Scouting magazine

From switchbacks to backslopes, here’s how to read a trail

Pathways are so familiar that we often barely notice them as the miles roll beneath the soles of our shoes. That’s the way trail builders want it. 

In fact, one of their goals is to do their work so well that you won’t be aware of what you’re walking on. They are eager for you to enjoy the open sky, scenic vistas, glimpses of wildlife and everything else that can enrich an adventure. If you’re thinking too much about the trail, it’s because it is uncomfortably steep, rocky, rutted or plagued by any number of other maladies.

Once you begin cracking the code of what makes a good trail, you and your Scouts will see clues all around. For starters, the architecture of every trail is essentially the same.

Here are the basics

Location: The route a trail takes to get from one point to another. A well-designed pathway lies on the landscape like a topography line on a map. Dipping into drainages and around ridges, it hugs the contours of the terrain and blends into its surroundings.

Tread: The walking surface of a trail. The impact of many footsteps compresses the soil, creating a narrow sacrifice zone that is compacted, bare and easy to follow. Tread built along hillsides is tilted slightly outward so water will run off it rather than coursing down the route and causing erosion.

Corridor: The cleared space on either side and above the tread. Maintenance crews keep trail corridors open by cutting back brush, small trees and branches so travelers have plenty of room to pass.

Backslope: The angle cut into the hillside above the inside edge of the tread. The backslope is shaped by removing soil and rocks that could slide down onto the pathway.

Downslope: The hillside below the outside edge of the tread. Like the backslope, the downslope can be a seedbed for vegetation that will stabilize the trail. It’s kept free of loose soil that could build into a berm that traps water on the tread.

Structures: Constructions that carry a trail through irregular terrain or protect it from erosion. Footbridges and long sets of rock steps climbing mountainsides can be as spectacular as they are efficient. Rock walls holding tread in place and water bars, drain dips and other erosion prevention structures can be nearly invisible to hikers who aren’t looking for them.

Grade: The steepness of a trail. Grade plays a key role in how easily a route can be hiked and also its vulnerability to erosion. The steeper a trail, the more likely rainwater and snowmelt will build up enough speed to wash out the tread. Ideally, trails never go straight down a hillside (the “fall line”) since there is no way to divert flowing water off the tread.

Switchbacks: Winding paths that make a steep terrain easier to navigate. Trail locations on steep slopes avoid the fall line by using switchbacks to turn the route back and forth as it ascends.

The bottom line

Trails help the environment by being the most inviting way forward. Human impact is absorbed by the tread, sparing the trail’s surroundings from being trampled.

Many trails are located so that hikers avoid certain wildlife habitats, wetlands, stream banks and other sensitive areas. Trails can also guide hikers away from potential hazards such as cliffs and avalanche areas, and toward scenic overlooks.

Protect trails and their surroundings by staying on the tread. Cutting switchbacks or taking shortcuts can damage vegetation and start unwanted “volunteer trails” that are prone to erosion.

As you hike, move fallen branches and stones out of the way. Pick up litter. Use your heel to scrape silt away from water bars and other drainage structures so they can again direct water off the tread.

Many Scout units join with managers of public lands, Scout camps and high-adventure bases to complete trail maintenance projects. Organize your efforts well ahead of time and in cooperation with those overseeing the trails. That way, you can make the most of efforts to benefit the environment and the experience of your Scouts.

Finally, take time to admire the many features of a trail. Whether it is as short as a route through a city park or as long as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, you’ll never again hike without appreciating what’s underfoot.