Trail Development

Planning the trail

This is probably the most important step in determining how successful your trail is going to be. Without necessary time and detail being taken at this stage you could land yourself with a lot of unnecessary wasted time and expense later.

Step 1 The Reconnaissance

Most landowners have some idea of what can be considered as hiking terrain, that is, what is good hiking country and what is not. My experience is that when asked to visit a piece of land by the owner to give advice, usually all he wants is confirmation that what he has is good enough to attract hikers. The first step then is to invite experienced hikers with knowledge of trail development to come and reconnoiter the whole area with you. Initially, this can be done by vehicle if the area is large but it is vital to get an overview of the land. Take your guests to all the most beautiful places such as waterfalls, kloofs, rock pools and places of historical interest. Take a map along and pinpoint these places on it. Note should also be taken of any environmental matters such as vlei areas that could affect the course of the trail.

 Farmers and foresters are generally alike in that they know the cultivated areas of their property well and have driven the roads often but when it comes to knowledge of their remoter areas such as indigenous  forested kloofs and inaccessible valleys they tend to be less aware.

Step 2 The Findings

After your reconnaissance a round table discussion should take place. Maps and notes taken during the fact finding trip should now be brought out and likely places of interest, possible overnight accommodation sites, places that need more exploration etc. should be highlighted. By the end of the meeting some broad ideas should begin to take shape of possible routes for a hiking trail.

 Care must be taken to make sure that all the beautiful and unexpected places of interest are spread throughout the trail. It would not make for a good trail if all the beautiful and spectacular parts of the trail are passed within the first two hours and the rest of the hike is through rather dreary grassland (unless you happen to be an expert on grasses). A place to swim is always welcomed by hikers towards the end of a hot and sweaty day in the bush


Step 3 Exploring the proposed route

Now the hard work begins. Now you put your embryo into fact! Taking your roll of Barrier tape in hand, you and your party set out on your quest for the best route that the area has to offer. Tying strips of tape on anything that can take it along the way you set about exploring the area on foot. Remember that whereas jeep tracks may make your job considerable easier, they do not go down well with the hiker that want to get away from the beaten track.


Another important consideration at this stage is the trail alignment. Hiking groups have often asked me why there are so many ups and downs on a trail that could in fact traverse a contour. The important point here is that you have continually to cater for a changing vista. For instance, the view from the top of the escarpment could be breathtaking but once seen it soon gets rather boring if there is nothing else to see, so after a brief visit to the top its time to explore other places, maybe rock outcrops a little further down the mountain or maybe there is a mountain steam at the bottom of a nearby kloof. Similarly, following a mountain stream can be popular with hikers but there again too much of a good thing can get a little monotonous. We all know that South Africa has a great climate but it does tend to get rather hot during daytime even in winter especially in the northern part of our country. Along the route it is important to align the route so that it passes some areas of shade if possible.


Water is  a vital and often scarce resource in rural areas. The local population often use water from  streams for drinking and this should be considered when hikers might consider pools upstream for bathing. Not that this is necessarily a problem but it is something that maybe should be mentioned when compiling your brochure.

Pristine or rural

A trail should also be as natural as possible. Signs of human activity such as power lines, fences, dongas, roads, cultivated land etc should be kept to a minimum although contact with these are usually unavoidable. Leading a trail through plantations of exotic trees should be avoided if possible as trees such as Pine, Wattle and Eucalyptus tend to provide unpleasant hiking conditions and detract from the natural aspect of the trail. However it is not always feasible to ignore them completely but hiking through them should be kept to a minimum. Commercial plantations are harvested from time to time and this can also create a problem for any trail that traverses them.

Rock Art

Rock art is something that has a vital part in the culture of our land. Unfortunately, over the years, much of it has been ruined by visitors to the caves in which these appear. Does one take hikers to such caves to show them these very special attractions or does one keep them a secret? This is a question that is very difficult to answer. Maybe some sort of barrier could be put in place to allow people to view these images without letting them touch them.

Local Culture

The local population of our land often hold their church services in the bush. It would be respectful to avoid taking a trail close to the particular area that they might use. I would also suggest that the local community should be consulted with regard to areas that they might consider to be sacred to them. The trail should also stay clear of their dwellings if at all possible (Would you like a group of hikers barging in on you and asking absurd questions in a language that is not your own and then being rude by not accepting a calabash full of Marula beer).

Other types of recreation

If you have or plan to have other types of recreation on your property it is important to bear in mind that in the case of hikers and your hiking trail that they should be kept apart. For instance it is not pleasant to be walking through the bush and to hear the noise of quad bikes or 4 x 4 vehicles or be run into by a mountain bike. Similarly, areas used specifically by birders on a regular basis should not have your hiking trail running through it.

Sun in Early Morning

Another consideration when planning your trail is that it is not pleasant to head straight into the early morning sun when starting out on a hiking trail.

Step 4 Planning the positioning of your overnight camp (backpacking trail)


Distance in kilometres is always an invariable and relies on the type of terrain that the trail traverses. I prefer to talk in terms of time needed to walk a path a a normal walking pace. Generally speaking I would suggest that your main days of hiking should take between 7 and 9 hours to accomplish while the final day should take between 4 and five hours to accomplish. Within this time scale time should be allowed for stops for lunch and for swimming etc.

Positioning Criteria

The overnight hut or cave should be reachable in the time scale above and should be accessible also by road or farm track. This is to enable you to clean the place and reach it in the event of an emergency. The provision of water (for drinking and washing) is also vital. (More details on overnight facilities will appear on the page on accommodation).

Step 5 Get peoples opinions

Once you have your embryo trail provisionally marked out with Barrier Tape, now is the time to obtain a variety of opinions from hikers, representatives from your proposed booking agents and anyone else that you think can give input. Only when you are completely satisfied that you have the best route available on the land concerned do you then proceed to the next step of construction.

Whew! And you thought laying out a hiking trail was a matter of painting a few footprints through the bush. 


For comments and information please contact Tim Hartwright