Ask a Trail Builder: How Do You Design a Good Trail?

By Ama Koenigshof, Trail Builder and Educator

Upper East Face Bear Mountain Before

Upper East Face, Bear Mountain: Before (Photo credit: Ellie Pelletier)

Upper East Face Bear Mountain After

Upper East Face, Bear Mountain: After (Photo credit: Ellie Pelletier)

I didn’t realize people actually design trails. How do you figure out the best place to build them?

While designing a new trail, I have a lot of things running through my mind: technical things, like running slope (the slope on the path of travel) or cross slope (the slope perpendicular to the path of travel) and more intangible things, like “happy little trees.”

Yes, I’m referencing the painter Bob Ross. As children, my brother and I would watch the star of the PBS series “The Joy of Painting” create calming nature scenes from a blank white canvas while he soothingly narrated his process. Today, I see trails as having the ability to take us to those tranquil vistas that Ross painted, bringing us to a place of serenity. While designing a new trail, the current landscape is my blank canvas, and I get to paint in my own “happy” trails. Well-designed, sustainable trails can bring a trail builder to a state of giddy euphoria and give the layperson a sense of joy, all due to the “invisible” work of the trail’s designer.

Lately, I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions about the hard science of trail building: things like the ratio of batter and bench—the ratio of vertical and horizontal lean—for any given crib wall. These facts and figures are the easiest way to ensure that ideas are communicated effectively. Tons of scientific information and studies have been compiled on soils and water flow and even what makes a trail enjoyable to the human mind. There are even computer systems and algorithms that create trail designs. But following the “rules” and the numbers may not always lead to the best end result—sometimes, there is no concrete answer for where the trail should be.

New trail design requires unwavering vigilance to both science and intuition. In some instances, you just have to feel the flow, weigh the pluses and minuses, and think how the most inexperienced hiker would enjoy this section of trail. You have to call on your inner Bob Ross.

Ama Koenigshof is the Trail Conference’s Trail Builder and Educator, sharing her knowledge of building trails with volunteers through hands-on instruction. She teaches numerous Trail University workshops, which vary from the basics of trail maintenance to more advanced courses in techniques like crib wall construction. There’s a course for every skill level, and best of all, most workshops are free! Visit the Trail Conference website to check out the latest course offerings and find more information.

About Trail Walker

Since 1920, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has partnered with parks to create, protect, and promote a network of more than 2,100 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep these trails open, safe, and enjoyable for the public. We publish maps and books that guide public use of these trails. The Trail Conference is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization with a membership of 10,000 individuals and 100 clubs with a combined membership of 100,000 active, outdoor-loving people.
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2 Responses to Ask a Trail Builder: How Do You Design a Good Trail?

  1. Robert C. Ross says:

    Excellent post, Ama. Thank you. Bob

  2. don uebel says:

    sidewalks and handrails next?

What do you think?