Have you ever been hiking on a designated trail and come upon a fork in the road, and thought to yourself, “now why would they not put a sign post here?” You’re fairly certain you know which direction you’re supposed to be headed in, but this other trail, the one that’s making you question your navigational skills, looks well-traveled and scenic. 

It appears to be, for lack of a better description, totally legit. 

I’ve encountered this exact scenario multiple times, and have even stumbled a few hundred yards down the wrong trail before realizing I was not on my way back to the parking lot. It’s honestly quite dangerous and these trails—commonly referred to as ‘social trails’ — are not only bad for hikers, but they can also pose a threat to the surrounding wilderness as well. 

San Juan Hike Above River SceneryWhat Are Social Trails? 

Social trails are simply paths that are carved into the earth by the heavy tread of hikers looking to go their own way. There are many reasons a social trail can ‘get started’ so to speak, but it doesn’t take very long for them to become full-fledged pathways. All that’s required is for one person to stomp around in a protected area, leaving footprints in the ground and the wreckage of destroyed plant life behind them. Before you know it, you have a social trail. 

There now exists an ‘alternate route’—one that was never planned, that was not created by professionals, and which was not cultivated with the health of the local plants and animals in mind. And once that new path is formed, there is not much that can be done to stop others from using it. Especially if they believe this unfamiliar and exciting trail will lead them to something worth seeing. 

How Do They Form? 

It’s important to note that not all social trials are started on purpose. There are many reasons a hiker might stray from a marked path—they could be chasing after a dog whose leash broke, or looking for a place to use the bathroom, or they could simply be lost. 

In places where there are many interconnected hiking trails, it is not unusual to see social trails form in order to create shortcuts for those who want to jump from one designated hiking area to another. It’s impossible to know for sure what people’s intentions are when they head off into the wild, but that doesn’t mean this type of off-trail adventuring should be tolerated or encouraged.

Why are they so harmful? Hiking for Vernal Trips

You might be asking yourself, what’s the big deal? In an area that’s already been designated for hiking, who cares if people want to create their own trail system? What’s so bad about wanting to explore on your own, to find hidden gems that perhaps are not visible from any of the designated trails? 

For starters, the designated trails were put there for a reason. There are many considerations that go into the formation of a hiking trail, and in areas where new trails are being made—by professionals, that is—someone will often conduct what’s called an environmental assessment. Environmental assessments help ensure that these trials are being carved in the most sustainable way possible, and one of the cornerstone features of sustainable trail-making is the formation of buffer zones. 

In a wilderness context, a buffer zone is an area that is left untouched between hiking trails and the protected habitats of vulnerable plant and animal species. When these buffer zones are breached, a lot of things can go wrong. 

According to Alexandra Vollman with the Modern Conservationist, “human presence can startle animals, leading to increased stress levels and causing them to burn energy reserves… This can also result in animals’ displacement and reduced productivity and, in the worse cases, even decrease their chances of survival. For plants, it’s a similar story.”  She goes on to address the deadly impacts that soil erosion from the use of social trails can have on plant life. 

But social trails don’t just pose a threat to local ecosystems and wildlife—they can also be harmful to hikers. These trails can often look so similar to designated trails, that hikers can get confused, and ultimately lost. On a day that’s a little too hot, or a little too cold, accidentally going off trail can be fatal. Because social trails are not mapped out and are not marked, there’s no way of knowing where they go or where they end. This could spell disaster for anyone who didn’t bring enough water or started their hike late in the day, or who simply can’t find their way back to the designated hiking area.

two hikers on a trail between floraWhat can I do to help fix the problem? 

There are a few things you as a hiker can do to help protect your favorite natural areas from the negative impacts of social trails. 

First—don’t create or use these trails. This can be achieved by always carrying a trail map with you, so you never get confused by a sudden fork in the road. Additionally, if you must go off trail, try to do so in the least destructive way possible. Watch where you are stepping, lookout for wild animals, and pick up your feet so you do not trudge through plantlife more than is necessary. 

Second—see something, say something. Next time you see someone using a social trail, first ask them if they are lost, and if they say no, perhaps take that as an opportunity to explain to them how damaging social trails can be.

And third—call your local trail organizations. I know it may sound lame, but I promise you, there’s nothing lame about taking care of our precious natural spaces. If you’re not comfortable with the aforementioned confrontation, and you can’t bring yourself to call other hikers out, you can still tattle on them (for a good cause!). Call up your local forestry or parks department and let them know that there is a social trail that needs to be blocked off so those future hikers will be discouraged from using it.


Sawyer Smith WriterSawyer Smith is a Utah native currently residing in St. Louis, Missouri. When she isn’t working as a freelance writer or hiking through sections of the Mark Twain National Forest, she is planning trips in her head back to her beloved state to once again climb on the red rocks and ski down the snowy mountains.