How To Build a Better Trail: Troy Scott Parker and the Psychology of Singletrack Design

Mountain biker on the Flume Trail at Lake Tahoe, CA
Mountain biker on the Flume Trail at Lake Tahoe, CAShutterstock

On a typical day at the office, Troy Scott Parker found himself searching for a better trail. Working just outside of Sykesville, MD, a 25-minute drive from Baltimore, Parker’s go-to trail was flat, straight, rutted and in the open. In the summer it was sweltering and in the winter frigid.

“It was miserable,” says Parker. “And boring.”

Parker knew there had to be a better route for connecting a paved path system to the historic downtown. Not only would it be more interesting and enjoyable, it would be more sustainable too (which matters more than ever). Good thing that Parker works as one of America’s preeminent trail designers.

From urban greenways to epic bikepacking routes, trails have never been busier. They were already growing in popularity before the pandemic and lockdowns sent us outdoors in record numbers. That’s a good thing: The more people who are using trails, the more people who care about them, and the more people who stand up for protecting green and wild spaces, like public lands, says Parker.

But while any trail will do during stay-at-home orders, biking and hiking indiscriminately will not always be the case. Inspiring long-term interest requires not just any strip of dirt, but a well planned and built network.

mountain biking mtb singletrack trails
Mountain biking singletrack trails in Bentonville, Arkansas. Shutterstock

Natural Fundamentals

There are plenty of trail builders and designers who know about grade, slope and drainage: the fundamentals of erosion-proof construction and key ingredients in a time of increased use and climate change. But Parker was one of the first, and remains one of the few, who understands that great trails are only 30 percent technical. The rest is psychology.

“It’s about understanding human nature and the user experience,” he says from his Boulder, CO, home office. “It comes down to two factors: the quality without a name and natural shape.”

 

Hiking trail
Mats Hagwall on UnSplash

Parker has spent more time thinking about the qualities of the best trails than just about anyone. He wrote many of the early trail-building standards that evolved into the how-to manuals national parks, mountain bike organizations and volunteer trail stewards use to build paths. And he wrote and self-published the definitive book on the art of trail building in 2004, Natural Surface Trails by Design.

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It took Parker decades to figure it all out. Now nearly 60, he started building trails at age 5 on the Ohio acreage where he grew up. First it was for his Tonka trucks and then for his Schwinn banana-seat bike. Design and architecture always fascinated him. As a teen, he dug his own pond and then a system of “Roman aqueducts” and ditches to feed it with clean water (and keep the leaky septic system out).

 

Trail Philosophy

After college he moved to Boulder and put his self-taught skills—a knack for seeing grade, managing water flow and building stone work—to good use on volunteer trail projects. Eventually that led to paid trail designing and building work, a job he continues. Through it all he philosophized about the elusive attributes of a good trail.

Parker finally found the words in the architecture classic, The Timeless Way of Building by Christoper Alexander. Over more than 500 pages Alexander simplifies why some cityscapes feel better than others to two factors: design patterns and the quality without a name. The theory resonated with Parker.

Wandering in the woods he knew something in our DNA makes us universally attracted to openings and meadows, viewpoints and unique features, and rivers and lakes. We’re also attracted to small things: a big stump, a rock all by itself, a gully. Trails that lead us to these places are pleasing. Ones that link these points, one after another, are a joy.

trail switchbacks
Shutterstock

 

We’re equally predictable in our bad habits. Pass within earshot of a waterfall, but not to it, and we will find our own way to check it out. We’re more comfortable walking along the edge of an open area, unless there’s a cool boulder in the middle of it. Then we want to climb it and look around and so should the trail. Stacks of switchbacks are annoying. Just like an empty maze at airport security, we will cut right through them.

“Build a trail that resists our lazy tendencies and plays to our curiosity and you’ll find the quality without a name,” says Parker.

It’s hard to explain, but simple to do: He just acts like an 8-year-old and links whatever catches his eye. Alexander’s “design pattern” (Parker’s natural shape) is even easier to find. Just pick up a stick.

“Something nice and crooked from a native species,” he says. “Put it on the ground and scale up and you’ve got your natural shape.”

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mountain biking trail singletrack
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In other words, straight is boring. Twisting and turning, going up and down, keeps us guessing and motivated to see what’s around the corner. Trail builders call it rolling grade. Mountain bikers call it flow. And hikers knock off miles with surprising ease.

Natural shape is naturally sustainable too. Even a slight up and down or side to side, helps shed water off the trail, reducing erosion. It slows riders down, so there’s less braking. Both are important with climate change in mind.

Dryer, hotter weather turns dirt to dust and boots and skidding tires, especially, lift it into the air. Wind literally blows trails away. Even more destructive is water. With bigger rain events, more often, ruts, wash outs and in-cutting add maintenance when trail crews are already struggling to keep up with the impact of more tires and boots.

Troy Scott Parker
Troy Scott Parker Courtesy Image

“Erosion destroys trails,” says Parker. “But what sets up that destruction is poor design.”

We need to build to a more robust standard, capable of handling more traffic and extreme weather, he says. And, as we expand trail networks to keep up with demand, we have to think about what is the best and highest use of the land.

 

Land Relations

Hikers, bikers, horseback riders and motorized users: They all have different relationships with the trail, he explains. ATVers and dirt bikers are more focused on their machine than what’s flying by. On a horse, the interaction with the animal is as important as the scenery. Focused 20 feet in front of them most of the time, mountain bikers care more about what the trail does then where it goes. Hikers are the most demanding, especially if they drove two hours to the trailhead. They expect the path to connect them to the environment and immerse them in the landscape.

Land managers need to keep these relationships in mind as they consider where to put new trails, thinks Parker. Old industrial sites and damaged landscapes make great motorized zones. Quiet areas with few other users work best for horses. Places with lots of ups and downs and ins and outs are ideal for mountain biking. Reserve the most spectacular places for those who appreciate it the most: hikers.

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hiking trail
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“With more interest in being outside and more interest in our public lands, there’s more pressure to make the right choice for the right reasons,” says Parker. “It forces us to up our game and prevent bad ideas from happening.”

Back in Sykesville, that’s what he was doing. Parker left the high ground of the existing trail and headed down the slope toward the South Branch Patapsco River. The forest felt wild. Ravines and creeks teased him along. Bird calls filled the air.

Looking on social media he couldn’t find a picture or mention of the area. “It’s 25 minutes from Baltimore,” he says. “I can’t believe it.”

Waterfall
Cameron Venti on Unsplash

He created a proposal for a trail that would slowly roll its way down the slope from the path system, through the forest, in and out of gullies, all the way into town. Following the topography it has natural shape and the quality without a name.

“It will be so much more interesting,” he says. “I think people will really love walking it. Now we just need to build it.”

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