Flow versus Flowy Trails

Some people may not be familiar with the terms trail gentrification, trail sanitation, or dumbing down. I linked to a post related to this about a year ago. I’m sure there are more terms tied to the same whipping post, but no more come to mind other than “flip-flop-ready”, and “stroller paths.”  These words are often used by bikers and hikers alike to comment on a trail’s offerings, or menu…the milieu. Quite often it comes down to “flow,” a word as loaded as “sustainable” in the trail world.

As I’ve said elsewhere trail building is a combination of science and art, or trailology. Trail builders have borrowed from other crafts. They are a weavers when they weave a trail around this rock and that tree over that hill, sculptors when they carve a long drawn-out twisty bench from dirt, a mason or exterior designer moving and shaping stones just so (or not so), an arborist through wood thick and thin, a carpenter when they…, an engineer when they…, a physicist when they…, a tailor when they mend, and sometimes magicians when they…. Like artists some builders have a style. And like different schools of art there are different styles and practices of building and designing, not to mention trail users or consumers of that art. The schools have converged on sustainability, and some best practices have been handed down, calculated, or borrowed from other professions. The sustainability envelope is pushed in every school (especially the old school), and some new schools have been born. Flow trails certainly come to mind.

That said, here is something I missed from 2015 worth considering for this post: Friend or Flow. And from 2011 in the Wall Street Journal no less: New Ways to Go Downhill Fast (also here).

I don’t like the tone or many of the ideas the WSJ seems to set forth: that shared use = conflict, that machines are needed for flow, and that there should be segregation. A flow trail can be built by hand, it just takes a hell of a lot longer to do. The same could be said for flowy trails. And why not divert some of the illegal energies they cite into hand building, and perhaps learning about legitimate or sanctioned trails and flow? I don’t doubt that on a fast trail with poor sight lines bikes can be a problem. Skidiots certainly are a problem. On a trail with high use bikes and/or horses could be a problem, or nuisance. Even a crowded hiking only trail is not my cup of tea. Long story short, diversity is good in my opinion, but so is segregation at times. As said elsewhere, this is a case-by-case situation, and sometimes after the cake is divided, or people know the cake is there, things need to change or evolve to work out the bugs….we’re only human…and trolls. The same people producing some of the comments or trolling the links above are the same folks you could meet on the trail, or they are the same folks ruining or making the trail scene what it is wherever you may be. The good, bad, ugly, and insightful or enlightening sides of humanity are real. It’s too bad the old adage that a “spoiled apple ruins the bunch” is often true. However, sometimes our perceptions are certainly off or can’t be trusted.

There is something to be said for single use trails, although it get touchy when deciding how to divide up the forest into who gets how many miles for what use (and/or when they can use it). There are millions of acres to pan this out, but doing that is not so easy as we have different needs, or desires and tastes, not to mention environmental constraints. There is something to be said about machine-built/crafted vs. hand built/crafted trails. About trails that are narrow versus wide, steep versus mellow, straight or subtly playful versus very playful (laterally and vertically). There is something to be said about a trail with no berms, or only a handful of them, versus one where every other turn screams man-made. The same could be said about steps. The same could be said about rocks, and just how often we have to look at our feet or the two feet in front of us instead of being able to travel and take in the sights and landscape not just the trail bed. Striking a balance is not an easy endeavor as so many things could be “balanced” or mixed to give “everyone” something to appreciate. Of course sometimes gluttony or scrapping diversity for a mono-culture of sorts can be damn fun, or provide the solitude and reduced conflict we seek. It’s not quite like asking if refined sugar is good or bad, but close I suppose. Hopefully you can get involved where you are in refining this debate, and finding your sweet place that you enjoy…whatever that may be.

For some it is “flow” others “flowy.” It goes without saying that a “flow” trail has flow. Perhaps a more apt term is “gravity trail”, but even this is questionable as gravity is inescapable on any trail. Maybe roller trail is better? Anyway, when I think of flow trails I think of gravity, or really potential energy, and how that PE translates to KE/kinetic energy for both user and water. A flow trail is not not just flowy, but as IMBA lays it out it’s “a terrain-induced roller coaster experience, with little pedaling and braking necessary.” This last bit is where the conservation of energy PE = KE comes in. What is the change in height between the roller/crest the user is on, and the ones in font of and behind them? It’s hard to put into words. You have to experience the “so-called” flow trails versus the real deal to understand this. Some “flow” are better than others, and some are mislabeled, not flow trails at all, maybe just flowy. A bad analogy might be refined sugar versus saccharine or NutraSweet. Some trails can have small flow sections, or be a flow trail from end to end. The same could be said for flowy trails, and whether that flowiness is smooth and drawn out, short and punchy enough to make you dizzy, fits the landscape itself, or appears as if something foreign, like a roller coaster, has been planted in the forest.

One interesting question I have contemplated at length is something the WSJ article above mentioned, that is whether bike-specific trails reduce illegal building. Do sanctioned trails with flowy bike (and trail running) rhythm or true flow/gravity/roller trails lessen the likelihood of someone trying their hand at building illegally, or poaching hiking only trails on a bike for that matter? Escaping getting busted for illegal building is much harder on an excavator. So is creating a flow/roller trail by hand. Regardless, I think the jury is still out on whether bike friendly or specific trails reduce illegal builds and poaching. I am aware of places where “good” trails exist in large quantities, but “extra” trails are still born. Again, I think this is a case-by-case, or area, situation. Conducting a study on this would be quite an undertaking.

In places where there are no legal moto trails I can attest to motos riding or poaching most or all trails as they please, or they ride on their own illegal trails. In the 80’s when mountain bikes first started hitting trails there were practically no bike restrictions on trails, but this rapidly changed and most trails were off limits. Bikes primarily got pushed to dirt roads, single track was left to hikers. As a result, poaching on hiking trails was rampant. I’m not sure what the stats on illegal building were during this change, or even now. I’m not sure how much new access or sanctioned building, or even flow trails, have effected poaching and pirate trails. My guess is that it is reduced, but whether the difference is “significant” is questionable. Suffice it to say that I don’t envy the trail planners that have to crunch data (or guess) to strike a balance of needs and wants. It’s hard enough sweating for sweet on the ground.



Flow Trails: List; 12 of the Best Flow Trails in the US; “Flow trails” for mountain biking

Nevada, Utah and beyond: Bikers blaze illegal trails; Illegal trailblazing as negotiation tool? (freedom riders)

Colorado: Illegal Trail Building on Betasso Link Trail

California: Illegal Trail Builders Ruin It For Mountain Bikers Everywhere


Arizona: Illegal bike trails and a Forest Service crackdown divide a town

Wyoming: BLM Turns to Mountain Bikers to Build Trails, Stem Illegal Routes



Leave a Reply