Build a Trail

The “Trail-Building Toolkit” is an interactive Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) website, and is a valuable resource for understanding the process of going from acquisition to designing and building rail-trails.

Topics include- Developing in Sensitive Areas, Designing for User Type, Accessiblity, Surfaces, Crossings, Bridges, Tunnels and Underpasses.

In addition, the RTC has free Reports to download that give specific guidance on rail-trail planning, development, and maintenance.

Designing for User Type

Rail-trails can be built to attract a diverse set of users (pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians, etc.) and the urge may be to accommodate them all.  Permitted trail uses should be decided in the rail-trail planning phase with a consideration for what makes a good trail for each user group.  The uses and design might be determined by what can be best accommodated with the limitations and strengths of the property, such as width, topography, community need, and user interest.


Trail designers often look to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) design guidelines as the standard for multi-use trail widths. AASHTO recommends a minimum of 10 feet for multi-use trails; however, where heavy use is anticipated, a 12 to 14-foot width is recommended.

Occasionally, providing separate, parallel paths (or treads) for different users may be desirable. For example, a primary, hard-surfaced path can be provided exclusively for bicyclists, with softer shoulders set aside for pedestrians and equestrians. Single shoulders should be at least 5 feet wide, while dual shoulders (one on each side) should be between 2 and 2.5 feet wide.


Trail managers will need to carry liability insurance and cost may increase with equestrian use.  Insurance for rail-trails can sometimes be merged into city or county park department insurance policies.


Pedestrians include walkers, hikers, runners, bird watchers and dog walkers. These users tend to have fewer design requirements than other users. Most prefer softer surfaces (such as rubber, mulch or crushed stone) to lessen impact on their knees, though some users, such as power walkers and those pushing strollers, may prefer more compact surfaces. The minimum recommended vertical clearance for pedestrians is 8 feet.

Benches, drinking fountains, shaded rest areas and restrooms are valuable amenities to pedestrians. Where dogs are permitted, consider providing dog-friendly drinking fountains, bag dispensers and trash bins to encourage people to pick up after their dogs.


Bicyclists fall into a number of subcategories, including recreational, commuting and touring. The AASHTO’s Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities is viewed as the national standard for bikeway design, and you will most likely have to adhere to its guidelines if your trail project receives federal or state transportation. Consult your local department of transportation before beginning design. Bicyclists generally prefer hard surfaces and require a vertical clearance of at least 8 feet, with 10 feet needed for overpasses and tunnels.

Adequate sight distances for cyclists are critical for user safety; AASHTO recommends that multi-use trails provide a minimum sight distance of 150 feet. Ideal grades over long distances for bicyclists are less than 3 percent (typical for former railroad corridors), although up to 5 percent is acceptable. In addition to the amenities suggested for pedestrians, bicycle racks and bicycle lockers located at transit nodes or places of employment are recommended.

Mountain Bikers

Mountain bikers are considered a separate user group, as they tend to seek out more challenging trails with steeper grades and uneven surfaces.

In the Monongahela National Forest and the New River Gorge National River, many of the WV Rail-Trails were originally logging railroads.  They were single track, narrow gauge railroads that were built in mountainous areas.  These typically are ideal for skilled hikers, mountain bikers and in some areas horseback riders.  They are often very narrow, steep and commonly have rocks and roots as part of the trail surface.  Be careful to check local regulations such as restrictions in Wilderness Areas, where biking is prohibited.

Local contacts:
J.R. Petsko
Appalachian Bicycle Racing Association
985 Bethel Church Road
Maidsville, WV 26541

West Virginia Mountain Bike Association
c/o Ben Klimas
PO Box 375
Bruceton Mills, WV 26525

In-Line Skaters

Asphalt trails accommodate in-line skating as a trail use.  They need the same amenities as pedestrians.  Yield rules and trail etiquette should be signed on the trail and all opportunities for public outreach so minimize user conflicts.

Cross-Country Skiers

Often trails can accommodate cross-country skiing by simply by choosing not to plow the trail in the winter.  This choice should be weighed with cost and community user group interests.


With proper width and design, a multi-use trail can accommodate equestrians while minimizing user conflicts.  Where width is available plan a softer, separate 5-foot-wide tread for horses alongside the main path.  These can be dirt or grass trails. This will minimize conflicts with other users and protect compacted limestone surfaces and / or provide accommodations for horses beside asphalt trails.  Horse hooves divot the crushed stone trails and lessen the surface lifespan.  These divots are noticeable particularly by bicyclists.

Hard surfaces (asphalt and concrete) and coarse gravel can injure horse hooves, so equestrians prefer loose or compacted dirt trails.  Vertical clearance should be at least 10 feet, with a horizontal clearance of at least 5 feet. Sight distance should be at least 100 feet, and proper signage is needed to indicate which user has the right-of-way priority.

It is advised to consult local equestrian groups to develop equestrian-friendly facilities. Horses often prefer water crossings to bridges. If this isn’t practical, provide mounting blocks at the ends of bridges so that riders can dismount and lead their horses across the structure. In addition to the standard amenities for human users, parking and staging areas, water for horses and hitching posts at any area where the rider may stop to take a break (rest areas, restrooms, etc.) should be provided.


When choosing a surface for your trail, consider the following:

  • User acceptance and satisfaction
  • Accessibility
  • Cost to purchase and install materials
  • Cost of maintaining the surface
  • Life expectancy
  • Availability of material

Before you choose a specific trail surface, you should also consider the pros and cons of hard surfaces and soft surfaces. While hard-surface trails are more accommodating, require less maintenance and can withstand frequent use, they are also significantly more expensive. On the other hand, soft-surface trails cost less, but generally do not hold up well under heavy use or varying weather conditions.


Ditches and Culverts are a key component in trail building.  This is the infrastructure needed that will protect your investment in the trail surface.  Without proper drainage, your trail can easily washout, sink, or get undercut.  The culverts once used by the railroad are NOT enough to protect the trail.  The new trail surface is not as porous as railroad ballast and changes the drainage patterns and needs.

WV Example-

The Mon River Trails Conservancy has experience with both compacted limestone and asphalt rail-trails that make up the Mon River Rail-Trail system.   The asphalt trail has had issues with tree roots cracking the pavement.  The compacted limestone trail has held up for a 10-12 year lifespan before needing resurfacing due to erosion and heavy use.   The limestone surface is AASHTO #10 and was built with 6 inches compacted to 4 inches with a 10 ton vibratory roller.

Costs for building a 10ft compacted limestone trail has averaged $100,000-$150,000 a mile. Costs will increase with bridges and tunnels.  Contact: / Ella Belling at

Other Useful Resources-




Tunnels and Underpasses-