The Psychology and Science Behind How Hiking Trails Are Created

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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.

When Should You Book Your Thanksgiving and Christmas Flights? Right Now!

zoff-photo/iStock via Getty Images
zoff-photo/iStock via Getty Images

For many people, paying for distressingly expensive airline tickets is just part of life when it comes to traveling for the holidays. And, while you might think you’ll get the best deal by checking fluctuating prices obsessively from today until the day before Thanksgiving, you’re probably better off booking your flights right now.

“Once you get within three or four months, the chance of something cheap popping up for Christmas or New Year’s is not very likely,” Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, told Travel + Leisure. “Certainly don’t wait until the last week or two because prices are going to be way higher.”

This is partially because airlines devise algorithms based on last year’s ticket sales and trends, and they know many travelers will fork over some serious cash rather than decide not to go home for the holidays—and there are always plenty of people who wait until the last minute to book their flights. In fact, so you know for next year, the absolute best time to book holiday travel is actually during the summer.

Scott Mayerowitz, the executive editorial director of The Points Guy, admits that it is possible to save a little money if you’re extremely diligent about following flight prices leading up to the holidays, but he thinks your mental health is worth much more than the pittance you might (or might not) save. “The heartache and headache of constantly searching for the best airfare can drive you insane,” he told Travel + Leisure. “Your time and sanity [are] worth something.”

If you’re not willing to throw in the towel just yet, you could always track the prices for a little while, and give yourself a hard deadline for booking your flights in a few weeks. Mayerowitz says buying your seats at least six weeks in advance—or earlier—is a good rule of thumb for holiday travel. That still leaves you several weeks to periodically scroll through flight listings and get a feel for what seems like a reasonable price.

To minimize your travel anxiety even further, try to fly one one of these dates, and check out eight other tips for a stress-free holiday trip.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

Welcome to Cool, California. Population: 2520

Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not hard to find U.S. towns with some pretty weird (and sometimes depressing) names, so we shouldn't be surprised that people have the option of settling in the tiny town of Cool, California.

Initially named Cave Valley, due to the limestone formations nearby, the town popped up around 1849 during the California Gold Rush. The population eventually grew to 4100 people.

It's unclear when the town went from Cave Valley to being Cool. One legend suggests that a beatnik named Todd Hausman bequeathed the name after passing through in the 1950s, but the veracity of that story is doubtful since the Cool Post Office was founded as early as 1885. According to Condé Nast Traveler, records show that a reverend named Peter Y. Cool came out to pan gold and settled in the town in 1850, possibly serving as the source of the change.

Whatever the origin of its name, the town of Cool has ample branding opportunities. There’s the Cool Grocery Store and the Cool Beerwerks brewery and restaurant, which specializes in Hawaiian-Japanese fusion cuisine. Cool has held the Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run every year since 1990.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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