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By Sasha Miller • July 22, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique and challenging time for many, but the time of lockdown was especially challenging for park managers and trail builders. With pandemic restrictions in place, the outdoors became essential places for people to safely gather to recreate, gather, and escape the crazy world we were all living in. Trail use skyrocketed 79 percent between March 2020 and July 2020, which left a lot of these outdoor essential workers scrambling to keep up with the growing usage and subsequent trail decay. 

Kitera Dent / Unsplash

This new stress was layered upon the changing trail needs and unpredictability arising with climate change. Natural areas have experienced heightened changes and distress in the past few years, as former U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Michael T. Rains pointed out. “More people engaging in outdoor recreation is a wonderful thing, but it also translates into greater demand for venues for outdoor recreation and a dilemma for the North’s shrinking supply of undeveloped lands,” he said in a 2012 report. The combination of a pandemic and climate change has affirmed how important it is to build sustainable trails that can support a growing outdoor population.

“More people engaging in outdoor recreation is a wonderful thing, but it also translates into greater demand for venues for outdoor recreation and a dilemma for the North’s shrinking supply of undeveloped lands,”

– U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Michael T. Rains

Nobody knows sustainable trails like the National Park Service, which operates 423 parks containing over 21,000 miles of trail. The National Park Service defines a sustainable trail as a trail that: “Supports recreation today and tomorrow with minimal impact on nearby ecosystems, leaves soil intact which allows vegetation to inhabit the area, doesn’t harm wildlife, and requires a minimal amount of trail maintenance. These physical and community aspects of trail-building are keys to keeping the land healthy while still allowing people to recreate and commute on it.”

When you construct a trail through an untouched landscape, you are putting a structure there that will be there, in good or bad condition, for over 100 years. There are a few main pillars trailbuilders must keep in mind. Following the natural contour lines of the land will let water shed off the trail easily. Water is the largest contributor to erosion and it is extremely important to keep it off the trails by utilizing bridges, ditches, culverts, and other water mitigation techniques. The second most destructive form of erosion is people. As that pertains to trails, it is important to utilize fences, signage, and grade to keep people on the trail and off delicate ecosystems. It is also important to have trails going to highly desired areas to encourage people to stay on the trail. These are the two easiest pillars in trail building, but there are an infinite amount of ways we can improve our trails to minimize erosion, protect land, and create jobs.

Brandon Kaida / Unsplash

Perhaps more important than the physical aspect of constructing a trail is creating the community around it. Trails have the potential to deliver powerful benefits to communities; providing people of all ages, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds with safe and inexpensive spaces for outdoor physical activity, commuting, and recreation. 

The first and possibly most important aspect of a community-based trail is education, which can look like a class educating the public on Leave No Trace principles; creating literature to encourage safe hiking; and emphasizing the importance of speaking up when someone sees things that are not right. Educated hikers create a community that does not rely on as many resources, such as search and rescue and trail maintenance.

Secondly, it is important to make trails as accessible as possible, extending to people who are disabled, low-income, or of a minority group. Accommodation can look like offering trail wheelchairs, well-built trails, cheap or free hiking gear, and supporting and advocating for groups of open and friendly trail culture. 

Finally, the most important aspect of creating a community-based trail is to emphasize that these are the public’s trails. With sense of community ownership, people are more likely to come out and volunteer their time to improve trails. 

Tim Foster / Unsplash

The good news is that as people use trails, there’s the potential for more people to be interested in caring for trails. Since the pandemic, hundreds of events have been scheduled (and rescheduled) and have contributed thousands of volunteer-work hours toward our trails. The National Scenic and Historic Trails are maintained and managed by over one million volunteers alone! If we can commit to building sustainable trails that are physically sound but also staples in the community, we have a bright future in outdoor recreation.

Sasha Miller is a freelance writer with equestrian experience ranging from competitions to ranching and outdoor guiding. She’s worked as a guide for horse-drawn wagon trips outside of Denali National Park and as a Grand Canyon mule skinner, and now rides and resides in Colorado.