News & Updates

What Is a Durable Surface, Anyway?

Susy Alkaitis - January 12, 2018

Amicalola, Georgia: As avid hikers, we’re extremely grateful for the trails that lead us to amazing views, idyllic campsites and cool swimming holes. And while we might not get out to do trail work every weekend, we can help keep these trails in great shape by sticking to durable surfaces when we hike and play outside.

But what exactly is a durable surface, anyway? Check out our video and blog below to learn more about making good decisions when you travel in our shared outdoor spaces.

Sticking to designated trails is one of the most important and easiest things you can do to protect your favorite natural spaces. Need to convince your buddy to keep his boots on the trail? Here’s some motivation!

  • Some areas get trampled by thousands of footsteps every day. Trails help concentrate these impacts, protecting the ecological health and scenic beauty of the surrounding area.
  • Undesignated trails (also known as social or user-created trails) suffer from poor design, which leads to greater erosion, poor drainage, and damage to sensitive plants and habitats.[1]
  • “Social” trails near rivers have led to increased bank erosion, channel width, and sediment transport.[2]
  • Shortcuts are often less safe than the designated trail, increasing the chances for bruises, bumps, and twisted ankles.
  • Trail restoration is expensive, takes a long time, and is extremely hard work! Sticking to trails is a way to say “thank you!” to trail-builders.
  • Animals quickly learn that trails are not good places to build homes or protect their young, and will avoid them. Traveling off-trail can frighten wildlife away from vital food and water sources, and cause them to abandon their young.[3]
  • What’s worse than muddy feet? Ten-foot wide trails that resemble mud pits! When hikers continually hike around, rather than through muddy spots on the trail, trails get wider and muddier, and destroy plants and animal habitat.
  • Fewer than 25 passes over sensitive vegetation can permanently damage sensitive plants.[4]


So, whenever in doubt, stick to trails! If you frequently travel in areas without designated trails, watch our video to learn to recognize durable off-trail surfaces like rock, sand, gravel, dry grasses, dry leaves and pine duff. If you can’t avoid sensitive areas, be sure to disperse your group so you don’t step on the same plant twice. Want to learn more? Pick up one of our Skills and Ethics booklets for the region in which you travel. For more Leave No Trace research, click here.

Enjoy your world, and Leave No Trace

Jessie and Matt, Team West

Leave No Trace's Jessie Johnson and Matt Schneider are part of the 2018 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, REI, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Deuter, Thule, and Klean Kanteen.

[1] Hocket, Karen S., Marion, Jeffrey L., and Yu-Fai Leung. 2013. The efficacy of combined educational and site management actions in reducing off trail hiking in urban proximate protected area.

[2] Clow, David, Rachael Peavler, Jim Roche, Anna Panorska, James Thomas, and Steve Smith. 2011. Assessing possible visitor-use impacts on water quality in Yosemite National Park, California. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 183:197-215.

[3] Kerlinger, P., Burger, J., Cordell, H. K., Decker, D. J., Cole, D. N., Landres, P., & Anderson, S. (2013). Wildlife and recreationists: coexistence through management and research. R. L. Knight, & K. Gutzwiller (Eds.). Island Press.

[4] Cole, David. 1993. Trampling effects on mountain vegetation in Washington, Colorado, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. USDA Forest Service Res. Pap. INT-464. 


Let’s protect and enjoy our natural world together

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