How Hiking Trails Are Made

Hiking trails are an integral part of hiking. They provide a way to safely get from one place to another without getting lost or running into any dangerous obstacles on the trail. There are many different types of hiking trails, but they all have some things in common-they need to be well designed and constructed for safety purposes, they should blend with the natural environment that surrounds them, and they should be sustainable so that future generations can enjoy hiking too.

Hiking trails are an important part of hiking, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some hiking trails can be very dangerous because there is no clear path for hikers to follow through the terrain.

There were times when I was hiking that I had to stop hiking altogether just so that I could figure out where we should go because it was not clear and obvious. This often happens above the tree line in the mountains. Sometimes hikers will use cairns (a stack of rocks) to guide you on the trail.

Early Trails

Early trails made by natives often following animal tracks. These established the earliest network of trails and were multi-use trails for hunting, trading, warfare, and more. These trails became the foundation of hiking trails that we know today.

Hikers can follow animal tracks to get from one place to another, but it is important for hikers to be able to use their map and compass skills in order not get lost when hiking this way.

Later, European settlers and immigrants also followed animal trails as they moved westward across the United States. The first official hiking trail in the U.S. was created in 1884 when a group of citizens in California formed the Alpine Club of America (ACA).

This club was dedicated to mountaineering and hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The trail was named the High Sierra Trail and it started in Yosemite Valley, ended at Mt Whitney’s summit, and took hikers through Sequoia National Park as well.

In those days hiking trails were often built for one purpose only-to get from Point A to Point B-and they had steep grades which caused erosion problems. By 1910 hiking trails were widely used in America and there was a growing concern about the environmental impact of these hiking trails.


In 1931, the U S Forest Service (USFS) created what we know as today’s hiking trail-the National Historic Trail (NHT). This NHT is designed to be an ultra low impact hiking trail. The NHT follows the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine, and it has a 12 foot wide tread that is easy on the feet and prevents erosion.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) was formed in 1937 to help protect and maintain the Appalachian Trail.

During and after WWII many trails were abandoned due to lack of upkeep and in need of repair.

Mission 66 was a ten year project that ended in 1966, and it was part of the USFS National Trails System. This hiking trail building plan developed over 250 hiking trails through federal lands.

The National Trails System Act of 1968 helped establish new criteria that made it easier to create new hiking trails. It also directed all federal agencies with land management authority to develop plans that would allow

Modern Hiking Trail Design

By the 1970s, many trails were “loved to death.” Hikers were creating new trails, widening trails, and shortcutting switchbacks which led to even more erosion problems.

In order to combat the negative impacts of hiking on trails, the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles were developed in the 1980s. These hiking trail ethics promote responsible hiking and camping practices that will minimize our impact on the environment.

There are many important factors to consider when designing hiking trails. The first is the purpose of the trail-is it for hiking only, or will it be used by other types of users such as mountain bikers, horseback riders, and ATVers?

The NPS developed Trail Design and Construction Standards that provide guidelines on how trails need to be built so that they can last longer.

The NPS designs and constructs two main types of trails.

  1. Narrow and rough trails. These trails are typically found in areas where the terrain is steep and there is no other way to get through except by hiking. They are used by the park service and first responders track wildfires and game.
  2. Tourist trails. These trails have a tread width of 12 inches, which allows hikers to walk single file on the trail. The maximum grade for these types of trails is 15 percent, and they should not be used by mountain bikers.
Tourist trail at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado USA.

Laws That Affect Trail Management

There are many laws that affect hiking trail management. The Wilderness Act of 1964 protects areas where the land is “untrammeled by man” and activities such as hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, and horseback riding are allowed.

The National Historic Trails and National Scenic Trails Acts help protect trails that have historic or scenic value.

The National Trails System Act of 1968 is the law that makes hiking trails a priority in America. It also helps protect hiking trails and allocates money for their maintenance and improvement.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 helps ensure that the environment is considered when making decisions about land management.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 helps manage America’s public lands. It states that hiking trails should be built to accommodate a variety of users, and it gives the BLM authority to create hiking trails.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects plant and animal species that are in danger of becoming extinct.

Hiking trail design can be challenging, but it does not have to tear up the environment. By knowing what types of hiking trails are out there, and what can be done to help protect hiking trails, we are able to have a better understanding of how hiking trails work.

If you are in Colorado and want to help build or maintain some trails yourself, get a hold of Volunteers For Outdoor Colorado!

Happy Hiking!

Hiking trail through Aspen grove in Staunton State Park, Colorado USA
Narrow hiking trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains USA
Narrow hiking trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains USA

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