filed under: user management

Why Do People Leave the Trail?

Tread Lightly! and NOHVCC are doing something about it.

Stay on the Trail!

by Karen Umphress, Owner, UP! Outside

This is a question that is often asked. While my husband and I were hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park, the Paradise trail became almost irritating with the number of signs located at the edge of the trail. They were spaced about 5 feet apart and alternated between, "Stay on the trail" and "Don't be a meadow stomper."

The reason for the signs on the trail was explained by a large sign at the trail head. This sign stated that there were 20 miles of legitimate trail and an additional 28 miles of trail that was created by people walking off-trail. During the same trip, we spent some time at Mt. St. Helens.

After many programs and signs that told people how fragile the area was, we went to a trail head and watched parents letting their children run around in the meadow, picking the wildflowers. And yet another example is when we were hiking to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and the people ahead of us continued to cut across the switch backs even though they did not gain any distance from us.

There are probably many different reasons why people leave the trail. Some of the blame can be placed on the people creating the trails, whether they are professionals or volunteers. If we do not give people the experience they are looking for, they will create the experience themselves.

If we put a trail close enough to a waterfall that hikers can hear it, but do not put a trail close enough to the waterfall where they can see it, the hikers will find the waterfall anyway. If we create a mountain bike trail that is mostly flat and the bikers are expecting elevation changes, they will ride off trail to find the elevation changes. If we build an ATV trail that is wide open and boring, the people on the ATV will create a challenge for themselves. It is part of human nature and is not dependent upon the type of recreation chosen.

However, the trail builders are not the only people that are to blame. We also need to foster a respect and appreciation to our natural resources that seems to be disappearing. There are places on the internet where people have posted in blogs or forums items that clearly indicate that they know that they are breaking the rules by traveling off-trail.

The Adventure Trail trailer from Tread Lightly!

The Adventure Trail trailer from Tread Lightly!

For example, if you Google "Mt Rainier" "Meadow Stomper" you can find a forum posting in which someone declares "remember, I am not a litter bug, just a meadow stomper." There is also a video of someone videotaping at Mt. Rainier and he sends his girl-friend off the trail so that he can get her in the video along with the view of the mountain. He says to her, "Go stand out there. You will need to be a meadow stomper".

How can we foster this appreciation and respect for our natural resources? We are all responsible for getting the message out that it is not okay to go off-trail regardless of whether you are hiking, cross-country skiing, or riding a dirt bike, etc. We also need to educate the younger generation of outdoor enthusiasts. I know of two good programs that the motorized recreational community has created that do just that.

The first program is the Adventure Trail program created by the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. The program includes an Activity Book and an interactive CD which introduce young riders to Penny, Rascal, and AT. These characters and activities teach children about trail ethics as well as safety. The program also includes a mobile "Adventure Trail" which is a traveling truck or trailer that allows the children to go through the Adventure Trail and take a short quiz at the end of the trail. Correct answers are rewarded and incorrect answers are gently corrected. See for more information about this program.

Inside the "Adventure Trail" safety education trailer

Inside the "Adventure Trail" safety education trailer

Tread Lightly! also has a traveling trailer that takes environmental education on the road. It travels to major motorized sporting events and trailheads to spread their message. The focus for the trailer is to be an education center. In addition to the educational material the trailer also has local information such as trail maps and weather information. In additional to the trailer, Tread Lightly! has a web section designed just for kids called "Kid's Club." Their squirrel mascot, Lightfoot, educates kids with fun activities and tips on playing responsibly outdoors and reducing their impact on nature. See their website at

In the end, it is up to each of us to get the message across: Everyone— Stay on the Trails.

Published May 2018

About the Author

Karen Umphress has been active on trails her entire life, starting with hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and canoeing with her family. She then added Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) recreation. For close to a decade, she was the IT and Project Manager for the NOHVCC. She and her husband have been the Government Relations Officers for the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) District 23 (also known as the Amateur Riders Motorcycle Association) since 1999. Karen is a founding member of a local dirt bike club, the Twin Cities Trail Riders, and serves on 2 MN state motorized recreation coalitions, the Minnesota Motorized Trail Coalition and the Coalition for Recreational Trail Users. Karen is an Advisor for American Trails board after having been a member of the Board of Directors for over 10 years. She is also the Minnesota State Chapter Coordinator and a Congresswoman for the American Motorcyclist Association. Karen Umphress is a Certified Professional Project Manager (CPPM). She created UP! Outside (UP) in October of 2017.

Contact: [email protected]

More articles by this author

More Articles in this Category


Horses are prey animals and naturally can be afraid of unfamiliar people and objects. Horses have natural "flight“ survival instincts and prefer to move their feet towards an exit route. Therefore, people with horses should pass at a walk while other trail users remain STOPPED until passed.

ORV – Social & Management Issues

Off-road vehicles can have a substantial impact on the experience of other non-motorized visitors on trails that are shared or even on adjacent forest or park settings.

The influence of use-related, environmental, and managerial factors on soil loss from recreational trails

This research investigated the influence of several use-related, environmental, and managerial factors on soil loss on recreational trails and roads at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a unit of the U.S. National Park Service.

All-Terrain Vehicle Sustainability Assessments

The sustainable management of ATV use is an expensive proposition requiring careful design, construction, and maintenance of ATV trails.