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.

Here's How You Can Help Rebuild Paris's Notre-Dame Cathedral

 Kitwood, Getty Images
Kitwood, Getty Images

A fire at Paris’s famed Notre-Dame Cathedral raged for nine hours on Monday, drawing the world’s attention to the partial destruction of one of the best-known cultural monuments on the planet. The efforts of more than 400 firefighters managed to preserve much of the 859-year-old structure, but the roof and spire were destroyed.

Financial support for the building has already come pouring in, with billionaire François-Henri Pinault pledging $113 million toward reconstruction and another billionaire, Bernard Arnault, promising $226 million. A total of roughly $1 billion has come in from donations, but a revitalized Notre-Dame is a considerable expense that could cost even more.

For people who would like to assist, donations are being accepted by the nonprofit French Heritage Society for virtually any amount.

Why will expenses run so high? Prior to the fire, Notre-Dame was in dire need of extensive restoration. Buttresses caused instability to major walls, gargoyles were damaged, and cracks had formed in the now-destroyed spire. The cathedral is owned by the French government, which allots roughly 2 million euros (or about $2.26 million) annually to upkeep. Between the existing wear and the fire, it could take years or possibly decades for the work to be completed.

The publicity surrounding Notre-Dame has also motivated people to assist in rebuilding efforts on a smaller scale, and closer to home. Three churches in Louisiana that were recently targeted in allegedly racist arson attacks saw donations climb from $150,000 to over $1 million following the Notre-Dame fire. You can donate to that GoFundMe campaign here.

[h/t CNN]

The Isle of Sark Needs a New Dairy Farmer, But You'll Have to Bring Your Own Cows

Philipp Guelland/Getty Images
Philipp Guelland/Getty Images

If you've ever dreamed of moving to a secluded island to become a farmer, the Isle of Sark is giving you the opportunity. Sark, located in England's Channel Islands, is seeking a dairy farmer to supply milk to the island's population of 500. The only catch is that job candidates must be ready to move there with their own herd of 25 to 35 cows, Atlas Obscura reports.

Sark is a 3-mile long, mile-and-a-half wide island with green pastures, rocky cliffs, and no cars or street lamps. The only way to get there is by boat or one of the ferries that leaves from the nearby Jersey and Guernsey islands.

The last time the island had a dairy farmer was 2017. That year, farmer Christopher Nightingale shut down his business due to issues with costs and land instability. The Isle of Sark held onto feudalism long after the rest of Europe abandoned it, and though the practice technically ended in 2008, it hasn't died completely. Sometimes this works to the community's advantage, like when Nazis invaded in 1940, but it also means that farmers must lease their land for short periods rather than own it.

If you're willing to trade your right to own property for idyllic island living, Sark's dairy farmer gig maybe the perfect fit for you. The island is looking for someone, or a couple, with lots of dairy farming experience, and a herd of Jersey or Guernsey cows, which are native to the Channel Islands. You can reach out to Caragh Couldridge at info@caraghchocolates.com for information on how to apply.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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