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The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Trails

The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Trails

Words Galeo Saintz – International Chair, World Trails Network

Survey report prepared by World Trails Network based on member survey completed in February 2021.


The impact of the pandemic on trails has, we know, affected funding, volunteer hours, projects, income, maintenance and so much more. . .


The COVID-19 pandemic has touched the lives of everyone on the planet. Many of us are still facing challenging circumstances as a result of the pandemic, be they personal, professional, health related, economic or other. 

In the initial lockdowns that took place in many countries trails too were closed. Yet the relative safe social distancing that trails allow together with the many mental and physical wellbeing benefits of spending time outdoors and in nature, saw trails being one of the first sectors in recreation opening up. Trails were seen as a low-risk space for individuals and families to easily access the outdoors close to home. 

The impact of the pandemic on trails has, we know, affected funding, volunteer hours, projects, income, maintenance and so much more. 

Global Survey by the World Trails Network 

The World Trails Network ran a snap-shot survey amongst its members in February 2021 to gather perspective of the overall impact of the pandemic on trails. With respondents from 10 different countries, including Scotland, Kenya, Spain, Australia, Columbia, Bhutan, USA and others, the insights revealed the following: 

25% of trails were unable to undertake regular maintenance which has resulted in degradation of the trail in places. 

75% of trails that responded to the survey saw a surge in new trail users during the various stages of lockdowns.

2% of trails remained closed during the last 12 months since March 2020. In some cases this was due to the trail being unable to ensure adequate social distancing measures. 

45% published protocols promoting safety on the trail specific to the pandemic.

200-500% increase in users on some trails in North America. Observation for some trails in a report by the Rails-to-Trails conservancy in the USA, highlighted increases of between 80%-200% in trail users. 

13% were down on income by more than 70%.

33% of trails experienced a surprising increase in trail revenue. 

6.7% of staff were released or put on furlough.

Comments highlighted how many trail agencies did ok during the last year, but associated services like restaurants and accommodation suffered immense losses. 

Some trails had increases in signage costs and patrolling costs, while others saw increased income specifically from camping.

Impact on Future Trail Plans

Getting back to normal is still an unfolding process for many trails around the world. 

26% of trails that responded to the survey indicated that their future plans have been constrained, and many acknowledging that their plans will take much longer to be achieved. 

45% of trails expect to be back to normal by July 2021, while only expecting international tourism to return some time in 2022. 

Mixed Blessings for Trails due to the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had some unexpected blessings, with many trails being able to further develop their domestic markets and increase support and engagement from local communities. 

The increased use of trails and the surge in new trail users was a mixed blessing, with overcrowding being the major negative.  

Some trails observed how their footpaths were too narrow to accommodate higher user numbers during peak visits, making suggestions to include widening footpaths or investing in more looping trail networks allowing for more one-directional trail flow of traffic.

A noted decrease in trail etiquette was observed where trail user numbers spiked. This was often due to new trail users who were not familiar with Leave No Trace principles, resulting in increases in litter, trash, dog poop and graffiti. 

A blessing has been the significant increase of families and small children on trails. This may well result in a new generation of trial users who champion the values and benefits for trails for decades to come. 

It was clear from many respondents that many of the long-term impacts are still to be fully felt. 

Importance of Data

Trails made use of automated people counters, which have multiple benefits as they: 

  • operate 24/7
  • collect data anonymously
  • can be permanently installed or installed only on a temporary basis

The data collected provides an objective basis for decision making and informs budgets and priorities when it comes to maintenance and usage. In those places where such counters were used reports of increase in trail users during the pandemic were between 35%–55%.

Trails, Recreation and Nature

A study completed by the University of British Columbia in late 2020 on the impact of recreational activity on wildlife during the pandemic, using motion activated cameras in the South Chilotin Mountains of British Columbia, identified that all wildlife tendered to avoid places that were recently visited by recreational users. Wildlife avoided mountain bikes and motorized vehicles significantly more than they did hikers and horseback riders. 

They noted that camera traps effectively monitor both wildlife and human trail use in remote regions. The researchers acknowledge that recreation is important, but that it is equally important to balance potential disruptions to ecosystems and the loss of species. 

 One of the challenges for trails has been how to manage increased user numbers while also mitigating any possible spread of the virus.

A survey by the trail running shoe market, estimated the industry to be valued at US$6.4 billion in 2020 and post the pandemic they expect it to grow significantly in the next 5 years to US$9.4 billion. This is an important insight for trails that support trail running regarding the expected growth in this user demographic. 

Globally we have seen how critical outdoor time and trail time is for mental health and physical wellbeing, however the increased demand on trails raises the question of how to limit impact on the trail infrastructure itself, on facilities, parking management and overflow into streets.

Financial Impact on Trails  in the United States

The American Trails Association conducted a USA focused survey with 257 respondents. Of specific interest from this survey was financial impacts on American trails. This survey was conducted in May 2020. 

60% of respondents had not reported any financial loss of contracts, while 20% had lost at least one contract. 42% of those surveyed lost US$50,000 or less while 24% lost over US$150,000.

Volunteer hours lost were significant with 80% of respondents reporting lost hours from volunteers. 

When it came to trail users input, the American Trails survey highlighted that trail users support trails remaining open, but would like to see regular safety measures in place to manage overcrowding. Trail users felt more education was needed, from signage along the trail to communication from managers explaining proper trail etiquette.

The USA saw over 3,865 trail related events cancelled as early as May 2020.

Looking Forward

As a global community we are now over a year into the pandemic and we have seen the valuable and essential role trails have played in many communities. We have seen the economic devastation that continues to be suffered by trail tourism in countries like Nepal in particular. Estimates all seem to indicate that we will only return to some form of normal international tourism by July 2022. That means trails globally need to find the resources and support needed to keep their infrastructure in place and maintained for another year. Some places will have this challenge with fewer volunteers hours, while also experiencing record numbers of trail users. New users may not have an appreciation of trail etiquette or norms and will add an extra burden to management. 

Our challenges as trail managers can mostly be addressed by increasing education, communication and championing local involvement for helping manage trails. Trail ambassadors or stewards are a growing response to helping trails to cope with increased numbers. 

The World Trails Network will be hosting an open dialogue on 1 April 2021 at 1pm UTCregister here, to discuss and learn from each other how to move forward with resilience after the pandemic begins to reside, allowing us to continue to share trails and to also remain healthy through what trails offer every one of us. 

Join us every month for our Trails Talk series, which takes place on the first Thursday of the month at 1pm UTC, for a stimulating discussion space hosted by the World Trails Network.

DATE: 1 April 2021
TIME: 1pm UTC
REGISTER: Sign up here

Please contact us should you wish to offer a dialogue or presentation as part of our on-going Trails Talk series.

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