The Trail is Calling: The Many Types of Trails

When you are a beginning trail runner, it’s important to know that not all trails are equal. Knowing the types of trails in your area is vital to being prepared and enjoying your run.

types of trail graphicThe difference between a trail marathon on a rail-trail and another on a mountainous, backwoods, single track trail is massive. Each requires entirely different training and preparation.

I’ve always thought trail running should develop a rating system that would combine the type of trail and its elevation gain to result in a downhill skiing-type rating: green circles, blue squares, black diamonds, purple horseshoes (those maybe aren’t totally right, I haven’t been skiing in years).

Until my idea catches hold, a little research may be required.

One type of trail isn’t any better or worse than any other: they are just different.

You should just always know what you are in for.

Types of Trails


Trail is a generic term and can mean pretty much any type of surface, width or use.

Multi-Use Trail

Multi-Use trails are often dirt or crushed gravel and are designed for use my multiple types of users: walkers, runners, bikes, horses. These trails are usually (but not always) a bit wider to allow for the different users.

Fire Road

Types of trails: fire road
A fire road in Round Valley Regional Park

Fire roads are unimproved dirt roads that allow access by fire vehicles and park rangers.

Rail Trails

Rail trails are old rail beds that have been converted into trails. They are often multi-use trails that are paved or are of crushed gravel. Rail trails generally have limited elevation gain and any elevation gain there may be is pretty gradual.

Much like me on a slow day, the old trains didn’t thrive on steep elevations.

Everywhere I have lived has had rail trails that are perfect for marathon training long runs. They are fairly flat, fairly long, well marked, and have limited intersections- perfect for those long runs when I know my brain will get a little fuzzy by the end.

Types of trails: single track
A Single Track Trail in Armstrong Redwoods State Park

My dad loves steam trains and I inherited some of his train love, so I have a special fondness for rail trails. The Rails to Trail Conservancy does great work converting the trails.

Single Track

Single track trails are only wide enough for one person and are often hillier and the most technically challenging.

There are usually tree roots, rocks and boulders to navigate around. As the name suggests, when there are many people on a single track trail there can be a bunch of passing and yielding.


Another element beginning trail runners should know about is elevation and elevation gain.

Elevation gain would be a huge element in my proposed black diamond/purple horseshoe trail rating equation.

Different races use slightly different terminology, and I’ve come across some that use the wrong or imprecise terminology, so its always a good idea to review the elevation chart yourself before a race so you are prepared for the appropriate hilliness.

Elevation Charts

Elevation Graph

Here is an example elevation chart for my fictional race. It starts at sea level, runs up a 100-foot hill, goes back down the hill (100 ft). Then the same hill is run again: up and down 100 feet.


Cumulative elevation gain,’ ‘gain,’ ‘climbing feet‘ or ‘elevation gain‘ are the same thing: the sum of all of the elevation gained during the entire race. Elevation losses are not counted.

In my fictional race, the cumulative elevation gain (or the climbing feet) is 200 feet  (2- 100-foot hills).

Maximum elevation‘ is the highest elevation reached. In my fake race: 100 feet. Regardless of how much climbing you do, you are never over 100 ft. I’ve only come across this measure in races at the more drastic elevations in Colorado or near Lake Tahoe.

Net gain‘ or ‘net loss‘ are the gains and the losses of a course combined. In a loop course, this amount will be zero: for every gain, there will be an equal loss. In point to point courses net gain/loss can be significant. Some races I’ve done have net losses of 1000 feet or more.

There are more types of trails and more specific terminology about elevation, but these are the most common terms you’ll come across when you get started. So review the race course description, check out the elevation map and head out to get dirty!

types of trails

What About You? Have you come across any trail terminology you don’t know?

Sara is a runner, running coach, writer, blogger, and a lover of all things written.

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