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The Building Blocks of Great Trails

Planners, designers, and managers must keep the 4Es of engineering, education, enforcement, and evaluation in the forefront of their mind in their work to create great trails. If riders find what they want on the trail, they won’t look for it off the trail.

The fourth E in the all-important 4Es is Evaluation, which is an assessment, appraisal, or review. If managers don’t know the current conditions, they won’t know how to plan, act, or react.

Assessments, which can be either routine or formal, are part of a continual process used in every component of the Great Trail Continuum:

  • Planning: What could or should be out there? This is used to develop the vision, trail concept plan, and draft trail management objectives (TMOs).
  • Design: Does the location and design of the trails match the vision, the concept plan, and draft TMOs? Are the desired experiences and opportunities being provided?
  • Implementation: Do the trails conform to the TMOs, design guidelines, and sign plan? Is the vision being realized on the ground?
  • Maintenance: Are the trails being maintained in accordance with the TMOs? Is the frequency and level of maintenance adequate? Are there signs of non-sustainability?
  • Management: Is there a high level of customer satisfaction? Are use types or use levels changing? Is the team successfully managing the use? Are resources being protected?

Routine Assessments

Routine assessments are daily or regularly scheduled inspections of the trail or trail system. The motto “Observe, Record, Report” forms the basis for these inspections. Every person in the field should be performing monitoring for obvious safety or maintenance issues. All observations should be recorded on an informal monitoring form and be accompanied by pictures, GPS coordinates, or other documentation as necessary. This form is then given to management so action can be scheduled. It is important to note that the project file should also have documentation of what is working and going well. This information can be used in preparing reports to upper management or in developing grant applications.

Field personnel who perform routine inspections need to have a basic knowledge of engineering and the physical forces covered in Chapter 4, comprehension of trail durability versus trail degradation, an understanding of structure function and maintenance, and the ability to recognize routine problem indicators. Personnel need to detect the difference between what is there versus what should be there. The goal of routine inspections is to detect symptoms before they become problems. Field personnel don’t necessarily have to know how to fix the issue, just observe it, record it, and report it.

Formal Assessments

Formal assessments are more comprehensive, detailed, and often look at the bigger picture that includes not just sites on the ground, but how those sites affect the overall effectiveness of the program. Rather than being proactive, a formal assessment is often requested as a reaction to an issue that is no longer a symptom, but a problem. A formal assessment answers the questions: What could be there? What is there? What should be there? How do I get to where I should be?

The final report usually has three parts: observations, where the site is examined and evaluated to answer the first two questions (above); commendations, what is good or going well; and recommendations, actions to correct what isn’t good and answer the last two questions (above). Often, these reports are precursors to a management action, used as a project basis (Purpose and Need), and incorporated into NEPA documents or management plans.

There are three main types of formal assessments: feasibility or site assessment, safety assessment, and condition survey or assessment.

Feasibility or Site Assessments. What activities could or should occur on a given site? What are the opportunities and what are the obvious constraints? A feasibility assessment is usually conducted at the project initiation phase, which could be at the beginning of a new project or the expansion of an existing project.

The assessor should understand:

  • The vehicle types that use the trails
  • Desired rider experiences
  • Climate
  • Vegetation
  • Soil types
  • Site hydrology
  • Resource concerns, issues, and constraints
  • Transportation planning
  • Facility design
  • Trail design
  • Engineering and the physical forces
  • GPS, data collection, and mapping software

Safety Assessments. A safety assessment examines agency risk and the risk to public safety. Perhaps there has been a tort claim, an increase in the number or severity of accidents, increased search and rescue incidents, customer complaints, or just an uneasy feeling or question by management. For objectivity, it is highly recommended that the assessor be unfamiliar with the site.

The assessor should understand:

  • Transportation planning. Is there effective access and movement of people to and through the site?
  • Facility design
  • Trail design, including grade, alignment, consistent difficulty, conformance with TMOs, and a thorough understanding of challenge versus risk
  • Use types and levels of use
  • Rider demographics and ethics
  • Seasonality and day use versus night use
  • Soils
  • Climate
  • Effective signing, including guidelines for shapes, colors, sizes, symbols, reflectivity, messages, and placement
  • Effective mapping
  • Engineering, including guidelines for stopping distance, sight distance, junction design and spacing, road crossings, structure placement and approaches
  • The physical forces
  • Emergency communications and emergency plan
  • Accident history
  • Enforcement issues
  • Actual liability versus perceived liability (it is helpful to have expert witness experience)
  • The effective application of the 4Es

Condition Survey or Assessment. A condition assessment usually focuses on the physical condition of the trail and related facilities, but it can also look at the bigger picture and address safety and risk issues. It answers questions like: How often does this occur? Why does this occur? What else is occurring? Is the trail condition consistent with design and maintenance guidelines in the TMO? Does the trail provide the desired experience? Is the trail sustainable or is it degrading due to poor location and design or changes in use levels, use types, or maintenance? Are the structures sound and functional? Do the facilities provide good customer information and service? Are resources being protected? Is there compliance with the rules and regulations? Is off-trail use occurring? Is the trail providing a high-quality recreation experience and customer satisfaction? Does the site appear professionally managed and maintained?

Using the 4Es, the condition assessment examines trail issues (drainage, erosion, tread degradation) and recommends solutions (maintenance, reconstruction, structures, hardening, or relocation). Recommendations can also include staffing, training, or equipment needs. As with safety assessments, a condition survey is best done with someone who is knowledgeable, but not routinely familiar with the site.

The assessor should understand:

Tip, Trick, or Trap?

Tip:A qualified engineer must inspect structures that have been engineered as bridges and retaining walls on a regular basis. Unless qualified, an assessor can only note the indicators of structure degradation and recommend further inspection by an engineer.

  • Facility design and construction
  • Trail design and construction, including grade, alignment, consistent difficulty, and conformance with TMOs
  • Trail maintenance techniques and equipment
  • Use types and levels of use
  • Maintenance or reconstruction frequency
  • Previous condition surveys
  • Soils
  • Climate
  • Hydrology of the site
  • Effective signing, including guidelines for shapes, colors, sizes, symbols, reflectivity, messages, and placement
  • Engineering, including guidelines for stopping distance, sight distance, junction design and spacing, and intersections.
  • Structures, including placement and approaches and trail hardening techniques
  • Equipment needs and capabilities
  • The physical forces
  • The effective application of the 4Es
  • Costs for recommended actions
  • GPS, data collection, and mapping software

How Do I Know If I Have a Problem?

Challenge is an expectation; risk is a surprise.

Safety and condition assessments examine issues, but often managers may not recognize an issue or the indicators of an impending issue. Inexperienced personnel or familiarity with a site can blur the team members’ vision, which is why a fresh set of eyes is best for conducting these assessments. Listed below are some of the issues or indicators that an assessment would highlight.

Tip, Trick, or Trap?

Tip:Challenge is an expectation, risk is a surprise

Problem indicators can be obvious or subtle, but they are all precursors of future management or maintenance issues. Many of these issues appear to be maintenance related, but they could also indicate issues with trail location, construction techniques, budget, priorities, available personnel, skilled personnel, complacent personnel, material availability, equipment availability, a lack of an assessment, or extended intervals between assessments.

Tip, Trick, or Trap?

Tip:Never close a trail by simply putting a fence across it. The result will be failure.

Some problem indicators that often show up in assessments include the following:

  • Increased frequency and cost of maintenance
  • Large deposits of sediment after weather events
  • The appearance of sediment deposits on bridges
  • The development of ruts on grades or the creation of muddy sections on flatter areas
  • Trail braiding or widening to get around pot holes, ruts, rocks, etc.
  • The development of rock gardens because all of the soil fines have washed off the surface
  • The intended difficulty level has increased, at least in portions of the trail
  • User-created trails are developing to avoid or short-cut the nasty areas

Tip, Trick, or Trap?

Tip:Every known accident should have some level of investigation to determine cause and agency risk.

Too often, trail managers choose to pour time, money, and materials into fixing a poorly located trail when the remedy of relocation would be less expensive and far more sustainable in the long run. Assessments can help managers identify the source of problems and make the right decisions to correct them.

Need More? Learn More Here.

Designing Sustainable Off-Highway Vehicle Trails, Kevin G. Meyer, USDA Forest Service, Technology & Development Program, November 2013

Trail Planning, Design, and Development Guidelines, State of Minnesota, Department of Natural Resources, Trails and Waterways Division, 2007

A Look Back

Here are some of the elements discussed in this chapter:

  • Assessment, or evaluation, is a constant process that managers should use throughout the Great Trail Continuum
  • The motto “Observe, Record, Report” is the backbone of assessments
  • Field personnel should conduct daily routine assessments or inspections
  • Field personnel need to be trained in what to observe and how to protect the trail infrastructure
  • The goal of routine assessments is to detect symptoms before they become problems
  • Formal assessments answer: What could be there? What is there? What should be there? How do I get to where I should be?
  • There are three main types of formal assessments: Feasibility, Safety, and Condition
  • Feasibility assessments examine site potential and the activities that could or should occur on that site
  • Safety assessments examine risk potential to the public and the agency and recommend actions to reduce that risk
  • Condition assessments focus on the physical condition of the trails and facilities to determine conformance to the TMO, level of customer service, quality of the recreation experience, level of sustainability, maintenance or reconstruction needs, and corrective actions.
  • Assessments should be timely and should be proactive rather than reactive
  • Problem indicators can be obvious or quite subtle, but if ignored there could be dramatic resource impacts and management issues

“Wow! That was fun!” What sets one trail apart from all the other trails and makes riders say this at the end of the day? Was it the setting and the landscape, the challenge, the recreation experience, or something else? Something about that trail evoked feelings and emotions. Managers must find the elements that made those riders say “WOW!”

Often, when riders are asked what makes a great trail great, the responses include:

  • Fun
  • Offers varying degrees of challenge
  • Good signing and trail maps
  • Variety
  • Loops
  • Enough length to meet the needs of the riders coming to the area
  • Scenery, viewpoints, destinations
  • Open areas
  • Learner loops and places for kids to learn and ride
  • Opportunities for camping
  • Provides resource protection
  • Good parking, kiosk, and restroom facilities
  • Flowmentum

Note that all of these except for “fun” are physical features that are provided through good planning, location, and design. “Fun” is at the top of the list because it is often the first rider response. But what is “fun”? In reality, a fun experience is created by having all of the other bullets. Fun is actually a subjective assessment of the experience. It is an emotional response and the greater the trail experience, the higher the emotional response. Five factors come together to trigger that great trail emotion: capitalize on the physical elements, understand and design for the human elements, create trail flow, provide for the riders’ needs, and create variety.

Tip, Trick, or Trap?

Tip:Developing a WOW trail experience is similar to a painter creating a masterpiece.

What makes a great trail great? Location, location, location. All five of the trail emotion factors center around trail location. The key to a great trail location is knowing what to look for and then finding it, so taking the time to do a thorough reconnaissance is essential.

Capitalize on the Physical Elements

The physical elements are the features of the landscape that the planners or designers have available to help mold the quality of the trail experience. These features can be grand or subtle.

First, planners and designers must find the WOW. Every region has its own WOW. Experiencing that variety of WOW is why groups of riders travel to different areas and regions. Whatever that feature is, good planners and designers will find it and showcase it.

Second, planners and designers must find the little wow, the subliminal absorption. The riders absorb the physical elements on two levels. The first level is the conscious level. The riders consciously see the big, showy elements above and think, “WOW, that is cool!” The second level is the subconscious level. The riders see the wow, but the riders don’t remember seeing them because the smaller wows aren’t registered at the same time as the larger wows. Instead, these smaller wows get recorded in the subconscious mind as small but cumulative images. At the end of the day, the riders’ minds add the subconscious images with the conscious images to create a subjective assessment: “WOW, that was really COOL!” But when asked what made the riders say that, the response is often a nebulous “stuff” because the riders don’t consciously know.

The astute trail locator with creative vision will seek out these subliminal images and locate the trail so the riders’ eyes see them, even though it is a subconscious recognition.. This awareness of the little things can play a big part in making a great trail great.

Understand and Design for the Human Elements

The arrangement of the physical features on a trail can trigger an emotional response within the riders. There are two components of this element: human perception and feelings.

Human Perception

What riders see, the order in which they see it, and how they interpret what they see forms a perception of the trail that molds the judgment of the experience. That perception is formed by the arrangement of natural features to form shapes, anchors, gateways, and edges. A trail that capitalizes on these features is one that will trigger an emotional response.

Some ways planners and designers can capitalize on human perception include the following:

Shapes. Does the shape of the feature fit into the perception of what is natural?

Anchors. Use anchors to bond the trail to the landscape.

Gateways. Use a gateway as a threshold that riders pass through. It confines the trail and frames it with the landscape. Two anchors side by side can become a gateway.

Edges. Use edges such as cliffs, streams, fencelines, vegetative changes (either natural lines or ones formed by wildfires or logging), ridge tops, rimrock, etc. Part of human nature is that riders tend to gravitate toward edges, so when a trail follows an edge, it is satisfying one of the human needs. Like anchors and gateways, edges confine riders and the trail.

Human Feelings

Shapes, anchors, gateways, and edges are all a spatial arrangement of natural features. Because they trigger an emotional response from the riders, they are powerful design tools. Those tools form the perception of the trail, but the trail’s location and design also stimulate feelings. By having positive feelings about the trail, the trail experience and thus the recreation experience is likely to be positive also. Great trail planners and designers create feelings of safety, efficiency, playfulness, and harmony.

Safety. Am I within my comfort zone? Am I going to be able to make it back to the trailhead? Everyone has a different comfort zone, therefore it is imperative that the condition of the trail be effectively communicated to the public. It must be designed according to its TMO, maintained according to the TMO, and be signed accordingly. Riders can get out of their comfort zone when signs are missing, the tread does not appear stable or of adequate width, trees haven’t been cut out, or the trail is so overgrown it is hard to distinguish the tread from a game trail. All of these make the riders question what they’re getting into.

Comfort zone does not mean the trail is free of challenge. Comfort zone is how a rider feels on the trail on a given day. Individual riders will have differing levels of comfort on the same trail on different days. Trails are not one size fits all. Challenge is part of the experience the trail provides. Riders make a conscious decision to seek out challenges and many riders are in their comfort zone doing so. If challenge is imposed on the riders by surprise, it then becomes a risk, and risk can lead to liability.

Efficiency. This is the use of the landscape and structures to efficiently meet the riders’ needs. With efficient design, riders would rather be on the trail than off it because it is the path of least resistance, it’s the fastest, and it is fun. Why is this important? When efficiency is lost, trail widening, braiding, and resource impacts can occur.

Efficiency is lost when:

  • Riders bypass soft, wet, heavily eroded or excessively rough areas.
  • Riders bypass structures like waterbars or trail hardening.
  • Moguls develop due to speed and straight alignment.

Playfulness. A trail that is playful moves with the landscape and uses the landscape to create flow and a fun factor. The creative use of anchors, gateways, and edges is playfulness. A continual change in horizontal and vertical alignment is playfulness. Continually changing the viewshed of the riders is playfulness. Constantly changing the experience of the riders is playfulness. Playfulness is one reason that roads do not make good trails. Roads tend to be straight and predictable. Trails are curvilinear with a sense of wonder around each curve. Roads cut through trees, trails go around them. Roads blast through rocks, trails go around them or over them.

Harmony. Harmony is the riders' feelings about how well the trail fits the landscape. A harmonious trail utilizes shapes, edges, anchors, and gateways and is designed to be playful and efficient while keeping the riders in their comfort zone. Harmony puts it all together. Harmony has rhythm and flow. A highly engineered trail with multiple structures and trail hardening is less harmonious than a primitive natural surface trail. A newly constructed trail isn’t as harmonious as an established trail. A machine-built trail may not be as harmonious as a hand-built trail.

How the Human Elements Affect Design

The riders’ perception and reaction to the five factors of the human feeling is what makes a great trail great. The physical trail laying on the ground may be sustainable, but it doesn’t become a great trail until the combination of the human elements stimulate the riders’ emotions and cause the riders to exclaim: “WOW, that was a great trail!”

It is important for the designers to understand this relationship between physical shapes and emotional responses and then to creatively seek and arrange those shapes, anchors, edges, gateways, the big WOW, and the little wow into a sequence that will create an image in the riders’ minds and stimulate the riders’ emotional responses. The trail is the connecting link between each one of those elements.

Triggering the positive emotional response also includes the riders’ perception of the trail as part of the environment. The more that the trail fits the landscape, the more the trail will be perceived by the riders as being natural and the more likely that the trail will stimulate those emotional responses within the riders. The level of that response can be controlled by the physical relationship between the trail and the feature. Altering the approach, proximity, or length of time in the proximity of a feature can create a stronger or weaker response.

A Closer Look

Artists have their color palette, but the landscape is the palette for the trail designers. The artist has seven elements with which to create art: line, color, value (contrast), shape (2D), form (3D), texture, and space (scale or depth). Most of these terms have been used to describe the illustrations in this chapter because the trail designers use these same elements to create the images that will mold the riders’ perceptions. Is creating a great trail art or science? It is both.

Create Trail Flow

Flow is the continual horizontal and vertical movement of the trail on the landscape without conflicting with the landscape. Flow is the rhythm of the trail and the riders feel that rhythm as the riders flow with the trail. That flow and rhythm stimulates emotional responses within the riders which is why it helps make a great trail great.

Designers purposefully create flow. Rarely does it happen by accident. As designers flag in a trail, they should be riding the trail in their minds and tracking the experience they are creating. Sure, they must keep track of the grade, alignment, and drainage points, but they also must seek out anchors, gateways, edges, and viewpoints. Those experiences need to be mixed up so the riders are encountering variety and cannot wait to see what is around the next curve. Designers control the viewshed of the riders. On a trail with good flow that view should be constantly changing. Flow can be open and gentle or tight and technical. A trail that carefully transitions from one to another adds variety and increases the recreation experience.

A trail with flow has the following:

  • Rhythm, but this does not mean speed. Rhythm is the ability to throw a machine back and forth from corner to corner.
  • High fun factor.
  • Good control of the riders’ view scape. The trail goes where the riders’ eyes thinks it’s going to go. If it doesn’t, that creates an awkward moment that can result in tread impacts and risk to rider safety.
  • Feels natural, not artificial or contrived.
  • Natural transitions between trail conditions.
  • Allows the riders to carry momentum which reduces the need for hard braking or acceleration and therefore reduces tread impacts and maintenance. This is often called “flowmentum.”

Provide for the Riders’ Needs

If at all possible, take the riders where they want to go and provide a variety of experiences while doing it.

Create Variety

Edges, shapes, gateways, and anchors need to be creatively mixed up and have short duration. The fenceline makes a cool edge, but not for mile after mile. A great trail will utilize the fenceline briefly, leave it to offer the riders some other features or experiences, and then maybe come back to the fenceline.

Need More? Learn More Here.

Elements of Art,

Natural Surface Trails by Design, Troy Scott Parker, Natureshape LLC, 2004

Trail Planning, Design, and Development Guidelines, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 2007

A Look Back

Here are some of the elements discussed in this chapter:

  • A great trail is actually an emotional response to the trail. Five factors come together to trigger a great trail emotion: physical elements, human elements, flow, variety, and providing for the riders’ needs
  • Capitalize on the physical elements
    • Find the WOW
    • Find the little wow (subliminal absorption)
  • Understand and design for the human elements: perception and feelings
  • Human perception is formed by:
    • Shapes
    • Anchors
    • Gateways
    • Edges
  • Human feelings are how riders feel about a trail’s:
    • Safety
    • Efficiency
    • Playfulness
    • Harmony
  • Designers and planners should creatively and frequently use shapes, anchors, edges, and gateways to form the riders’ perception and feelings about the trail
  • Manage and maintain the trail to perpetuate those perceptions and emotions
  • Create trail flow. Flow is the rhythm of the trail. Momentum + Rhythm = Flowmentum
  • Provide for the riders’ needs by taking them where they want to go and providing the experiences they are looking for. The key is variety
  • What makes a great trail great is the rider’s’ perception of it. That perception is controlled by the designers
  • The landscape is the designers’ palette and like an artist, they use the elements of line, color, value, texture, shape, form, and space to create the images that will mold the riders’ perception of a great trail

The key to a great trail is in the location of the trail and in the arrangement of certain physical features that can stimulate powerful perceptions and feelings. Indeed, the landscape is like a giant trail jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are out there, but where? And how do they get arranged? Is there more than one way to solve the puzzle and if so, which is the best way?

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip: To make a great trail great, the locators should possess understanding, knowledge, engineering, passion, vision, creativity, and conscientiousness.
The challenge for the locators is to find the pieces and arrange them in the best possible way. In every scenario, there is always a way to solve the puzzle. It may take design tools or management tools or both, but there is a solution. It may not always be ideal, but that is okay. Creating a great trail is about making informed decisions and making the best of a given situation. It is not a perfect world and there is no such thing as a perfect trail.

Know the Complete Picture

When finding the best location for a trail, the locators provide for the riders’ needs by managing the vehicle use and the riders’ viewshed, speed, and experience all while protecting the natural resources. That is a heavy load to carry and it takes careful decisions to effectively place a trail on the landscape that meets all of those objectives.

The effort takes both physical and mental energy and can leave locators exhausted in both capacities. The locators need to be mentally sharp and physically prepared for a tough day of walking in the field. But the result of all this effort will be a well-designed, environmentally friendly trail that is fun to ride and a great success.

Making Great Trails Requires

  • Understanding
  • Knowledge
  • Engineering
  • Passion
  • Vision
  • Creativity
  • Conscientiousness
Good locators must know the complete picture. They must know and understand these eleven elements about the project before going into the field:

  1. The issues
  2. The politics
  3. Resource values and constraints
  4. Management constraints
  5. Existing conditions
  6. The vision
  7. Trail management objectives (TMOs), including type of vehicles, difficulty level, experience type, and methods to build and maintain
  8. The soils
  9. The climate
  10. The vegetation
  11. The topography

Locators should take a close look at the scope and complexity of these eleven items. Each has equal weight and all except the vision and the TMO can change from one side of the ridge to the other. Great trails don’t happen by accident, they are created by thoughtful and purposeful design. If someone on the project team doesn’t have the range of skills and experience required, it is worth seeking professional assistance.

The Location Process

1. Know the Complete Trail Picture. All of the eleven items are important to know, but the TMO has a direct bearing on almost every flag the locators hang. Generic TMOs were created during the development of the concept plan. Those TMOs could change if necessary during the location process once actual site conditions are thoroughly examined, but they are a place to start. The vehicle type will affect trail width, grade, and the physical forces applied to the trail. How the trail will be constructed will determine whether the team goes around a stump for hand-build or through the stump for machine-build. The intended challenge level will affect whether the team goes around the rock for an easier trail or over the rock for a more technical trail.

2. Use the Concept Plan. Considerable work was invested in developing the concept plan, so it is a good place to start. Locators should use it as a guide, but recognize that it will likely change once more reconnaissance is performed and actual site conditions are identified.

3. Identify Termini and Control Points. In developing the concept plan, opportunities and constraints were identified as positive and negative control points. Knowing the termini and the control points can significantly shrink the size of the landscape and restrict where the trail can or can’t go. Since they are so important, these points should be verified during the location and design processes. Also, depending on the amount of field time invested in developing the concept plan, the locators should look for additional opportunities or constraints.

4. Break Up the Elephant into Chewable Chunks. Figuring out how to access a large landscape can be overwhelming. The locators should use logical terrain features (like ridgeline to ridgeline) to break the landscape into smaller parcels. They should take careful notes, photos, and GPS data to help them join the parcels together.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip: It is easier to make a great trail when the trail locator and designer are the same person or team.

5. Conduct Total Reconnaissance. Features can be hidden and soils can change dramatically. The locators should thoroughly explore each parcel to uncover its opportunities and constraints. GIS modeling can display a corridor with the optimum side slope, soils, and vegetation. While this can be a handy tool, it can also be a trap if the locators fail to look outside of this corridor. Some of the best terrain features can be found in areas that could be classified as unsuitable. The locators should find the features and then make their own determination as to whether or not the trail should or could be there.

6. Connect the Dots. Once the controls are identified, what is left is to connect one control to another. While this sounds easy, the last thing locators want to do is just arbitrarily connect the dots. The space between controls is where the designers can play with the landscape, find those big and little WOWs, and provide variety and fun to enhance the riders’ experience. This is the fun and creative part of trail location and design.

Here are some key points:

  • Remember that OHVs have motors and riders like to use them. Keep the trail moving.
  • Getting there isn’t half of the fun, it’s all of the fun.
  • Miles equal seat time equals smiles.
  • The best line usually isn’t the first line, the easiest line, or the logical line.
  • Mistakes will happen. The key is to learn from them.
  • There is no such thing as a perfect line. Instead, there are options to make the best of a given situation.

7. Revise the Concept Plan. Once all of the landscape parcels are connected together with actual flag lines, chances are that there have been a bunch of changes in loop configurations, junction locations, trail difficulty, and even trail use type. Locators should make sure that the plan is still compliant with the environmental documentation and update the concept plan. It will then become the design plan, which will be used through construction and maintenance.

8. Develop Final TMOs. The TMO has key information that triggers important design-build-maintenance parameters. Now is the time to update and finalize the TMOs so they can accompany the design plan through the remaining portions of the Great Trail Continuum.

9. Prepare a Trail Log if Necessary. The trail log is a list of work items that the designers prepare for the construction crew or contractor. Items would include: turnouts, rolling dips, chokes, special challenge features, easy-outs, drains, all structures and their size and length, trail hardening, and any special design items or notes. The trail log is where the locators and the designers have the opportunity to communicate their vision and intent with whomever is doing the construction. The trail log and the TMO are key documents used to develop a construction contract packet.

Work with the Landscape

Once the locators have done their job, it is time for the designers to step in. Since the landscape is the pieces of the giant trail system jigsaw puzzle, it is important that the designers recognize and understand the clues to each piece. This allows the designers to make informed decisions regarding the environment and rider experience, and thus assemble the pieces into a great trail.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Trick: In rugged terrain, designers should look for a stock or game trail. Chances are that the animals have already found the best route.
Read the Landscape. The landscape gives the designers information about topography, climate, vegetative type, soil type, soil stability, moisture content, water sources, drainage, wildlife and stock use, features, and of course the potential opportunities for a quality trail experience. To the eyes of experienced designers, the landscape will indicate potential habitats for sensitive plant and animal species. Looking at existing impacts like roads, skid trails, game and stock trails, and existing recreation trails will give them clues as to soil stability, storm impacts, and the maximum grades that can still be sustainable. Some landscapes are breathtakingly heterogeneous and dramatic and others are incredibly homogeneous and bland. Both can be beautiful and both provide challenges for designers. Heterogeneous landscapes can offer exciting feature-rich trail experiences, but they can be difficult to preserve the viewshed, harmonize with the landscape, hide the trail from the riders and from other viewers, and effectively manage the OHV use. Homogeneous landscapes generally have fewer viewshed concerns, but can test the designers’ ability to find and create an exciting trail with a lot of variety.

The photos below show some examples of what the landscape can tell designers.

A look at the landscape can also reveal changes in aspect, such as north-facing slopes versus south-facing slopes. The soils, vegetation, and micro climate can change, sometimes dramatically, from one side of the ridge to the other. North-facing slopes are generally cooler, wetter, and have more dense vegetation than south-facing slopes. Changing aspect is a good way to add variety and enhance the rider experience. It is also a good way to increase the durability of the trail tread. If the north aspect appears to be so wet that hardening or structures may be required, try putting more of the trail on the south side. Likewise, if the soils on the south slope are not durable because they are non-cohesive, try switching to the north slope for better conditions.

In snow country, the aspect of the slope could be a consideration. North-facing slopes will hold snow longer than south-facing slopes. If two segments of the trail or trail system are on south slopes and the only connector between the two is high up on a north slope, the trail system will have no connectivity until all of the snow melts up high. When riders come to a snow field, they will look for a way around it and this could lead to management problems and resource impacts. If possible, designers should consider putting in another connector trail at a lower elevation. This will allow the trail system to be fully utilized earlier in the year and can provide another loop opportunity after all of the snow is gone.

The prevailing direction from which storms approach should also be considered by the designer. If there is topography, storms will generally dump more water on the windward side than on the leeward side.

The landscape changes in every region of the country and with that, the clues change. In order to locate a sustainable trail, designers must understand that landscape or consult with someone who does.

Make the Trail Flow with the Landscape. Making a trail flow starts with viewing a landscape, identifying the places the trail could go, and then visualizing the least intrusive route to get there.

When putting trails into the landscape, consider:

  • The trail should not interfere with the natural drainage patterns. It should dip into and climb out (drain) at all of the natural drainage points.
  • Use the vegetation and topography to make the trail blend in with the landscape.
  • Since a contour can be a straight line, follow the contour corridor without being on the contour. Keep the trail moving in a horizontal and vertical W pattern.
  • Some edges conflict and others harmonize. The trail is an edge that can fall into either category.
  • Laying lightly on the landscape means minimizing trail cuts and fills, which impact the landscape.
  • Incorporate gateways and anchors that tie the trail (and the riders) to the landscape.

Use the Landscape to Enhance the Rider Experience. Every landscape has topographic or vegetative features that can be creatively used to enhance the rider experience. There can be big WOWs or subliminal wows, but like gateways and anchors, the challenge for designers is to find them and piece them together.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Winding around or over boulders, stumps, or other features can provide a small grade reversal while enhancing the rider experience.
  • Roots and rocks left in the trail bed add to the rider experience and can help drain the trail or at least slow the velocity of water.
  • Rocks and thickets provide opportunities for technical trails. Seek them out.
  • In dense forests, especially deciduous forests, opportunities for viewpoints can be limited. Consider doing some selective thinning to create or enhance a viewpoint and then manage that site for its view by keeping the vegetation cut back.
  • Go through medium-height vegetation with an enclosed canopy to create a tunnel effect for the riders.
  • Look for what is different in the landscape and take the trail there.

Layout and Design Fundamentals

Here are eight tips to create a great trail.

1. Speed is an issue. Reduce speeds to:

  • Increase seat time.
  • Decrease tread impacts, displacement, and maintenance costs.
  • In many soils, tangents equal speed equals moguls. Moguls decrease the rider experience and increase the potential for braiding and widening. Reducing speed reduces moguls.
  • Potentially increase rider safety and decrease agency risk.
  • Enhance the fun factor.

How to achieve those benefits:

  • Limit the riders’ sightline. If riders can’t see far, they will reduce their speed.
  • Keep the horizontal alignment tight and curvilinear.
  • Roll the vertical alignment.
  • Tighten the clearing limits.
  • Minimize the use of roads.
  • Avoid one-way trails.
  • Provide obstacles and challenge features to the extent the TMO will allow.

2. Topography is a friend. Head for the hills and avoid flat ground. Use topography for:

  • Increased opportunity to effectively drain water by rolling the grades, which reduces the size of the tread watersheds.
  • Less potential for damage due to severe weather events.
  • Reduced potential for trail braiding and widening.
  • Reduced potential for off-trail use.
  • Generally more opportunities to reduce speed.
  • Generally more opportunities to provide challenge.
  • Enhanced rider experience.

How to achieve those benefits:

  • Seek whatever slope is available, preferably between 15 and 45 percent.
  • Don’t be afraid of steeper slopes. Steeper is almost always better than flatter.
  • Most roads provide a flat surface and therefore have the disadvantages of flat ground. Minimize the use of roads.

3. Vegetation is good. Vegetation allows:

  • More water absorption and lower overland flow, which results in less water entering the trail prism.
  • Reduced splash erosion.

The benefits of dense, woody vegetation include:

  • Decreased opportunity for tread widening or braiding.
  • Increased opportunities for a tight curvilinear alignment, which decreases speed and increases seat time.
  • Decreased opportunity to shortcut and straighten the alignment, thus a decreased opportunity for speed.
  • Decreased opportunity for off-trail use, which results in better management.
  • Generally, a decreased visual intrusion on the landscape due to more opportunities to hide the trail with vegetation.
  • Increased rider experience.

How to achieve those benefits:

  • Taking the easiest path to walk or ride may not be the best location for the trail.
  • Generally, locate the trail in the tallest and thickest vegetation available.
  • Occasionally, pop out into more open vegetation to provide variety and viewpoint opportunities, then dash back in to the thicker vegetation.
  • Keep the trail as narrow as possible and avoid the use of roads.

4. Water is an issue. Manage water to:

  • Reduce volume and velocity of water, which reduces potential erosion and sedimentation.
  • Reduce braiding and widening due to saturated trail treads or ponding.
  • Reduce ruts and rills in the trail tread.
  • Slow degradation of the trail tread, which results in less maintenance.
  • Increase rider experience.
  • Potentially increase rider safety.

How to achieve those benefits:

  • Avoid flat ground.
  • Avoid the fall line.
  • Reduce the size of the tread watershed by rolling the grades and reducing tread width.
  • Add drainage structures if grade reversals cannot be provided.
  • Reduce the trail grade and make grade pitches shorter.
  • Minimize the use of roads.
  • Utilize soil stabilization and trail hardening techniques

5. Create a recreation experience, not a transportation experience. Benefits of a quality recreation experience include:

  • Provides for the riders’ needs.
  • Reduces speed and increases seat time and recreation activity time.
  • Increases the fun factor.
  • Increases compliance with rules and regulations.
  • Increases ownership and stewardship of the trail by the riders. This will help protect and maintain the trail through volunteerism.
  • Facilitates OHV management because riders want to stay on the trails.
  • Potentially reduces resource impacts.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip:If riders find what they want on the trail, they won’t look for it off the trail.
How to achieve those benefits:

  • Unless providing a touring or destination experience, minimize the use of roads or creatively convert them to trails.
  • Play with the landscape and the rider experience.
  • Designers should ride the trail in their minds as they are laying it out. If they aren’t enjoying it, the riders won’t either.
  • Provide variety and creatively utilize the landscape.

6. Avoid Point A to Point B location. Avoiding the straight line will:

  • Keep the riders engaged. Constantly changes the riders’ viewshed and creates variety and intrigue.
  • Allow the trail to flow and blend with the landscape, which enhances the rider experience as well as the aesthetics of the trail.
  • Decrease the size of the tread watershed and thus increase sustainability and decrease potential resource impacts.
  • Decrease speed, which increases seat time and decreases tread impacts.

How to achieve those benefits:

  • Unless it is absolutely necessary to hit control points, do not use the Point A to Point B approach in trail location. Avoid running grade lines.
    Exception: the trail to the restroom should be straight.
  • Play with whatever the landscape has to offer.
  • Do not be goal-oriented. The goal is to get there, but not necessarily quickly.
  • Provide flowmentum. OHVs have motors and riders like to use them. Keep the trail flowing up and down and side to side.
  • Avoid the fall line and generally avoid ridgetop trails.
  • Minimize the use of roads.

7. Head for the rocks. Rocks can:

  • Offer visual and riding diversity, which can enhance the rider experience and fun factor.
  • Increase opportunities for challenge.
  • Satisfy human nature to get to the high points since the high points are often rock outcrops.
  • Provide an increased opportunity for dramatic viewpoints.
  • Provide a durable and sustainable trail tread.
  • Soils with high rock content can resist the forces of compaction and displacement.

How to achieve those benefits:

  • Do a thorough reconnaissance of the area. While some rock outcrops are obvious on aerial photos or maps, others can be in unlikely places or hidden in the trees.
  • Whenever possible, seek rocky soils rather than sandy or silty soils.

Manage the riders’ eyes. Controlling the riders’ eyes helps:

  • Enhance rider experience by providing intrigue and visual diversity.
  • Frame the landscape for the riders to focus on the big WOW and little wow.
  • Potentially increase control of the riders and decrease resource impacts.

How to achieve those benefits:

  • Keep the trail moving horizontally and vertically to avoid long views of the same scene.
  • Designers should focus the riders’ eyes on where they want the riders to go and what they want the riders to see, not where or what the designers don’t want the riders to go or see.
  • Utilize elements of human nature to creatively use the features of the landscape and design great trails.

Special Design Situations

Road Crossings. One place with potential risk is a road crossing. Roads can be low standard with low traffic volume and speed or high standard with high traffic volume and speed, but the trail crossing design is the same for both.

When designing road crossings:

  • Verify if the road authority requires a permit or approval of the site and crossing plans.
  • Locate the crossing on a tangent, not a curve.
  • Make the tangent long enough to provide adequate sight distance for the speed of the traffic on the road.
  • Place the crossing at or close to 90 degrees to the road.
  • Keep the trail grade at the crossing as flat as possible so OHVs can stop and start easily without impacting the trail, road fill slope, or road shoulder. If there is a steep uphill, like riding up the road fill slope, riders will increase their speed to get up the hill. This will carry them into the road without the ability to see traffic or stop. If there is a steep downhill, riders could find themselves sliding into the roadway.
  • Construct a level area if the grade is not flat. It must be excavated or filled to a sufficient size for the vehicle to come to a complete stop before entering the road shoulder.
  • Install signing as per the guidelines for the road standard in the project’s management plan or sign plan. If Stop or Yield signs are used, Stop Ahead or Yield Ahead signs must also be installed.
  • Harden approaches to paved road crossings,providing a paved or hardened apron, to protect the road shoulder from damage.

Creek Crossings.Many areas do not allow for tire and water contact or it may be allowed in only intermittent or non-fish-bearing streams. Check the classification of the stream and follow the crossing guidance in the management plan or other environmental document.

Here are some things to keep in mind for creek crossing:

  • A permit may be required to improve the site or operate equipment near or in the creek; or there may be restrictions for the time of year that activity can occur.
  • Crossings should be on creek tangents, not on curves. Tangents will have the flattest approaches and most level creek bed. Curves can have holes in the creek bed and scour on the outside bank.
  • Crossings should be as close to 90 degrees as possible. This minimizes potential impacts to the creek and adjacent riparian zones.
  • Trail approaches should be as flat as possible to minimize sediment delivery to the creek.
  • Drain water off the trail before entering the creek.

Bridge Sites.Bridge sites need to be carefully selected and properly engineered. If at all possible, avoid having a bridge site down in a canyon where the only access is by having steep trail grades that lead directly down to the bridge, which can deliver sediment directly into the creek.

For bridge sites:

  • Ensure that there is sustainable trail access to the bridge site.
  • Trail approaches should be as flat as possible.
  • Bridge approaches should be elevated (but not steep) so water can drain off before the bridge and debris can’t be carried onto the bridge.
  • If the approaches can’t be raised, design the trail to drain water off before crossing the bridge and harden the approaches.

Ridges. It is human nature to want to get to the top, and a ridge trail is often at the top or leading riders to it. Ridges can offer dramatic views, wind-blown character trees, unusual rock formations, and almost always a change in topography and vegetation. All of these are good, desirable features; however, the goal for the trail designers is to arrange these in a series of big WOWs and little wows that treats and enhances the rider experience. Ridgetop trails can be undesirable because they often: follow the fall line, can be difficult to drain, do not provide enough riding diversity, do not vary the viewshed of the riders, do not frame the unique features for the riders, and divide rather than harmonize with the landscape.

Most ridgelines have game or livestock trails on them, so the easy path for the trail locators is to follow them. This is a trap. A better alternative is to wind a serpentine trail up the ridgeline, crossing from one side to the other. This creates positive drainage, varies the landscape for the riders, improves the aesthetics of the trail, and can create some dramatic views and scenic diversity.

Saddles are low points in ridgelines and as such they are natural targets for trail locators to cross over a ridgeline. However, they can drain water from both directions and any trail passing through the saddle can intercept this water. The designers must carefully assess the drainage patterns in a saddle and design the trail with drain points on each side of the saddle.

Meadows. Everyone enjoys looking at a meadow. Meadows offer vegetative diversity and beauty, often a chance to see wildlife, and usually a chance for a great panoramic view. As in a ridgetop trail, why put the trail through a meadow and divide, rather than harmonize with, the landscape? If possible, it is better to locate the trail in the trees, give the riders brief glimpses of the meadow to tantalize them into wondering what a full view would be like, pop them out to the edge while directing their eyes at the meadow and a WOW view, and then take them back into the trees again for variety before treating them once again to a view of the meadow. Designers should play with the riders’ eyes and the rider experience to create a great trail.

Here are some points about meadows:

  • • Meadows often provide photo opportunities; avoid placing the trail in the middle of the shot.
  • • Meadows can be sensitive ecosystems; minimize the fragmentation of that ecosystem.
  • • Meadows are often wetter environments, so trails located there could have water management and durability issues. The trees usually provide a drier environment.
  • • Crossing a meadow higher on the slope can be better than crossing lower where it is often wetter.
  • • Large meadows can be hard to avoid entirely, so the goal is to minimize intrusion into the meadow.
  • • It is better aesthetically and from a drainage standpoint to cross a meadow laterally on the contour rather than vertically down the slope.
  • • Indiscriminate off-trail use can severely impact a meadow. To help prevent this, it is essential that the riders’ eyes be kept moving and that the fun factor be kept high. The trail needs to be more efficient (desirable to ride) than the meadow.

Climbing Turns. If the side slope is less than 25 percent and there is room for a curve radius of more than 8 feet, locating a climbing turn is almost always a better alternative than a switchback. Why? Climbing turns maintain flowmentum, are easier to ride by most riders, and have less tread impacts and resulting maintenance.

Considerations for climbing turns:

  • • By their nature, the middle of the arc on a climbing turn will be on the fall line and will pick up water. To mitigate this, it is essential that water be drained off the trail before the top of the turn and immediately after the bottom of the turn. Use grade reversals (preferred) or rolling dips.
  • • On steeper side slopes, sometimes a large rock outcrop, bench, or the uprooted stump of a large tree can provide a flatter area for a climbing turn.
  • • It is essential that climbing turns have a smooth and constant radius. Some inexperienced equipment operators will tend to square them off by making a sharp turn at the bottom, go straight up the hill, and make another sharp turn at the top. This defeats the purpose of a climbing turn.
  • • Vehicles with locked or solid axles can negatively impact tight climbing turns. Minimize this by making the radius as large as possible (35 feet minimum would be desirable).

Switchbacks. In terrain steeper than 35 percent or rocky, gnarly terrain that won’t accommodate a climbing turn, a switchback becomes a necessity. Switchbacks have a radius of less than 8 feet and they can be very challenging to ride if they are not designed and constructed properly.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip: Many people do not know how to ride switchbacks and that’s why they don’t like them and why they are such high maintenance. If there is topography at the trailhead, designers should consider constructing a training switchback as part of the learner loop or youth training area.
Some designers install switchbacks even when they could use a climbing turn, just to increase difficulty. A switchback is not a challenge feature and should not be used as such. It is a trail structure that is necessary to change direction and gain elevation. Switchbacks can be expensive to construct and even more expensive to maintain, especially if they are poorly designed. Most riders don’t like them because they are difficult to ride and this can create severe tread impacts. Using them as a challenge feature only exacerbates the impacts and the maintenance costs.

Here are some thoughts on switchbacks:

  • A switchback consists of three parts: a lower approach, landing or turning platform, and upper approach.
  • Like climbing turns, it is essential that switchbacks have a constant radius. Most do not and that is why they are difficult to ride.
  • As in climbing turns, it is important that the trail is drained above and below the switchback.
  • It is also essential that the radius be as large as possible.
  • Many installations will require significant excavation and embankment in order to construct the proper radius and have a flat landing. Due to steep topography, retaining walls will often be required on the cut or fill side and this will increase the cost and complexity of the installation.
  • The flatter the grade through the landing, the more rideable it will be, but it also increases the amount of excavation and embankment. Not flattening the grade through the landing will result in a highly displaced and eroded gully.
  • During initial construction, the tendency is to minimize the excavation, embankment, and retaining structures. Don’t do this. It can result in an unstable structure that is difficult to ride and requires high maintenance or repeated reconstruction.

Trail Junctions. A well-planned trail system should have multiple loops, so well- designed trail junctions are required to access those loops. Trail junctions serve as decision points that help disperse the riders and enhance their experience by providing variety.

Things to keep in mind for trail junctions:

  • Since junctions disperse the riders, on high-use trail systems it is beneficial to have several junctions in the vicinity of the trailhead to provide quick dispersal.
  • Junctions are places where there can be high tread impacts from stopping, starting, and turning; therefore, trail junctions should be located on flat areas where grades can be kept to a minimum.
  • An adjoining trail can dump a considerable amount of water onto the trunk trail. Each trail leg should have a drain prior to the junction.
  • Junctions can be sources of congestion as riders stop to look at the map or wait for their companions. Depending on the expected volume of traffic, the trail width should be increased to allow riders to park off to the side and still allow room for other riders to safely pass through.
  • Mitigate congestion at intersections. Provide as much advance sight distance as possible, use a dog-leg or tighten the alignment to reduce speed, and install warning signs or decals as per the sign plan.
  • Some riders may ride by a junction, decide that is where they wanted to turn, and then make a U-turn. Expect off-trail impacts in the vicinity of junctions, so avoid locating them in proximity to sensitive resources. Barriers may be required to control and direct use.
  • For increased safety, T-junctions are preferred over 4-way junctions.
  • To avoid constant starting and stopping, junctions should be spaced as far apart as possible; a quarter mile is desirable.
  • In dense trail systems like OHV parks, consider grouping junctions together into hubs to reduce the number of junctions.
  • Because they are flat, saddles make a tempting location for junctions; however, saddles are natural drain points for the fall line and since water can drain into them from both directions, they can collect a considerable amount of water. Design to drain off this water or locate the junction on the slope slightly above the saddle.

Sound Intrusion to Residents. Sound is produced by physical vibration that creates audible waves of pressure. Design can mitigate sound. Unwanted sound perceived as noise produces a negative psychological reaction. It cannot be mitigated outside of sound mitigations

Mitigate sound by:

  • Restricting vehicle sound emissions to a maximum of 96 dBA using test procedures established by the Society of Automotive Engineers under Standard J1287. Sound doubles for every three decibels; therefore, an OHM at 96 dBA is half as loud as one at 99 dBA.
  • Designing for slow speeds in the vicinity of noise sensitive property (NSP) by using tight, curvilinear alignment and flat grades. Avoid trailheads, play areas, and hillclimbs around NSP.
  • Putting sound source a farther distance from NSPs. The amplitude (or intensity) of the sound wave decreases with distance.
  • Placing berm of earth, a ridge, or dense standing vegetation between the sound source and the NSP can help block or reduce sound waves.
  • Designing for the shape of the topography. Some areas can act like a megaphone to amplify the sound. Avoid placing high sound-producing activity in the bottom of a draw high up on the slope or near a body of water that has NSP.
  • Placing running trails parallel to NSP to keep from directing or funneling sound into those areas.

Grade Reversals. Grade reversals provide positive drainage, low maintenance, and are the most effective way to reduce tread watershed size. As such, they are the primary tool available for the designers to manage water. Many people refer to a rolling dip as a grade reversal. Technically it is, but a grade reversal is a drainage feature designed into a trail during location and a rolling dip is a constructed drainage structure that is added to a trail.

Here are some key points about grade reversals:

  • To be effective, the grade must reverse, not just flatten.
  • The height of the grade reversal must be sufficient to remain effective after the tread is cut in during construction and after the lowering effects of compaction and displacement. Making a grade reversal too small is a common mistake for trail designers.
  • If at all possible on a new trail, design in grade reversals and avoid using rolling dips.
  • Whenever possible, use the alignment to help turn the water in the desired direction. A curve to the right will help turn water to the right.
  • Make the length of the reversal as long as possible. A good minimum is 30 to 50 feet.
  • Use the terrain to create grade reversals. Roll into and out of natural draws and depressions.

Turnouts. There are many benefits to two-way trails, but with steep topography or dense vegetation, opportunities to pass other riders can be limited. In addition, when riders try to squeeze by, weight on the outside of the trail can damage the trail shoulder making the trail narrower and potentially unstable. This can be remedied by designing in turnouts. As in roads, turnouts offer a place of refuge from an oncoming rider or a safe place out of the lane of traffic to rest, look at the map, or take photos. Turnouts are usually placed at the outside of horizontal curves, the crest of vertical curves, in thick vegetation with limited sight distance, or on very steep ground where riders don’t want to back up. Spacing between turnouts depends on traffic speed, volume, and the physical conditions of the site.

Here are some considerations regarding turnouts:

  • The width should be adequate to allow safe passage by two of the widest vehicles allowed on the trail.
  • The length should be sufficient to accommodate one of the largest vehicles allowed on the trail to move in and out of the turnout.
  • Turnout tapers should allow for safe and smooth ingress and egress from the turnout.
  • Turnouts are a place of refuge, not risk. They should be cleared of all stumps and trees that could interfere with riders seeking quick refuge.
  • Riders need to be able to clearly see the traffic on the trail to safely pull out of a turnout.
  • On very steep ground and with unstable soils, a retaining wall may be required to support the turnout.
  • To maintain flow and increase rider safety, turnouts should be designed as ride through, not ride in and back out.

Troublesome Spots

Sometimes there are management constraints that preclude the designer from following the recommended guidelines. When this situation occurs, designers and planners should check the environmental document and talk to the manager. The intent of the plan document can often give designers more latitude than they may think. Depending on the political climate and the comfort level of the manager, a quick resource survey and letter for the file may be all that is needed to relocate a troublesome trail. The tips below will help mitigate the issues if the trail must go in a less than ideal situation.

The Fall Line. What if the trail has to be on the fall line?

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Tips for using fall line trails are:

  • The important thing is to recognize that the trail will be picking up water, so design to get rid of it as soon as possible.
  • Drain the trail before hitting the fall line and immediately after leaving the fall line.
  • Minimize the length and grade of the trail on the fall line.
  • Avoid overbuilding a fall line trail. Leave rocks and roots that can help divert water off the trail or at least slow its velocity.
  • Install rolling dips or belted waterbars if possible. Belted waterbars must have barriers installed to force the riders over the waterbar. The barrier should be big enough to deter use and be installed in a herringbone pattern to help drain water off to the side. If the grade is steep, a rolling dip or waterbar will interrupt flowmentum and may cause additional tread impacts.
  • Install filters as part of entrance management to restrict use and impacts from unskilled riders.
  • Accept the fact that impacts will occur and budget for increased frequency and cost of maintenance.

Using Natural Surface Roads for 50-Inch Trails. If natural surface (NS) roads can be converted to trails, take advantage of the opportunity. There are pitfalls of using NS roads, but the reality is that NS roads are going to be used as trails, so the key is to minimize the pitfalls (tread watershed) and maximize the experience. The experience that the NS road provides depends on two factors: the standard of the NS road and the setting that the NS road is in. The road standard is determined by factors like speed (high versus low), alignment (straight versus serpentine), and surface type (gravel or native).

The setting is what is around the NS road. What is there for the riders to see and do the riders want to see it? Are their eyes confined to a corridor or are they open to a panorama? Is there scenic diversity? A high standard road tends to provide a transportation experience while a low standard road tends to provide a recreation or trail experience. However, a high standard road in a highly scenic setting can easily transform the experience from transportation to a quality recreation experience.

Here are some thoughts regarding using natural surface roads for trails:

  • If given a choice, select the natural surface roads that provide the best recreation experience. These are generally:
    • roads with lower traffic volume and speed;
    • a rougher, more primitive road;
    • a road with vertical roll (grade reversals) to reduce the size of the tread watershed;
    • a narrower road (this also reduces the size of the tread watershed);
    • a curvilinear road; and
    • roads that access viewpoints or destinations or offer a chance to see wildlife.
  • Existing culverts and ditch lines need to be functional.
  • Rolling dips may need to be added for drainage to reduce the tread watershed.
  • Decreasing road width minimizes the size of the tread watershed.
  • Utilize variety. Mixing up the road standards, scenic views, and riding experiences is a key to quality.

Connect One Natural Surface Road to Another. This is a common scenario. The connector will often be the only chance to provide a high-quality trail experience. Seize the opportunity to maximize that experience. If there is only a quarter mile between the two natural surface roads, try to squeeze in one-half to three-fourth mile of fun trail.

Using Flat Ground. Flat ground is not a sustainable trail location. However, sometimes it is required or desirable to use it.

When placing a trail on flat ground:

  • Drain water off the trail before reaching the flat ground.
  • Minimize the amount of trail on flat ground if possible.
  • Design with sinuosity and avoid tangents. This will help decrease water velocity and increase chances to drain water off the trail.
  • Incorporate structures like sumps, lead-off ditches, puncheon, and turnpike or use trail hardening techniques where necessary. Ensure that excavation from sumps and lead-off ditches is used to raise the grade of the trail bed.
  • Perform regular assessments and address problem indicators before they become issues.
  • Avoid falling into the trap of assuming there won’t be erosion because the ground and grades are flat.

Inability to Relocate the Existing Trail. If a trail can't be relocated:

  • Utilize structures and trail hardening techniques as necessary to stabilize and drain the trail. Rolling dips and belted waterbars may not be ideal, but they can work if they are installed and maintained properly.
  • If trail is not in conformance with the TMO (especially in regard to difficulty), change the TMO, then ensure that the signing and mapping agree with the new TMO.
  • Install a filter as part of the entrance management to ensure that only technically capable riders can access the trail.
  • Accept the fact that impacts will occur and budget for increased frequency and cost of maintenance.
  • If impacts to sensitive resources are occurring and there is no way to mitigate those impacts, an option is to close the trail. Use this as a last resort only.

Some More Tips

Watch for the Red Flags. The need for multiple structures and trail hardening installations can be a red flag indicator of a poor location due to poor soils, wet ground, or unstable ground. Perhaps the trail shouldn’t be there. Are there other options? If not, then plan for an increased maintenance budget.

Water, Water, and More Water. It can’t be emphasized enough. Managing water is a primary key to a sustainable trail. The designers must look for all water sources entering the trail bed. The more water that comes onto the trail, the more often the designers must design ways to get it off the trail.

Too Steep, Too Long. The most common causes of trail rutting and erosion is from the grade being too steep, or the grade being too long without a drain or grade reversal. Or worse yet, the grade is both too steep and too long. The combination of the two is hard to mitigate. The steeper the trail grade is, the closer it becomes to a fall line trail with all of its inherent issues. How steep is too steep and how long is too long? There are many variables: soil type, climate, storm patterns, tread watershed size, use type, and use level, to name just a few.

Is It a Good Line? Since design is about making decisions, one of the best tests of a line is to walk it again after a couple of days. Designers should ask themselves the same critical questions: should I be here or there? If the answers are the same, they probably have the trail in the right location.

If possible during construction, designers should physically ride the trail. If something isn’t right, they can fix it while the equipment is still there. If the designers can’t ride the trail until after construction, they should acknowledge the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect trail. The important thing is that if a designer has made a mistake, the mistake should be corrected if possible and not made again elsewhere.

Is It a Fix or a Solution? Is adding a rolling dip or throwing pavers on a grade that is too long and too steep a fix or a solution? The problem is that the tread watershed is too large and the problem is still there even if mitigated with a dip or pavers. There is an installation cost, a regular maintenance cost, and a repair cost due to a significant weather event or poor installation. Too often, managers choose a bandage fix over the solution of relocating the trail. Putting the trail where it ought to be improves resource protection, enhances rider experience, and can cost the program less money in the long term.

Take a Trip. Good designers learn from their experiences. They should visit or ride other trail systems so they can ride good trails and bad trails. They should assess what made the bad trails bad and avoid those scenarios in their design. Likewise, they should assess what made the good trails good and incorporate those scenarios. Better yet, they should embellish those good points to make a good trail great.

Design for the Riders’ Eyes. Designing for the riders’ eyes means putting the trail where the riders think it will be. If the trail does something unexpected, it can be difficult for the riders, which can lead to resource impacts and risk. That is why the designers must understand the vehicles and the rider experience. When locating a trail, designers should ride the trail in their mind as they are laying it out. Does it flow? Does it feel right? What is the TMO for the trail?

Some riders like the challenge of difficult situations. However, in some situations, such as in soft soils, challenge can increase maintenance costs. That may be okay if that is the best way to meet the riders’ needs and if it is consistent with the TMO. Design is all about making decisions: what best fits the site parameters.

Get Help. Trail location and design are parts of a very complex process that requires journeyman knowledge and experience in a multitude of disciplines. If team members don’t possess that level of knowledge, get help; otherwise either the trail or the resources or both could suffer. The belief that trails are simple and anyone can design one is false, and it shows when the team has to go back and try to fix the mistakes.

A Second Look

The evolution of trails: Due to the forces of compaction, displacement, and erosion, trails will change over time. With sustainable design, those forces can be slowed and managed, but not stopped. When first constructed, the tread often appears smooth and sanitized and riders often reject them as being unnatural. But in time, rocks and roots will appear, loose rocks will get rolled out of the way, and some of the features that were easy to negotiate become a little harder to negotiate. So the experience and challenge level can change. This is due to a trail settling into the landscape and the effects of thousands of vehicles and hundreds of weather events. Change is not necessarily bad and is often beneficial, but it should be anticipated by the designers and managers and be reflected in the TMO. This will ensure that after the trail has settled in, the challenge level still falls within the parameters of the TMO. In maintenance, signs get replaced, blowdowns get removed, hazards get addressed, structures get inspected and addressed, and spot tread maintenance occurs, but rarely does the entire tread get maintained. If the condition of the trail after evolution will not be acceptable, then the designers must take steps now to keep the trail in its as-built condition.

Need More? Learn More Here.

Alaska Trails Training Modules, Mike Shields,
Trail Design and Layout
Turns: Design and Layout

Best Maintenance Practices, Maine Motorized Trail Construction and Maintenance Manual, Bureau of Parks & Lands, Off-Road Division, May 2011

Designing Sustainable Off-Highway Vehicle Trails, Kevin G. Meyer, USDA Forest Service, Technology & Development Program, November 2013

Natural Surface Trails by Design, Troy Scott Parker, Natureshape, 2004

Off-Highway Motorcycle & ATV Trails: Guidelines for Design, Construction, Maintenance and User Satisfaction, 2nd Edition, Joe Wernex, American Motorcyclist Association, 1994

Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook, USDA Forest Service, Technology & Development Program, 0723-2806-MTDC, July 2007

Trail Planning, Design, and Development Guidelines, State of Minnesota, Department of Natural Resources, Trails and Waterways Division, 2007

Trails Management Handbook, USDA Forest Service, FSH 2309.18

A Look Back

Here are some of the elements discussed in this chapter:

  • Trail location and design are about choices and informed decisions
  • The designers provide for the riders’ needs, manage the OHV use, and protect the resources
  • The designers must know and understand the issues, politics, resource values and constraints, management constraints, existing conditions, vision, TMO, soils, climate, vegetation, and topography
  • The trail location process includes: know the complete trail picture, use the concept plan, identify termini and control points, break up the elephant into chewable chunks, conduct total reconnaissance, connect the dots, revise the concept plan, develop final TMOs, and prepare a trail log
  • Locators should learn to read the landscape and understand what it is telling them
  • Designers should design the trail to flow and harmonize with the landscape
  • Designers should use whatever the landscape offers to enhance the rider experience
  • Layout and design fundamentals include: speed causes issues, topography and vegetation are good, water is an issue, create a recreation experience rather than a transportation experience, avoid Point A to B location, head for the rocks, and manage the riders’ eyes
  • Certain situations need special design techniques: road crossings, creek crossings, bridge sites, ridges, meadows, climbing turns, switchbacks, trail junctions, sound intrusion to residents, grade reversals, and turnouts
  • It’s a real world, not an ideal world. There are mitigations available when designers can’t do what should be done
  • The need for structures and hardening can be red flag indicators of poor soils and a poor location. Designers should look for options
  • Managing water is a primary key to sustainability
  • The biggest causes of trail problems are trails where the grade is too steep or too long or both. Designers should avoid that scenario
  • A bandage fix can be more costly than the solution of relocating the trail
  • Design for the riders’ eyes by putting the trail where the riders expect it to go and avoiding awkward moments that result in tread impacts and increased maintenance
  • Experience is the best teacher. Designers should draw on their own experience and the experiences of others. This book touches on the intricacies of design, it does not make someone a designer. Recognize when help is needed and get it

Like any other modality, an integral part of trail riding is challenge: riders constantly push themselves to determine how good they are and how good are their machines. Challenging trails or features can provide a boost of fun, excitement, extended seat time, camaraderie, and self-confidence if the rubber side stays down. By choice, they take riders out of their comfort zone. Adrenaline is pumped out as riders negotiate challenge and are left with a rush of endorphins as they complete the challenge. This creates a chemical high that contributes to the “WOW! That was a great trail!” feeling at the end of the day. These experiences and sensations are desirable and when trail planners provide them, they are definitely providing for the riders’ needs.

The issue, though, is how to provide for those needs and still have a sustainable trail. As one group of riders said: “We want sustainable trails, but don’t take away our hillclimbs.” In most cases, this is an oxymoron. In an era of rules like the 50 percent rule and the 10 percent average grade rule, it can be easy to design out excitement and challenge. That is why trail planners focus on making informed decisions on a given site rather than on conforming to rules. In many cases, planners and designers may have more latitude than they think.

Section 1: Challenge versus Sustainability

Providing Sustainable Challenges

There are five ways to create and provide challenge: 1) utilize natural features; 2) utilize design features; 3) utilize manufactured topographic features; 4) utilize natural topographic features; and 5) utilize manufactured design features. A good designer will use all five, either independently or together, to create the desired experience.

1. Utilize natural features. These are features like rock outcrops, boulders, rock step-ups, scree, slab rock, slick rock, and cliffs. Notice that these are all rock features. Rock is generally more durable than soil and offers opportunities for a varied and challenging riding experience. Riding a smooth surface trail can be fun, but throwing in some rocks occasionally can increase that fun.

Soil type also fits into the natural feature category. Often, designers don’t have a choice of the soil type that the trail goes through, but if they do, soil type can definitely affect challenge level. In dry climates, sandy soils are more challenging than silt or clay. In wet climates, silt turns to mud and clay turns into slick gumbo, but wet sand holds up quite nicely.

Although rocks are durable, the soil around them usually isn’t as durable. Going from rock to rock can work well, but going from rock to soil to rock may result in considerable soil displacement. On some trails, ledges will continue to get higher as tires displace the soil at the base of the ledge. Eventually, even experienced riders may start looking for a bypass. Designers should anticipate this and harden the approaches to these features if possible.

2. Utilize design features. While topographic features may be limited, there are a host of design features available, including grade, vertical alignment, horizontal alignment, obstacles, clearing, tread, and exposure. Grade is one of the challenge features that riders like the most, but it’s also one that can cause the most impacts. The key is for designers to look at a given situation and make an assessment on how steep the grade can be. Grade pitches, even short ones, can increase the interest and variety of the trail.

Even if there aren’t steeper pitches, keeping the vertical alignment moving increases difficulty while increasing sustainability and fun factor, and reducing speed.

As with vertical alignment, it is important to keep the horizontal alignment moving. Take advantage of tree or brush thickets to tighten up the alignment. The tighter it is, the more technical it is. If ATVs and ROVs have to back up to negotiate a turn, up to a point it makes the trail more challenging. Compound curves, broken back curves, and non-circular curves can increase difficulty by decreasing flow, but they can also increase tread impacts.

Chicanes are another tool to slow down riders and increase challenge. A chicane is a feature that creates another set of turns, so a chicane hugs a rock or a tree where a circular curve goes around the rock or tree. Chicanes interrupt flow and are okay on tight and technical alignments, but shouldn’t be used on open and flowing alignments without slowing the riders down first.

Obstacles are a great way of increasing challenge. The issue with using obstacles is that they can be removed over time through maintenance or by well-intentioned riders trying to help out. If obstacles are intended to be left for challenge features, they must be documented in the TMO, and the intent of the TMO must be communicated to the maintenance personnel. Riding over obstacles like roots, rocks, and stumps can increase the degree of challenge.

Six elements can affect the degree of challenge for obstacles: size, frequency, stability, traction, location, and position.

  1. Size. Certainly, larger objects are more challenging to ride over than smaller objects. There are guidelines for size, but really, there are too many variables to say that one size is more difficult than another size. Using a variety of obstacles can also affect the challenge of a trail
  2. Frequency. Getting over a single rock is one thing, but negotiating a rock garden is another as abrupt physical forces direct forward momentum sideways or backward.
  3. Stability. Riding over an obstacle that is loose or rolls is more challenging than riding over one that is firmly embedded.
  4. Traction. Challenge increases when traction decreases, so an object that is wet, smooth, or slimy with moss or mud is more difficult to negotiate than one that is dry and rough.
  5. Location. Obstacles on curves are more challenging to negotiate than those on tangents because the riders are trying to turn the vehicles against forces that are directed forward and outward. Loosing tire contact or hitting an obstacle that throws the vehicle outward forces the rider to quickly react to keep the vehicle going in the direction of the turn. On a tangent, riders are more likely to see objects approaching and gauge speed and position appropriately, but that advantage is generally lost in a curve.
  6. Position. Obstacles that are, or have surfaces that are, at an acute angle to the trail tread are more challenging to negotiate than those that are perpendicular to the trail tread. As the degree of angle decreases, the degree of challenge increases.

Putting all of these elements together, the most challenging scenario would be many large, loose, slippery, and smooth obstacles placed in a curve. What if the trail doesn’t have any obstacles? Import them, or instead of wasting slash during trail clearing, bring some of it back in after construction and stake it in place to create obstacles.

Soil type can play an important part in deciding whether or not to incorporate obstacles. It takes traction to negotiate obstacles. While soft soils can increase technical challenge, that can also equate to unwanted tread impacts and maintenance costs as less skilled riders spin their tires to negotiate obstacles.

The properties of most soils change as the weather changes and with that the rideability and challenge changes, sometimes dramatically in just a few hours. This is a factor that designers need to consider when playing with alignment and features. As friction or traction changes, so does the level of challenge. Also, as the cohesiveness of the soil decreases, its resistance to displacement decreases, so what was a durable challenge feature one day, may not be so durable the next day.

Clearing width should be kept tight. The narrower it is, the slower the riders will go. They’ll go even slower if there is a risk of losing a fender or breaking plastic. That risk equates to challenge. Having green leg slappers or brush scrapping down the side of a vehicle not only slows and confines the use, it gives riders the illusion that they are pioneering a trail. It also affects their perception of safety.

Vertical clearing or pruning height can also challenge riders and enhance their experience. Designers can create a tunnel effect; but brush is one thing, immovable objects like logs are another, especially if vehicles without roll bars are using the trails. Designers need to take extreme care to ensure that the speed is down and that riders have adequate time and visibility to see the overhanging log. This practice places the agency at risk. What if the log breaks and becomes a spear? What if vegetation grows in so riders can’t see it coming? It’s a poor practice and not worth the risk.

There are guidelines for clearing height and width, but many of them appear to be founded on reducing agency risk rather than increasing rider experience. Designers should look at the TMO and then assess what features or opportunities they have on site to create the desired experience.

A rough, inconsistent tread is more challenging to ride than a smooth, consistent one.

The design elements for tread are: width, irregular tread surface or rugosity, and irregular tread plane.

  • Width. A narrower tread has the same effect and benefits as narrower clearing. Note: Narrower equals challenge equals reduced speed; wider equals less challenge equals increased speed. Changing the tread width can add variety and challenge if it’s consistent with the TMO. A good design tool is a choke, which is a narrowing of the trail tread accompanied by a restrictor like trees or rocks. These are similar to a gateway or anchor except that the tread width is less than the design standard. Chokes slow riders down by reducing their perception of safety: “Am I going to fit through that?” These are good in advance of junctions, technical sections, or anyplace else designers want the riders to slow down. Unless the speed is already slow or the trail is extremely technical, it is essential that riders have adequate sight distance to see the choke coming and prepare accordingly to negotiate it.

    A similar tool is the perceived choke. With these, the tread does not narrow up, but the clearance between trees or obstacles does. Usually, the trail corridor is cleared for a specified distance wider than the trail tread so that tree trunks are away from the trail shoulder, but tree limbs could still protrude into the trailway. Except for single track, OHV trail treads are wider than the machine. When there is zero clearance from the shoulder to the trees, there is adequate width for the ATV, ROV, or 4WD to pass through, but the riders’ perception is that it is too narrow and they will brake hard.

    Chokes serve as anchors and gateways. If the restrictors are less than wheel height, the riders will slow up much less than if they were above wheel height because they are less of a perceived threat. The higher the restrictors, the more intimidating they become.

  • Irregular tread surface or rugosity. This would include rutted or uneven trail treads. This increases challenge because riders often cannot choose their line and are forced to fall into a rut or try to stay out of one. Ruts are often associated with poor drainage and erosion or lack of maintenance, but they can be beneficial. If the issue is drainage, fix the drainage and leave the ruts for challenge if consistent with the TMO. Or, don’t fix it if the erosion isn’t damaging.
  • Irregular tread plane. The normal trail prism is flat, insloped, or outsloped, but what if the tread did all three randomly and unexpectedly? Pitching side to side changes the directional physical forces of the vehicle and requires corrective action by the riders. This increases the challenge level. In slippery soils, an outsloped curve on a steep slope can be dicey to negotiate.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Trick: The degree of challenge relates to the degree of flow. As flow decreases, challenge increases
In playing with natural features and design features, designers can increase the challenge by reducing flow. Rocks, obstacles, irregular tread widths and planes, clearing widths, and irregular alignment all affect how the trail flows and thus how easy or difficult it is for the riders to negotiate that flow.

When a rider is placed in a situation where a mistake could lead to equipment damage or loss, personal injury, or death; that is called exposure. Exposure equals challenge. Exposure is usually, but not necessarily, associated with cliffs or very steep, open sideslopes. When a rider is on a narrow trail and it is 1,000 feet almost straight down to the river; that is exposure. Add in an outsloped tread, obstacles, and slick soils and the degree of exposure has been compounded.

From a challenge standpoint, the designer has several options: exclude exposure sections, include exposure sections if consistent with the TMO, change the length of exposure, and change the frequency of exposure.

To manage risk, it is important that exposure be reflected in the difficulty level of the trail, usually black diamond or double black diamond depending on the degree of exposure. Good entrance management and filters should also be employed to inform and limit unskilled riders. Since exposure can be an extreme challenge, it should be highlighted on the trail map and website and should include additional signing at the trail entrance.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Trap:Designers can fall into the trap of laying out what they like or are comfortable with, not what their customers like or are comfortable with.
Like chokes, there is real and perceived exposure. Real is when riders are on the edge of the cliff and perceived is when they think they’re on the edge of a cliff. When a vehicle is pitched up and off-camber and riders can’t see what the ground is doing in front of them or where and how the tires are going to come down, that is perceived exposure. This is a really cool tool.

3. Utilize manufactured topographic features. Manufactured topographic features include the remnants of extraction activities like rock pits, quarries, open-pit mines, and borrow pits; old landings; drill pads; processing and transfer sites; and runways (that is, any large area that has been used for another activity). What is good about these? They are already heavily impacted sites, so they are often a wash from a resource standpoint. As such, they offer an opportunity to be used as OHV facilities where high impact use could occur with little impact on the environment.

The sites in remnants of extraction activity areas could be used for OHV training areas, mudding, pit-squid activity, hillclimb, and rock crawl by 4WDs, ROVs, and ATVs. These sites are often referred to as play areas or open areas that have little or no development.

The large areas that have been used for another activity could now also be used for OHV training areas, MX tracks, and technical challenge courses like terrain parks and endurocross. These activities require a higher level of development and often a higher level of maintenance for which management may not want to assume responsibility.

There are segments of people in the OHV community who have little interest in trails. These include rock crawlers, dune riders, mud riders, MX riders, pit-squids, and often younger kids. Open areas provide places for these activities to occur. Some people think that open areas are just sacrifice areas. Not so. Like trails, they are designed and managed for a specific use or activity. In addition to providing a place for challenge and high-impact activities, open areas are excellent OHV management tools. When legal areas exist to do non-trail related activities, trail managers or rangers can direct the use away from non-legal areas to the legal areas. It is always better to work with human nature than against it.

An argument against open areas is that if designers provide for that use, they are telling the public that those activities are acceptable. Not at all, and in fact the opposite. What designers are saying is that those activities are not acceptable elsewhere, but they are acceptable here and only here.

Liability often comes up in discussions about open areas. The bottom line is that there is liability in everything. The issue is how the risk is managed. Play or open areas need to be signed that the area is to be used at the riders’ own risk. The designers may add rocks for a rock crawl, a couple of simple dirt mounds for kids, or a mudding area, but as long as the designers aren’t constructing technical features like doubles, triples, and table tops that require precise construction and maintenance, the risk is low. Unless a trail team member carelessly does something that changes the condition of the site without signing or warning of the change (like dumping storm-damaged culverts or a bridge, removing the back half of a mound, or creating a vertical face where it was once sloped), the risk is managed.

Almost any size area can be used from a quarter acre to 40 acres or more. Depending on the expected use level, the bigger the better; but anything is usually better than nothing.

Since open areas are designated sites, there needs to be signing to identify the site, and the perimeter of the area should be clearly marked with boundary markers.

4. Utilize natural topographic features. Natural topographic features include any area where unrestricted cross-country riding is allowed. These are usually sand dunes, scab flats, rock knobs, or hills that have durable soils. These open areas are natural features, not commercially impacted features. Like the open areas discussed above, they are designed and managed to accommodate a specific use or activity and they need to be signed accordingly. They can offer high speed, high fun, and high challenge.

One use for natural topographic features is as observed trials courses. What trials riders can do on a motorcycle is amazing. Like rock crawl, they need a variety of large obstacles and since it is a spectator sport, public access to the site is important. Very slow speeds and very low tire pressures make this a low-impact activity. Trials doesn’t require a large area, only a few acres can be sufficient if the area has the right mix of terrain features. If designers have a suitable site, they could consider designating it for trials practice and events.

5. Utilize manufactured design features. In spite of all the tools available above, the reality is that there are many places that can’t provide sustainable, quality technical challenge. Either they don’t have the topography, features, or soils; or are too dry or too wet. Yet riders still want and need challenge, so how do designers provide that? It’s time to think outside of the box and create it. By creating it, designers have the control to design what they want, where they want it. Management of the use, rider experience, and the resources can all benefit from that. The mountain bike community discovered this several years ago and has upped the challenge and fun factor with the development of coasters, ladder bridges, terrain parks, pump tracks, and freeride facilities. The OHV community could learn and benefit from these examples.

Other than site constraints and possibly funding, the ability to manufacture features is only limited by a person’s level of vision and creativity. The opportunistic designer or manager keeps an eye out for free or low-cost material sources by staying in tune with other construction activities in the area that could have win-win potential: a road or building project that needs a waste site for dirt, stumps, logs, or rock; a building being demolished that could be a source for bricks or concrete chunks; a tire shop that needs to dispose of used or recalled tires; and the list goes on. Repurposing materials destined for a landfill or other disposal facility helps the environment while helping designers provide for and manage the OHV use.

Liability often comes up in this discussion also, but again the mountain bikers have set the example for risk management by incorporating tools to limit liability, including entrance management, filters, effective signing, easy-outs, access control, design standards, and inspection and maintenance protocols.

Avoiding Too Much of a Good Thing

What makes a great trail great? Variety. Use the ways outlined in this chapter to create variety and mix them up, but even then, do riders want to bounce over rocks and roots, squeeze between trees, hang on the edge of a cliff, or have poor flow for 20 miles? That type of trail isn’t fun. To the extent that it’s consistent with the TMO, challenge features should be intermixed with all of the other design tools that truly make a great trail great.

There are plenty of creative options mentioned above to provide technically challenging experiences, but there are some things that shouldn’t be done.


  • Reduce maintenance level, quality, or frequency. The degree of maintenance must agree with the TMO. Arbitrarily reducing maintenance can lead to tread degradation, erosion, resource impacts, rider safety concerns, and risk.
  • Reduce or remove drainage to increase challenge.
  • Arbitrarily change the difficulty rating and signing without changing the TMO. The signing must agree with the TMO. If it doesn’t, the agency is not managing its risk.
  • Allow continued high-impact riding in natural areas not managed as open areas.
  • Use unprotected wet area crossings that will develop into undesignated mud bogs.
  • Design trails that will create unacceptable visual scars or be socially insupportable.
  • Create a technical feature that is inconsistent with the TMO. This can trap riders, increase resource impacts, and increase agency risk.

Remember that challenge is an expectation, risk is a surprise. Minimize the surprises.

Section 2: Using Existing Trails

Managers often ask, "Can I use existing trails?" The answer is the standard: “It depends.” A designated trail system is usually comprised of routes that come from three sources: 1) user-created trails that become incorporated into the system; 2) roads, trails, skid trails, seismic lines, or other routes that are repurposed as OHV trails; and 3) purpose-built trails that have been designed for a specific use or activity. The problem routes are usually those that were incorporated under the first two categories. Planners and designers should use these trails judiciously because although they have low up-front costs, they have inherent problems and risk that can result in high long-term operational costs.

Four Components of Sustainability

There are four components to trail sustainability: 1) resource sustainability, 2) political or social sustainability, 3) experience sustainability, and 4) managerial sustainability. These are powerful. If a trail does not have all four components, it could fail.

Resource sustainability. Will the trail provide resource protection in the long term? This is the definition that most people use when referring to sustainable trails.

Experience sustainability. The agency can have a resource sustainable trail, but what if the riders don’t like it? Will the trail provide the desired recreation experience in the long term? Will the experience stay at the same level in the long term?

Political or social sustainability. The agency can have a great trail that has both resource and experience sustainability but is in the wrong place and is unsupportable from a political or social standpoint. There could be visual impacts, noise impacts, or the social impact of “I don’t want to see that activity there.”

Managerial sustainability. There are several aspects of managerial sustainability. One aspect is economic sustainability. A trail in the wrong location can sometimes be mitigated by increasing maintenance and monitoring. But at some point, the cost of having the trail in that location may not be worth it. Another aspect is defensibility. Is the land manager is a position to be able to justify the trail in that location? Also, are the skills of the maintenance and monitoring personnel suitable for the trail? Does the trail meet the needs of the riders?

A Case In Point

When asked where there might be a place to have hillclimbs, the riders said: “Here, this is the perfect place for sustainable hillclimbs. They’ve been there forever and they’re the greatest.” They were right. There was durable soil, favorable climate, few ruts, almost no erosion, and high fun factor and challenge. Other than a visual scar, there were few adverse effects from years or decades of use. For all practical purposes, they had resource and experience sustainability.

Except those hillclimbs were located in a huge meadow that was determined to be a sensitive grassland environment; they were visible from a main recreation access road; they contributed noise impacts to residents; and they represented years of abuse and misuse to an intolerant community and media. They weren’t politically sustainable and today they are closed and rehabbed.


Erosion is an ongoing process. It can be managed, but never stopped. Some of the best trail and technical challenge opportunities have been created through erosion, so erosion isn’t necessarily bad. It depends on where it is occurring and its effect on other resources. If other resource values are low and there is no stream connectivity, the movement of soil particles from point A to point B is not loss, it’s relocation. If the land manager feels comfortable with the effects, keeping the erosion may be an option. Given the same scenario with the same manager in a different location, the answer could be different.

In looking at a heavily eroded trail, it is easy for a designer to give up and say: “There is nothing to be done with this except close it.” That may be true, but some type of drainage needs to be installed just to close and rehab the trail, so if that effort has to be made anyway, perhaps it’s worth keeping the trail, or at least portions of it.

Here are some management options:

  • Close and rehab the trail.
  • Relocate the trail.
  • Keep the trail as is and allow the trail to continue to degrade.
  • Keep the trail as is and take steps to reduce further degradation.
  • Keep the trail as is and restrict or regulate the type and volume of use.
  • Use a mixture of all of the above.

Each situation is unique, so designers should start with an assessment. An engineer, soil scientist, hydrologist, botanist, or other specialists may need to be part of the team. It’s not a perfect world and creating great trails is about making informed decisions. Here are some key questions to ask when assessing a trail:

  • Does the trail still provide a desired recreation experience? Is it a high-quality experience?
  • The trail is eroded, but how much will it continue to erode and at what pace?
  • Is the trail down to bedrock? Is the bulk of the damage already done?
  • Can the erosion be managed? Where is the water coming from? Can that water be diverted into natural drainages?
  • Is the trail on the fall line or in a natural drainageway?
  • Can the trail be drained? With deeply entrenched trails, this could be difficult and expensive.
  • Does the water from the trail have direct connectivity to a stream?
  • Where are sediments carried by the water being deposited?
  • What is the risk to resources if the trail is kept as it is?
  • What is the risk to the resources if the trail is drained?
  • Is the trail or the project in a fish bowl of controversy?
  • Is the trail or the manager’s decision politically and managerially sustainable?

This assessment and any resulting action decisions should be well documented.

Options to Consider

The answers to the above questions will determine the options for moving forward. Using a severely damaged existing trail is rarely the best choice, but in some cases, it may be the only choice. Heavily eroded trails essentially become stream channels by intercepting all of the water flowing overland from above. Correcting the water flow can be difficult and expensive, but not impossible. There are costs to implement these actions and costs to maintain them.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Try to restore the natural drainageways. Water needs to flow down the landscape, not down the trail.
  • In areas with heavy overland flow of water, diversion ditches could be installed above the trail to intercept this water and lead it into the natural drainageway. This will significantly reduce the size of the tread watershed and help protect the banks of the trail from further erosion. Most likely, the diversion ditches would need to be lined with rock to dissipate energy and prevent scouring of the ditch.
  • If the banks of the trench are eroding heavily and diversion ditches are not installed, apply a blanket of rock to the banks to resist further scour.
  • Construct rideable check dams. These would fill up the trench and essentially create a rock rolling dip. These could be used to either force water off the trail or slow the velocity of the water and drop its load of sediment. The check dam rock would need to be heavy and angular to resist displacement by tire action.
  • Pop the trail out of the trench occasionally. This forces water off the trail and down the trench. Then construct a dam of dirt and rock and drain the trench into a natural drainageway. The trail can then re-enter the trench until the next drainage opportunity. This must be done at regular intervals so that the natural drainageways do not become overloaded with the trail runoff.
  • Excavate the lower edge of the entrenched trail to create a ditch. Line it with rock and drain it wherever possible.
  • Manage the trail by closing it during periods of high rainfall or saturated soils to reduce impacts.
  • Reduce further displacement and erosion by armoring the tread. This keeps tire action away from the soil and reduces the velocity and scouring forces of the water running down the trail.
  • Use the portions of the trail that can be drained and relocate the portions that can’t.

Section 3: A Different Approach to Challenge

So far, this chapter has discussed incorporating natural and manufactured features and designing for challenge. After designers have incorporated those features, they normally label the trail with a blue square (More Difficult), black diamond (Most Difficult), or double black diamond (Extremely Difficult). In reality though, only a percentage of the trail actually contains those challenge features, yet the whole trail is labeled to reflect the worst condition. In many cases, a black trail isn’t all black, it’s blue with a few black spots. Granted, there are those trails that are gnarly from start to finish and those should be labeled accordingly, but what about those that aren’t consistently gnarly?

Designers can install filters so that only riders with the proper skills can access a trail, but if only 20 percent of the trail is gnarly, there is 80 percent that could still be ridden by lesser skilled riders, but those riders can’t access it. Is that the best utilization of a trail resource?

If designers don’t install filters, what generally happens with the challenge features? The lesser skilled riders start looking for a way around the challenges. These are called easy-outs. Why this occurs relates directly back to the riders’ feelings about safety and efficiency. The easiest and most comfortable line may not be the straight line. This can result in braided trails and resource impacts.

There are three remedies for the problem of unskilled riders ruining or breaching technical features: design easy-outs, design technical options, or design with multiple lines.

Design Easy-Outs

If the tendency is to ride around a feature, why not design the feature with an easy-out so the trail team can control and manage the use? If all of the technical features on a trail had easy-outs, the overall difficulty rating may be lower and more riders of varied skills could utilize the trail. Easy-outs don’t have to be easy, they just need to be easier than the challenge feature.

Here is another consideration: maintenance. If equipment is going to be maintaining the trail, how does it get over a challenge feature without damaging it? An easy-out can provide a bypass for the maintenance equipment as well as the riders.

Design Technical Options

Even better than designing easy-outs is to design the entire trail as green or blue with technical outs where the riders have a choice of staying on a less technical route or riding a more technical section. The technical sections can be very short to take advantage of a boulder feature, or longer for a rock garden, but they all loop back to the main trail. If the trail was a double track, there could be both single-track and double-track technical options.

Here are some advantages of designing technical options rather than a technical trail:

  • More riders can use the entire trail. In areas where trail development is limited, this could be a significant advantage.
  • Better utilization of the land base because one trail can offer several challenge levels.
  • A group of riders of varied skill levels can ride together. This extends time for camaraderie, bonding, social interaction, and it’s especially good for families.
  • Riders can choose the amount of challenge for their comfort level on any given day or time; and it may depend on the make-up of the group.
  • Less risk of resource impacts due to the creation of easy-outs because the main trail is the easy-out.
  • Fewer tread impacts caused by under-skilled riders attempting higher-skilled features. This equates to less maintenance.
  • Options, like an easy-out, could allow a bypass for maintenance equipment so the more technical lines do not get damaged.
  • Better utilization of available features.
  • With the lack of available natural features, manufactured features can be incorporated adjacent to the main trail.
  • Higher fun factor and increased rider satisfaction.

Design with Multiple Lines

Another technique from the mountain bikers is designing features with multiple approach lines, so one feature can offer several different challenge experiences depending on the riders’ feelings of safety and efficiency on a given day. Providing challenge features with choices increases the fun factor and decreases tread impacts. Of course, not all features can have multiple lines, but this is a great technique that should be incorporated wherever possible by the innovative designer. Again, an advantage of multiple lines is that one of them could allow a bypass for maintenance equipment so the more technical lines do not get damaged.

A Look Back

Here are some of the elements discussed in this chapter:

  • A common dilemma is how to provide challenge and still maintain sustainability
  • There are five main tools to help solve this dilemma:
    • Utilize natural features
    • Utilize design features
    • Utilize manufactured topographic features
    • Utilize natural topographic features
    • Utilize manufactured design features (man-made features)
  • Maintain a variety of features and experiences. 100% gnarly is 0% fun
  • In order to protect resources, be consistent with the TMO, and manage risk, there are several things that should not be done when providing challenge
  • There are four aspects to sustainability: resource, political or social, experience, and managerial. Without all four, a trail or project could fail.
  • Erosion can be managed but not be stopped, and it can create challenging trail features
  • In dealing with existing impacts, management has several options depending on resource values and political sustainability:
    • Close and rehab
    • Relocate
    • Keep the trail as is and allow the trail to continue to degrade
    • Keep the trail as is and take steps to reduce further degradation
    • Keep the trail as is and restrict or regulate the use
    • Use a mix of all of the above
  • Taking a different approach to challenge can have many benefits, including better utilization of the trail resource
  • Including easy outs with challenge features helps protect resources while better managing the OHV use and providing a bypass for maintenance equipment
  • Designing the trails with technical options gives the riders a choice of challenge based on their feelings of safety and efficiency on a given day. This allows for green, blue, and black challenge levels all on the same trail.
  • Designing a challenge feature with multiple approach lines is a creative way to provide riders with choices, which can enhance their experience

All trails start at a trailhead or other facility. Those facilities may be the first and only opportunity for the agency to interact or communicate with the riders; therefore, they serve as a welcome center for the customers. As such, they play a key role in OHV management and rider experience. Human feelings and perceptions are powerful elements in making a great trail great. When pulling into a facility, an impression will be made in the mind of the riders. First impressions are lasting impressions and they can form in less than one tenth of a second.

That mental image will include feelings on several important components:

  • Welcome. Do I feel welcome here?
  • Accepted. Does the agency care about me and my activity?
  • Care. Does this appear to be a well-managed and maintained facility and therefore trail system?
  • Thoughtful. Has this been designed for my vehicle? Can I even get turned around?
  • Safe. Is this a safe place for me and my equipment?

A negative answer to any one of these questions could trigger a negative impression of the site, the agency, and the experience the riders are about to have. A positive impression opens the riders’ minds for receptive communication and acceptance of the rules, regulations, and expected etiquette. Being free of negativity as they start down the trail, the riders can absorb the experience without bias, which sets the stage and opens the door for a WOW experience at the end of the day.

When designing facilities, it’s important to go back to the niche and vision for the project. Who are the customers? Where are they coming from? How many are there? What vehicle types will they bring? Will there be events? The answers to these questions affect the planning of the trail system as well as the design of the facilities. If the bulk of the customers travel less than 100 miles to ride, the trail will have predominantly day use. If customers travel more than 100 miles, the trail will become a destination where riders will spend a weekend or longer. From day use to destination, the vehicle type may change from pickups and trailers to motorhomes and toy haulers; the composition of the customers may change from individuals, buddies, or a family to groups of families, extended families, and clubs. This affects the number of people who could be at the facility at any one time and thus the size, design, and amenities of the facility. If the trail is a destination, riders will need overnight facilities like motels, RV parks, and campgrounds.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip: Most OHV riders would rather have a million dollar trail system than a million dollar campground.
OHV riders are not afraid to travel, and some travel long distances to explore different parts of the country and enjoy different riding experiences. Many travel in groups that range from a few people to more than 100. Get to know the customers and what they desire. If they have RVs, many desire a simple open area where their group can circle the wagons and camp together. These group sites often have no power, water, or sewer hookups.

Others desire full hookups plus heated toilets and shower facilities. These are expensive, so don’t build them if they aren’t needed. Here is a key point: Most OHV riders would rather have a million dollar trail system than a million dollar campground.

Just as it is important to meet the riders’ needs of quality and variety on the trails, it is important to meet their facility needs as well. Keep the design simple and basic initially, but have room and the infrastructure to allow for future development and expansion. It’s a good strategy to implement the trails before the facilities, otherwise people have a place to park, but no place to ride. Then observe the use and needs of the facility and make adjustments to meet the needs of the customers.

Trailhead and Staging Area Design Considerations

The difference between a trailhead and a staging area is that a trailhead provides trail access for casual riders and a staging area provides access to trails and other activities like MX tracks, endurocross or technical terrain tracks, training areas, and concessions. A staging area usually has a larger parking area and often is used to stage events, so there may also be a pit area, starting area, gas row, and spectator area. When not being used for events, staging areas often provide an open area for dispersed camping where there is plenty of room to circle the wagons. Most OHV parks have staging areas whereas most forest trails have trailheads.

Other than size, both can have similar components. These include site signing, the trail access point, parking area, toilets, kiosks, loading ramps, and miscellaneous structures. For the most part, general design concepts will be covered, rather than specific design criteria.

Site Signing. As obvious as this component seems, there are too many OHV recreation sites that do not have an adequate identification sign out on the main road. Even though the site may be clearly visible from the road, someone who has never been there before doesn’t know if this is the intended destination or if it’s several miles farther up the road. Riders could also be arriving at night when the facility can’t be seen from the main road. Ensure that the sign is clearly visible, is reflective, and the text is legible and sized for the speed of the vehicles on the road.

If the site is off the main road on a secondary road, there should be a guide sign on the main road and a site sign on the secondary road at the actual entrance to the facility.

Trail Access. This is the access point to the trail(s). It is preferable to have access to multiple trails rather than just one trail. This allows for quick dispersal, provides loop options, and reduces traffic volume and thus potential tread maintenance.

Here are some key points on the trail access area:

  • When pulling into a parking lot, especially a large one, a common problem is not knowing where the trail access point is and not being able to see it. Depending on the trailhead design, it could be blocked by vegetation or other vehicles. A site map or guide sign at the trailhead entrance can help remedy this.
  • A lot of vehicles go through the trail access area, so barriers are often necessary to control and direct the use.
  • Entrance management signing and vehicle width restrictors should be used here.
  • This is the last opportunity to grab a map before hitting the trail(s), so a map box at this point is very handy.
  • If there are poor soils, trail hardening is often required in this area due to the volume of traffic.>

Parking. When large vehicles with trailers need to be accommodated, managing traffic flow is very important to efficiently utilize the available space. The size and configuration of the parking lot is a huge factor in determining the riders’ first impression of the site. Those with trailers will park so they don’t have to back up to get out. Design to minimize the need for backing.

Here are some thoughts on parking:

  • The design of the parking lot should clearly indicate to the visitor how to park in it.
  • Square parking lots with a single ingress or egress point are common, but do not function well. They have poor traffic flow and inefficient use of space. Since the design does not indicate how to park, the first vehicle can park anywhere, and if it parks in the wrong way, it can significantly reduce parking capacity.
  • A square parking lot works better with an ingress point on one end and egress point on the other.
  • Though often a necessity, minimize head-in, back-out parking. It is one thing to see a pickup coming before backing up and another to see a kid on a minibike, which could be traveling at a much faster speed. If head-in parking is provided, make the spaces shorter so only vehicles without trailers can use them.
  • Pull-through parking is preferred with separate ingress and egress points. This type of lot has flow, safety, and space efficiency.
  • Many people do not use or need a loading ramp because they have their own. Provide adequate parking length for the vehicle plus trailer, its loading ramp, and room for the OHV to navigate off and on that ramp without being in the travel lane. This space is significant.
  • As far as capacity, bigger is usually better. However, with a small trail system, use levels can be controlled by limiting the parking lot capacity. However, this may cause riders to park outside of the lot along access roads, which can create its own set of safety and impact issues. Usually, barriers or restrictions are required to manage this use.
  • Depending on the length of the vehicle, the width of pull-through parking lots should be 100 feet minimum, but 110 feet is optimum. A pickup with a fifth-wheel toy hauler or a motorhome with a trailer can easily be 60 feet long or longer.
  • Flares on the ingress and egress points should have a 35- to 50-foot radius.
  • An all-weather surface improves functionality throughout the seasons and reduces dust.
  • Asphalt is nice, but large expanses tend to crack and require maintenance. Depending on temperature extremes, a flexible pavement may work better if there is a good base.
  • Do not stripe or otherwise mark the parking spaces. Each vehicle is different and requires a different amount of space.
  • When calculating parking capacity, designers should remember that this isn’t a grocery store parking lot with each vehicle squeezed in with the next. Without a parking attendant, riders will not park tight. Allow room for doors on each side to be fully open and room for people, gear, and OHVs to be unloaded without scratching the next vehicle. A good average is 15 feet in width per vehicle, but at a 60 degree angle, this equates to about 18 feet on the parking lot centerline (so a 500-foot long pull-through parking lot would have a capacity of approximately 28 vehicles).

Toilets. Nothing leaves a lasting impression more than a toilet that is clean and relatively odor free. What is the impression left otherwise? Cleanliness is a maintenance issue, but odor is mostly a design issue. Too many toilets are located where it is convenient rather than where they will function the best. The critical design element for a sweet smelling toilet is airflow, which involves not only prevailing wind currents but thermal currents as well. Become knowledgeable of the science before siting a toilet. Air should move in the vent, down the riser, and up the vent stack. When users raise the toilet seat lid and a rush of nasty air hits them in the face, the airflow has not been managed correctly.

Here are some considerations:

  • Vegetation management is often required to provide and maintain proper airflow.
  • To increase thermal currents, maximize sun exposure to the vent stack.
  • A solar-powered fan in the vent pipe can help manage airflow.
  • To prevent people from parking, riding, or racing through the entryway, an L-shaped privacy screen is recommended.
  • Site the toilet so air from the vent blows away from areas where people will congregate.
  • There is a tendency to locate the toilet adjacent to the kiosk. From a privacy standpoint, this is undesirable. People tend to gather at the kiosk, but who wants a gathering next to the toilet?
  • A common game for kids is to lob rocks into the vent pipe. This can be prevented by installing a conical-shaped wire screen over the vent pipe. A flat piece of screen may not be visible by the kids and the cone shape deters needle and leaf build-up. The screen must have a big enough mesh so as not to impede airflow; do not use window screening. Also, the screen must be checked periodically to ensure that spider webs are not restricting the airflow.
  • A tip for maintenance personnel: If they wouldn’t be comfortable having their spouse and kids use the facility, clean it. No one else would want to use it either.
  • Having a hand sanitizer dispenser is a welcomed amenity and shows that the agency is willing to take that extra step toward providing quality customer service.
  • One of the benefits of OHV recreation is that many people with disabilities can participate in the sport and enjoy a quality outdoor experience. Because of that, the toilet and the pathway to it should be accessible. Better yet, include an accessible parking pad in front of the toilet.

Kiosks. The kiosk is the focal point of the trailhead. As such, it can be used to help draw attention to the trail access point. Unless there is a site host, the kiosk is the place for the agency to communicate with the riders and for the riders to gather the necessary information to plan their ride. Studies have shown that the period to have the riders’ attention is very short, so focus the information on what is most important to the riders, not necessarily the agency. Key messages need to be limited in number, stand out, and be brief.

Here are some key points:

  • Being a focal point, the kiosk should fit architecturally with the landscape. Utilizing native materials can help with this.
  • Display posters in an organized, uncluttered fashion. Focus only on the most important messages.
  • A map with a You Are Here indicator should be one of those important messages. Having it laminated is even better.
  • Avoid displaying a bunch of 8 ½ x 11 inch pages of agency rules and regulations. Few people will ever look at them. If it is absolutely necessary that these be “posted,” put them on the back of the kiosk, on one panel of a multi-panel kiosk, or on a separate kiosk.
  • Reserve space for current condition posters like fire closure, weather closure, hunting season, and an event.
  • Some kiosks have interpretive posters and messages. Due to the short attention that kiosks receive, these messages may be more useful out on the trail system where they can serve as a destination and extend recreation activity time.
  • A polycarbonate cover helps protect posters from the weather and vandalism.
  • On large trail systems with multiple access points, it can be helpful to have the site name on the kiosk so when riders arrive by trail from some other point, they can quickly ascertain their location.
  • Be sure there is at least one map box stocked with maps.
  • If there is an option, the kiosk and the posted materials will sustain less sun damage if the kiosk faces to the north or east.
  • A message board off to the side can be a handy feature for lost and found items and notes to help riders find others in their group. This can help reduce the proliferation of posting paper plates on trees or damaging signs and posters that are on the kiosk.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words, so using posters with pictures that convey the desired or undesired behavior can save space, reduce verbiage, and be quite effective at delivering the message.

Loading Ramps. Loading ramps have become almost a standard amenity at trailheads. However, when space is confined, they take up valuable real estate and can interfere with normal traffic flow. People got their vehicles loaded before they got to the trailhead; do they need a different way to unload them? Observe the use patterns and talk to the customers. This is one of those features that could be planned, but implemented at a later date if needed.

Here are some key considerations:

  • Loading ramps are relatively easy to build and make great volunteer workday projects. As such, they make good match projects for grants.
  • Many are constructed with two heights and this can be a nice feature.
  • One of the biggest issues with loading ramps is that kids or pit squids use them for jumps. This can be mitigated by installing a barrier behind the ramp so they can’t get a run at it.
  • Loading ramps and their approaches are subject to higher than normal physical forces and therefore higher levels of displacement. They should be hardened with rock or other material.
  • For gravel parking lots, instead of installing a loading ramp, consider installing an accessible parking pad(s) of suitable width and length (16 x 40 feet minimum) to facilitate loading and unloading by the disabled. This should be signed for use by the disabled only.

Miscellaneous Structures. Some amenities can be desirable depending on the climate and use patterns of the site. A good time to flush out the need for these amenities is during the planning phase of the continuum, or by monitoring use patterns and implementing them after initial facility development. Miscellaneous structures include the following:

Picnic tables are relatively inexpensive and a nice amenity. Rather than pack food, many riders will come back to the trailhead for lunch before heading out for an afternoon ride. Sitting at a table usually beats sitting in the dirt or in the back of a pickup. The more time riders are at the trailhead for other activities like an MX track or youth training area, the higher the need for picnic tables.

Trailheads are mainly for day use, but some families will build a fire mid-day so the kids can roast marshmallows. There is a need to have a safe place for a fire and to manage where fire rings occur so they don’t appear on the asphalt or scattered around on the gravel parking lot. If overnight use is allowed at the trailhead, tables and fire rings become a necessity.

In the heat of the summer, just about everyone wants to take a break or eat in the shade, but there are many places that just don’t have trees. A shaded picnic table is one of those amenities that let riders know the agency cares. One issue is that the sun moves but picnic tables don’t so the shade is not always where riders want it. Another issue is that picnic tables are expensive, so how many should be built? If the parking lot is full, not everyone can have a table in the shade, but even a couple is a nice touch. A community kitchen is more costly, but can accommodate more people. As with tables, if there are other activities occurring in and around the trailhead, there could be a demand for a covered eating or meeting area. Designers should determine the need for these other activities before they incorporate them. These structures may be harder to justify in a grant request without an established need.

In a user-pay society, fee stations are a necessity, not an amenity and a logical place for them is at the kiosk. The key point here is to not clutter the kiosk with OHV information and fee requirements. Focus the riders’ attention on one, and then the other. Have a multi-panel kiosk or a separate kiosk with a panel dedicated to the fee requirements.

Campground Design Considerations

Variety has been stressed throughout this book, and it is applicable to campgrounds as well as trails. Customers arrive as individuals or in groups of all sizes, so the camping facilities should be designed to accommodate a range of group sizes and a range of vehicle types and sizes from tents to RVs. Many agencies have design guides for campgrounds; unfortunately, some of those focus on sites for tents and pickup campers but not for big rigs with trailers. Driving a big rig with a trailer through recreation facilities gives one an entirely different perspective on adequate road width, clearances, and turning radii. Navigating a big rig should be mandatory training for any recreation facility designer.

Just like a trail designer, the facility designer needs to understand: the riders and their needs, the range of transport vehicle sizes they will bring, and the group sizes possible. Keep the design considerations in mind to meet the needs of all the types of campers: the grade, turning radius, vertical and lateral clearances, back-in spurs, pull throughs, objects hidden from view, group sizes and areas, site protection, and the kiddie effect.

Mix it up. Depending on the vegetation and other site constraints, designers should try to accommodate as many combinations of vehicles and types as possible. This would include spurs and pull-through spaces for a single vehicle and for two, three, four vehicles and up. Then configure their arrangement to be intermingled and best utilize the available space. All of the pull-through spaces don’t have to be together, the single sites don’t have to be together, etc.

Grade. The engineers often want more grade than is necessary to drain the site. Design for the customers, not for the engineers. From a camper’s perspective, there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to level up in a camp spur. RV refrigerators need to be close to level, but just as important the people want to be level. Whether riders are in a tent or RV, it is not comfortable spending the weekend off-camber.

If the spur slopes down at a 5 percent grade, a vehicle with a 200-inch wheelbase would need to raise the rear axle 10 inches. Few RVs can do that safely, and all RV manufacturers warn owners to never lift the front or rear tires off the ground since the vehicle could roll. Even on a gravel surface, water will run with a 1 to 2 percent grade.

Turning Radius. Two factors affect how sharp a curve is and how drivable it is: the curve radius and the length of the curve. The smaller the radius and the longer the curve, the sharper the curve will be. On any curve, the rear wheels of a vehicle do not follow the same path as the front wheels. The longer the vehicle (and trailer), the wider the offset between the front wheel track and the rear wheel track. This is compounded by the sharpness of the curve. Road designers compensate for this off-tracking by adding curve widening to the inside of the curve. This added lane width can be considerable (up to 20 feet), but in an effort to maintain a natural setting, road widths and clearing widths are often minimized in recreation sites. If sharp curves are designed into an OHV facility, curve widening must be factored into the road width. If it isn't, road damage, or worse yet, vehicle damage can occur. Consult the agency road design guidelines or AASHTO Green Book guidelines.

During facility construction, a good way to test the design is with a belly dump truck. If it can’t negotiate the turns or the pull-through spaces or if it scrapes trees horizontally or vertically, fix the design.

Vertical Clearance. It can be very disconcerting to drive through a campground road, hear limbs scrape the roof of a vehicle, and wonder if there will be damage to a clearance light, roof vent, an air conditioner unit, TV antenna, satellite dish, or the roof itself. A standard pruning height has been 14 feet, but many motorhomes are 12 feet high and fifth wheels can be 13.5 feet high. If the wind is blowing or the limbs are wet, or full of cones, a 14-foot height is not sufficient. A 15- to 16-foot pruning height is recommended.

Maintenance personnel need to be looking up when patrolling campgrounds. Broken limbs or de-barked limbs are clear indications of inadequate clearance.

Lateral Clearance. Clearing width can become a factor on both roads and camp spurs. If curve widening has not been factored into the design, lateral clearance is an issue because the trailer is going to be off the road and scraping trees. With motorhomes and big trucks, the front wheels can be several feet behind the front corner; therefore, on a sharp curve, the front wheels could be on the road, but the front of the vehicle could be off the road. Without adequate lateral clearance, this could prevent a large vehicle from negotiating a sharp curve.

On camp spurs, there needs to be enough lateral clearance for awnings, slideouts, and slideout awnings. Storage bay doors can be 52 inches wide and extend beyond the slideouts. The total clear space required for a big rig with the patio awning out can be 22 to 25 feet.

Clearance in the back of the spur is important also. Most RVs have a rear overhang from the back axle to the rear of the vehicle. If trees are cleared and bollards or barriers are kept low enough, a long vehicle can fit into a fairly short site.

Back-in Spurs. Spurs utilize space more efficiently than pull-through sites, but big rig drivers will almost always choose a pull-through just to avoid backing up. Back-in spurs usually afford more privacy and in some ways more security because there is only one access point. The key to back-in spurs is their angle to the road. The smaller the angle, the easier the spur is to back in to. The spur angle should not exceed 60 degrees unless the road is very wide or there is another unoccupied site directly across from it. The reason for this is that without extra width, there is inadequate space for the front of the tow vehicle to swing out so the trailer can be straightened.

Given a choice, drivers of tow vehicles will choose a back-in spur on their left over one on their right. Why? Because the driver has a clear and close view of his mirror and a good line of sight down the tow vehicle and trailer, which makes backing up easier. Mirrors on the right are farther away and are often wide-angle, which makes the images smaller and harder to see, and harder to judge distances.

Pull-through Spaces. The obvious advantage of a pull-through is that it eliminates backing in to a sometimes awkward spur. There are some vehicle combinations that cannot be backed up without unhooking, so those vehicle drivers will almost always choose a pull-through over a back-in.

A pull-through space can be designed for a single vehicle and trailer combination, the center can be widened out to accommodate two vehicles, or widened and lengthened to hold four vehicle combinations. Since pull-through spaces take up more space than spurs, designing them as mini-group sites can help make more efficient use of that space.

To accommodate big rigs, pull-through spaces need to flow well, so they’re best designed as straight or on a long shallow curve. If the curve is too tight, a big rig with a trailer cannot pull in or pull out.

Objects Hidden from View. These are the bollards or boulders that designers place on the corners or edges of the site for enhanced aesthetics and confinement of the use. Unfortunately, when backing a trailer into a site, the drivers’ eyes are focused on where the trailers are going, not on where the front of the tow vehicles are going. These objects become obstacles that are a hazard and are cursed by customers. Another factor is that the higher the drivers sit, the less visibility they have of the ground adjacent to their vehicles. Any objects placed in those locations are actually placed in the drivers’ blind spots. Objects like this need to be either set back out of harm’s way or be tall enough to be clearly visible by the drivers.

Group Sites and Areas. Having a group site(s) or large open areas in which to circle the wagons is definitely an amenity that large families or groups will utilize. These can have utility hookups, but most groups can easily dry camp for a long weekend and would rather camp together than have utility hookups. Why do people circle the wagons? Camaraderie and just as in the old days: security; all of the OHVs, tools, and kids’ toys will be inside the circle.

Site Protection. A concern with any developed or dispersed camp is limiting the spread of the site and protecting vegetation. People like to camp under the trees, but doing so can damage root systems, compact the soil, and affect water absorption. Barriers are often used to confine and control the use.

The Kiddie Effect. OHV riding and camping is a family activity and it’s always great to see families having fun together. The older kids can usually go ride with their parents on the trails, but where do the younger kids ride or learn to ride? Most often, they will end up riding around the camp or through the campground. They will ride all day long until they run out of energy or fuel. This constant noise and dust can be annoying to other campers but it can also present some safety concerns.

Left to their own devices, unsupervised and uneducated kids can do a lot of unintentional damage. They’re looking for fun and can find that by riding a closed trail, a closed area, or by creating a trail between campsites.

In the vicinity of most dispersed kiddie-created camps that are regularly used by families, a kiddie-created track will soon develop. The kids need a place to ride, but these contribute to the spread of dispersed camps and impacts to vegetation and soils.

Designers can manage the kiddie effect issue by incorporating tot lots, kiddie tracks, and youth training areas as part of their OHV facility design. Like play areas, these give the kids (and their parents) a designated, managed place for that activity. These facilities get the kids off the roads and away from the intimidation of older riders and bigger machines. Signing these areas as tot lots, kiddie tracks, or learner loops helps to keep older kids and pit-squids out of the area. Riders don’t get any points for showing off in a tot lot.

Skill Development Area Design Considerations

Areas to develop skills should be associated with OHV trailheads, staging areas, and campgrounds. They help manage the use by providing a designated place for training, riding, and skill development. They also extend the recreation activity time because they provide activities other than just trail riding. These should be sited quite close to the trailhead or campground, but be located to minimize noise and dust intrusion to other recreationists.

Skill development areas include learner loops, kiddie tracks, tot lots, youth training areas, and technical terrain courses. All except learner loops provide spectator activities where riders and their families or groups can participate or watch.

Learner Loops. A learner loop is a one-way training trail that teaches throttle, clutch, brake, and balance control. To accomplish that, these are often tight, technical, low-speed trails. In theory, they should prepare the riders to negotiate whatever can be expected on the trail system. If the trails have rocks and logs, the learner loop should have rocks and logs. If the area doesn’t have those features, they can be imported. If the main trail has switchbacks, the learner loop should have a switchback if the terrain allows. If there are single- and double-track trails, there should be single- and double-track learner loops.

A learner loop isn’t just for kids; it’s for anyone who needs to develop his or her riding skills. They can be any length, but many are one-fourth to one-half mile long. These loops are dense so they can fit into a small area. If they are long enough, they can also serve as a warm-up loop.

A learner loop can also be designed as a play loop. It can be open and flowing or tight and technical, but the curves are usually highly superelevated to produce a high fun factor. Where possible, designers should play with the landscape to produce a roller-coaster ride effect. These teach skills, but the high fun factor can keep kids occupied for a long period of time.

Kiddie Tracks. These are usually a small oval track, fully enclosed with barriers or fencing, with a controlled access point. They are usually signed to limit the age and vehicle displacement (cc). The track usually has some mounds of dirt of varying heights or other obstacles, with easy-outs, to ride over. Some have shaded picnic tables or bleachers so parents can watch their kids play on the track. Size depends on available space, but a nicely sized track can fit on one-half acre.

Designers should keep the kiddie effect issue around dispersed camps in mind and manage the impacts by selecting a couple of the high-use sites and building a small kiddie track at them. The kiddie tracks should be shown on the map so families with small kids can find them. All undesignated tracks should be closed off and use directed to the designated sites.

Tot Lots. Tot lots are designed for the little kids just getting started. They are a simple oval track or may have a few easy curves. They are flat with no superelevation and no mounds so that riders on small 50cc bikes with training wheels can easily navigate them. They are fully enclosed with a single access point and are signed to restrict engine displacement. Depending on soil type, a tot lot may need to be hardened since soft soils are difficult to ride with small tires and small engines, or by kids on their first ride.

A tot lot can be any size depending on available space, but 50 x 100 feet is more than enough. They don’t need to be very big because the machines and riders are so small. Also, a small track makes it easier for the parents to supervise and run alongside their youngster.

Youth Training Areas. Any of the previous areas can be called a youth training area (YTA) or be part of a larger training area. A YTA usually provides a range of activities to accommodate a wider range of ages and skill levels. Some have a tot lot; kiddie track; an ASI or MSF training area; a learner loop; and an obstacle area with mounds, rocks, logs, or other natural or manufactured features. All of this can be provided in less than 2 acres. They are fenced, signed, and have restricted access. Picnic tables in the shade give parents a place to watch their kids.

Technical Terrain Courses. A formal technical terrain course is called an endurocross track. It is a competitive event track that is a spectator activity like MX, rock crawl, and trials. However, they can also be designed and used for casual recreation. These are technically challenging so they provide a much higher level of skill training than the other facilities above, but they are fun and definitely extend recreation activity time. One nice thing about these areas is that they can occupy almost any size or shape land parcel since a lot of obstacles can be positioned into a very small space.

Manufacturing challenge features are what a technical terrain course is all about, using whatever materials are available and creatively arranging them into a fun and challenging course. Materials can be rocks, logs, stumps, tires, culverts, concrete chunks; anything that can be ridden over and be durable. Unless obstacles are intended to move to increase difficulty, like a loose log run, features must be designed to be anchored or immobile. Like everything else, having a variety of features increases the challenge and fun.

Adding skill development areas can take little space, but they add tremendous value to a trail system. However, like the trail system, the development areas need to be designed correctly from the beginning, built with quality materials, and have regular maintenance.

Need More? Learn More Here.

AASHTO Green Book,

Park Guidelines for OHVs, George E. Fogg, NOHVCC, 2002

Sweet Smelling Toilets Installation Guide, USDA Forest Service, Technology & Development Program

A Look Back

Here are some of the elements discussed in this chapter:

  • OHV riders aren’t afraid to travel, and they often travel in groups. Facilities need to accommodate a variety of group sizes
  • OHV facilities need to be designed for a variety of vehicle types, sizes, and combinations from pickups with tents to motorhomes with trailers
  • Designers must understand OHV riders’ facility needs, use patterns, and the capabilities of their travel vehicles
  • Trailheads and staging areas have seven design components: site signing, trail access, parking, toilets, kiosks, loading ramps, and miscellaneous structures
  • Educated riders are responsible riders. A well-organized kiosk with key information and education messages is an important communication tool for the agency
  • Design considerations for campgrounds include: a variety of spur sizes and configurations, grade, turning radius, vertical clearance, lateral clearance, back-in spurs, pull-through spaces, hidden objects, group sites and areas, site protection, and the kiddie effect
  • Design considerations for skill development areas include learner loops, kiddie tracks, tot lots, youth training areas, and technical terrain courses. These provide designated, managed areas for skill development, training, and challenge
  • Skill development areas extend recreation activity time, enhance the OHV experience, and help manage the use

A plan and a design have been created with care. With construction, the vision becomes a reality. For the designers, after days, weeks, or months of scouting and flagging, there is nothing more gratifying than seeing the flagline become a trail and to finally ride it. It is a WOW feeling and hopefully a WOW experience. Construction is an anticipated time and one of excitement. Everyone on the project team becomes rejuvenated with the smell of freshly turned dirt, the clanging of tools, and the sound of equipment as a trail becomes inscribed on the landscape.

This is a great moment in creating a great trail, but what happens after that moment may not be so great. There can be pitfalls; and when the vision in the project team’s mind doesn’t match the product on the ground, there are problems. Keeping construction flowing smoothly and avoiding potential problems starts before the dirt is turned in a process called preconstruction.

Certainly one of the challenges throughout the continuum is maintaining a consistent vision: passing the torch from one component to the next. The obvious way to meet this challenge is to reduce the number of times the torch gets passed. Having the designers sit on the planning team, design the trails, and then either perform or oversee the construction can help provide that needed consistency. Though ideal, this isn’t always possible, so another way to pass on the vision is to replicate it on paper. In preconstruction, maps, drawings, and specifications are written and assembled so that someone potentially unfamiliar with the project and the project area can look at the material and build the desired product on the ground. The process of transferring the vision is not an easy one, so investing time in developing a comprehensive construction packet can facilitate a smooth and complete flow of information and result in a great trail on the ground.


Determine Construction Option

One of the first tasks is to determine how the trails will be constructed, or even if they will be constructed. Whether a trail will be constructed by hand or machine-built has usually already been determined in the design and outlined in the final TMO.

A larger and more basic question is: should the team build the trail or just ride it in?

Untold miles of trails have been created by a team riding them in. Most of these are user-created trails with many potential issues. If a trail has been designed and located as a sustainable trail, can it be ridden in? Certainly, there are scenarios where that answer is “yes,” but before committing to this path, the team should make sure it is making an informed decision by looking at the pros and cons.

Pros of Riding a Trail In

  • Inexpensive. The costs for equipment, hand crews, contract preparation, and contractors are reduced or eliminated.
  • Natural. For the most part, roots and rocks remain in place and the trail appears more natural than one with a constructed tread.
  • Fast. Production rates are accelerated because it only takes a few passes to define a route that others can follow.
  • Fun. One or a few riders get to have the joy of pioneering a new trail. In an era of designated routes only, it is a rare experience.
  • Efficient. There are areas with sustainable conditions that don’t need the tread to be mechanically shaped.

Cons (or Potential Risks) of Riding a Trail In

  • • Handing over control. Will riders follow the exact flagline? Will they ride around the rock that the designer wanted the trail to go over as a challenge feature? If riders carry too much speed, most curves will end up being parabolic (compound) rather than circular. If riders blow corners, other riders are likely to follow. (These are less of an issue if the rider is also the designer.)
  • • Loss of drainage control. A ridden-in trail has no constructed drainage features, so the only way to drain the water is by using the natural features. There are normally not enough natural features for efficient water control. The way to solve this issue is to go back and construct drainage features. However, if the drainage needs to be constructed, the whole trail probably also needs to be constructed.
  • • Loss of flow. As the riders pick and choose a line they like, flow can be lost as the trail darts around objects. Depending on the challenge level of the trail, this could be a positive or a negative, but again the control over the designed flow has been lost.
  • • Increased risk of braiding and cut corners. The first riders through are picking a line based on their level of safety and efficiency on that day. Another rider may have a different comfort level and, because the tread is unconfined and undefined, chooses a different line that is more efficient for him. That may mean cutting a corner or braiding the trail to get around a rock. Although designing for multiple lines is a good thing, it’s not if the team just allows it to happen on its own.

It’s important to assess the benefits and the risks. If the risks are low, perhaps riding the trail in is a viable option, but it should be the exception, not the rule. An alternative could be to construct the portions of the trail that need tight construction control and have higher risks and ride in those portions that need less control and have lower risks, but even with this, the treads will be inconsistent and the flow will be inconsistent. Is this the product the team had envisioned?

Determine Construction Method

Once the decision has been made to construct the trails, there are four basic methods to accomplish that goal: force account, volunteers and groups, contract, and hybrid contract.

The force account method is when the agency performs the work with its own personnel and equipment. The agency must have skilled personnel and enough of them to efficiently perform the work. The other key ingredient is having the proper size and types of equipment to accomplish the construction tasks.

With the volunteers and groups method, a local club or organization takes on the construction of the project. Volunteer labor is often used as match dollars in grants, and many grantors require or will score an application higher if there is a volunteer component. There are also agencies and associations (like the Student Conservation Association) that have organized trail crews available for hire. With both of these, having skilled personnel, experienced supervision, and the proper equipment is essential.

The contract method is the most common option. A solicitation is prepared to hire a contractor to perform all or most of the work.

A hybrid contract is where the vendor is required to utilize and train volunteers to accomplish portions of the work. Though maybe not the most efficient, this method is popular because local enthusiasts receive necessary trail training that they can use later on for maintenance or implementation of another project. As with the volunteers and groups method, the volunteer component provides contributed funding, or match dollars, for grants.

The Preconstruction Packet

The construction method selected will determine the scope and complexity of the documents needed for the preconstruction packet. One of the documents that forms the foundation for all of the other preconstruction data is the trail management objective (TMO). Drafted after developing the concept plan and finalized after location and design, the TMO provides key information that triggers guidelines and parameters for design, construction, and maintenance. The TMO guides whether a rock gets taken out for a smooth tread or left as a technical feature. The TMO must be treated as a guideline and adjusted for regional and actual site conditions (there are too many variables with any trail to have a one-size-fits-all set of parameters). It can't be used as an agency-wide standardized document. It is intended to be trail specific. Construction drawings and specifications are then drafted to convey the desired output to whoever is performing the work.

A typical packet includes the following.

  • Solicitation letter. This is an invitation to bid on the project. It includes the project location, brief project work description (miles of construction or reconstruction, primary items of work, unusual items of work like bridges, etc.), location of relevant contract documents, agency contact information, bid closing date, usually a cost range that the bid is expected to fall within, anticipated start work date and length of time to complete the work, pre-bid meeting date and time (if required), and any other pertinent but brief information. Vendors will look at this letter and decide whether they are interested in the project or not.
  • Vicinity map and project location maps. These show where the project lies regionally as well as specifically so vendors could easily navigate to the project site unassisted.
  • Scope or statement of work. This expands on the project description and work statement in the solicitation letter. This is where the vision first gets conveyed to the prospective vendors. What are the objectives of the project? What does the work entail? What are the primary work items and quantity? What are the performance expectations of the vendor? Are there seasons or conditions when work cannot occur? Will the agency be supplying any labor, equipment, materials, or supplies? Is it a hybrid contract? If so, who will manage the volunteers? What will be the role and level of involvement of the agency?
    The scope also provides specific site information on soils, hydrology, geology, and climate that will help vendors understand the conditions that will be encountered and any delays that might be anticipated. It may discuss safety items like big-game animals, poisonous snakes, or venomous plants. Anything that can affect the performance of the work needs to be spelled out in the scope.
  • Schedule of items. This is a list of all the work items (clearing, excavation, culverts, retaining walls, etc.) and the quantity of each item. The work items are usually listed by the pay item number identified in the specifications. Vendors will use this information to develop their bid cost.
  • Cost estimate. Using the schedule of items, this is the estimated project cost developed by the agency to determine the bid range. It is usually not included in the pre-construction packet nor shown at any time to the vendors, but a cost range is often shown.
  • Standard contract clauses. This is boilerplate contract language that is included in all construction contracts. These are legal requirements and failure to meet them could result in cancellation of the contract, or worse.
  • Supplemental contract clauses. These are contract clauses that are specific to the project. One of these is how the bid quotes will be evaluated to determine the successful bidder. Others could include fire requirements, agency-furnished equipment and materials, any measures necessary to ensure public safety (signing, access closures, etc.), material sources, material stockpile areas, camp areas, storm water mitigations, etc.
  • Specification list. This is a complete list by number and title of all standard and special project specifications. A specification describes a specific item of work or portion thereof, how the work will be performed or sequenced, materials needed, and how the work will be measured and paid. There can be one or more specifications applicable to a specific work item (a bridge could have specs for excavation, crushed aggregate, geotextiles, concrete, treated timber, etc.).
  • Standard specifications. These are specifications that could apply to any contract. Rather than print them, they can be included by reference along with information on where to obtain them.
  • Special project specifications. These are specifications for project-specific work items. They could be for a variation in a standard work item or for a work item that isn’t covered by the standard specifications.
  • Trail log. Prepared by the designers, the trail log sequentially lists by distance from the starting point every item of work required and any specific instructions not covered by the specifications. It provides an opportunity for the designers to communicate the vision to the group performing the work.
  • Typical sections or drawings. These graphically show what a standard work item should look like when completed. Some examples are: a trail junction, turnout, clearing widths and pruning heights, tread shape and width, sign installation, rolling dip, climbing turn, and switchback.
  • Project-specific drawings. Usually associated with special project specifications, these drawings outline work items that deviate from standard or typical drawings or are specific to this project. These drawings are one of the best ways to communicate the designers’ vision to the vendors. They take time to prepare, but help ensure that the end product is a quality one.
  • Other. This can be any other information to help the vendors understand the site and the scope or complexity of the project. This could include flagging protocols, signing protocols, sign plan, soil maps, terrain stability maps, management plan, TMO, design parameters, GPS or GIS data, photographs, etc.


If the packet is complete and well written, the vision can be adequately transferred to the contractor, but that doesn’t always happen.

Here’s why: Lack of training. In general, it appears that there is a lack of training on preparing and administering an effective trail contract. In some cases, it has also become a very complicated and time-consuming process. Because of this, some agencies tend to avoid contracts or submit poorly crafted contracts.

Inadequate contract time. Often it takes longer than anticipated for agencies to prepare the contract, but still have a drop-dead date to expend grant funds and that results in a short contract performance time. A short contract time reduces the pool of available contractors and increases costs because the contractor loses flexibility to schedule this work with other projects or is forced to perform when weather or soil conditions may not be ideal.

Missing, incomplete, or inconsistent documents. If the agency doesn’t have the time or the skills to craft a good contract, there can be errors. This leads to contract delays, perhaps change orders, and increased administration and contract costs. It takes time for a contractor to submit a bid. If the work to be performed is unclear, the bid cost will likely go up.

Using inapplicable terms or specifications. Using non-OHV terms like “freeride” or “coasters” indicates to a contractor that the agency really doesn’t understand what it is doing or what it wants. This could increase bid costs. Because they are considered the standard, some contracts have requirements for tread outslope, the 50 percent rule, and the 10 percent average grade rule. Agency personnel should ensure that the terms used will provide the product they want before they automatically insert those terms into an OHV contract.

Inadequate cost estimate. Contracts often get cancelled when the bids exceed the agency’s estimate. This adds time and cost to the whole contracting process and may delay the implementation of the project. Someone knowledgeable in trails, structures, equipment, and the sequencing and performance of trail construction should prepare cost estimates.

Cookie-cutter contracts. To save time or due to lack of training, cut-and-paste contracts are prepared, but no two projects are identical. The agency can individualize a project and transfer the vision in the supplemental contract clauses, special project specifications, project-specific drawings, and the trail log, but these typically receive the least attention in a cookie-cutter contract. These types of contracts can create poor communication, which can result in a higher bid cost, higher contract administration costs, and a product on the ground that may not be the desired product.

The cheapest isn’t necessarily the best. There may be someone locally who is enthusiastic and inexpensive, but does just anyone with a skid loader understand the intricacies of trails and have the proper equipment to build a great trail? If the work goes out for bid, many agencies are required to accept the lowest bidder. The reason to have well-written specifications and drawings is to make it clear to all what the intent is and what constitutes an acceptable product. That helps put all bidders on the same page and helps narrow the range of bids.

If the agency does not require accepting the lowest bid, it is very important to clearly describe how the bids will be evaluated. These criteria can be very specific, right down to the type (not brand) of equipment and its capabilities, experience in relevant motorized trail work, level of operator skills and training, etc. Spending time crafting the Evaluation of Quotes will provide flexibility in selecting the best bidder.


The Construction Process

“Construction” means moving dirt and includes new trail construction, existing trail reconstruction, or trail relocation. Regardless of who does the construction, the nine-step process is, or should be, the same.

1. Mobilization. This is the movement of personnel, equipment, and materials to the job site. In remote areas, this can involve the establishment of base camps. Depending on the site location and complexity of the work, mobilization can be a substantial and costly task.

2. Clearing. This is the cutting of trees and heavy brush within the trail corridor (normally top of the cut to toe of the fill).

Here are some points regarding clearing:

  • If shown in the specifications and drawings, trees but not brush can be left on the fill side to reduce clearing widths and help stabilize the fill.
  • On a machine-built trail, stumps should be cut high (about 3 feet) so they are more visible by the operator and so the equipment has more leverage to push over and grub the stumps.
  • Trees should be bucked into lengths the machinery can maneuver. This will minimize damage to remaining trees and vegetation. Prior to the removal of the vegetation, any centerline flags or other construction control flags must be removed and placed on the ground so the construction control is not lost.

3. Grubbing. This is the removal of stumps and their roots.

Some grubbing considerations are:
  • With hand-built single track, there is very little grubbing since most trees are avoided and grubbing by hand is very difficult.
  • On machine-built trails, make sure that the specifications for grubbing are consistent with the TMO and trail log. It may have been the intent to leave some stumps or roots for challenge features. If so, these should be clearly identified prior to clearing.

4. Slash disposal. This entails the removal of all woody material from within the trail corridor. It can be performed by hand or machine or both.

Here are some thoughts regarding slash disposal
  • For most trail work, slash disposal is accomplished by scattering the material.
  • Care must be taken not to disturb flags or stakes used for construction control. A spotter should replace any controls that are disturbed.
  • In order to build a stable fill, all woody material must be removed from the area where a fill will be constructed.
  • On steeper slopes in snow country, slash should be placed on the downhill side to prevent snow creep from dragging the slash back into the completed trail tread.
  • In open country, strategically place slash to help deter short-cutting of the trail or off-trail use, and to block access to undesignated routes.

5. Pioneering. The next step is to rough in a tread or create a bench for the equipment to work on.

6. Structures. Unless there is other access, work on non-tread structures like bridges, culverts, and retaining walls as soon as there is adequate access to get materials, personnel, and equipment into the site. Depending on the terrain, this could start as soon as the pioneering is completed. Other structures like rolling dips, ditches, and sumps occur during excavation and embankment since excavated structures are usually used as a source of borrow material to help raise the grade of the trail tread.

Key points regarding structures are:
  • Sequencing of the work and understanding the construction process are important. Often, materials need to be ordered and delivered before trail equipment and personnel are mobilized. This ensures that construction can proceed without any undue delays.
  • Sometimes structures require access by oversized vehicles and a primitive road needs to be constructed to get equipment and materials into the site. This road could be within the trail corridor or another access. If it’s within the trail corridor, the heavy equipment access and hauling must be completed before the shaping of a trail prism can proceed.
  • Often stockpile areas need to be constructed or provided for rock, bridge materials, trail hardening materials, etc. If the delivery of these materials requires oversized vehicle access, the work must be sequenced as in the note above.
  • In remote areas, sometimes helipads need to be constructed so materials and supplies can be flown in.

7. Excavation and embankment. This is the process of establishing the grade and the desired trail prism. Cuts are excavated and fills or embankments are constructed.

Here are some considerations for excavation and embankment
  • The specifications should require that all fills be constructed in layers with each layer being compacted by the equipment or other means before the next layer is placed.
  • On steeper slopes, do not use a log to hold the dirt at the toe of the fill. When the log rots away, the fill can go away.
  • Moisture is necessary for compaction of embankments; and most natural surface trails are constructed using whatever moisture is present in the soil. Ideally, there should be enough contract time to allow construction to occur during periods when optimum moisture is likely. If the moisture season is short and the project is long, that may mean allowing enough time for work to occur in more than one moisture season. Avoid situations that force construction to occur during the driest season.

8. Finish grading. Often referred to as the last pass, this is the final shaping and compacting of the trail tread and any related tread structures. This work must be consistent with the TMO and trail log.

9. Finish work. This is all of the work that “makes it look pretty.”

Finish work includes:
  • Final shaping and smoothing of cut and fill slopes
  • Pruning and lopping of roots protruding from the tread or cut slope
  • Installation of signing, cattle guards, fences, and gates
  • Constructing headwalls
  • Obliterating stockpiles, and equipment storage, staging and camp areas
  • Removing damaged vegetation
  • Closing undesignated areas
  • Final scattering of slash
  • Removing all flagging, stakes, or other construction controls
  • Seeding or replacing forest litter on all disturbed soil areas

A new trail always looks rough and wide for the first year after construction. There has often been a lot of disturbance and it takes time for those impacts to heal. Once vegetation starts to re-establish and the unused portions of the trail tread and site get covered with forest litter, the trail will quickly appear to be narrower and more natural. However, this will only occur if the trail has been located, designed, and constructed properly.

Note: Though the process is the same for most trails, the sequencing of the process may not be the same due to the vegetation, topography, or complexity of the project. On many machine-built trails, grubbing, slash disposal, and pioneering occur simultaneously.


No matter how the work is performed, there is a need for some level of construction oversight and project management. The agency usually provides this management, and the designers help to carry the project vision through construction. This work can also be outsourced to a contractor. Construction management includes project coordination, compliance inspection, documentation and reporting, information sharing, recognizing and avoiding pitfalls, and recognizing the need for change.

Project coordination. This can involve a multitude of tasks, including ensuring that materials and supplies are ordered and delivered so that the work can proceed in a timely fashion; sequencing the work so it flows smoothly and logically; scheduling, coordinating, and overseeing volunteer work parties or other trail crew work; ensuring that any required permits are secured; scheduling any required resource surveys; ensuring conformance with any seasonal work restrictions; meeting with stakeholders to discuss issues or concerns; ensuring that construction controls are in place or replacing any that are missing or damaged; renting or repairing equipment; and purchasing any necessary tools or supplies that are needed by the work crews.

Compliance inspection. Regular inspections help keep the projects running smoothly.

The inspector:

  • Ensures the specifications are adequate to produce the envisioned product.
  • Ensures the work meets the intent and project specifications.
  • Coordinates necessary parties to resolve any discrepancies between the product and the specifications.
  • Ensures workers are in compliance with any required safety certifications.
  • Strives to increase safety awareness, conducts safety briefings, and discusses job hazard analyses (JHAs).
  • Observes the work and discusses any unsafe practices or conditions.
  • Ensures compliance with any required work shutdowns for fire, wildlife, weather, etc.

Documentation and reporting. There is a saying “If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen”. Document the progress and quality of the work, preferably on a daily basis. Take photographs. There can never be enough photos. It may be several months later before the team discovers that it needed documentation regarding events on a particular day. Ensure that volunteer records or records of any other personnel, materials, or equipment that is used as match for grants are kept.

Information sharing. Everyone likes to be in the know, and some parties need to know what is happening with the project. Use photos to prepare regular project updates for management, advisory committees, grantors, stakeholders, or the media. Photos are a great tool to document the progress of the project, increase project awareness, and increase political and public support for the project or agency.

Recognizing and avoiding pitfalls. Experienced trail project managers know how the work should be performed and when it should be performed. When something is out of sync or is heading in the wrong direction, taking immediate action to discover the cause can avert downtime, accidents, or other delays in the work progress or quality.

Trail construction is fun and rewarding because the team can see the trail take shape on the ground, but it can also have inherent hazards and risks. It is important to take appropriate action to minimize those hazards and mitigate the risks. This is especially important for equipment operations. Workers need to be trained in how to safely approach and how far to stay back from working equipment.

There are times when equipment can be working in precarious locations. Some agencies require spotters or equipment safety personnel to be on site any time the equipment is working, but certainly when the risk is high, a spotter should be on site as should the project manager.

The project managers also need to be aware of the resource concerns and values in the project area and to take appropriate action when those are encountered. It is not uncommon to suddenly see an unusual population of plants; discover a TES nest or den; or unearth a bone, tooth, or arrowhead. Someone needs to be watchful in these situations because there are often legal protection requirements and what happens next can delay or stop the project altogether. Being forthright about any discoveries can build trust and credibility with resource specialists.

Recognizing the need for change. Implementation is the last chance to get it right. In spite of all of the concerted efforts in planning, design, and preconstruction, sometimes the intent just doesn’t fit the ground as anticipated. The project managers need to be on the alert for these situations so changes can be made early before large amounts of time, money, or materials are invested.

Construction Pitfalls

Pitfalls for construction can be:

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip: Great trail construction isn’t about how much dirt gets moved, it’s about how much dirt is conserved.
Weather delays. Either extremely dry or wet weather can preclude effective or safe trail construction or even access to the project site. If contract time is inadequate to accommodate these delays, a contract modification may be required that could delay construction or increase costs.

Material delivery delays. Sequencing, poor project management, or inclement weather can delay the delivery of materials and supplies. Depending on the amount of other types of work to be performed, this could delay or stop the construction progress. If the agency was responsible for providing these materials, a delivery delay could result in a claim and increased contract costs.

Creative license. There are times when the flagline needs to be changed, but there are also times when the crew leader or equipment operator takes creative license and arbitrarily changes the design. Unless the crew leader or operator is also the project designer, this is inappropriate. If the trail has been properly designed, there has been a thought process involving analysis and informed decisions for the location of every flag and every aspect of the design. But the worker may not know, understand, or agree with those decisions. Any changes should be discussed with and approved by the designer or project management.

Unskilled operators. Equipment operators can make or break a project and make the construction process a joy or a hassle. They can take a great trail design and build a poor trail or take a poor trail design and create a great trail.

Inexperienced work crews or contractors. When it comes to trail construction, there is no replacement for experience. Trails can be intricate and require a great deal of innovation, field design, and finesse. Having someone who knows what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and how to appropriately adjust it for the site is invaluable. No matter how good the drawings and specifications are, they can’t teach someone how to do the work. A local crew may be inexpensive, but if they’re inexperienced and make mistakes, the long-term costs of maintenance, repair, or replacement can far outweigh the initial construction savings. Comprehensive specs and drawings along with a well-written evaluation of quotes may help ensure an experienced contractor and a quality product.

Inadequate oversight or contract administration. It doesn’t do any good to prepare a thorough preconstruction packet if that packet isn’t effectively administered in construction. Inexperienced oversight and inspection can lead to as many problems as inexperienced workers or operators. Unskilled oversight, infrequent site presence, unfamiliarity with the process or the end product, or permissive inspection that allows non-conformance with the specifications can all lead to poor agency-contractor relations, claims, and a substandard product. It can be difficult to confront someone when the product or procedure is not meeting a specification, but a contract is a legal and binding document for both the agency and the contractor. Both parties are at risk of claims when there is non-compliance with the specifications. The contract administrator manages that risk.

Inadequate documentation. When something goes wrong, there is an immediate need to find out why it went wrong. It takes time and effort. There can never be enough photos, and daily diaries can never be too thorough.

Preconstruction errors. Preconstruction is the communication bridge between design and construction. No matter who performs the construction, shortcuts taken in the preconstruction process can become very evident and costly in the construction process.

Unanticipated site conditions. Any time excavation is involved, there is a chance of encountering any condition that was not evident from surface investigation. This can result in a design change, contract modification, lost time, and lost progress on the project. This risk can be minimized by digging at least cursory test holes during the design process. Any subsurface information should be outlined in the preconstruction documents. Bid costs will likely rise when excavation is required and subsurface information is nebulous.

Equipment breakdowns. With equipment, the question is not if, but when, there will be a breakdown. They rarely occur at an opportune time or location. No one can afford to have back-up equipment or a warehouse full of parts on site, so equipment downtime can mean project downtime unless there are other types of work to be performed.

Accidents. Trail construction has hazards and risks, but certainly a nightmare for any project is to have a vehicle, equipment, or personnel accident. Regardless of fault, everyone loses when an accident happens. Lost time, lost money, personal injury, workmen’s compensation, an investigation, or a damage claim can result; it’s all ugly and uncomfortable. Projects and OHV programs have collapsed due to accidents. Work diligently to manage the risk.

Change Construction Method. How a trail is to be constructed affects how the trail is located. A hand-built trail is not located the same as a machine-built trail. It can be a mistake to take a trail that was intended to be machine-built and build it by hand. A hand crew will take the path of least resistance and go around trees, stumps, and rocks. This will alter the designed flow of the trail and possibly the drainage. Likewise, a trail that was designed for hand-build may squeeze between features or go over terrain that a machine cannot traverse. If the construction method is going to be changed, take the time to adjust the flagline first.

Post-construction Management

A trail is most susceptible to the forces of compaction, displacement, and erosion during the first year after construction. Protect the investment. Consider closing the trail immediately after construction and let it sit over the winter or whenever the wet season occurs. Sometimes demand and political pressures are so high that this option is not practical, so consider closing the trail until there have been a couple of wet weather events. These options are especially important if the trail has been constructed during the dry season and the tread and embankments are unconsolidated. The weather will help provide natural compaction and cohesion.

If possible, the first use on a trail should be light and low impact so displacement is minimized and compaction can occur slowly and evenly over the whole tread surface. Severe impacts can occur if an event is scheduled during that first year. With most soil types, a newly constructed trail cannot sustain a high volume of use in a short period of time.

A Closer Look

There is a perception that since trails have a small footprint, they are simple: anyone can design one and anyone can build one. That misconception has resulted in poor riding experiences, erosion, visual scars, resource impacts, and ultimately closures. Though riders or the motorized use are often blamed for these impacts, it was the poor location, design, and construction that created them. With a closure, riders lose recreation opportunities that often are not replaced. What isn’t often recognized is that a closure represents a failure by the agency to effectively provide for and manage the use. One of the purposes of this book is to help agencies avoid that situation by giving them the tools to create great trails, either by building new ones or fixing old ones. A great trail is a success story. It’s a win-win for the environment, the agency, and the riders. We can achieve that success only by the effective and equal implementation of all five components of the Great Trail Continuum.

Need More? Learn More Here.

Standard Specifications for Construction of Trails and Trail Bridges on Forest Service Projects, USDA Forest Service, Technology & Development Program, Oct 2014

Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook, USDA Forest Service, Technology & Development Program, 0723-2806-MTDC, July 2007

Sweet Smelling Toilets Installation Guide, US Forest Service, Nov 2014

A Look Back

Here are some of the elements discussed in this chapter:

  • Preconstruction is the bridge between planning, design, and construction
  • There are pros and cons of just riding in a trail versus building it. Before choosing the first option, the team should assess the benefits and risks to make an informed decision
  • There are four common construction methods: force account, volunteers and groups, contract, and hybrid contract
  • Preparing a detailed, comprehensive preconstruction packet will help carry the vision forward into construction, facilitate the construction process, and help ensure a quality product
  • The supplemental contract clauses, special project specifications, project-specific drawings, and the trail log are the key places to individualize the project and transfer important information to a contractor
  • Recognize the common preconstruction pitfalls and invest the time and effort required to avoid them
  • The construction process is essentially the same for every project: mobilization, clearing, grubbing, slash disposal, pioneering, structures, excavation and embankment, finish grading, and finish work
  • Whether performed by the agency or contractor, good construction management and contract administration are essential to ensure proper sequencing of the work, quality control, conformance with specifications, and coordination and communication between the agency, stakeholders, and the contractor
  • Recognize the common construction pitfalls and invest the time and effort to avoid them also
  • The site will appear rough and wide immediately after construction but will heal quickly
  • Good post-construction management of the trail by closing or limiting use will help protect the integrity of the new trail tread and facilitate the re-establishment of vegetation

Constructing an OHV project often involves natural surface roads. Almost every OHV trail project includes these roads to some degree, whether it’s using natural surface roads as trails or converting abandoned roads to trails. There are benefits and risks to both, but often it is easier from an environmental analysis standpoint to re-purpose an existing impact rather than create a new one.

Effective closure and rehabilitation techniques are essential to controlling and directing the use and providing resource protection. They are essential tasks when converting natural surface roads to trails. They also allow the managers to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program, which can reap significant political rewards that may garner support for the project, agency, and manager.

Converting Natural Surface Roads to Trails

A road conversion is not a paper exercise. It is all too common for managers to take a natural surface road, delete it from the road inventory, add it to the trail inventory, put up a sign, and call it a new trail. This is really the first step, but it does nothing to address the inherent issues with roads nor does it address the lack in quality of the recreation experience. Not dealing with those issues will likely result in resource impacts and management problems, if not management failure. The second step is to physically transform the road corridor into a natural-looking trail corridor with a fun, flowing trail.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Trap: If natural surface road conversion is just a paper exercise, it will likely fail.
With a little creativity, many natural surface (NS) roads and abandoned railroad grades can be converted into quality trails. Leaving roads as they are and calling them trails results in trails that are too straight, too fast, too boring (too easy), and have poor drainage and poor water management. The objective of a successful conversion is to transform those negatives into positives.

To make a successful conversion:

  • Determine the operating parameters: what is considered “the road”? Is it the physical road or is it the road right-of-way? The right-of-way is wider than the road and will give designers more options to be creative. If it’s the road, then normally that definition should be from the top of the cut to the toe of the fill.
  • As with everything else, provide variety. If some segments of the NS road provide a good experience and have sustainable elements, leave them as is and work on other segments.
  • In the segments that are left in their current condition on the existing alignment, narrow up the roadbed to the designed trail width, if possible, to reduce the size of the tread watershed.
  • To provide horizontal flow, create a serpentine alignment within the road corridor. The degree of sinuosity will depend on the intended difficulty level and the amount of available vegetation and topography to provide screening and relief.
  • To create vertical flow and roll, take the trail up to the top of the cut and back down or better yet, take it to the top of the cut and down to the toe of the fill if the topography will allow. This provides drainage and reduces the size of the tread watershed. It also provides a roller-coaster effect that increases the fun factor.
  • If the NS road prism is flat, a serpentine alignment will still help with drainage by reducing grade and increasing the number of turns. If the NS road has a ditch line, run the trail through the ditch for drainage. If there are no other options, install rolling dips.
  • Remove culverts in minor drainages and replace them with armored drains. This will reduce potential maintenance problems, provide a drain by dipping down into the channel, make the trail appear more natural, and increase the experience of the rider.
  • If there is latitude, leave the NS road occasionally to dive into adjacent thickets or rock piles. A thicket allows the designers to tighten the alignment and reduce speed. Rocks provide an opportunity to increase challenge and variety.
  • Drag in rocks, logs, stumps, and brush to help define and protect the integrity of the serpentine design. Transplanting clumps of living vegetation provides a natural-looking barrier. The objective is to break up and disguise the old road corridor as much as possible.
  • Seed all disturbed areas, including the new trailbed, with a mix designed for the region. In the east, this may consist of replacing forest duff, which contains seeds and natural mulch for protection, and in the west it usually requires the application of a seed mix. Seeding the trailbed helps stabilize the soil during the first season, allows rapid establishment of vegetation on any unused (therefore uncompacted) portions of the trailbed, and helps combat invasive species. This will also help the trail appear more natural.
  • To provide a good seedbed, rip all unused and unvegetated portions of the old roadbed.
  • In the right growing climate, even if no other work is done, just stopping vegetative maintenance will allow brush to start encroaching into the road prism. Usually, just removing full-size vehicle use will eventually allow re-establishment of vegetation in the unused portion of the roadbed.
  • Install entrance management structures, signing, and filters as needed.
  • An excavator is a versatile tool for conversions since it can build trail, rip and close the old surface, pluck and place stumps and rocks, transplant clumps of living vegetation, and drag in debris.

Using Snowmobile Routes and Trails as OHV Trails

Because they are existing infrastructure, there is a temptation to use snowmobile trails as multi-season trails. There are pros and cons to using snowmobile routes and trails that the managers must evaluate to make an informed decision.

Routes. Many snowmobile trails utilize existing roads. If that is the case, then the normal road risks need to be considered: too flat, too straight, too fast, too boring, poor drainage, and large tread watersheds. Because most snowmobile trails are groomed, the ability to convert a snowmobile trail to an OHV trail is normally limited. Snowmobile groomers are not able to make as sharp or tight turns as an OHV. In areas with marginal snow depths, the groomers will not lay down a trail that will cover up superelevated turns or other obstacles in the OHV trail.

Trails. If the snowmobile trail is an actual trail and not a route, then there is another set of considerations:

  • Since snowmobiles operate over frozen ground, the trail may cross over surfaces that are not sustainable or available when the ground is not frozen. These can include wet areas, farm fields, or drainage ditches. Prior to opening a winter trail to summer motorized use, the trail tread must be reviewed during spring or wet conditions to verify its sustainability.
  • To hold snow, snowmobile trails are often located in draws to provide shade. This works for winter use, but in the summer, those draws can be water courses with soil, riparian vegetation, and wildlife concerns.
  • To hold snow, snowmobile trails are often located on north-facing slopes. These slopes may have water issues in the summer.
  • Snowmobile trails are not usually designed for wheeled vehicles. A snowmobile trail goes over the ground and, for the most part, stumps and groundcover vegetation are not disturbed. An OHV trail lies on or in the ground. Snowmobile moguls get groomed out, but OHV ruts will channel water.
  • Because they are groomed, snowmobile trails will have a wider corridor and flatter horizontal and vertical curves. This can compromise the trail experience and decrease challenge and flow.
  • Drainage is normally less of an issue on snowmobile trails, so there can be long, steep grades and large tread watersheds that will be detrimental and not sustainable for an OHV trail.

If the decision is to use a groomed snowmobile trail, then managers and designers can incorporate the same techniques described for natural surface road to trail conversions, but on a conservative scale. Whatever is done must not hinder grooming operations, including OHV trail signing. If winter signing is not applicable to summer use, then those signs should be covered or replaced with multi-use signs or changed to fit the season.

Effective Closure and Rehabilitation Techniques

There are political benefits of effective trail closure and rehabilitation. Past impacts need to be rectified to ensure future use. Although riders tend to see closure as a negative - a loss of riding opportunity whether it was good or bad - closures are usually a necessity for effective OHV management. The goal for an effective closure is to plan it and implement it so it changes from a lose-win to a win-win scenario.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip: Avoid closing one trail before opening another.
Whether closing a trail, trail segment, road, or area, the closure and subsequent rehabilitation process is essentially the same. To determine the best closure strategy, consider the intensity of use (high versus low), duration of use (historic versus recent), proximity to high traffic areas (trailheads, staging areas, destinations), visibility (who can see it, from how many vantage points, from how far away?), growing climate (wet versus arid), political climate (risk to public safety, agency risk, risk to resources to be protected), and management history (new program versus established program, good versus poor compliance or success).

Below are the nine steps to success. Not all of these steps have to be implemented, but the chances of success will increase with an increase in the number of steps taken.

1. Provide an alternate route. Before starting closure and rehabilitation work, it is essential that the existing use is redirected. The best way to accomplish that is by:

  • Providing an alternative route that still connects Point A to Point B, if possible
  • If circumvention is not possible, providing an attractive route(s) someplace else
  • Ensuring that any new trail is of a higher quality (longer, more fun, more challenging) than the one being closed
  • Informing the riders of these changes before starting the closure process

The key point is to not close a trail before opening another route and to try to give riders something more than they lost. When riders realize that they can still get to where they want to go or have a new higher quality opportunity, compliance with the closure will significantly increase.

2. Manage the riders’ eyes. If managers don’t want the riders to go somewhere, avoid focusing their eyes on that location. This is especially important for closures and rehabilitation. Focus the riders’ eyes away from the corridor to be closed so the closure will be more effective.

3. Restore natural drainage patterns. If the trail to be closed is a fall line trail, water will run down it and not in the natural drainageways. Install lead-off ditches to intercept this water and direct it back into the natural drainage course.

4. Install erosion control. Controlling water volume and velocity is essential to effective closure and rehabilitation. Erosion control structures need to be installed to heal the impacts of past erosion and reduce the potential for future erosion.

Here are some considerations for erosion control methods:

  • In deeper trenches, install check dams to help divert water into the lead-off ditches.
  • Between ditches or if ditches are not required, installing check dams in the trench at regular intervals will decrease the velocity of the water and allow it to drop its sediment load. The sediment provides a seedbed to aid in the re-establishment of vegetation. Eventually, the sediment will build up and help stabilize the sides of the trench.
  • Check dams are normally made of logs or rocks, but sandbags and hay bales also work well. They are more temporary, but they usually last long enough for vegetation to get re-established.
  • If check dams are not required, install soil, rock, or log waterbars at regular intervals.
  • Placing logs or rocks in a herringbone pattern works well to control water and stabilize the erosion process. Using sandbags, hay bales, or straw wattles works well if native material is not available.
  • Even just throwing woody debris into the trench will help.
  • Placing logs at an angle across hillclimbs will serve as waterbars and help deter use.
  • For roads, remove culverts and restore natural drainage channels.

5. Rip or scarify. Scarifying is scratching the surface and ripping is gouging the soil 12 to 18 inches deep. The goal is to break up the compacted soil to make it a good seedbed and to increase the soil’s capacity to absorb water. Whether to rip or scarify depends on the soil type and depth of compaction. Whichever method is used, it is best to rip in a sinuous line rather than a straight line. This is accomplished by alternately locking one track and then the other. The “S” pattern improves the aesthetics of the product, loosens the soil better, produces smaller clumps of soil, reduces the potential flow of water down the ruts, and often drags in vegetation and debris from the sides of the road or trail.

6. Disguise the corridor. This involves dragging in rocks, brush, stumps, logs, and clumps of vegetation to break up the line of the old corridor and visually disguise it. At a minimum, this is done as far as the eye can see at the termini of the closure. But if the trail can be seen from other vantage points, then the whole length of the closure needs to be treated. As in road conversions, an excavator is a good tool to quickly accomplish this work. Don’t go overboard with falling trees or piling brush to block the corridor. The goal is to make the corridor look natural and a mass of jackstrawed trees can actually draw attention to the corridor. That being said, it can be difficult to close and disguise a corridor that has been used traditionally by wildlife or livestock. In these cases, fencing or heavier debris placement is needed to discourage use.

Depending on the tree species and size (juniper works well), consider creating living barriers by making a backcut only and carefully pushing the tree over so it remains attached to the stump. The tree will stay green and provide more of a visual barrier to disguise the corridor, and a tree that is attached to the stump is much harder to move out of the way.

7. Re-establish vegetation. In most places, this is best done in the fall so the seed can germinate with the warmth and moisture of the spring; however, it is also best to seed or replace forest duff immediately after the ripping or scarifying. Some soils can form a crust that can inhibit the penetration of the seed into the soil and reduce germination success. Transplanting clumps of vegetation with the roots intact can provide an instant visual barrier that will last.

In some regions, seed doesn’t take well and there can often be better success by transplanting native vegetation. This can be labor-intensive and expensive, but it can also make a great volunteer project.

Tip, Trick or Trap?

Tip: Ensure that the use pattern has been successfully changed before investing in expensive rehabilitation treatments like transplanting living vegetation or planting native seed mixes.
Consult with a specialist to determine the best seed mix for the climate and region or if native seed mixes are required. If it is unclear if the use pattern has been changed, then seed with a quick-growing annual seed. This will supply the needed visual effect and soil stabilization in the short term until the more expensive treatments can be applied for the long term.

Fires can be devastating, but their heat releases seeds that have been buried dormant in the soil for years. That’s why burned areas are so green the following spring. Fire can be a good tool to establish vegetation in difficult areas and to help hide visual scars on open slopes.

Adding straw or other mulch on top of the seed helps protect the seed from displacement during weather events and fosters germination by providing a cooler and wetter microclimate.

8. Install signing and barriers. Sometimes just the disguising will be enough to deter use, but signing and barriers are often needed for a site that is highly visible or has had a high level of traditional use. Sometimes a sign can be installed first and if that doesn’t work, then back it up with a barrier. A good sign explains the closure, the reasoning for the closure, and redirects the riders to the new routes

Here are some thoughts regarding signing and barriers:

  • Always install the sign in the middle of the trail to be closed, not off to the side. The sign makes more of a statement and more of a barrier when placed in the middle of the trail.
  • Whenever possible, drag in a log, brush, or even sticks and place them directly behind the sign. Though small, this creates an additional visual barrier, but more importantly it helps in managing the riders’ eyes, which are usually scanning for the path of least resistance. A simple stick can turn the riders’ attention elsewhere.
  • Signing that explains the rationale for the closure can increase its effectiveness.
  • It takes more time and money, but a manmade barrier is more effective at deterring use than natural debris. A tree can fall down and riders are used to seeing natural debris. When a conscious effort is made to install a barrier, it makes a stronger statement both visually and psychologically.
  • Put debris behind a sign and a barrier in front of the sign.
  • Barriers send a message, but they don’t need to be a physical deterrent. Often a simple low barrier is equally effective and less visually intrusive than a multi-rail fence.
  • Do not use tank traps as a barrier when closing roads. Ripping and debris is more effective and it reduces agency risk.
  • Rarely does installing only a sign alone work. Back up the sign with ripping, debris, or barriers.
  • Don’t invite failure or risk. Never install a fence or barrier across a trail that has not been ripped, blocked, and signed as closed.

9. Utilize the 4Es. Effective application of the 4Es is essential to the success of any closure effort.

Some key points are:

  • Engineering is used in the design and placement of erosion control structures. It is also used in the design of the signing and barriers. Opening another, nearby route that is designed before the trail is closed will increase compliance.
  • Educate the riders. Use posters on the kiosk; place notices in club newsletters, the media, the agency or trail system website; or use social media to inform riders of the closure and why the trail is being closed. They may not agree with it, but compliance will be better if they understand the rationale behind the closure.
  • In some situations, enforcement may be needed, but again effective engineering and education will reduce the need for enforcement.
  • Evaluation is critical. The site must be monitored for effectiveness and any breaches or missing signs must be fixed immediately. People sometimes initially push back, but persistence by the agency will usually squash that quickly since most people have better things to do. When dealing with the public, nothing is ever 100 percent guaranteed.
  • Make necessary adjustments. As compliance is ensured and the vegetation is becoming established, consider removing the signs and then the barriers to avoid drawing attention to the site.
  • Finally, document successes. What method(s) worked the best? Take before, during, and after photos. They can be a valuable tool to garner political support and to help ensure the acceptance and success of future actions. Conduct field trips with stakeholders, media, and agency personnel to highlight the management successes.

Expect setbacks, but use the 4Es to determine the cause and beef up the engineering, education, or enforcement to correct them.

A Look Back

Here are some of the elements discussed in this chapter:

  • There are benefits and risks in converting roads to trails. If done properly, the risks are minimized and the benefits are maximized
  • Effectively converting a road to a great trail requires creativity and vision
  • versatility of an excavator makes it a good machine for both conversion and closure
  • Before considering using snowmobile trails as OHV trails, understand the site and the risks to make an informed decision
  • Successful closure and rehabilitation techniques are essential to controlling and directing the use and providing resource protection
  • By demonstrating adept OHV management, there can be political benefits that can bolster project support
  • Effective closure includes implementing as many of the following steps as possible in a given situation:
    1. Provide an alternative route. Avoid closing one trail before opening another
    2. Manage the riders’ eyes
    3. Restore natural drainage patterns
    4. Install erosion control
    5. Rip or scarify
    6. Disguise the corridor
    7. Incorporate effective measures to revegetate the site (seeding, transplanting, burning, spreading forest litter, etc.).
    8. Install signing and barriers. Do not install a fence across a trail that has not been ripped or blocked
    9. Utilize the 4Es
  • A great trail is a package; it’s a composition of elements that includes not just the trail, but the successful management of the trail and the area around it