The Psychology and Science Behind How Hiking Trails Are Created

iStock
iStock

You can find a hiking trail or walking path almost anywhere in the United States, whether you're deep in the backcountry or a few yards from a parking lot. Most casual hikers probably give them little thought before lacing up their boots, but hiking trails don't just appear naturally. Sure, the popular pathways are created with shovels and sweat and grit, but that's not all: Modern trail construction actually involves a significant amount of anticipating what potential hikers will do and analyzing the area surrounding the route. The ultimate goal: "A useful trail must be easy to find, easy to travel, and convenient to use," according to the USDA Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook [PDF].

Before the first ground is even close to being broken, trail designers consider the trail-to-be's location and its potential users. Will visitors be hardcore hikers looking for a new challenge? Or is the trail to be set near an urban area, where hikers are considered more casual? Will more than just hikers need to use it? All of these factors will determine a trail's layout and design.

To figure out the right layout, trail designers consult protocols like the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines [PDF], which detail “Trail Management Objectives”—the intended users, desired difficulty level, and desired experience—that will determine the width, as well as the type of tread, of the trail. If the hikers are experienced, a narrow, single track path can probably handle that population. But more casual hikers—think friends out for a picnic, families, or dog walkers—are more likely to walk and talk side-by-side. If the trail is designated as multi-use—meaning it's open to multiple user groups, like bikers, equestrians, cross country skiing, etc.—that’s also central to planning.

Next comes the direction of the trail, which is determined in part by psychology. Studies have shown that humans naturally follow the path of least resistance. If a muddy puddle collects in the center of a trail, for example, a majority of hikers will maneuver around, rather than trudge through, the mud, without putting much thought into their decision. One person skirting the puddle doesn’t make much difference, but a steady stream of well-meaning outdoor enthusiasts will quickly expand the original trail. People might begin to form separate “social trails” created by rogue hikers simply stepping on previously undisturbed land. As trail designer Erik Mickelson shared with The Wall Street Journal, "You’ll lay it out, you think you’ve done it well, and then they make a shortcut and you’re like, ‘Damn, why didn’t I see that?’”

The result of these hikers' minor adjustments is the destruction of more habitat. So trail designers must consider natural obstacles like potential puddle spots, loose rocks, steep inclines, and water crossings before laying out a route. Often, they'll consult topographic maps, compasses, surveyors' instruments, and aerial photos to make the first broad strokes. The macro view allows designers to establish positive control points, like a lake or waterfall, and negative control points like a field of poison ivy.

If avoiding the problem completely isn't possible, builders work to minimize the impact on the environment. One common trick used to subtly contain the creation of social trails is the installation of “gargoyles.” [PDF] Often stone or a large rock (thus the name), but always made of natural materials, gargoyles divert hikers away from potential short cuts by creating an obstacle harder to cross than the path itself. For example, a collection of fallen trees and vines might be piled around the entrance of an old social trail to block the way. A few well placed rocks could also create a seemingly natural endpoint to a one way trail. If you hike, you’ve likely come across a gargoyle without noticing it.

Ultimately, hiking trails are destructive to the environments they provide access to. They tear through the land, disturbing the natural layout and leaving it much more vulnerable to erosion. The people who design and build trails put a lot of thought into constructing the most sustainable path possible. "There is a real art to trail layout," the authors of the USDA Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook write. "Some basics can be taught, but the person locating the trail must develop an eye for laying a trail out on the ground."

So next time you’re out for a hike, make sure to stick to the trail—there's more to it than you might think.

This Ultra-Comfy Travel Onesie Has an Inflatable Hood and Neck Pillow

Onepiece
Onepiece

If you’re preparing to take a 10-hour flight, you’re probably going to reach for the comfiest outfit in your closet rather than the trendiest one. So, in an effort to design the “ultimate travel apparel,” Norwegian brand Onepiece has created a unisex line of Inflatable Travel Jumpsuits—otherwise known as onesies.

The outfit, spotted by Travel + Leisure, boasts over 15 airplane-friendly features that frequent travelers will appreciate. The hood inflates to form a cushion, and a built-in neck pillow also puffs up to provide some extra support. Use the “snooze cap” to shield your eyes, and if you really want to block out all the light, you can cover your face by zipping the hood down (there’s still plenty of breathing room). Finally, to prevent any awkward contact with your neighbor while you nod off, you can strap yourself into your seat by using the sleeping mask and adjustable head stabilizer.

Different features of the onesie
Onepiece

There are also plenty of pockets. One is large enough to fit a tablet or magazine, while double-zipped kangaroo pockets are designed to protect your valuables. The pants also sport cargo pockets, and additional velcro pockets inside the chest area of the onesie can be detached and placed in a tray while you go through airport security.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a zippered “Rear Exit Solution” on the butt of the pants, so if you need to do your business, you won’t have to get half-naked to do so.

We get that most people probably stopped wearing onesies after their seventh birthday, but the fact that the shirt and bottoms are connected is actually pretty subtle. Check out the company’s Kickstarter video below to see it being modeled, and if you’re interested in sporting this look, you have until November 12 to back the project and secure your onesie for $149.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

The Best and Worst Airports, Airlines, and Routes to Fly on Thanksgiving

iStock.com/simonkr
iStock.com/simonkr

Traveling around the holidays is always stressful, but depending on where you're starting out and where you're headed, it could be particularly bad. Especially if you're flying out of Oakland, Dallas, or Chicago, according to new data compiled by Treetopia, an online retailer devoted to artificial Christmas trees and wreaths.

Treetopia crunched some numbers to discover the worst airports, airlines, and days to travel around the Thanksgiving holiday, discovering that certain travelers have a much better better shot of having a smooth airport experience than others. In some cases, it could be a matter of going to the airport across town, even. Based on data from last November's holiday travel, here are the worst places to fly out of in late November:

A map of the airports in the U.S. with the worst flight delays on Thanksgiving
Treetopia

In Chicago, for instance, Midway faces some of the worst delays in the country around Thanksgiving, but O'Hare has one of the best track records. In the D.C. area, you're much better off flying out of Dulles (No. 5 on the Best Airports list) than the Baltimore-Washington airport (No. 9 on the Worst Airports list). And in the Bay Area, you want to avoid going to either Oakland (the country's worst airport for Thanksgiving travel, and a regular on most-delayed lists) or San Jose (the fifth worst). Hopefully you can fly out of San Francisco instead.

If you're looking for the most reliable travel experience, below are the best airports and airlines to fly that week, according to Treetopia's numbers.

A map of the best airports for Thanksgiving travel
Treetopia

However, your likelihood of delay is also affected by which airline you're flying with and what route you're traveling on. Shorter routes in particular seem to be at risk of delays—especially if you're flying within California.

Charts of the best and worst air travel routes to fly around Thanksgiving
Treetopia

And here are the airlines you should avoid and the ones you should gravitate toward if you're looking to get to Thanksgiving dinner on time:

Charts of the best and worst airlines to travel with on Thanksgiving
Treetopia

Best of luck at the airport this holiday season! And get ready: Christmas/holiday-travel season is just a few short weeks away.

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