Trail Development to Improve Your Property Value - Carl Wiedeman & Ron Neadle

New York State - Department of Natural Resources General Manager of Forest Parks & President, Mohawk Valley Hiking Club


Trail development provides several important benefits for the woodland owner. For most people, trails make it much easier to enjoy the property by improving access through it - whether on foot, skiis, horseback, mountain bicycle, snowmobile, or ATV. And its not just the owner who benefits. Friends and family members may feel a little intimidated in a woodlot that is large and unfamiliar. Well marked trails make it much harder for someone to "get lost." In short, a well developed and well designed trail system can enhance the recreational value of the land for yourself, your friends and your family. And if you ever decide to sell the property, a trail system is a feature that will improve its marketability to prospective buyers.

Before you can develop a good trail system on your property, you have to be very familiar with it. Scouting property that you are not familiar with starts with a walk around the perimeter. All boundary lines should be clearly marked wherever they are not obvious. This helps prevent possible trespass, but also gives you some reference points while scouting the trail.

Next, you should locate all of the features that should be considered in trail design. For parcels which are larger than 15 or 20 acres, a map will be a useful reference. Ideally, a USGS topographic map should be used as a reference. However, you can also make your own rough sketch map. You’ll want to locate things such as old roads, streams, poorly drained areas, steep ridges, cellar holes, unusual trees or or other features of interest that might be tied together with a trail system. It is important to know your property very well in order to make good decisions about trail design and layout.

Trail Design and Layout

Trail design depends a on the type of use or uses you intend it for, the characteristics of the property, and the features or points of interest that you want to incorporate. Well designed trails take advantage of natural drainage features, follow benches on hillsides, pitch around rocks and trees and show very little evidence of the work that went into them. They "fit" into the landscape.

After designing the trail, layout should be done by flagging the general course and then double checking the location to make sure it is correct. Plastic surveyors flagging works well for this purpose since it is inexpensive, highly visable, and easy to put up and remove. If possible, the location of the trail should be checked at different times during the year to make sure all environmental factors have been considered - especially drainage.

The best time for trail layout is during spring or fall when leaves are off the trees and the ground surface is visible. Drainage problems are more apparent during these seasons and terrain features are more visible.

Unless a swampy area is something you want to incorporate as a point of interest, the trail should avoid wet areas. This is to avoid the extra effort needed to build a dry surface out of the mud and future maintenance problems to prevent erosion.

Steep slopes require careful location of trails to avoid erosion. Do not attempt to run trails directly up a slope. Traversing the slope at a diagonal will help avoid erosion and ease the steepness. Trails on extremely steep slopes should make use of switchbacks to avoid long detours.

Trail width and height is an important factor in layout and construction. The width is dependent on the trail's purpose and the terrain on which it is located. Hiking paths generally have a minimum tread width of about 4 feet. Horse trails and recreational vehicle trails are a minimum of 8 feet wide. Additional width must be provided at curves and where erosion control devices are necessary. Keep in mind that vehicles and especially horses need adequate overhead clearance. Cross country ski trails should also have adequate height because branches may be weighed down with snow and ice during the winter and skiiers will be on the snow.

Proper drainage is essential in trail design. A trail can be quickly destroyed by erosion if water is not diverted from the trail surface. Proper grading of the trail surface so water runs off across the trail is the most important design feature. Where additional measures are necessary, drainage structures may be necessary. These structures may be broad based dips, waterbars or various types of culverts.

Trail Maintenance

All trails will tend to "grow in" over time since brush and tree limbs will tend to fill any openings that are available. To minimize the need for future maintenance, avoid creating openings during trail construction. Stay in the shade. Except where you specifically intend to feature openings or brushy areas, try to locate the trail where there already is a well developed forest canopy overhead.

When clearing for the trail, brush and saplings along the edges of the trail should be cut at ground level to avoid hazardous stumps and stubble. Stumps and roots in the trail should be removed. Dead and dangerous trees along the trail corridor should be removed. Overhead limbs should be cut high enough to avoid interference. Allowance should be made for snow depths and snow loaded drooping branches on winter trails.

NYS Cost-sharing for Trails

Recreational trail development is encouraged by providing cost sharing for qualified landowners (see table on following page). Financial assistance is available through the Stewardship Incentive Program (SIP). SIP is a federally funded program designed to encourage private non-industrial forest landowners to practice holistic forest management. You can apply for cost sharing at the rate of 75% of the actual cost of trail planning, layout and construction up to a set limit. Practice specifications call for a minimum hiking trail tread width of four feet (4') with additional width as required for necessary erosion control structures; on side slopes tread width may be reduced to three feet (3').

Recreational vehicular and horse access trails must have a minimum tread widths of eight feet (8') with additions width as required for necessary erosion control structures.

Recreational Trail Development, Layout and Design - Cost Share Rate Limits  
4' Walking Trails - Construction Cost $.09/foot
8' Vehicular Trails - Construction Cost $.20/foot
Design and Layout of Trails $.06/foot

 To find out more about cost sharing for trails and other forest stewardship practices, you should contact the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation service forester in your area.

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