Hiking is one of the best ways to enjoy the outdoors. It’s a healthy activity that can help keep you in good shape. It burns calories, but it’s low-impact to protect your joints, and it’s easy enough that anyone can do it. There are some things that beginners should know, however, and that includes the different types of hiking trails.
Those differences are important, because they change the way the trail is used, the level of experience needed to hike it, and even the way that the length of the trail is measured. The following are the types of hiking trails you should know about.
24 types of hiking trails
1. Access trail
Much like an access road, these are smaller trails that connect to larger ones. Usually, they connect major hiking trails to towns or other trail systems.
2. Connecting trails
These are built to provide multiple access points to major trails, and are most common in the trail systems created under the National Trail Systems Act. This act established a network of historic and scenic trails, but they’re often remote and the connecting trails make it easier to access them.
3. Backcountry trail
Backcountry trails are primitive trails located from major buildings or roadways. Some of them allow motorized access, and some do not. Either way, these trails usually involve rough conditions and often difficult terrain, and many of them are meant for backpacking.
4. Destination trail
The name is pretty self-explanatory. These lead to a specific destination, and you return to the trailhead via the same route by which you hiked to the destination.
5. Loop trail
Again, the name is self-explanatory. The trail forms a loop, beginning and ending at the same point but without requiring you to retrace your steps to get back to the trailhead. Many other types of trails are built as loop trails- these categories aren’t mutually exclusive.
6. Out and back trail
Essentially the opposite of a loop trail. On an out and back trail, you walk out….and you walk back. You return to the trailhead by following the same path you used to go out.
7. Directional use trail
One-way streets, but hiking style. These are usually loop trails, but not all loop trails are directional-use trails. Plenty of loop trails allow for two-way traffic. And, not all directional use trails are loop trails, just most of them.
8. Extended trail
This is defined as a trail that covers 100 miles or more in length. It can be a backcountry trail, a destination trail, etc. The Appalachian Trail is perhaps the most famous example of an extended trail.
9. Feeder trail
Feeder trails connect campgrounds and local facilities to a main trail. Access trails and Feeder trails are often interchangeable terms for the same thing.
10. Hiker-biker trail
Hiker-biker trails are meant to be used by hikers and bikers at the same time. Often that means that they’re wider than usual, and hikers are advised to stay close to the edge of the trail. Sometimes, however, the trail is not particularly wide and hikers need to be aware of where the bikers are so they can quickly move off the trail to make room for the bikes.
11. Nature trail
Usually less than 2 miles long, nature trails provide the opportunity for hikers to view unique plants or other natural features at their leisure. Often the vegetation along the sides of the trail is planted and tended much like a garden to provide a particular experience, and you’ll even find plaques identifying the species of trees and flowers along the trail.
12. Fire road
Fire roads, or fire trails, are roads that are used to allow firefighters access to the backcountry, in some areas they’re wider, grassy, and called fire breaks. These serve the added purpose of limiting the spread of a wildfire. When nothing is on fire, they make excellent hiking trails.
13. Frontcountry trail
Typically located in suburban areas, these are trails that take advantage of the city scenery as well as green belts and parklands along the trail route. Easy conditions, easy access, and beautiful scenery make them popular choices for family hikes.
14. Multi-use trail
These are designed for several different types of use. You may see other hikers, or cyclists, or even people on horseback. It’s basically an all-purpose trail that anyone can use.
15. Long-distance trail
This is a trail that’s more than 50 miles long, typically follows a specific feature (a valley, river, or road), and cuts through geologically diverse regions. Cover the whole trail and you’ll experience a wide range of conditions.
These trails sometimes make use of old, defunct rail lines. The ground has been leveled and trees have been cleared, so why not continue to get some use out of them? Though in some cases a paved path is simply made that runs along side a railroad track. We actually have one by our house and walked on it yesterday!
17. Side trail
Side trails are dead-ends that split off from the main trail and lead to specific features like scenic overlooks, rivers, and other natural features. They’re usually well-worth the trip, since they’re often quite short and easy trails.
18. Single-track trail
These are only wide-enough for one person at a time. Oddly, they aren’t often directional-use trails, meaning you’ll have to step off the trail to allow other hikers to pass you from time to time.
19. Single-use trail
Hiking only, no bikes. Or biking only, no hikers. Or horses only. You get the point- these are trails made for a specific purpose. Many hikers prefer single use trails to multi-use trails.
20. Spur trail
These lead to points of interest and campsites off the main trail. The main difference between spur trails and side trails is length- side trails are usually very short, often only a few dozen feet. Spur trails can be miles long.
21. Way trail
This an unofficial trail that’s created by hikers using the same off-trail route over time. Eventually they wear a path in the grass and dirt that’s somewhat easy to follow. Be cautious with these; some are a delightful surprise, others will be miserable if not dangerous.
22. Walking trail
Often paved, and almost always urban, these are, in effect, sidewalks with no road next to them. Cities often build them in or near major parks, and they can be a lot of fun. They’re easy to get, easy to walk on, and usually very safe.
23. Paddling trail
Not technically a hiking trail, but worth a mention: paddling trails are set up for people in kayaks or canoes. They wind their way through rivers, coastal bays, and estuaries, and they offer some of the best wildlife viewing (especially bird watching) you’ll ever find.
24. Game trail
A way trail made by wild animals, these are only for experienced and unusually adventurous hikers. You never know what you’ll find or where it will lead, and the trail is easy to lose. Beginners should not hike on these.