Blazing A Trail

Creating an environmentally friendly off-road vehicle (ORV) or all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trail may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s possible to develop one with minimal impact if a few basic rules are followed. “You have to look at everything, including engineering, education, enforcement and evaluation of the trail system and users,” says Tom Crimmins, a trails consultant based in Hidden Lake, Idaho, who provides ORV trail training and planning services in cooperation with National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, and is the author of Management Guidelines for OHV Recreation.

“Usually an ATV trail is created because land managers are either trying to meet the demand for one, or they are trying to create a legal place to ride because people are illegally riding in other areas,” says Troy Scott Parker, Principal of Natureshape LLC and author of Natural Surface Trails By Design.

Designed For Success

Before blazing a trail, determine its overall purpose, such as providing access to remote camping, fishing or wildlife viewing areas. A well-designed trail also will include interpretation and unique vistas, as well as family and challenge-riding opportunities.

The more recreational opportunities that are provided, the greater the likelihood visitors will partake in these activities. The alternative is to let visitors create their own version of fun, which can lead to enforcement headaches and property damage.

“Decide what you have to offer and what niche you’ll want to fill,” says Crimmins. “This will go a long way into building a trail that is sustainable while providing riders with an experience they enjoy.”

“Design is the most important part,” says Parker. “If the trail isn’t designed correctly, there is no end to the grief.” First determine if the trail is multi-use and if so, whether the users are individuals, families or hunters. Will they be using ATVs, dirt bikes or four-wheel drive vehicles? Will horses and hikers also have access to the trail?

Once the focus has been determined, then you can begin designing the trail to work with the topography and the landscape. The length of the trail can be substantial, but most locations do not have that luxury, and need to consider the location of the trail to other facilities as well as neighboring communities, to assure there is an ample noise-buffer zone.

Trails can range from easy, family-friendly affairs, to extreme challenge areas with obstacle courses like logs, boulders and deep mud. Generally, most users are families that want to have a safe place to ride and enjoy the beauty and solitude of the outdoors. “You have to know who your users are going to be because if you don’t, you won’t please anyone,” says Parker.

Enforcement And Peer Pressure

“The more you provide activities that you want for your visitors, the less enforcement you’ll need,” says Crimmins. “Additionally, having a presence on-site indicates to users that the land managers care enough to be out there, and will take care of any problems. This simple action will help prevent a lot of problems from even occurring.”

Post the rules and regulations in a visible and high-traffic area. In well-designed areas, riders also will generate a peer-pressure dynamic to follow the rules.

Cut The Water Trail Short

Water mitigation also needs to be considered in trail design. “You must limit how much water comes onto the trail,” says Parker. “You aren’t trying to control erosion, but limit its viability.”

This can be achieved by shortening the distance it takes for the water to enter and exit the trail. For instance, a trail designed in an up-and-down, rollercoaster-fashion mitigates the amount of water damage.

Beware of “sloping out” an ATV trail, which means grading the trail to create a side to which the water drains. This leads to erosion problems as the ATV tires dig into and move the uneven soil. “The water will eventually begin following the ATV tracks down the trail,” says Parker. “The only way you can reliably drain an ATV trail is through the dips in the trail.”

“Keep the water off the trail,” advises Nila Armstrong, a streams-and-trails specialist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “You want to be able to divert the water off the trail by using switchbacks and dips. No straight up-and-down trail because water likes to run down the fastest, easiest path, which creates erosion.”

Another way to decrease erosion is to slow down the traffic on the trail by shortening the sight distances with curves. “Provide an undulating curving trail system that has climbing turns up hills, and that will help take care of the water and the speed,” says Crimmins. “After all, you’re looking at providing a recreational experience--not a transportation experience.”


Since a trail is generally sustainable, it needs only regular light maintenance to remain open indefinitely.

“It’s crucial to immediately fix any maintenance issues,” says Parker. A small problem can become a big problem very fast. For example, a small puddle or low spot on a trail needs to be drained and fixed because a small puddle will get deeper and wider. As the puddle grows and becomes an obstacle, people will start going off the trail to avoid it, which adds to the problems you’ll need to fix.


It is important to evaluate the trail system to determine whether:

· Structures on the trail is are working

· The trail is in good condition

· Exclusion methods are working

· Riders are staying on the trail

· Riders are happy with the trail

· Sensitive areas are protected.

Location and Funding

Turn over a few rocks, and funding for an ATV trail can be found. In California, for example, state parks have access to ORV funding to purchase land to create riding areas.

In other parts of the country--like Bay Horse, Idaho--brownfield grants are used to reclaim mining sites for riding trails. In Pennsylvania, the Rock Run Recreation Area is on a reclaimed strip-mine site. “The naturalized beauty of reclaimed sites is often a big draw,” says Parker.


Several states require successful completion of a safety course before heading out for a trail on public lands. “We’re able to provide a five-hour ATV safety-training program, which is funded through grants,” says Mike Klumpp, associate professor of youth development with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “We have 24 county extension agencies certified and licensed to teach the course.”

Another safety measure for public trails is to mark the intersections with unique identifiers--in case of an emergency it will be easier to locate visitors needing help. Also, mark intersections with an arrow that identifies the direction to the entrance.

Leads To Follow

Take some time in planning a trail and investigate other areas, such as Rock Run Recreation Area, the Hatfield-McCoy system in West Virginia and Minooka Park in Birmingham, Ala. A well-designed ATV trail should blend in with the environment, provide recreational opportunities, and be relatively hassle-free.

Tammy York is a professional public-relations consultant to outdoor recreation-related businesses and parks. Her book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati is available via To reach Tammy, e-mail her at