Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails:
Synthesis of the Literature and State of the Practice

The following federal (U.S.) report was scanned by Scott McKown of the Marinfo BBS (415-383-9226; 8-N-1; Marin County, California). Post-scan editing was performed by Todd Ourston. HTML markup was performed by Jim Frost.

Table Of Contents

I. Synthesis of the Multiple-Use Trail Literature And Practice

A. Challenges Faced by Multiple-Use Trail Managers

The manager of any trail faces many challenges, usually within the context of too few staff and too little money. The underlying challenges faced by trail managers, however, remain the same regardless of the type of trail and whether it serves a single group or many different ones. Trail managers attempt to: 1) maintain user safety, 2) protect natural resources, and 3) provide high-quality user experiences. These issues can become more complex and more difficult to manage as the number and diversity of trail uses increase, but the challenges and the tools available to address them remain basically the same.

Maintaining User Safety

Unsafe situations or conditions caused by other trail users can keep visitors from achieving their desired trail experiences. This goal interference due to safety concerns is a common source of conflicts on trails. There are a number of threats to user safety that can occur on trails. Some of these include:

To help maintain user safety on trails, planners and managers can attempt to control or influence many factors, including the following:

Protecting Natural Resources

Resource impacts such as soil erosion, damaged vegetation, polluted water supplies, litter, vandalism, and many other indications of the presence of others can lead to feelings of crowding and conflict. These feelings can occur even when there is no actual contact among different trail users. A hiker's enjoyment might be reduced by seeing All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) tracks near a wilderness boundary, for example, or an equestrian user might be upset to see many cars with bike racks at the trailhead before beginning a ride.

Minimizing environmental impacts is a high priority for resource and recreation managers. Natural resources include soils, wildlife, vegetation, water, and air quality. Historic, cultural, and archaeological resources are also vulnerable to impacts caused by trail use. A considerable amount of trail manager time and resources is spent attempting to minimize impacts affecting each of these resources. All trail use, regardless of travel mode, impacts natural resources. Research indicates that the following factors influence the amount of resource damage caused by trail use:

There is a large body of research regarding the natural resource impacts of outdoor recreation. Much of this research is reviewed in Visitor Impact Management.. A Review of Researcb, by Kuss, Graefe, and Vaske (1990). It provides an excellent summary and synthesis of the findings of more than 230 articles related to the vegetation and soil impacts of recreation, 190 related to water resources impacts, and another 100 related to impacts on wildlife. Many of these deal directly or indirectly with trail use. Another excellent reference is a bibliography prepared by the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (date unknown). It identifies more than 750 studies relating to off-highway vehicles and their use. A large number of these relate to resource impacts and resource protection.

Based on their thorough review of the literature, Kuss et al. (1990) conclude that evaluations of impacts should be made on a site-specific or area-specific basis due to the many interrelated factors affecting them. They do, however, offer the following generalizations regarding the impacts of various trail uses: backpacking causes more damage than hiking without a pack; hiking and backpacking cause greater changes to trails than walking; horses and packstock cause greater damage than hiking; trail biking causes more damage than hiking; and track-driven vehicles cause more damage than wheel-driven vehicles. They note, however, that site-specific factors can lead to exceptions to these generalizations. In a recent study of erosion damage caused by trail use, Seney (1991) concluded that horses produced more erosion than hikers, off-road bicycles, or motorcycles and that wet trails were more susceptible to damage than dry trails.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish trail damage caused by trail users from damage caused by nonusers. For example, equestrian trail use is often blamed for damage caused by livestock grazing on public lands. Damage that appears to have been caused by motorized trail users may have been caused by trail crews accessing work sites or by miners traveling to and from their claims. In many cases, the initial construction of the trail itself causes greater resource impact than subsequent trail use (Keller 1990).

One aspect of protecting natural resources that is particularly relevant to multiple-use trail management is the relationship between amount of use and levels of natural resource impact. Numerous studies of the effects of camping indicate that the greatest environmental impact occurs with low use (see review by Kuss et al. 1990). In other words, the initial users of lightly used areas cause the most damage to soils and vegetation. The rate of degradation generally decreases after a certain amount of damage has been done. This has important implications for the issue of whether to concentrate or disperse trail use. In trail settings where this same relationship holds, dispersing trail use to relatively unused trails may greatly increase environmental impacts.

Providing High-Quality User Experiences

Researchers believe that people who participate in outdoor recreation activities do so because they hope to gain certain rewards or outcomes (Vroom 1964; Driver and Tocher 1970). These outcomes consist of a wide variety of experiences such as solitude, challenge, being with friends or family, testing skills, experiencing nature, and others (Driver and Knopf 1977; Driver and Brown 1978; Tinsley and Kass 1978). What experiences are desired vary a great deal across activities, among people participating in the same activity, and even within the same individual on different outings (Schreyer and Roggenbuck 1978; Graefe, Ditton, Roggenbuck, and Schreyer 1981). In fact, recreationists are often seeking to satisfy multiple desires in a single outing (Hendee 1974, Driver and Toeher 1970). So recreation behavior is understood to be goal-directed and undertaken to satisfy desires for particular experiences. The quality of these experiences is often measured in terms of users' overall satisfaction (Williams 1988).

In a perfect world, land managers could provide nearby, high-quality opportunities for every type of experience trail users might possibly seek. This is rarely possible, of course. Limited budgets, limited amounts of land, and the sheer number of users with different preferences make it impossible to perfectly satisfy all the people all the time. Flexibility, compromise, and common courtesy on the parts of all users are necessary to maximize the opportunities for high-quality experiences for everyone.

Threats to Quality Experiences

Past research has consistently found that outdoor recreationists are well satisfied with their recreation experiences (Kuss et al. 1990, 191). However, recreation experiences are affected by many subjective as well as situational factors: the conditions encountered at an area, users' expectations, any discrepancies between what users expect and what they actually find or experience (Lawler 1973; Peterson 1974; Schreyer and Roggenbuck 1978; Todd and Graefe 1989), social and personal norms (shared "rules" or "standards" of good or bad, right or wrong, etc.), use levels (Kuss et al. 1990), and "social interference" (Brehm 1966; Proshansky, Ittelson and Rivlin 1970). For a complete review of research related to the recreation experience, see Kuss, Graefe, and Vaske (1990). Two of the most serious threats to quality trail experiences on multiple-use trails are discussed in more detail below.

Crowding is more than the objective density of users in a particular area. It is a subjective judgment on the part of an individual that there are too many other people there. In other words, it is a negative evaluation of a particular density of people in an area (Stokols 1972; Rapoport 1975; Kuss et al. 1990). As such, crowding can reduce the quality of recreation experiences. Level of use does appear to affect feelings of crowding, but in most cases not directly. Levels of perceived crowding vary with such mediating factors as:

See Kuss et al. (1990) for an excellent review and synthesis of research related to crowding. Crowding on trails can be the result of others participating in the same trail activity or different activities. Crowding can be related to feelings of conflict on trails.

The verb "share" is generally defined as "to distribute parts of something among others; to retain one part of something and give the rest or part of the rest to another or others; to take or use a part of something with someone or something; to do or experience something with others; to join with others in doing or experiencing something." On the other hand, the verb "conflict" is defined as "to be at variance, clash, to struggle, or contend" (New Webster's Dictionary 1992). Conflict can cause serious impacts to recreation experiences, to the point of causing some users to end their use and be displaced by other pre-emptive users (Schreyer 1979).

According to recreation researchers, conflict is a special type of dissatisfaction. It is generally defined as "goal interference attributed to another's behavior" (Jacob and Schreyer 1980, 369; Jacob 1977). For example, when a trail user fails to achieve the experiences desired from the trip and determines that it is due to someone else's behavior, conflict results and satisfaction suffers. As defined by Jacob and Schreyer (1980), conflict is not the same thing as competition for scarce resources. If people attribute not getting a parking place at a trailhead to their own lack of planning, there is no conflict. If they blame the lack of parking places on horseback riders who they feel have parked their trucks and trailers inconsiderately (whether or not this is truly the case), conflict will likely result. In both cases, users did not achieve their goals, and dissatisfaction resulted, but only one was due to conflict as defined here.

As with crowding, conflict is not an objective state but depends on individual interpretations of past, present, and future contacts with others. Jacob and Schreyer (1980, 370) theorize that there are four classes of factors that produce conflict in outdoor recreation:

Activity Style
The various personal meanings attached to an activity. Intensity of participation, status, range of experience, and definitions of quality (e.g., experts and novices may not mix well).
Resource Specificity
The significance attached to using a specific recreation resource for a given recreation experience (e.g., someone running her favorite trail near where she grew up along Lake Tahoe will not appreciate seeing a tourist demonstrate a lack of respect for her "special place" by littering).
Mode of Experience
The varying expectations of how the natural environment will be perceived (e.g., bird watchers who are "focused" on the natural environment will not mix well with a group of ATV riders seeking speed and thrills who are "unfocused" on the environment).
Tolerance for Lifestyle Diversity
The tendency to accept or reject lifestyles different from one's own (e.g., some trail users "just don't like" people who do not share their values, priorities, trail activities, etc.).
These four factors have been redefined by Watson, Niccolucci, and Williams (in press) as "specialization level," "definition of place," "focus of trip/expectations," and "lifestyle tolerance." Their research suggests that these factors may be better at predicting predispositions toward conflict than predicting actual goal interference.

Notice that none of the above factors thought to produce (or predispose some to) conflict are necessarily related to the particular activity a trail user might be engaged in at the time. Also note that no actual contact need occur for conflict to be felt.

Taking an approach similar to that of Jacob and Schreyer (1980), Owens (1985) attempts to differentiate more clearly between "conflict" and "crowding" from a goal-oriented social and psychological perspective. He defines "recreational conflict" as "a negative experience occurring when competition for shared resources prevents expected benefits of participation from accruing to an individual or group." He defines "social and psychological conflict" as "competition for shared resources amongst individuals or groups whose leisure behavior is mutually exclusive or has contrary objectives and as existing whenever two or more individuals or groups perceive the (recreational) utility of particular (countryside) resources in terms of opposing values or goals." In other words, social interrelationships and differences among users are more the root problem than the physical influences they might have on one another. Owens develops this concept by introducing two propositions:

  1. "Conflict is a process of social interaction which is operationalized with the general motivational goal of eliminating environmental instability and restoring perceived equilibrium" (p. 251). According to Owens, aII behavior settings have normative "rules." When competing groups view a setting and its purpose in different ways and/or there is inappropriate behavior, these rules begin to break down. In such cases people will employ various coping mechanisms (behavioral, cognitive, or affective) to try to eliminate the source of stress and try to return things to a more desirable state. Conflict occurs when these coping strategies are inadequate, unsuccessful, or unavailable in an acceptable period of time and alternatives seem to be unavailable (i.e., if a person's coping strategies don't work, his feelings of crowding can become feelings of conflict).
  2. "Conflict is a cumulative process of social interaction which once established becomes an enduring psychological state guiding the behavior of individuals and/or groups" (p. 252). Owens proposed that this is how conflict can be distinguished from crowding. Crowding is an immediate reaction to present conditions and thus transient. Conflict is more persistent and enduring, lasting beyond a particular outing. Owens sees conflict itself as an experience which can be viewed as a continuum from "simmering discontent and frustration" to confrontation. It may or may not alter actual behavior. If overt confrontation appears, much of thc damage of conflict may have already occurred.
Kuss et al. (1990) noted three types of coping strategies, all of which change the character of the experience for the user forced to cope:

In studies of recreationists on trails, rivers, and lakes, several themes and patterns have been found to relate to conflict. These themes tend to support the four theoretical propositions proposed by Jacob and Schreyer (1980) that were discussed above. These themes are:

Level of Technology
Participants in activities that use different levels of technology often experience conflict with one another. Examples include cross-country skiers and snowmobilers, hikers and motorcyclists, canoe paddlers and motor boaters, and nonmotorized raft users and motorized raft users (Lucas 1964; Knopp and Tyger 1973; Devall and Harry 1981; Adelman, Heberlein, and Bonnicksen 1982; Noe, Hull, and Wellman 1982; Noe, Wellman, and Buhyoff 1982; Bury, Holland, and McEwen 1983; Gramann and Burge 1981).
Conflict as Asymmetrical
Many times, feelings of conflict are one-way. For example, crosscountry skiers dislike encountering snowmobilers, but snowmobilers are not as unhappy about encountering cross-country skiers. This type of one-way conflict has been found between many different activities (Stankey 1973; Schreyer and Nielsen 1978; Devall and Harry 1981; Jackson and Wong 1982; Adelman, Heberlein and Bonnicksen 1982). In general, trail users enjoy meeting their own kind, but dislike uses that are faster and more mechanized than their own (McCay and Moeller 1976; Goldbloom 1992).
Attitudes Toward and Perceptions of the Environment
Users in conflict have been found to have different attitudes toward the environment (Knopp and Tyger 1973; Saremba and Gill 1991) and may perceive the environment differently. Perceptions may be influenced by when the user first visited the area, with long-time and frequent visitors being most sensitive to contacts with others (Nielsen, Shelby and Haas 1977; Schreyer, Lime and Williams 1984). People who view the environment as an integral part of the experience are more susceptible to conflict than those who see the environment as just a setting for their activity. (Low Impact Mountain Bicyclists of Missoula (LIMB), for example, encourages riders "to use mountain bikes to enjoy the environment, rather than use the environment to enjoy mountain bikes" (Sprung 1990, 29). Some experiences are dependent upon very specific environments. Likewise, people can become attached to particular settings (Williams and Roggenbuck 1989; Moore and Graefe 1994). Some mountain bikers feel hikers are too possessive toward trails (Hollenhorst, Schuett and Olson 1993).
Others as Different
Users experiencing conflict perceive others to be different from themselves in terms of background, lifestyle, feelings about wilderness, activities, etc. (Adelman, Heberlein and Bonnicksen 1982). However, trail-user groups are sometimes more similar than they believe (Watson, Williams and Daigle 1991). Method of travel and group size are the most visible cues users can evaluate to determine their similarity to other groups (Kuss et al. 1990). One negative contact can lead some sensitive users to conclude that "all of them are rude."
Violation of Norms
Individuals and groups with different standards of behavior (social and individual norms that define what behavior is appropriate) often conflict with one another (Jacob and Schreyer 1980; Vaske, Fedler and Graefe 1986). Norms of behavior are established through social interaction and refined through an ongoing process. These norms influence how people behave and how they expect others to behave. For example, many fishermen resent canoeists who shout and yell (Driver and Bassett 1975). They apparently hold a norm that boisterous behavior is inappropriate in those situations. The strength of the norm violated (as well as the importance of the goal interfered with) will influence the magnitude of the conflict. Norms appear to be more useIFul than goals for predicting conflict (e.g., a hiker and a motorcyclist may share the same goals of experiencing nature and escaping from the city but may cause conflict for one another).
Level of Tolerance
Level of tolerance for others is related to level of conflict (Jacob and Schreyer 1980; Ivy, Steward and Lue 1992). Levels of tolerance vary widely among individuals depending upon personal norms and situational factors such as group size, where the contact occurs, when the user first visited the area, motivations, and frequency of use (Vaske et al. 1986; Shelby and Heberlein 1986). Levels of tolerance are lowest in "wilderness" areas. Assumed images of activities and stereotyping influence tolerance as well (White and Schreyer 1981; Williams 1993). This is consistent with the belief among members of LIMB that Missoula's "live and let live" attitude contributed to their success in minimizing user conflicts on area trails.
Environmental Dominance
Users who differ in terms of the importance they give to "conquering" the environment are likely to conflict. This is related to the importance of autonomy, control, challenge, and risk-taking goals (Bury, Holland and McEwen 1983).
Another theme related to trail conflict often expressed by trail managers and trail users is the resentment toward newcomers that is often expressed by traditional trail users. This is similar to the "last settler syndrome" (Nielsen, Shelby and Haas 1977) where visitors want a particular place to remain the way is was when they first arrived. The first or traditional users want to be the last ones allowed access. Mountain bikers commonly complain that hikers want to unfairly exclude them from backcountry areas just because bicycle use is new and untraditional. This "last settler syndrome" is particularly acute in areas where one user group has built and/or maintained trails which are later invaded by other types of uses. Managers and new users must be sensitive to the understandable ownership the traditional users feel toward trails they have built and care for. A similar sense of ownership and tradition makes it more difficult to close trails to a particular use once that use is established. The animosity felt by some long-time mountain bikers toward managers of the Mt. Tamalpias area (Marin County, north of San Francisco) is likely magnified by the fact that in the early days of mountain biking, all trails there were open to mountain biking. Single-track trails were subsequently closed to mountain bike use.

In addition to the general causes of conflict summarized above, it is instructive to look at specific factors that lead to feelings of conflict on trails. Sources of conflict can be either willful or innocent. Some users are irresponsible and unfriendly. They behave in ways they know will annoy others or damage resources. Many, however, are simply not aware of how they should behave on trails. Examples of common sources of conflict among trail users reported by trail managers and users include noise, speed, smell of exhaust, surprise, lack of courtesy, trail damage (e.g., erosion, tracks, skid marks, ctc.), snow track damage, different (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations, uncontrolled dogs, horse manure, fouled water sources, littering, animal tracks in snow, wild behavior, and lack of respect for others. Flink and Searns (1993) believe conflict results from an increase in demand for trail resources, increased use of existing limited trails, poor management, underdesigned facilities, lack of user etiquette, and disregard for the varying abilities of trail users (p. 194).

A study of readers of Backpacker magazine found that over two-thirds felt the use of mountain bikes on trails was objectionable (Viehman 1990). Startling other trail users, running others off the trail, being faster and more mechanized, damaging the resources, causing erosion, frightening wildlife, and "just being there" were the biggest concerns (Kulla 1991; Chavez, Winter and Baas 1993). Keller (1990) notes that brightly colored clothes, a high-tech look, and the perception of a technological invasion can all be sources of conflict felt by others toward mountain bikers.

Just as some physical damage to trails is not caused by trail users, some conflicts on trails are not due to other trail users at all. Aircraft noise from sightseeing planes and helicopters, for example, is a major irritant to trail users in Hawaii. Noise and smells from nearby roads or developments can have as much or more impact on trail experiences than conflicts with other users.

So, following this collection of items that can cause conflict on trails, the relevant question is, how big a problem is trail conflict? Certainly, conflict is a major problem on some multi-use trails (Flink and Searns 1993). As mentioned earlier, however, past research has consistently found that outdoor recreationists are well satisfied with their recreation experiences (Kuss et al. 1990, 191). This has been found in a variety of settings, including trails. Because the conflict studies noted above were designed to examine recreational conflict, many of them focused on areas where visible conflicts were occurring. These studies do not give a clear picture of the scope of conflict that might be occurring on trails in general. Conflicts are certainly a serious threat to satisfaction, but serious conflicts may not be the norm.

Several studies of multiple-use rail-trails have included questions related to user conflicts. In a survey of rail-trail managers conducted by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy in 1991, over half of the 83 managers responding reported no conflicts or "few if any" conflicts on their trails. The most common type of conflicts reported were between hikers and bikers, followed by conflicts between equestrians and bikers. Conflicts involving in-line skaters, cross-country skiers, and dogs were also reported. A study of three rail-trails in Iowa, Florida, and California found that users reported little problem with conflict on average. More than 2,000 users were asked to rate "conflicts with other activities" and "reckless behavior of trail users" on a 7-point scale where "1" represented "not a problem" and "7" represented "a major problem." The mean response was less than 2 on each trail for "conflicts with other activities" and ranged from 1.5 to 2.8 for "reckless behavior of trail users" (Moore, Graefe, Gitelson and Porter 1992, III-26). The same study included an open-ended question that asked "What things did you like least about the trail?" The top three responses were recorded for each user. Of a total of 2,128 comments, 316 (14.8 percent) related to the behavior of other users. The most common of these (239) were about bicyclists being inconsiderate, riding two-abreast, passing with no warning, going too fast, and other unspecified concerns about bikers. An additional 72 (3.4 percent) identified crowding as the thing liked least. Similar results were found in a study of trail users on 19 multi-purpose pedestrian and bike trails in Illinois (Gobster 1990, 32). "Use problems" (crowding, conflict, and reckless users) received mean ratings of less than 2 on a 5-point scale where "1" represented "not a problem" and "5" represented a "major problem."

A recent National Park Service study of backcountry recreation management provided information related to conflicts on backcountry trails in 93 national parks (Marion, Roggenbuck and Manning 1993). Nine percent of the parks reported that conflicts between horses and hikers were a problem in many or most backcountry areas. Three percent of the parks reported that conflicts between hikers and mountain bikers were a problem in many or most areas. Day users (apparently due to their large numbers), overnight users, horse users, and mountain bikers were all felt to cause visitor conflicts. Day users, overnight users, OHV/ATV users, horse users, and mountain bikers were also reported to create problems through inconsiderate behavior.

Conflicts among trail users are a serious problem in some areas. On Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California, for example, "renegade" mountain bikers have allegedly built illegal trails and engaged in vandalism and sabotage to attempt to gain access to single-track trails closed to them. However, there are also areas where users are successfully (and apparently happily) sharing trails. Unfortunately, the existing research does not offer much insight into how widespread a problem recreational conflict is on trails. Many of the managers we talked to felt conflict was a problem. Several also volunteered that they expected conflicts to increase unless they could do something about the problem soon.


Managers of multiple-use trails face many interrelated challenges. Most important, they must attempt to keep users safe, minimize negative impacts to natural resources, and provide for high-quality visitor experiences. All of these challenges involve managing various types of impacts caused by recreational use. Conflicts among trail users are one of these impacts. After extensively reviewing the recreation literature, Kuss et al. (1990) developed five principles related to the impacts caused by outdoor recreation (pp. 5, 187-188). Although developed to explain the environmental and social impacts of outdoor recreation in general, they apply equally well to the impacts (including conflict) that challenge managers of multiple-use trails in particular. They consider contacts between users and the damage users cause to the environment as "first-order" social impacts (p. 189). They feel these impacts interact to cause combinations of perceived crowding, dissatisfaction, perceived resource impacts, as well as conflicts between users. Their principles can be summarized as follows:

Conflicts on trails can be a serious, complex challenge, but one that must be addressed if users are to have safe, satisfying experiences. The next section details the tools available to address the challenge of conflict on multiple-use trails.

B. Ways to Avoid or Minimize Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails

As noted earlier, most participants are satisfied with their outdoor recreation experiences. The challenges discussed in the preceding section, however, can lead to severe consequences if not managed properly. In addition, the nature of the recreation experience limits the manager's options in addressing the potential negative impacts of trail use. Freedom, and freedom of choice in particular, are essential for high-quality outdoor recreation on and off trails. Multiple-use trail managers must be sensitive to this fact and avoid restriction and manipulation whenever possible. The "minimum tool role" proposed by Hendee, Stankey, and Lucas (1990) for wilderness management is an appropriate guideline for the management of most multiple-use trails as well. They advocate using the least intrusive measures (whether physical or managerial) that will still achieve area objectives. This sensitivity is critical to maintaining the freedom and naturalness so important to most trail-based recreation.

A wide variety of possible responses to addressing conflict problems exists. For example, rail-trail managers responding to a survey by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy listed the following as techniques they use to overcome conflict-related problems on their trails (listed from most to least frequently reported):

In a recent National Park Service study of backcountry recreation management in 93 national parks (Marion et al. 1993), managers listed the following as actions they had taken to reduce visitor crowding and conflict in backcountry areas (the numbers following each indicate the percent of managers reporting that they used that technique):

The following section discusses these and other possible responses managers can take when faced with one or more of the safety, resource protection, or user experience challenges noted in the previous section. These responses are grouped into two broad categories: physical responses and management responses. Management responses are further broken down into three types: information and education, user involvement, and regulations and enforcement. There is considerable overlap between the physical and management responses as well as among the three types of management responses. An effective program will include many different tools.

Strategies will differ depending upon whether the trail is an existing one or one planned for new construction. There is no reason to wait for any problem to occur before taking steps to address it. This is especially true of conflict. It is always better to try to avoid conflict before it becomes a challenge rather than try to reduce it after it is entrenched. Responses may also be affected by factors outside the manager's immediate control. Occasionally sharing trails is not an option for managers or users such as when a private or corporate landowner agrees to allow only certain activities (e.g., snowmobile use). These situations may occur as conditions of a lease, easement, or other agreement.

A more common situation that can limit managers' options is overall agency policy. See Keller (1990) for an excellent discussion of the two general policy approaches that guide decisions on mountain bike access (and access for other trail activities) to public lands. Keller identifies a "trails open unless declared closed" policy and a "trails closed unless declared open" policy. Although policies can be changed, they form the context within which managers and users must address conflict and promote cooperation.

Note that although many of the following approaches are directed toward trail users, most require action on the part of trail managers as well as users. Some strategies will require training for the managers, staff, and volunteers who implement them. Conflict resolution training for individuals facilitating initial meetings of different user groups would be very helpful, for example. As pointed out by Keller (1990) the land manager's approach to the issue can be every bit as important as the proposal itself (p. 24).

Physical Responses

Proper trail design, layout, and maintenance (or redesign and reconstruction when necessary) are essential for user safety and resource protection and are important contributors to user satisfaction as well. Proper design includes more than aesthetics and minimizing resource impacts. It can be used to encourage trail users to behave in more appropriate ways. Influencing proper behavior through the subtleties of design is preferable and often more effective than attempting to do so after the fact through education programs or regulations. For example, it is easier and more effective to prevent shortcutting of switchbacks by designing climbing turns in rugged, well-screened areas than by posting educational signs at poorly designed switchbacks.

Different users often have very different needs and desires in terms of physical trail attributes such as surface, slope, length, safe sight distances, amenities, etc. Various standards and recommendations are available for different user groups (see American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials 1991; USDA Forest Service 1991; Flink and Searns 1993; Ryan 1993; Seier 1990). These needs and preferences are far from universal even within one user group, however. Walkers, joggers, runners, hikers, people walking dogs, and people pushing strollers are all pedestrians, for example, but they do not have the same needs and desires in terms of physical trail attributes or trail settings. The best physical responses will always be dictated by specific local conditions. Managers and planners should identify the present and likely future trail users and determine the needs and desires of those users. Users of different ages, motivations, activity preferences, etc., will have different physical trail needs and preferences. Ryan (1993), for example, suggests hosting a "community design workshop" for proposed rail-trails to identify these needs and preferences.

Options. Here is a partial list (in no particular order) of physical design, layout, and maintenance alternatives that can help avoid or minimize trail conflicts:

Flink and Searns (1993) advocate designing trails with specific users in mind to avoid conflict and unsafe trail conditions. They propose the following six alternative layouts for land-based trails (pp. 208-210).

McCoy and Stoner (1992) feel that providing separate trails for different users groups has many drawbacks, however. They point out that it can be expensive, cause resentment, be difficult to enforce, and limit opportunities for communication and cooperation among users. When separate trails are necessary, they suggest encouraging rather than requiring single use and explaining the reasons for this strategy at trailheads. This approach combines physical design with information and education efforts. Advocates of multiple-use trails see providing separate trails as a last resort. They feel positive interactions among users on the trail is the best way to foster communication, understanding, and a strong, cooperative trail community.

Management Responses

Once a trail is physically in place, managers can still have a tremendous influence on user safety, natural resource protection, and user experiences. Management actions can take many forms, from doing nothing to closing areas. The alternatives can be grouped into three categories: information and education, user involvement, and regulations and enforcement. Considerable overlap exists among these three groups, of course. This is especially true of information/education and user involvement (e.g., a volunteer trail patrol provides information and educates users, involves users in taking responsibility for their own trails and use, and may well assist in communicating and enforcing regulations and preventing resource damage). Information and education, user involvement, and regulations and enforcement are discussed separately below.

Information and Education

Uninformed, unintentional, unskilled, and careless actions by users are often cited as the causes of many problems in outdoor recreation areas (Roggenbuck 1992; Roggenbuck and Ham 1986). Many managers feel that this is particularly true of trail-related problems. If this is true, educating the public and persuading them to act responsibly should be effective strategies for improving behavior on trails. According to McCoy and Stoner (1992), "effective communication is the best way to prevent user dissatisfaction and conflict." Ryan (1993) advocates education as the key to solving problems associated with mountain bike use and for promoting trail-user etiquette. Many others echo the importance of trail-user education (Merriman 1988). Whether the behavior being promoted is called trail etiquette, trail ethics, trail courtesy, or trail sharing, information and education efforts are almost universally supported as an essential strategy for providing opportunities for high-quality recreation experiences. Influencing human behavior through information and education is an attractive alternative to controlling or coercing compliance through more heavy-handed techniques that can impact recreation experiences (Manfredo 1992; Lucas 1981). This preference is strongly held by recreationists (Roggenbuck and Ham 1986) and seems to be shared by most managers. Like other good things, however, even information and education can be overdone. Lucas (1981) cautions managers against providing too much information, especially in backcountry settings where users may be seeking discovery and exploration.

Considerable literature exists on the use of information and education in recreation settings. An excellent reference is Influencing Human Behavior: Theory and Applications in Recreation, Tourism, and Natural Resources Management, edited by Manfredo (1992). Particularly relevant is the chapter by Roggenbuck entitled, "Persuasion to Reduce Resource Impacts and Visitor Conflicts." He notes that a user's motive for engaging in undesirable behavior will influence how effective persuasion will be in changing the behavior. In terms of the five types of undesirable visitor actions identified by Hendee et al. (1990), Roggenbuck proposes that persuasive communication has low potential for influencing illegal or unavoidable (e.g., human waste) acts, but has very high potential for changing uninformed acts. Similarly, persuasion has moderate potential to influence careless acts (e.g., littering) and high potential of modifying unskilled actions. Gramann and Vander Stoep (1987) categorize violations of norms in parks into six types. Roggenbuck places them in the following order in terms of how effective persuasive communication would be in altering each. From the least likely to be influenced by persuasion to the most likely, they are: status-conforming (i.e., do it to be "in" with the group), willful, releasor-cue (e.g., seeing others do it), responsibility-denial, unintentional, and uninformed.

Roggenbuck (1992) identifies three distinct conceptual routes to persuasion and learning. Each has relevance to designing effective information and education efforts to promote trail sharing.

The following information and education advice offered by Roggenbuck and Ham (1986) applies well to any such efforts to reduce trail conflict or promote trail sharing:

Programs become feasible and effective when managers are able to identify clientele groups and their characteristics, place information where people can easily receive it, provide information early in the decision-making process, and present the information in an interesting and understandable way (p. Management-62).
Identifying the particular users in need of the information is a critical and often overlooked part of the education process. For example, Matheny (1979) found that 14- to 17-year-olds were the users most likely to shortcut switchbacks on trails. A successful campaign to reduce shortcutting of trail switchbacks would specifically target those users and do so in ways that would be interesting and compelling to them. Similarly, information and education efforts to avoid or reduce trail conflicts should be directed at the particular users involved.

Information and education programs related to promoting trail sharing should have one or more of the following objectives:

Trail etiquette and trail-sharing guidelines are found in many brochures and other literature produced by a wide variety of trail organizations and management agencies. Appendix 4 contains a comprehensive list of specific examples of written materials that deal directly or indirectly with avoiding or reducing trail conflicts by promoting responsible trail use, trail sharing, etiquette, use dispersal, low-impact use, etc. The names of the organizations producing them are included, and their addresses can be found in Appendix 2.

In addition to the existing programs and literature just noted, trail managers and advocates use many other strategies for communicating with and educating trail users. Many of these are listed below. Some are noted by KuIia (1991), Ryan (1993), and Martin and Taylor (1981), while the majority were suggested in conversations with trail managers. Using a combination of the following approaches will produce better results than relying on only one or two techniques. Alternatives include:

When asked how they promoted trail etiquette, a survey of rail-trail managers conducted by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy in 1991 found that numerous methods were being used on rail-trails. The 78 managers responding listed the following techniques. They are arranged here from the most to the least frequently reported: signs, brochures, ranger patrols, trail guides, presentations to civic groups, presentations to children, visitor contact areas, volunteer patrols, surveys, striping the trail surface, press releases, and trail-user groups/word of mouth. When asked which of these were the most effective, ranger patrols were mentioned most frequently followed by signs and brochures.

User Involvement

In many respects, user involvement is a special, intensive kind of active, hands-on user education. By actively involving users in trail planning, management, or conflict resolution, they are forced to work together and, as a result, can begin to better understand and appreciate one another's needs, expectations, and perspectives (e.g., user swaps such as "ROMP and STOMP" events). Trail advocates, planners, and managers should attempt to work with unaffiliated individual users and/or with organized user groups before resorting to obtrusive regulations or trail closures. There are obvious efficiencies in working with organizations, but attempts should also be made to involve unaffiliated users. These independents are often less informed and more in need of education. There may also be cases, however, where members of an organized group have negative attitudes toward other users or are uncooperative (Owens 1985). In these cases as well, working with unaffiliated users is essential.

There are many compelling reasons to involve trail users in trail planning and management. Most important, involving users does the following:

There are numerous options for how to involve trail users. The following strategies are effective ways of involving users in any aspect of trail planning or management. They can be used to involve any trail-user group or can be used as ways to get different user groups to interact constructively. Options include:

With any user involvement effort, it is essential to involve the right users early on. Recruiting users who are open-minded, constructive, and willing to work together will make creative and successful solutions much more likely. The East Bay Regional Park District, for example, credits much of the success of its volunteer trail patrol to the hand-picked group of constructive equestrian and mountain bike leaders they recruited to head up the program.

Involving trail users early on sometimes means that the users themselves must initiate their own involvement efforts. For example, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and the Sierra Club, a vocal opponent of mountain bikes on trails, recently began a series of meetings to try to resolve their differences. The meetings are being facilitated by professional mediators and will attempt to establish an ongoing dialogue, develop mutually agreeable standards and policies, and begin a joint public mountain biking education program. Recreation Equipment, Inc. (REI), is underwriting the meetings (IMBA 1993).

Regulations and Enforcement

There will always be some who cannot be influenced by positive, less forceful means of persuasion (Baker 1990; Watson, Williams and Daigle 1991). Most trail-sharing programs will not succeed without regulations and effective enforcement for those whose lack of consideration could negate the positive impact made by the majority. Regulations and enforcement efforts are most effective when developed and implemented with the input and cooperation of affected user groups (Ryan 1993 Kepner-Trego Analysis 1987). It is also important to communicate to users the reasons for any regulations adopted. This will help minimize misunderstandings and confusion among those affected (McCoy and Stoner 1992). However, it is important to re-emphasize that excessive regulations and enforcement can spoil recreation experiences for many users. Conflict with other users could be effectively reduced through elaborate surveillance systems and heavy-handed enforcement where all inconsiderate users were immediately "cuffed and stuffed" into awaiting police cruisers. But the freedom and sense of escape so many trail users seek would be lost. Only the minimum intrusion necessary to achieve area objectives should be employed.

Well thought out regulations provide managers and their staffs with the authority to enforce safe and courteous trail behavior (Flink and Searns 1993) and help clarify for users what is expected of them. Regulations should be posted prominently at trailheads and other appropriate locations. There are three broad areas of regulations that managers often consider.

Speed limits
Controlling vehicle speeds on trails is essential for user safety as well as the peace of mind of other users. Although education can be effective in this regard, speed regulations are sometimes necessary. Ryan (1993) cautions that speed limits should be used only as a last resort since they require consistent, ongoing enforcement, may not improve real or perceived safety on the trail, and may discourage bicyclists from using trails for commuting. Addressing mountain biking in particular, Kulla (1991) suggests that speeds must allow riders to stop in one-half the distance they can see. Keller (1990) considers a single speed limit for an entire trail unreasonable and advocates basing limits on sight distances and other trail features.
Separating users can be an effective way of minimizing contacts and reducing conflicts. This approach is not without its critics, however. Arbitrary zoning may unnecessarily restrict use if the potential for conflict is low (Owens 1985). Segregating, restricting, or prohibiting users is advocated only as a last resort by Keller (1990), who suggests dispersing use to guard against concentrating mountain bikes on a small number of trails and possibly increasing impacts there. Where appropriate, zoning can be organized around: The following are other examples of regulations that have been or could be established for multiple-use trails:

How to gain compliance with necessary regulations has been a great challenge in many trail areas. This is especially true where land areas are large and budgets are lean. The following are important considerations for determining how to enforce regulations on trails:


The previous section presents some of the many physical and management responses available to attempt to avoid and minimize conflicts on multiple-use trails. All of these have been employed on multiple-use trails with varying degrees of success. The right choice for any particular situation will depend on many local factors and involve some experimentation. General principles to guide responses are offered in the next section. In general, though, using a strategy that employs a combination of techniques with a long-term perspective is best. The city of Edmonton, Alberta, for example, has had good results with an integrated program of design, social marketing, education, regulation, and enforcement for its trail system.

Unfortunately, there are cases where conflict has degenerated to the point where the only feasible recourse is direct intervention by experts trained in conflict resolution. Even binding arbitration may be necessary and appropriate in some cases where the techniques mentioned above were employed too late or too tentatively.

C. Conclusion

Multiple-use ("shared-use") trails are an efficient, economical, and increasingly common way to provide trail opportunities. Due to limited rights-of-way, multiple-use trails are sometimes the only alternative. Through thoughtful planning and diligent management, such trails can provide safe, high-quality recreation experiences without unacceptable damage to natural resources. However, the conflicts that sometimes accompany shared use of trails can be very emotional and are not issues that managers are likely to eliminate altogether. With time, patience, commitment, and cooperation among users and between users and managers (McCoy and Stoner 1992) as well as diligent and aggressive planning and management, shared-use trails can be an excellent way to accommodate many types of users with minimal conflict.

There is no one best way to accommodate multiple uses on the same trail while at the same time avoiding (or at least minimizing) conflicts. The best approach will always be dictated by local conditions and the resources available. However, the literature reviewed and the trail manager input received do provide considerable guidance. Based on this information, 12 principles are offered for minimizing conflicts on multiple-use trails.

  1. Recognize Conflict as Goal Interference -- Recreational conflict can best be understood as "goal interference attributed to another's behavior" (Jacob and Schreyer 1980, 369). Therefore, trail conflicts are possible among different user groups, among different users within the same user group, and as a result of factors (e.g., lack of tolerance for others) not related to a user's trail activity at all.
  2. Provide Adequate Trail Opportunities -- Offer adequate trail mileage and provide opportunities for a variety of trail experiences. This will help reduce congestion and allow users to choose the conditions that are best suited to the experiences they desire. As in the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS), this will require a focus on trail experiences as opposed to trail activities. Opportunities for different trail experiences can be maximized by providing trails that vary in terms of terrain, difficulty, access, remoteness, naturalness, facilities and site management, social encounters, visitor impacts, and visitor management.
  3. Minimize Number of Contacts in Problem Areas -- Each contact among trail users (as well as contact with evidence of others) has the potential to result in conflict. So, as a general rule, reduce the number of user contacts whenever possible. This is especially true in congested areas and at trailheads. Disperse use and provide separate trails where necessary after careful consideration of the additional environmental impact this may cause. Recognize that separating trail users may limit opportunities for communication, understanding, and eventual cooperation among different user groups.
  4. Involve Users as Early as Possible -- Identify the present and likely future users of each trail and involve them in the process of avoiding and resolving conflicts as early as possible, preferably before conflicts occur. For proposed trails, possible conflicts and their solutions should be addressed during the planning and design stage with the involvement of prospective users (Ryan 1993, 79). New and emerging uses should be anticipated and addressed as early as possible with the involvement of participants. Likewise, existing and developing conflicts on present trails need to be faced quickly and addressed with the participation of those affected.
  5. Understand User Needs -- Determine the motivations, desired experiences, norms, setting preferences, and other needs of the present and likely future users of each trail. This "customer" information is critical for anticipating and managing conflicts. This process must be ongoing and will require time, patience, effort, and sincere, active listening.
  6. Identify the Actual Sources of Conflict -- Help users to identify the specific tangible causes of any conflicts they are experiencing (e.g., "teenagers partying and littering at Liberty Campground," "horses fouling the water at Peabody Spring," "mountain bikers speeding down the last hill before the Sills Trailhead," etc.). In other words, get beyond emotions and stereotypes as quickly as possible, and get to the roots of any problems that exist.
  7. Work With Affected Users -- Work with all parties involved to reach mutually agreeable solutions to these specific issues. Users who are not involved as part of the solution are more likely to be part of the problem now and in the future. For example, the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council is considering "full and balanced representation" of key user groups on its county committees as it plans sections of its new trail (Isbill 1993).
  8. Promote Trail Etiquette -- Minimize the possibility that any particular trail contact will result in conflict by actively and aggressively promoting responsible trail behavior. Use existing educational materials or modify them to better meet local needs. Target these educational efforts, get the information into users' hands as early as possible, and present it in interesting and understandable ways (Roggenbuck and Ham 1986).

  9. Encourage Positive Interaction Among Different Users -- Trail users are usually not as different from one another as they believe. Providing positive interactions both on and off the trail will help break down barriers and stereotypes, and build understanding, good will, and cooperation. This can be accomplished through a variety of strategies such as sponsoring "user swaps," joint trail building or maintenance projects, filming trail-sharing videos, and forming Trail Advisory Councils.
  10. Favor "Light-Handed Management" -- Use the most "light-handed approaches" that will achieve area objectives (Hendee, Stankey, and Lucas 1990). This is essential in order to provide the freedom of choice and natural environments that are so important to trail-based recreation. Intrusive design and coercive management are not compatible with high-quality trail experiences.
  11. Plan and Act Locally -- Whenever possible, address issues regarding multiple-use trails at the local level (Keller 1990; Kulla 1991). This allows greater sensitivity to local needs and provides better flexibility for addressing difficult issues on a case-by-case basis. Local action also facilitates involvement of the people who will be most affected by the decisions and most able to assist in their successful implementation.
  12. Monitor Progress -- Monitor the ongoing effectiveness of the decisions made and programs implemented. It is essential to evaluate the effectiveness of the actions designed to minimize conflicts; provide for safe, high-quality trail experiences; and protect natural resources. Conscious, deliberate monitoring is the only way to determine if conflicts are indeed being reduced and what changes in programs might be needed. This is only possible within the context of clearly understood and agreed-upon objectives for each trail area. Two existing visitor impact management flameworks do consider area objectives and offer great potential for monitoring trail settings and trail use impacts:

Maintained by Jim Frost.