Listening back to one of the earlier shows of the Trail Show – I think it was number 16 – there is an interesting conversation about trail vs route, what each is and the differences between them. I loved that conversation and it got me interested in the idea of actually having two different definitions of where we are walking. So we’ll start with the standard definitions by the Oxford dictionary:
Trail: A beaten path through the countryside
Route: A way or course taken in getting from a starting point to a destination
Immediately there is a distinct difference between the two: the trail is a path (a physical entity), while the route is a course (a more abstract concept). I’ve done some more reading here and there, and lots of thinking, and I think I have managed to come up with some ways to describe and differentiate the two.
A clearly marked path that is usually signed, mapped and visible on the ground. Trails tend to be organized and have some authority that provides information, takes care of trail maintenance and is the trail’s advocate with local and national authorities.
Trails tend to have a range of information, products and services offered around them and can be completed by most people who are fit and can follow a map. Amenities, accommodation and civilization in general tend to be present and allow easy access to all your needs.
The benefits of trails
- Usually only require basic skills such as navigation, first aid and being able to know your limits
- The lack of alternative routes allows for a clear progression along the trail
- Trails tend to be busier with fellow hikers, backpackers and trail runners due to accessibility, making for a more social experience
- Supplies and even full meals can usually be found along or near the trails, requiring you to carry less food
- Trails are usually relatively well maintained, allowing for easier walking and reduced risk of injury
The problems with trails
- If you are after solitude, trails are not always the right place for you
- In some countries, like England, where wild camping is illegal, you are bound by the facilities offered along the trails and might need to have shorter/longer days than you would have liked
- Some can find trails “confining” and too defined
Trails are really all about being able to walk easily along a defined path, allowing less experienced outdoors enthusiasts to enjoy the outdoors. Due to the great services along trails you can focus on your environment or socialize more easily. I find that trails are a great training ground for fast hiking, and are very accommodating for ultralight backpacking, as there is less need to be “prepared”.
A way to get from point A to point B. The route is not a clearly marked, one path only method of covering the distance between A and B, but more of a recommendation with many alternative routes along the way.
Routes are usually in more remote areas, connecting a few existing trails with off-trail (or bush whacking/backcountry) sections to make the route. There are often no clear way marks, no clear path on the ground and they usually require very good navigation skills. The great part about routes is how flexible they are, and can be adjusted, corrected and changed while walking. Creating your own route is very easy once you have the navigational skills and you have practiced some route building.
Benefits of routes
- Great freedom and flexibility in terms of the actual walking, potential challenges, supplies, camping points etc
- Usually routes are in very isolated and remote areas that are wild and tend to be more naturally pristine
- Routes are can be really challenging and satisfying
- You can make your own routes, connecting as many points of interest while not needing to “stay on the trail”
The problems with routes
- Require a high level of skills including navigation in changing conditions, bush crafting, first aid and rescue, potential need for climbing, river crossing and more
- Can be very lonely, both in the social aspect and in the danger aspect (with regards to being found and rescued)
- Changing conditions and lack of infrastructure requires carrying more gear and backups to avoid disasters
- Going “off trail” doesn’t comply with the Leave No Trace concept and can be a real environmental problem if a route becomes very popular
Routes are challenging and dangerous adventures that hold in them a possibility to see parts that are usually less seen and more pristine. The physical and mental demands that are usually part of walking routes are a great tool to improve outdoor skills and increase your confidence. I find routes the ultimate outdoors experience and are very recommended to experienced hikers and backpackers.
So, a Trail or a Route?
Both trails and routes are an outdoors experience at the end of the day, and that is the main goal. Above I wanted to explain the concept of the trail vs the route as I see them, and to give you some tools to be able to identify them and use them to your benefit. After listening to the Trail Show’s episode that started all this, I quickly learned that the Cape Wrath Trail that I walked not long ago is actually a route, and that most of my more exciting weekends, such as in the Peak District, or my weekend in the Lakes or Snowdonia are all routes that I created while walking or while planning at home. I do enjoy walking trails and am now section hiking the Pennine Way, but I love the freedom of walking a route I made up.
Know your limits and skills, improve on those and aim to get more on routes, creating your own way in the environment. On the other hand, walking a clear trail while enjoying being outdoors, getting fresh air and clearing your head (maybe practicing some fast hiking?) is a great way to walk the distance.