Yes you heard it right I, a big outdoor enthusiast, think it is alright if some hiking trails in parks are paved and here is why. Simply put paved trails make parks more accessible for so many more people who in many cases are unable to use the trails in their current condition and enjoy these trails and the kind of nature that able bodied people are able to enjoy. Many parks are currently trying (and if not they should be) to reach more diverse groups and get them to try and come spend time at their park. Now don’t read this out of context I am not saying we should pave ALL trails or pave new trails into the wildest of wild places that currently barely have even a narrow hiking trail out to them. Because some places in nature should remain as untouched and natural as we can maintain them. However, by paving a trail that trail becomes so much more accessible for many different groups of people who now also can have the physical and mental health benefits of hiking outdoors as well! So here are some of the major groups of people that have increased access to the outdoors when we pave a hiking trail!
The very young & elderly
While a trail with roots and depressions from use can look more natural it can also be hard for people to maneuver on especially the very young and old. Both groups can sometimes have trouble with movement and balance so a paved trail means they are less likely to fall and get hurt. Seniors who need walkers to now get around can remain active and enjoy the outdoors. As well as young kids learning to walk and moms with little kids who need to use strollers find paved trails easier because you don’t need to buy a special stroller just for hiking.
People with different physical abilities
Paved trails can usually only be so steep which makes them more accessible for groups of people who steep trails are challenging for their level or type of mobility. People in wheelchairs or different levels of walking abilities can find it easier to maneuver and they are less worried about getting stuck somewhere on the trail. People who have trouble seeing or can’t see at all can have an easier time walking as well and not have to worry about about accidentally walking off the trail.
There are many people with different cognitive abilities who experience the world differently and have different needs because of this and having a paved trail can also help them experience the outdoors as well. Some people can feel over stimulated even in the woods and having a paved trail can give them something familiar and consistent while they work on extending their comfort zone. They can also find it easier to navigate on a paved trail, are less likely to get lost, and need less help when on a paved trail. For a caregiver working with people with different cognitive abilities it can help them and their charges stay safer, make it easier to keep track of them, and allow them to have more freedom outdoors because of these other two things.
People from different classes, backgrounds & ethnicity
This may seem trivial to some of you but many people are more likely to explore the outdoors for the first if a trail is paved because of the mental comfort that comes with a paved trail. Unfortunately in the U.S. like many other places of the world the people with lowest access and experience with the outdoors usually have lower incomes or belong to a ethnic minority. This is because of a variety of reasons mostly environmental justice related that I will go over in a future blog post. Irregardless though a paved trail for many people is like a “baby step” into hiking when they want to try it out for the first time. This is because it is harder to get lost as long as you stay on the paved trail you can always turn around. Additionally people who wear baggy or billowy clothes as part of their culture or religion have an easier time walking on a paved trail because their clothes are not getting snagged on the things around them. Having a paved trail also means you don’t need to buy special hiking shoes or even hiking sticks for more intense trails so that makes it more affordable as well. Lastly for some people this may be their first time spending time outdoors in a new state or country. So a paved trail can be a great introduction to the habitat of their new home that allows them to feel more comfortable as they get familiar with the environment. Even if I, a seasoned hiker, was to suddenly move to Florida or Montana you can bet the first trails I walked on would be well used by other people and most likely paved as I got used to the alligators or grizzly bears that already called my new habitat home.
Plus Benefits for the Park
While paving some trails can mean major construction for a park the good news is once it is done depending on the area it might only need patching from then on unless something catastrophic happens. The trail becomes more stable and permanent and less likely to have erosion problems from win and water. Having a paved trail helps keep people from hiking ruts into the trail or widening the trail to hike around puddles in those ruts instead of through them like you are supposed to. It can also help protect plants and wildlife by showing people what trails they are supposed to be hiking on instead of wandering off on a random animal track.
So the next time you or someone else is getting annoyed about paving trails in a park especially if it is just one, remember it is not just about you. Even if you don’t need a paved trail to enjoy nature there are other people in your community who benefit from this resource that allows them to enjoy the same kind of more wild spaces that you enjoy. Additionally keep in mind that someday you might be grateful for a paved trail as you get older. So that you can continue to have access to the environment you have loved hiking in for so many years previously. Remember some trees we plant for future shade for someone else to enjoy that we might not ever enjoy ourselves. Paving even a single trail in a park opens it up for so many more people to enjoy. If you love the outdoors like I do you want everyone to have the same opportunities to experience it; and paving a single trail can remove so many different kinds of barriers and make that possible.
So be kind, enjoy the outdoors, and share the trails with everyone!