What Is a Trail?

During a run commute sometime last autumn I found myself wondering, “What is a trail?” Those of you who are […]

By on December 4, 2008 | Comments

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?

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.