The Art of Trail Design: More Than Just Digging in Dirt

MMM… Dirt. As trail builders, it would appear that digging in the dirt is one of our favorite pastimes. For us, however, it’s not just a pastime. It serves a specific purpose, and one that has as much room for creativity and design as utilizing a paintbrush to make strokes on a canvas. In our case, the landscape is our canvas – and trails are our paintbrush. How we paint our environment determines how we experience it, and our generation has figured out that when deciding how to spend our precious time and energy, it’s almost all about the experience. If our experiences don’t feel authentic, we can’t commit to believing and interacting with them. In the case of trail building, it’s essential to deliver experiences that feel as authentic as possible. When we feel connected to the environments that surround us, we immerse ourselves into the riding experience. The process to design trails that are true to the lay of the landscape, that highlight the most striking portions of the environment and that deliver long-term riding opportunity takes patience, vision and adaptability. At PTD, it’s taken time to develop our design style, but perseverance has helped us transition from guerrilla-style builders to a professional operation. For those who do not plan to become professional, but still want to get the most out of their riding experiences, following a creative process can turn big ideas into even bigger realities.

When we travel to a location to decide the potential for trails, we go through a process much like an artist, architect or engineer does as they decide the direction of their newest project. For us, the most exciting riding experiences let us get up close and personal with a trail site’s eye-catching and unique features. Often those features are natural, like the overlooks, waterfalls, cliff bands and rock features that pepper Arkansas landscapes. We let nature do the talking for our approach and when possible, design our trails to run alongside the terrain’s most interesting elements.

Finding and activating the highlights of our environment are what make designing trails and parks so exhilarating, but it’s important to remember that the process is just as meticulous as it is imaginative. It can take up to two weeks to design just 2-3 miles of trail, and since it can technically be built anywhere it’s crucial that each project we see from start to finish is a valuable asset to the riders and community that will be utilizing it. If we can justify that the project will be a value-add, we move forward in the design process. We normally begin by walking the length of the land, visualizing trail routes for either beginning, intermediate or expert lines. Our clients often come to us with their own visions of how difficult they wish trails to be, and while this may seem easy to accommodate it can pose significant design challenges. Just as we look for opportunities that we can’t pass up, we must be careful to identify and avoid markers that make designing, building and riding a subpar experience. Dangerously steep side slopes, areas with extremely poor soil, areas that remain wet and hold water often, or inundated areas are all red flags when it comes to designing trails that will last. These markers are usually easy to identify and avoid, but when they threaten our vision or a client’s vision for a trail we must adapt to comply with the limits of our terrain. This means that sometimes what was intended to be beginner trail can turn into something more difficult. We can’t always stick to our initial ideas, either. When we find cliff bands, for example, we try to get as close as possible. If it’s too difficult to cut straight through them though, we must find a way around them. Embracing change is a rite of passage in designing trail – we can never be completely certain that we won’t have to change course. After final routes have been determined, we seal the deal with marker flags and start the building process. Completed projects are handed over to the client, community and riders, ready to provide a new experience!

While natural features do provide much of our inspiration, they aren’t the only option for design. Sometimes, it’s worth it to step outside the box and look for inspiration within man’s interactions with the natural world. Mountain biking trails and parks are becoming an innovative way to reinvent, repurpose and revitalize urban spaces. Drawing inspiration from the history, culture and existing features of community spaces, we work to transform the same areas that can’t catch a second glance into major points of interest for riders and communities alike. In the city of Rogers, Arkansas for example, we turned the city’s abandoned rail yard into a full-service, full-access bike park for riders of all ages and skill levels. The park combines existing structures with dirt jump lines – for example, we send intermediate-level riders through a rusty rail car we found onsite. Trail design is not limited to the mountains or to sophisticated locations. The rise of trails and parks in “wasted” space is actually one of our most exciting developments to date. You don’t have to grow old or give up the dirtbag lifestyle to harness your creativity – in fact, it’s this lifestyle that keeps us driven to pull off some of our favorite trail projects. After all, everything we do has a purpose, and that purpose is to build what we design, and ride what we build.

Written by Kelsey Ferguson, @kelsey_ferguson.

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