By: Sirena Rana Dufault


When I tell people I design and develop trails with my company, Trails Inspire, they often say, “I never really thought about how trails get there.” In this article series, I’ll break down the different steps for creating a trail, from start to finish. My experiences are in the desert Southwest; details of this process may vary a bit from region to region and depend on what land ownership agencies are involved.

Getting Involved with Trail Work and Learning the Right Questions to Ask  

I got into trail work through volunteering with the Arizona Trail Association to help complete the Arizona Trail (AZT). In 2007, I joined a trail crew that met regularly called “The Crazies” and helped build the trail near Tucson. This experience taught me a lot about trail building, and I went on to lead my own crews on projects, becoming a Trail Steward in 2012. 

I maintain a 3-mile section of the AZT near Oracle with my co-stewards from Arizona Zipline Adventures. Through my volunteer work, I was fortunate to meet a mentor who taught me how to design trails. In 2017, I founded my company, Trails Inspire, which promotes the outdoors through writing, photography, public speaking, and trail design.

Throughout my mentorship and experience thus far, I’ve learned a set of questions to ask at the initial stage of designing a new trail.

Question 1: Who owns the land?

When a piece of land is going to be developed for trails, procedures will vary based on the land manager. These could include a:

  • Private land owner
  • Federal agency, such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or National Park Service
  • State Parks department
  • City or county agency

If the land is privately owned, then the landowner can dictate what they want to build on the land. If it is public land, then the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) procedures must be followed, which will be explained below.

I also research the current and ancestral Indigenous ties to the land to ensure proper inclusion and acknowledgement of these communities.

Question 2: Who is going to use the trail and what do they want from it?

Trail design is also dependent on the user base. For my projects, I use a questionnaire to determine what the community is looking for, along with public meetings. Community involvement is very important at every step of the process to ensure that people’s questions and concerns are addressed. I’ve worked on projects that were specifically for hikers and have designed trails with mountain bike use in mind. Most often, however, design focuses on multi-use trails that can accommodate hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.

Question 3: What kind of trail system should this be?

A trail system refers to different linear and loops trails within a portion of land and how they connect. When designing the trail system, I prefer to do a series of stacked loops of varying difficulty. This gives trail users different options for the length of their journey, and also provides bailout points to return to the trailheads. Some land ownership right-of-way, however, will only allow for a linear trail system. 

Question 4: What are the control points to consider?

Control points in trail design are features to highlight and features to avoid. Well-designed trails should take you to interesting places in the landscape. For example, this could be a cool rock outcropping, an interesting set of trees (or, often in my case, cacti), or a scenic viewpoint. Places to avoid include things like impassible cliffs and rock formations, unstable soils, known archaeological and historic sites, and private land inholdings. 

Question 5: How can I learn more about the control points? 

I ask the land manager if they can provide any background data on environmentally or culturally sensitive areas to avoid. I also like to consult with local folks that really know the area I’ll be working in and do a site tour with them to get an idea of the lay of the land. I have also had people mark interesting spots on a map during public meetings in the community outreach portion of the project.

Getting to Work on the Trail Design and Development

 After asking these initial questions, I have a good sense for what the goals of the trail will be, what it might look like, and who all needs to be involved. From here, I can get started with the next phases of the project, which I’ve detailed below.

Preliminary Mapping

Before I head into the field to design the trails, I spend some time with the control points I’ve gathered in my research, a mapping program (I use TopoFusion), and Google Earth to get an idea of where I’ll be targeting. I rough in some guidelines to follow, using the program to make sure the trail is at an acceptable grade below 10%. Then, I export the guidelines to my Garmin GPSMAP 62ST handheld GPS unit. 

Trail Design

Next comes the most fun part – heading into the field to figure out where to put the trail! 

Trail design, even in the arid desert, requires a sustainable path that will shed water properly. We’ve all been on those trails where you’re walking in a washed-out gully. That is generally because the trail is not shedding water properly, and it is instead heading down the trail, causing erosion. Sustainable trails start with proper trail design; a trail put in the wrong place will become a maintenance headache for years to come.

For a great breakdown of trail design principles for desert trails, Mark Flint of Southwest Trail Solutions has a free downloadable PDF on his website. The International Mountain Biking Association book, Trail Solutions: IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack, is an excellent resource, as well. 

To layout a trail, I use the guidelines that I’ve marked between my control points, but stay flexible to change the route if a better option presents itself. Part of the process is looking for natural trail corridors and “feeling” where the trail should be along the landscape. I keep the grade of the trail below 10% when climbing or descending, using a clinometer to measure the angle. I flag the trail alignment, then go back and remove the flags on the way back to record the route on the GPS. 

Sometimes things go smoothly. Other times, there are obstacles that need to be bypassed that were not visible on the site tour or maps. In that case, it’s just trial and error until a sustainable path is found. Sometimes, it takes miles of bushwhacking to lay out just one mile of trail. An added obstacle to trail design in the desert is that almost everything is covered in spines and thorns. 

Here are the general principles of sustainable trail design from the USDA Forest Service Trail Construction and Maintenance Handbook and an example of a typical cross-section:

  • Sustainable grades less than 10%
  • The half rule: the trail grade should be no more than half the side slope grade 
  • Outsloped tread 
  • Frequent grade reversals 
  • Erosion resistance 
  • Path that traverses along the side slope 
  • Provision for sheet flow of water runoff 
  • Positive user experiences 
  • Low maintenance

Mapping and Trail Descriptions

Once the trail system has been “ground truthed,” or laid out in the field, I take the GPS tracks back to my TopoFusion program to generate clean tracks that can be exported in a map for the Master Plan. I write trail descriptions for each segment, detailing the length, uses, difficulty (including average grade), vegetation, type of soils, and construction recommendations. I then develop a signage and interpretation plan based on these findings.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

After the Master Plan for a trail has been developed on public lands, the project must go through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If determined necessary to protect the resource, NEPA procedures can include an Environmental Assessment, which includes surveys and comment periods for the public to weigh in on the new trails. 

Surveys are done on the proposed trail corridor to identify archaeological and historic sites and endangered plants and animals, as well as soil, watershed, and visual resource (scenic values) studies. This stage also includes a Tribal Consult to take the project for comment to the Indigenous people associated with the area. If anything is found that will negatively impact the resources, the trail is rerouted. On private land, the decision to have these surveys done is at the landowner’s discretion. If the trail system for a community includes private land, trail construction and development agreements are signed with the landowner.

Several options for the completed trail system may be presented for public comment. Once the public comment period and surveys are completed, a document is submitted to the land management agency. They are the ones who will ultimately issue the permit to construct the trail system on the public land.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 of “Where Do Trails Come From?” 

In part 2 of this series, I’ll focus on how this design and approval phase of trail development moves into how the trails are actually constructed and then maintained.


Sirena Rana Dufault is an advocate for the outdoors who adores exploring Arizona's trails, canyons, peaks and rivers. She is the founder of Trails Inspire, a consulting company that promotes the outdoors via writing, public speaking, photography, and trail design and development. You can follow her on Instagram.

May 13, 2020 — Gossamer Gear