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There's a new way to see how many hikers are hitting trails in the Mountain West

Sand-colored mountains with ridges and blue sky in the distance.
Brent Powell
Headwaters Economics
The Bridger Ridge Trail is in the Bridger Mountains, north of Bozeman, Montana. This was the area Headwaters Economics chose to study as part of research on trail use using infrared counters and fitness tracking apps.
A brown and white dog sits with a gray metal box and barren tree limbs and greenery in the background.
Megan Lawson
Headwaters Economics
Megan Lawson's dog, Gus, sits next to one of the infrared trail counters in the Bridger Mountains in Montana. Some communities use these trackers to measure trail use, but each one can be hundreds of dollars and needs to be installed manually on the trails.

There are thousands of popular hiking trails in the Mountain West, but until recently it’s been difficult to measure just how many people use them. Now, the nonprofit Headwaters Economics is combininginfrared counters with fitness tracking apps to accurately measure trail use so that land managers can get a better sense of how to spend on recreation improvements.

Headwaters tested its approach in the Bridger Mountains in Montana, just north of Bozeman, in the summer of 2021. By using infrared counters – which record a “use” every time a person passes one – the organization was able to get data on 57 miles of trails.

But other hiking areas were more remote and harder to reach, making data collection a greater challenge. To address that issue, Headwaters decided to include data from website hits on AllTrails – which offers hiking info – and user counts from the fitness app Strava. Headwaters researchers also looked into other factors that could alter the hiker counts, like weather and air quality.

With that data, Headwaters was able to measure usage on an additional 63 miles of trails in Montana's Bridger Mountains, more than doubling the miles of trails accounted for using only the infrared counters.

Megan Lawson, an economist who worked on the project, said this detailed recreation data is important when communities near popular outdoor recreation areas apply for grants.

“The real value in this approach is getting a really timely and accurate and fine-scale understanding of how much recreation is happening so that we can make sure that communities are getting the funding that they need,” she said. “This kind of information can help them target where they want to invest that money, where there might be gaps in their trail network, and help to prioritize spending.”

Prior traditional methods for figuring out how many people used trails were not helpful for rural communities with tight budgets. Some used the infrared counters, but they were expensive, required monitoring, and had a limited range.

A graph shows a white background with blue and orange squiggles demonstrating trails covered by different data collection tactics.
Megan Lawson
Headwaters Economics
Previously, only 57 miles of trails in Montana’s Bridger Mountains had accurate recreational data (left). That number increased to 120 miles (right) after applying an advanced statistical model to data from infrared trail counters and cloud-based sources, like popular hiking websites and exercise apps.

“When we're talking about large landscapes that we deal with in the Intermountain West, it's nearly impossible to set up enough counters to actually adequately capture all that's happening,” Lawson said.

Other communities relied on volunteers manually counting hikers at trail starting points, or similar ad hoc approaches.

“We’re hearing that the best guesses that they had for how many people were using trails was the number of doggy waste bags or number of rolls of toilet paper in the outhouses that they're replacing,” Lawson said.

The U.S. Forest Service also has a National Visitor Use Monitoring Survey that counts numbers of hikers. But the survey updates every five years, offering only a snapshot in time that could overlook the effects of time-specific events like the pandemic and natural disasters on trail visitation numbers.

The project is in an early stage, as the Montana mountain range is the only area Headwaters has tested so far in its research. The organization plans to develop a dashboard soon so other communities can see how many people are using nearby trails. One current project looks at a mountain range in New Mexico, Lawson said.

This comes as the nation has seen a 14% increase in recreational outings from 2019 to 2021, according to Outdoor Foundation’s 2022 Trends Report. Additionally, many communities view outdoor recreation as an economic driver.

With a more accurate picture of the number of hikers trekking locally, Lawson said communities can effectively plan for trail maintenance and expansions – as well as market themselves as more of an outdoors destination.

“As we're seeing places looking to build their outdoor recreation economy, we see a tremendous power when they can point to this,” she said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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