New Trails

Here’s What it Takes to Build a New Trail

That scenic path you’re hiking didn’t spring up out of nowhere. We talked to trail designers to find out what goes into creating a hike.

Jed Talbot wakes up early in the morning, cocooned in a sleeping bag. He gets up, stretches, and heads out of his tent to take in the sunrise and the expanse of forest below him. After taking a few breaths of fresh air and pausing to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus, he gets out his grill and cooks breakfast.

Sounds like the perfect morning to kick off a weekend backpacking trip, right? For Talbot, though, it’s the start of his work day.

Talbot, the owner of OBP Trailworks, builds and designs trails for a living. Luckily, he doesn’t have to commute very far for his job; in fact, his workspace during the day is often wherever he slept that night. Talbot’s line of work takes him where few go—to the depths of forests, the icy corridors of the arctic, and today, the top of a mountain—so that he can take others there, too.

“The goal is not for people to look at the trail, or even know the trail is there,” he told me. “That kind of pales in comparison to seeing the transformation of people when they’re outdoors, when they’re immersed in nature.”

While trails are as old as humans, the National Park Service only began building them for recreation in the 1920s. By the 1930s, it was a burgeoning industry, but federal building crews disbanded at the onset of World War II. Since then, private contractors have begun to handle much of the heavy lifting.

According to Talbot, a significant chunk of trails start with community support, dreamt up by regular old outdoors users like hiking clubs and high school cross country teams.The rest are outlined by public lands managers, who base their decisions on visitor patterns and use.

Once a project is finalized, a bidding war between private contractors ensues. Talbot is President of the Professional Trail Builders Association, which streamlines the process by matching trail designs to its member contractors. Otherwise, like much government work, projects are essentially auctioned off.

Next up, designers size up the landscape. That could take hours or days; for a project in Patagonia, Talbot covered nearly 2,000 miles of rugged terrain over three trips, nearly the same distance as a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After sweeping the area and taking stock of the crew and equipment, it’s time to start the blueprint.

At the heart of that blueprint is the user. Trail designers take pains to understand their user group, accounting for age, ability level, and a host of other factors. And, of course, they try to plan out plenty of sights to see along the way.

“The history of trail building really started really with getting to the top of the mountain as fast as you could,” said Erin Amadon, a builder and designer for Towns 4 Trails Services. Now, designers try to take users past as many control points—notable sights and landmarks around the route—as possible.

But designers seldom forget the Golden Rule of their craft: sustainability. Ask any trail contractor and they’ll all give different definitions of the word, but Amadon sums it up well: “Designing a trail that fits into the landscape that doesn’t impede the natural experience in any way.”

Sustainability goes both ways. For the user, it can mean a better hiking, biking or riding experience; for the environment, it can mean less impact from erosion and waste by guiding users onto one path.

“There could be a thousand ways up,” said Erik Mickelson, field manager for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. “But if you’re trying to be sustainable, it puts you within a window.”

Designers have lots of neat little tricks to keep hikers on-trail. For example, when Amadon is adding stone stairs to her designs, she avoids making them too steep so that users don’t stray from the trail and erode it. That’s Hiker Psychology 101.

After a team spends hours, days or sometimes weeks fleshing out a design, all that’s left is to build it. 

“Blood, sweat and sometimes tears,” said Mickelson. “Sweat, definitely.”

This is the part of the process that volunteers who have done trail maintenance are more likely to be familiar with. A day of trail building can encompass any number of grueling tasks: hiking on foot into the unmarked wilderness, using a chainsaw to open up corridors, digging with special tools, laying tread, or putting in walls and bridges.

“I think everyone just thought I was going out and marking trees,” Amadon laughed. “But it’s really more complicated than that.”

If you’re wondering what store trail builders shop at for the miles of materials needed to construct a trail, you won’t find it. Their building blocks are right in front of them.

“You might be taking a tree down here and then using it as a bridge to span a waterway, or you might move some organic material to one area but using it as erosion control in another,” explained Talbot. He calls this process “rearranging nature.”

With technological advancements, builders have been able to lighten the load a bit. In recent years, they’ve started using specialized, fun-size machinery like miniature dump trucks, bulldozers and excavators made specifically for building trails.

But one thing they don’t have are numbers. Talbot describes a group of twelve builders as a “big crew,” which seems absurd given the scale of the projects they work on. According to Ama Koenigshof, a builder with Ptarmingan Ptrails, it could take a dedicated crew ten months or ten years to build just a five mile trail.

Somehow, through inhuman endurance and supreme willpower, they get it done so that the rest of us can enjoy it in a few hours or days. Of course, a trail is never done; annual maintenance is standard, and it can happen much more frequently. But for the designers and builders, those countless hours spent meticulously plotting routes and toiling away in the trees are well worth it.

“Similar to the experience of hiking, the payoff and the elation you feel as a hiker after you’ve gone through a rigorous hike … It’s kind of the same with building trails,” said Talbot. “The harder it is to construct, the more rewarding it is.”

But at the end of the day, trail builders don’t do it just for themselves.

“I love being outside. I love working with my hands,” Amadon said. “And I love providing an opportunity for individuals of all abilities to access the outdoor environment.”

So next time you’re out hiking, biking or riding on the trails, don’t forget: someone built that.