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Trail User Surveys and Counting

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

The completion of a user survey and economic impact analysis can provide a number of valuable benefits to trail organizations, local municipalities and state agencies. A complete picture of trail-user characteristics can be developed: who uses the trail, where they come from, what they do on the trail, how long they are on the trail and which sections of the trail are most popular. The survey can document how users perceive the current condition of the trail and help to identify maintenance issues. The survey outcomes can help to identify if additional amenities would improve the trail-user experience.

Collecting current data on users, usage patterns and economic impact can serve as a powerful way to support the development of additional trails. Having current facts and figures can help other trail projects gain support from local municipalities, businesses and adjacent property owners.

Data from a user study and economic impact analysis can also prove a powerful aid when submitting funding requests or applying for grants to support the development of new trails, or the maintenance and upgrading of existing trails.

RTC’s national trail count program offers a snapshot of average trail use nationwide. Data is collected from 42 Eco-Counters located on geographically diverse multiuse trails across the country. The data is downloaded and analyzed weekly.


For any research project, it is important at the outset to establish a set of objectives. Know why the information is being collected and what will be done with it when the study has been completed. A trail-user study that sits on the author’s desk isn’t going to accomplish much. A typical set of objectives might include:

  1. Determine the characteristics of users of the trail. These would include where the trail users come from, their demographics and usage patterns (type of activity, length of activity, frequency of activity), and their perceptions in terms of safety, cleanliness and maintenance.
  2. Determine which sections of the trail are used most frequently, amenities that are desired by trail users and primary reasons for utilizing the trail (recreation, exercise, nature study, fishing, etc.).
  3. Determine the spending patterns of trail users, how much they spend on equipment, meals, lodging and snacks in conjunction with their trail activities, and where overnight visitors stay.


The next step is to determine how the survey will be conducted. In most cases, information will be gathered from people who are actually using the trail. However, there may also be an interest in gathering information from adjacent property owners, businesses adjacent to the trail or businesses that provide products and services for trail users (bike shops, bed and breakfasts, motels, restaurants, etc.). The sources from which information is gathered are referred to as the “target group.”

Now that the target group has been defined, the next question is how many targets should be contacted. This is referred to as the “sample size.” The larger the sample, the more accurately the results will reflect the target group. A decision about sample size should be based on such factors as project timeline, budget and necessary degree of precision. Consider 300 completed surveys to be a minimum number for a sample size.

When to conduct the survey will be dependent on the objectives that have been set. Most trail-user surveys are conducted from May to October; this is when many trails see the heaviest usage. However, in southern states, trail usage may be higher in the cooler months and even during the winter. If you are interested in winter activities on the trail, the survey may be conducted over 12 months.

Data Collection

There are a number of different ways that the information can be collected from trail users. The following are brief descriptions of methods that have been successfully used to collect trail-user data.

Direct mail, email and Web-based survey methods are not recommended for trail-user surveys because they require a previously existing database of trail users, and professional assistance is advised.

Survey Form

The most important consideration when designing a survey is to select those questions that will best help achieve the objectives established for the project. Review the objectives and stick to them.

Keep the number of questions in the survey to a minimum. Generally, it is better to keep the survey form to one side of one page. For each question, ask, “What will I do with the information gathered in response to this question?” and, “Will this information help me to achieve the objectives of the survey?” Because there will be hundreds of completed survey forms, make the questions closed-ended. That is, provide the respondent with a number of predetermined responses from which to choose. Open-ended questions, where the respondent can provide any answer that comes into their head, are generally too difficult to analyze. It is also recommended to place difficult or sensitive questions near the end of the survey and to group questions together in a logical sequence.

Recording the Data

There are a number of excellent statistical analysis programs available for personal computers. However, you can probably do all of the analysis you’ll need with a Microsoft© Excel spreadsheet. The responses to questions are in columns, and the individual survey forms make up the rows.

When entering the data, there are two points that must be kept in mind. First, enter exactly what the respondent provided. If the question asked the respondent to “Circle one” and they circled three responses, record all three responses. Second, be aware of the possibility of “outliers.” These are surveys or survey responses that are abnormal when compared to the type of response that would normally be anticipated (e.g., a four-digit zip code). Such responses are more apt to occur when a “self-service” methodology was used to conduct the survey.

In some instances, surveys are completed in a malicious manner and contain obvious fabrications. It is best to set surveys with questionable responses aside for review by the project manager.

Reporting and Analysis

To complete the project, a report should be written that presents the results of the research. At a minimum, the report should include an executive summary, and tables or graphs containing the responses to each individual question.

Don’t keep the results of the survey a secret. Contact a local newspaper and talk with a reporter about the results. Send copies to local municipal officials, state representatives and agencies that provide trail funding. Offer to present the results at a chamber of commerce meeting.

RTC has worked with a number of trail organizations to develop and implement trail-user surveys, resulting in the Trail User Survey Workbook. The workbook contains more detailed information on how to conduct a trail-user survey. You can view completed user surveys and economic impact reports in our Resource Library.


‣ Data – RTC’s National Trail Count Data Dashboard

‣ Webinar – Trail Use Counts: Leveraging Data to Make the Case for Trails

‣ Report –Trail Impact Survey

‣ Report – Trails Count! Creating a Regional Program to Measure Trail Use in the Bay Area

‣ Manual – Trail User Survey Workbook: How to Conduct a Survey and Win Support for Your Trail

‣ Report – Trail User Surveys and Economic Impact: A Comparison of Trail User Expenditures

‣ Report – Erie to Pittsburgh Trail 2013 User Survey and Economic Impact Analysis

‣ Report – Business Impact of Mon River Trails System

‣ Report – Heritage Rail Trail County Park: 2022 User Survey And Economic Impact Analysis

‣ Fact Sheet – Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail: Trail User Spending Impact Study

‣ Fact Sheet – Mon River Trail System: Economic Impact

TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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