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Outdoors for All

By considering the full range of potential trails and users, more people can begin to enjoy more natural trails regardless of their mobility challenge

Beyond traditional ideas about accessible trails

Jack Markell Trail

Think of Accessibility as a spectrum 

By looking beyond the legal dichotomy, you can include many more trails benefitting many more users. Read more.

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Recognize that some natural trails already meet UA standards

Under the right conditions, some natural trails can meet most or all criteria for a Universal Access Trail. Read more.


Focus on Universal Access Trails instead of Shared Use Paths

because the former accommodate everyone but at a significantly reduced financial and environmental cost. Read more.

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Describe how other trails might fall just short of specific UA standards

Some people with disabilities might be able to use trails that fall short of one or more standards. Read more.

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Trail difficulty ratings do not work for those with mobility challenges,

mixing length and grade to cover a wide range of trails. Distinctions important to those with disabilities are overlooked. Read more.

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Plan to progressively improve trails by removing barriers to access.  

You can steadily increase the length of a trail that more users can enjoy at a pace that does not break the budget. Read more.

Think of accessibility as a spectrum

Categorizing trails as ether meeting or not meeting UA standards does not help those with mobility challenges who want to plan outings to build their capacity for a greater range of trails. Instead, we want users to think of trails on a continuum:​

Accessibility as a spectrum
Jack Markell Trail

Likewise, categorizing users as having or not having disabilities or not The spectrum of disability

even a path that is wide and flat can exceed certain standards and become inaccessible to some.  for example, this long stretch up the Jack Markell trail... 

Focus on Universal Access Trails instead of Shared Use Paths   

Because Shared Use Paths are wider and more likely to be paved, they are MUCH more expensive and have a MUCH greater impact on the environment.  Shared Use Paths must also keep at least 2' clear on either side of the path but many clear more, like the Chester Valley Trail pictured here, and so many feel like a highway. We like adapting low-volume, low-stress roadways whenever possible for cyclists, like the Yield Roadway design described elsewhere. 

Chester Valley Trail - Exton Park to Exton Mall
Focus on Universal Access Trals

Unless you plan on accommodating cyclists, a Universal Access Trail is a MUCH cheaper and MUCH more environmentally responsible option for accommodating all users (except those on bicycles). These also help to immerse you in nature, like the Woodlands Loop in the Rushton Woods preserve pictured here.  So we advocate for Universal Access Trails unless there is a clear opportunity for active transportation

Existing Trail difficulty ratings do not work for users with mobility challenges exploring local trails

Some rating systems span a very wide range of difficulty, and do not offer finer distinctions important to those with mobility challenges- 

Other rating systems not only span a very wide range of lengths, but they also confound length and difficulty.

  • In the 5 point system described by the National Park Service, Level 5 includes hikes 5-8 miles long with steep inclines that would be "challenging for an unconditioned person".


Other ratings like those adopted by Pennsylvania (p. 12) and pictured to the right include more descriptors relevant to those with mobility challenges but may still be too vague. 

Our system separates out effort and difficulty or stress, and captures trails just exceeding accessibility standards.


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Trail difficulty ratings are complex
Recognize that some natural trails merit an A because they already meet UA standards

A trail does not have to be wide and paved to meet UA standards and earn an A rating!

Tread Surface 

  • A trail only needs to have a tread surface that is clear, firm, and stable.  For example, a dirt or grass trail that is well-drained can work. This includes that many mowed meadow trails (like this one in Stateline Woods).

  • And some trails designed to meet UA standards are built with a grass surface (click here to read more)

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Some natural trails are already accessible


  • A trail does not have to be 10' or even 5' wide to meet UA standards. It can have a clear tread surface that is as little as 3' wide (as long as there is a 5'x 5' passing space every 1000 feet).

  • Trails can narrow to as little as 32" around specific obstacles, like on the Whitely Farms Trail, a Universal Access Trail in White Clay Creek Preserve State Park in Delaware where it weaves between trees.


  • Unlike a Shared Use Path, as Universal Access Trail does not have to be perfectly flat across its entire width.  Rocks and roots up to 2" high are tolerated (as long as there is a 48" gap between them). 

  • And these and larger obstacles are ok as long as there is a 36" wide path free of obstacles for a wheelchair user

Recognize that other natural trails merit an A- because they approach UA standards

Some natural trails have specific sections that might barely exceed one UA  standard. We describe these as approaching UA standards and rate them as an A-.  By describing these clearly and then mapping them on trails, users with mobility challenges can explore a wider range of trails and then choose to test their skills or just turn around.  Note that, to be rated as A-:

  • A trail cannot include any 10' section that falls short on more than one standard (for example, both running and cross-grades).

  • More than 90% of the trail must meet all, UA standards - in many cases, more than 95% of the trail already meets standards

Running Grades  / Grade A- (RG) 

These might include a section that is a bit

  • Steeper (e.g., up to 20% for 10', up to 12.5% for 30', or up to 10% for 200')

  • Longer without resting spaces (e.g., up to 12.5% for up to 20', up to 10% for up to 60', or up to 8.33% for up to 600')

Users can see where these sections occur because we map grades in 10' increments (see (example to the right) .

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A- trails that fall just short of standards

Cross Grades / Grade A- (CG)

  • Might slightly exceed standards for short stretches (up to 10% for up to 10')

Firmness / Grade A- (F)

  • Might include sections that are soft for up to 10'

Obstacles / Grade A- (O)

  • Might include obstacles up to 2" high as long as these are separated by at least 48"

Width / Grade A- (W)

  • The clear tread width might narrow to 18" but remain relatively clear for at least 6" either side  

Resting spaces / Grade A- (RS)

  • Might lack clear resting spaces between long (200' ) sections with grades greater than 5%; medium (30' ) sections with grades greater than 8.33%, and; short (10' ) sections with grades greater than 10%

Passing spaces / Grade A- (PS)

  • Might lack clear passing spaces for trails less than 60" wide

Progressively remove barriers to access
Plan to progressively remove barriers on trails approaching US standards to create an improved trail

Once you identify a natural trail that is approaching UA standards, you can develop a plan to improve specific sections to meet UA standards.  We refer to these as improved trails.

  • By starting with barriers closest to the trailhead, you can progressively increase the length that a wheelchair user or others can travel before they need to turn around.  Consider these examples. 

Improve Running Grades - Consider 

  • An adjustment to the route

  • Specific fills

Improve Cross Grades - Consider 

  • An adjustment to the route

  • A simple cut 

Improve Firmness - Consider 

  • Building a short section of boardwalk or filling it with stone/gravel

This is what happened on the Little Jersey trail at Lums Pond in Delaware... over the past several years, the park has filled on perennially wet sections with gravel and stone to create a firm, stable trail. 

Remove obstacles - Consider 

  • Removing rocks or roots

  • Filling in and over obstacles with stone/gravel

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