Two Trail Design Books Cover "How to Think" and "How to Do It"

From the Fall 2004 Trail Tracks, the national newsletter of American Trails

A review of two popular trail design books.

by American Trails Staff

How do these two books compare?

Natural Surface Trails by Design focuses on trail design. It puts a firm foundation under most other trail design, construction, and maintenance publications. IMBA's Trail Solutions is a "how-to-do-it" book that tells you how to do it quite well in the relatively limited context of mountain bike use on sloping sites. Its eight parts address a far wider scope than Natural Surface Trails by Design.

In contrast, Natural Surface Trails by Design is a "how-to-think" book that dives deep into the foundation of trail design. It teaches you how to see and analyze complex information so that you can work with almost any trail use in almost any site or location.

For a thorough education, get both books and read Natural Surface Trails by Design first since it "sets up" the design, construction, and maintenance portions of Trail Solutions. Both books advance our knowledge, giving trail developers more options for shaping sustainable, fun trails.

Troy Parker book delves into concepts behind trail design

Natural Surface Trails by Design: Physical and Human Design Essentials of Sustainable, Enjoyable Trails by Troy Scott Parker

  • 80 pages, 140 color photos, 46 drawings
  • 8-1/2 x 11 inches, full color
  • $30 from or call (303) 530-1785

Longtime trail designer and researcher Troy Scott Parker, author of the popular Trails Design and Management Handbook, has authored the first of what is expected to be three innovative books on natural surface trails.

Intended for both novices and experts, this landmark book advances the state-of-the-art of natural surface trail design. It shows how to use eleven relatively simple concepts to generate sustainable, enjoyable, soil and crushed stone trails for any use— human feet, horse, mountain bicycle, wheelchair, ATV, motorcycle, 4WD vehicles— by seeing and using site-specific information much like a skilled trail designer does.

Linking art, science, psychology, and what you already know about trails and nature, the eleven concepts cover the basic human and physical forces and relationships acting on every piece of every natural surface trail.

They include the shape of nature itself; how we perceive nature; safety; efficiency of movement; playfulness; harmony; the physical forces of compaction, displacement, and erosion acting on trail treads; tread materials (soil types, crushed stone, rock); and the detailed interaction of site, slope, runoff, weather, trail width, water sources, trail use, grades, and sustainability of tread drainage.

Parker then clearly explains these concepts and their many relationships, including how to "read" trails and sites, see what conditions are actually there, see what occurs, and predict what will occur in the future through trail use and erosion. Because prediction is key to sustainable trail design, he spends considerable time showing how to predict and sustainably accommodate changes in tread shape that trail use and erosion almost inevitably cause, including loss of outslope. He illustrates his many points with abundant, well-chosen color photos and diagrams of familiar-looking trail situations.

Instead of stating rules or step-by-step procedures that can't be accurate in all instances, he builds each universal concept from its causes, effects, relationships to other concepts, and our own experience using trails. You can then flexibly apply these concepts in virtually any location and context that can support a sustainable soil or crushed stone tread. The interaction of the concepts tells you what works and what doesn't. Working with concepts also help you reason through new materials, techniques, and situations.

In addition, he shows how the concepts provide a quick, effective, trail evaluation tool that take physical and human aspects of trails and their relationships into account.

Natural Surface Trails by Design: Physical and Human Design Essentials of Sustainable, Enjoyable Trails is a must-have book for all natural surface trail workers, volunteers, designers, and planners for any trail use. The design language it creates is especially useful for those involved in teaching or communicating details of trail design.

Troy Scott Parker has presented a one-day workshop largely based on the book at the 2004 National Trail Symposium and other statewide and national meetings (see

Buy this Book

IMBA book covers details of mountain bike trails

Trail Solutions: IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack | Published by the International Mountain Bicycling Association

  • 272 pages, 130 color photos, 50 drawings
  • 8-3/8 x 10-7/8 inches, full color
  • $30 for IMBA members, $35 for non-members, $26 each for 10 or more
  • Available from or call (888) 442-4622

IMBA's new book is an excellent, deeper-than-usual overview of the current state of the art of mountain bike trail development from conception to maintenance. Intended for user groups, trailbuilding volunteers, and land managers with at least a laypersons' grasp of trail development, it tries to make development of fun, sustainable trails look doable.

Indeed, its colorful pages, breezy style, simple explanations, and energetic presentation tend to make you feel there aren't any problems that can't be solved. It's great for motivating user groups and land managers to launch trail projects.

Style aside, it's a very practical book full of helpful advice, especially for newcomers to trailmaking. Its eight parts attempt to cover the entire process of developing mountain bike trails and trail systems, with the goal of building sustainable trails.

Each part averages about 29 pages and does a remarkable job of distilling, or at least touching on, much of what you would likely encounter on most trails. Serious work went into the text, which captures a vast amount of pertinent information in a very few words.

Unavoidably, though, when each part could fill one or more entire books, its more than 20 authors concentrated on breadth over depth, omitted much useful detail, oversimplified some explanations, and excluded potential alternate solutions.

Topics which it presents well in limited space include working with land managers and volunteers; trail flow and speed control through design; building full-bench tread, switchbacks, and banked curves; time and cost estimating; hand tools; rolling grade dips and knicks; and trail closure and reclamation. Three-dimensional color drawings are clear and easy to understand at a glance.

The book covers some ground rarely found in published form. It provides detailed advice on switchbacks and climbing turns customized for mountain biking; "rock armor" to harden tread in fragile soils; and an excellent introduction to trailbuilding with mechanized tools including basic pros, cons, pitfalls, and tips on obtaining and working with the equipment. The "Building Challenging Trails" part is a short primer on mountain bike challenge-park-type trails including freeriding, building technical trail features, and risk management, with a brief piece on downhilling.

The book focuses on mountain bike trails yet discusses multiple use and includes information on other non-motorized uses. Interestingly, although OHVs are not mentioned, most of the book also directly or indirectly applies to motorized trails and systems. In lieu of a similar book for OHV trails, OHV developers can learn a lot from this book.

Overall, Trail Solutions: IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack an excellent guide that lives up to its title. It will be especially valuable to its target audience of mountain bike trail developers for single or shared use, especially those without much development experience.

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