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Article Breakdown: Financing recreational trails through donations (Nowak & Heldt, 2023)

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Summary and Application By: Kelsey Johansen

A Group of Mountain Bikers Ride Along a Forested Natural Surface Trail

ICYMI: We're bringing you a second look at our first 'Article Breakdown', as published in our May 2023 newsletter. This new feature segment in our newsletter is something that we're also carrying forward to our Blog with our first blog post in the series coming out next month. In the newsletter, I explored the key findings of Nowak & Heldt's (2023) journal article on Financing recreational trails through donations: testing behavioural theory in mountain biking recently published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism (JORT) and talked about how their findings can be applied to trail organizations in Canada. If you're interested in reading the original, full, academic article, you can access it here.

Article Summary

In their article, Nowak and Heldt (2023), two researchers from Sweden, explore the challenges associated with funding recreational trails as a form of tourism destination development in publically accessible nature areas in response to the growing demand for trail-based recreation. They also highlight the need for new strategies to realise the benefits and potential of trail tourism development in the Nordic countries, while highlighting the importance of not compromising the legally enshrined freedom to roam, called allemansrätten in Swedish, or the welfare of the natural environment.

In the absence of governmental funding and grant programs, Nowak and Heldt (2023) note that funding for trail developments is typically derived from either 1) mandatory fees, or 2) voluntary donations and in-kind contributions from trail users. One key challenge that many trail organizations face is that mandatory fees are not viewed favourably by trail users. This is because mountain bikers tend to prefer "locally initiated, indirect measures ... instead of hard and direct regulations" (Nowak & Heldt, 2023, p. 2). In other cases, mandatory fees are not legally supported by municipalities and / or other levels of government.

A Mountain Biker Takes a Corner on a Natural Surface Trail

To figure out how to encourage trail users (whether locals or trail tourists) to voluntarily donate to trail organizations to support the upkeep and development of trail, Nowak and Heldt (2023) explored 'behaviourally informed interventions in the form of normative social cues' to see how they can be used to enhance cooperation. More specifically, they conducted a field experiment in Rörbäcksnäs, a small villages and rural mountain biking destination in Dalarna County, Sweden to see what types of messaging on trailhead signage would increase the share and amount of donations contributed by users at mountain biking trails.


Like many Canadian trail organizations, the mountain biking trails in Rörbäcksnäs are built and maintained by a non-profit sports association called Rörbäcksnäs MTB and through the support of individual volunteers. Historically the Association collected donations via an online mobile banking payment system (KarmaKonto), at a suggested rate of approximately $2.65 CAD per ride or $13 CAD per season. Recently, due to an explosion of interest in the trails, the funds donated became insufficient to covered the costs associated with maintenance and development of the local mountain biking trail system.

A Mountain Biker's Point of View as They Ride a Natural Surface Trail Through a Forest

Nowak and Heldt (2023) therefore modified signage at the entrance to the trail to include a message that emphasized the importance of donating to support the voluntary trail maintenance and development efforts, as well as information about recent levels and amounts of donations made. Importantly this included the statement:

In recent weeks, 70 percent of visitors contributed an average of 110SEK/ per person per ride. This is equal to approximately $14.50 CAD per person, per ride.

Nowak and Heldt (2023) found that mountain bikers were to a large extent willing to contribute financially to the upkeep of trails through donations when they were provided with information about the amount of previous contributions. More specifically, subsequent to the signage modification, the amount and share of donation increased (Nowak and Heldt, 2023). Previously donation levels were consistent at 55.8%; after the modifications to the sign were made, donation levels increased to 72.6% of riders (ibid). With the added information provided on the sign, donation amounts also increased, from 65 SEK ($8.50 CAD) to 91 SEK ($11.90 CAD) per rider, per visit, an increase of approximately 40 percent!


A Group of Mountain Bikers Emerge from a Forest Riding Along a Natural Surface Trail through a Field

Based on their findings, Nowak & Heldt (2023) suggest that non-profit trail organizations involved in the management of mountain biking trails as recreation and tourism assets would benefit from raising awareness about the the possibility to donate, for example through more channels and displays, and by testing different placements and designs of donation messaging. Nowak and Helft (2023) attribute the success of this messaging campaign to the tight-knit nature of the mountain biking community. Mountain bikers and other trail users tend to value the sociability of shared trails and trail-based activities, and frequently travel in groups (Nowak & Heldt, 2023). They also feel socially closer to non-local trail users that other type of tourists in commercial settings, such as hotel guests (ibid). This in turns motivates them to donate to local Associations comprised of fellow riders and volunteers, in addition to being motivated by seeing their fellow group ride participants' make donations at trailheads and being reminded that their peers have made similar donations even if they did not see it happening (ibid).


Application to Canadian Trails

If you're wondering how to leverage this information within your own trail organization, here are a few steps to consider:

  1. Begin collecting trailhead data so that you know how many riders or other trail users, on average, visit your trail each week, month, season, and year. Where possible, differentiate between trail user types.

    1. There are a number of funding programs that support the purchase or rental of trail counters, so you might not need to to buy the equipment outright!

  2. Compare the value of your annual donations, whether through your website, trailhead donation boxes, memberships / permits, or QR codes on trail signage against these visitation levels to figure out your baseline visitation and donation levels.

    1. Take note of when and across which mediums you receive the majority of your donations.

  3. Next, explore the way(s) that you discuss making donations with your membership and general users, and revise these messages accordingly using the three points below.

    1. Make donating easy by using QR codes at your trailhead / parking lot / benches / picnic areas / shelters is just one approach, but it's highly effective!

  4. Compare new visitation and donation levels to your baseline data (collectd in points 1 and 2 above) and, perhaps most importantly, communicate this back to your trail users with appreciation and to incentivise future donations.

As Nowak and Heldt (2023) found, simply asking for donations isn't enough. Effective requests for donations should:

  • State existing support sources, including how much your organization depends on donations,

  • Clearly describe how many users donate, and what the average donation is, and,

  • Include information about what the funds will be used for, and what percentage of the funds go back to trails (if its 100%, confirm it, don't leave your trail users guessing)!

Lastly, remember that voluntary donations are an important part of trail culture, and requesting donations is a low/ no-cost fundraising venture that allows trail users to positively and directly benefit local trails, while preserving freedom through the elimination of mandatory trail fee policies.

Where To Go from Here

If you're looking to support your trail development and maintenance through grant applications, check out our earlier blog post on why 'All Trails Should have a 'Shovel-Ready Project' by Kirsten Spence and Jane McCulloch.

Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to leverage this information within your own trail organization, including how to apply any of the study's recommendations to your trail or how to begin collecting trail data, please reach out to us at: info@trailresearchhub.com.

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