The Psychology and Science Behind How Hiking Trails Are Created

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You can find a hiking trail or walking path almost anywhere in the United States, whether you're deep in the backcountry or a few yards from a parking lot. Most casual hikers probably give them little thought before lacing up their boots, but hiking trails don't just appear naturally. Sure, the popular pathways are created with shovels and sweat and grit, but that's not all: Modern trail construction actually involves a significant amount of anticipating what potential hikers will do and analyzing the area surrounding the route. The ultimate goal: "A useful trail must be easy to find, easy to travel, and convenient to use," according to the USDA Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook [PDF].

Before the first ground is even close to being broken, trail designers consider the trail-to-be's location and its potential users. Will visitors be hardcore hikers looking for a new challenge? Or is the trail to be set near an urban area, where hikers are considered more casual? Will more than just hikers need to use it? All of these factors will determine a trail's layout and design.

To figure out the right layout, trail designers consult protocols like the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines [PDF], which detail “Trail Management Objectives”—the intended users, desired difficulty level, and desired experience—that will determine the width, as well as the type of tread, of the trail. If the hikers are experienced, a narrow, single track path can probably handle that population. But more casual hikers—think friends out for a picnic, families, or dog walkers—are more likely to walk and talk side-by-side. If the trail is designated as multi-use—meaning it's open to multiple user groups, like bikers, equestrians, cross country skiing, etc.—that’s also central to planning.

Next comes the direction of the trail, which is determined in part by psychology. Studies have shown that humans naturally follow the path of least resistance. If a muddy puddle collects in the center of a trail, for example, a majority of hikers will maneuver around, rather than trudge through, the mud, without putting much thought into their decision. One person skirting the puddle doesn’t make much difference, but a steady stream of well-meaning outdoor enthusiasts will quickly expand the original trail. People might begin to form separate “social trails” created by rogue hikers simply stepping on previously undisturbed land. As trail designer Erik Mickelson shared with The Wall Street Journal, "You’ll lay it out, you think you’ve done it well, and then they make a shortcut and you’re like, ‘Damn, why didn’t I see that?’”

The result of these hikers' minor adjustments is the destruction of more habitat. So trail designers must consider natural obstacles like potential puddle spots, loose rocks, steep inclines, and water crossings before laying out a route. Often, they'll consult topographic maps, compasses, surveyors' instruments, and aerial photos to make the first broad strokes. The macro view allows designers to establish positive control points, like a lake or waterfall, and negative control points like a field of poison ivy.

If avoiding the problem completely isn't possible, builders work to minimize the impact on the environment. One common trick used to subtly contain the creation of social trails is the installation of “gargoyles.” [PDF] Often stone or a large rock (thus the name), but always made of natural materials, gargoyles divert hikers away from potential short cuts by creating an obstacle harder to cross than the path itself. For example, a collection of fallen trees and vines might be piled around the entrance of an old social trail to block the way. A few well placed rocks could also create a seemingly natural endpoint to a one way trail. If you hike, you’ve likely come across a gargoyle without noticing it.

Ultimately, hiking trails are destructive to the environments they provide access to. They tear through the land, disturbing the natural layout and leaving it much more vulnerable to erosion. The people who design and build trails put a lot of thought into constructing the most sustainable path possible. "There is a real art to trail layout," the authors of the USDA Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook write. "Some basics can be taught, but the person locating the trail must develop an eye for laying a trail out on the ground."

So next time you’re out for a hike, make sure to stick to the trail—there's more to it than you might think.

15 Amazing Places You Can Tour Virtually

AndrewSoundarajan/iStock via Getty Images Plus.
AndrewSoundarajan/iStock via Getty Images Plus.

From National Parks to the Louvre, you can check out these 15 different places from the comfort of your own home.

1. The National Museum of Natural History

Outside of the Smithsonian.

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Take a look around the stunning exhibits at this Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. You have the option to tour past exhibits like “Against All Odds: Rescue at the Chilean Mine” or “Iceland Revealed,” along with what's currently on display.

2. The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal.
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You can explore the exterior of the famous Indian mausoleum with Air Pano’s virtual tour. It allows you to easily jump to different vantage points of the Taj Mahal and see them from a bird’s eye view.

3. The Great Wall of China


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Constructing this massive piece of architecture took more than 1800 years. You can visit this historical landmark without leaving your couch by heading here.

4. The J. Paul Getty Museum

Outside of the Getty Museum
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Google Arts & Culture lets you take a peek inside this art museum in Los Angeles. With the zoom feature, you can probably get even closer to the artwork than if you were to visit the Getty in person.

5. The Louvre

Le Louvre at night.
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Looking at fine art has never been so simple. On the Louvre’s website you can choose to explore several different exhibits such as “The Advent of the Artist,” “Remains of the Louvre’s Moat,” and more.

6. The Vatican's Museums

The Vatican
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Now you can skip the crowds and still tour inside the Vatican. This virtual tour allows you to see the landmark's museums such as the Pio Clementino, Raphael's Rooms, and others.

7. The Sistine Chapel

A painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
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You can't take a photo of the Sistine Chapel in person—it's not allowed—but you can tour it virtually. Click here, and look skyward to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

8. Route 66

A photo of Route 66.
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Route 66 was the United States’s first all-weather highway, running from Illinois to California. Now you can get your kicks on Google Street View of Route 66.

9. The Colosseum

The Colosseum
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Are you not entertained? You will be as you click around this virtual tour of this ancient arena.

10. Palace of Versailles

Inside the Palace of Versailles.

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Constructed in 1624, the Palace of Versailles contains countless rooms you could easily spend hours walking through. And now you can spend hours leisurely meandering through the halls—without the crowds—by heading here.

11. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

A volcano in a National Park in Hawaii.
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If you’ve ever wanted to journey to two of the world's most active volcanoes, now is your chance. After a short video introduction, you can take a guided virtual tour of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

12. Stonehenge

A view of Stonehenge.
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There's still a lot of mystery surrounding Stonehenge, a prehistoric stone monument near Wiltshire, England, whose construction dates back to 3000 CE. When you visit the site virtually, you can get a close-up view of the stones, zoom in on carvings, and watch educational videos about them.

13. The Musée d’Orsay

Musée D'Orsay in Paris.
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Built in an old railway station, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is the place to go to look at work by Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, and many other artists. Check out their work by heading here.

14. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
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If you’re sitting on your couch, do yourself a favor and take a minute to roam around Yosemite National Park. You can hike to the top of Half Dome, see Nevada Falls, and even star gaze in the park.

15. The Pyramids

The pyramids
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Survey the awe-inspiring achievement of the Great Pyramids at Giza from above.

Dreaming of Your Favorite City? This Website Will Create a Personalized Haiku Poem About It for You

OpenStreetMap Haiku will capture the colorful character of your hometown in a few (possibly silly) phrases.
OpenStreetMap Haiku will capture the colorful character of your hometown in a few (possibly silly) phrases.
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You no longer need to spend all your free time struggling to capture the vibe of your favorite city in a few carefully chosen syllables—OpenStreetMap Haiku will do it for you.

The site, developed by Satellite Studio, uses the information from crowdsourced global map OpenStreetMap to create a haiku that describes any location in the world. According to Travel + Leisure, the poems are based on data points like supermarkets, shops, local air quality, weather, time of day, and more.

“Looking at every aspect of the surroundings of a point, we can generate a poem about any place in the world,” the developers wrote in a blog post. “The result is sometimes fun, often weird, most of the time pretty terrible. Also probably horrifying for haiku purists (sorry).”

The results are also often waggishly accurate. For example, here’s a haiku describing Washington, D.C.:

“The same pot of coffee
Fresh coffee from Starbucks
The desk clerk.”

In other words, it seems like the city runs on compulsive coffee refills and paperwork. And if you thought life in Brooklyn, New York, was a combination of alcohol-fueled outings to basement bars and traffic-filled trips into the city, this poem probably confirms your suspicions:

“Getting drunk at The Nest
Today in New York
Green. Red. Green. Red.”

The website’s creators were inspired by Naho Matsuda’s Every Thing Every Time, a 2018 art installation outside Theatre Royal in Newcastle, England, that used data points to generate an ever-changing poem about the city.

Wondering what OpenStreetMap Haiku has to say about your hometown? Explore the map here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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