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11 Different Types of Trails

Mountain path flanked by tall autumn forest trees at sunset.

All around us, whether in the city or rural settings, there are roads of varying design standards built for easy mobility. But within the continuum of types of roads, there are smaller and often overlooked trails that lead us to adventures of our lives or make our life more comfortable in overcrowded and high traffic cities.

Unfortunately, however, few people can mention the types of trails, most often than not, because of inadequate information, a situation that this article aims to remedy.

There are various types of trails depending on their characteristics, usage, and design standards. For example, a bike trail takes the name because it is mainly designed for bikes. We could also have nature trails because the natural environment characterizes them.

However, design standards, usage, and characteristics are a simplistic way of looking at trails. A clear understanding of trails enables one to follow design for specific places better. This article leads into an encounter at the end of which you’ll better appreciate trails.

Introduction To Trails

According to Roger L. Moore and C. Scott Shafer (who presented a ground-breaking paper on Trails and Greenways in 2001), a trail is “a linear corridor, on land or water, with protected status and public access for recreation or transportation.” More often than not, such passageways are not classified as a street or highways, and they are usually found within the natural environment, parks or a designated corridor (such as on the shoulder of a busy road).

Trails are all over us in one form or another. To users, this resource provides a travel route and setting for life-altering experiences and activities. On the one hand, some use the trails to navigate busy regions of the city, such as from the office to the subway station.

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On the other hand, others visit trails for recreational purposes. For example, one might take a course to conquer a mountain’s summit.

Either way, trails are a crucial feature in our day-to-day lives. That is why those behind the planning and management of the trails view them as critical facilities. However, building and maintaining trails is often expensive, especially in settings where they see heavy usage.

Reasons For Building Trails

Hiking trail with beautiful mountain landscape and lake views.

Trails have a long history, and they spring up wherever humans settle. Usually, communities build them for two primary reasons: recreation and transportation. In North America, for example, natives created footpaths through dense vegetation as commerce routes.

They transported goods along these routes for all of their lives before colonists arrived and introduced high-tech road technology. In fact, Moore and Shafer argue in their paper that several of the native’s trails are paved highways in modern-day Canada and the United States.

According to the authors, recreational trails are a recent phenomenon – and their genesis is complex. For example, colonists and other explorers in parts of the US created trails to mountain summits in pursuit of adventure, commercial opportunism, and out of scientific curiosity.

For example, the National Trails Agenda Project noted in a 1990 report that Manasseh Cutler, an 18th-century botanist, cut the first trail to New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in 1784. Apparently, the trail’s primary purpose was for a scientific expedition. So, Cutler wanted to satisfy specific curiosities on the high country, evaluating the alpine vegetation.

Soon after, authorities in New Hampshire seized on the commercial opportunity of a trail system in the mountain to facilitate tourist activities as people traveled from far and wide to admire the scenery of Mt. Washington.  

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Classification of Trails

From the preceding, it is apparent that one can classify trails in two distinct categories – recreational and transportation trails.

Types of Trails in the Context of Transportation

As we will see, trails in the context of transportation play a specific role, determining how we describe them. Some of the most familiar tracks in this class include:

Foot Path

A couple running on a mountain trail in the morning.

This is the oldest trail type. For instance, in precolonial North America, natives created and used footpaths to transfer goods and other things like livestock from one region to another. For nomadic tribes in Africa and the Middle East, footpaths are still major trade routes even today.

Footpaths are designated this way because they are not accessible for motorized use. Also, the terrain could be too challenging for horseback riders. However, if such a trail can accommodate other road users, like animal riders or even motorized means of transport, it is no longer a footpath but a multi-use trail.

Because footpaths are unconducive to other road users, one can find an example of such trails in remote rural areas and mountain summits. But, unfortunately, the terrain here is often too rugged for anything but human feet.

According to the United States’ Federal Trail Data Standards, footpaths often fall under Trail Class 1. This trail class includes undeveloped trails that fall on the minimal extreme of the trail system.

Most of these trails come about not because of substantial effort on the part of humans but because of constant use. In the past, communities did not have sophisticated tools to build paths. Instead, they only identified a passable corridor, and the course revealed itself after prolonged and frequent use.

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Equestrian Trail

A man riding a horse on an equestrian trail.

When you think about modern transportation, you mostly think about trains, planes, and cars. Yet, planes, cars, and trains are equipped with smart technology that is weaving them more into our lives every day. The means of transport are so ubiquitous that few think there was a time equestrian transport was all most of the world knew.

Horses and other animals used for transport, such as elephants, donkeys, and camels, have been at the center of human life for tens of centuries. Because the four-legged friends could navigate more challenging terrains, they were invaluable in helping merchants haul goods to and from the market. Merchants would shoulder the loads and carry them through more challenging footpaths.

According to the El Paso County trail guidelines, an equestrian trail is unpaved and includes about eight inches of natural surface trail and two inches of shoulders on both sides. Also, the guidelines require the trail’s shoulders to be maintained clear of vegetation.

Today, equestrian trails have taken on a new significance, including a variety of names – bridleway, bridle path, horse riding path, horse trail, or bridle road. Instead of the original purpose, the routes now serve horse riders, cyclists, and hikers.

Also, the modern-day equestrian trails are professionally developed and maintain and can be classified as Trail Class 2. The development on this trail is simple but better than the primitive footpaths.


A delivery boy on a bike lane riding his bike.

Bikeways are built explicitly for bicyclists. However, it is not uncommon for other users like joggers and pedestrians to use the trail. In other words, bikeways are multi-use trails.

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These trails often have clear marks indicating that only bicycles are allowed. As such, you would be asking for trouble if you drove your motorcycle or horse on this section of the road. The trail is usually built close to big roads that see heavy traffic daily to ease congestion.

It allows commuters to consider different means of transport, leading to less demand for cars and buses.

The El Paso County trail guidelines specify that a bikeway should include 12 to 14 inches of a paved path with a 10-to-12-inch vertical clearance. It should also have shoulders on either side and be two inches wide.

Bikeways are improved trails because they include careful planning, development, and maintenance. As such, they fall under Trail Class 3.

The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) breaks bikeways into subclasses based on specific design standards.  

  • Class I Bikeway – the other name for this trail is a bike path. Although they are shared-use bike paths, pedestrians and bicyclists have the exclusive right of way. However, some systems are more advanced such that they provide separate facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians on foot. Both facilities minimize cross flows by motor traffic. Additionally, Class I bikeways support both commuting and recreational opportunities. The facilities are usually developed along railroads, rivers, canals, shorelines, and utility right-of-way and within parks.
  • Class II Bikeway – this is sometimes called Bike Lane or Buffered Bike Lane. It acquires the “Buffered” adjective because the trail is established alongside busy streets where a small portion of the roadway is delineated for bicycle use. The facilities are usually one-way, where users travel in the same way as motor traffic.  Also, it is normal to have bike lanes where bicyclists travel opposite the motor traffic.
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Class II bikeways are popular within cities with heavy traffic. A buffered bike lane achieves better security for bicyclists by separating them from the adjacent traffic lane. In addition, if the bike lane has a dual-carriage roadway, there is often a clear separation between the two carriageways.

  • Class III Bikeway – this is often known as Bike Route or Bike Boulevard. This trail is developed for motor vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Here, the path designates a preferred route for bike riders on streets, connecting to dedicated bikeways. As such, we should view Class III Bikeways as developed for continuity.

However, bike routes are not appropriate for roadways in high traffic zones, such as highways, because of an increased likelihood of accidents. Therefore, authorities often avoid high-speed limit roadways when developing this trail and where transit vehicles or trucks are a standard feature.

  • Class IV Bikeway – this trail is often referred to as a Cycle Track. Cycle Tracks are a new development in the United States. For instance, authorities in California introduced significant changes in the state’s Highway Design Manual through Design Information Bulletin 89 (DIB 89) on 3 May 2018. The memorandum added guidance for transit stops on highways and separated bikeways (or cycle tracks) adjacent to street parking.

As such, a separated bikeway (cycle track) is a facility built exclusively for bicycles. The trail often includes physical separation from the adjacent motor traffic roadway. Moreover, the route could be one-way or two-way, depending on bike traffic and other factors.

Class IV Bikeways are becoming a common feature in big cities, especially those grappling with traffic congestion.

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ADA Trails

Concrete trail in the park with ADA Compliant Handicap disability sign.

ADA trails are specialized tracks (often built alongside busy streets and in residential areas) designed to be accessible to people living with disabilities. Such a trail meets the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA’s) guidelines, hence the name.

The trails incorporate a wide range of design changes to ensure people with varying disability levels can get access quickly. For example, a path is ADA compliant if the pavement provides the required firmness and stability.

It means, if the track is a concrete trail or an asphalt pavement, the stone must be adequately crushed and packed, the gravel fines sufficiently compacted with a roller, and in case of packed soil, it must be bonded firmly with synthetic materials.

Rail Trails

Heritage Rail Trail County Park in Pennsylvania with morning sun.

For hundreds of years, trains were the lifeblood of many countries’ economies, but nowhere was the rail network as developed as North America. But as motor vehicle technology improved over time, trains continued to recede in their significance. The result was hundreds of miles of train tracks falling into disuse.

Seeing an opportunity, organizations such as the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy started to convert the disused rails into trails. The reclaimed tracks are usually multi-use facilities for hikers and other recreational activities.

The good thing about most disused train tracks is that they run on a flat, long terrain that often runs through historical areas. This quality makes the rail trails more appealing to hikers. To make the experience better, some rail trails include streetcars (light rail cars).

The cars offer an exciting view of the surrounding environment over a given distance.

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Water Trails

Adults in colorful canoes and kayaks paddling on the Huron River Water Trail.

Water trails are also known as blueways. They are found on navigable waterways like lakes, rivers, coastlines, and canals. Such trails are designed specifically for non-motorized boats like rafts, canoes, kayaks, and single sailboats, although motorized vessels are occasionally allowed passage.

On the one hand, water trails are critical transport corridors in regions where roads are infeasible. For instance, some areas in the Amazon basin receive too much rainfall annually and are at a high risk of landslides. In such cases, roads are highly likely to be buried under mounds of debris, which makes a strong case for water trails.

More often than not, such regions are adjacent to large water bodies, like the Amazon River or an ocean.

On the other hand, the water trails are recreational facilities. The facilities underlie a booming ecotourism industry in many parts of the world. People visit the water trails to paddle for fun in what is called paddle tourism.

In Michigan, USA, water trails are an integral part of its tourism industry, so much so that the Michigan Water Trails authority has put official criteria for water trails in place. For a water trail to be included in the Michigan Water Trails website, it must:

  • Allow access to non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks, paddleboats, and so on.
  • Offer unrestricted access to the public.
  • Provide up-to-date information, including signage, guides, maps, and a functional website.

Types of Trails in the Context of Recreation

Earlier, we mentioned that trails, regardless of type, primarily serve two purposes: moving people and goods from one point to another and recreational activities. Recreation means obtaining joy from certain activities, which means the trails give entertainment and unforgettable experiences to those involved.

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Recreational trails offer adventures to mountain summits, an exploration into unknown corners in the wild, and relaxation in the meadows. The tracks beckon and lead hikers into all manner of experiences, some of them often wrought with danger. That is why one should know all the types of hiking trails and the attendant safety risks.

Developed Trails

A hiking trail uphill in volcanic landscape with wooden steps.

This is the most advanced, hence safest, hiking trail. Such trails are developed and sanctioned by local authorities to be used mainly for hiking. Furthermore, the authorities regularly perform maintenance works to ensure they keep the safety standard constant.

A maintained trail might include legible signage, a paved roadway (often with gravel), and might consist of stairs in areas where the facilities are necessary.

In many areas, the trail is developed with the surrounding wildlife in mind. This means the pathways are constructed in a way that does not disrupt the natural feel of the environment.

Boot Paths

Woman in boots hiking on a root terrain.

These trails are primarily natural and often include minimal development. If anything, the maintenance routine is more irregular than developed trails. Because boot paths are developed for high human traffic, they’re often paved to elongate the time between maintenance.


A boardwalk framed with rope railings leading to the beach.

Nature has a lot to offer, but some challenges are impossible to overcome. For example, think of a hike in the forest where the trail suddenly dead-ends into a bog. There is no way your adventure will continue because you risk sinking into mud and suffocating to death.

This is why, in most places, you’ll notice that some areas have boardwalks. Boardwalks are raised wooden platforms that enable hikers to navigate swampy areas without the risk of sinking in the mud and peat. In addition, they have railings on the side for balancing as you make your way through the swamp.

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However, you’ll probably come across boardwalks in dry places. In such cases, authorities might have decided to avoid conflict between hikers and wildlife, separating hiking trails from the ground. The raised course allows nature to carry on undisrupted while hikers enjoy the view from above. In addition, the safe boundary increases the safety record of the hiking trail and makes it open to children.

Social Trails

Father holding his kids hands as they hike on a forest trail.

These trails are often undeveloped. One uses the path only because other people are using it. The courses finally show themselves due to regular footfalls.

Social trails are typical in the remotest parts of the wilderness – places where it would be impossible to develop and regularly maintain the trails. Usually, hikers camp alongside such trails, and you’ll find park ranger offices, restrooms, and water sources, among other facilities. 

Nature Trails

Kids wearing mountain boots hike in forest with their walking sticks.

Nature trails are sometimes called interpretive trails because they feature signages that interpret course stages as you walk along. More often than not, nature trails showcase wildlife information and history. They include sculptures, stone tablets with various writings, and more.

Nature trails are often short and easy to navigate. In addition, they often include different types of routes; for example, you’ll find boardwalks, developed trails, and social trails all along a single roadway.

The Anatomy of Hiking Trails

The Eastside Mountain Trail with hiking trail signage.

September 2020 was a tragic month in the lives of many hikers in the United States after three fatalities were reported in six days. First, according to NBC News, a hiker plunged 70 feet to his death at the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Then, a few days earlier, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department reported an unidentified Massachusetts man who died while scaling the White Mountains Dead Sea Equestrian.

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According to the Fish and Game Department, most fatalities encountered in the area involve people unfamiliar with the terrain. In such a case, even safety guidelines are unhelpful. This is why one needs to understand the anatomy of hiking trails.

The beginning of the trail is called a trailhead. This start is often at the side of a major road, where the trail leads deep into the woods towards a mountain summit. Also, the trail ends at a trailhead, which could be another roadside, a waterfall, or a mountain peak.

Moreover, the surface upon which one walks while hiking is the trail treadway. The nature of the treadway determines the type of trail, where a paved treadway gives us a developed trail, and so on. Because it is the surface upon which hikers step on the way to their destinations, the treadway is a trail’s most critical feature.

Another critical feature is the trail clearing limit. This area flanks the treadway on either side and is often covered in vegetation. If hiking on a mountainside, one side of the treadway will be a downslope and the other a backslope. The backslope is the steep slope extending to the summit, and the downslope steeps into the valley below.

With the knowledge of trail anatomy, let’s now discuss some of the most common hiking trail formats:

The Loop

This trail starts from the roadside then extends a specific distance into the wild. However, the trail loops around and re-joins the trailhead when returning to the road, meaning the path has one trailhead.

The Horseshoe

As the name suggests, this trail is shaped like the horseshoe print on the ground. It has two trailheads because it ends far away from the starting point.

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The horseshoe trail is sometimes called a point-to-point path because it takes you to a specific destination. The endpoint can often be a cul-de-sac or a campsite.

The Line Format

It is often called an out-and-back trail. This trail is similar to the horseshoe path in that it has a single destination. However, the former includes various branching paths that take hikers to different destinations.

Final Thoughts: Trail Use Rules

Regardless of the trail type, there are several rules that users must observe to maintain trail use etiquette. For example, most hiking trails have specific opening and closing times. Most of them open in the morning and will be closed at sundown.

But the trail will be open for use at any time if it is accessible 24/7. However, you should know that these trails often close during adverse weather events.

Also, it is worth noting that trails follow local laws that apply to public roadways and parks. So, for instance, you’d be prohibited from smoking or drinking alcohol while hiking. Likewise, if using bikeways in the city, remember to observe traffic laws.

Furthermore, the golden rule of using trails is that you should leave no trace. Of course, it goes without saying that trails (especially hiking trails) are public spaces that provide crucial relaxation to humanity. It would, therefore, be inhuman to fail to clean up after yourself.


NC State Repository: Introduction to Special Issue Trails and Greenways: Opportunities for Planners, Managers, and Scholars

Cross Vermont Trail Association: Trails for All Americans: The Report of the National Trails Agenda Project

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Federal Geographic Data Committee: FEDERAL TRAIL DATA STANDARDS


Safe Trails Coalition: Types of Trails

California Department of Transportation: Design Information Bulletin 89-01: Class IV Bikeway Guidance

American Trails: ADA Accessibility Guidelines

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Michigan Water Trails: What is a Water Trail?

NBC News: 3 people die in 6 days from climbing and hiking accidents in New Hampshire mountains