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Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation and Trails

Applying the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines

The first step in applying the Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines (FSTAG) is to know when and where compliance is required. Section 7.0 General and 7.1 Extent of Application state that the FSTAG applies to National Forest System trails within the boundaries of a National Forest that meet ALL these criteria:

The FSTAG doesn't apply to existing trails unless there is a change in the original purpose, intent, or function for which the trail was designed—an alteration, in other words. It doesn't apply to trails designed for ATV, equestrian, or any other nonpedestrian use. The FSTAG uses the term "designed for hiker/pedestrian use" in accordance with the Forest Service trail planning and management rules and National Trail Management Classes, which are also the Interagency Trail Data Standards. This information is available at

The FSTAG doesn't prescribe different "levels of accessibility" based on trail class or any other grouping criteria. Following the same philosophy as the draft document on outdoor recreation developed by a regulatory negotiations committee of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board), the FSTAG recognizes that a trail is either accessible or it is not. The FSTAG provides guidance for maximizing accessibility, while recognizing and protecting the unique characteristics of the natural setting, level of development, and purpose of each trail—through the use of conditions for departure from the guidelines and the related exceptions to the technical provisions, explained below.

As explained in the budget tip Is Cost An Excuse?, cost is not a valid reason for failing to make a trail accessible. In all likelihood, the FSTAG won't apply to most portions of existing primitive, long-distance trails, although it may apply to segments that pass through developed areas. The FSTAG recognizes that there is no real benefit in making a newly constructed or altered trail in the backcountry accessible if the only way to get to it is by using an existing trail that isn't accessible and probably can't be made accessible. Application of the FSTAG will ensure that the full range of trail opportunities continues to be provided, from primitive long-distance trails to highly developed interpretive trails at popular scenic overlooks, providing hiking opportunities for everyone (figure 102).

Photo of four adults, two children, and a service dog walking on a paved trail.
Figure 102—Hiking is for everyone.

Is It a Trail or an Outdoor Recreation Access Route?

An Outdoor Recreation Access Route (ORAR) is a continuous, unobstructed path designated for pedestrian use that connects pedestrian elements within a recreation site such as a picnic area, camping area, or trailhead. In contrast, a trail is defined by the 2002 Interagency Trail Standards as a linear route managed for human-powered, stock, or off-highway vehicle forms of transportation or for historic or heritage values. A trail is not an ORAR and is not subject to the requirements for ORARs found in section 2.0 of the FSORAG. Accessible trails designed for pedestrian and hiker use have their own set of requirements that are described below.

Understanding Trail Terminology

Although this guidebook tries to explain requirements in ordinary language, some terms are important to understanding how the FSTAG is applied. The terms aren't organized alphabetically, but are grouped so that it's easy to understand the distinctions between similar terms.

Designed use is the intended use that controls the geometric design of a trail and determines the level to which it should be maintained. There is only one designed use per trail or trail segment. Although the trail may be actively managed for more than one use, the designed use determines the technical specifications for the trail. Often, the designed use is the managed use that requires the highest level of development. For example, pack and saddle stock require higher and wider clearances than do hikers, so a trail managed for both foot travel and horse use probably would have a designed use of "Pack and Saddle" rather than "Hiker/Pedestrian." More information about trail design parameters for the different designed uses is in USFS Trail Design Parameters, available at

Managed use includes the modes of travel that are actively managed and appropriate for a specific trail or area. This use reflects the management decision or intent to accommodate or encourage a specific type of trail use. Each trail or trail segment may have more than one managed use. For instance, a single trail may be managed for hiker and equestrian use in the summer and for cross-country skiing in the winter.

A trailhead is a site designed and developed by the Forest Service or other government agency, a trail association, trail maintaining club, trail partner, or other cooperators to provide a staging area for a trail.

For purposes of the FSTAG, trailheads are not:

Trail classes broadly organize trails by desired management characteristics and the level of development, based on forest plan direction. Trail classes take into account user preferences, the setting, protection of sensitive resources, and management activities. Trail classifications range from Trail Class 1 trails, which appear little different from animal paths and may disappear intermittently, to Trail Class 5 trails, which are usually wide, paved paths associated with highly developed environments. The FSTAG does not change Forest Service trail classes. More information about National Trail Management Classes, which are also the Interagency Trail Data Standards, is available at

Setting is the term used to describe the natural surroundings of a trail. On public lands outside rural and urban settings, the natural surroundings are usually the primary attraction for visitors. Improvements, such as trails, should not adversely affect the setting. For example, the design for a trail crossing a glacial boulder field must protect the geologic features. Accessibility is incorporated to the extent possible without fundamentally altering the natural environment. On the other hand, a trail designed for a wide open, relatively level area should follow the requirements of the FSTAG to the highest degree possible.

The following terms describe construction and maintenance work:

While the FSTAG doesn't apply to maintenance, Forest Service policy is to improve accessibility wherever the opportunity arises. Resource managers are encouraged to improve accessibility on trails through trail maintenance and repair activities. Every time a trail is maintained, there is an opportunity to improve access.

The term "reconstruction" is not used in Federal accessibility guidelines or the FSTAG, even though the term is used frequently by the trails community. For the purposes of the FSTAG, actions are categorized as construction, alteration, or maintenance.

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