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Changing Trends in Backcountry Trail Use

What do Americans want when they recreate on trails?

By Wes Boyd

The May 1993, workshop, "Interpreting America's Long-Distance Trails," provided insight into current trends of trail use. Gary Machlis of the University of Idaho cited some interesting statistics:

  • Backcountry trail use has dropped steadily for a couple of decades, and there's no reason to believe that it will turn around soon.
  • Fifty to sixty percent of trail use is for a period of under two hours; typically, the first 900 feet of a trail are far and away the most heavily used.
  • America's population mix is changing and aging.

Long-distance trail managers and developers need to meet the demands of these trail usage trends by thinking more about short term users. Although the long distance user generates excitement and wonder in the hiking community, they are a small minority of trail users. Of the estimated four million annual users of the Appalachian NST, only two hundred or less are end-to-end through hikers.

According to Machlis, park and trail users want: first, a good map; second, a good bathroom; and third, clear direction signs. He concludes: "We must admit to the need of hardening of the front country. This will be the intellectual and engineering challenge of the next generation of parks."

Day sites, or less than day use sites, need to be developed. This will require better maps, better trail head signs and parking, better directional signs, better trail treadways and return loops, and yes, better outhouses.

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