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Home > The Gateways Network > Tools > Water Trail Toolbox > Building a Water Trail > Water Trail Toolbox: Constructing Facilities
Water Trail Toolbox: Constructing Facilities

Before pouring any cement, driving in nails, or applying paint, think about what you are trying to accomplish and make some basic decisions.

Questions to Consider

What type of experience are you providing? Wilderness? Urban? Something in between?

How many visitors do you expect at one time or over the course of a year? Is the trail or facility close to or far from a large population center?

Key Points

Be consistent in your use of materials so visitors will readily identify the trail's facilities.

Minimize environmental impacts and intrusions on neighborhoods and views.

Use soft colors, make sign messages positive, and keep the facilities clean.

Access Facilities

Areas established to provide access to the waterway usually consist of a parking area for vehicles with or without trailers; a trail or ramp to the water for launching and recovering boats; signs; and toilet facilities. Because it takes time to load and unload boats, access sites should be large enough to accommodate several boating parties at one time. Boats transported on trailers, however, usually arrive at the parking area with most of the gear aboard, so a single launching ramp may be enough to handle the traffic.

The States Organization for Boating Access has developed an excellent manual, Design Handbook for Recreational Boating and Fishing Facilities ( In addition, the publication “Logical Lasting Launches” is available from the National Park Service Rivers and Trails Program .

Parking areas should be built on well-drained soils in areas that do not flood. The number and type of parking spaces you provide should give the visitor important clues about what to expect on the trail. If a visitor arrives and takes the last parking spot in a 10-car lot, for instance, he or she will probably perceive that the traffic on the trail is at capacity. If that person arrives to find 10 cars in a 20-car lot, he or she may think the water trail is not crowded. If the trail has been designed to accommodate the carrying capacity, resist pressure to expand the parking.

Launch sites should slope naturally to the water at grades of 10 to 15% for boats on trailers and 5 to 15% for hand-carried watercraft. They should be protected from strong prevailing winds and currents; lack obstructions, and be deep enough to be reasonably navigable.

Portage trails may have to be built to avoid obstructions or to access one body of water from another. A portage trail itself can impart a sense of adventure to the whole water trail experience.

Day-Use Facilities

Depending on available resources, you may want to create areas along the trail where visitors can relax and perhaps learn something about the area. Keep in mind that every amenity—picnic table, fireplace, roofed canopy, toilet—will add to the maintenance tasks of our volunteers or paid personnel. Do not provide trash barrels unless you can empty them on a regular basis. Instead, encourage carry-in, carry-out procedures through a Leave No Trace program. Anticipate that flooding will affect your facilities from time to time and will require need for emergency repairs and maintenance.

Picnic areas provide boaters with opportunities to go ashore to stretch their legs, relax, and enjoy a meal. They are especially important on long water trails. Providing tables and toilets may diminish the wild character of a waterway in some areas, but they may be necessities along other water trails. Do not install tables below the normal high-water mark.

Wayside exhibits can heighten interest in the trail's natural and cultural features and enhance the overall trail experience. Make them as site-specific as possible at locations, such as campsites and picnic areas, where boaters can land safely. Construct the exhibits using durable materials such as with aluminum bases to be to withstand flooding.

Camping Areas

For many visitors, spending a night or several nights under the stars or in a tent is an essential part of the trail experience. Some areas along the waterway make natural campsites and have been used by travelers for hundreds or thousands of years. Make them a part of your trail, but ask your state preservation office or other agency to check them for historic and prehistoric artifacts.

Landing areas should be easily accessible at all water levels and in areas where boats can be stored safely away from prevailing winds, currents, and tides.

Campsites should be located in gently sloping, well-drained areas. If anticipated use levels are high or vegetation and soils are fragile, install wooden tent platforms or build pads with sand, soil, or gravel bounded by rocks or logs.

Campfires are not appropriate at all campsites. Lack of appropriate fuel, landowner restrictions, and high risk of uncontrolled fires may warrant a stoves-only policy. If fires are allowed, build small fire rings. Remind visitors of the Leave No Trace practice of using firewood small enough to be broken by hand. Make your decision about campfires and educate water trail users.

Disposal of human waste is as challenging an issue as fire. Methods range from carry-out practices, favored by managers on western rivers and Maine 's coast, to elaborate vault or composting units and portable waterless privies. Build traditional pit privies—either open or enclosed in a small wood building—where they are legally permitted. Composting toilets can be an esthetically better option but are often expensive to install and manage.

Leave No Trace ( ) and The River Management Society ( ) provide useful materials about human waste disposal methods.

Construction Tips

Before starting the actual work, decide whether you want to use volunteers or pay for professional help.

Use volunteers to build basic facilities. Using volunteers is a great way to build an esprit de corps in a fledgling organization, but keep in mind that some volunteers may be highly skilled and others may know little or nothing about constructing facilities. Match the tasks with their skill levels and put a skilled volunteer or paid staffer in charge.

Be sure to have detailed building plans, a work schedule, and required permits before starting the project.

Use contractors to build highly engineered structures and projects involving serious environmental issues requiring studies and permits. If the construction project is especially large and complex, hire a general contractor or engineer to manage it on a day-to-day basis.

Before signing a contract, meet with several firms, inform them of your mission and vision, visit the site or sites, and review your building plans. Some contractors may become advocates of your project and lower their fees.

Get at least three bids. Check the contractors' references and examine other work they have done on similar projects. While the lowest price is important, the confidence you have in the quality of the contractor's work and availability to meet your schedule may well be more important than the fee.

For more information, visit the Appalachian Mountain Club ( ); or the Professional Trailbuilders Association ( ).

Dams, particularly hydroelectric dams, present special challenges to water trail managers. They modify, often dramatically, the natural character and environment of a river or lake and present significant barriers to navigation that require the building of portage trails. Sudden releases of large water flows from dams can endanger downstream waders and boaters. It is critical to communicate information about dams and required portages to your water trail user in a map and guide, orientation signs, and website.

Owners of hydroelectric dams may help you build portage trails around the dams. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requires them to compensate the public for the commercial use of the waterway by providing public access and, in many cases, recreational facilities. If your project is above or below a hydroelectric dam, examine the terms of the FERC license regarding recreation facilities. Find out when reviews are conducted and when the license is up for renewal—the best times to seek help in obtaining facilities to enhance your water trail.

For more information, visit:

  • American Whitewater
  • Hydropower Assistance Program of the National Park Service
  • Federal Energy Regulation Commission

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