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.

How Cold Is It in Canada? Niagara Falls Has Frozen Over

Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Getty Images
Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Getty Images

The cold snap that's gripped the northeast in an icy, subzero chill has made it hard to roll down frozen car windows and navigate roads. Elsewhere, it's having a significantly more spectacular effect: The roaring cascade of water at Niagara Falls at the United States/Canada border has slowed and even come to a stop in some areas, having effectively frozen over.

CNN reports that extreme temperatures have arrested the famous waterfall in spots, creating a kind of winter wonderland that some observers have compared to the handiwork of Elsa in Disney's Frozen. Here's what a similar scene looked like in 2015:

Visitors observe frozen areas of Niagara Falls in 2015
Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Getty Images

And here's a look at footage captured in 2019:

While covered by a sheet of ice, the Falls are not frozen solid: The volume and force of water prevents that. In the 1960s, steel ice booms were added to prevent large blocks from forming farther up the river that could slow the water enough to cause freezing. Instead, it's the surface water and mist that ices over, creating an aesthetically intriguing appearance. If it gets cold enough, ice can form as the water falls, leading to a large deposit on the bottom that can grow to over 40 feet thick.

It's rare for the Falls to come to a complete halt, but before the advent of the ice booms, it was a possibility. On March 30, 1848, gale force winds pushed ice floes from Lake Erie to the mouth of the Niagara River, creating a natural dam and effectively turning off the rushing water. People began walking over the dry riverbed and collected resurfaced weapons from the War of 1812; others thought it was a sign of the end of the world. Niagara Falls has never experienced a near-total interruption since.

[h/t CNN]

The 10 Most Instagrammed Real-Life Game of Thrones Locations

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

Croatia's tourism industry is booming, and Game of Thrones is largely to thank—or blame. The old town of Dubrovnik has received so many tourists since scenes from the TV show were shot there that local officials announced a plan in 2017 to limit the number of travelers who arrive via cruise ship each day.

The most Instagrammed Game of Thrones location isn’t in Dubrovnik, but it is in Croatia. Using hashtag data from Instagram, Buzz Bingo mapped out the film locations that are most popular among social media-savvy travelers. Of the 54 locations analyzed, here are the top 10.

1. Krka National Park, Croatia

Krka National Park, Croatia
Brian Adamson via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Known for its stunning waterfalls and access to the Krka River, this park in southern Croatia is a tourist destination in its own right. Several Game of Thrones scenes were shot there, including the one where Arya Stark and The Hound cross the Riverlands in season 4, episode 3 ("Breaker of Chains").

2. Aït Benhaddou, Morocco

After a stop in Marrakech, visitors often take a day trip to this fortified 17th-century city and UNESCO World Heritage site. Game of Thrones fans probably know it better as Yunkai, a second slaving city that Daenerys Targaryen liberated.

3. Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland

The Dark Hedges
iStock.com/DieterMeyrl

This enchanting corridor of beech trees was planted in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, in the 18th century. Of course, in the show, it’s the Kings Road. Rewatch season 2, episode 1 (“The North Remembers”) and you’ll see it.

4. Carrick-a-Rede, Northern Ireland

Travel a little further north from The Dark Hedges and you’ll reach the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. In the show, this bridge connects the two towers of Pyke on the Iron Islands, and can be seen in the season 6 episode (warning: spoiler alert) where Balon Greyjoy meets a grisly end.

5. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Spain

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
iStock.com/Eloi_Omella

This Spanish island served as the setting for Dragonstone Island, which can be seen in season 7. The name San Juan de Gaztelugatxe means “castle rock” in Basque.

6. Bardenas Reales, Spain

Bardenas Reales
iStock.com/MarioGuti

Daenerys and the Dothraki cross these plains on their way to The Narrow Sea. In reality, the Bardenas Reales is a desert region in southern Spain.

7. Vatnajökull, Iceland

For cooler climes, Game of Thrones location scouts turned to Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier. Using CGI, shots of the glacier were used to create The Wall in season 2 of the show.

8. Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

Þingvellir National Park
iStock.com/Michael Ver Sprill

Another Icelandic location, this mountainous region near the real-life Hengill volcano serves as the backdrop for the duel between Brienne and The Hound.

9. Itálica, Spain

The ancient Roman city of Itálica, located in Spain near Seville, was founded in 206 BCE. The Dragonpit in season 7 of Game of Thrones was filmed here.

10. Doune Castle, Scotland

Doune Castle
iStock.com/treasuregalore

This 14th century courtyard castle was the first place used to depict Winterfell in Game of Thrones. The feast scene in the pilot episode was also shot here.

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