Choosing the best hiking trail for your skill level is one of the most valuable skills a hiker can learn.
Inexperienced hikers can use this knowledge to avoid trails that would be too long or difficult for them, while more veteran hikers need to be aware of what trails wouldn’t be worth their time and wouldn’t give them a worthwhile journey.
That being said, this is an extremely hard task for any type of hiker, as there are all kinds of ways you can classify different hiking trails.
Throughout this article, we’ll go over the different types of hiking trails, define different route types, and help you understand what hiking trail colors mean.
Having a basic understanding of each type of trail should give you a huge level of assistance in choosing the best hiking trails, so make sure to keep an eye for any of these terms when planning an outdoor adventure.
- 1. Different Hiking Trail Types (8 Types)
- 2. Different Hiking Trail Route Types
- 3. What Do Hiking Trail Colors Mean?
- 4. Conclusion
1. Different Hiking Trail Types (8 Types)
The first way to sort hiking trails is through the quality of the path itself, which usually ranges from being man-made to fully natural.
There are about eight major types of hiking trails, which include combinations of natural and constructed paths, that have been defined by the Washington Trails Association and US National Park Service. Each trail will provide a different hiking experience.
The most common hiking trail is a developed trail, which is a minimalist, manmade path that’s open enough to not disrupt wildlife. This isn’t to say developed trails have heavy construction or pathways built in, but the grass is usually removed and certain features, like stairs or ramps, are installed for easier travel.
They’re not overly challenging, and they’ll have an extremely natural feel despite a lot of routine maintenance.
Boot paths are pretty indistinguishable from developed trails, as they’re nearly identical in terms of maintenance and style. They’re mostly natural, but boot paths can often feature more paved and artificial walkways instead of natural dirt or gravel.
This is because they’re designed to allow large amounts of people to travel across. Nonetheless, many hikers will likely consider these identical to developed trails for most hiking purposes.
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If your hiking trail is going over large amounts of water, marshes, or swamps, you’re probably going to come across a lot of boardwalks. These are wooden and sometimes raised platforms that usually aim to protect you from wildlife that may be beyond the railings, as well as avoid any disruption to the wildlife by the hikers.
They might seem less exciting for certain hikers, but their wheelchair accessibility and safe boundaries make them great for aspiring hikers, or those traveling with children.
Social trails aren’t technically hiking trails in the same sense as other paths. These are usually meant to refer to campsite pathways that lead campers to certain facilities like water sources, bathrooms, park ranger offices, or parking lots.
They’re primarily natural since so many hikers and campers stick to them, but they aren’t something you’ll technically be hiking on.
Nature trails are deeper in the wilderness and feature a large number of signs to showcase history and wildlife information. These are definitely more worthwhile for short and easy hikes.
They’re also similar to boardwalks in that they’re great for those traveling with children or those with less hiking experience.
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Multi-use trails represent one of the more constructed styles of hiking trail you’ll encounter, which is to say they’re for more than just foot hikers.
These trails can include paths that expect horses and even certain road vehicles to cross, meaning they can have many other travelers moving at different speeds.
They’re usually quite wide, but if you’re specifically wishing to travel by foot, it’s important to stay safe by checking if your path features a bikeway to separate other types of travelers.
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If you’re an extremely experienced hiker, you may want to attempt a route that’s significantly wilder. These are usually called backcountry trails, which involve no maintenance and don’t feature any maintained facilities.
These are far less common due to safety concerns. If you choose to try one of these trails, make sure you’re extremely well-stocked and experienced in both hiking and camping.
User-built Trails and Decommissioned Trails
These final two trails are technically separate, but they are worth binding together since they should rarely be traveled unless in exceptional circumstances.
User-built trails, which are usually made by an individual landowner, don’t have proper safety checks or environmental support. As a result, traveling along them can be dangerous.
Decommissioned trails, which can include closed and abandoned trails, are essentially shut down by forest services and land managers on account of all kinds of safety and wildlife reasons.
This means they don’t generally have sufficient maintenance to be worth traveling on, having been overgrown and reclaimed by nature. No matter your experience as a hiker, it’s not worth traveling on one of these trails.
2. Different Hiking Trail Route Types
Alongside the quality of the trail, an important way to divide various trails is by differentiating their shape.
Where they end and begin is an extremely important thing to know, especially if you travel to a given trail from a campsite or car.
Even if you don’t remember the specific names of these trail route types noted by AllTrails and HikesWithTykes, try to be aware of these three types of hiking trail routes to make sure you don’t get lost or travel too far.
What Are Loop Trails?
Loop trails are exactly what they sound like, as they are paths that have a circular direction that will lead you to your starting point if you follow them.
This doesn’t mean they’re literal circles, but it means that you won’t get lost so long as you follow the trail properly and don’t take unnecessary turns onto other pathways.
A similar style of trail is a lollipop trail, which has a circular shape with two parallel paths that bring you to a single starting point.
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What Are Point-to-Point Trails?
This style of trail is essentially a direct path that takes you to a specific endpoint. This can often be a dead end or campsite rather than a new starting point, so it’s important to make sure how far you’ll be traveling and how you’ll get home afterward.
Nonetheless, these are great and common for longer and more difficult hikes, especially when it comes to backpacking.
What Are Out-and-Back Trails?
These are quite similar to point-to-point trails but they have a single destination from which you have to turn back to the starting point.
They can offer a much wider number of branching paths to take. This can include central parks, waterfalls, monuments, and more. However, for the most part, you can find your way back to your starting point through various connected trails.
3. What Do Hiking Trail Colors Mean?
Hiking trail colors can be used to mark many things, with some maps and flags on trails usually just helping you know which trail you’re on.
That being said, they can commonly refer to the difficulty level of a trail, usually following the color-coding used by ski hills to explain the height and challenge of certain routes.
In this system, Green typically means the trail is meant for beginners, Blue represents the most common and intermediate difficulty, while Black signals the most treacherous trails.
That being said, different countries and parks can sometimes use different coloring systems, so make sure to check the legend of any maps that feature these colors. There are all kinds of ways to color-code various markers and maps.
Some maps printed in black and white can hide this color-coding, so unless you’re ready for a hike of any difficulty level, always double-check as many times as possible before committing yourself to a trail.
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There are still all kinds of other ways that different types of hiking trails can be classified and defined, but the aforementioned classifications should give you a general idea of what to look for with most trails.
With that in mind, you should absolutely be able to find a trail that fits what you’re looking for in a hike.
Whether that’s a simple walk through nature or a challenging hike through the mountains, knowing these terms and types of hiking trails should help you make a safe and clear hiking plan for you and your fellow hikers.
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