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Sustainable Trails: Creating Lasting Connections

January 4, 2021

Many of our mountainsides contained informal trails long before they became Land Trust nature preserves. These trails were created by neighborhood kids wandering the woods with friends, mountain bikers looking for a place to ride, or developers surveying lands for a potential project. Most, if not all, of these early trails were constructed with convenience of access in mind, not longevity or sustainability.

As the Land Trust of North Alabama became responsible for these properties, staff and volunteers organized these loose connections into managed trail systems. Over time, those trail systems have become popular and well established. However, as the organization has evolved and grown, so has our knowledge and ability to implement sustainable trail planning, construction, and maintenance. Our Land Stewards are trained and certified in sustainable trail development and construction and we follow guidelines based on Appalachian Trail standards as outlined in A.T. Design, Construction, and Maintenance by William Birchard and Robert Proudman. also provides information that informs our work.

Information Gathering

Gone are the days of simply selecting a start and end point then connecting them through the easiest route possible. Instead a rigorous and systematic planning process is implemented before any trail cutting begins. First, we consider these questions:

  • Do we need a trail? What is the purpose and goal for the trail?
  • Will it create a new, interesting, and sustainable connection?
  • Is there a specific destination?
  • Are there areas to avoid due to erosion, unsustainability, unsafe terrain, or ecologically/historically sensitive areas?
  • Are we highlighting terrain, land features, hydrologic, ecologic or historic areas?
  • Are there opportunities for education and interpretation?
  • Who is the intended trail user?
  • What type of trail is appropriate in this location – multi-use, biking/single track, horseback riding, etc.?
  • What is the existing trail density in the area?
  • Are there partners and resources available for trail construction and maintenance?

Trail Planning

Once the justification for a trail or reroute is established, our planning process truly begins.

  • First, potential corridors are identified on topographic maps.
  • Ground surveys commence, meaning we walk and explore potential routes and identify points of interest or concern along the way.
  • Assessments are made of potentially sensitive ecological, geological, and historical areas. If there is sufficient concern regarding sensitive areas, we consult with relevant specialists to identify or dismiss concerns.
  • Needs assessments identify what type of construction method is suitable for the terrain and ecology. Bridge placement, hydrology control measures, and erosion control requirements are identified.
  • Throughout this process a suitable trail corridor is identified and walked multiple times in different directions to better understand the flow of the trail, the environmental impact, and construction methods to be implemented. This corridor is designed to have the least environmental impact as possible.

Trail Construction

Finally, physical trail construction begins. A corridor is cleared up to eight feet wide, depending on the method of construction and the terrain. New trails are always initially wider than the intended result. Wider corridors allow for the use of mechanized equipment for construction or long-term maintenance access. As the trail naturalizes over time though, the corridor will shrink to the preferred sustainable width of four or five feet. Once a corridor is established, tread work follows.

Corridor and tread construction can be completed by hand or by machine. However, project goals and timelines may dictate the optimum construction method. Historically, hand trail construction allows us to complete about 10 linear feet in an hour while mechanized construction triples that to 30 feet per hour. Terrain, such as steep slope or overly rocky beds, also dictates which method is used.

The Land Trust is turning more and more to mechanized trail building in an effort to maximize our limited labor and resources. This often includes a small walk behind loader and mini tracked excavator to establish an initial corridor and construct the trail tread. Using mechanized equipment means faster trail construction resulting in less costly trails, more consistent trail tread, and better compaction. This method also removes large obstacles, like downed trees and rocks efficiently. Importantly, it creates more sustainable trails with less environmental impact. Hand work will always be needed for fine tuning and to assist mechanized efforts. Ultimately, sustainable trails are the goal so we’ll use the method to best facilitate that.

With over 70 miles of trails and more to come, sustainable, affordable, and timely trail construction is critical to meet the needs of our community. When we don’t keep up with the demand for new exploration and fresh connections, the public makes them on their own. Renegade trails are a constant problem on many of our nature preserves.

Continued Maintenance

The Land Trust is currently completing trail restoration projects on Monte Sano Nature Preserve with funding from the National Environmental Education Foundation in partnership with HAMR, Monte Sano State Park, Dynetics Young Professionals, and other community partners.  With the completion of these projects, we hope to not only improve some of our most popular trails but establish a foundation for sustainable future maintenance. As the Land Trust grows, we will continue to provide new connections so our community can access all the benefits of nature while taking into consideration the environmental impact and the best practices to make it possible. And if you’re interested in helping out, we can always use volunteers. Find upcoming trail care work days and sign up to volunteer at

Want to learn more? Check out other posts in our Sustainable Trails Series:

Sustainable Trails: Bridges & Boardwalks

Sustainable Trails: Constructing Elevated Trail Treads

This post is part of a series highlighting Land Trust of North Alabama’s commitment to sustainable trail building in an effort to ensure the long-term sustainability of our trails. Funding provided through a Restoration and Resilience Grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), with major funding support from Toyota Motor North America supports current trail restoration projects on Monte Sano Nature Preserve and public education about the importance of responsible construction, maintenance, and trail use.