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The goal of this study was to better understand the extent of trail use monitoring and to assess the application of mechanical and electronic counting devices in trail planning and management.


Measuring and Monitoring Trail Use: A Nationwide Survey of State and Federal Trail Managers

photo of people on trail

trail survey questionnaire being administered on

Austin, Texas Town Lake Trail


The Department of Park, Recreation and Tourism Resources at Michigan State University, cooperating with the Michigan Department of Transportation and others, launched a multi-year case study on the benefits of the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail located in mid-Michigan. A component of the research project was to examine the relevancy of mechanical and electronic counting devices in estimating and monitoring trail use. To assist with that effort a mail survey was conducted with state and federal trail managers across the United States.

The goal of this study was to better understand the extent of trail use monitoring and to assess the application of mechanical and electronic counting devices in trail planning and management. Surveys were mailed to 169 state trail administrators or bicyclist coordinators and 175 federal trail managers from the USDA Forest Service and USBI Bureau of Land Management. Seventytwo state-level trail administrators/coordinators (42% response rate) and 104 federal-level trail managers (59% response rate) returned a completed survey. Data collection occurred in late spring and early summer of 2001.

The following highlights emerged from this research:


It is widely recognized that accurate information regarding the amount, type, and distribution of trail use is critical in making informed planning and management decisions, and in understanding the full range of benefits trails provide to individuals and communities (Loomis, 2000; Mowen, 2000). Of the different methods used to collect trail use data, mechanical and electronic counting devices are widely regarded as being relatively flexible and inexpensive (Dawson et al., 2000; Gasvoda, 1999; Hollenhorst et al., 1992; Watson et al., 2000; Yuan et al., 1995). These tools have been used to provide estimates of trail usage since the late 1960’s (Leonard et al., 1980). While much of their application has been in wilderness and backcountry areas, a greater awareness and use of these devices is occurring among a wider audience of trail managers and researchers (O’Rourke, 1994). Recently, Neff et al. (2000) used an infrared sensor to measure trail use and assess activity patterns and Arnberger and Brandenburg (2001) used video cameras at a national park in Vienna Austria to asses the level and type of use, and visitor characteristics. Today, there are a number of manufacturers (see Appendix A for selected list) who market mechanical and electronic devices that measure and monitor trail use (Gasvoda, 1999; Watson et al., 2000).


Both state and federal trail managers characterized the majority of the non-motorized trail use as walking/hiking/backpacking and biking. Federal trail managers also reported significant horseback riding occurring on their trails. Across state agencies, the total miles of non-motorized trails vary considerably, ranging from less than 100 miles to 6,000 miles, with a median of 300 miles per state. Non-motorized trail mileage on National Forests/Grasslands and BLM units vary from none to 3,000 miles, with a median of 339 miles per unit.

Based on the results of the questionnaire, off-road vehicle and snowmobile trails were more common on federal lands than state lands with over 80 percent of the National Forest and BLM units managing such trails compared to half of the states. Total miles of motorized trails for the different state agencies ranged from less than 100 miles to over 10,000 miles with a median of 300 miles per state. Total miles of motorized trails on National Forest/Grasslands and BLM units ranged from less than 10 miles to just over 4,700 miles with a median of 343 miles per unit.

About two-thirds of the states and nearly 40 percent of the federal land management units responding to the survey indicated their state or unit had a trail plan (Table 1). On average, statewide trail plans were last updated in the mid 1990’s, while federal land management units last updated their trail plans in the early part of 1990’s. For those states that indicated they did not have a state or unit wide trail plan, only about half reported they were likely to develop one within the next five years; whereas nearly 60 percent of federal land management units without plans were likely to develop one within five years.

Of those responding to the survey, 29 (40.3%) of state trail managers and 76 (73.1%) of federal trail managers reported visitor use data were collected in the past five years on one or more of the trails they managed. The most commonly cited reason for collecting these data was to aid in future planning and capital development, followed by budget development or grant justification for state trail managers and agency policy for federal managers (Table 2). The key differences between state and federal agencies are related to marketing and visitor satisfaction, and policy requirements. State trail managers were more likely (48.1%) to cite the need to better understand customers and their satisfaction with trails than federal trail managers (36.0%). Federal trail managers on the other hand were more likely (45.3%) to cite agency policy as a reason for collecting information than state trail managers (25.9%). Those state or federal agencies that have not implemented use data collection efforts in the past five years overwhelmingly cited the lack of funds or staffing as the reason for not collecting such data.


State and federal trail managers recognize the need to collect trail use data. For those agencies that collect data, counting the number of users was the most common practice. For federal agencies, recording the type of trail use activity and group size was also common. The most common rationale for state and federal trail respondents to collect trail use data is for planning and future capital development projects. Following this reason, state agencies need data for budget development, grant justification, marketing or visitor satisfaction, and federal agencies need data to meet agency policy mandates, for budget development or grant justification.

Approximately three-quarters of the federal agencies who collect trail use data do so using observation techniques at trail heads or parking lots or mechanical/electronic counting devices. State agencies also used these techniques, but at lower levels (with approximately 55% using these methods). The least used technique for collecting trail data was aerial photography. For both state and federal agencies, implementing mechanical or electronic devices was more common than piloting or testing devices. For state and federal trail managers the use of infrared or motion sensors was more common than other mechanical devices. For those managers who used these devices, the effectiveness of these devices, in general, was rated as being mediocre due to installation and calibration challenges.

Trail managers were also asked to express their opinions about collecting trail use data. State and federal trail managers expressed high levels of agreement that trail use data will be increasingly needed in the future, beneficial for trail planning and managing trails on an operational basis.

State trail managers were currently more likely than federal trail managers to have state or unitwide trail plans; federal managers were more likely than state managers to be developing new trail plans developed within the next five years. GIS appears to be a tool that both state and federal trail managers will use for planning and tracking trail use levels. Federal agencies are very reliant on in-house GIS capabilities; state agencies are slightly more likely to use in-house and consulting GIS services.


Among state and federal agencies there is no uniform standard for non-motorized trail use data collection. This is in contrast to many other areas of natural resource management, such as forest inventory (USDA Forest Service), breeding bird inventory (USDI Fish and Wildlife Service) and implementation of the Renewable Resource Planning Act of 1974 as amended by the US Forest Service and other federal agencies.

One option to rectify this dilemma would be to require recipients of federal trail grants (both state and federal) to provide use level estimates for a representative proportion (e.g. 10%) of their non-motorized and motorized trail systems. This could be done using standardized methodologies employing mechanical and electronic monitoring devices or a combination of these and other techniques. However, given some of the challenges of obtaining reliable data with such devices, a rigorous set of installation and calibration procedures must be developed that accounts for all the types of devices currently employed by trail managers.

Cooperation among the different parties is also critical. One way to strengthen cooperation, coordination, and sharing of knowledge would be to hold regular regional workshops/ conferences concerning use estimation methodologies and technologies. The US Department of Transportation, and the National Park Service could provide valuable leadership in this area as both have substantial technical and financial assistance responsibilities regarding trails. In such workshops venders could demonstrate and educate trail managers about the proper installation and calibration techniques necessary to obtain reliable use estimate data. Such workshops could also facilitate a greater level of future cooperation and interchange of information among trail managers.

Finally, given it’s widespread use in the exchange of information, developing a website created and maintained by one of the key federal trail oriented agencies to up-date all interested parities on advances and application of these technology as well as be a information repository for trail use related data would be a valuable tool. The Forest Service has made strides in this developing
comprehensive publications about methodologies to estimating use (see Yuan et al., 1995 and Watson et al., 2000), but more needs to be done, especially on a wider range of trails types. This initial step of regularly estimating trail use can provide the basis to look at the benefits of trail use on a national basis such as the economic impact of tourism, use of trails for cardovascular fitness, and non-motorized transportation among others.


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