What Is a Trail?

During a run commute sometime last autumn I found myself wondering, “What is a trail?” Those of you who are fortunate (read as smart) to live out in the hinter lands might confine “trail” to mean a narrow dirt, rock, or grass path in a natural environment and, perhaps if you are generous, you might even include double track, but certainly not a planed dirt road. However, us urban dwellers might take more liberties in calling a given path a trail.

That night in DC I found myself pondering whether the narrow dirt path worn into the grass along a sidewalk in a park was a trail. Certainly runners or walkers who wanted to escape the unforgiving cement had done so in the easiest way possible, they had simply stepped off the cement and plodding along the soft edges of a park instead. If that’s a trail, then what of the smooth, wide dirt and crushed rock paths that crisscross the National Mall? These are international, unpaved footpaths through a National Park after all. Of course, that very night I saw an 18 wheeler driving down one of these “trails.” I’m not sure how many trails see such heavy truck traffic.

Along the same lines, are towpaths along canals trails? What if the towpath is a well maintained path in a National Park (southern most section the of Chesapeak and Ohio Canal) or a more rooty path through wild scenery (farther north on the C&O)? What is trail looks exactly the same as a towpath, but was never used as one… is it a trail then?

trail Rock Creek ParkFriends on a wide path (trail?) in Rock Creek National Park

If you are familiar with frequently-traveled, well-maintained country roads, it’s easy to laugh at the idea that a dirt road is a trail, but many would certainly consider an infrequently maintained fire road to be “double track trail.” If that’s the case, what about seldom-used roads in the desert? I know that when I spent a summer in Elko, Nevada, I considered runs that mixed single track, double track, and carless dirt roads to be trail runs.

On the opposite end of things are the rocky “trails” such as those found on the Appalachian Trail or in the Massanutten Mountains. If those are real trails, then can the bountiful well-groomed footpaths that wind there way up many a western mountain be considered trails, as well?

trail Boulder ColoradoThe author on a “trail” in Trail Town, USA (a.k.a. Boulder, CO)

So what do you think? What makes a trail a trail? Is it the width? How well it’s groomed? The scenery? The designation of the land it traverses? Or is it more like pornography … no, no, no not because both are dirty, but because both are undefinable, but you know it when you see it?

There are 13 comments

  1. solarweasel

    great topic, goat…personally i think the definition of 'trail' (with respect to trail running) has more to do with changes in elevation than location. the undulations have to be more 'extreme' than what they would pave a road over, if that makes sense.some dirt roads, such as the one from ouray to telluride via imogene pass, would qualify while narrower gravel paths, such as the one around greenlake here in seattle, would not.dunno why i willingly chose to trap myself within the confines of a city though :P

  2. AnthonyP

    Well, if you want to be really technical, turn to the dictionary. Dictionary.com says a trail is "a path or track made across a wild region, over rough country, or the like, by the passage of people or animals". This would seem to possibly eliminate trails that were "man-made", as opposed to just being there as a result of mere passage. Perhaps that would knock out groomed trails as well.Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines a trail as "(1): a track made by passage especially through a wilderness (2): a marked or established path or route especially through a forest or mountainous region"Pick whichever one you like, but to me trails come in many different shapes and sizes. Groomed, un-groomed, wide, single-track, rocky, not rocky, hilly, flat, and so on and so forth. As long as it aint paved or called a road (like "jeep roads", "fire roads", etc…), I'm cool with calling it a "trail".

  3. SLB

    Personally there are two criteria: not asphalt, concrete, tarmac etc and not in the village town city etcOther than that size, shape, surface matter not

  4. Trail Goat

    Ok, obviously this is a ridiculously open question, so all the commentors so far are correct in their own way. However, I'm in here to make us all think a little more, so here goes:Solarweasel,Would you still think the same what about undulations defining trails if you lived in Kansas or your house backed up to a riparian area? I'll be running along the Potomac Heritage Trail tomorrow morning and the northern stretch inside the Capital Beltway is pretty darn flat for a couple of miles is you exclude a few dips for stream (they call 'em runs) crossings. Why is it flat or darn close to it, because the river that it follows is flat.Tony, Tony, Tony,I was going to include a paragraph in my post regarding paved "trails," but thought better of it. Around here, many paved foot and bike paths are named and referred to in common parlance as trails. That makes the trail runner in me cringe. However, I wonder where the line between "paved" and "was paved" is. Last weekend I ran 3,000'+ up a path from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point. The path was formerly a maintained paved path, but has not been maintained in many years. Much of the trail is loose rock and dirt, but there are portions where the pavement is more intact. Trail or not?SLB,What about where the Appalachian Trail passes through a town? How about dirt paths through forests in urban areas such as the Wildwood Trail in Portland or Rock Creek Park in DC? Lastly, at what point do dirt paths that have trail heads in a town or city, but head off into the wilderness convert from footpath to trail?Thanks guys for your thoughtful comments so far.

  5. Sara

    How about: If there's never any potential for getting your shoes dirty, it's not a trail! No, that doesn't work, because rock is fine. Guess it's back to being like porn.

  6. AnthonyP

    I was going to mention paving…..anything paved to me is more of a path then a trail. We have several paved "trails" here in Westchester County, such as the North County Trail, which are entirely paved and mostly used by bikers. Those are not true "trails" to me.

  7. worm

    I guess I think of it more as a distinction between non-motorized and motorized use. trail seems to be a generic term for any sort of recreational, non-vehicular 'path' that takes one from point a to point b; route, multi-use, track, single track, double track…does get you to thinking though when somebody says 'trail runner' or 'trail race' what does it really mean? coming from ak I picture a worn animal/hiker path that may start out groomed but soon becomes wild as it traverses through backcountry splendor.

  8. Anonymous

    There can be no answer to this question. So yes, you are a Zen master, you have presented us with a koan, and only I have noticed it. The rest of the commenters should get hit with the bamboo switch, while I return to meditating on more germane topics. Such as…should those who wipe away chalk marks at races be executed?

  9. Trail Goat

    Anonymous, I am hardly a zen master… this is simply something that I've pondered on my late night runs around DC and thought I'd share. I think it's fun see what others consider a trail and who that differs.Anyway thanks for teaching me a word of the day – koan.-Not anonymousPs. No executions for chalk kickers… but they must live out the rest of the days as human sign posts.

  10. RunningMtns

    I suspect trails really ARE like pornography–you know one when you see one. Here in the Wasatch mountains (it's probably important to be specific when describing trails ;-)), we have singletrack trails, ATV trails, pack trails, and jeep trails. In the end, it's probably the adjectives that really DO matter! So there are gnarly trails, fun trails, running trails, hard trails, spectacular trails, woodland trails, and my trail. Of course all of this ultimately leads to the question of what is or isn't appropriate for a trail. Check out my own blog for a recent article about "urban fur trapping on running trails?"

  11. Meghan

    I'm hoping I won't be smacked with a bamboo switch for commenting… :)For me, a trail is something that leads to a new perspective, however inconsequential or tiny or insignificant it might seem.Happy trailfinding!Meghan

  12. angie's pink fu

    hmm, I see two questions: what is a trail run, and what is a trail?For me, I call anything on dirt a "trail run" in order to designate in my log a run that was NOT on pavement. I suppose I should start referring to those as "dirt runs," to be the most specific possible.When thinking of a definition of a trail, to me it would be a dirt path in a natural area (either within a city or outside a city) that a vehicle does not travel on. If a vehicle travels on it, it becomes a "dirt run".

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