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What makes a trail environmentally friendly?


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We at CampingRoadTrip.com are a curious bunch; we love to learn. And when it comes to the environment, we are excessively interested. One topic that came up recently was about trails; what makes a trail environmentally friendly? It seemed like a rather simple question. So we set out to find the answer. Here's what we found:

It all starts with guidelines and layout

Like anything else, trails require planning. If you’re going to create a memorable, environmentally responsible trail you can’t aimlessly walk through the forest and spritz a tree with a bit of spray paint when the mood strikes, and call it a trail. Instead, you have to design your trail against a set of guidelines. To design an environmentally sound trail (known as a sustainable trail) you first need to know what makes a trail sustainable. So what makes a trail sustainable?

In 1991 the National Park Service Rocky Mountain Region came out with a definition for a sustainable trail. The definition listed 4 key elements, which are:

  1. The trail surface must support currently planned and future uses with minimal impact to the natural systems of the area.
  2. The trail has negligible soil loss or movement.
  3. The trail will not adversely affect occurring fauna.
  4. The trail will require little rerouting and minimal maintenance over extended periods of time.

And just a little maintenance

All trails are not created equal, and it shows. Well designed sustainable trails make use of construction techniques and materials designed for long term self-sustaining use. They also use on-site materials as much as possible. Poorly designed trails lead to environmental problems, such as erosion, and need to be frequently maintained.

They’re fun to hike on

Sustainable trails are fun to hike on because they’re well designed and thought out. Unlike straight, flat, muddy trails, sustainable trails have a number of characteristics that make hiking on them enjoyable. For instance, they are designed to give users multiple experiences. Have you ever been hiking on a trail, and found yourself in the middle of a dense tree tunnel, only to come out to a clear opening where you can see for miles? If so, you’ve probably been on a sustainable trail.

Stay ON the trail

Sustainable trails are designed with the intention to keep hikers interested in staying on the trail by planning the trail to follow natural contours. Such a design has two benefits, it 1. keeps users from meandering off the trail and damaging fragile fauna 2. makes the hike more enjoyable. Sustainable trails sheet off (drain themselves), thus limiting erosion and ruts and reducing the chance that hikers will have to trudge through mud.

What's up around the bend

Routing on sustainable trails is stimulating. "I wonder what’s around that bend? Do you hear a waterfall? Was that a bird chirping?" The best trails have plenty of variety and keep the user on their toes; every bend and turn leads to a new, different experience. And it is these experiences that keep people coming back.

Clearly, taking the time to plan out a sustainable trail is well worth the effort. Not only do well planned trails offer users incredible experiences, but they allow humans and the environment to co-exist peacefully and happy. And that’s something worth working toward!

Where should I go hiking?

After having learned so much about sustainable trails, an obvious question arose. Where are good places to go hiking? To answer that question we turned to trail expert Stuart Macdonald, editor at American Trails Magazine. Stuart’s advice? Stick to the public lands trails. "The better trails are on lands of the US Army Corps of Engineers-- along with lakes and reservoirs-- and on National Wildlife Refuges. Every state has a state park system with thousand more miles of trails, and many states manage rail trails, canoe trails, and other trail systems".

The next time you go hiking, you can do your part to keep beautiful natural areas beautiful by staying on trails, picking up litter, and volunteering to maintain trails with your local hiking or mountain biking club. Get out there, have some fun, and take it all in.

If you’re looking to find a trail by state or more information on trails click on the link below:

Trails by State

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