I first heard the term “trail science” from Matt Merritt in San Diego–perhaps prompted by IMBA’s use of the term. I immediately knew what he was trying to convey to me by using the prefix “science.” Since that point I have looked at trails and trail work differently– thanks Matt!
(see the trail science drop down menu above this page for related topics, and similarly, the insights menu)
I’ll admit there is a little “witchcraft” to trail building and layout, but today it’s more of a craft and science, an “ology,” not mention an art, and perhaps philosophy, than it is witchcraft. Some trails are well thought compositions, others are made in haste, others are varying degrees of a stream of consciousness, still others pure utility. Some designs will last a lifetime, others ‘live fast and die young.’ Like all things on earth, trails start to gray, or rust, some aging better than others as entropy moves forward to increase. Trail building has come a long way since the first primitive foot worn paths and more contemporary hiking club blaze wars began. This isn’t to say there were no trail layouts in times past that built with soil retention and user experience in mind. However, since the 1970’s? trail science has been turned into an ology, “Trailology.” e.g. see this group, and my geekiness throughout this site
“Good,” that is “sustainable” trails, are scientific because trail builders use empirical data, or experiences, to find out what works and doesn’t. They also use tools to repeat successful design elements and techniques, and no, I don’t mean digging implements and mechanical advantages like levers, but tools that measure like levels, tape measures, clinometers, and trustworthy math and physics equations. Science has always been a love of mine, from Darwin to Sagan, to ‘Bucky’ Fuller– the awe, the fascination, the experience, the success, the failure…the experiences we learn from…to create something beautiful, and smart.
Most trail builders would argue that in this day and age there are three ‘smart’ things to attain: 1) low environmental impact; 2) low maintenance requirements; 3) minimal user conflict. Science certainly plays into all three of these: 1. ecology 2. engineering 3. engineering, biology, and maybe philosophy, and to some degree all three under the arch of art. This section of my blog/site will try to address them. In a word, “sustainability”– sustainability for other species, the trail itself, and perhaps our own species if you consider the physical/mental health benefits of trails. I don’t know how much farther trail science, or trailology, can go from what it is now, but at a minimum I suspect like most things in life it will evolve.
My scientific trail focus has been on the math, or physics end, to bring a little more depth to the field, especially in the realm of mountain bike design where soil retention can be pushed to its limits for exhilarating experiences. The rest of ‘trail science’ has been pretty much discovered by our predecessors and passed down to continue the tradition, like dry stone masonry for example. I think most trail builders and maintainers try their best to learn and carry on that tradition, because I think most people want to create something beautiful and lasting, something smart.