Trail Surface Types: Pros and Cons for Accessibility
Updated: Mar 15
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What are accessible trails?
There is no one size fits all solution to creating accessible trails. Access needs vary widely among disabilities, and what is accessible to one disabled person may not be to another. It is important to keep this in mind while advocating for accessible trails in your community.
Trail surface is one factor of building accessible trails. This article provides an introductory overview of the different types of trail surface, and the pros and cons of their use for an accessible trail.
I love a nice boardwalk. Boardwalks can immerse you in a landscape that would otherwise be too difficult or too dangerous to enter. Most often built at wetlands, estuaries, desert soils, and other sensitive environments, boardwalks can provide a safe and accessible way to experience a diversity of habitats. However, it is not accessible to everyone. Boardwalks are also an expensive trail type, but can be a real attraction.
Provide access to environments that would otherwise be inaccessible
Wet soils, sandy areas, and tidal zones are not the most accessible places for anyone, especially people with physical disabilities.
An elevated boardwalk in Hillsborough River State Park, FL
Guard rails and barriers offer safety and a way to guide along the path
The “bumpers” at the edge of boardwalks help prevent wheels from going over the edge. Guard rails and barriers not only prevent wheels and feet from falling off, but offer a guide for people who are Blind or low vision, and something to hang on to for those with mobility or balance concerns. However, barriers must not prevent people from seeing through them at sitting height – wheelchair users don’t want to stare at a wooden wall on their hike.
Protects sensitive habitat
Boardwalks allow for good drainage and reduce off-trail use
Firm and stable surface
Firm, stable surfaces tend to be more durable and are the most accessible.
Can be very uncomfortable for wheelchair users
‘Shake, rattle, and roll’ is a common experience for wheelchair users on boardwalks. Every transition between boards can be a jolt. The surface of each board is often uneven, creating an overall rattling experience in a chair. Horizontal boards are the worst for this, but vertical boards can cause small wheels to get stuck. Individual boards can come loose, warp, or lift
This creates a toe and mobility aid tripping hazard and be impossible for some wheelchairs to cross. Loose and warped boards can also throw off a person’s balance. Surface can be very slippery
Boardwalks are notoriously slippery, which is a major risk for people with mobility related disabilities, hypermobile and painful joints, or problems with balance. One way to address this is to tack anti-slip tread on at least one side.
Trail surface at the ends of the boardwalk can erode
The most accessible boardwalk can be rendered inaccessible if the trail surface on either end erodes. If there is more than a 1-inch rise from the trail to the boardwalk, it will be very difficult for many wheelchair users to pass.
Pavement, the love-to-hate-it darling of many outdoor recreationalists and conservationists. Unfortunately, discussions about pavement are often used against disabled people in an very ableist manner. There is a lot to unpack here, but for now let’s focus on the pros and cons of pavement for accessibility. One important note: paved doesn’t necessarily mean accessible.
Accessible to many wheel-users A smooth, level paved surface is perfect for wheel-users, including
A paved trail at Lava Lands Visitor Center near Bend, OR
wheelchairs, strollers, and bicycles, making it very multi-use. This can also be a con – sharing a trail with fast moving bicycles when you are a slow-moving walker or wheelchair user can feel very unsafe. Also, many paved trails are still too steep for wheelchairs. Can reduce impact on surrounding area
Paved trails are a great option for high use areas, helping to prevent erosion and trail damage overall. It can also reduce the impact on surrounding trails, because more people will be drawn to the easy paved trail. Users may also be less likely to go off trail. Firm and stable surface
Pavement meets the accessibility guidelines for a firm and stable surface
Prone to cracking and root damage
Cracks and roots lifting the surface can make a paved trail inaccessible for wheelchair users. It is also difficult and expensive to repair. Can be painful for people with chronic pain to walk on
Pavement is not pleasant to walk on, especially if you have chronic pain in lower limbs, hips, or back. It can be inaccessible for some ambulatory disabled people for this reason, especially if there aren’t any benches. Surface can become very hot
Hot pavement isn’t only a risk to puppy paws, it can be dangerous for people who are heat sensitive.
Preconceptions that pavement = bad
Getting a paved trail built can be very difficult due to expense and the perception that “paving the wilderness” is bad. To be fair, there is a risk of environmental contamination in the building process, but it can be mitigated with care.
A crushed gravel trail at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon
There are a variety of crushed stone and gravel types. When designing for accessibility, finely crushed and firmly compacted pea gravel is most appropriate. Large pieces of crushed rock can be painful to walk on and impassable for wheelchairs. Wheels can get stuck in loose or deep gravel, regardless of size.
Accessible to almost all trail users
When the proper type is installed correctly and compacted well, it forms a very firm and stable surface.
Can complement the natural landscape
Of the “artificial” trail surface types, gravel can be the most complementary, particularly when stone from the local landscape is used.
Erosion and drainage issues can make it inaccessible
Gravel trails can still erode or wash away in time, and drainage issues can create holes and dips in the surface. Loose, deep, or large gravel can be a hazard to wheel-users
As mentioned above, not all gravel is the same, and the way it is installed matters.
Wood Chip trail at Deschutes Falls Park near Olympia WA
I am personally not a fan of wood chip paths, but they do offer a cheap and easy to build trail surface. Wood chip trails are not very accessible.
Provides a gentler tread for walking
A fresh, well compacted wood chip trail can be comfortable to walk on. A more “natural” appearance
Wood chip trails blend into the natural environment well and can even have a “peaceful” sense to them.
Not accessible to wheels or other mobility aids
Most wheels can’s get through wood chips, and other mobility aids can sink into the surface. Surface can become spongy and slippery
Spongy, slippery wood chips are even more inaccessible, and can require twice the effort to walk on. It is not a firm or stable surface. Needs to be replaced regularly
Wood chips need to be maintained regularly and replaced every year or two.
Narrow muddy trail through the Bogachiel Rainforest near Forks, WA.
Natural surface trails are the most common. They are typically created by removing plants and the top layer of earth to expose a firmer surface. Natural surface trails can significantly damage the landscape, particularly as frequent use leads to more erosion. It is difficult to create an accessible natural surface trail; some landscapes are more difficult than others, but they all require regular maintenance.
Offers the most “natural” appearance
A well-designed natural surface trail blends into the landscape. Simplest to build
Building a natural surface trail requires a lot of labor, but with a little training they can be built by most able-bodied people.
Generally not accessible
Most trails are not particularly accessible, depending on the landscape. They are usually not firm, stable, or barrier free. Roots and rocks present trip hazards, and uneven terrain can be difficult to navigate. Other features like benches and toilet facilities may not be present. Conditions are unpredictable and difficult to describe
Natural surface trails are especially susceptible to changes due to weather, usage, and erosion. The conditions can change quickly, making it difficult for disabled people to plan. Since conditions are so varied and there are so many potential obstacles, it is difficult to describe the trail for accessibility.
Requires regular maintenance for accessibility
All natural surface trails have to be maintained for erosion and drainage. A trail designed for maximum accessibility needs even more regular maintenance. Off-trail impacts
Natural trails tend to create more of an impact as people widen the path around puddles, create social trails, or otherwise go off-trail.