Considerations of Hiking Trails

There are an infinite number of options when it comes to choosing a hiking trail in the world. Weather, length of trail, amount of time available to hike, time of year, location, difficulty of the hike, and trail accommodations are all factors that should be considered when choosing a trail. This paper will examine a brief history of how trails are formed, the benefits and drawbacks of having a multi-day trail system, and perceptions and examples of successful multi-day trails. 

In America, the indigenous built the first trails, which were often following animal tracks and were used for hunting. Later, as western expansion occurred, these trails originally created by the indigenous were widened to accommodate carts and horses and some eventually became permanent roads (NPS 2020). As the national park service was incorporated into America, tourist trails to popular destinations became part of the park designs (NPS 2020).  When it comes to multi-month through hikes, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, the idea of connecting trails between California, Oregon, and Washington is accredited to Clinton Clark in 1932. Each state was working independently on trails that crossed their states, but Clark brought together the idea of joining all of the trails to make a trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. Once the idea was publicized, a group and conference was formed to explore potential routes for the trail and advocacy work began to establish the trail as a National Scenic Trail (PCTA 2020). In 1968, the Pacific Crest Trail was designated as a National Scenic Trail (PCTA 2020). Another common movement of trails has been to convert defunct railroad lines to recreational trails. These trails aim to preserve heritage and provide recreations opportunities for both tourists and local people (Taylor 2015).

Hiking trails can provide benefits to the communities that surround them. Trails can be used as an option for local development, especially in rural areas (Mnguni 2017). Tourism is one of the leading industries in the world and tourism activities that use natural attractions in remote rural areas can increase economic diversification and livelihood opportunity (Mnguni 2017). A specific type of tourism that hiking trails can be classified as is ecotourism. Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and educations” (TIES 2015). Benefits of ecotourism include enhancing local economies with income and employment, funding conservation initiatives, protecting new areas, and being a tool for environmental education (Santarem 2015). Protected areas, such as hiking trails, foster good conditions for tourists to interact with unique landscapes and habits, endemic biodiversity, and local human heritage (Santarem 2015). 

Bowker et. al studied the total economic impact of the Virginia Creeper Trail (VCT) which is a 34-mile long rail trail in the state of Virginia in the United States. The permitted uses on the trail include foot travel, horseback riding, and biking (Bowker et. al 2007). The study estimates the total economic impacts of non-local VCT tourists to be approximately 1.6 million US dollars and added 27 jobs (Bowker et. al 2007). The results of the study were similar to those found in other rural rail-trail studies throughout the United States (Bowker et. al 2007). 

In order for a trail to be successful, the following should be considered: the trail must be attractive to hikers, the trail must be well-known with easily accessible information, hiking infrastructure must exist along the trail, and the trail must be easily accessible by visitors (Mnguni 2017). Additionally, hiking trail maintenance and monitoring is vital for long-term sustainability (Mnguni 2017). However, Dorwart notes that trails should be left as natural as possible and unnatural appearances of human interaction had negative impacts on user’s perceptions of trails (Dorwart 2010). 

There are some other drawbacks that should also be considered when discussing hiking trails. When humans are introduced into a landscape, first nature, which is original and prehuman nature, becomes second nature (Watt 2017). Second nature is not necessarily a bad thing, but additional considerations should be taken into account when humans are allowed to access first nature areas. Vegetation trampling, flora removal, soil erosion compaction, wildlife disturbance, and littering are all things to consider as human impacts that can occur on hiking trails (Santarem 2015). Hiking trails and natural areas need to be managed in order to maintain natural and cultural values of an area (Santarem 2015). Dorwart et. al found that litter, flora damage, and fire rings had the greatest adverse effects on hiking experiences (Dorwart 2010). Additionally, trail damage such as trail extensions, widening, and erosion had moderate negative effects on hiking experiences (Dorwart 2010).

Another consideration of hiking trails is the type of accommodations offered. Accommodations range from mountain huts with or without meals to backcountry camping, where only a space to pitch a tent is provided. The type of accommodations provided will impact user’s decision making in which trail to choose. Leung and Marion studied the impacts at over three hundred backcountry camping sites in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They considered vegetation loss, soil exposure, compaction and erosion, tree and seedling damage, wildlife disturbance, and miscellaneous data caused by depreciate behavior (Leung and Marion 1999). They used a rating scale from 1 to 5, where 1 correlated to little human impact and 5 was very evident human impact (Leung and Marion 1999). They found that of the sites analyzed, 195 campsites rated at class 3 or higher and 141 were class 1 or 2. Leung and Marion recommend management strategies based on campsite types rather individual impact indicators (Leung and Marion 1999). For campsites that were rated at class 3 or higher, designating camping spots or boundaries may be most effective strategy (Leung and Marion 1999). For ones that rated at class 1 or 2, sites could be closed since recovery would occur faster than the more impacted site (Leung and Marion 1999). Mountain huts are also a type of accommodation and some include meals. An advantage for users of trails with mountain huts is that hikers do not have to carry a shelter with them, saving weight and space. Huts are more common in the European Union (EU) and it is possible to acquire a special label for huts called an Ecolabel (Salomone 2014). The Ecolabel aims at reducing the impact that consumption and production have on the environment, health, climate, and natural resources by utilizing environmentally friendly and better performing products (Salomone 2014). Ecolabels are most in Italy, where 31% of the labels are issued (Salomone 2014). Based on the research found, it appears that campsites have more of an environmental impact than mountain huts due to human foot traffic in and around them.

Seven popular and successful hiking trails throughout the world are summarized below. The trails presented are generally under 205 miles long and can be completely within a typical holiday timeframe. 

Table 1: Examples of Successful Multi-Day Hiking Trails

#TrailLength (miles)LocationAccommodations
1Tour du Mont Blanc110France, Italy, SwitzerlandHuts with meals
2GR 20112Corsica Island, FranceHuts and camping
3Laguvegur-Fimmvorduhals50IcelandHuts and camping
4Banff Highline Traverse64Alberta, CanadaCamping 
5Dolomite High Route75ItalyHuts with meals
6The John Muir Trail203California1 hut and camping
7Torres del Paine Circuit80Patagonia, ChileHuts and camping

Based on the trails researched, ones with huts are more popular than ones with only camping. Some trails do not allow camping, but it was not determined if this was because of potential environmental impacts. Number of users for each trail was not able to be found at this time, but would provide better insight in to the popularity of each trail. 

In conclusion, hiking trails provide economic development as well as allowing users to access the outdoors. While there are potential environmental impacts from human activity along trail systems, these can be reduced by proper management strategies. Maintenance of trails and limiting human-made visual impacts along the trail will improve the perception and experience of the trail. Mountain huts appear to have less of an environmental impact than campsites, but management strategies for campsites such as boundary limiting and designated campsites can help reduce environmental impacts. When considering a new trail, it should be carefully planned with the communities near the trail and incorporate education and environmental preservation strategies. 


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