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What is a Sustainable Trail?

What is a Sustainable Trail?

By Andrew Hamlin, Former Trails Coordinator

If you’ve hiked in the Adirondack Park before, chances are you probably experienced something along the way that felt more like hiking on a steep, rocky stream bed than an actual trail. Standing water, mud pits, slippery rocks, and even small waterfalls can all be encountered in the middle of Adirondack trails. There’s also a chance that you needed to go off-trail to get around these obstacles. While some romanticize these kinds of situations—seriously, some people actually enjoy them—the conditions I just described are indicative of a trail network that was not built to last. These trails are degrading before our very eyes. Furthermore, their state of disrepair put hikers in situations where they might make decisions that ultimately impact the backcountry or put themselves in danger.

This all comes from a long history of improper design, going all the way back to the first trailblazers, who cut trails in direct lines to the summit. Though this may seem efficient, it goes against almost everything we know about trail design today and was done without any understanding of land protection. So, it’s little wonder that our trails are as eroded and messy as they are today. As more and more people get outside, we need to provide people with trails that are not only safe, but also ecologically viable. This brings us to sustainable trails.

So, just what do we mean by a sustainable hiking trail? To start, we need to think of trails as more than just the earth beneath our feet. Instead, think of them as being akin to the sidewalk outside of your house. Urban planners spend a lot of time working to ensure that sidewalks drain properly, last for a long time, and safely allow you to get from point a to point b. In this sense, hiking trails are no different. If built correctly, they are designed to give you a safe path from the trailhead to the summit that drains properly, minimizes impacts like erosion, and lasts for a long period of time.

In the trail-building world, we consider a trail to be sustainable if it lasts for at least 20 years in a state of preservation with only basic maintenance. To achieve this, they need to be built with a variety of specific features, such as hardened surfaces, less steep grades, and more, which are often determined by the climate and landscape where the trail exists. To give you an idea of what this looks like in practice, let’s take a hike up one of my favorite little mountains: Mt Van Hoevenberg.

There are two trails to the summit: one from the north, and one from the south. The southern trail runs from South Meadows Lane in a beeline for the summit, taking hikers through a beaver swamp and directly up a steep hillside. As shown in the below pictures, there are areas where the trail has eroded into rocky ledges and where large mud pits have formed. These are both indicative of poor trail design.

The northern trail tells a different story. Leaving from the Van Hoevenberg Ski Center this trail runs back and forth on smooth grades—called switchbacks—through a nice, forested area. Here trail workers, including ADK’s own professional trail crew, hardened the tread to resist erosion, drain water, and provide hikers with a clear path. This, in turn, protects surrounding vegetation, as hikers will be less likely to step off-trail to avoid obstacles. This is one of only a handful of sustainably designed trails in the entire Adirondack Park, and the difference from one side of the mountain to the other is stark. The disparity in long-term outlook for each trail is even more glaring.

While the sustainable northern trail will survive storm after storm, hiker after hiker with only seasonal maintenance requirements, the damage that we can see on the southern trail will continue to worsen. No matter how much maintenance goes into it, we cannot change the fact that the design is wrong and will continue to create these issues. It’s like playing whack-a-mole with trail work; even if you hit one problem, another will spring up elsewhere on the trail, and by the time you fix that one, the one you just fixed will probably spring up again.

We need more trails in the Park to be sustainably designed like the newer one on Mt Van Hoevenberg. This is not only for the sake of recreators, but for the future protection of the Adirondack Park. Sustainable trails protect the surrounding landscape and the people that enjoy them.

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