10 Most Common Trail Building Mistakes

For as long as humans have been following trails, they’ve been making mistakes on trails. Although our missteps usually only affect ourselves, when trail builders make mistakes, they affect everybody. Trail users, land managers, vegetation and wildlife all feel the sting of the well-meaning but inexperienced trail builder. We often see the same mistakes again and again, but the good news is they can all be avoided. In an effort to bury them alongside dinosaurs in the evolutionary graveyard, IMBA brings you the top 10:

source | also see: Criteria for trail placement, control points, and layout
  1. Not Getting Land Manager Approval–We know, we know: you just want to build trails. But believe us when we tell you that nothing – not a single darned thing – more important before starting trailwork than the approval of the land owner or manager. In our experience, a failure to secure permission is the single biggest cause of trail closures. When it comes to building trails, to ask for forgiveness is not better than to ask for permission.
  2. Falling for the Fall Line–Put simply, fall line trails are erosion nightmares. They turbo-charge natural and user-created erosion, exposing rocks and roots and generally living short lives before becoming loose, wide, ecosystem-damaging disasters. To build trails that last, use the Half Rule: trail grade, or steepness, shouldn’t exceed half the grade, or steepness, of the hillside; and the 10 Percent Rule: overall trail grade should be 10 percent or less.
  3. Guessing the Grade–Nobody, no matter how masterful their eye, can guess trail grades right every time. Trust us, we know. Sure, it’s fun to try, but use a clinometer to confirm the grade whenever you’re laying out trail – it’s worth a regiment of self-powered, Fantasia-style Pulaskis, because no amount of trailwork can fix a trail built on an unsustainable grade. If you don’t have a clinometer, we highly recommend an investment in this indispensable tool.
  4. Going Against the Flow–Not even race courses – which are sometimes designed with erratic flow to throw off a racer’s rhythm – should make this trailbuilding faux pas. All trailbuilders should make “smooth transitions” their mantra. Bad flow, especially fast sections leading into sharp turns, is a primary cause of user conflict. When you are building, think flow – it’s the key to an enjoyable trail.
  5. Half Bench is Half Baked–The only time you should ever skimp on a fully bench cut trail is (1) when the sideslope is so steep – 80 percent or greater – that the backslope exceeds six feet in height, or (2) when your trail design forces you to build close to the downhill side of a large tree. In both cases, a proper crib wall should be built to support your partial bench, and, as in all trails, the tread should maintain a five to seven percent outslope.
  6. The West Virginia Climbing Turn–Our friends in West Virginia affectionately gave this name to some of their steep, fall line turns, and while they’ve gotten away with it in a few locations because of the soil and user types, most fall line turns will erode badly. If you want your climbing turns to endure, build them on sideslopes with no steeper than a seven to 10 percent grade.
  7. Building Houses of Straw–Remember the little piggy who built his house with straw? He got chowed by a wolf. Using shoddy materials when building trail structures leaves you and others similarly vulnerable by reducing the structure’s safety and longevity. This opens the door to things like pain, guilt and even lawyers. Build it right. Keep the wolves at bay.
  8. Finishing a Line Before Its Time–We heartily support on-the-trail training, but some new trailbuilders are so eager to keep building more! new! better! trails that they don’t devote enough time or care to each new trail section. Resist the temptation to move forward. Don’t finish a line before its time, and always patch past mistakes.
  9. Building a Pathway to Grandma’s House–This is what we call some trailbuilders’ obsession with lining trail with logs. A properly constructed trail shouldn’t need them. In fact, lining a trail with logs can trap water and increase erosion.
  10. Ignoring Old Wounds–As mountain bikers we may think our scars are cool, but scars on the land left by closed trails are damaging wounds that need to heal. Always reclaim eroded areas with check dams – natural obstacles like logs or rocks that divert the flow of water and soil – and reclaim all closed trails with transplanted native vegetation that conceals the old corridor. Shine the spotlight on the great trails you’ve built, not the ugly scars that have been left behind.

Scroll to Top