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Thinking Like a Trail Designer
1. Seven Missing Pieces
Thinking Like a Trail Designer
1. Seven Missing Pieces
2. A Process-Based Approach
3. Advantages of the Process-Based Approach
Old and new systems compared
If you've found that traditional trail books and instructors don't tell you everything you feel you should know, you're not alone. While researching and developing a more effective way to learn trail design, construction, maintenance, and management, I found seven major pieces largely or entirely missing from most existing books and instruction:

1.  Language
We don't have concise words and names for many aspects of trail design, construction, maintenance, and management. And since we both think and communicate in words and names, we can't talk about what we don't have words for. This is why skilled trail designers can't describe how they do it.

2. Forces, relationships, causes and effects, and human factors
Historically, books, guidelines, and instructors present trails primarily in terms of specific techniques such as outslope, backslope, rolling grade, drainage dips, waterbars, switchbacks, stacked loop trail layouts, etc. They also present trail management primarily as a series of techniques such as seasonal closure, temporal management, enforcement, and rules. While there are places for all of these, it's difficult for techniques alone to capture the many forces, relationships, causes and effects, and human factors determining how and why they work—or don't work.

For example, the technique of outslope is generally recommended as the primary system of trail drainage. Yet the technique itself does not tell you that outslope is difficult or impossible to maintain outslope in many instances such as on shallow slopes, in loose Technique-based trail developmentsoils, on sharp outside curves with wheeled uses, and with continual trail use and inevitable displacement and erosion. It also doesn't tell you about situations where outslope would be considered unsafe. All of these and much more are parts of the context of the situation: the forces, relationships, causes and effects, and human factors that determine how a given technique will work in physical and human terms. But again, these essential context factors are often omitted from the discussion because they're hard to talk about because of the lack of suitable language (#1).

The diagram at right illustrates how techniques are surrounded by a wide range of key physical and human factors (context) that determine how well techniques actually work yet are not directly addressed. Hence these factors often are not discussed or considered, often causing predictable problems or causing people to use a particular technique in an inappropriate context.

3. Means of predicting change over time
Traditional books and instructors tend to lead you to believe that once you "build" a natural surface trail or structure using given techniques, it remains in that shape indefinitely. In reality, however, a trail is subjected to human and erosion forces that are always working to change its shape and hence its drainage and/or sustainability. These forces are predictable, but again, the techniques don't talk about them and so they are ignored—at your peril.

4. A common base that works with EVERY type of trail use and location
People and books tend to focus on particular trail types, as if natural surface hiking, biking, horse, wheelchair, ATV, motorcycle, and ORV trails have little in common. It's also common to think of trails in different parts of the region, country, or world as being very different from each other. In reality, all trails everywhere are all based on the same underlying forces and relationships. When you understand these underlying forces and relationships, you can make appropriate decisions for any trail type, anywhere.

5. A process that generates sustainability and enjoyment at the same time
To "generate" is to produce, evolve, or bring into existence by combining forces and context in particular ways. We need a process that uses both physical and human factors to generate locally appropriate, sustainable, and enjoyable trails. Ideally, this process will use the most naturalistic means possible to integrate sustainability and enjoyability into every aspect of the trail instead of sacrificing one for the other.

6. A process that encompasses all of trail design, construction, maintenance, and management
Relying on isolated techniques makes it impossible to encompass all of the above in a single system or process without holes. Yet we intuitively know that design, construction, maintenance, and management all interrelate in myriad ways. So we need a process that combines basic human and physical forces and relationships, trail techniques, management techniques, and more into a single system of thought that can generate sustainable, enjoyable trails (#5).

7. Effective, workable, easy-to-perform trail evaluation
Technique-based thinking doesn't offer any method for evaluating trails, especially the physical and human factors that aren't addressed by the techniques. Some people try to evaluate trails through monitoring using physical measurements or observations over time, but monitoring can only provide quantitative data about how or what is changing—not why it's changing. A generative process that establishes ideal characteristics of many trail aspects, however, should provide easy-to-use evaluation by comparing those aspects to their potential ideal. Evaluation should also explain why a given aspect is the way it is, providing useful insight into what can or should be done about it.

These are major pieces. To incorporate them, we have to think about trails in a different, more holistic way. We must name what has not been named, consider all that needs to be considered, and think about trail development as a process rather than a set of techniques.


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