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Pennsylvania Trail Design and Development Principles

Guidelines for Sustainable, Non-Motorized Trails


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Non-motorized trails can be planned, designed, constructed, and managed in ways that are both physically and environmentally sustainable while creating desirable and enjoyable experiences for trail users.

***The Pennsylvania Land Trust Asssociation did not develop this guide. The content is provided courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.***

PDF of the Guide

View a PDF of the entire 254-page guide here.

The trail assessment form and trail management objective worksheet described in the guide can be found here.

PDFs of Individual Chapters


Every five years, states across the nation must produce a State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan to remain eligible to receive federal Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF). By design, SCORP directs use of the LWCF.

The required elements of the plan include a statewide assessment of outdoor recreation needs and supplies, as well as an action plan for future steps to help enhance outdoor recreation.

Recommendation 3.2 of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Recreation Plan is to:

standardize trail planning guidelines, information, and funding decision criteria to build a sustainable statewide trail system.

SCORP further tasked the PA State Trails Advisory Committee with:

adopting statewide guidelines to encourage uniform trail construction, maintenance, and signage; developing a non-motorized trails standards and guidelines publication; and promoting best practices to ensure continued maintenance and future sustainability of trails and related facilities.

As a leader with a mission to “conserve and sustain Pennsylvania’s natural resources for future generations’ use and enjoyment,” and with representation on the PA State Trails Advisory Committee, DCNR took it upon itself to develop these guidelines as identified by SCORP’s Action Step B.

To accomplish such an undertaking, DCNR assembled an internal work group with representation from the Bureau of Facility, Design, and Construction, the Bureau of Forestry, the Bureau of Recreation and Conservation (BRC), and the Bureau of State Parks. Building on the past success in developing the Pennsylvania Trail Design Manual for Off Highway Recreational Vehicles , for motorized trails within Pennsylvania, DCNR used this process as a model for the development of these non-motorized trail guidelines.

During the initial phase of developing these guidelines, the Bureau of Forestry’s Recreation Section developed an outline for its content and a scope of work with the assistance of the Bureau of Facility Design and Construction. The Department’s internal work group then reviewed and commented on the table of contents and scope of work.

In order to remain responsive and transparent, key representatives from SCORP’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) – PA State Trails Action Committee and DCNR’s Recreational Advisory Committee (RAC) helped review and comment on the guidelines prior to having Pashek Associates, Ltd. design and compile these guidelines and produce this document.

DCNR’s internal work group met with Pashek to discuss project goals and outputs. Both parties recognized that a variety of good references already existed related to trail planning, design, construction, and operations and maintenance, ranging from guidelines and manuals produced by state agencies, such as Minnesota; to organizations like the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) and the Pennsylvania Equine Council (PEC); to Federal Agencies such as the United States Forest Service.

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the DCNR and Pashek Associates decided the best course of action involved synthesizing the technical material contained in existing guidelines and manuals, adding real-world input from both the vendors and internal work groups’ past experiences with trail development, and incorporating examples of best management practices that have occurred on PA trails, to create these guidelines for non-motorized trails in Pennsylvania.

In an effort to ensure that the needs, wants, and desires of our recreational stakeholders did not get lost during this process, the Department and Pashek reached out to stakeholders at a subsequent TAC meeting for comments on the design chapter relative to their particular form of recreation. At this time, the Department and Pashek also solicited photos of good trails, photos of best management practices, and identification of Pennsylvania trails that meet the unique needs of their particular user group.

Upon completion of each of the individual chapters, members from TAC and RAC had the opportunity to review and comment on these guidelines in order to remain responsive to our users.

In the end, the content of these guidelines remains just as important as the process used to develop it.

In this document, you will find a compilation of best practices and guidelines for the planning, design, construction, and management of your trail. Equally important, we present techniques for developing trails that create desirable and enjoyable experiences for your trail users. At the same time, these techniques employ sustainable design elements and construction practices that allow the trail to make use of natural systems so that the trail remains both physically and environmentally sustainable, which in turn leads to minimal maintenance and operational costs, making the trail economically sustainable over the long run.

Every trail project has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. A trail project needs specific evaluation of the site (which extends to the surrounding area beyond the trails physical corridor), trail alignment, potential resource impact(s), potential environmental opportunities, and existing physical and environmental constraints, in order to determine the design parameters of the trail. These unique challenges and opportunities may require that you stray from or refine these guidelines to take advantage of a particular opportunity, overcome a particular challenge or ensure the health and safety of your trail user.

The safety and well-being of visitors to your trail must always remain your primary concern. This guide does not provide a substitute for the professional expertise needed to make informed decisions regarding design, planning, construction, management, operation, and maintenance specific to your trail.

This comprehensive reference does, however, provide trail advocates, agencies, organizations, local officials, regional officials, and decision-makers with the basic knowledge needed to undertake a trail project with the assistance of professionals.