Whether your trail is 200 miles or 20, your website should be set up with the assumption that site visitors have never stepped foot on your trail, in your town, in your state. Sometimes we’re so close to our trail projects that we don’t realize how little first time visitors know about the path. What’s the distance between towns? What’s the surface? What’s the grade? Where can I start so that I can bike at an incline and then sail back? Where can I get some ice cream? A beer? Spare parts? A hot shower?
Here are some tips on how to make your trail websites as visitor-friendly as the trails themselves:
- Include a mileage chart and recommend trips. Make it easy for people to play with the distances between trailheads and communities. It takes the guesswork out of trip planning. Here’s a sample mileage chart. Go a step beyond sharing distances and actually recommend some trips. I recently saw a prototype for a site that asks people “Got a day? Got a weekend? Got a week?” and then recommends rides suitable to the trail user’s timeframe. Locally, the Trans Allegheny Trails, a collaborative of 13 trails, provide itineraries displayed as day trips and weekend outings (displayed to the left).
- Make maps a priority. Sometimes the maps on a trail website are either unwieldy (when the entire trail is shown in a single map that’s difficult to view) or broken into sections (thereby not providing trail users any context). I’m one of those people that wants to see the entire trail end-to-end on the map and where it is in relation to the general area. I then want to zoom in and pick a section of trail to ride. Does your website have maps that allow for this kind of map review and then provide additional trip planning context (mileage information, recommended itineraries, nearby business services, etc.)? Also, trailheads aren’t always named for the town in which they’re located. A trail access might be called “Smith Road access” for the road it’s on, and a first-time trail user is left to wonder “Where on the trail is that?” Clearly identifying trailheads by name on a map will help with this. GPS coordinates help, too.
- Clue people in on the grade, the surface, and the surroundings. On an out-and-back ride, most people want to pump early and cruise back, so let’s make that information available. Even for rail trails, which feature gentle grades, properly designing a trip can be the difference between a joyful and unpleasant ride. You might choose to develop an elevation chart, or simply state the obvious – something like: “most people prefer to ride east at an incline and then gently pedal westward on the return trip.” The Trans Allegheny Trail website does a fantastic job of describing the trails that are part of that system. A color-coded map indicates whether the trails are easy, medium or challenging, and each trail’s features are described, including “trail challenges” such as loose ballast, steep grades, and road crossings.
- Let people know how to find amenities and nearby Trail Towns, and think broader than campgrounds and bike rentals. I met a cyclist recently who called himself an “S & S biker” – sheets and showers. For many, this isn’t just about exercise. It’s R&R, it’s family time, it’s a getaway…it’s a vacation. And many want to treat themselves! You can direct people to a website for a trail-wide chamber of commerce, like www.katytrail.net, or to any other sites with a business bent. Or you can choose to keep your own directory, as with www.gaptrail.org. The important thing is to let people know how to find services.
- Photos are paramount. What better way to paint a picture of your trail and what it offers than with stunning photos. Much of biking is bicycle tourism, so we should follow the lead of our partners in tourism and make great photos the centerpiece of our sites. Modern sites feature big, powerful photos that fill the width of the screen, rotating through one beauty shot after another. Send your photographers out onto the trail with this format in mind. Also know that the gold standard in marketing places is using photos with people in them. A naked trail or a restaurant scene with empty tables doesn’t make people think I want to be there, too. Strive to include people in most shots and demonstrate a diverse audience when possible. And show faces rather than backs and butts. (A lot of photographers choose the latter because they’re not comfortable asking permission to take a stranger’s photo). I broke the butt rule myself on the Cycle Forward homepage. (Note to self: go take some more trail photos in the spring.)
- Know the trends. These days, non-profits often go with WordPress, an affordable D-I-Y approach to establishing a web presence. To get a sense for trends, do a search for “free WordPress templates” and see what pops up. As previously mentioned, you’ll notice a lot of bold photos that fill the width of the screen and pages that are generally easy to scan. Another free website builder that’s getting some traction is www.wix.com. Whatever you use, it’s worth looking at reviews to have a sense for the pros and cons.
- Mobile matters. I’m not addressing smart phone apps here, which can be quite useful in enhancing the trail experience. Rather, I’m talking about mobile-friendly websites, also sometimes called “responsive sites.” How does your site appear and function when somebody’s standing at a trailhead with phone in hand and looking for information? The best place to start in ensuring that your site displays well for mobile use is this simple step: stand there with your phone in hand and see for yourself.
- Less is more when it comes to text. Aim for shorter pages, shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, and shorter words. Use fewer words altogether and make it easy to scan. The verbose websites of yesteryear have a special place in Internet history, but not in the trails community. Essentially, no basic web page should be as long and as wordy as this blog post .
I’ve probably missed some elements that make for a helpful and compelling trail website and am looking to you to let me know what they are. Please feel free to weigh in!