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As told to Philip Keyes

Reprinted from NEMBA's SingleTracks, August 2000, #51

Kurt has been building trails for about 14 years and travels the country as the International Mountain Bike Association's Trails Resource Director, teaching trail maintenance and design at IMBA's Trail Building Schools. Kurt has also been essential in NEMBA's efforts to professionalize our trail maintenance skills, and has taught at our courses for the last three years. Kurt's training stems from working with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the National Park Service and the National Forest Service. It also comes from countless hours of building trails around the country.

Designing Multi-Use Trails

One of the first things I get asked at Trail Building Schools is how do you design a trail. This is a tough one because before you design a trail, you need to understand what a trail is and what it takes to take care of them. Trails are very dynamic and constantly change. A lot of the techiniques used in the maintenance and contruction aspects of trails have to be applied to the design aspect, and without a solid understanding of these, you really can't begin to even think of the design phase. When you look at a piece of undisturbed land on which you're thinking of putting in trails, you need to think carefully about the construction techinques necessary to put in the type of trail. Designing a trail is one thing, but understanding the bits and pieces of the trail and the steps necessary to create it are another, and before you tacke trail design and alignment, you should become skilled in these other trail disciplines.

Pre-working the Trail

Trail design includes a lot of pre-work. You need to learn everything that there is about the resource, the areas you're working in, the historical, archeological and geological aspects, and any endangered species that might be present on the land. You need to ask yourself what went on in this piece of property that I should be aware of before I design a trail. On federal lands, all of these factors must be addressed in the NEPA permit, which is needed before any trail is approved, and all land management agencies require some sort of permission or permitting prior to putting in a new trail. Sometimes this means going out with biologists, archeologists or whoever is necessary to approve your proposed trail alignment, and to decide whether there is no significant negative impact on the land. Walking out and flagging some virgin property is not the first step in designing a new trail. The first step is getting permission from your land manager!

Typically, the layers of trail design are: (1) deciding why you need a trail in the first place; (2) who is the trail for, what are the uses I'm going to support and how many people will it support, and what is the trail's purpose. Once you define that, you define a corridor through which the trail will traverse. This is done using topo maps and walking that land extensively. During this process, you begin to whittle the area down and mark off key features where the trail is roughly going to go. A trail corridor can sometimes be a couple of hundred feet wide for the length of the trail or simply the width of the trail. At some point in the permitting process, this corridor will be defined in the permit.

Control Points

In general, you use control points to define the trail. A control point can be a stream bed or a mountain top or a valley. They are typically major points that will be tied together. After these are defined, you move to the level of minor control points that will be used to control your traffic flow. As a species, we are very curious and we always look at things, and if we see or hear something that's out of place, we'll always go and explore it. These features need to be identified.

The best example is running water. If you've ever been on a trail which goes near running water but never to it, you'll see lots of spur trails heading off to see the water. If they hear it but can't see it, they'll find a way to satisfy their curiosity. So you need to include that sound as part of your control point. However, you don't want trails which run up the length of the streambed or drainage area because the added siltation will negatively impact the stream. Thus, you need to find a balance that allows the user to experience the water without causing too much damaging impact to the stream. A good technique is to find another point of interest to use as a control point to draw people back away from the stream. You keep doing this back and forth along the length of the stream.

Trail Impacts

All trails have an impact on the environment, but we tend to think that all impacts are bad. This isn't true: an impact can be good or bad, and a properly designed trail can be a good impact. A well designed trail concentrates impact into a pre-described area that does the least amount of resource damage. A poorly designed trail is a bad impact because not only does it do resource degradation but it also doesn't focus people where they want to go and they begin to wander off and create their own trails, thus increasing the degradation. Many extremists would prefer no trail at all, but indeed this has an impact also, and that impact is an uncontrollable impact because you don't have a way to concentrate their impact onto a single trail.

I follow a basic rule of balancing three parts of a trail design, and if any one part is sacrificed then the trail will become a problem. These parts are (1) resource impact; (2) the user experience; and (3) the maintenance value. We want to do as minimal amount of resource impact as possible, provide a beneficial user experience and make sure that the trail will be adequately sustained over the long haul. We are the only species on this planet that alters nature for our own recreational benefit. We expect the trail to provide a positive experience to the user, whether it's visual, audible or spatial. The trail also provides an interaction with other people that can be either positive or negative. The goal is to make a positive experience, and if you don't meet this need, the trail won't be used and was a waste of time and resources to construct. Lastly, the goal is to create something that will be around for decades and not require an inordinate amount of resources to maintain. The oldest trail I've worked on has been around for over 400 years, so when you think about it, you're building something that should last for generations.

So when you come to a piece of undisturbed property and you begin to think about putting in a trail, you need to keep these three aspects in the forefront of your mind. You need to try and predict the future of what this trail will be over the years and throughout the seasons. This is somewhat of a continuously acquired skill which is really only gained by being in the land and the area for a long time.

Designing Experiences

Most all the trails we design are not specifically for bikes or any single-use. In order to build a multiple-use trail, you can't think like a cyclist, you need to take in the perspectives of all the users that are out there. For example,many hikers and bikers don't always realize that you need a ten foot clearance on a trail that has equestrian use. You also need clearing limits that allow users to pass one another safely on the trail. You also need to understand the safety aspects of the trails as specified by the agency which manages the land.

Most people tend to think of trail users as being equestrian, hiking and biking, but in reality there are a lot more: fisherman, runners, handicapped people, elderly, kids, people pushing baby carriages, there's everybody. The way I look at trails is that I don't build trails, I build experiences. Because that's what people are after, and you want to build a positive experience.