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Planning Trails for Your Woodlands

Posted: May 16, 2016

A good, well-planned, designed, constructed, and maintained trail system through your woodlands can provide many positive benefits.
A good, well designed and maintained trail system through your woodlands can increase the recreational and economic value of your property. Photo by George Hurd.

A good, well designed and maintained trail system through your woodlands can increase the recreational and economic value of your property. Photo by George Hurd.

Have you ever thought about putting in new trails or improving existing trails in your woodlands? A good, well-planned, designed, constructed, and maintained trail system through your woodlands can provide many positive benefits. It can increase the recreational and economic value of your land. It can make it easier for you and your family to enjoy the property by improving access to different woodland areas. Well-marked trails can help reduce the chances of family members or friends becoming lost while hiking. Good trails can also help steer hikers away from dangerous terrain areas. Well-designed trail systems can simplify timber evaluations or help in creating firebreaks. There are on-line resources to help you plan trails systems for your woodlands.

A good resource to help woodland owners plan trails is the University of Arkansas Extension publication, “Nature Trail Development on Small Acreages.” This publication provides an introduction to design nature walking, hiking, horseback riding or ATV trails on less than 40 acres. This guide emphasizes designing a trail with sustainability in mind that will save time and money over the long term and minimize future trail maintenance. According to the publication, a major factor in developing a sustainable trail is managing water. Trails should follow the contour of the land to help minimize erosion problems.

There are other more in-depth trail planning guides available for woodland owners. One is the PA DCNR publication, “Pennsylvania Trail Design & Development Principles: Guidelines for Sustainable, Non-motorized Trails,” which is available through the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association Conservation Tools.Org website. This guide presents a compilation of best practices and guidelines for planning, designing, constructing, and managing non-motorized trails that are both physically and environmentally sustainable. It also presents techniques for developing trails that create desirable and enjoyable experiences for trail users. Another in-depth guide is the USDA Forest Service publication “Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook, 2000 Edition.”

You should design and construct trails to avoid poorly drained soil on flat land that may become muddy after rainfall or where groundwater seeps from a hillside. Trail development in these areas may adversely affect wildlife and plants using the seep or shallow water area. If disturbance is unavoidable, refer to an accredited publication such as “Wetland Trail Design and Construction” by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Seek assistance from your local Natural Resources Conservation Service and County Conservation District since disturbing wetlands may require a permit.

Another helpful resource is “Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind: A Handbook for Trail Planners” available on-line from the “American Trails” website. The handbook helps planners identify how potential trail designs impact wildlife, as well as how trails can help preserve wildlife and delicate ecosystems. The handbook includes a practical checklist for trail planning, case studies, management approaches, and other information sources on trails and their environmental impacts.

All of these publications emphasize the importance for scouting, designing, constructing, and maintaining a trail. Good planning includes understanding the lay of the land. A trail design should start with the trail user in mind to meet desired difficulty levels. With proper planning it is possible to design trails that minimize human disturbance and impact on wildlife, plants, soils, and waterways while providing years of enjoyment for you and your family.