Poor design ruins trails

In his recent article “What a Trail Needs” [Outdoors, Dec. 12], Jack Igelman stated: “In the end, however, the riders themselves may be the trails’ worst enemy.” This simply is not true, and some level of correction is needed.

The worst enemy of trails is poor design (or lack of any real design elements). Jack alludes to this in his article. Many area trails are poorly designed and thus fall prey to the second-largest enemy of trails: water (which we normally have plenty of in the form of rainfall).

The impacts of mountain bikes are higher on poorly designed trails, but so are the impacts of other trail users such as hikers and trail runners. On poorly designed trails, users (all of them) loosen soils, and these displaced soils are available for the next rain event to wash them away.

Rolling-contour trails work well because they shed water very effectively (when the trail goes uphill, water is forced off the trail tread) and they minimize soil displacement from users. There are a number of treatments we apply to steeper trails, such as surface hardening and rock armoring, and these work well on trails that lack good design. Such techniques are, however, both material- and labor-intensive.

All the research studies available to date find that the impacts of mountain bikes are equal to those of hikers. Both of these user groups are generally considered low impact on trails that are well designed. Horses and motorized uses are much higher in relative tread impacts as compared with hiking and biking. Very high usage (as compared with trails with low user-passes) is another issue, as all forms of trail-based outdoor recreation are very popular in this area.

Jack is correct to point out that too few trail users get involved in maintaining the facilities they use. We all need to work together to improve and expand our local trail systems and provide the type of trail experiences users are looking for. Very technical mountain-biking (and hiking) trails can be designed and built, but this requires more work than a standard rolling contour trail. For those interested in getting involved, join the local Pisgah Area SORBA chapter or other local group working on trails (www.pisgahareasorba.org).

— Woody Keen
President, Trail Dynamics LLC
President, Professional Trailbuilders Association
Cedar Mountain

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