Young Adults and Trails: A Relationship that Continues to Develop and Grow

June 1, 2014, Department, by Jody Baker and Michael J. Bradley, Ph.D.

Trails are critical recreation outlets for young adults, so it’s important that park professionals and legislators alike continue to provide support for keeping these significant pathways open.Young adulthood is a time in life when so many major transitions occur, such as moving away from home, changes in relationships with friends, stresses of school and/or work and new time constraints. Trails are important to a community’s young adults because they offer a popular, multi-use and low-cost form of recreation that is flexible to their schedule, fitness level, personal goals and sense of adventure. Trails are recreation gateways that bridge the gap between youth and adult recreation activities and provide relief of those transitional tensions. 

A recent survey conducted by the Outdoor Foundation provides evidence of just how popular trails and trail activities are to young adults. Noted in the survey’s results, of 18–24-year-olds who participate in outdoor recreation, 36 percent say they engage in running, trail running and/or jogging. Trail running and jogging showed the highest rate of participation among all young adults and also had the highest frequency of participation with an average of 90 outings per year. Perhaps a testament to the importance of trails, the second and fourth highest participation rates were biking (15 percent) and hiking (14 percent). Considering three of the four top activities for young adults necessitate a trail of some sort, multiple use trails are also a great benefit to young adults and may see higher use. A paved trail can offer running, walking, jogging and cycling specifically. 

The location of many trails may also provide opportunities for young adults to be more adventurous and perhaps get closer to nature. Participation in activities such as mountain biking, trail running and adventure races have seen exponential growth in the past two decades. In the past five years specifically, there has been a 211 percent increase in participation in adventure races. These pathways have also been used for other activities, such as sightseeing, photography, birding and nature interpretation. The overall increase in trail use and the numerous activities taking place at local trails may indicate that they are effective ways to connect future children and young adults to nature.

Due to the cost of participation in various activities, we must also consider a person’s financial situation as a possible entry barrier for utilizing trails. As with many leisure engagements, the cost of participation can vary. A person can hit the trail with just the shoes and clothes they already own, minimizing costs to access trails for various uses. On the other side of the spectrum are activities that require equipment sold at much higher costs and aimed at individuals who perhaps have a different type of recreation outcome in mind. Items such as heart-rate monitors, GPS devices, premium running shoes, selected bicycles ,and other gear and technology can increase the cost associated with trail use and present possible activity barriers. Because participation costs depend on the activity itself and the quality of gear and technology selected by the participant, most costs associated with trail use can be considered self-selected barriers.

Trails also are adaptable to a participant’s particular needs. Trail use begins early in the morning and continues well after dark, usually until late at night. Young adults, more so than others, need recreation access that is flexible, allowing them to schedule their recreation time within the many other responsibilities and constraints that are typical in young adulthood. Another benefit of trail use for recreation and fitness is that the participant can decide the length and intensity of their experience. Trail users can take an extended walk after work or jump on the trail for a quick 30-minute run when their schedule permits. 

One aspect of trail use that warrants consideration for recreation professionals is the potential for social interaction through specific programming or by coincidence. For instance, many local running stores and bike shops are hubs for group activities and offer runs or rides many times a week with other interested individuals. Often these groups intentionally include all those interested, from beginners to advanced, to develop the social atmosphere and sense of community. Such groups are great for people new to the area or activity and can serve as effective marketers for both the trail and whatever fitness pursuit is taking place. Conversely, trails are often outlets for individuals seeking solitary experiences. These users enjoy being alone when directly engaged in their recreation, and trails easily provide such isolation. 

Due to the wide range of benefits and the ease of access, trail systems are quite important to every community’s young adult population. Park professionals must ensure that these gateways to recreation continue to be easily accessible, well-developed, continually maintained and socially cultivated. A good trail system that is safe, well-connected and well-maintained will provide the greatest benefit and garner the most use from young adults and others in every community. 

Jody Baker is a Recreation Leader III with Tulsa County Parks in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Michael Bradley, Ph. D.,  is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Kentucky University.