How much land do I need to develop a decent trail system?

Unlike some other popular forms of recreation like tennis or swimming, every trail is unique. Although some well known trail systems encompass hundreds or even thousands of acres, other very successful trails are located on relatively small parcels of land.

In fact, in an effort to maximize television coverage and generate more spectator interest, newer Nordic competition venues favor shorter loops with frequent trips through the stadium, even for the longer races. The entire Nordic trail system for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games is contained in one square kilometer of land.

Much depends upon the topography, but it’s safe to say that an enjoyable trail can be developed on whatever land is available. Don’t forget to check with your neighbors and adjacent landowners. Often they will be as enthusiastic about a new trail as you are.

Will my trails be suitable for a variety of activities?

Absolutely! In fact, if a trail is well designed for cross country skiing, it will also be ideal for cross country running, snowshoeing, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Advanced mountain biking enthusiasts crave “single track” riding, and often those narrow paths can be added to a core set of "double-track" trails, providing something for everyone.  These single track trails can also serve as excellent snowshoeing trails during winter, helping to avoid any conflicts with cross country skiing and other groomed trail users.

What are the economic benefits of trails?

Trails have become a prized amenity for landowners, developers, and communities.  Recent research has identified trails as the most important community amenity for homebuyers, particularly those 55 years and older, exceeding preferences of tennis courts, golf courses, and swimming pools.  A range of academic studies have demonstrated a premium of between approximately $10,000 and $20,000 for homes and lots proximate to a quality trail system (see Why Trails for more information).

How much will it cost?

It’s difficult to predict the total cost of a recreational trail system, largely because there are so many variables. Some excellent trails have been created almost entirely with volunteer labor. Community members experienced with chain saws have cut trees, while students and Scouts have stacked brush. Heavy equipment operators have donated their machinery and their expertise.

At the other end of the spectrum, millions have been spent on trails created for major international events such as the Olympic Games. The cost of most trail systems falls somewhere between these two extremes.

Typically, the cost of developing a first rate trail system falls under four catagories:

  1. developing the trail concept, design and layout;

  2. obtaining permits and undertaking any necessary engineering or other studies;

  3. cutting and clearing the route; and 

  4. constructing the trail, usually by the use of heavy equipment.

Although complying with international homologation standards can increase the cost of the design phase, usually this phase of a project accounts for 10%-25% of the total cost. Applying and completing any work associated with permits may vary -- from no costs at all to possibly tens of thousands of dollars for complex projects.  The cutting and clearing of a trail can vary significantly depending upon the density and quality of the timber being harvested for the trail. There have been projects where the value of the mature trees harvested for the trail have helped to offset the cost of cutting the trail route. More typical, however is a cost of $2,500 to $4,000 per kilometer for cutting and clearing of the trail route.

Building the trail with an excavator is usually the most expensive component. Removing stumps and rocks, installing culverts and banking turns are all essential to creating a first rate trail. Although skilled excavator operators often charge in the range of $150 per hour, under normal circumstances, it should be possible to build a kilometer of trail in something less than a five-day work week. This figure increases dramatically with the need or desire to build bridges across streams and drainages.

In general, the entire cost for an excavated trail may range from under $5,000 per kilometer to as much as $50,000 per kilometer (and sometimes higher for Olympic or World-Cup level venues).

How long does it take to design and construct a typical trail?

If each step of the project fell neatly into place, a typical 5 kilometer loop could be created in two to three months. The design phase can be relatively quick, approximately one week per five kilometers. Once the design is approved by the client and any necessary permits have been obtained, the cutting and clearing begins. This phase can take time because professional loggers are often booked months in advance. It also takes time to get volunteers organized, if that’s the approach selected. The cutting also varies significantly in proportion to the density of the forest. Many loggers prefer to work in the winter when the ground is frozen.

Excavation of the trail could take a couple of weeks for a relatively straightforward job to several months if many culverts or bridges are involved. Scheduling excavator time is often dependent upon weather conditions and other variables.

How will climate change affect my trails?

A well designed, carefully built trail will provide year-round, recreational enjoyment. Trails can be designed for complementary activities throughout the year -- skiing and snowshoeing in the winter; hiking, Nordic walking, running and mountain biking when snow is not covering the ground. Although most people accept the reality of global climate change, it may be too early to say with confidence that most traditional Nordic skiing locations will have less snow and fewer days of skiing.  The advantage of a well designed, carefully built trail is the ability to groom and ski it with much less snow, as well as the opportunity to hike, run and bike the trail on the shoulder seasons without damaging the trail.

What kind of maintenance does a trail require?

If properly designed and built, most trails do not require major maintenance activities, particularly in comparison to other recreational amenties such as golf courses, tennis courts, and swimming pools. Since many trails are located in wooded areas, there are occasionally broken branches and sometimes fallen trees. Culverts under the trail should be cleaned out seasonally, and a seeded, excavated trail should be mowed a a few times each summer (depending on location and growing patterns).

Won’t my new trail become an attraction for motorized users?

Happily, the days of hostile confrontations between non-motorized recreational enthusiasts and snowmobilers and ATV riders are over, almost everywhere. With the advent of the skating technique a couple of decades ago, endless miles of groomed snowmobile trails beckoned to cross country skiers, many of whom joined snowmobile clubs in support of those trails. At the same time, a growing number of motorized outdoor enthusiasts have recognized that the integrity of their trail systems depends upon the good will of private landowners.

As a result, the vast majority of snowmobile and ATV operators are responsible and will respect signs indicating that a trail is open to non-motorized recreation only.

Are there special requirements for trails intended as a venue for competition?

The international governing bodies for sports such as cross country skiing, mountain biking, biathlon, cross country running, and equestrian events all have guidelines for the creation of competitive venues.  Key issues include the width of the trail, the number and and location of climbs on the course, start/finish layout, and configurations of downhills and terrain features.   Provided there is adequate natural terrain at a proposed site, in most instances it is possible to design a trail that conforms to national and international guidelines.