- Formal and informal trails differ strongly in their impacts on forest loss and tree structure.
- Informal trails have poorer surface condition, proliferate widely and cause cumulatively high forest loss.
- Formal trails cause marked changes to the structure of adjacent trees.
- In small urban remnants especially, these impacts are important for long-term ecosystem health.
- Trail planning and management needs to account for specific impacts related to different trail types.
Recreational trails are one of the most common types of infrastructure used for nature-based activities such as hiking and mountain biking worldwide. Depending on their design, location, construction, maintenance and use, these trails differ in their environmental impacts. There are few studies, however, comparing the impacts of different trail types including between formal management-created trails and informal visitor-created trails. Although both types of trails can be found in remote natural areas, dense networks of them often occur in forests close to cities where they experience intense visitor use. To assess the relative impacts of different recreational trails in urban forests, we compared the condition of the trail surface, loss of forest strata and changes in tree structure caused by seven types of trails (total network 46.1 km) traversing 17 remnants of an endangered urban forest in Australia. After mapping and classifying all trails, we assessed their impact on the forest condition at 125 sites (15 sites per trail type, plus 15 control sites within undisturbed forest). On the trail sites, the condition of the trail surface, distance from the trail edge to four forest strata (litter, understory, midstorey and tree cover) and structure of the tree-line were assessed. Informal trails generally had poorer surface conditions and were poorly-designed and located. Per site, formal and informal trails resulted in similar loss of forest strata, with wider trails resulting in greater loss of forest. Because there were more informal trails, however, they accounted for the greatest cumulative forest loss. Structural impacts varied, with the widest informal trails and all formal hardened trails resulting in similar reductions in canopy cover and tree density but an increase in saplings. These structural impacts are likely a function of the unregulated and intense use of large informal trails, and disturbance from the construction and maintenance of formal trails. The results demonstrate that different types of recreational trails vary in the type and range of impacts they cause to forests. They highlight the importance of careful consideration towards management options when dealing with trail networks especially in areas of high conservation value.