Trails Through the Snow

The path is made by walking.

Antonio Machado

You’ve probably seen them, veering off the snow-free sidewalk and through the deep snow. What begins as a series of footprints slowly becomes a packed-snow path.

In his book On Trails, Robert Moor calls them “desire lines.” Desire lines are shortcuts adopted by hundreds of feet, an unofficial path agreed upon as the best way to get from A to B.

Designers look for desire lines when designing for humans. These democratically-appointed paths show us where people are traveling, and the most efficient route to get there. These worth trails might represent where maybe a proper path should be built.

Desire lines are fascinating because they’re trails created by use, rather than dictated by a path builder. The more people agree on a specific route, the more ingrained it becomes.

Winter is the best time to see desire lines appear, because snow quickly records footprints, and, if the snow is deep enough, it’s much more advantageous for people to borrow others’ paths to avoid getting a boot full of snow.

Nowhere were desire lines in clearer display than during my recent footrace, the Frozen Falcon. The race, consisted of a 6-kilometre (4-mile) loop on a groomed snow trail over hills, through the forest, and over a snow-covered frozen lake. The trail was about 2 metres wide over deep snow. Although the trail was “groomed”, there were some areas of the trail that were much better than others.

Desiring to find a smooth line through the snow… Photo: Mallory Richard

Crossing the lake, you could see patterns emerge. Footprints of other runners dotted the width of the trail, some having landed upon solid footing, others sunken deep into the soft snow. As each runner felt out the location of the best footing, a single-file trail began to emerge. As if each racer silently help reinforce the message to those who would follow: “this is the way.”

In his book, Moor unpacks the communication methods of creatures such as ants and elephants. While individual ants may not be very intelligent, by using trails to communicate paths to food or other essentials, the colony as a whole can be smarter than any one ant on its own. Their intelligence is external, stored in their trail and communication system.

Likewise our trails, whether made by footprints through the snow, stories of past experiences, or digital breadcrumbs through the maze of information found on the web, can add to our collective wisdom as we leave a trail for fellow travellers to follow.