Creating Forest Trails: Planning Trail Placement and Clearing Trails

Trails provide easier access to places you want to go in your woods and more opportunities to use your woods for recreation. If you have decided to create trails in your forest, the first steps you should take involve determining how you will want to use those trails and mapping relevant features in your woods. After completing those steps, you can decide where to position trails and then take action to clear the trails. Whether your trail design will highlight conservation areas or fruit trees, wildlife or fall colors, you’ll want to consider certain generalities when planning trail placement and clearing trails.


In Puerto Rico, a dog waits at the top of a section of trail incorporating plant roots. Photo: Melanie Lenart.


Planning Trail Placement

Avoid straight lines. Allow trails to meander from one interpretive point to the next. Winding a trail to follow the land’s contour lines will make trail development easier and reduce the risk of erosion. The path of a trail also can curve around mature trees, reducing the need to cut them when constructing the trail. 

Favor areas with well-drained soils. Wet and flat areas often have poor drainage, fragile vegetation, or potholes that can lead to injury. Well-drained soils are more stable, less fragile, and easier to traverse. Because well-drained soils often are located on sloped land or ridges, they also tend to provide better views.

Feature the forest’s natural beauty. Plot trails to wind across beautiful overlooks and vistas, seasonal landscapes, and clearings. You or others hiking in your woods will enjoy the meandering nature of a trail even more when there are scenic views or interesting attractions along the way.

Keep the slope gentle. Periodically vary the grade, or slope, of each trail, but strive to maintain trails on midslope positions to promote good drainage and minimize erosion. Unless you’re designing a trail to provide challenging hikes, keep the grade to no more than 10 percent, which amounts to an average of a 1-foot drop over a 10-foot stretch.

Provide options with connections. Create a loop or rough figure-eight trail that will return the user to the starting point. A connecting trail at midpoint will allow hikers to choose a shorter or longer walk.

Consider visitors’ needs. Depending on what types of visitors you will have in your woods, you may want to include benches for resting, larger openings for groups at special attractions, a ladder rope for climbing a steep embankment, or publications describing the site and its attractions.  

Clearing Trails

Decide how you will clear trails. Clearing a trail can be done by hand or with equipment, and often involves a combination of manual and machine labor.


A group of hikers on a section of the Loyalsock Trail in northeastern Pennsylvania. Photo: Tori Scaven.

Determine what to clear. Removing brush is a good place to start clearing a trail. Brush removal, whether done with chainsaws, axes, pruning saws, or loppers, tends to accomplish the greatest result for the time and effort involved. Other trail-refining activities, including removing trees as needed, installing interpretive signs, or building bridges, can come later.

Consider trail width. Generally, trails should be 2 to 4 feet wide, with an additional 1 to 2 feet of clearing on either side of the trail. Make a trail only as wide as needed, depending on how many people might be walking together. Winding the path around existing trees should reduce the need to cut them down, but pruning lower branches of some neighboring trees can help keep the area alongside the path clear.

Consider trail height. The appropriate height for a trail clearing depends on intended use. Clearing height should be at least 7 feet for foot trails, 8 feet for biking trails, and 10 feet for equestrian trails. The need to maintain the clearing height may change with seasons, as ice or fruit can weigh down branches.

Consider trail length. The lengths of trails should range between .5 and 2 miles whenever possible, with loops integrated so that hikers can choose to go longer or shorter as their time and physical stamina permit.

Once you’ve envisioned, designed, and created trails on your land, it’s time to use them! In addition to enjoying the great outdoors, you can track potential maintenance needs as you and your guests saunter around your land.

Adapted with permission from: Recreational Forest Trails: Plan for Success

For More Information

Online Woodland Stewardship: Recreational Trail Design


Melanie Lenart, University of Arizona