A trail is usually a path, track or unpaved lane or road. In the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland path or footpath is the preferred term for a walking trail. The term is also applied, in North America, to routes along rivers, and sometimes to highways. In the US, the term was historically used for a route into or through wild territory used by emigrants (e.g. the Oregon Trail). In the USA "trace" is a synonym for trail, as in Natchez Trace. Some trails are single use and can only be used for walking, cycling, horse riding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing; others, as in the case of a bridleway in the UK, are multi-use, and can be used by walkers, cyclists and equestrians. There are also unpaved trails used by dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles and in some places, like the Alps, trails are used for moving cattle and other livestock.
In the early years of the 20th century, the term auto trail was used for a marked highway route, and trail is now also used to designate routes, including highway routes, designated for tourist interest like the Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia, Canada and the Quilt Trails in the US. The term trail has also been used by developers and urban planners for a variety of modern paved roads, highways, and boulevards, in these countries, and some highways continue to be officially called a trail, such as the Susquehanna Trail in Pennsylvania, a designation that varies from a two-lane road to a four-lane freeway. A particularly unusual use of the term is in the Canadian province of Alberta, which has multi-lane freeways called trails.
EuroVelo routes can be used for bicycle touring across the continent, as well as by local people making short journeys. The routes are made of both existing national bike routes, such as the Dutch LF-Routes, the German D-Routes, and the British National Cycle Network, and existing general purpose roads, together with new stretches of cycle routes to connect them.
In some regions of the United Kingdom, such as England and Wales, there are rights of way on which pedestrians have a legally protected right to travel. National parks, nature preserves, conservation areas and other protected wilderness areas may have trails that are restricted to pedestrians.
Off-road vehicle use on public land has been criticized by some members of the US government and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society. They have noted several consequences of illegal ORV use such as pollution, trail damage, erosion, land degradation, possible species extinction, and habitat destruction which can leave hiking trails impassable. ORV proponents argue that legal use taking place under planned access along with the multiple environment and trail conservation efforts by ORV groups will mitigate these issues. Groups such as the Blueribbon Coalition advocate Treadlightly, which is the responsible use of public lands used for off-road activities.
In England and Wales a bridleway is a trail intended for use by equestrians, but walkers also have a right of way, and Section 30 of the Countryside Act 1968 permits the riding of bicycles on public bridleways, though the act says that it "shall not create any obligation to facilitate the use of the bridleway by cyclists". Thus the right to cycle exists even though it may be difficult to exercise on occasion, especially in winter. Cyclists using a bridleway are obliged to give way to other users on foot or horseback.
There is open access to most Forestry Commission roads and land in Great Britain for walkers, cyclists and horse riders and, since the Countryside Bill of 1968, it has become the largest provider of outdoor recreation in Britain. The Commission works with associations involved in rambling, cycling, mountain biking and horse riding to promote the use of its land for recreation. The trails open to the public are not just forest roads and a notable example of the Commissions promotion of outdoor activity is the 7stanes project in Scotland, where seven purpose built areas of mountain bike trails have been laid, including facilities for disabled cyclists.
A towpath is a road or path on the bank of a river, canal, or other inland waterway. The original purpose of a towpath was to allow a horse, or a team of human pullers to tow a boat, often a barge. They can be paved or unpaved and are popular with cyclists and walkers, and some are suitable for equestrians. In Scotland equestrians have legal access to all towpaths, and there is a campaign for similar rights in England and Wales. In snowy winters in the USA they are popular with cross-country skiers and snowmobile users.
Not all towpaths are suitable for use by cyclists, but where they are, and the canal is owned by British Waterways, a permit is required. There is no charge for a permit, but it acts as an opportunity to inform cyclists about safe and unsafe areas to cycle. Some areas including London are exempt from this policy, but are covered instead by the London Towpath Code of Conduct and cyclists are required to have a bell, which is rung twice when approaching pedestrians. Parts of some towpaths have been incorporated into the National Cycle Network, and in most cases this has resulted in the surface being improved.
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 established a general presumption of access to all land in Scotland, making the existence of rights of way less important in terms of access to land in Scotland. Certain categories of land are excluded from this presumption of open access such as railway land, airfields and private gardens.