Caring for and Healing the Earth

Wilderness Caretaking

Wilderness Trail Removal

by Walter Muma


Preliminary considerations

WHY close a trail?

There are many reasons why a trail would need to be closed, ranging from purely caretaking motives to purely practical:

  • The trail goes through an ecologically sensitive area that is being adversely affected by the use of the trail
  • Trail users are straying off-trail and causing damage
  • The trail is experiencing inappropriate use that is damaging the area, such as ATVs, bicycling, horseback riding, etc.
  • The trail gives access to an area that is best kept closed, for ecological/environmental reasons, safety reasons, or for privacy reasons (private property).
  • The trail enters private property
  • The trail has been re-routed to a new route, and you want to prevent use of the former trail.
  • The trail is too heavily used

WHO uses the trail?

Part of evaluating a trail closure is to consider WHO uses the trail.  It may be desireable to exclude only certain uses of the trail, for example, to close an ATV trail to all uses but walking/hiking.  Completely closing a trail down to all users will require different techniques depending on who the trail users are.  For example, it is a much different task to close a heavily used mountain bike trail than a lightly used walking trail.

One must also consider the wild animals that may be using the trail, and take this into consideration in choosing how and even whether to close the trail, although most animals can adapt and create or use another trail nearby.  Animals frequently use human-made or human-widened trails out of convenience.

  • walkers/hikers: backpackers (overnight), casual walkers, birders/naturalists, joggers, snowshoers
  • hunters
  • bicycles
  • skiers
  • horseback riders
  • ATVs
  • snowmobiles
  • ORVs (Off-road vehicles)
  • other vehicles

HOW FREQUENTLY is the trail used?

A trail that is frequently used will require much different techniques to close than a lightly used walking trail.  If the trail is not used very much, then hiding the access points is very effective.  If a trail is more heavily used, people will remember that the trail used to be there, and will be more likely to re-open it unless other measures are taken.

WHEN to close the trail

  • If the trail is heavily used, and you are closing it in a way that will make it appear as if it was never there, then you will need to do the work when no one is around.  This may mean at nighttime, or in the early morning or late evening.
  • The season, Part I:  If there is a season to the use of the trail, then it would most effective to close the trail prior to the seasonal use starting.  This is especially the case if you are trying to make the trail disappear without being obvious.   For example, you might consider closing a trail to bicycles or hikers early in the spring or late in the fall (or in winter if conditions allow it).  In other words, before the targeted users begin to use the trail again.  Their memories of the trail will be less clear in the case where they use the trail only once or twice per season.   They may then forget that the trail was ever there if it is no longer visible.   If you attempt to close the trail and hide it in the middle of the season when it is being used, then people will likely realise that it has been closed and find it, even though it may be hidden.  They will then quickly undo your hard work.
  • The season, Part II:  On the other hand, if you are closing a trail with methods that openly "declare" it to be closed, such as signage and gates, etc, then it may be better to close it when it is being used, so that the maximum attention is drawn to the closure.  The downside to this is that resentment can be created: "I was just on this trail last week!!  They can't close it to me!"

LAND OWNERSHIP: Is the trail located on Private property or Public land?

If you have official permission to close the trail, then if it is on

  • Private land, just simply employ whatever means necessary to close it.  One can also employ tresspass laws to enforce closure.
  • Public land, you will probably need to add education to your trail closing toolbox, since people may feel that they have a "right" to continue using the trail.

If you do not have official permission from the landowner to close a trail, then you will need to be very clandestine in your methods (ie, you won't want to get caught).


Whether to close a trail completely, or re-route the trail traffic onto a new trail, will depend on several factors:

  • Why you are closing the trail
  • Whether you still want trail users in the general area
  • Whether there is a suitable alternate route available


  • Preventative closure is to close the trail before it starts to receive inappropriate use. For example, you may wish to take steps to exclude mountain bikes (or close the trail completely) before those users "discover" the trail.  This is easier to do, since they haven't yet started to use the trail, or even know of its existence.
  • Post-damage closure is to close the trail after it or the area it runs through have already been adversely affected by particular uses of the trail.  This is much more difficult, since those trail users already know about the trail.

Closure Techniques

There are two main parts to closing a trail:

1. The trail entrance points
2. The actual linear trail between the entrance points


1. The trail entrance points

Trail Entrance Points

   Entrance points are any place that trail users can access (get on to) the trail.
   This is probably the most important aspect of closing a trail.  If trail users cannot get onto the trail, then they won't be able to use it.
   Two main categories of methods can be employed:

  • Hide the trail, so it appears that there was never a trail there.
  • Be obvious and close the entrance with gates, other blockages, and signs


2. The actual trail between the entrance points

This consists of two main aspects:

  • Rehabilitating the trail, to have it blend back into the surrounding natural landscape
  • Preventing use by making the former trail unusable, and by removing all traces of the trail.


Sorry, this article is not complete


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