In the words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

I hear this used as an analogy for how trails change over time. I understand what the person saying is trying to get at, but I don’t think it is the best choice of analogy. Let’s unpack this a bit and see where the shortcomings lie.

A technical definition of evolution is the change over time in one or more inherited traits, or survival of the fittest by natural and sexual selection. But people aren’t using the term to mean that, strictly speaking, trails are evolving. That would be silly. Lets look at a definition that is more inline with everyday use of the word: "a gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually a more complex or better form." (Emphasis mine) It’s being used as a synonym for change, but it’s not a good synonym, because to a typical person it implies improvement. Where this breaks down is that as trails are used they aren’t necessarily improving.

Lets divide the types of trails out there into two types based on construction techniques. We’ll deal first with those that weren’t actually constructed, then those that had some actual design and real tread construction (using sustainable techniques of course, after all this is an IMBA blog).

Your typical rake-and-ride or mow-and-go trail will usually be on a relatively flat area or on the fall line. Even if some of the trail happens to follow a contour (as a sustainable trail would) this is usually by accident and not planned out in advance. In the early life of this trail the tread will be ill defined, bumpy, sometimes consisting of soft or loose organic soil. As riders use it the tread will become better defined, smoothed out, and the organic material will decompose. You’ll be left with a single track trail that will probably be quite enjoyable to ride, for a time. It’s easy to see why people would use the term evolution to describe this. The changes in the trail do appear to be improving things, but only because the original trail "construction" was practically non-existent to begin with. But as the trail starts to be used more, more soil is freed up for erosion, water takes its toll, and sooner or later the sections will start to degrade. How fast depends on a number of factors including volume of traffic, use in the wet, how far "out of spec" the design is (with respect to sustainable techniques), etc. In flat spots you’ll start to get puddles and the widening that goes along with them. In fall line sections, or sections that are just too steep, you’ll start to see roots and rocks exposed; deep rutting of the tread; tread migration; etc. This trail has become an problem. For most riders, land owners, and other users the trail has certainly not improved. Changed yes, but not improved. (As an aside these badly eroded, rooty, steep trails are what some come to identify as "technical." They are that, but not because they were designed that way, their technicality was by accident.)

On the other had, lets look at a trail designed and buit with sustainability in mind (i.e. it was build according to the principles in Trail Solutions: IMBA’s Guide to Sweet Singletrack). After it is build you’ll have a stable tread that is usually 24" wide. As riders use the trail the tread will narrow as they naturally pick the commonly preferred line in any given spot. Because the trail tread was built on mineral soil, not organic material, it will be stable rather than soft. If it has been properly cut and compacted it will be smooth rather than lumpy. You’ll have a better experience sooner. But there will still be some bed-in time before the trail is dialed. Riders will still see change in a sustainably built trail that will be interpreted in terms of improvement; and hence evolution. But here’s where things are a bit different. Once built a sustainable trail will last, with minimal maintenance, for a long time. The ever widening puddles won’t form, the run away erosion won’t occur, roots and rocks own’t appear unless they were there in the first place. Change will be minimal and degredation should certainly not be happening (if it is, you most likely took a short cut in your design and construction).

Most trails in my neck of the woods were not "built" with any kind of sustainable techniques, although that is changing. It’s understanable in a situation like this, where most people predominantly experience the first scenario, that the term "evolution" would get attached to trails as they change. But no one then says they devolve once they start to degrade. They either improve their technical ability and continue to ride them, and hence the trails have "evolved" yet again; or they stop riding them and start a new rake-and-ride trail, likely 5 feet over from the last one.

What would words should we be using to describe this? Personally I would just say change, and then maybe go into a bit about how they change.

What do you, my loyal readers think? Email me and let me know, I’m curious what words other than evolution get used when you chat with your riding budies about how the trails are changing.