The Art of User Driven Trail Design

The Art of User Driven Trail Design.

We’re fresh off a trail construction project at Wendell Falls by Newland Communities which, as with any trail build, was a great reminder about the importance of practicing user driven design when putting miles on the ground. Our team fielded many questions about what kind of trails they were, what use types were allowed, how hard they’d be and so on. In this case, the goal was to build an approachable yet excited trail system for everyone in the community to enjoy, which took some clever thinking along the way. So, with that, here’s a look back at our thoughts on the art of user driven trail design.

Here at Avid Trails we talk a lot about “user driven design”. Sometimes referred to as user-centered design, the wider definition revolves around designing within a framework that ensures the needs, wants and limitations of end users are addressed in the product itself. Or in our case, the trail that ends up on the ground.

Just like any other product, a trail that’s not designed with its various users in mind isn’t going to succeed. And in this case, a poor experience or misinterpretation of likely use-types may result in low usage, user conflicts, and a lack of ownership or support by constituents – all of which are negatives for any proposed or newly constructed trail system.

When starting a trail planning and design project we go to great lengths to understand what kind of users will be using the trails. Bikers? Hikers? Runners? Walkers? Kids? Families? And that’s just a start, considering how thinly you can slice each of those segments today. This is particularly challenging in large scale residential communities where there is great diversity in residents and their preferred activities, but critical none-the-less. With that in mind, there are many ways to approach a user driven design process and far to much detail to cover here, but as a start we’re going to turn it over to our resident expert Troy Duffin for his Top 5 User Driven Design Considerations for Trails. Here goes:

1. Will the primary use of the trail be for Recreation or Transportation?

The basic starting point here is the consideration that all trails provide at least some level of recreation function, but some can also provide a transportation function. (Let’s face it — trails are fun no matter what. That’s why we say all trails have a recreation component, even if they are used primarily for transportation.)

Once we determine the primary use for the trail, we can determine if it will follow a more linear or twisty alignment, whether it will need to connect destinations directly or meander more, and whether it needs to be wider, smoother, and firmer, or if it can be narrower, with varying surfaces and finishes.

2. Who is the expected user?

Next, we consider exactly who the people (or animals) are that we can expect to see on the trail. We look at age, gender, fitness level, and anticipate the user’s expectations. For example, will we see a moderately fit 75 year old who is an active runner? Young mothers pushing baby joggers who are looking for a good workout? Young professionals seeking a quiet walk to unwind after work? While there are numerous “types” of users, it’s generally not very difficult to narrow it down based on the developer’s or land manager’s demographic target. Surveys, meetings or other informal methods can be used to obtain more detail where needed.

Once the various user groups come into focus, we can begin to consider the specific trail types which will best accommodate those users.

3. What Type of user?

Then we move on to look at what type, or modality, of use we’ll see. Will we need to accommodate tots on pedal bikes? Triathletes who run and ride at high speeds? Nature walkers? In sum, we’ll look to further focus our design based on whether our users will be on wheels or on foot (or hooves), going fast or slow, in need of a smooth surface or not, and myriad other factors.

4. What Level is the user?

This consideration combines the Who and Type categories, then involves a closer examination of how active, fit, or technically adept the user is. For example, if we’re looking to serve hard core mountain bike enthusiasts, we’ll need to design technical challenges, creative features, speed sections, and varied surfaces. In contrast, if our user is a beginner level mountain biker, we’ll plan for smoother trails, gentle grades, wider corners, and more mild features.

5. What Experience do we want to provide, or what experience is expected from the user?

Finally, due consideration must be given to the user experience if we’re to create a great trail. We’ll ask if the user is seeking a particular destination (e.g. a lookout point, pond or waterfall, or quick access to commercial areas), or if they are hoping the trail itself is the experience and destination. If it’s the latter, we give a lot of thought to how every inch of the trail can be engaging and entertaining.

In closing, our overall goal is to create trails that draw people outside, encourage them to be active, and provide a reason to return, over and over again. If we accomplish that, we’ve done our job and should have a successful and sustainable trail system on the ground for people to enjoy for many years to come.

Feel free to email our team at with any questions regarding user driven design for trails. We look forward to hearing from you.

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