Federal Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Recreation Areas

June 06, 2014
Ama Koenigshof
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


Federal Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Recreation Areas



To download a PDF copy of the information on this page, click here.

An overview for trail volunteers 

June 6, 2014

A short version of this article appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Trail Walker

Trail volunteers and trail users alike have been asking questions and expressing concerns about the impact new federal accessibility guidelinesGui for outdoor recreation areas may have on our trails. Ama Koenigshof, our Trail Builder/Educator, here writes about the rationale behind the guidelines and how they do, or don’t, impact our trail work. For an overview of Trail Technical Requirements, scroll to page 2.


By Ama Koenigshof, Trail Builder/Educator

There are 57 million people in the United States with disabilities. As our population ages, this number increases. When you consider the family and friends of people with disabilities who want to do recreational activities together, the percentage of the population affected is very large.

But it’s not just people with disabilities who appreciate accessible trails. As I have seen over and over while building trails on Bear Mountain, people are looking for opportunities to get outdoors with the whole family on paths they can walk together, regardless of their age or fitness level. Though the federal Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines were produced with wheel chairs in mind, they increase the accessibility of a trail for every type of user.

For all these reasons, a group of accessibility experts, trail builders, and representatives from the Federal Highway Administration and Forest Service developed Federal guidelines for outdoor recreation and trails. The guidelines are meant to produce accessible, sustainable, low-maintenance trails that showcase nature. They are not meant to encourage paving our wild places.

The Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines fall under the Federal Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) and affect trails built on federal lands or federal projects. Currently many states and land managers are choosing to adopt the guidelines as best practice. They apply only to trails that meet ALL three of the following criteria (few of our Trail Conference trails do):

  1. the trail is new or altered from its original purpose, intent, or function;
  2. the trail has a designed use of hiker/pedestrian;
  3. the trail connects directly to a trailhead or directly to a trail that currently substantially complies with all the trail accessibility technical requirements.

The guidelines do not apply if meeting them is not practicable due to terrain, would fundamentally alter the function or purpose of the facility or the nature of the setting, cannot be accomplished with the prevailing construction practices, or is precluded because the cultural, historic, or significant natural features are eligible for protection under Federal, State, or local law.

At any point on a trail where a condition prevents compliance with a technical provision, at that point the trail is to comply to the extent practicable. Once past that point, the trail must comply with the technical provisions.

How the New Rules Affect Our Work

For the Trail Conference, the guidelines apply to new trail that we build on federal land or for federal projects, or if a land managing partner want to build a more accessible trail, they may apply (all three conditions need to be met). Trail maintenance, our primary trails function, is not directly affected by the guidelines.

Nevertheless, when designing new trail, we can use the guidelines to help make trails more accessible and more sustainable, even if we aren’t able (or it doesn’t make sense) to fully comply.

  • When creating a reroute around a problem area, for instance, consider grade rules; following them will help you to avoid creating a future problem area.
  • When discussing signage with our park partners, we can encourage safe placement and easier-to-read designs.

New ABA Regulations for trails help to ensure that we consider who we may be excluding when we make decisions about trails. In so doing, they help open up opportunities for all stakeholders to enjoy nature. Following the guidelines, we can design trails that are harmonious with nature, an enjoyable experiences for all users, and sustainable, easing the burden on the volunteers, park personnel, and budgets that maintain them.

To learn more about trail design and Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines, check our Trail-U schedule of workshops.

Trail Technical Requirements

Reminder: The Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines were produced with wheel chairs in mind.

Surface: The tread surface of the trail must be firm and stable, meaning it resists deformation by indentations, is not permanently affected by expected weather conditions, and can sustain normal wear and tear from the expected uses of the area between planned maintenance.  This can be determined by having a person ride a narrow-tired bicycle or push a heavy child in a folding umbrella-style stroller with small plastic wheels across the surface during the primary seasons for which the trail will be in use under normally occurring weather conditions.  If the wheels do not sink or distort the surface, then the treadway is considered firm and stable. 

Often a firm and stable tread can be accomplished with native soils or a quarried stone mix.  A trail does not need to be paved to be accessible.  In fact, paving is discouraged as it unsustainable with high construction and maintenance costs. Also, it rarely fits in with the natural environment.

Clear Tread Width:  The width of the tread should be a minimum of 36 inches.

Slopes:  Cross slopes (the slope across the tread perpendicular to the primary path of travel) can be up to 5%.  Trail grade (the slopes following the primary path of travel) can be up to 5% for any distance, up to 8.33% for up to 200 feet, up to 10% for up to 30 feet, and up to 12% for up to 10 feet.  Not more than 30% of the total length of the trail can have a running slope steeper than 8.33%.  These grade rules encourage sustainable design by helping shed water off the trail and allow for an enjoyable climbing trail for many ability levels.   

Resting Intervals:  Resting intervals should be placed between each segment of grade change and should be a least 5 feet long and the width of the widest trail segment leading into the resting interval.  The preferred slope is 2% in any direction but a maximum of 5% is allowed.  Resting intervals not only create an area for all users to take a break but also encourage sustainable trail design by creating an area for water to shed off the trail called a grade reversal.

Passing Spaces:  Passing spaces of 60 inches by 60 inches are required at intervals of no more than 1000 feet.  A T-intersection of two trails can be an acceptable passing place.

Tread Obstacles:  Obstacles in the tread of the trail can be a maximum of 2 inches high and when possible should be separated by 48 inches.  Tread obstacles are tripping hazards and difficult for wheelchairs to pass over.

Openings:  Openings in the tread surface can be no more than a half-inch wide, with elongated openings placed perpendicular to the primary path of travel.  This prevents wheelchair castors and tires from getting stuck in cracks.

Protruding Objects:  There are no requirements for objects protruding into the trail naturally, but if an object is constructed it must not overlap the tread more than 4 inches between 27 and 80 inches above the ground.  This mostly applies to trail signage and helps prevent people from walking into them.

Gates and Barriers: Where gates or barriers are constructed to control access to trails, they shall provide 36 inches of clear passage.  Revolving gates and barriers shall not be permitted.  Hardware provided to open or close gates and barriers shall comply with ABAAS 309.3 Operable Parts requirements. http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/accessibility/pubs/htmlpubs/htm06232340/index.htm

Trail Signs: Where new information signs are provided at trailheads on newly constructed or altered trails, the following information must be included: destination and length of the trail or trail segment, surface type, typical and minimum trail width, typical and maximum trail grade, and typical and maximum tread cross-slope.  This gives users the information they need to decide for themselves if the trail is the right experience for them.   Trail signs should also be designed with visual impairments in mind.  Check to make sure signs can be read by individuals with colorblindness, in low light, and by those with poor vision.

Structures and Facilities:  Preexisting current guidelines state if a decision is made to construct a facility anywhere for public use, it must be accessible.  This includes parking, restrooms, telephones, drinking water, signage, and shelters.  No matter how far in the back country or how accessible the trail to it, if you build a structure or facility for public use, it must be accessible.

If after complying to the trail technical requirements to the extent practicable and viewing the entire project, it is determined that it is impracticable for a trail to comply with the technical provisions due to the extensive impact of one or more of the following limiting factors, the trail is not required to comply.  Limiting factors include:

  • combination of running slope and cross slope exceeds 40 percent for over 20 feet,
  • trail obstacle 30 inches high or more runs across the full tread width of the trail,
  • trail surface is neither firm nor stable for a distance of 45 feet or more,
  • tread width is less than 12 inches wide for a distance of 20 feet or more,
  • 15% or more of the trail does not fully comply with the technical requirements. 

If it is determined that the trail is not required to comply, the Access Board must be notified, and the basis for the determination must be documented and maintained with trail construction records.


U.S. Forest Service: Accessibility Guidebook on Outdoor Recreation and Trails, Accessible Gates for Trails and Roads, and more at http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/accessibility

U.S. Access Board: Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines at http://access-board.gov