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Designing for Nonmotorists

Recreation: Where Engineering and Art Meet

Presented at the FHWA Design Discipline Seminar
June 25, 2014
Leesburg VA

(with additional slides for recreational trail context, corrections to accessibility information,
and slides for recreational bridges)

(Download Powerpoint Version / 4.9 MB)

PowerPoint files can be viewed with the PowerPoint Viewer

Photo of a group of people attending opening day and dedication of the Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway in Texas.

Photo: Transportation Alternatives Data Exchange (TrADE).

Mineral Wells to Weatherford Rail-Trail, Mineral Wells, TX.
Opening day and dedication of the Mineral Wells to Weatherford Rail. (Photo: Texas DOT).

Presented by:
Christopher Douwes, Community Planner

Transportation Alternatives Program
Recreational Trails Program
Federal Highway Administration

Photo of Christopher Douwes giving a Powerpoint presentation.

Photo of Christopher Douwes, Community Planner, FHWA, presenting at FHWA Civil Rights Discipline Training, June 23, 2009, Albuquerque NM. Photo: Henry Droughter, Equal Opportunity Specialist, FHWA Pennsylvania Division

Recreational Trails

  • Why does FHWA care?
  • Eligible for Recreational Trails Program funds.
  • May be eligible for Federal Lands Highway funds.

Photo collage of trails.

Photos from the Recreational Trails Program website.
Left: Mountain bike trails at Butte State Park, Montana.
Top right: ATV trail on the Bull Run Guest Ranch near Cascade, Montana.
Bottom right: Snowmobiles at Eagle River, Wisconsin.

Recreational Trails

What is a recreational trail?

A thoroughfare or track across land or snow, used for recreational purposes:

  • Pedestrian activities, including wheelchair use;
  • Skating or skateboarding;
  • Equestrian activities, including carriage driving;
  • Nonmotorized snow trail activities, including skiing;
  • Bicycling or use of other human powered vehicles;
  • Aquatic or water activities; and
  • Motorized vehicular activities, including all terrain vehicle riding, motorcycling, snowmobiling, use of off-road light trucks, or use of other off road motorized vehicles.

Shared Use Path or Trail?

What is the difference between a shared use path and a trail?

  • A shared use path is a trail that is readily usable for transportation.
  • A recreational trail is primarily for recreation, but may provide a transportation link.
  • Historic and cultural trails: National Historic Trails, Civil War Trails, Underground Railroad.
  • Tourism trails: birding trails, scenic routes.

Recreational Trails

Recreational trail purpose:
  • A primary purpose is the user experience.
  • Less concern about getting from Point A to B.
  • Less concern about engineered designs.
  • These are not narrow highways!!!

Photo of a person standing along the side of a trail. Photo of a person riding a bike along a trail.

Photos from the Recreational Trails Program website
Left: Visitors enjoy a fenced trail near the Cycling the Pass stop on McKenzie Pass - Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, Oregon.
Right: Two-wheeling in the Lewis and Clark National Forest near Neihart, Montana.


If you build a recreational trail...
  • Make sure it works for all legal users.
    • Accommodate pre-existing legal users, including equestrians, motorized, etc.
  • Ensure Accessibility, but there are exceptions.

Hikers and bikers enjoy a trail in Utah

Photo from the Recreational Trails Program website.
Hikers and bikers both enjoy the Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah,
despite threatening storm clouds from the north.
©2000. A. Crane.

Recreational Trails

What is the trail purpose?

  • What are the skill levels?
    • Beginners?
    • Family outings?
    • Technical skills?
    • Challenge course?
    • Freeriding? Speed?
  • I-5 Colonnade, Seattle

Recreational Trails
What do you design for?

Accessibility: See

Outdoor Developed Areas: The U.S. Access Board developed standards for Outdoor Developed Areas, see These guidelines are for recreational trails (trails not intended for a transportation purpose), outdoor recreation access routes, picnic and camping facilities, and beach access routes.

Federal Lands and Federal Agencies (except Forest Service): Use the Access Board's Final Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas, published on September 26, 2013, under the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968. These guidelines apply to projects on Federal lands or constructed by a Federal agency.

Forest Service: Use the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines (FSTAG) and Accessibility Guidebook on Outdoor Recreation and Trails. These guidelines comply with the Final Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas. The Forest Service guidelines are legally enforceable on National Forest System lands. Although the guidelines are official policy only for the Forest Service, they contain useful concepts to help other agencies and organizations maximize accessibility without changing the setting in outdoor recreation areas and on trails. The Accessibility Guidebook on Outdoor Recreation and Trails provides "how-to" information to integrate accessibility into outdoor recreation site and trail projects.

Projects constructed with or without Federal-aid funding by a State or local government, or a private entity, and not located on Federal lands: There are no officially proposed guidelines for outdoor developed areas under the ADA. However, in the absence of a standard, accessibility must still be provided under the ADA. The Access Board's Final Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas and the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines (FSTAG) and Accessibility Guidebook on Outdoor Recreation and Trails are best practices that State and local governments and private entities may use.

The Outdoor Developed Areas guidelines are not appropriate for trails intended for transportation purposes: use the proposed PROWAG / Shared Use Paths guidelines.

Recreation facilities (other than trails): Use the Access Board's Requirements for Recreation Facilities at It would be relatively rare for FHWA to be involved with these projects, because most of these facilities are not eligible under Federal-aid highway programs unless required as environmental mitigation.

Recreational Trails: Surface

Surface: Firm and stable for accessibility.

  • Must accommodate wheelchairs to be accessible.

But not all recreational trails will be accessible.

  • Mountain bike trails:
  • Equestrian trails
  • Motorized trails
  • Remote hiking

Mountain bike trail features made of stone.

Photos: From International Mountain Bicycling Association.
Publication developed with funding in part through FHWA's Recreational Trails Program.

Recreational Trails: Surface

Surface: Likely not paved.

  • Consider accessibility guidelines for trails.
  • Engineered or natural surface?

Tread Obstacles may exist:

  • Roots, rocks, ruts, bumps, etc. Keep <2 inches.
  • Drainage features. May affect cross slope.

Gaps: Usually in bridges and boardwalks. Keep <0.5 inches, or <0.75 inches by exception.

Recreational Trails: Width

  • What will be the user experience?
  • Design for minimum impact.
  • Accessible trails: generally 36 inch minimum, with exceptions if necessary.
  • Mountain bikes: narrow preferred: 12-24 inches.
  • Motorcycles: narrow preferred: 18-24 inches.
  • Equestrians: consider equestrian widths.
  • ATVs: wide enough for an ATV, not more.
  • ROVs/UTVs: wider than ATVs.

ATVs: All-terrain vehicles
ROV: Recreational Off-road Vehicle
UTV: Utility Vehicle

Recreational Trails: Control Water!

  • Avoid the Fall Line:
    • Don't let water run down the trail!
  • An accessible trail usually is a sustainable trail.
  • General: <5% to the extent feasible, but...
  • Consider the "half rule":
    • Keep trail slope to less than half of the terrain slope.
    • Keep the running slope under 10% if feasible.
  • Rest intervals needed for accessible trails.

The "half rule" is not a "rule". It is a consideration, and might not work depending on soils, surrounding terrain, rainfall, expected use, etc.

Trail Slope: Grade Reversals

Grade reversals stop water flowing down the trail.

Photo of a trail / grade reversal.Graphic showing proper grade reversal design.

Trail Slope: Rolling Grade Dips

Easy way to get water off an existing trail.

Photo of a trail / grade dip. Graphic showing proper design of a grade dip.

Photo and Drawing from USDA Forest Service, Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.

Cross Slope: Control Water!

Graphic of a pair of legs standing on a trail representing safe cross slope.
  • Maintain sheet flow across the trail.
General: 2% 3% 5%, 3% preferred
Exception: 5%* 5%** 10%**

* At street crossings without stop control or at midblock.
** If needed for drainage on an unpaved surface.

If your ankles start to roll, the tread has too much outslope.

Drawing from USDA Forest Service, Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.

Recreational Trails: Cross Slope

Graphics showing differences between bench cuts.

Prefer a "full bench cut" over a "half bench" cut.

  • Full bench
    • Holds its shape.
  • Half bench
    • Easier to construct.
    • But it slumps over time.

Drawings from USDA Forest Service, Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.

Trail Cross Slope: Sheet Flow

Sheet Flow Example

Graphic showing runoff accross a trail.

Drawing from USDA Forest Service, Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.

Trail Cross Slope: Sheet Flow

  • Knicks constructed into existing trails will drain puddles from flat areas.
  • A semicircle cut into the tread, about 3 m (10 feet) long and outsloped the center.

Photo and graphic of trail design techniques.

Photo and Drawing from USDA Forest Service, Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.

Please Avoid!

Graphic of a water bar.
  • Don't add barriers to trails.
  • Waterbars: To get water off the trail.
    • Very popular. Not very effective.
    • Not accessible. Possibly dangerous.
    • Need ongoing maintenance.
    • If you think you need a waterbar, the trail is in the wrong location.
    • Grade reversals, rolling dips, and knicks function much better.
  • Avoid bollards (see Shared Use Path discussion).

Drawing from USDA Forest Service, Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.

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