Accessible Trails

In terms of accessibility, there are five access characteristics assessed by Universal Trail Assessment Process that local communities might consider when developing and promoting their local trail systems to the public. A portion of outdoor recreation market is looking for a higher degree of accessibility, whether it is for a stroller, a wheelchair, other mobility issues, vision limitations, etc. By being accurately informed about accessibility issues before they start on the trail, the user is more likely to enjoy their outdoor recreation experience. That results in a satisfied visitor and more positive word-of-mouth advertising. The following outlines the UTAP process and provides links to more information.

Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP)

American Trails and other are helping promote and further the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP). The UTAP is a tool that land managers, agencies and individuals use to monitor, improve, and document any outdoor path of travel. Data collected during the assessment can also be provided to trail users for specific conditions, such as grade, tread width, features, obstacles, and trail surface.

One of its main benefits is that it can help to enhance trail access and use for a wide variety of users, including older adults, inexperienced users, families and people with disabilities.  It allows users in wheelchairs, pushing a stroller, or having vision or mobility problems to evaluate a trail’s appropriateness to their abilities before they get out on the trail.

Trail Access Information

Beneficial Designs began working in 1991 to develop a consistent and informative system for mapping and describing trails. Existing trail rating systems using subjective descriptions such as “difficult” do not give users the information they may need to safely attempt a hike. In a 1991 pilot study, Beneficial Designs identified trail characteristics that would allow hikers of all abilities to decide whether to undertake a particular trail and make necessary safety or equipment preparations beforehand. These characteristics include trail grade, cross slope, width, surface firmness, and the presence of obstacles. The dimensions and locations of obstacles such as tree roots, boulders or large rocks, water crossings, ruts, vertical obstructions, steps, dangerous plants, and drop-offs also are noted.

Summary of the UTAP Process (

The Five Access Characteristics– During a 1991 pilot study conducted in Yellowstone National Park and the Gallatin National Forest, Beneficial Designs identified five characteristics of a trail that greatly affect access. A system to collect and provide to the public information about grade, cross slope, surface type, obstacles, and trail width was developed into the Universal Assessment Process to help make trail systems more accessible to users.

Grade — The average grade between two designated stations along the trail is measured with a clinometer. These measurements are then used to compute the average grade for the entire trail. Short, steep sections are measured with an inclinometer and recorded as maximum grade sections. The inclinometer is 24 inches in length and thus measures the grade as it would be experienced over the course of a single stride, or by a stroller or wheelchair.

Information about the maximum grade sections found on a trail is used to add detailed information to maps. The average and maximum grades are displayed with the grade symbol to convey this pertinent information on TAI Strips and trailhead signage.

Objective information about the average and maximum grade is very useful to all user groups, especially mountain bike riders and persons with mobility limitations, including older persons and those that use canes, crutches, walkers or wheelchairs.

Cross Slope Cross — slope is measured at designated stations along the trail with a 24-inch inclinometer. These measurements are then used to compute the average cross slope for the entire trail. Similar to maximum grade, steep cross slope sections are measured with an inclinometer and recorded as maximum cross slope sections.

This information is used to add detailed information to maps. The average and maximum cross slopes are displayed with the cross slope symbol to convey this pertinent information on TAI Strips and trailhead signage.

Cross slope information is most useful to wheelchair users. Wheelchairs are very difficult to drive or maneuver on steep cross slopes.

Width — A tape measure is used to measure the width of the trail. The minimum tread width, or “beaten path,” is measured at each station and is used to calculate the average tread width. The minimum amount of usable passage space between stations, or minimum clearance width, is also measured.

Objective information about the width of the trail and the locations of the narrowest sections is critical for people who use mobility devices such as strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs. The average manual wheelchair has a wheelbase width of less than 28 inches. If a trail narrows to 26 inches, persons in a 28-inch wheelchair will know that they will not be able to venture past this point unless they are capable of transferring out of their chair and maneuvering their chair through this narrow location. If the width of the trail is disclosed, mobility device users will be able to determine before embarking on a trail exactly how far they will be able to hike and whether they will be able to reach their destination.

Surface — The type of surface found in between stations is recorded, as well as a description of its characteristics. Trail surface type is a major influence on the degree of access for all user groups.

Trail Length — The distance from the trailhead is continuously recorded to indicate the total length as well as the position of each measurement site relative to the start of the trail.

Links of Interest

The Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) –

Beneficial Designs –

Glossary –

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