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Home > The Gateways Network > Tools > Water Trail Toolbox > Building a Water Trail > Water Trail Toolbox: Developing Wayfinding Guides
Water Trail Toolbox: Developing Wayfinding Guides

Unlike a clear path through the woods, a water trail is a nebulous entity. But, oddly enough, identifying the watery route in a map folder and guidebook, on signs and exhibits, and on the World Wide Web bring a sense of reality to the trail. These wayfinding guides are tangible evidence of the trail, and, to those who have been working on the creation of the trail since the beginning, badges of honor.

Selecting the Format

A foldout map and guide may be perfect for short day-use trails and overnight trails of 50 miles or less. For longer trails, the creation of a map folder and a guidebook containing detailed maps of the various trail sections may be appropriate.

If possible, distribute the map folders free of charge. Because of development and production costs, guidebooks usually are sales items. Either way, the trail organization has to establish distribution systems for the publications through vendors such as local marinas, bookstores, nonprofit organizations, outfitters and other water trail related businesses, a website, and the mail.

DO NOT provide too much information. While the safety of trail users is paramount, revealing every nuance of the waterway and shoreline detracts from the sense of discovery and adventure.

Use professional writers, mapmakers, and graphic designers to create quality publications that reflect the trail's character and the organization's vision and objectives.

Essential Information

Map folders and guidebooks should include an introductory overview of the trail and information about the trail's extent, points of interest along the way, access points, boating and other regulations, Leave No Trace principles, safety concerns, and, most important, a map or a series of maps. Besides covering these subjects and maps in greater detail than folders, guidebooks can also include interpretive essays about the area's plants and animals, human history and prehistory, and recreational activities.

Safety checklists should include information about essential gear; emergency phone numbers; safe water levels, tidal conditions, and weather or where to obtain this information on the telephone or the web. Highlight any water-based or land-based hazards, such as dams, rapids, jellyfish, poison ivy, poisonous snakes, and bears. If applicable, note the water and skill levels that may be necessary for certain segments of the water trail and emphasize the importance of recognizing one's capabilities and experience.

State and local regulations should be provided for such activities as fishing, boating, swimming, campfires, and hunting.

Stewardship guidelines are especially important. Be positive—using more do's than don'ts—in these messages to inspire a stewardship ethic instead of alienating visitors. Use the Leave No Trace principles to frame the advice. Provide detailed instructions on the recommended or required methods for human waste disposal. For more information about Leave No Trace principles, visit ( ) .

Locations of facilities and amenities such as access points, campsites, picnic areas, potable water, and toilets should be listed and shown on the map or maps. Include information about permits, fees, and overnight parking restrictions. Describe features of nearby parks, historic sites, museums, and other public facilities.

On a website, provide a Resource list -with locations and telephone numbers of canoe and kayak outfitters and liveries, bait-and-tackle shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, motels, grocery stores, and other businesses. This information tends to change from year to year, so it should not be included in the texts of map folders and guidebooks.

Other Considerations

Should a guidebook include advertising? Should you use waterproof paper? Should you consider developing a website and a CD guidebook?

Advertisements can clutter a publication and commercialize the trail experience, but sales of advertising space can help pay the printing bill. Some of the larger water trail organizations include with their guidebooks a separate pamphlet devoted to advertising and information about trail supporters.

Waterproof paper increases the durability of maps and guides, but it adds to the printing costs. Weigh the increased costs against potential sales.

A CD ROM guide can be produced at a lower cost than printing a guidebook and can be distributed to users via the mail and at local marinas, outfitters, and stores.

A website is an excellent way to convey information about the trail as long as staff members, volunteers, or contractors are available to set up pages and keep them up to date. The benefits of a website over printed materials include the relative ease of modifying information, sending out appeals for volunteers, announcing special events, and providing a forum for trail users. If you have produced a sales guidebook, consider the financial tradeoffs of providing access to downloadable information through a website.


Use a professional cartographer to produce your trail map or maps. Because most water trails are linear and many of them are long, determining size and scale of water trail maps can be complex. Folders can contain an overall trail map and insets of a few segments. Guidebooks typically contain a small overall trail map and detailed maps of segments on individual pages or two-page spreads. Foldout maps can greatly add to the expense of guidebooks.

In preparation for the cartographer, carefully plot important trail information such as access points, campsites, picnic areas, hazards, and points of interest on maps of your waterway produced using geographic information systems (GIS) or by the U.S. Geological Survey or other government agencies. Obtain additional resource maps from consulting firms, colleges, and local agencies.

A simple, inexpensive black-and-white map could be used for the first year or two while the trail facilities are being built. Full-color maps, however, are much more effective at depicting the great variety and complexity of information associated with water trails.

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