When heading out a walk, what kind of trail do you like walking on?
Some might say they don’t like hills, and that’s OK. But when we ask this question what we really mean is, what kind of trail surface do you prefer?
With the increase in new trails popping up all over our local urban areas and in our conservation and national parks, it’s not something you really think about until you walk on well, a really uncomfortable one.
So what makes a walking trail – uncomfortable?
Trails that are made of bitumen asphalt, concrete or compacted rubble can be particularly harsh to feet, knees and hips. Particularly when carrying overnight packs on long distance trails – this unforgiving surface can make for much more discomfort than a bush trail of soil, loose stone or sand. Kind of makes us want to find the hills really. But beware. Some hilly trails are concreted (Waterfall Gully to Mt Lofty summit hike for example) because the natural surfaces that can no longer sustain the huge number of walkers that use such trails every day.
Most bushwalkers include a demographic of middle age and older people or people who have walked – a lot. Their joints that have experienced more wear and tear than most and its noticeable when the surface hardens and is probably why so many choose nice long walks on bush trails.
When plans are put forward for a new trail, the strategy is often to create a trail that is:
- multi use for walkers, cyclists
- accessible for wheelchairs, strollers and prams
- built to last (forever)
It’s a one-size-fits-all model and with good reason, it’s all about getting more people outdoors and as inclusively as possible too. We love seeing this but it might also mean we are less likely to choose the trail for a long-distance pack carrying trip. This features a lot on urban trails.
When we are looking at long distance trails for multi day adventures, comfort is paramount. Often these trails have to traverse national and conservation parks, state forests, private property and of course, roads. Not always is it going to be the same surface and that is OK – this is what makes a trail even more appealing. Adventurous even.
So when planning long distance trails, planning for a walker friendly surface is essential but not always possible. Looking at road sections on our longer trails in SA such as Heysen Trail and Walk the Yorke, these are often the sections we all remember as being harder physically and sometimes mentally too. The flat never-ending straight-line sections. We’ve all been there. There is no escaping these kinds of trails but long repetitious sections like this can be what leads people to give up on those lovely big through-hikes. Hang in there, I say.
On the other hand, the long stretches of sand so soft you wonder if you will ever reach the end of the beach are also features of many long-distance coastal trails. Mother Nature decides how “hard” to make the walk on any given day – its luck of the tides.
Consider the rocky trails of outback Australia and the Larapinta Trail. Known for boot breaking and blister blooming, for even those with worn in boots or new boots, its hard to get away without some kind of foot or equipment failure when walking the full trail with a pack or even day walking sections – I have known walkers to ditch boots and resort to Sketchers. But this trail is using the natural rocky landscape as authentically as possible. So the terrain comes with the territory.
Similarly there are the boulder hopping adventures (Thorsborne Trail, Grampians Peak Trail) where one wrong foot can mean an ankle in plaster. Fun in sections for sure and using the natural landscapes beautifully but can make for challenging terrain over long distances. Still preferred over walking on a road.
Road walking connects us to trail sections that might otherwise be inaccessible due to private property and we can all acknowledge how hard it is for permissions to put trails through private property. It’s not all bad, as long as its not long right?
Compacted rubble can be also particularly tricky to enjoy over long periods but can also cover up slippery clay and sections that become flat boggy wetlands after rain. A cheaper type of trail surface than say constructing a boardwalk.
And then there is the question of sustainability. What items are being used to construct trails to keep it as natural or environmentally friendly as possible?
Building trails is not easy when the strategy to make areas accessible to walkers also means impacting on the space around it to construct it and potentially using items in the natural landscape to support the trails construction or bringing in items that simply don’t fit the landscape but are included with purpose behind it e.g. to protect fragile ecosystems (think plank sections on the Overland Track in Tasmania).
Do stairs on a trail make it harder or easier? There are many trails that perhaps come to mind with lots of stairs (Three Capes) – probably to stop falls and slips and also protect the trail from erosion – but does this mean our enjoyment level drops or do we find gratitude for the gesture of stairs? The jury might be out on that one. Sometimes exiting a beach with stairs is a lot easier than clawing your way up a dune and destroying it in the process.
Long distance walking is a past time that gives you way too much time to ponder on these things. It allows you to find the improvements, compare other surfaces and essentially audit every trail you have ever walked. If you are into walking, you can probably relate.
So where can we send our ideas or improvements to?
It often depends on who manages the trail, what funding exists for its ongoing maintenance if any and where the trail traverses (the most). This can be a number of different local and/or state government and non-government organisations. Volunteers also do a huge job of maintaining public trails and we would like to acknowledge their hard work and contribution to making these trails accessible to us all.
Not sure how you can support the maintenance of trails in South Australia?
There are a number of organisations you can join to support financially or volunteer with time – Friends of Parks groups, Friends of the Heysen Trail for example. Walking SA is the peak body for walking in South Australia and also do a huge job of cataloging hundreds of trails you can walk in SA – to continue supporting this resource and their work, memberships start from just $22 per year.
Lisa Murphy is the founder of Big Heart Adventures alongside husband Ian. They share a love/addiction for hiking long distance trails both in South Australia and beyond. Apart from running a walking and wellness business, they don’t mind performing the odd trail audit either. Lisa also volunteers with Walking SA and assists on the Sponsorship Committee.