While hiking and backpacking, I often ponder how the trail came to be located where it is. Some trails, especially longer ones, seem like they could take several different routes to get to their destination.

Let's say a wooded, mountainous US national park decides to build a trail several miles long between an established trail and an interesting geological feature. How would they go about routing said trail? How would the approach have differed before technologies like GPS, aerial imagery, and detailed topographic maps came about?

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    My favourites are the ones where you wonder whether the original trailblazers were always thinking "why go around, when you can go over?" Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 23:27
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    Some trails (at least in the UK) follow ancient routes for some of the way, as well as those routes can be traced. Some of these routes predate mapping as we know it and are marked by cairns or other markers, which have to be visible. Gaps are filled in with modern routes. Others are completely modern, and land ownership etc. must be taken into account. Which of these (or both) are you more interested in?
    – Chris H
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 7:20
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    Although I love this question, I'm afraid it is too broad to be answerable. Some are ancient. Some are modern. Some are planned. Some are “social”. Some are formal. Some are informal. Some avoid difficulties. Others consider scrambling and fording are OK.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 10:22
  • Completely agree with gerrit: great question but it needs to narrowed (or split). Focus e.g. on effect of a particular technology on route placement or ask about how routes are places for a very specific region - that should be answerable.
    – imsodin
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 10:59
  • In addition to @gerrit: It's not clear what lengt scale you have in mind. Do you think about "How do they choose the route for a coast to coast trail?" or more about "How is the trail between two points within visible distance chosen?" Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 15:35

3 Answers 3


There are many reasons a trail takes the particular path it does. Probably the most common is historical, as you mention.

Probably the least common is deliberate design. Most trails have evolved from usage patterns before anyone went out to deliberately make a trail.

Trails that are deliberately designed as trails are the results of lots of tradeoffs. There are many criteria that go into deciding where exactly to route a trail. Some are:

  1. Access to points of interest.

  2. Limit the slope. People generally don't like steep trails. They are also more difficult to maintain.

    If you are designing a handicapped-accessible trail, then you have to be careful about maximum grade (among many other things).

  3. Ease of cutting the trail.

  4. Ease of maintaining the trail.

  5. Trying not to create erosion. You really don't want a trail going straight up a slope, even if the magnitude of the slope is acceptable. Use will make a rut. Then water will run down the rut making a bigger rut. In the end you created a new streambed, not a trail. Then people walk along the sides, making a even bigger mess.

  6. To avoid particularly sensitive ecological areas.

  7. To keep things like nearby houses out of sight of the trail users.

  8. Because conservation restrictions, deed restrictions, requirements of the land donor, or various other legal restrictions don't give you much choice.

  9. You (or the organization you are designing the trail for) only owns a narrow corridor.

  10. To avoid certain terrain, like rock jumbles, soggy areas, etc.

Added in response to new question

US national park ... How would I go about routing a public-use trail


Hacking your own trails in a National Park is a really bad idea, not to mention a federal offense that will have consequences.

If you really think there should be a new trail somewhere in a National Park, you very humbly propose it to park management. Most likely they won't be interested. If you do actually convince them, it will be a process. They will have standards that new trails must adhere to, various policies and procedures that must be followed, etc. They will certainly want to choose the route. You might be able to help or have influence over that process, probably depending on what they think of you. They will most likely want to do the construction with their own trail crews. Volunteers they feel comfortable with may be able to contribute, but don't take that for granted.


This very much depends on what country you're in.

The majority of footpaths in the UK are public rights of way. These are simply the routes people have travelled since time immemorial, the route from a village to the market town or an ancient drovers' road. Some of these were paved and became modern roads, many were not and remain footpaths.

The newer routes are often either created by the National Trust or other body to allow easy access to a specific location, such as the national trails, or are disused railway lines that have been converted to footpaths or cycle trails.


Were I live they were first goat trails. Goats pick the easy way. Next waterbuffalo walked them, These were soon hooked to sleds to pull more. & are still in use to walk.

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