6 Solutions for Managing Multi-Use Trails and Conflict

Let’s face it. Motorized, equestrian, biking, and hiking users do not always get along. When conflicts inevitably arise, what do we do, and how can we avoid it in the first place?

by Taylor Goodrich, Communication and Media Specialist, American Trails


American Trails hosted a panel of experts to discuss multi-use trails and conflict at the 2019 International Trails Symposium and Training Institute. These experts included Scott Linnenburger of Kay-Linn Enterprises and Professional Trailbuilders Association , Danielle Fowles of Tread Lightly!, Chelle Grald of AERC Trailmaster & Vermont Trails Advocate, Cam Lockwood of Trails Unlimited, and Steve Salisbury of American Motorcyclist Association. The panel was moderated by Karen Umphress, principal of UP! Outside and project manager with Great Outdoor Consultants.

Single Use Trails are Not the Solution

Managing conflict between different trail user groups can be a challenge on any multi-use trail, but with the right expertise and approach it is possible for these conflicts to be minimized, or even eliminated. One approach some have taken is segregation between trail user types, meaning only one trail use type per trail. As Steve Salisbury points out however, trails are more popular than ever, and there is only a finite amount of land dedicated to trail building, so in many places segregated trails simply don’t make sense with space limitations. Chelle Grald also notes that even on single-use trails not all conflict will be eliminated. For example, some mountain bikers want to go fast, and some mountain bikers want to take a slow ride with their family. Additionally, segregated trails can create conflict between trail user types and trail managers, especially if someone feels as if one user type is being favored over others. Ultimately, although segregated trails may work for some, they are not a silver bullet when it comes to eliminating trail conflict due to issues such as these.

When an ATV encounters a horse on the trail they should pull over, turn the engine off, remove their helmet to avoid spooking the horse, and wait until the horse has passed to get back on the trail. Educating trail users about best practices is vital to multi-use conflict resolution.

When an ATV encounters a horse on the trail they should pull over, turn the engine off, remove their helmet to avoid spooking the horse, and wait until the horse has passed to get back on the trail. Educating trail users about best practices is vital to multi-use conflict resolution.


Leadership is Important in Anticipating Issues

Steve Salisbury also says that unfortunately, for many trail user groups one way they try to achieve their own goals is by demonizing other groups and trying to make sure “they don’t get what they want.” Leadership has a role in making these conversations more productive, and facilitating both user expectations across the board, and more positive interaction by finding common goals across trail user groups. Part of this is understanding what issues cause the most conflict, such as poor sightlines, speed, and bi-directionality. By realizing and anticipating issues that cause conflict beforehand, land managers can better set expectations and deal with these problems.

Cooperation is Necessary for a Robust Trails Community

Scott Linnenburger says that part of this is encouraging a robust cohesive trails community built on the tenet that we all want to be outside, and the more people have access to the outdoors the better. Encouraging positive interactions between user groups, rather than having user groups stay in their own silo, is imperative to lowering and managing user conflict. As Chele Grald says, there is a synergy in multi-use trails in the fact that horses create divots, but also help aerate trails. ATV tires and people’s feet help even out those divots. She also points out that accessibility is a spectrum, and to really have diversity and accessibility on trails, users need trail options that can work for everyone. Someone who is a mountain bike user today could become an e-bike user as they age, for example, so it would behoove everyone to have trails available to all. Put into context Grald says, it is important to consider “what do we stand to lose if we just let what is economically fashionable drive the reason that trails are built, and why they’re built, and where they’re built?”


Coalitions are Important Partners

There are multiple ways managers can encourage trail user interaction and cooperation. Coalitions are an important part of this formula, as strong coalitions benefit trails in multiple ways, including funding. As Danielle Fowles puts it, “If you aren’t able to solve trail conflicts, then the general appreciation of trails goes down. If you’re not enjoying being in the outdoors, you’re not going to go in the outdoors, you’re not going to appreciate the outdoors.” Without strong advocates from all trail user groups the outdoors won’t have the investments that all trail user groups seek. As a whole the trail industry needs to be working towards getting more people outdoors, and making spaces more diverse, so focusing on the importance of that to all trail user groups, and the dangers of losing outdoor spaces if some trail users are alienated to the point they no longer enjoy the outdoors, is a message that resonates with everyone.

Education is Key

One key component to fostering trail user cooperation is education. For example, Tread Lightly! works hard to teach the motorized community how to interact with horses on trails safely and correctly. Organizations working towards greater education can go a long way in fostering better trail sharing practices. It is also important to have signage on trails, and at trail heads, which remind users of trail etiquette guidelines for multi-use trails. If trail users are educated before conflict arises the results are better for everyone.

Find Ways for Groups to Work Together

Another important aspect to gaining cooperation among user groups is finding ways to have different user groups work together. If your trail organizes volunteer days make sure users from all trail groups are invited, pair up people from different user groups, and give them a chance to get to know each other while working on the trail they both love. Holding events specifically geared towards cooperation between user groups is another great solution. Relay races are one example of such an event. By having each different leg of the relay race involve a different trail user group, so participants must pair up with other trail users to create a team, it is possible to create a fun environment that helps everyone appreciate the other trail user groups more.

You can view the entire panel discussion from the 2019 International Trails Symposium here.

Key Takeaways


  • Single use trails are not the best solution to multi-use conflict issues.
  • Alienating any user group is bad for trails. Strong united trail voices are vital for a robust trails industry.
  • Events such as relay races and group volunteer days are great ways to foster conversation and cooperation between trail user groups.
  • Trails signs and education can go a long way in eliminating conflict.
  • Good sight lines on trails help minimize conflict.
  • Strong coalitions are important when it comes to resolving multi-use trail conflict.

About the Author

Taylor Goodrich started with American Trails in January 2018 as Communication and Media Specialist. Taylor has worked with the National Recreation Trail (NRT) Ambassadors since the beginning of the program and has helped shape the program to where it is today. Taylor currently lives in Dallas, Texas, which is also where she grew up and where she attended the University of North Texas receiving her degree in History. While in college she started doing freelance work editing and writing, and also got into graphic design and discovered she loves the creativity and craft of digital arts. After college she traveled quite a bit, and lived in both the Pacific Northwest and in New Mexico, and while in both of those places took full advantage of what the outdoors had to offer. After moving back to Texas she started moving towards doing graphic design, social media, and communications work full time, and she has contracted with several companies from tech startups, to music festivals, to law firms, to grow their social media and digital communications presence. Taylor loves hiking and kayaking especially, and is glad to be working with an organization that fights for further accessibility and stewardship of our nation’s trails. She feels very lucky that in this position she will be able to use her professional skills and passion for something she is also very personally passionate about, and in helping to grow American Trails.

Contact: [email protected]

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