The Psychology and Science Behind How Hiking Trails Are Created

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You can find a hiking trail or walking path almost anywhere in the United States, whether you're deep in the backcountry or a few yards from a parking lot. Most casual hikers probably give them little thought before lacing up their boots, but hiking trails don't just appear naturally. Sure, the popular pathways are created with shovels and sweat and grit, but that's not all: Modern trail construction actually involves a significant amount of anticipating what potential hikers will do and analyzing the area surrounding the route. The ultimate goal: "A useful trail must be easy to find, easy to travel, and convenient to use," according to the USDA Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook [PDF].

Before the first ground is even close to being broken, trail designers consider the trail-to-be's location and its potential users. Will visitors be hardcore hikers looking for a new challenge? Or is the trail to be set near an urban area, where hikers are considered more casual? Will more than just hikers need to use it? All of these factors will determine a trail's layout and design.

To figure out the right layout, trail designers consult protocols like the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines [PDF], which detail “Trail Management Objectives”—the intended users, desired difficulty level, and desired experience—that will determine the width, as well as the type of tread, of the trail. If the hikers are experienced, a narrow, single track path can probably handle that population. But more casual hikers—think friends out for a picnic, families, or dog walkers—are more likely to walk and talk side-by-side. If the trail is designated as multi-use—meaning it's open to multiple user groups, like bikers, equestrians, cross country skiing, etc.—that’s also central to planning.

Next comes the direction of the trail, which is determined in part by psychology. Studies have shown that humans naturally follow the path of least resistance. If a muddy puddle collects in the center of a trail, for example, a majority of hikers will maneuver around, rather than trudge through, the mud, without putting much thought into their decision. One person skirting the puddle doesn’t make much difference, but a steady stream of well-meaning outdoor enthusiasts will quickly expand the original trail. People might begin to form separate “social trails” created by rogue hikers simply stepping on previously undisturbed land. As trail designer Erik Mickelson shared with The Wall Street Journal, "You’ll lay it out, you think you’ve done it well, and then they make a shortcut and you’re like, ‘Damn, why didn’t I see that?’”

The result of these hikers' minor adjustments is the destruction of more habitat. So trail designers must consider natural obstacles like potential puddle spots, loose rocks, steep inclines, and water crossings before laying out a route. Often, they'll consult topographic maps, compasses, surveyors' instruments, and aerial photos to make the first broad strokes. The macro view allows designers to establish positive control points, like a lake or waterfall, and negative control points like a field of poison ivy.

If avoiding the problem completely isn't possible, builders work to minimize the impact on the environment. One common trick used to subtly contain the creation of social trails is the installation of “gargoyles.” [PDF] Often stone or a large rock (thus the name), but always made of natural materials, gargoyles divert hikers away from potential short cuts by creating an obstacle harder to cross than the path itself. For example, a collection of fallen trees and vines might be piled around the entrance of an old social trail to block the way. A few well placed rocks could also create a seemingly natural endpoint to a one way trail. If you hike, you’ve likely come across a gargoyle without noticing it.

Ultimately, hiking trails are destructive to the environments they provide access to. They tear through the land, disturbing the natural layout and leaving it much more vulnerable to erosion. The people who design and build trails put a lot of thought into constructing the most sustainable path possible. "There is a real art to trail layout," the authors of the USDA Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook write. "Some basics can be taught, but the person locating the trail must develop an eye for laying a trail out on the ground."

So next time you’re out for a hike, make sure to stick to the trail—there's more to it than you might think.

5 Apps to Help You Beat Airport Security Check Lines

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iStock.com/AzmanL

No one wants to be “that guy,” the one who has to ask everyone at the airport security checkpoint if they can jump the line because they’re running late. However, considering the current government shutdown and talks of a potential TSA worker strike, those long lines might be getting worse. If you’re planning to travel soon, it’s best to be prepared for any scenario. Here are five apps that help you keep tabs on airport security wait times.

1. App in the Air

In addition to helping you keep track of your flight schedule, baggage allowance, and travel expenses, this one-stop travel app will tell you how long a wait you can expect at the check-in, security, and customs lines.

2. MyTSA

The TSA’s own app, MyTSA, provides wait times based on crowdsourced data. Travelers can lend their fellow passengers a hand by reporting their wait time within the app’s Checkpoint Wait Time section. The app will also tell you how busy an airport is likely to be on any given day, based on historical data.

3. MiFlight

MiFlight uses crowdsourced information to tell you how long the wait is likely to be at security checkpoints in more than 150 airports. It also comes with terminal maps to help you find your way around.

4. KAYAK Flights, Hotels & Cars

The travel connoisseurs at KAYAK have condensed many of its services into one handy app. Its wait time estimates are based on information from the TSA as well as other passengers.

5. Airports by flightSpeak

Much like MiFlight, this app relies on crowdsourced data to create wait time estimates. It also compiles the tweets of over 150 airport accounts, providing an extra source of information regarding delays and other important updates.

9 Regional Pizza Toppings Worth a Try

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iStock

Some people can become so devoted to their favorite specific pizza toppings, that many online ordering apps allow you to preset your preferences with the expectation they’re never going to change.

Granted, pepperoni and mushroom with extra cheese never fails to satisfy. But in honor of National Pizza Week (which kicks off today), try ordering one of these regional specialty toppings that might totally change your pizza perspective.

1. Truffles // New York City

Fall is truffle season, and New York’s restaurants and pizzerias love to take full advantage of the fluffy fungi to add flavor. As supplies are shipped through the city's artery of eateries, you'll find several locations that add the shaved delicacy to pies. Yelp reviewers are fond of Song E Napule in the West Village.

2. Lobster //Boston


Karyn Christner via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s no great surprise that crustaceans who were occupying the coast just a few hours prior to being served are going to be a town specialty. But Boston does a great job of incorporating shellfish into their Italian-inspired fare, too: One of the most notable dishes is at Scampo inside the Liberty Hotel (and former jail), where chef Lydia Shire takes a thin crust pizza and douses it with heavy cream, garlic, and the meat of an entire two-pound lobster.

3. Provel Cheese // St. Louis, Missouri

If you think you’ve tried every possible cheese variety on your crust, you might have missed St. Louis’s proprietary variation: Provel, a highly-processed blend of Swiss, provolone, and cheddar. Gooey, waxy, and thick, it can be found at area chain Imo’s, which also doubles as the cheese’s distributor.

4. Crab // Baltimore, Maryland


jeffreyw via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While other area pie shops toss crab on their menu, no less an authority than Zagat declared Matthew's Pizza's crab deep dish pie to be well worth a road trip. It’s pizza so good that it helped fuel writer David Simon through a stint producing HBO’s The Wire. Simon once said "it’s unlike anything that calls itself pizza anywhere in the world."

5. Mashed potato // New Haven, Connecticut

New Haven was already renowned for its pizza before the proprietors of BAR decided to take the concept of comfort food to a new level. Their mashed potato pizza is topped with light, whipped spuds and bacon bits.

6. Salad // Los Angeles


David J via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It seems like a cliché: of course image-obsessed L.A. would spare calories by dousing their pizzas with lettuce. But looks can be deceiving. Grey Block Pizza in Santa Monica uses covers its dough with cheese, onion, and sour cream, which is then topped with a chopped salad, lemon-olive oil dressing, and a layer of fresh avocados. It’s thick, crunchy, and has no ability to spare your waistline.

7. Barbeque // Memphis, Tennessee

Barbeque chicken pizza is everywhere, but if you want it done right, head to Memphis and opt for the pork. Coletta’s—the city's oldest restaurant—takes a standard crust and drowns it in pulled pork and their signature barbeque sauce. The pies are so good that Elvis Presley kept a running tab he’d have Colonel Parker (his manager) pay off monthly. If you’re not local, they’ll be happy to ship one to you.

8. UNCOOKED, A.K.A. OHIO VALLEY STYLE // STEUBENVILLE, OHIO


Daniel Oines via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While some bloggers have compared this practice to topping pizza with a Lunchables box, there’s no denying it’s an intriguing take on preparing a pie. Pizzerias in Steubenville are fond of cooking the dough and then adding uncooked cheese and toppings post-mortem, allowing the heat from the crust to slowly melt the cheese or using a takeout box to effectively steam-cook the top.

9. Kangaroo //Sydney, Australia

The adventurous meat lover may want to venture to Sydney, where local establishments like The Australian Hotel offer pies topped with rich kangaroo meat. Slices of 'roo tenders are marinated in a pepper and onion olive sauce. If that's too tame for you, the Hotel can also serve up a Salt Water Crocodile slice.

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