecologically responsible and know how to build it physically sustainably, go play in the dirt!

In Conclusion

As we’ve discovered, most of the hard work of designing a long lasting, truly sustainable trail is done before the shovels hit the ground. The effort you spend up front will pay dividends in the end. You’ll see greatly improved eco-health, a decrease in trail density, decreased maintenance costs & staff time, higher volunteer participation & commitment, along with increased patron use and satisfaction.

A legacy you can leave to the future is to design a trail that will stand the test of time. One that protects the special natural areas you are entrusted with and also provides generations to come, an experience that inspires a personal connection with nature. This can be accomplished by combining physical, ecological and social sustainability to design a trail that will truly last 100 years.

Published July 2019

About the Author

Michael Osborne is a Park Manager with Five Rivers MetroParks of Dayton, Ohio. In his 11 years with MetroParks, he has worked as a Park and Trail Technician and Park Manager, helping to develop, build and maintain the 29 mile Twin Valley Backpacking Trail and worked in design, construction and repair throughout MetroParks' 75 miles of hiking trails and 30 miles of Equestrian Trails. He's conducted staff, public and volunteer design and construction trainings and sits on the Strategic Trails Initiative Committee. Now, serving as Chairman of the Trails Manual Sub-Committee, he helped develop Five Rivers MetroParks Trail Design and Maintenance Standards Manual. He an avid outdoorsman and Scout leader with over 45 years’ experience hiking and camping across the United States.

Contact: [email protected]

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