Trail Awareness


By Mike Smith, OSI Executive Director

Last month I spent several weeks with IMBA’s Trail Solutions staff in Millinocket, as part of our Community Partnership Initiative. During that time we had a chance to talk with local stakeholders about the current trails that exist in the area, the impact of local users, the gaps in opportunity, and of course, the potential for future development. I’ve had the benefit of being part of these conversations in communities around the state, and it never ceases to amaze me that few things tend to illicit as strong a reaction from people in the great outdoors as the trails they use. 

Hiking trails, skiing trails, biking trails, and even trails to the put-in or take-out of a waterway; we all tend to have strongly held opinions about the trails we play on. This trail is too steep! That trail is too easy! This trail is hard to follow, over-used, over grown, too muddy, hard to find, or not groomed correctly. And of course, this trail right here, this trail is awesome!

Like politics, religion, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s, trails can bring out almost irrational levels of reaction and emotion from each of us, good and bad. Want to get people riled up? Walk into your local ski club or mountain bike club and tell the trail work volunteers they should do things differently (nice knowing you friend…). Yet rarely do we stop to consider what it is about our trail experience that’s causing our reactions.  Often in our outdoor pursuits, we’re too busy engaging in the activity to consider the trail we’re on, but we can raise our level of awareness on the trail.

Trail awareness is understanding what’s happening with a certain trail that’s creating our experience of that trail. Almost all of us have had the experience of using a trail and not giving it a second thought. What follows are some prompting questions to get you to tune in the next time you’re out on your local trails. The idea here is not to judge or rank your trails, but rather, just observe, pay attention, and see what you can learn.

  1. What is the trail for? In other words, what’s the point of the trail? Is it to get you to a particular destination, like a summit, or a scenic view? Or is the point of the trail the trail itself? Is it intended to be a place where you can simply experience the sport you’re doing, like snowshoeing or biking?

  2. What is the actual experience of the trail? Does it feel intimate and closed in, or perhaps open and exposed? Does it feel like a lot of people use it, or like you’re the only one that goes there? Is it easy to follow? Does it have signage? Maybe it feels like a secret path no one knows about. Do you get the sense that people take care of the trail, or does it feel like a trail that time forgot? Is it challenging? Boring? Comforting? Slow? Fast? Flowing? Technical? How would you describe it to someone who has never been there?

  3. What is the intended experience of the trail? Does it match your actual experience?

  4. Who is(are) the intended user(s)? Is it a person on foot? Is it mountain biker? A skier? A novice? An expert? Are you the intended user, or are you the exception?

  5. Who is(are) the actual user(s)? Aside from you and your friends, who do you see most using the trail? Are they the intended users? Why or why not?

  6. How sustainable is the trail? Is it holding up to user traffic? Are there constant wet areas? Is the trail getting rockier over time, muddier over time, or wider over time? Are there places where users have blazed short cuts or new routes around certain features? Is the trail full of debris and blow downs? Does it get cleared regularly? Does it get used enough so that it’s not overgrown? If it’s a winter trail, does it get groomed or broken in regularly? Are there bridges or other constructed features that get neglected and need work? What would the trail look like if no one used it for a season? What would it look like if thousands of people used it in a week?

When it comes to trail design and construction, there are a lot of opinions about what constitutes good vs. bad practices. To make the issue even more complicated, these opinions can change by region, by soil type, by season, and by user. Regardless of this, it’s hard to argue that the most successful trails and trail systems utilize good planning before design and construction, and good planning seeks to answer the questions above before a trail ever comes to life. 

Answering these questions, though, requires having trail awareness. So whether you’re interested in developing new trails where you live, or you’re just an avid trail user, begin developing greater trail awareness. It will enhance your experience and make you a stronger advocate for, and smarter user of, the places you use to get outside and play.