Sustainable Trails

Written by Laura Braun, ESLLC 2016-2017

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Sustainability is directly related to, if not defined by, the idea that things need to be made to last, and creating a good hiking or walking trail requires incorporating sustainable characteristics. But what does a trail have to do with a sustainable society? The ability to discover nature on your own and generate individual opinions on what you see is vital for a person to become compassionate towards environmental efforts. Also, the less work that needs to be done in order to build and maintain a trail, the more efficient and less wasteful the project becomes. Designing sustainable trails is the key to a successful trail system; quality overrides quantity in this case. Therefore, it is in our best interest to not exactly increase the amount of trails that our wilderness contains, but to simply get it right the first time. So how is this achieved?

According to, a sustainable trail is one that protects the environment, meets user needs and expectations, and requires little maintenance. Each of these elements are equally important and are key in order to create a trail that connects control points, keeps water off of the trails, follows natural contours, keeps users on the trail, and offers different user experiences. When connecting control points (i.e. desired destinations) it is important to keep in mind environmental sensitive area as well as critical habitats. Keeping water off of the trails is also important since erosion is a huge problem to trails and causes a trail’s constant upkeep. Not only does it damaging and costly, but it also diminishes the user’s experience, therefore making it economically and environmentally unsustainable. To follow natural contours is also key to sustainable success since it essentially diminishes the environment impact a trail may have. This design also allows for water to naturally drain/shred. Additionally, trails are built for people to experience and fall in love with the natural. Furthermore, when people start to abandon the maintained trail and start to create their own trails or widen existing ones, the can cause environmental damage and raise a need for maintenance that can be costly concerning finances as well as natural resources. Thus, it is important to keep users on the trail. Finally, and most importantly, a trail needs to be able to offer an assortment of user experiences. Trials are vital to create eye opening experiences and/or fresh and rejuvenating moments, so it is important to create systems that will meet different kinds of users needs and expectations.

It is so great that our society has created escapes into natures that are open to anyone, and it is even more amazing that people are taking advantage of this and noticing our environment’s natural characteristics. However, since their popularity continues to grow, it is important to have trails be sustainable by designing it to support recreation today and tomorrow with minimal impact on nearby ecosystems, leave soil intact, eliminate harm to wildlife and to require minimal trail maintenance. Once all of these things have been ensured, a trail system has the potential to not only be sustainable but also to change the way society looks at ecosystems and environmental problems.


Connections,” the Newsletter of Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Greenways and Trails Program (January 2008). “Resources and Library:.” Designing Sustainable Contour Trails, Reduce Maintenance, Good Experience for Visitors. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

2011 STIHL-sponsored Photo Contest Submission by Kent Lambke. “Sustainable Trails.” My Land Plan. N.p., 08 Nov. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.


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