Does Every Trail Have To Be Smooth And Easy With No Rocks? Trail Fundamentals tells us that it’s ok for some trails to be flat and easy and have tons of directional signage. It’s also perfectly alright if other trails have logs across them, rough creek crossings, and signs only at the trailheads. This information lets us clear trails that should be cleared, and lets us know that other trails can have steep drops and don’t have to be perfectly raked out and groomed.

National-Laws-21Trail Fundamentals is a category title used by the USFS to describe 5 key concepts initially presented in the Trails Management Handbook. These 5 key concepts are:

  1. Trail Type
  2. Trail Class
  3. Managed Use
  4. Designed Use
  5. Trail Design Parameters

The information that the USFS provides online here is well presented, complete with power point presentations, pictures, diagrams and charts. Below is a quick summary of Trail Fundamentals.

Trail Type

A category that reflects the predominant trail surface and general mode of travel accommodated by a trail. There are three Trails Types:

  1. Standard/Terra Trail: A trail that has a surface consisting predominantly of the ground and that is designed and managed to accommodate use on that surface.
  2. Snow Trail: A trail that has a surface consisting predominantly of snow or ice and that is designed and managed to accommodate use on that surface.
  3. Water Trail: A trail that has a surface consisting predominantly of water (but may include land-based portages) and that is designed and managed to accommodate use on that surface.

National-Laws-24Trail Class

The prescribed scale of development for a trail, representing its intended design and management standards. Trail Classes are general categories reflecting trail development scale, arranged along a continuum. There are five Trail Classes, ranging from the least developed (Trail Class 1) to the most developed (Trail Class 5).

If we understand where our local trails rest in this matrix, then we can assign maintenance and resources accordingly to them. For example, Siberia Creek might be a Trail Class 1 right now because of the conditions, but should be a Trail Class 2 because of the initial trail definition. Based upon this example, the trail needs maintenance resources allocated to bring it up to intended specification. 

National-Laws-22Managed Use

A mode of travel that is actively managed and appropriate on a trail, based on its design and management.

  1. Managed Use indicates management intent to accommodate a specific use.
  2. There can be more than one Managed Use per trail or trail segment.
  3. The Managed Uses for a trail are usually a small subset of all the allowed uses on the trail, that is, uses that are allowed unless specifically prohibited. For example, on a trail that is closed to all motorized use but open to all non-motorized use, the Managed Uses could be Hiker/Pedestrian and Pack and Saddle. The allowed uses, however, would also include bicycles and all other non-motorized uses.

In Big Bear, we wrestle with understanding which trails are open for motorized use, bicycles, horses, and hikers. USFS laws do designate the Managed Use for each trail.

Designed Use

The Managed Use of a trail that requires the most demanding design, construction, and maintenance parameters and that, in conjunction with the applicable Trail Class, determines which Design Parameters will apply to a trail.

Designed Use / Managed Use Types:  Hiker / Pedestrian Cross-Country Ski,  Pack and Saddle Snowshoe,  Bicycle, Snowmobile,  Motorcycle Motorized Watercraft,  All Terrain Vehicle Non-Motorized Watercraft,  Four-Wheel Drive Vehicle > 50” in Width.

Based upon this information, a trail can be designed for Bicycle Use, but managed for hiking, horses, and bicycles. This kind of information lets us understand how a trail should be built. If a trail is designed for Bicycle Use (example Skyline Trail), the turns should be designed so that bicycles can easily travel through them without having to stop and dismount. However, if a trail is designed for Hiking Use (Sugarloaf), the turns may be tight and require a bike dismount and the slope may be too steep to ride. Following this train of thought, horses may be one of the managed uses of a trail (Santa Ana River Trail), but the trail design may be limiting because of the trail width and overhead protrusions.

Trail Design Parameters

Technical guidelines for the survey, design, construction, maintenance, and assessment of a trail, based on its Designed Use and Trail Class. These criteria include:

  1. Design Tread Width
  2. Design Surface
  3. Design Grade
  4. Design Cross Slope
  5. Design Clearing
  6. Design Turns

Remember the 5 trail classes? Design Parameters are very specific about how each of these classes should be designed (and consequentially maintained). If the trail up to Sugarloaf Mountain is a Trail Class 3, the Design Parameters state that the obstacles should not be larger than 10 inches high, and the maximum pitch should be a 25% grade (for only 10-20% of the trail). The clearing for this class of a trail should be at least 36″ wide. As trail users, this information gives us leverage to talk with the USFS and request changes to trails in the system based upon FACTS. Design Parameters also get specific about WHO the trail is designed for; a hiking trail is different than a biking trail.


PLEASE NOTE: Much of the above has been directly copied from referenced sources publicly available on the internet. Subjective opinion and interpretation can be found in color-hilited text boxes.