814-283-5388 info@penntrails.com

Frequently asked questions

Why do I need a trail designer?

When people think of trails, they often think of rugged, primitive paths through the woods. After all – anyone can clear some brush and cut in a trail, and many of the trails we all know and love were not designed by professionals. But these trails often have significant issues that make them less enjoyable, harder to maintain, and lead to negative environmental impacts like erosion. Just like a house or a road, proper planning and design ensure that the finished trail reflects your unique vision and goals, resulting in trails that are sustainable, enjoyable, and connect people with nature.

Trail construction is a craft and designing exceptional trails starts with specialized expertise and an understanding of how trails are built. Working with a trail design professional ensures that the trail will blend seamlessly into the environment and avoid costly surprises during the construction process.

What does a trail designer do?

We offer comprehensive guidance and support to help you navigate the design process from concept to construction. 

We start by listening carefully to your goals and objectives. What type of experience do you want people to have on your trails? What type of maintenance capacity do you have? What is your construction budget? Are there any important destinations on your site? Do your trails need to be accessible for users with disabilities? 

Once we understand your vision, we visit the site to gain a better understanding of the physical constraints. This may involve a detailed inventory of existing trails, or a field-design for a new trail. Either way – the site visit allows us to understand exactly what is happening on the ground and to gather the information you need to make strategic choices to realize your vision. This approach provides a detailed concept, which is so much more than a line on a map. We use cutting-edge GPS technology and best practices in our workflow so that information we gather during the site visit can be used to inform future phases and generate high-confidence cost estimates for construction and other next steps.

From there, we work with you through every step in the process necessary to realize your vision. In some cases the concept could be all you need to build the trail! Or it may involve working with consultants for engineering or environmental analysis, developing plan drawings to use as part of an RFP to bid out construction, applying for construction permits, or training your in-house staff or volunteers to empower them to do the work themselves. Whatever the solution, we tailor our approach to meet your unique needs

What kind of work does Penn Trails do?

Most of our work involves front and backcountry walking and hiking trails, and we specialize in Universal Access trail design. We even wrote a widely used manual on the topic!

We most often work on three types of projects:

  • Assessment of existing trails
  • Planning and design for new trails
  • Trail system master planning

Our services also include:

  • Community and stakeholder engagement
  • Trail Construction
  • Construction management
  • Trainings & workshops
Where does Penn Trails work?

We generally work in the mid-Atlantic region, especially Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland, but we have clients all over the United States. We are ready to work with you wherever you are!

Sarah is a licensed Landscape Architect in PA and can acquire a license in most other states if necessary. We also routinely consult with engineering or design firms on trail projects and love to collaborate with other professional trail design and construction companies.

All I need is a cost estimate for trail construction, can you do that?

Unfortunately, no. So many things impact the final cost of trail construction – from the complexity of the build itself, to the selected materials, to the logistics of accessing the site. It’s never as simple as a dollar per linear foot cost. Working with us through the design process ensures that construction runs smoothly and the end result reflects your needs. We are happy to create documentation to allow you to put the construction work out to bid, and we often collaborate with other professional trail builders or general contractors if you are just looking for some early-stage design guidance.

What are the steps in the design process?

We like to break down the process into these steps:

1. Vision & Goals: We work with you to understand what you want. What type of experience do you want people to have on your trails? What type of maintenance capacity do you have? What is your construction budget? Are there any important destinations on your site? Do your trails need to be accessible for users with disabilities? This can be as simple as a one-on-one conversation or it can involve a stakeholder or community engagement process. Understanding your vision is the first step in figuring out how to make it a reality.

2. Inventory & Analysis: Inventory is all about understanding the baseline that you are working with. What are the physical constraints? For existing trails this could be detailed GIS information capturing the location and condition of your trails. For new trails it could be an analysis of the existing site conditions like destinations, steep slopes, wetlands and waterways, and other characteristics.

3. Conceptual Design: This is where the trails start to take shape. With a vision for what you want and an understanding of what you have, the conceptual design lays the foundation for how to build it. Working in the field is integral to our approach, allowing us to get detailed enough with the layout and design of the trail to give you a reliable cost estimation for construction. Sometimes complex sites or designs require more analysis at this stage, like input from an engineer or a wetland delineation. The goal of this step is to minimize unknowns to provide a design that is reliable yet flexible, so that changes can be made if necessary.

4. Detail Design: This is the process of creating a detailed plan set for construction or permitting purposes. Not every trail project needs a plan set in order to be built.

Most of the time we create plan sets for one of three reasons:

  • Our client has grant funding that requires a sealed plan set
  • Our client intends to bid out the construction work by RFP
  • A plan set is required for permitting purposes.

In most cases a plan set is sealed by a landscape architect or engineer. Sarah is a licensed Landscape Architect in PA and can acquire a license in most other states if necessary. We also routinely work with engineering or design firms who review and seal our plans. 

5. Pre-Construction This step includes everything to get the project shovel ready. It might include: 

  • Developing a concrete work plan and schedule for construction
  • Final field staking and flagging of trail alignment and structures
  • Developing a more detailed cost estimate and material quantity information
  • Assistance drafting an RFP
  • Assistance with contractor selection
  • Permit applications and other approvals

6. Construction & Construction Administration: This is the exciting part! Breaking ground on a new trail or working to implement improvements. We can build it for you, we can work with your staff of volunteers to build it together, or we can observe construction by a contractor to ensure that it is in compliance with the plans.

7. Post-Construction & Maintenance: Maintenance is a major consideration on every trail project. Maintenance planning can help you understand how to allocate resources to ensure that your trail stays in great shape. Whether you need a written maintenance plan to guide your staff and volunteers, or training to empower them with the skills they need to take care of the trail – we can help.

Can you design a trail without visiting the site?

Drawing a line on a map is a great start, but the site visit is critical to the trail design process. The site visit allows us to make sure the trail blends seamlessly with the landscape and determine exactly where it should go. During a site visit, we are looking at topography, vegetation, trees, view points, sun and shade, wet areas, and a wide variety of other factors that inform trail placement. A few feet in placement can make a huge difference to the design, impacting the cost and experience of the final trail. We take the time to get to know the site and flag the trail in the field so that you can be confident in the plan for your trail.

Can you take on complex projects?

Yes, we have strong relationships with a network of designers, engineers, and contractors that allow us to build a team to suit your project. We’ve lead large regional master plans with numerous stakeholders and collaborative teams and coordinated the design of 100-foot suspension bridges. We love a challenge, and even if we haven’t done it before, you can trust us to ask the right questions and bring in the right people for the job

How do I get started working with you?

It’s easy! The first step is to reach out to us via our contact page. Tell us as much about your project as you can. We’ll schedule a free virtual consult to chat about your project and formulate a tailored plan based on your goals and budget. From there we’ll write a proposal for you to sign and then we can get started!

I have a question that isn't covered here...

Great! We’d love to talk to you. Send us a message via our contact page and let’s have a conversation.