In the interest of full disclosure, the content of this article will be completely, totally, 100% self-serving. You see, I’m a trail junkie. I run on them, bike on them, train and race on them. I advocate for them with local land managers, help raise funds for their maintenance and improvement, and help create, repair, and maintain them myself. Trails are my favorite training environment, my favorite escape, and the surest way to connect to my inner self.
So there is no altruism in what I’m about to tell you. I’m writing this PSA from a standpoint of pure self-interest, and I don’t even feel bad about it.
Wherever you go, whatever activity you partake in, and however challenged or mortified you find yourself when your feet or wheels hit dirt—they are not your trails. Let’s talk about why, and what that means.
Whose Trails Are They?
I have hiked, run, or ridden thousands of miles on scores of trails in most parts of the country. I have sailed through groomed trails on public land, beat myself to death against rugged backcountry goat tracks, and even hurtled myself down mountainsides at private downhill resorts. But never, even in my hometown, even on the trails that start a mile from my doorstep, have I found myself on a trail that I could call my own.
Sure, there are some trails that I know like the back of my hand. There are trails that I have literally poured my own sweat, blood, and treasure into. But they aren’t mine. They belong to the owners or managers of the land, and I am only a user, a volunteer, or an advocate.
This is a crucial distinction to make, because it is the central truth upon which the rest of this article hinges. Repeat after me: I don’t own the land, so the trails on it are not mine.
Your Skill Level Doesn’t Matter
Mountain bikers are perhaps most notorious among trail users of any stripe for talking trash about a particular trail system. It’s too hard, or too easy, or too dangerous. It should have more climbing, or more jumps, skinnies, or rock gardens. It should have less obstacles, wider corridors, more flow, or better sightlines. Everybody’s a critic, and mountain bikers can be among the most critical.
In a way, that’s understandable. On a bike in the woods (or among the rocks and cacti of the Southwest), it’s you against nature. Because of the increase in speed over hiking or running, the consequences of a mistake are somewhat higher. Mountain bikers often spend large amounts of money and time to get their rig, their gear, and themselves to a trailhead. If the experience they find once they get there doesn’t match their expectations, a certain amount of disappointment is natural.
But the universal truth still applies: they aren’t your trails. You didn’t design them, you don’t maintain them, and you don’t have an agreement with the land owner or manager to change them. So when you take out that log-over that almost made you crash, or build some janky, half-assed berm to give a corner more flow or speed, it’s you that’s in the wrong, not the trails.
Think a trail system is too easy? Try going faster. Getting your ass kicked by a trail system that’s too hard? Use it to work on your skills to become a better rider. Lungs getting smoked by climb after climb? Sounds like you need to work on your fitness. Don’t want to do any of those things? Then go somewhere else.
A “gift” left by local trail rogues at Hueston Woods State Park.
Your “Expertise” Doesn’t Matter
“But Pete,” you say, “this trail was obviously built by rank amateurs. I know how to build trails and trail features!”
That’s great! Then get involved with whatever local organization runs that trail system. I’m sure they would love nothing more than to have someone with your passion and expertise. And in return, they can educate you on the nature and limitations of the agreement they have with the land manager. You might find out that the state park that owns the trails has mandated they not exceed a certain difficulty level. Or that trail features must only be made using materials found inside the park, or provided by the state Department of Natural Resources. Or that the land owner requires that any reroutes over a certain length be brought to her attention before construction begins.
Frankly, you probably don’t know as much about building trails as you think. Even if you do, the changes you make are probably not in line with the master plan for the trail system, or the rules governing its use and maintenance. That means that the people who are authorized to work on those trails will have to come after you and waste precious volunteer hours undoing whatever nonsense you created. At best, you’ve created more work for a bunch of strangers who put in long hours to give you something you enjoy. At worst, you’re jeopardizing the relationship between trail users and land managers, which in many cases, results in entire trail systems being closed to some or all classes of users.
There Is More at Stake Than You Think
Most trails in the United States are on land that is owned or managed by a public agency. The trails, and the land they are on, are part of a larger effort at conservation. Natural areas and resources are under increasing threat from industrial and residential development, and the agencies and organizations that protect them are universally overworked and underpaid. They are also among the most knowledgeable and passionate people you’ll ever meet.
Trail design and maintenance has substantially evolved over the past two decades. New construction techniques decrease soil erosion, increase trail durability, and take into account dozens of other variables, from endangered species protection, to invasive species control, to multi-use traffic optimization. Before a new trail is cut, it is not uncommon for experts in topography, geology, biology, and other areas to survey the site and give their inputs.
All of this isn’t useless bureaucracy. It’s a way to make sure that there will be no objections to the presence of the trail or its users, now and in the future. It is a crucial process to ensure the preservation of the land in as close to its natural state as possible, so that future generations can continue to enjoy it as well as you.
This is the delicate process that you jeopardize with you make rogue changes to a trail, or when you ride or run on trails that are not open to you (looking at you again, mountain bikers). You don’t have to agree with it, or even understand it. But for the sake of all the people trying to bring you more and better trail experiences of every flavor, you need to abide by it.
They aren’t your trails. They’re everybody’s trails. Play by the rules, work within the system, or risk having those trails closed to everybody.